Academic journal article Magistra

Literary Collaboration in the Life of Umiliana Dei Cerchi

Academic journal article Magistra

Literary Collaboration in the Life of Umiliana Dei Cerchi

Article excerpt

In the Life of Umiliana dei Cerchi (1219-1246), a thirteenth-century Florentine mystic, silence plays a large role: "...divine love burned inside [her], yet did not compel her to offer sermons on God, except sometimes, when beseeched, she humbly expressed two or three words about the divine fire [inside her]. (III.26)(1)

While silence offered evidence for Umiliana's holiness, it also presented a challenge for her hagiographer and contemporary, Vito da Cortona, who needed to construct her life story out of more than "two or three words." Vito thus turned to a variety of witnesses. The information obtained from these witnesses, and, more importantly, its presentation, is the focus of this paper.

It will be more concerned with how Vito presents testimony rather than in the testimony itself, and more interested in Umiliana as a character constructed of multiple stories rather than as an historical person. This discussion will also be limited to Umiliana's presentation in the earliest known copy of Vito da Cortona's mid-thirteenth-century Life of Umiliana, edited in the Acta Sanctorum.(2)

One of the subsequent aims is to suggest some possible uses of hagiographic sources for both history and literature. While the past few decades have seen a flourishing of interest in hagiography for clues to the history of women, the vexing problem of how to read such evidence persists.(3) Several studies have pointed out the importance of looking at a woman's own writing, whenever possible, to gain a sense of her "voice."(4)

Yet the overwhelming amount of evidence that regards religious women is in the form of hagiographic vitae written not by the women themselves, but by men, usually their confessors.(5) Thus, although hagiography appears to offer an outlet for the female voice, this voice is often little more than the falsetto of the male author, attempting to assume the woman's voice, while at the same time effectively silencing her. The goal of this paper is to demonstrate what may be gained from listening to these voices from the past, through the investigation of Umiliana's Life in particular.(6)

Vito's text begins: "Madonna Umiliana, daughter of Oliviero Cerchi, of the city of Florence, being sixteen years of age, was given in marriage by her relatives," (I, 2). Thus the narration of Umiliana's life begins not with her birth nor with her childhood, but with her marriage and subsequent loss of virginity. Umiliana's loss of virginity is the most problematic aspect of her life as far as sanctity is concerned. In her case, too, her loss of virginity is physically manifest in the presence of her children. Her hagiographer deals with this "problem" in a number of ways, sometimes in silence, but more often by arguing that Umiliana's loss of virginity was a bodily one, not a spiritual one.(7)

About a month after her marriage, Umiliana began to shun the ostentation of her affluent life, and instead dedicated herself and her husband's resources to the poor and sick. After five years of marriage and at least two surviving children, both of whom were daughters, Umiliana was widowed. She stayed for about a year with her husband's family, and then returned, without her dowry or children, to her father's house.(8) There she refused to consider a second marriage, and was eventually swindled of her dowry by her father.

Declaring herself daughter only of her father in heaven, and wife only of her bridegroom Christ, Umiliana took up residence in a room in the tower of the family's palazzo, leaving just to attend mass or visit the poor and sick. At this point her religious devotion turned from works of charity, described as commendable, but decidedly natural, to prophecy, visions, and miracles, described as nothing short of supernatural. In this way, Vito's legend accommodates a presentation of Umiliana both as an "Everyman" and as a saint.(9)

Five years after her self-imposed enclosure, Umiliana died, following a protracted illness which may have been caused or at least aggravated by her ascetic practices. …

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