St. Catherine of Siena

Beginning in the 1370s, Catherine of Siena, a middle-class Sienese girl, entered the European political scene, ranging from local politics to the papal seat of Pope Gregory XI and the crowns of Europe. Early in her life, she eschewed marriage to fully devote herself to God and to provide service to others. As a result she quickly gained a reputation for her extreme piety. At the same time, she gained political experience in government through her natal and extended family, where Catherine became comfortable dealing with local politics and creating a community. Siena during the 1360s and 1370s was rife with political uprisings. Florence was battling the papacy, and Europe was reeling from the aftermath of the Black Plague that continued to return in phases. The Fourteenth-century may have seen the start of a decline in women’s spiritual power, but the Italian world still sought out women who they believed could reveal the will of God. Many believed Catherine of Siena to be the successor to Brigitta of Sweden, known as the visionary queen and also a living saint, who died in 1373.

Catherine gained popularity and influence at a time when various historical events were all merging together to create an atmosphere for her to succeed in politics and the Church. Through a perusal of her letters, it is clear that Catherine created a network of families and individuals. Catherine was born in Siena in 1347 to a Iacomo di Benincasa and Monna Lapa. The youngest of 22 children, Catherine embraced a religious life at a relatively early age. In her early twenties, Catherine joined the Mantellate group of women. These women were tertiaries to the Dominican Order. Unlike nuns, Mantellate women were all widows, lived at home, wore the dominican habit, and were allowed to walk around the city. They had freedom to follow their desires. Catherine, at her mother’s and the Mantellate women’s permission, joined the group and fully dedicated her life to Christ.

In 1374 Raymond of Capua entered Catherine’s life as her spiritual advisor. He had had previous experience writing St. Agnes of Montepulciano’s hagiography and was in the running to become the “Master of the Order,” the main leader of the Dominican Order. Historians often describe Raymond of Capua as the reason why Catherine was so successful, as he provided her with an “in” with the local Italian populace. Raymond controlled Catherine’s image after her death in 1380 with the hagiography he wrote of her life.1 Thomas Luongo describes one of his tasks in the companion group as, “professional notaries, at some point evidently began keep a register of copies of her letters, from which other copies were made which circulated among her network of followers, to be copied again as desired by new readers.”