On the 13th of January 1463, the notary Oberto Foglietta, of Genoa, registered the marriage settlements of Catherine Fiesco, in the parish of Saint Lawrence, in a house belonging to the bride’s family in the lane called “del Filo,” and of Giovanni Adorno, also of noble birth, the contracting parties being the widowed mother of the bride and her two brothers on her behalf, and the bridegroom alone on his, while two neighbors signed their names as witnesses. The instrument sets forth the amount of the dowry, a thousand pieces of silver – which, reckoning by the lira, or present franc, would come to about $250 – two hundred francs of which were given by Adorno and eight hundred by Francesca di Negro, the bride’s mother and widow of Giacomo Fiesco, who promised four hundred in jewels, gala-dresses, and cash at once, and the remainder in two years, at present invested in a house in the same street where her own dowry was invested, and which during that time she agreed to give up to the young couple as a residence. The bridegroom, in his turn, swears to settle the amount upon his wife, the security being a house of his own on the street known as that of Saint Agnes.
Such complicated documents are not infrequent in the city archives of Genoa, and represent correctly the ordinary legal machinery of marriages and their attendant circumstances. Catherine Adorno, sixteen years of age at the time of her marriage, became the well-known Saint Catherine of Genoa, an extraordinary and gifted woman, who, though visited by very wonderful signs of supernatural origin as her contemporaries and, later on, her canonizers agreed was for thirty years directress of the city hospital, almoner and visitor of the city poor, and keeper of the accounts, and would have been, with more opportunities, an excellent writer, her spiritual treatises having a remarkable stamp of individuality, being expressed in fluent, elegant, and appropriate language and bearing much likeness to the quaint allegorical poems of Calderon. Yet education in her time was on a low level, that of social intercourse being the only one worth mentioning as an influence in mature life. Girls, whether in convents or at home and both systems were in full operation during the great days of the Genoese republic were taught chiefly Bible and church history and religious dogmas, besides elaborate needlework and polite demeanor. Their future was fixed almost from their birth; one daughter out of several was usually intended to marry and the others to take the veil, a wedding portion being regarded as so much money taken out of the family treasury. Thus, without regard to the inclinations of the children, crosspurposes were often effected, and sometimes disastrously, for scandals would follow and family rapacity was shown up as, for instance, in the case of Paolina Franzoni, who had been forced into a convent by fraud as well as violence, and whose profession was voided and annulled at Rome by the papal authorities on the facts being represented by her advocate several years later, when her sister, married to a Durazzo, and who had profited by Paolina’s loss of worldly goods, was her most strenuous adversary. On the other hand, girls who had a true vocation, or at any rate a decided inclination, towards conventual life, but whose beauty or priority of age made their marriage more convenient to their parents, were more or less forced into alliances which only their sense of duty made bearable to them. Catherine Fiesco was a noteworthy example of this, the more so as her husband’s temper proved both eccentric and vexatious and reacted disastrously upon his business affairs. Before ten years of her married life were over he had contrived to fritter away most of his own and her money, and they were reduced to unpleasant straits; while his fits of jealousy were such that, to please and soothe him, she spent the earlier years of her marriage in an unaccustomed seclusion. Genoese customs contained a mingling of outward devotion and actual laxity, and gave occasion to severe repressive statutes from the Council of State and equally stringent remonstrances from preachers, confessors, and episcopal authorities. The domestic annals of the middle ages, on the one hand fruitful in lives of extraordinary sanctity, are also distinguished on the other by perpetual abuses of sacred things and occasions, and among the literary productions remaining to us from mediaeval times social satires by indignant reformers, chiefly priests, form an important part. A social sketch recently published in Italian by a Genoese notary, familiar with the state archives and the details of domestic life revealed in them, gives interesting and abundant proof that human nature was not more heroic and self-restrained in days gone by than it is at present, although the temper of the special people among whom Catherine Adorno spent her life was fervid enough to explain the thoroughness with which they entered upon any occupation, whether worldly or spiritual.
The little pamphlet above mentioned vividly reproduces the background of the picture in which she forms an exceptional and admirable feature. Outside of the circle of the really pious and devoted women, whose number in all places and ages has been a minority, society in mediaeval Genoa was intensely frivolous, and well justified the horror which “the world ” inspires among saints of that time. Society, though it made festivals an excuse for dissipation, never questioned the principle of festivals; the state gravely and effectually supported the church, but quite as much by policy as by conviction. The half-oriental seclusion of women found a counterpoise in the exceptional liberty allowed under the pretexts of collecting alms or attending processions, when marriageable girls and married women were both allowed by custom to wear such disguises as afforded them chances for escapades, whether innocent or otherwise. The penitential processions known as casaccie, peculiar to Genoa, took place long after their original character and aim were lost sight of, and the sackcloth with holes for the eyes and mouth only, which had been the dress consecrated to this particular occasion, became a convenient mask for gadding and gossiping women visiting their acquaintance on the pretence of making distant “stations” at country churches or even within the city limits. Again, the collection of alms in church, known as bacili, became, like the similar French custom in modern times, and like our own too frequent churchfairs, etc., occasions for scandal and abuse; women in rich, and not seldom immodest, dresses, bedecked with flowers and jewelry, sat, wand in hand, at the door of the church and solicited alms, touching the heads and shoulders of their friends, either playfully or gallantly, in somewhat profane imitation of the forms of bestowing certain indulgences forms still kept up in Saint Peter’s at Rome. The synod of 1567 forbids women under fifty to collect alms in this fashion. Archbishops, popular preachers, and state councillors alike inveighed against the dress and manners of women in church, enacting penalties and maintaining spies to report upon the conduct of women, generally of high rank, and to guard the young from actual dangers; ecclesiastical orders were issued against the opening of churches before daylight or the prolonging of ceremonies far into the night; and some sorrowing and indignant persons, at the time of a French invasion, petitioned both the council and the archbishop to revert to the apostolical custom of dividing the sexes in church, believing, as they did, that the national calamities of the war were a punishment from Heaven. At one time there was a decree of the council, or Signoria, bidding the clergy of San Siro remove the special chairs, desks, and carpets which a Princess Doria had insisted upon keeping for her individual use in a chapel belonging to her family, and there was again a similar decree in the case of a Princess Orsini who had upholstered her pew in San Francesco with velvet benches and cushions, while unseemly quarrels of precedence often took place between noble ladies and the wives of rich and rising citizens. While the fixed seats were thus prohibited, sacristans and others managed to elude the law by providing removable ones of various degrees for various prices, and so arose the present custom of piling chairs for use at Mass in a corner or chapel of a church and renting them out. Many churches, however, have modified. the latter detail by making the chairs free; and no one can accuse these seats of coarse straw and ill-planed wood of luxury.
Outside of the regular ceremonies, whose frequent recurrence gave life and animation to the female world of Genoa, there were particular “functions,” special festivals, processions, and also private or popular devotions in house-oratories or at street shrines; and for all this, for the oil or candles which supplied the only street-lighting of the city, for the flowers and ribbons destined for a favorite image, or for the money to be distributed among certain favored poor, special collections from door to door were made by women, or windows were adorned and balconies turned into temporary shrines with rich hangings, fresh garlands, and multitudinous little lamps. Youth and high spirits could not but often turn these opportunities to worldly account; and an education which, restricted as it generally was to the catechism and needlework, was supplemented by the legend-lore and superstitious influence of old servants not too severe on clandestine love-affairs, resulted in a disposition to Romeo-and-Juliet lovemaking. What was innocent was crushed by an artificial standard of manners, while what was disreputable was unfortunately condoned with less severity. Public opinion was everywhere more lenient than civil and ecclesiastical authority, which it too often set at defiance. Such a world necessarily seemed to enthusiastic souls too corrupt to be reformed, while an individual refuge was afforded by open renunciation of it and isolation from its customs and concerns. Many of the convents maintained an honorable reputation from their foundation, the Capuchin nuns and the Turchine being especially exemplary and never’ having deviated from their original strictness; while others became scarcely less worldly than the world itself, and needed the hand of a Saint Teresa to bring them out of the state which the Prior Silvestro Prierio, one of the consulting theologians of the Council of Trent, described in forcible terms. Neither was there any lack of vulgar contentions and small, feminine spite in ancient Genoese society, whether among nuns or lay women. Again, want of education and of serious interests was to blame for the vehement partisanship of women for such and such an individual or order, in the choice of a confessor; in one convent a dispute about the organ resulted in a disintegration of the instrument, of which each sister retained one pipe as a memento or trophy; in another a ludicrous assault in the garden resulted from a personal preference for a regular over a secular spiritual adviser.
The city life of young girls was comparatively dull, excepting such occasions for display as have been mentioned already or the excitements of a friend’s wedding, which, however, were confined to visiting and gossiping among their own sex; for unmarried girls (and such is the custom in Italy even at present) did not ‘appear at marriage festivities. Little children were never taken beyond the walls of the house (a garden was attached to every house of any note and size) after their baptism until the age of seven, when they were taken to church to hear Mass; but even grown women frequented the streets very little, and of course never alone. The occasional infraction of this rule which is another still practically surviving in Italy was generally the cause of deplorable incidents; for at one time it became a custom for young men of inferior station to use violence or offer rude liberties in public to girls of noble birth and reputed wealth, with a view to compromising them sufficiently to make a marriage likely between the maiden and her rough suitor, the object being generally not the girl but her dowry. Of more villanous practices also, in the reversed case of an unprotected girl of low position and a dissipated young noble, there was no lack in a city which, like all the rest, had its hired ruffians and complaisant go-betweens in the favor and pay of its best families.
A peculiarity of Italian marriages before the Council of Trent was what we should call their civil character, although in intention they were legitimate religious ceremonies and were always styled “according to the rites and custom of the Holy Roman Church,” although as a matter of fact there was seldom any church ceremony. The betrothal and wedding were both performed in private, and generally, but not necessarily, in the presence of a notary-public, who registered them as well as the accompanying settlements. Sometimes an old friend of the family took the place of a notary, and an ecclesiastic not seldom appears on the registers in the character of this friend, his clerical capacity, however, being simply an accident. After the Council of Trent this custom was changed and the ceremony with which we are familiar substituted under pain of severe religious penalties. What really served as a proof of marriage in the earlier middle ages, in Genoa and many other Italian cities, was the public passage of a bride to her husband’s house, witnessed by the large concourse of people usually crowding the streets. The receipt for the dowry was also taken as legal evidence. These bridal processions were gay and picturesque, and gave occasion to so much display that the council, time after time, enacted sumptuary laws limiting the number of cavaliers and servants attending the bride, and the sum total expended in the ornamentation of her saddle, harness, litter, or other trappings. In the twelfth century her dresses even were carried in public behind her, hung on frames or lay figures, much as our milliners now exhibit their goods; but the council deemed this an abuse and forbade it, though as soon as one technical point was struck at the ingenuity of private luxury devised another vent. The bridal procession was known as the “traductio” and took place sometimes on the same day as the wedding, though almost as often two or three days after. Sunday was the favorite day for marriages, because a state rule allowed wedding banquets on the three first days of the week only; at times the dissipation consequent on these suppers called forth still more repressive legislation, and the bridegroom was required to limit the number of the friends he might ask to the feasts at his father-in-law’s to two for the first and to eight for the second. If the traductio did not occur the same day as the marriage the bridegroom returned alone to his own house and waited the bride’s arrival, which in other Italian and some Spanish cities, if not in Genoa itself, was occasionally delayed by the performance of a counter ceremony called the serraglio, consisting of a make-believe carrying off of the bride by her relations. The savage ideal of a bridal being an affair of force and sale survived in this odd custom long after any significance but that of a rough game remained to it in the mind of the people. However little reality there was in this fashion, it still gave opportunity at times for unpleasant practical jokes or other unseemly disturbances, and the local authorities in most cities repeatedly put bounds to these excesses or forbade the continuance of the custom, till at last a commutation came to occupy its place, and the bride gave a ring or other costly pledge, which was presented by her relations next day at the bridegroom’s house, and redeemed by the groom with a sum of money to be spent in a convivial meeting by the supposed protectors of the bride. The morning after the bride’s entrance was also marked by the custom of a public offering of broth or cordial, carried to the door of the bridal couple’s room by the mother-in-law, or some ancient female relation of the groom if his mother were dead; and various other requirements of etiquette marked the days on which she received congratulatory visits, and the first day on which she went out in state to return them. Our notion of honeymoon privacy did not make its way to Italy until the beginning of the present century, when a few rich and travelled people began to escape from the old tedious publicity by retiring for a week or two to their country villas, and thereby much scandalizing the conservative members of society, who saw nothing but perfection in those “good old times” which were really rather coarse. Marriages have gradually come to be, even among antiquated circles in Italian society, something more than “alliances” not universally so, by any means, for personal experience recalls to my mind many cases, not twenty years ago, in which these old fashions were closely followed; but still the principle of love-matches is not wholly ignored, and it follows that where there is inclination a natural desire for retirement accompanies it. But in republican Genoa of old it would have been somewhat of a contradiction to shut up together for a month two young strangers, one of whom had been looking forward to her marriage as the period of her comparative social emancipation. All that the bridegroom rejoiced in having secured was a suitable bearer and transmitter of his name, while the bride’s special subject of joy was her possession of so much jewelry, lace, and gold cloth, and the appropriate display of them to her intimates. Although the people were practically less ceremonious, even their marriages were the subject of diplomatic arrangements, and contracts of great solemnity are registered concerning business and family matters combined, though the amount of money involved is often very small. An exceptional arrangement was one recorded as occurring between a smith, Domenico Deferrari, in 1488, with another smith betrothed to his daughter, in which he promises in cash, clothes, and jewelry a dowry of four hundred francs, but fixes the date of the marriage at four years hence, admitting his future son-in-law to his home, table, and business partnership during the interval, subject to the latter forfeiting all these advantages if he should misbehave himsell towards his future bride, or even persuade her to a clandestine marriage. Though exceptional, such an arrangement is explained by the fact that, to make a marriage tolerably certain, girls of tender age were sometimes given away on paper, and such promises, and virtually marriages, were considered legal after the child, either boy or girl, had attained the age of seven, though twelve was the actual age required by the canon law for a real marriage. Such facilities for laying hands on important estates or dowries also explains the frequent trials, resulting in a dissolution of marriage between the two parties, which occur in the records of Genoa. Marriage-brokers, also, were a peculiarity of the middle ages, and something not unlike them, though no longer legally recognized, exists to this day. In old times it was a legitimate profession, and poor men, both lay and ecclesiastics, kept regular registers of marriageable youths and maidens, with personal and genealogical details, and especially commercialones touching their possessions or prospects. “Fast” women, too, were not unknown even among the jealously watched and guarded wives of the rich; a Princess Doria who figured somewhat disreputably in a divorce suit in the lax times of the eighteenth century was stated in the evidence given at the trial to have ridden on horseback in a man’s dress, attended by her male friends and admirers, several times back and forth between her villa and the city. But turning from mere social effervescence such as processions, serenades, mattinatas (the song at dawn under a bride’s window), or the less poetical and derisive welcome of tins, pots, horns, and mocking laughter which awaited a second marriage and still survives in Spanish popular custom, and which in Genoa went by the name of tenebra to the more substantial consequences of marriage, it is curious to see how, as far back as the eleventh century, a wife’s right to a third of her husband’s property was maintained by law, whether she had children or not; and how, in the case of the husband’s bankruptcy, her dowry was the first lien on his estate, and might be redeemed by application to the council before other creditors could touch anything. Also, before her first child was born, a woman had the absolute right of willing her property the only instance in which she could act by and for herself; for in all these documents the signatures are almost invariably those of male relations acting for their sisters, daughters, nieces, etc. But ignorance often deprived a woman of her few privileges, and young widows sometimes had almost a valid excuse for a second marriage in spite of the popular prejudice against; such unions in the rapacity of relations of their first husband who would try to cheat her out of her share. Dress was considered of so much importance in mediaeval times that a provision was made by law for the widow’s weeds out of the husband’s estate, and bridegrooms, as they do still in France, presented gala-dresses to their brides. In fact, it is chiefly the English-speaking nations who have evolved the independent ideal of a bride who scorns to receive necessaries from a man before he is actually her husband. A good many women, not at all given to nonsense about woman’s sphere and duties, are highly shocked and offended at the notion of even their trousseau linen being marked in their new name, and resent it as suggesting the idea that “they never had any clothes worth speaking of before they were married.” Artificial scruples had less weight with the Genoese women, who cared little whence came the supply of finery which they craved. Indeed, as a rule, the parents and husband divided the burden of supporting the bride, and her property was duly secured on certain real estate, often house property, belonging to the bridegroom.
The country or rather the autumn villeggiatura, for Italians know nothing corresponding to what we call the country was the chief delight of Genoese women, and especially of unmarried girls, who were there given a dangerous liberty in foolish contrast to the equally dangerous repression in the city. The dnnghters of the rich enjoyed dances, suppers, concerts, and gossiping leisure in their beautiful villas, where young men had opportunities, unchecked by custom, to make love. This, however, even with the most honorable intentions, generally came to an abrupt and disastrous ending through the pressure of the arbitrary code of social life. But of genuine country life and its healthy pursuits as we know them the Genoese were ignorant, as are most Italians of any position even at present. Conviviality was the amusement of the older men, gossip and gambling that of the older women, the latter passion being strangely intense in Genoa. Women of high rank were always the foremost, and, before the present lottery system was invented, vied with the men in betting on public, social, or domestic events. They had fortune-telling wheels and sundry like devices, and gathered together round tables covered with embroidered carpets of rich stuff representing numbers and combinations of figures; in the sixteenth century loto was introduced, and from that came the present popular Italian lotteries which have done so much mischief. The ecclesiastical as well as civil laws recorded in the Genoese archives were constantly prohibiting such abuses, and signalize the dangerous consequences of betting on births in illustrious families (this was prohibited under pain of mortal sin), and many other details on which the gambling propensity spent itself, both among men and women. Politics and municipal elections, as well as domestic events, were favorite betting subjects. Again, drunkenness and license we are accustomed too lightly to suppose that the former does not exist in wine-growing countries are often mentioned in these warnings, pastorals, laws, and regulations. At marriages the old Greek custom of libations, and a symbolic participation of the same cup by the bride and groom, was early perverted into an excuse for drinking and noise, and repeated injunctions under pain of mortal sin were issued against the custom by the church authorities. The use of sweetmeats of various kinds at weddings goes at least as far back as the later Roman times; nuts being the sine-qua-non of Genoese marriages, as cake is of ours, though at present fashion has tabooed these as vulgar, and boxes of French sugar-plums are the correct substitute, so that, except in country districts among the mountains, the saying, “When will you send me the nuts?” as equivalent to the query, “When are you going to be married?” has lost its meaning. At the ceremony of the taking of the veil or the profession of a nun similar customs were kept up, and the archbishop received certain vials of syrup and boxes of homemade sweets and candies as part of his fees, the vicar-apostolic and others sharing the latter. In later times the presents of candies were commuted for money contributions, paid out of thedowry of the novice or professa.
Such was the society in which Catherine Adorno found herself at the time of her marriage. Her early childhood had been, say her biographers, remarkable for devotion, bodily mortification, and obedience; her health was always delicate and precarious. Her style she wrote several spiritual dialogues and a treatise on purgatory was pure, elegant, and impassioned. Saint Francis of Sales was accustomed to read the treatise twice a year, admiring its literary merit as well as its religious import; and Schlegel, who translated the dialogues into German, considered them models of style. Her life, which was that of a Sceur Rosalie transported into mediaeval conditions, is chiefly associated in the minds of Catholics with her work and services at the city hospital, where, before becoming the head, she labored some years as a subordinate, her husband living there with her. It is quite possible, though her historians do not say so, that Adorno’s circumstances were such as to make such a home desirable; for he was both extravagant, careless, and eccentric, while her executive abilities and her peculiar tact had long been known to her large circle of friends. The hospital was very likely an honorable retreat as well as an important charge. Saint Catherine had the care of the accounts as well as of the patients, and kept them accurately and faithfully. Brought up as she had been in the use of devout practices, she experienced, nevertheless, so passionate a spiritual change some years after her marriage that she always dated from her ” conversion”; but this event was only the culminating-point of a long and painful trial of mind. Her Italian biographer says that one day toward the climax of her suspense and uneasiness of mind, and her nervous depression at the vexations of her husband, she went into the church of Saint Benedict and prayed, in a species of desperation, ” that for three months God would keep her sick in bed.” For five years after the first years of her married life, when she secluded herself to please her exacting husband, she ” sought solace for her hard life, as womem are prone to do, in the diversions and vanities of the world, . . . external affairs and feminine amusements, . . . yet not to a sinful extent . . .”; and in connection with this brief indication the foregoing social details of Genoese female life are interesting. It is a pleasure to reconstruct in fancy the ordinary and legitimate surroundings of great or holy personages, and the few glimpses afforded of Saint Catherine’s gatherings of friends at her own house, when she would discourse on holy things to them; or of her own absentmindedness, her trances, her extraordinary fasts while still living with a household of her relations and receiving visits, walking in her garden, superintending her servants, according to the domestic programme of her rank, are very interesting.
After the culminating moment of her “conversion,” which was during a ‘confession she was making at the suggestion of her sister, who was a nun, she experienced a singular self-knowledge of her smallest sins, which state lasted fourteen months, but which she took to be in itself an intellectual expiation of those sins, so that she tells us herself that, this satisfaction having been made, God ” relieved her of the sight of her sins so entirely that she never beheld again the least of them.” She gathered about her a devoted knot of spiritual followers, forming a society apart, a guild of charity and .devotion, who helped her in her outer works, and forced her to give them advice and guidance in their own daily life and troubles. She began her life of self-denial by visiting the poor of the city under the auspices of ” the Ladies of Mercy,” who, according to the custom of her day, gave certain moneys and provisions into her charge for the purpose of distribution, something after the fashion of modern district-visitors or of the members of the Brotherhood of Saint Vincent of Paul. She was deputed to cleanse the houses of the poor and to cook their food, to tend the sick in their own homes, and to take home ragged and filthy clothes to be cleansed, pieced, and mended by her own hands. Spiritual teaching formed part of her duties as visitor, and naturally she continued these ministrations when attached to the hospital. Many years after she had been there a rector was appointed, who became her spiritual friend and director; but for the greater part of her life she says that God allowed her no special spiritual help but such as he directly gave her in internal visitations. Her dialogues, exalting and celebrating divine love, remind one very much of the fourth book of the Imitation. While remaining within the church’s limits” of doctrine concerning grace and free-will, she was strangely and deeply impressed with the natural perversity of human nature, and its helplessness unless assisted by God, and she repeatedly dwells upon the superior sinfulness of man as a being possessed of a double instrument of rebellion; ” for,” she says, ” the devil is a spirit without a body, while man, without the grace of God, is a devil incarnate. Man has a free-will, … so that he can do all the evil that he wills; to the devil this is impossible, . . . and when man surrenders to him his evil will the devil employs it as the instrument of his temptation.” She was as acutely distrustful of self-love as it was natural considering her intimate union with God, and, in the quaint, direct way that characterizes mediaeval literature, she says in one of the dialogues: ” Self-love is so subtle a robber that it commits its thefts even upon God himself, without fear or shame, employing his goods as if they were its own, and assigning as a reason that it cannot live without them. And this robbery is hidden under so many veils of apparent good that it can hardly be detected. . . .” In many of the dialogues she treats ” Self ” as a separate being and a born enemy, Humanity appearing as a sort of Caliban, hindering the soul’s perfection and acting as a clog, even when only asking for toleration of its physical needs.
Some time before his death Catherine Adorno’s husband became a member of the Third Order of Saint Francis, as many pious laymen were used to do from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century; but his natural impatience was far from quelled, and broke out in excusable though vexatious bitterness during his last illness. He was sick for a long” time, and bore his sufferings as most men do; but as his death became more and more certain his wife grew very anxious about his salvation. She prayed incessantly for him, and.some inner warning seemed to tell her that her prayers were heard at least so she once hinted to one of her younger followers in the path of holiness. Her friends firmly believed in the omnipotence of her prayers, so much so that they went to her as to a spiritual physician, and even strangers to her followed their example. The story of her adoption of a young widow, Argentina del Sale, illustrates this trait. Marco del Sale was sick of a cancer, and became so impatient over his hopeless disease that his wife, as a last resort, went to the hospital and begged Saint Catherine to go and see him, which the latter did at once, and marvellously calmed him by “a few humble and devout words.” Argentina then accompanied her back, and on their way they stopped at the church of Our Lady of Grace, and there prayed for the sick man. When the poor wife returned home she found a great change for the better in her husband’s temper; he felt resigned to whatever might be God’s will, and was anxious to see Catherine again, which was readily granted him next day. But the saint and the sufferer alike had forebodings of the fatal end of the disease, and Marco, telling Catherine of a vision he believed he had had, revealing to him his approaching death, said: “Therefore I pray you, most kind mother, that you may be pleased to accept Argentina as your spiritual daughter, retaining her always near you; and I pray you, Argentina, to consent to this.” He died the eve of Ascension day, as he expected he would, and the legend adds that ” his spirit knocked at the window of his confessor’s cell, crying, i Ecce Homo,’ Avhich when the confessor heard he knew that Marco had passed to his Lord.” Argentina attached herself to Saint Catherine and became her constant companion. A lady friend of Saint Catherine, and a great contrast to her, was Tommasa, a cousin of her own, and, like herself, a married woman anxious to live a more than commonly devout life. She prudently gave up by degrees the ordinary and legitimate occupations of her rank, and dedicated her many talents to devout purposes; but Catherine, in her superior fervor, wondered how Tommasa could make such slow progress and could dream of the possibility of turning back. ” If I should turn back ” (by which she meant only a return to blameless and somewhat dull occupations), ” I should not only wish my eyes to be put out, but that every kind of punishment and insult should be inflicted upon me.” Madonna Tommasa, however, wrought a good work in a frivolous world, and, after the death of her husband, became a nun in an Observantine (Franciscan) convent, whence, after twenty years, she was sent to another convent of the same order, to reform it by introducing the strict observance which she had contributed to restore in her first monastery. She was a skilful writer, painter, and embroiderer, had exquisite and affable manners, and, though zealous, was never either fanatical or inconsiderate. Her prudence and discretion won her many disciples. Among her writings were two treatises, one on the Apocalypse and the other on Dionysius the Areopagite; her paintings and needlework were delicate and dignified representations of holy scenes, Biblical allegories, etc.; she illustrated manuscripts and copied the text with great skill. In her we see another exceptional specimen of Genoese education. Another of Catherine’s friends, an unmarried woman, who lived some years in her house and is said by the biographer to have had ” a powerful intellect,” was, to the belief of those about her, possessed by the devil; at any rate, she was subject to violent paroxysms which lasted till her death. Catherine’s presence always soothed her, and she called the saint Serafina, from her fervent spirit of heavenly love.
Catherine’s writings partook of some of the qualities that distinguish those of Saint Thomas, and abound in pleasing diversities as well as literary merit, Here they sound like a theological treatise, there like a sweet poem such as the Minnesingers of Germany in previous centuries had composed. Of the action of grace she says: ” Grace increases in proportion as man makes use of it. Hence it is evident that God gives man from day to day all that he needs, no more and no less, and to each according to his condition and capacity; . . . because we are so cold and neglectful, and because the instinct of the spirit is to arrive quickly at perfection, it seems as if grace were insufficient.” Poetical fancy was not wanting in Saint Catherine’s writings, but among similes common to most poets the following appears original: ” At length that befell the soul which happens to a bombshell when, the fire being applied to it, it explodes and loses both fire and powder; thus the soul, having conceived the fire of pure, divine love, suddenly lost that which had before inflamed her, and, deprived of all sensibility, could never more return to it.” The language of the Imitation continually occurs to one’s memory.
She constantly interchanges the personal for the abstract in her allegorical account of the journey of the Soul, the Body, and Self-Love, which reads very like some of Calderon’s poems. Occasionally the Spirit, meaning the higher part of human nature, is distinguished from the Soul, though not systematically. The Soul and Body agree to call in Self-Love as an arbiter, so that neither shall be wholly starved or confined, but both enjoy some part of the delights peculiar to each. This partnership, however, fails to work satisfactorily, and the Body, after much fasting and subjection, breaks loose and asserts itself so as to cripple the Soul, who sorrowfully allows it for a time to have its way, but subsequently is allured by earthly delights and comes down to the level of the Body. Then follows a period of sin, in which Remorse plays an occasional part as Mentor, but is often stifled, and at last, after much conversation in the mediaeval style, the light of God is restored to the Soul, who gains definitive mastery over her companion and dismisses their common arbiter. The conceit is entirely foreign to our notions, the nearest thing to it in later English being some of Herbert’s poetry.
Saint Catherine’s treatise on purgatory has some very poetical similes, and the leading idea namely, that the soul’s consciousness of the requirements of divine purity is such that it voluntarily casts itself out of God’s presence until purified is almost identical with that of Cardinal Newman’s poem on death, “The Dream of Gerontius.” A rather original simile is that of the single loaf destined for the satisfaction of the hunger of mankind. Purgatory is likened to the pains of the hungry man who is detained from possession of the loaf, the sight of which alone is supposed to appease hunger, while hell is portrayed by the despair of the man who is certain that he never will possess the mystic bread. This has a flavor of the legends of the Round Table, and would serve well for Tennyson’s pen. One thing more is worthy of remark in Saint Catherine’s writings on this subject. She warns devout persons to rely upon daily watchfulness against sin rather than upon the gaining of plenary indulgences and the precarious fact of actually possessing perfect contrition, for she says: “Did you know how hardly it is come by you would tremble with fear and be more sure of losing than of gaining it.”
– from , July 1881