St. Margaret of Cortona and medieval populism

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This is highlight #3 from our recent vacation in Italy. St. Margaret of Cortona was a remarkable person–more on her in a moment. The picture is a narrative of her life painted around 1298, or just one year after she died. She wasn’t canonized until 1728. In her own community of southeastern Tuscany, she was treated from the moment of her death (and perhaps even while she was still alive) as a saint to be venerated and depicted on par with St. Clare or St. Agnes. A major local church was immediately renamed in her honor, and her mummified body was placed under its altar. Those actions offer insights into medieval Catholicism, which was much more populist and decentralized than we assume on the basis of recent centuries of Church history and governance.

Margaret’ story would work for a novel (and has inspired an opera and a film). A beautiful peasant girl, she quarreled with her stepmother and ran away to live in sin with a nobleman in his castle. One day, his most loyal hound returned alone from the hunt and led Margaret to the scene of his death at the hands of a murderer. Deeply shaken, Margaret became a Franciscan sister, thus joining the most radical and compelling  religious/political movement of the era. She swore personal poverty but may have used her ex-lover’s wealth for philanthropy; we know that she obtained the resources to found a hospital and a convent. No wallflower or passive penitent, she twice challenged the bishop of Arezzo for acting like a warlike lord instead of a man of God. Her example and the force of her thought and personality must have resounded powerfully.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.