- The Life and Miracles of Saint Margaret of Cortona (1247–1297) by Fra Giunta Bevegnati
St. Margaret of Cortona packed a great deal of adventure into her early life. As an adolescent, she ran away and lived out of wedlock with a young nobleman. When he died, she and their son were rejected by both sets of parents. They went to Cortona, where she was given lodging and eventually employment as a midwife. During the following years (c. 1272–89) Margaret became a Franciscan tertiary, lived in a cell near the Franciscan house, sent her son off to be a Franciscan, adopted Fra Giunta as her spiritual guide and eventually her amanuensis, had regular conversations with Christ, founded a hospital, arbitrated disputes, and came to be recognized as arguably Cortona’s most eminent resident. This period yielded to a final one when she moved to a more remote cell near the highest point in Cortona, persuaded the bishop to rebuild the nearby church of St. Basilio, and was buried there (thus disappointing the Franciscans) when she died in 1297.
Giunta compiled the Life by 1308, mainly with an eye toward the canonization proceedings that seemed justified by the flourishing cult around Margaret’s tomb. (Canonization was actually delayed until 1728.) His work is a heterogeneous collection of recurring themes. Major ones are discussed below.
There are seemingly endless conversations between Christ and Margaret, his spouse. Often he asks her if she loves him; then the conversation proceeds in surprising directions, often resembling the imperfect communication of an actual couple. Margaret’s desire to share Christ’s suffering plays an important role in these conversations, as do her future heavenly bliss and worldly renown.
Sometimes Christ engages in social criticism, often in the form of apocalyptic prophecy forecasting tribulation for Margaret and/or the Franciscans. Christ periodically states his qualified approval of the Franciscan Order.
Much attention is paid to Margaret’s taxing devotional practices, which lie at the headwaters of a long tradition running through the fourteenth-century Meditations on the Life of Christ, St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, and the contemporary Vineyard Church as described recently by T. M. Luhrmann. In effect, Margaret relives the gospel story, often crossing the line between meditative recollection and a visionary state in which she becomes an actual participant (often St. Mary Magdalene). [End Page 785] Giunta/Margaret/Christ acknowledge that some of the detail encountered in these imaginative recapitulations cannot be found in the New Testament.
There are generous hints that some Franciscans (and other Cortonesi) had doubts about both Margaret’s credentials as a mystic and the wisdom of her move up the hill.
Thomas Renna’s introduction is instructive, although more on two issues would have been welcomed. First, how should we deal with the fact that the experience of a relatively uneducated female mystic is mediated through an educated male mendicant? Who is the author here? Second, what is the connection between Giunta/Margaret and the spiritual Franciscans? Renna sees signs of Giunta’s spiritual Franciscan sympathies; yet this reviewer remains skeptical. These issues come together in recent scholarship, including Maria Caterina Jacobelli’s argument that we know little about Margaret and what we read is largely Giunta’s spiritual Franciscan polemic; Mario Sensi’s suggestion that what we have is Giunta trying to put the best face on Margaret’s drift away from the Cortona Franciscans toward a more spiritual Franciscan stance; and this reviewer’s contention that there is little evidence that either Giunta or Margaret harbored spiritual Franciscan sympathies. All three scholars are cited in the same footnote without any acknowledgment that they differ sharply.
Renna is a good translator. Combining accuracy with readability is no mean feat.