Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Reclaiming Catherine of Siena: Literacy, Culture, and the Signs of Others

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Reclaiming Catherine of Siena: Literacy, Culture, and the Signs of Others

Article excerpt

Reclaiming Catherine of Siena: Literacy, Culture, and the Signs of Others. By Jane Tylus. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2009. Pp. xiv, 323. $45.00. ISBN 978-0-226-82128-3.)

In this provocative and stimulating study, Jane Tylus seeks to "reclaim" St. Catherine of Siena from the margins of Italian literary history, to which she has been consigned as an "illiterate" representative of an oral rather than textual culture. In her first chapter, Tylus aligns her project intriguingly with that of the eighteenth-century playwright, antiquarian, and Sienese patriot Girolamo Gigli. Gigli published Catherine's writings and in his Vocabolario cateriniano championed Catherine in resistance to Florentine cultural hegemony. Tylus emphasizes how, for Gigli, Catherine's use of the Sienese vernacular-a living language rather than "'dead words' found only in books" (p. 7)-made Catherine more than a match for the Florentine tre corone of Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio.

Gigli "was out to make Catherine someone we identify with texts" (p. 7). This is Tylus's mission, too, and for both Gigli and Tylus, Catherine was a writer in the literal sense. Whereas Raymond of Capua's authoritative account of Catherine's life emphasizes her illiteracy and how she dictated her letters and her book, II Dialogo (to which she referred simply as her Libro), to scribes, Gigli "discovered" the alternative hagiographical tradition of the Sienese Dominican Tommaso Caffarini, who asserted that Catherine could both read and write. Tylus (reasonably) accepts as genuine Catherine's letter 272 from 1377, in which she announces to Raymond of Capua that in her sleep God has taught her to write. But her real interest is not so much in whether Catherine could write, as in what writing meant for Catherine.

This is a theme that Tylus explores in three chapters that focus on Catherine's writings, linked to important moments in her career: her mission to Pisa in 1375; her 1377 sojourn in the Sienese contado with the Salimbeni family, during which she wrote letter 272 and evidently began work on her book; and her final trip to Rome, where she died in 1380. …

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