Visions of Sainthood in Medieval Rome

The Lives of Margherita Colonna by Giovanni Colonna and Stefania

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Editor(s): 
Lezlie S. Knox, Sean L. Field
Translator(s): 
Larry F. Field
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , October
     2017.
     232 pages.
     $29.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780268102029.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Visions of Sainthood in Medieval Rome offers an expert English translation of Latin texts pertaining to the previously overlooked Margherita Colonna (c. 1255-1280), a Franciscan holy woman of the 13th century. This translation will give wide access to both intimate and institutional looks at the life, contemporary importance, and impact of this fascinating woman. Although the texts have been available for decades in excellent critical editions, they have been largely overlooked. Larry Field, the translator of most of the texts published here, offers a fluid and mostly literal translation of the texts. The editors, Lezlie Knox and Sean Field, offer knowledgeable annotations throughout their introductions and within the texts themselves, making these translations especially useful to students and scholars of medieval Franciscan religiosity, holiness, and women. But the richness of these texts should attract a much wider audience of readers interested in women’s religious experiences, political power and religion, and even interfaith devotional practices. 

The importance of the subject of this book touches on several themes. Margherita Colonna was from one of the most powerful families in medieval Rome. Although she was not canonized until 1847, her passionate faith as a visionary gave inspiration for the founding of a religious community. Although often labeled a “Franciscan nun,” Margherita was never enclosed in a convent but instead lived out her faith as the charismatic leader of women with contacts with Franciscan friars. These small groups of religious women are increasingly attracting scholarly attention in recent years. Finally, as members of the Colonna family, Margherita and her brothers, Giovanni, who was a senator, and Giacomo, who was a Cardinal, offer a fascinating look into Roman politics, piety, and familial relationships.

The book brings together nine texts related to Margherita: two Saints’ Lives, otherwise known as vitae, that were written soon after Margherita’s death by figures who knew Margherita personally; six papal bulls related to her religious community; and a short passage from a later vita with unique material concerning the translation of her relics and body. What makes the vitae fascinating and unusual is that the first vita was written by her brother, Giovanni Colonna, and the other was written by a woman who was seemingly the leader of her community, Stefania. Both vitae offer rare, intimate descriptions of Margherita’s life that give readers rich and often emotion-filled glimpses of a medieval life of intense religious experiences. These vitae haven’t been sanitized and filtered into hagiographic topoi. The two vitae differ in tone and range of detail and they at times offer different accounts of the same incident. In short, they read like the memories of a brother and the head of a religious community. The papal bulls and the short passage from the latter vita all flesh out the institutional importance and relevance of Margherita and the community of women she founded.

Particularly interesting to a wide range of scholars will be the kinds of devotional practices that are documented here and that can be found in a range of religious cultures. In addition to the many references to the scripted prayers recited on a regular schedule, there are descriptions of pious acts of sense deprivation that brought Margherita to “higher matters.” Other kinds of devotions include fasting, sleep deprivation, and viscerally painful experiences of prayer (78-81). In a relatively unusual declaration of praise for female theological understanding, Giovanni’s account proudly boasts of Margherita’s deep understanding of scriptures that allowed her to expound on the texts with such clarity “it seemed as though we were hearing Christ himself answering the questions” and that their other brother, Giacomo, a cardinal of the church no less, would engage in passionate discourse with her about points of faith (98-99). Practices around caring for the dying, preparation of the body, and the final burial are also included. Of interest may be the emotional intimacy that is conveyed in Giovanni’s description of Giacomo at their sister’s burial: “Seeing thus to her internment, her brother, who until this moment had been in full command of his emotions, could control himself no longer; and he wept and hastened back as his tears interrupted the chorus. Let no man censure such tears! For he ought to have cried, and it was proper—if not because he was her flesh-and-blood, then because he had now lost this daughter in Christ, in whose sweet company he knew such delight” (135-36). Such honest emotion is rarely documented in these kinds of texts. Other points of interest are highlighted by the editors in the introduction.

This book will be of great value most obviously to scholars of medieval Christian religiosity and female Franciscan spirituality. But there are themes here that should attract scholars interested in interfaith issues of devotional practices and holiness. The notes may be off-putting to a more popular audience, although they would miss out on a truly delightful and fascinating look into a unique woman’s spirituality. This book is endlessly fascinating and warrants multiple readings.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Darleen Pryds is Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality and History at Franciscan School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lezlie S. Knox is Associate Professor of History at Marquette University. She is the author of Creating Clare of Assisi: Female Franciscan Identities in Later Medieval Italy.

Sean L. Field is Professor of History at the University of Vermont. He is the author of a number of books, including The Beguine, the Angel, and the Inquisitor: The Trials of Marguerite Porete and Guiard of Cressonessart (University of Notre Dame Press, 2012).

Larry F. Field is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Western New England University. He is the translator of The Sanctity of Louis IX: Early Lives of Saint Louis by Geoffrey of Beaulieu and William of Chartres.

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