Sunday, May 18, 2014

Medieval Moms II: The Saint

Reliquary of Beata Umiliana de' Cerchi, Museo di Santa Croce, Florence

The Blessed Umiliana dei Cerchi, speaking of her children:
O how blessed they would be if they were to die so unstained, still bearing their virginity.  If it is God's will, I would prefer that they die and go to glory rather than live, lest at some time they offend God and so lose a portion of the eternal inheritance. - quoted in Carol Lansing's book The Florentine Magnates
Umiliana's daughter Regale (imagined response):
Um... Mom?

Have you ever heard anyone say, "My mother is a saint"?  It's just possible that might not be an entirely good thing, from a child's point of view. 

(Most sources list Umiliana as "Beata," or "Blessed," rather than as "Saint," but I've seen it both ways.  I'm writing this post as her feast day, May 19, approaches, 768 years after her death in 1246.)

So who was this lady?  Umiliana (aka Humiliana, Emiliana) was born around 1219, into a wealthy Florentine family.  The Cerchi were bankers, influential in Florentine politics and becoming ever more so (they were to become the main opposition to the family of last week's blog topic, Tessa Donati - read about her here).

Cerchi coat of arms, Santa Maria Novella (Florence)

At sixteen, Umiliana married a member of the Buonaguisi family (we don't know his name).  Shortly after her marriage, and probably under the influence of her sister-in-law Ravenna, she rejected “the pomp and adornment of the world.”  She would not paint her face; she cut off the bottom of a beautiful new tunic her husband had given her, made sleeves out of the cloth, and sold them, giving the money to the poor.  She collected her old clothes and her husband's and gave those to the poor, and when she had cloth to make sheets, she made them shorter than usual and gave the rest of the cloth away.

She was also said to give away “all the linen which she found in her husband's chamber.”  I don't know whether that meant bed linens only, or if she also gave away the unfortunate man's shirts and underwear.  She even removed feathers from the marital mattress, to make a pallet to give to a hospital.

She was contented with coarse food, and “took the food out of her mouth, reseasoned it, and gave it to the poor.”  (I know – yuck.  Let's agree not to take that literally, shall we?)  She also stayed up late at night to prepare food for the poor.  She and Ravenna would distribute it the next day, bringing along servants to help carry.

Needless to say, her husband and his family were not gruntled about all of this.  (At least the male members of the family were not; Umiliana seems to have had a wonderful rapport with their womenfolk, many of whom testified to her sanctity after her death.)

As Umiliana's biographer, Fra Vito of Cortona, tells it, her husband and his male relatives (and later her own male relatives) opposed her efforts, every step of the way.

But can you blame her husband?  His young trophy wife is running around in unfashionably short clothes; she's giving away his underwear, stoking the cookfire and cooking all night, and his bed is short-sheeted and missing a lot of feathers.  This was probably not what he bargained for.  As one historian said, “Umiliana did not so much reject marriage as subvert it.”

But we wanted to look at Umiliana as a mother.

Her husband died after a few years of marriage and the birth of two daughters.  Umiliana spent the next year in her family's home, always increasing her charitable efforts, to the displeasure of her husband's brothers, and then she moved back to her father's house.

Her children stayed behind.  Medieval Florentine society believed that's where they belonged as part of their father's lineage.

Did Umiliana have any choice in the matter?  Some men made provision in their wills for their widows to stay in the family home as long as they remained chaste, but we don't know if that happened in Umiliana's case.  Did her husband's family become exasperated and order her out (fearing, perhaps, for their underwear)?  Did she choose to leave?  Did her father, who wanted to use her in another dynastic marriage, insist?

We don't know.  We do know that she left the girls behind, probably in the care of her beloved sister-in-law Ravenna.  We know that members of her birth family tried in vain to persuade her to agree to marry again.  We know that she wanted to enter a convent of Poor Clares at Monticelli, but she was not accepted, so she took up residence in a cell in her father's tower and continued her charitable efforts as a Franciscan tertiary from there (attended by servants from her father's household).

Cerchi tower (shorter than it would have been then)

We also know that Umiliana's father, Oliviero dei Cerchi, reclaimed the right to her dowry, which she claimed he did by deceiving her so that now she would live in her father's home “as a servant, not as a daughter.”  The lack of control over her dowry severely limited how much she could give away to the poor (and some historians believe that Oliviero was merely trying to prevent her from giving away what must have been a considerable sum of money).  Lack of dowry may also have been why she was rejected by the convent – while the Poor Clares espoused poverty, the fact remained that most of the nuns in that Florentine religious house were from wealthy and powerful families, and entered with a dowry.

Umiliana did love children.  She had visions of the Christ child; she once tried to capture the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove to give to her little nephew; she visited a sick boy and voluntarily took his suffering upon herself.

It is said that a demon tried to tempt her out of a vow of silence by showing her visions of various kin lying dead, which would require her to mourn them vocally, and that one such vision was of her two daughters lying on a pallet at her feet, but she successfully resisted this temptation.

And one telling incident:  her daughter Regale (or Rigale) was visiting Umiliana in her tower room one day shortly after terce (mid-morning) when the child was struck dumb, then fell down as if dead, turning very white.  Umiliana, distraught, tried to revive her, but perceiving no breath, she believed her daughter had died.  Fra Vito tells us she feared the trouble this would bring down on her head when her husband's relatives learned of it (emphasis mine), so she prayed to an image of the Virgin.  Then a beautiful child appeared and made the sign of the cross over the little girl, who sat up, fully conscious and completely well.

Santa Margherita dei Cerchi (church in Florence under the patronage of the Cerchi and other neighborhood families in the 13th century)

Rudolph Bell, in his book Holy Anorexia, claims that Umiliana's inlaws believed she was not a fit mother.  Yet they did permit the child to visit her -- unless that was done solely on Ravenna's initiative, which seems possible.  As we have seen, the fact that Umiliana left the girls with her husband's family may well not have been her choice.

Was she as lacking in human feeling for her daughters as some of these quotes and anecdotes seem to suggest?  I wouldn't be too sure.  Everything we read is filtered through her Franciscan biographer, who was trying to depict the life of an urban Franciscan tertiary as he saw it (and this was still early days for the Franciscan order, which was still establishing itself in Florence – Umiliana was seven years old when St. Francis died).

But at the hearings about her sanctity, she was supported not only by three Franciscan friars, but also by 30 women, many of whom were members of her own or her husband's family.  I find it hard to believe that would have been the case if they had seen her as an inadequate mother.  Once again, we are peering far into the past, without much information to work with, and we need to be very careful not to judge people of another time by the standards of our own.

We do not know what eventually became of Regale and her sister.

Next week:  Medieval Moms III:  The Sinner.

Images in this post:  Reliquary photo is licensed to Sailko via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons. So are the photos of the Cerchi coat of arms, the Cerchi tower, and the church of Santa Margherita dei Cerchi.  Other images are in the public domain.


Judith Schara said...

Not a pleasant fate to be a woman in this time, especially a "Mom". Once again I was struck by the fact that the reporting On Umiliana was by a man, and a religous at that. This seemed to be so common and perhaps their church feelings overran truth. I don't know - just commenting.

Prue Batten said...

This is a novel waiting to be written...

Deborah Swift said...

What a life! Women's lives were so different from ours then. I loved the pictures in your post, particularly the illuminated manuscript.
Do you think her name if from the same latin root as 'humility'? I'm always interested in names.

Tinney Heath said...

Judith, I think you're right about Umiliana's biographer. Of course, hagiography is always out to make a point, and maybe sometimes it says more about the writer than about the subject. I didn't go into it here, but her family had plenty of political enemies who opposed her beatification. Prue, I'm up to my eyebrows in other saints just now, so go for it if you'd like! And Deborah, yes, I do think that her name is from the same source as "humility," and the other versions were later interpretations. One of the things I find fun about writing this blog is locating pictures. That one from the ms is actually Saint Clare, and it sure looks like she's distributing bananas to the poor...