In the city-states of Tuscany the citizens--Popolani--businessmen, master craftsmen and the professional class had already in the Middle Ages demanded and won the right to take part in the government of the republic side by side with the nobles--the Gentiluomini. In Siena they ahd obtained a third of the seats in the high Council as early as the twelfth century. In spite of the fact that the different parties and rival groups within the parties were in constant and often violent disagreement, and in spite of the frequent wars with Florence, Siena's neighbour and most powerful competitor, prosperity reigned within the city walls.
Summary: Fourteenth-century Italy is a world falling apart, splitting Italian against Italian and both against the French, and, eventually, splitting even the Church against the Church. It is not a period in which one would expect a single woman, neither a queen nor a wealthy woman, to have a profound impact; and yet Catherine Benincasa, neither royal nor wealthy, had just such a profound impact on the day, slowing the decline, moderating the violence, setting up the first definite steps toward peace. Undset's biography gives us this story, heavily saturated with Catherine's own words, but also with a sympathetic sense of her motives and a recognition that a world which had undergone two world wars and myriad smaller ones might perhaps need to learn something from a woman who knew how to face a world falling apart. And this last is true however strange we may find facets of Catherine's life; after all, as Undset notes, her contemporaries found her difficult to understand for many of the same reasons people in our age would say they find her difficult to understand.
Catherine's life essentially consists of four things, the Eucharist, religious experiences, correspondence with others, and the politics of the day, and for her they are all interconnected. Political division arises from a failure to express the love found in the Eucharist; her many religious experiences are all connected to the Eucharist as their root; her correspondence with others, guided by her religious experiences, is an extension of the love and the strength she derives from the Eucharist; and by her correspondence she begins to reknit what politics has torn apart. In all these things she displays a perceptive intelligence and an indomitable will; one of the things I like about the book is that it shows how an extremely stubborn Italian girl could become the saint she became, with the extreme stubbornness not vanishing but being transformed into something different. Grace perfects nature not just in general ways, but by turning our quirks and even in our failings into something beneficial. Outside of occasional exceptions, an excitable sinner becomes an excitable saint, a choleric sinner a choleric saint, a stubborn sinner a stubborn saint, a scheming sinner a scheming saint -- but although we can use the same adjective on both sides, there is something fundamentally different in its meaning, a change in the very structure and form of its expression.
One of the things that is difficult to wrap one's mind around is how much Catherine accomplished in her short life. She died at the age of thirty-three. While there was a great deal to her life before she was twenty-three, for practical purposes this can be seen as the start of her full mission. It is difficult to avoid the impression that from this point onward the clock was ticking. Ten years. But in that period she saved souls gone astray, protected Siena from sack, reconciled warring princes, shifted the views of Popes, and changed countless lives for the better.
And it did not end there, for she became a teacher for the ages. St. Catherine of Siena was given the title, Doctor of the Church, by Paul VI in 1970, years after the book was written and Undset's death. But it could come as no surprise to anyone who read Undset's account of her life. It is very difficult to write about incalculable good; that is why most hagiographies seem somewhat flat in comparison with other kinds of biographical writing, however good they may be on their own terms. But Undset manages it extraordinarily well. If St. Catherine is a Teacher of the Church, Undset is a worthy teaching assistant.
MrsDarwin has a good reflection on the book over at her blog.
Favorite Passage: There are a number that are good. Here is one:
There is nothing in the experience of man which shows that the raw material of human nature has ever changed. It is eternally dragged down by our desire for the things which escape our grasp, or if we manage to grasp some of them we find that we are still not satisfied. Satisfied desire produces new desire until old age puts a stop to the chase, and death ends all. We are shown frequent glimpses of our nature which remind us of our origin, and in whose image we are created. From the image of God in us we have creative energy, the spring of unselfish love--unselfish in spite of the shadow of egoism which is inseparable from all our impulses; the longing to create our world to an ordered pattern, to live according to the law, and to see our ideals of justice realised. (p. 332)
Recommendation: It's a fairly straightfoward biography-hagiography, told well, making St. Catherine, not the most obviously accessible saint, vivid and approachable. Highly recommended.