In This Article Catherine of Siena

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Biographies
  • Primary Sources: Catherine’s Writings
  • Primary Sources: Contemporary Writings about Catherine
  • Edited Collections
  • Source Criticism of Catherine’s Texts
  • Literary Studies
  • Studies of Catherine’s Thought and Spirituality
  • Catherine and Issues of Gender
  • Catherine and Religious Women
  • Relationship with Italian Politics and Society
  • Hagiography, Cult, and Iconography
  • Catherine’s Cult in Europe after 1461
  • Iconography

Renaissance and Reformation Catherine of Siena
by
F. Thomas Luongo
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0367

Introduction

Catherine of Siena (b. 1347–d. 1380) was an author, spiritual leader, religious reformer, and one of the more remarkable public figures of the Middle Ages. Born to a prosperous family of cloth dyers, in her youth she developed a reputation for unusual piety, and in her late teens or early twenties joined the local community of Dominican female penitents (precursors to what became in the 15th century the Dominican Third Order). She developed a following that included a number of young Sienese nobleman, as well as religious from various orders, and in 1374 was enlisted by the Dominican order and the papacy to help advance several causes, including a Crusade to the Holy Land and peace in Italy. Between 1374 and her death in 1380, through her letters and in person, Catherine advocated for ecclesiastical reform, the return of the papacy to Rome from Avignon, and the Roman observance after the schism of 1378. In addition to her letters—the largest epistolary collection by a woman in the Middle Ages—she is known for a masterpiece of mystical theology, her Libro di divvina dottrina (Book of Divine Teachings), better known today as the Dialogo, a synthesis of her spiritual insights, structured in the form of a dialogue between Catherine and God. It was largely through her Libro, in addition to the hagiographical tradition, that her reputation spread throughout Europe. Catherine became the object of an active cult before her canonization in 1461, and she was embraced in the early modern period as a mystic and model for female monasticism. In the period of Italian nationalism from the Risorgimento through World War II, she became an emblem of Catholic Italy, and more recently she has been valued more for her active engagement with the world as well as for her spiritual writings. Scholars of Catherine of Siena and her devotees—two not-mutually exclusive groups—have over time vacillated radically in their sense of Catherine’s association with Italian politics and society, and in their assessments of her writings and their place in literary culture. Until recently, she has not been taken seriously by Italian literary critical scholarship: the inspired, devotional character of her prose, and its mix of oral with literary characteristics, has seemed to place her outside of literature, properly speaking. But there is currently a renewed interest in Catherine as an author, as well as a return to questions regarding the complexities of her texts and their composition first raised in the initial flowering of Catherinian source criticism in the 1930s and 1940s. She emerged as an important figure in international medieval scholarship with the rise of interest in hagiography, lay spirituality, and women’s religion and gendered religiosity in the last quarter of the 20th century, and is now recognized by historians as a key representative of important trends in late-medieval religion.

General Overviews and Biographies

There is no standard, scholarly biography of Catherine in any language. Many biographies and other general works on Catherine are either strictly devotional in nature, or include hagiographical elements uncritically. Scholarly treatments of Catherine’s life have to address the basic problem that for many details of her life we depend on hagiographic sources, and also take measure of the relationship between Catherine’s status as a “mystic”—her interior life and experiences as well as her teachings—and her engagement in Italian and papal politics in the 1370s. In English, Gardner 1908 is a historically sensitive biography; Jorgensen 1939 is less reliable. In Italian, Dupré Theseider 1960 is essential. In French, Fawtier 1921–1930 is iconoclastic and important more for questions than answers, while Vauchez 2015 is superb on the meaning of Catherine’s career but less reliable on details. Historiographical surveys include Luongo 2012 and Boesch Gajano 2013. Quaderni Cateriniani is an important journal of Catherinian studies launched in 1971, and the website of the Centro Internazionale di studi Cateriniani is a very useful source for downloads of Catherinian publications. Full bibliographies are included in Zanini 1971 and Zanini and Paterna 1985–2003.

  • Boesch Gajano, Sofia. “Caterina della storiografia.” In “Virgo digna coelo”: Caterina e la sua eredità. Edited by Alessandra Bartolomei Romagnoli, Cuciano Cinelli, and Pierantonio Piatti, 47–66. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013.

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    An introduction to the historiography, with emphasis on Italian scholarship.

  • Centro Internazionale di studi Cateriniani.

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    The CSC is an important center for Catherinian studies, based in Rome. The website is a rich source for bibliographical information and includes many free downloads of editions of Catherine’s writings and works of Catherinian scholarship.

  • Dupré Theseider, Eugenio. “Caterina da Siena.” In Dizionario biografico degli Italiani. Vol. 22. Edited by Alberto M. Ghisalberti, 361–379. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1960.

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    An excellent short survey of Catherine’s life and balanced treatment of the key issues involved in interpreting her career and writings. While now slightly outdated, this essay remains an essential point of orientation for Catherinian studies.

  • Fawtier, Robert. Sainte Catherine de Sienne: Essai de critique des sources. 2 vols. Paris, 1921–1930.

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    An iconoclastic study of the Catherinian sources that prompted crucial critical reevaluation of the evidence for Catherine’s career and writings. While most of its more distinctive conclusions have been rejected by subsequent scholarship, this work is still important for the questions it asks. The first volume focuses on the hagiographic sources, and the second on the manuscripts of Catherine’s writings.

  • Gardner, Edmund. Saint Catherine of Siena: A Study in the Religion, Literature and History of the Fourteenth Century in Italy. London: J. M. Dent, 1908.

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    Gardner’s very readable account is one of the first to take seriously Catherine’s role as a historical actor as well as a spiritual leader. It has been superseded to some extent on some details, but it remains the best historically critical treatment of Catherine’s entire career.

  • Jorgensen, Johannes. Saint Catherine of Siena. Translated by Ingeborg Lund. London: Longman’s, 1939.

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    This vivid and enthusiastic account of Catherine’s life must be used with caution. The author includes hagiographic episodes in his narrative uncritically, and his overall interpretation of Catherine and medieval Italy is highly romanticized.

  • Luongo, F. Thomas. “The Historical Reception of Catherine of Siena.” In A Companion to Catherine of Siena. Edited by Carolyn Muessig, George Ferzoco, and Beverly Mayne Kienzle, 23–45. Brill Companions to the Christian Tradition. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2012.

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    A survey of major trends in the historiography of Catherine, with an emphasis on the recurring problem of reconciling Catherine’s “mysticism” with her activities in the world and in politics.

  • Quaderni Cateriniani. 1971–.

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    An occasional series of publications on particular themes connected to Catherine, with an emphasis on theological and spiritual themes, launched in 1971 by the Associazione Ecumenica dei Caterinati in Siena, now the Associazione Internazionale Caterinati.

  • Vauchez, André. Catherine de Sienne: Vie et Passions. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2015.

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    While its account of the details of Catherine’s biography and the dates of her letters is not entirely reliable, this study is very valuable for its assessment of the meaning and importance of Catherine’s career and writings in the broader context of late-medieval religion. Published in Italian as Caterina da Siena: Una mistica trasgressiva (Rome: Laterza, 2016).

  • Zanini, Lina. Bibliografia analitica di S. Caterina da Siena, 1901–1950. Rome: Edizione Cateriniane, 1971.

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    Covers Catherinian scholarship from 1901 to 1950.

  • Zanini, Lina, and Maria Carlotta Paterna. Bibliografia analitica di S. Caterina da Siena, 1951–2000. 4 vols. Rome: Centro Nazionale di Studi Cateriniani, 1985–2003.

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    Four volumes, covering the years 1951–1975 (1985), 1976–1985 (1989), 1986–1990 (2000), and 1991–2000 (2003).

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