The opening pages of Catherine of Siena | by Sigrid Undset, the Nobel Prize winning author of Kristin Lavransdatter | Ignatius Insight
In the city-states of Tuscany the citizens—Popolani—businessmen, master craftsmen and the professional class had already in the Middle Ages demanded and won the right to take part in the government of the republic side by side with the nobles—the Gentiluomini. In Siena they had obtained a third of the seats in the High Council as early as the twelfth century. In spite of the fact that the different parties and rival groups within the parties were in constant and often violent disagreement, and in spite of the frequent wars with Florence, Siena's neighbour and most powerful competitor, prosperity reigned within the city walls. The Sienese were rich and proud of their city, so they filled it with beautiful churches and public buildings. Masons, sculptors, painters and smiths who made the exquisite lattices and lamps, were seldom out of work. Life was like a brightly coloured tissue, where violence and vanity, greed and uninhibited desire for sensual pleasure, the longing for power, and ambition, were woven together in a multitude of patterns. But through the tissue ran silver threads of Christian charity, deep and genuine piety in the monasteries and among the good priests, among the brethren and sisters who had dedicated themselves to a life of helping their neighbours. The well-to-do and the common people had to the best of their ability provided for the sick, the poor and the lonely with unstinted generosity. In every class of the community there were good people who lived a quiet, modest and beautiful family life of purity and faith.
The family of Jacopo Benincasa was one of these. By trade he was a wool-dyer, and he worked with his elder sons and apprentices while his wife, Lapa di Puccio di Piagente, firmly and surely ruled the large household, although her life was an almost unbroken cycle of pregnancy and childbirth—and almost half her children died while they were still quite small. It is uncertain how many of them grew up, but the names of thirteen children who lived are to be found on an old family tree of the Benincasas. Considering how terribly high the rate of infant mortality was at that time, Jacopo and Lapa were lucky in being able to bring up more than half the children they had brought into the world.
Jacopo Benincasa was a man of solid means when in 1346 he was able to rent a house in the Via dei Tintori, close to the Fonte Branda, one of the beautiful covered fountains which assured the town of a plentiful supply of fresh water. The old home of the Benincasas, which is still much as it was at that time, is, according to our ideas, a small house for such a big family. But in the Middle Ages people were not fussy about the question of housing, least of all the citizens of the fortified towns where people huddled together as best they could within the protection of the walls. Building space was expensive, and the city must have its open markets, churches and public buildings, which at any rate theoretically belonged to the entire population. The houses were crowded together in narrow, crooked streets. According to the ideas of that time the new home of the Benincasas was large and impressive.
Lapa had already had twenty-two children when she gave birth to twins, two little girls, on Annunciation Day, March 25, 1347. They were christened Catherine and Giovanna. Madonna Lapa could only nurse one of the twins herself, so little Giovanna was handed over to a nurse, while Catherine fed at her mother's breast. Never before had Monna Lapa been able to experience the joy of nursing her own children—a new pregnancy had always forced her to give her child over to another woman. But Catherine lived on her mother's milk until she was old enough to be weaned. It was all too natural that Lapa, who was already advanced in years, came to love this child with a demanding and well-meaning mother-love which later, when the child grew up, made the relationship between the good-hearted, simple Lapa and her young eagle of a daughter one long series of heart-rending misunderstandings. Lapa loved her immeasurably and understood her not at all.
Catherine remained the youngest and the darling of the whole family, for little Giovanna died in infancy, and a new Giovanna, born a few years later, soon followed her sister and namesake into the grave. Her parents consoled themselves with the firm belief that these small, innocent children had flown from their cradles straight into Paradise—while Catherine, as Raimondo of Capua writes, using a slightly far-fetched pun on her name and the Latin word "catena" (a chain), had to work hard on earth before she could take a whole chain of saved souls with her to heaven.
When the Blessed Raimondo of Capua collected material for his biography of St. Catherine he got Madonna Lapa to tell him about the saint's childhood—long, long ago, for Lapa was by that time a widow of eighty. From Raimondo's description one gets the impression that Lapa enjoyed telling everything that came into her head to such an understanding and responsive listener. She told of the old days when she was the active, busy mother in the middle of a flock of her own children, her nieces and nephews, grandchildren, friends and neighbours, and Catherine was the adored baby of a couple who were already elderly. Lapa described het husband Jacopo as a man of unparalleled goodness, piety and uprightness. Raimondo writes that Lapa herself "had not a sign of the vices which one finds among people of our time"; she was an innocent and simple soul, and completely without the ability to invent stories which were not true. But because she had the well-being of so many people on her shoulders, she could not be so unworldly and patient as her husband; or perhaps Jacopo was really almost too good for this world, so that his wife had to be even more practical than she already was, and on occasion she thought it her duty to utter a word or two of common sense to protect the interests of the family.
For Jacopo never said a hard or untimely word however upset or badly treated he might be, and if others in the house gave way to their bad temper or used bitter or unkind words he always tried to talk them round: "Now listen, for your own sake you must keep calm and not use such unseemly words." Once one of his townsmen tried to force him into paying a large sum of money which Jacopo did not owe him, and the honest dyer was hounded and persecuted till he was almost ruined by the slanderous talk of this man and his powerful friends. But in spite of everything Jacopo would not allow anyone to say a word against the man; Lapa did so, but her husband replied: "Leave him in peace, you will see that God will show him his fault and protect us." And a short while afrer that it really happened, said Lapa.
Coarse words and dirty talk were unknown in the dyer's home. His daughter Bonaventura, who was married to a young Sienese, Niccalo, was so much grieved when her husband and his friends engaged in loose talk and told doubtful jokes that she became physically ill and began to waste away. Her husband, who must really have been a well-meaning young man, was worried when he saw how thin and pale his bride was, and wanted to know what was wrong with her. Bonaventura replied seriously, "In my father's house I was not used to listening to such words as I must hear here every day. You can be sure that if such indecent talk continues in our house you will live to see me waste to death." Niccolo at once saw to it that all such bad habits which wounded his wife's feelings were stopped, and openly expressed his admiration for her chaste and modest ways, and the piety of his parents-in-law.
Such was the home of little Catherine. Everyone petted and loved her, and when she was still quite tiny her family admired her "wisdom" when they listened to her innocent prattle. And as she was also very pretty Lapa could scarcely ever have her to herself; all the neighbours wanted to borrow her! Medieval writers seldom trouble to describe children or try to understand them. But Lapa manages in a few pages of Raimondo's book to give us a picture of a little Italian girl, serious and yet happy, attractive and charming—and already beginning to show that overwhelming vitality and spiritual energy which many years later made Raimondo and her other "children" surrender to her influence, with the feeling that her words and her presence banished despondency and faint-heartedness, and filled their souls with the peace and love of God. As soon as she left the circle of her own family, little Catherine became the leader of all the other small children in the street. She taught them games which she had herself invented—that is to say innumerable small acts of devotion. When she was five years old she taught herself the Angelus, and she loved tepeating it incessantly. As she went up or down the stairs at home she used to kneel on each step and say an Ave Maria. For the pious little daughter of a pious family, where everyone talked kindly and politely to everyone else, it must have been quite natural for her as soon as she had heard of God to talk in the same way to Him and His following of saints. It was then still a kind of game for Catherine. But small children put their whole souls and all their imagination into their games.
The neighbours called her Euphrosyne. This is the name of one of the Graces, and it seemed that Raimondo had his doubts about it; could the good people in the Fontebranda quarter have such knowledge of classical mythology that they knew what the name meant? He thought that perhaps, before she could talk properly, Catherine called her something which the neighbors took to be Euphrosyne, for there is also a saint of that name. The Sienese were however used to seeing processions and listening to songs and verse, so they could easily have picked up more of the poets' property than Raimondo imagined. Thus for example, Lapa's father, Pucio de Piagnete, wrote verse in his free time; he was by trade a craftsman—a mattress maker. He was moreover a very pious man, generous towards the monasteries and to monks and nuns. He might easily have known both the heathen and the Christian Euphrosyne. Catherine was for a time very much interested in the legend of St. Euphrosyne, who is supposed to have dressed as a boy and run away from home to enter a monastery. She toyed with the idea of doing the same herself. . . .
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Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), a renowned literary author and one of the most acclaimed novelists of the twentieth century, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928 for her epic work Kristin Lavransdatter.