Catherine of Siena: Rebel, Problem Solver, Foreskin Jewelry Designer

What… or who… is actually being maligned?

I am not religious, but I come from Catholic stock and I studied medieval history in college, so I have favorite saints. I’m ashamed to say that I first loved Catherine of Siena for all the wrong reasons.

Catherine was born in 1347 in Siena, Italy. She lived a century (nearly two) after two other famous Italians saint, Francis of Assisi and Clare of Assisi. However, she became a Dominican when she was 16, and later tended the sick and the poor. She is well-remembered for interceding in the religious disputes of the age, persuading the pope to return to Rome after decades in Avignon, France. In 1380, she worked to solve the Great Papal Schism, when several men claimed to be pope. She died that year. She was declared a saint in 1461, and in1970 a Doctor of the Church in 1970 (along with Teresa of Avila, the first woman to be named so).

She claimed to have had visions of Christ throughout her life, including a vision of mystical marriage at age 21. She defied her parents by fasting and cutting off her hair when they decided she should marry her sister’s widower. After she joined the Dominican order, she learned to read. She was clearly an intelligent and remarkable woman.

And yet. And yet it’s that mystical vision that caused all the trouble.

As a non-religious sort, the visions sound a little…odd to me, but they fit in to the logic of the time period. Other women, such as Margery Kempe and Joan of Arc, claimed similar visions. These visions were a way for women to command some power; they were not enacting rebellion but following orders from God, Jesus, or the saints.

In college, a (female) professor talked about Catherine with some glee, explaining how Catherine wore a wedding ring to signify her mystical marriage. And this ring was Jesus’ foreskin. This story, then, became one of how gullible medieval people were, how silly. So I came to love Catherine and her silly ring.

And yet I do not know any similar stories about men. Sure, I’ve heard about churches that claim they have some of the Virgin Mary’s breastmilk or hair, but nothing comparable to a foreskin ring. And I’ve learned about the Avignon Papacy and Papal Schism many times, but Catherine, at best, was a footnote.

A few years ago, I learned that the foreskin story might have been made up during the Protestant Reformation as a way to slander the Catholic Church and its saints. That’s a pretty good slander, eh? This church, full of foolish women.

Foolish women.

Because whatever effect the story had at the time, the one that has come down to us, the one that is repeated in a college, is not about the folly of the medieval church, but about the folly of a medieval woman. A woman who helped the sick and poor, who petitioned for religious reform and tried to heal the Catholic church.

And even if she really did receive or wear what she thought was Christ’s foreskin, so what? Why does that negate her remarkable life, a life of rebellion and obedience and good works? Why did I love her for that story and not for herself?

Of course we know to examine the pop culture around us, but we must take care to examine historical “truths” as well. This story about Catherine discredits a woman’s life and deeds, not an institution. It erases her, makes her a joke.  I don’t necessarily understand her choices or her devotion, but I want to spread her truth, that she worked hard to serve and do good.

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