"Live a New Life": Innovation and Intuition in the Rhetoric of Angela Merici1
De Vinne, Christine, Magistra
By founding the Ursulines, the first congregation of women consecrated to chastity outside the cloister, Angela Menci (ca. 1474-1540) initiated a renaissance in religious life. The virgins she dedicated to St. Ursula were to interact intimately with the secularized world of early modern Italy, where they would be protected not by habit or convent walls but by sacred grace and personal virtue. For these women she wrote a straightforward rule; among them she identified spiritual guides; to aid them she named accomplished lay matrons. Her Regola (Rule), Arricordi (Counsels or Legacies), and Testamento (Testament), addressed to each group in turn, collectively urged a single goal, union with the divine as means of individual and communal salvation.
When Angela led twenty-eight members of her "company" in committing themselves to God on the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria, November 25, 1535, she formalized their way of life with a rule that she had conceived the year before. By 1539, she had also shaped for them a crucial armature of support by hailing, in the Counsels and Testament, superiors for guidance and lay widows for oversight.
Her three founding documents, the only works that she composed, have led historians and feminist scholars, as well as Ursulines over almost half a millennium, to affirm the novelty of her paradigm. Querciolo Mazzonis cites her "originality and genius"; Charmarie J. Blaisdell credits her with "unusual vision."2 Sandra M. Schneiders, most recently, names her among the "pioneers of apostolic religious life."3 The inventive structure and style of life that Angela envisions, however, stand in stark contrast to the conservative structure and style of her writings. Using sixteenth century Brescian dialect, she intuitively situated herself in a tradition of medieval rhetoric and spirituality. She announced the startlingly new in the guise of the long familiar. A rhetorical analysis of her treatises reveals the insight and subtlety that she summoned to realize a radical refashioning of piety and practice.
At the heart of Ursuline innovation is Angela's Rule, her first and longest text, comprising nineteen pages in the 1985 edition (compared to fourteen for the Counsels and eleven for the Testament).4 Written for the virgins at the company's core, it codifies the regulations by which they are to live, while its extended prologue, Chapter 1, stands as salutatio to her entire corpus. Following this introduction are eleven chapters whose sequence defines a bell curve of emotional intensity. The outermost body chapters, three at the beginning and one at the end, detail practical requirements and governance. Concerned with entrance requirements (Chapter 2), dress (Chapter 3), contact with the world (Chapter 4), and governmental structure (Chapter 12), they rely on plain, direct diction. The inner chapters, by contrast, adopt figurative language and a more personal tone to promote interior motivations for fasting (Chapter 5), prayer (Chapter 6), daily Eucharist (Chapter 7), confession (Chapter 8), and commitment to obethence (Chapter 9), virginity (Chapter 10), and poverty (Chapter 11).
To compose a rule is itself a conservative choice, of course, one that inserts Angela, a Franciscan tertiary, into a centuries-old legacy of religious founders. Like her predecessors, she assumes in readers an imaginative connection to the sacred and calls on human emotion to inspire worthy action. She casts her rule as recollected address, opening five of its chapters with "se aricorda" ("it must be remembered" or "you are reminded"), the written record harkening back to words she has impressed on listeners' memory.5 Fourteen scriptural quotations, most in Latin and the vernacular, five biblical allusions, and citations from four points in church history reinforce her personal authority, grounded in faith: "[IJo ho ferma fede, et speranza nella divina buonta. ..." ("I firmly believe and trust in God's goodness . …