- Mothers and the Martyr: The Unlikely Patronage of a Medieval Dominican Preacher
Early in the year 1250, the Holy Roman emperor, Frederick II, seemed poised for victory over both the cities of Lombardy and the papacy. Frederick was attempting to assert the shadowy claims of his German Empire over Italy while at the same time bringing his rival, Pope Innocent IV, to heel. Many of the northern Italian city-states came under the control of imperial sympathizers at this time, though there was still a strong undercurrent of opposition.
Men like Peter of Verona, a charismatic Dominican preacher, were heavily committed to the anti-imperial cause.1 The Catholic religious order known as the Dominicans (or Friars Preachers) had been founded in 1216 as an elite clerical order intended to oppose heresy. Freed from stable monastic observance and emphasizing intellectual virtuosity, however, they were also one of the chief weapons of the papacy against the German emperor. The year 1250 found Peter in charge of the Dominican priory in Piacenza.2 Many of the members of the Populars (the party of the middle class) in that town had been exiled. However, the imperially sympathetic nobles who controlled Piacenza were unable to remove the outspoken friar. He remained, likely stirring up opposition to the emperor and supporting the exiled Populars. [End Page 313]
The wife of one Giovanni dei Scotti came to Peter with a tale of woe about the absence of her husband. Giovanni had been exiled when the Populars were removed from power and was then living in southern France. Peter, who desired the return of the anti-imperial party to office, predicted that within a year the nobles—supporters of Frederick II—would be overthrown, the Populars would be restored to power, and Giovanni would be able to come home. Peter also told her that she would have a son before the year was out and that the child would later rise to power in Piacenza. The son was Alberto dei Scotti, who was podestà (equivalent to a town manager) many times toward the end of the thirteenth century.
This story first appeared ninety years after Peter’s death, being included in the miracle collection written by Peter Calo in the 1340s that was appended to earlier versions of the Vita sancti Petri, so the prophecy seems to be ex post facto.3 I have cited it because it is the only miracle that gives any indication of Peter’s interest in fertility or childbirth miracles during his life. Nonetheless, the story is indicative of one of the most extraordinary and enduring features of Peter’s cult. Immediately following his death, the celibate, clerical, and male Peter became a patron of women seeking children and an intercessor for those in childbirth.
Peter of Verona was born in that north Italian town around 1203 and grew up in the midst of Cathar sympathizers. The Cathars were a disparate group of semi-Christian believers who rejected the institutional church and embraced various forms of dualistic belief, leading them to condemn the material world, including such things as marriage, sex, and the Catholic sacraments and rituals. Peter later attended the University of Bologna, fell under the influence of Saint Dominic, and received the habit of the Friars Preachers probably in 1221.4 Peter was probably attracted to the Dominican order because of its clear emphasis on the intellectual life.5 The Dominicans were dedicated to university study and preaching, unlike the Franciscans, [End Page 314] a similar religious order founded in the same era who emphasized poverty and holy simplicity as the fundamental path to holiness. As early as 1232 Peter was active against heretics in the city of Milan, where he organized groups of laymen into pious confraternities for the fight against heresy and founded monasteries for women.6 He acquired a reputation as a powerful and outstanding preacher and was eventually given a license as preacher-general for Lombardy, a coveted and powerful position in the Dominican order.7
Between 1244 and 1245 Peter was in Florence, stirring up opposition against accused heretics there. His fiery preaching even once led to a...