Mulieres in Ecclesia. Storie di monache e bizzoche


Publication of studies by Mario Sensi on female religiosity from the 12th to the 15th centuries
The deeply religious women who adorned the Church

by Lucetta Scaraffia
© L’Osservatore Romano - September 28, 2011

The studies are published in two large volumes, Mulieres in Ecclesia, storie di monache e bizzoche (Fondazione centro italiano degli studi sull'alto medioevo, Spoleto 2010), a work that contains the writings of Mario Sensi, emeritus professor of medieval history at the Lateran University and a praiseworthy historian deeply dedicated to research. Indeed, these pages contain a whole lifetime of passionate work. It is dedicated to Romana Guarnieri – likewise a medievalist – an expert in female mysticism who has directed Sensi's research.

She pointed out to him a fertile field of work along the lines of Fr Giuseppe De Luca, who believed that, for those capable of it, academic research should be a useful dimension of the priestly ministry.

And such it was for Sensi for many years, in the most immediate sense of the term. As parish priest of Colfiorito in the mountains behind Foligno he rediscovered long-forgotten precious country chapels whose ancient artistic and liturgical value he brought to light, thereby restoring to his parishioners a fragment of their religious history, an ancient link to their Catholic identity.

However, the majority of the papers in this collection concern research on the religiosity of women between the 12th and 15th centuries in Central Italy. They were centuries of extraordinary religious vitality which until then had been little known or unheard of. These forms of religious expression flowered spontaneously, born from the base, from the initiative of the women themselves, a type of spiritual life whose particular characteristics Sensi recognizes, for it was “lived in the harshness of loneliness and penance, far from the institutional forms of religious life”.

The phenomenon was present throughout the Christian world but in Italy in those centuries and especially in the central regions it acquired an especially interesting consistence and depth, as moreover is revealed by the presence of many saints among these women, from Clare of Assisi to Clare of Montefalco and Angela of Foligno.

The theme that binds studies seemingly different because of the time or place. is their status as women dedicated to the Lord, a variegated world of people who were consecrated but without solemn vows, a “religious life without a rule”, with somewhat feeble bonds with the institution. This condition made them particularly suited to adapting to the needs of a rapidly changing society and allowed freedom of movement and of decision, as well as ways of relating to God that bore an abundance of interesting fruit. Help for the needy but also a mystical life and prayer for the community made these women loved and appreciated by the community to which they belonged and whose faith they were frequently able to revive.

Yet such a loosely defined situation that was so free was not immune to risks. This was grasped by the hierarchy which sought to put order into the many different initiatives with the Bull Periculoso which Boniface VIII promulgated in 1298. So it was that slowly but inexorably these spontaneous projects were transformed into monastic communities of a traditional kind that respected the cloister and came under the direct control of male religious authorities.

Sensi reconstructs this history with balance and a rare understanding, acquainting us with little-known passages on the life of women so as to let us discover the importance of the initiative of women in medieval religious life, thereby considerably changing their traditional image.

Writing a local history that serves to rediscuss and redefine history in general, to be able to turn research into a spiritual renewal of the present: these are the great merits of Mario Sensi which the works faithfully retrace. Few historians can boast such a result, in addition to such a mountain of work impeccably carried out.

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