The Life of St. Margaret of Cortona

St. Margaret of Cortona (1247-1297)

 

IN the antiphon to the" Benedictus” in the office of St Margaret of Cortona she is described as “the Magdalen of the Seraphic Order", and, in one of our Lord’s colloquies with the saint, He is recorded to have said, " Thou art the third light granted to the order of my beloved Francis. He was the first, among the Friars Minor: Clare was the second, among the nuns: thou shalt be the third of Penance."

 

She was the daughter of a small farmer of Laviano in Tuscany.  She had the misfortune to lose a good mother when she was only seven years old, and the stepmother whom her father brought home two years later was a hard and  masterful woman who had little sympathy with the high-spirited, pleasure-loving child.  Attractive in appearance and thirsting for the affection which was denied her in her home, it is no wonder that Margaret fell an easy prey to a young cavalier from Montepulciano, who induced her 

to elope with him one night to his castle among the hills. Besides holding out a prospect of love and luxury he appears
to have promised to marry her, but he never did so, and for nine years she lived openly as his mistress and caused much scandal, especially when she rode through the streets of Montepulciano on a superb horse and splendidly attired. Nevertheless she does not seem to have been in any sense the abandoned woman she afterwards considered herself to have been. She was faithful 'to her lover, whom she often entreated to marry her and to whom she bore one son, and, in spite of her apparent levity, there were times when she realized bitterly the sinfulness of her life. One day the young man went out to visit one of his estates and failed to return. All one night and the next day Margaret watched with growing anxiety, until at length she saw the dog that had accompanied him running back alone. He plucked at her dress and she followed him through a wood to the foot of an oak tree, where he began to scratch, and soon she perceived with horror the mangled body of her lover, who had been assassinated and then thrown into a pit and leaves.

 

A sudden revulsion came as she recognized in this the judgement of God. As soon as she possibly could she left Montepulciano, after having given up to the relations of the dead man all that was at her disposal (except a few ornaments which she sold for the benefit of the poor); and, clad in a robe of penitence and holding her little son by the hand, she returned to her father's house to ask forgiveness and admittance. Urged by her stepmother, her father refused to receive her, and Margaret was almost reduced to despair, when she was suddenly inspired to go to Cortona to seek the aid of the Friars Minor, of whose gentleness with sinners she seems to have heard.

 

When she reached the town she did not know where to go and her evident misery attracted the attention of two ladies, Marinana and Raneria by name, who spoke to her and asked if they could help her. She told them her story and why she had come to Cortona, and they at once took her and her boy to their own home. Afterwards they introduced her to the Franciscans, who soon became her fathers in Christ. For three years Margaret had a hard struggle against temptation, for the flesh was not yet subdued to the spirit, and she found her chief earthly support in the counsel of two friars, John da Castiglione and Giunta Bevegnati, who was her ordinary confessor and who afterwards wrote her" legend".  They guided her carefully through periods of alternate exaltation and despair, checking and encouraging her as the occasion required.

In the early days of her conversion, she went one Sunday to Laviano, her birthplace, during Mass, and with a cord round her neck asked pardon for her past scandals. She had intended also to have herself led like a criminal through the streets of Montepulciano with a rope round her neck, but Fra Giunta forbade it as unseemly in a young woman and conducive to spiritual pride, though he subsequently allowed her to go to the church there one Sunday and ask pardon of the congregation. He also restrained her when she sought to mutilate her face, and from time to time he tried to moderate her excessive austerities. "Father," she replied, on one of these occasions, " do not ask me to come to terms with this body of mine, for I cannot afford it. Between me and my body there must be a struggle till death."

 

Margaret started to earn her living by nursing the ladies of the city, but she gave this up in order to devote herself to prayer and to looking after the sick poor. She left the home of the ladies who had befriended her, and took up her quarters in a small cottage in a more secluded part, where she began to subsist upon alms. Any unbroken food that was

bestowed upon her she gave to the poor, and only what was left of the broken food did she use for herself and her child. Her lack of tenderness to her boy seems singular in one who showed such tenderness to other people, but it may well be that it was part of her self-mortification.

 

At the end of three years her earlier struggles were over, and she reached a higher plane of spirituality when she began to realize by experience the love of Christ for her soul. She had long desired to become a member of the third order of St Francis, and the friars, who had waited until they were satisfied of her sincerity, at length consented to give her the habit. Soon afterwards her son was sent to school at Arezzo, where he remained until he entered the Franciscan Order. From the time she became a tertiary, St Margaret advanced rapidly in prayer and was drawn into very direct communion with her Savior. Her intercourse with God became marked with frequent ecstasies and Christ became the dominating theme of her life. Fra Giunta has recorded a few of her colloquies with our Lord and has described some of her visions, though he acknowledges that even to him she spoke of them with reluctance and only when divinely ordered to do so or through fear of becoming the victim of delusion.

The communications she received did not relate to himself.  In one case she was told to send a message to Bishop William of Arezzo, warning him to amend his ways and to desist from fighting with the people of his diocese and Cortona in particular.  Though he was a turbulent and worldly prelate he appears to have been impressed, for he made peace with Cortona soon afterwards and this was generally attributed to Margaret’s mediation.  In 1289 she strove to avert war when Bishop William was again at strife with the Guelfs. Margaret went to him in person but this time he would not listen, and ten days later he was slain in battle.  The bishop had, however, done one good turn to Margaret and Cortona, for in 1286 he had granted a charter which enabled her to start putting her work for the sick poor on a permanent basis. At first she seems to have nursed them by herself in her own cottage, but after a time she was joined by several women, one of whom, Diabella, gave her a house for the purpose. She enlisted the sympathy of Uguccio Casali, the leading citizen of Cortona, and he induced the city council to assist her in starting a hospital called the Spedale di Santa Maria della Misericordia, the nursing sisters cf which were Franciscan tertiaries whom Margaret formed into a congregation with special statutes; they were called the Poverelle. She also founded the Confraternity of Our Lady of Mercy, pledged to support the hospital and to search out and assist the poor.

 

As Margaret advanced in life, so did she advance in the way of expiation. Her nights she spent, almost without sleep, in prayer and contemplation, and when she did lie down to rest, her bed was the bare ground. For food she took only a little bread and raw vegetables, with water to drink; she wore rough hair-cloth next her skin and disciplined her body to blood for her own sins and those of mankind.

In spite of the wonderful graces which she received Margaret had to endure fierce trials throughout her life. One of them came upon her unexpectedly some eight years before her death. From the first there had been certain people in Cortona who doubted her sincerity, and they continued to do so even after she had so evidently proved the reality of her conversion. At last they began to cast aspersions on her relations with the friars, especially with Fra Giunta, and managed to stir up such suspicions that the veneration in which she was held was temporarily turned to contempt and she was spurned as a madwoman and hypocrite. Even the friars were moved by the general indignation: restrictions were laid on Fra Giunta's seeing her, and in 1289 he was transferred to Siena, only returning shortly before her death. This trial was intensified by the withdrawal of the sense of sweetness in prayer. There had been further misunderstandings with the friars when she had retired the previous year by divine command to a more retired cottage at some distance from the friars' church. According to Fra Giunta, they realized that her

health was broken and feared lest they might lose the custody of her body after her death. All these trials she bore quietly and meekly and gave herself more and more to prayer. Thus she was led on ever higher.  ​

 

Towards the latter part of her life, our Lord said to St Margaret, “Show now that thou art converted; call others to repentance .... The graces I have bestowed on thee are not meant for thee alone." Obedient to the call, she set about attacking vice and converting sinners with the greatest eagerness and with wonderful success. The lapsed returned to the sacraments, wrongdoers were brought to repentance and private feuds and quarrels ceased. Fra Giunta says that the fame of these conversions soon spread, and hardened sinners flocked to Cortona to listen to the saint's exhortations, not only from all parts of Italy, but even from France and Spain. Great miracles of healing too were wrought at her intercession, and the people of Cortona, who had long forgotten their temporary suspicions, turned to her in all their troubles and difficulties.

 

At length it became evident that her strength was failing, and she was divinely warned of the day and hour of her death. She received the last rites from Fra Giunta and passed away at the age of fifty, after having spent twenty-nine years in penance. On the day of her death she was publicly acclaimed as a saint, and the citizens of Cortona in the same year began to build a church in her honor. Though she was not formally canonized until 1728, her festival had been by permission celebrated for two centuries in the diocese of Cortona and by the Franciscan Order. Of the original church built by Nicholas and John Pisano nothing remains but a window; the present tasteless building, however, contains St Margaret's body under the high altar and a statue of the saint and her dog by John Pisano.

 

The main historical source for the life of St Margaret is the" legend" of Giunta Bevegnati; it seems probable that in MS. 61 of the convent of St Margaret at Cortona we have a copy of this corrected by the hand of the author himself. The text is in the Acta Sanctorum, February, vol. iii; but it has been re-edited in more modern times by Ludovic da Pel ago (1793) and E. Cirvelli (1897). See also Father Cuthbert, A Tuscan Penitent (1907) ; Leopold de Cherance, Marguerite de Cortone (1927) ; M. Nuti, Margherita da Cortona : fa sua leggenda e fa storia (1923); F. Mauriac, Margaret of Cortona (1948); and another life in French by R. M. Pierazzi (1947).

 

 

This life of St. Margaret of Cortona was taken from Butler’s Lives of the Saints.

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