Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World: A Biographical Dictionary

By Carole Levin; Debra Barrett-Graves et al. | Go to book overview

CATHERINE OF SIENA
(ca. 1347-1380)

Italy
Visionary and Religious Activist

Catherine was a visionary who convinced the Pope to leave Avignon and return the papacy to Rome. She was the twenty-third and youngest child of a Sienese dye-maker. Despite the size of her family, she felt loved by both of her parents. Because of the frequency of her mother's earlier pregnancies, Catherine had been the only child her mother had been able to nurse, and this may have created a special bond, at least according to some historians. Others talk about Catherine feeling deprived since there were so many siblings. Her father also showed a remarkable degree of understanding in his dealings with his daughter.

Catherine had her first vision of Christ when she was six. At about the same time she began to abstain from food as much as possible. Given the large size of the household in which she was living, she was able to do this fairly unobserved. For the rest of her life, Catherine used refusal to eat as others did as a way of obtaining inner grace. She consumed only bread, water, and greens; such a diet would have made it much easier for her to go into trances and have visions. Later in her life, some people would criticize her for ostentatious piety in fasting, and Catherine would sometimes respond by trying to eat; her body, however, had become so used to its regimen that much intake of food would make her severely ill.

At an equally young age, Catherine also took a vow of virginity, although she kept this secret from her parents. When she was about twelve her parents began to arrange a marriage for Catherine. To lessen her good looks so that she would be a less attractive prize (and also probably to deny her sexuality), Catherine cut off her hair. Catherine's parents, responding to what they thought was simply bad behavior, punished Catherine. Catherine, with her strong sense of sin and the need to expiate it, seems to have encouraged these punishments. Finally, however, Catherine told her parents of her vow, and

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