Academic journal article Church History

Between Court and Cloister: The Life and Lives of Margherita Colonna

Academic journal article Church History

Between Court and Cloister: The Life and Lives of Margherita Colonna

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The author would like to thank the anonymous readers at Church History, her dissertation advisor, Dr. Daniel Bornstein, and Dr. Sean L. Field for their comments and suggestions on revising this article.

One winter's night after a long illness, the Roman noblewoman Margherita Colonna attended mass and entered deeply into prayer. The chapel where she prayed had been supported through generations of her family's endowments and alms, and provided space as a burial ground for her deceased relatives. While she had prayed there many times during her recovery, this night ended with a life-altering vision. After kneeling, she felt herself overcome by the Holy Spirit and a sensation of reverence filled her heart. As she beheld the priest holding up the eucharist, a white dove flew above the host and hovered there.1 After this experience, she was inspired to perform great works of piety. She donned penitential clothing and began visiting chapels and hospitals, depositing alms and restoring family churches along the way. Having consecrated her virginity to Christ, she spent her dowry establishing a female religious community, where her kinswomen and others from her circle resided until her death in 1280.

Although inspired by Francis of Assisi, Margherita practiced a form of piety that differed from the asceticism, mysticism, and strict voluntary poverty preferred by radical Franciscan holy women. As a noblewoman, she had far more resources at her disposal to endow Colonna churches and give copious alms to the poor. Voluntarily adopting poverty posed a challenge to women of her social station, one that she chose not to answer. In fact, Margherita's lives demonstrate that within her social class, Franciscan piety did not conflict with elite practices such as founding convents and bestowing alms on family churches. Although her relatives did not see her canonized in their lifetime, Margherita's lives are central to answering why and how her baronial family understood and practiced Franciscan spirituality.

The medieval sources pertaining to Margherita Colonna are very few in number, as are the modern studies devoted to her. Her two vitae were intended to further her canonization case at the court of Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292), who at that time favored the Colonna. Her brother Giovanni, a layman and senator of Rome, wrote the first life, which portrayed her as an urban saint and a giver of alms. Stefania, a cloistered Clarissan abbess who succeeded Margherita as head of her spiritual community, wrote the second.2 Neither vita was written by a male cleric, and both works present Margherita as a more traditional type of saint than other female followers of Francis. The few historians who have studied Margherita have noticed the tensions inherent in her life and cult, pointing out that she was caught between familial obligations and Franciscan spirituality. For instance, Lezlie Knox has observed that Margherita followed a more traditionally monastic vocation than more radical Franciscan female saints, and suggested that she only called herself Franciscan to please her family, who protected and promoted the Order.3 Likewise, Giulia Barone argued that Margherita appears so unique because her piety represented the worlds of both the court and the cloister.4 While both studies establish that Margherita was a family saint, neither goes so far as to contrast Colonna piety with radical Franciscan women.

Rather than considering Margherita's lived sanctity, this article investigates how hagiographers, both male and female, structured a saint's biography to promote their own agendas, choosing and omitting details of a holy life as they saw fit.5 Women's vitae are especially problematic; in hagiography written by clerics, holy women often played a passive, subordinate role, making it hard to know anything about their true saintly motivations. Once a woman died, her reputation was no longer in the hands of her female spiritual companions, but left up to the men who supported her canonization case at the Roman curia. …

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