Renaissance and Reformation Angela Merici
Querciolo Mazzonis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0121


St. Angela Merici (b. c. 1474, Desenzano del Garda–d. 27 January 1540, Brescia) is the founder of the Company of St. Ursula, which later became the order of the Ursulines. A Franciscan tertiary who had spent most of her life in Desenzano and Salò, Merici arrived in Brescia in her early forties, and, like other female “living saints” of her time, she became a religious focal point for her fellow citizens. From the few testimonies of Merici’s friends as well as from her own writings, Merici emerges as both contemplative and active, mystical and practical, as well as learned and aware of the matters of everyday life. In 1535, with a group of female companions, Merici founded the Company of St. Ursula, for which she composed the rules and some advice for its government. Historiography has often associated Merici and her company with the education of poor girls and charity in hospitals. These activities, however, belong to a later stage in the development of the Ursulines and have little to do with Merici’s original foundation. Merici’s company consisted in an innovative form of women’s secular consecration, an alternative to monasticism, that was independent from Church authorities and entirely composed and managed by women. The Ursulines were “virgins-brides of Christ” (as described in Merici’s rule) who pursued a life of prayer and penitence in their own houses, without common life or activities. The spiritual life envisaged by the rule was mystical, an institutional, public, ethical, affective, individual, and inward-looking. Merici’s company can be seen as an institutional expression of medieval and Renaissance women’s “irregular” forms of life and spirituality such as that of the Beguines. Furthermore, Merici conceived her company in a period characterized by a variety of nonaligned religious experiences and shared an ideal of religious perfection based on virtuous behavior and inner purity with other spiritual circles and associations. In the late 16th century, the Ursulines expanded in many cities in northern Italy, thanks to the combined initiative of women willing to follow Merici’s religious ideal and Tridentine bishops (beginning with Charles Borromeo) in promoting the Catholic education of the laity. The bishops approved the companies and gave them new rules introducing some significant changes, most notably the duty to teach Christian Doctrine (which provided religious and moral education to the laity) in the schools. In 1592 the Ursulines expanded into France where they gradually—and not without internal struggle—became a conventual and teaching religious order. Both in Italy and France, the evolution of the Ursulines’ foundations was the product of a dynamic interaction between religious women and the Tridentine church’s attempts to reform female religious life. In 1639 the Ursulines became the first female missionary institute. The order also supported the Catholic Reformation in the catechization of society, becoming pioneers in the education of lay women and a prototype of the single lay woman. Angela Merici was canonized by Pope Pius VII in 1807.

Primary Sources

Primary sources regarding Angela Merici consist mainly in her writings and in a few documents referring to her life. Her writings include the Regula della Compagnia de Santa Orsola, which she dictated to the Brescian notary Gabriele Cozzano, and two sets of advice for the members of its government: the Ricordi (advice), spiritual guides for the virgins, and the Testamento, guidelines for the lady-governors who dealt with the economic and legal issues. Merici’s oldest edition of the rule known to date is a manuscript written between 1545 and 1546, which is supposed to be identical to the 1535 original (except for the requirement of wearing a black leather cincture). The most significant source about Merici’s life is the so-called Processo Nazari (Le justificazioni della vita della Reverenda Madre suor Angela Terzebita), a recollection of testimonies given by some friends twenty-eight years after Merici’s death and recorded by the Brescian notary Giovan Battista Nazari de Sayani. Also significant are three letters written by Cozzano to the Ursulines, which provide useful insights on Merici’s life and spirituality and on the first steps of the company. The book that presents the most complete collection of documents about Merici is Mariani, et al. 1989 (including the oldest edition of the rule). Ledóchowska 1968 also presents many important documents. The Ursulines of the Roman Union have recently published booklets with the main documents translated (Merici 1995 and Rio 2001).

  • Ledóchowska, Teresa, O.S.U. Angela Merici and the Company of St. Ursula: According to the Historical Documents. 2 vols. Translated by Mary Teresa Neylan. Rome and Milan: Ancora, 1968.

    Originally published in French: Angèle Merici: et la Compagnie de Ste-Ursule à la lumière des documents (Rome and Milan: Ancora, 1967). This book has a useful appendix of documents, including Merici’s writings for the company (with English translations), the Processo Nazari and Cozzano’s letters. The rule of the company published here, however, was composed in 1569 and presents significant linguistic alterations.

  • Mariani, Luciana, Elisa Tarolli, and Marie Seynaeve. Angela Merici: Contribution Towards a Biography. Milan: Ancora, 1989.

    Originally published in Italian: Angela Merici: Contributo per una biografia (Milan: Ancora, 1986). It presents the most complete collection of sources regarding Merici’s life and writings, including the oldest edition of the rule. There are several documents pertaining to the company, which list the names of the people involved.

  • Merici, Angela, Saint. Writings: Rule, Counsels, Testament. Rome: Ursulines of the Roman Union, 1995.

    Booklet with Merici’s oldest edition of the rule and other writings for the company translated into English.

  • Rio, Marie-Bénédicte, O.S.U. Angela Merici: The Scribe and the Witnesses. Rome: Roman Union of the Order of Saint Ursula, 2001.

    Includes the translation of the Processo Nazari of 1568 and three letters by Gabriele Cozzano.

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