Spirituality, Gender, and the Self in Renaissance Italy: Angela Merici and the Company of St. Ursula (1474-1540)

By Dunn, Marilyn | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Spirituality, Gender, and the Self in Renaissance Italy: Angela Merici and the Company of St. Ursula (1474-1540)


Dunn, Marilyn, The Catholic Historical Review


Spirituality, Gender, and the Self in Renaissance Italy: Angela Merici and the Company of St. Ursula (1474-1540). By Querciolo Mazzonis. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press. 2007. Pp. xx, 247. $35.95 paperback. ISBN 978-0-813-21490-0)

Noted as a "santa viva" and a significant figure in early modern Catholicism, Angela Merici (1474-1540) is recognized for her foundation of the Company of St. Ursula, whose aim traditionally has been considered as dedicated to teaching and charity. In his book Spirituality, Gender, and the Self in Renaissance Italy:Angela Merici and the Company of St. Ursula (1474-1540), Querciolo Mazzonis disputes this interpretation of the Company's original goals and instead emphasizes the uniqueness of Merici's innovative conception in creating a new option for female religious life. Based on an analysis of primary documents, Mazzonis argues that the original purpose of Merici's Ursulines was to enable noncloistered virgins to pursue a life as "Brides of Christ" in the world within a structure that afforded them remarkable autonomy in shaping their own unmediated spiritual development. Mazzonis situates Merici and her Company within the context of late-medieval female spirituality, contemporary gender attitudes, Renaissance concepts of self, and spiritual trends in preTridentine Italy.

In chapter 1, Mazzonis explores the late-medieval roots of Merici's religiosity, relating it to the experience of other laywomen who pursued a religious life outside the convent. He provides a brief reconstruction of Angela's life before examining the characteristics and organizational structure of her Company of St. Ursula, founded in Brescia in 1535. Living in their own homes as Brides of Christ, Ursulines followed a life of prayer, penance, and devotion in a democratic organization without institutional trappings, managed by women, and unusually independent of male church authorities. Charity and teaching were not principal goals of the original foundation, nor was charity central to Merici's spirituality or her sense of an active apostolate.

Chapter 2 considers the Ursulines within the social, economic, and political context of Brescia. Examining prescriptive literature directed to women in the sixteenth century, Mazzonis notes how Merici drew on female identities of virgin, bride, and widow in the structure of her Company, but gave these a new empowering significance. He also establishes Merici as the author of the Rule of the Company of St. Ursula, which represents a rare example of a codification of the "irregular," noninstitutional features of female spirituality. …

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