Transcript of Comparative Literature Dissertation Defense Presentation

Below is the approximate transcript of the presentation I delivered to begin my (successful) dissertation defense in the Comparative Literature department of the Graduate Center, City University of New York. The defense took place on April 19, 2017. The thesis is entitled Lyrical Mysticism: The Writing and Reception of Catherine of Siena, and the digital component is avaialble via

I first started investigating Catherine of Siena’s writing in Marilynn Desmond’s “Women and Society in Medieval Literature” graduate course at Binghamton University in 2008. Although the idea at the time was to work on Catherine’s Dialogo, I found myself more intrigued by the letters. In the seminar, we had recently looked at Abelard and Heloise’s exchange, and Catherine’s letters — I contended — followed in the same tradition of ars dictaminis, offering rhetorical prowess and literary style in addition to proving to be persuasive to their recipients. The act of exchanging letters suggests that the texts exist within a literary network; they are not indicative of a solitary figure writing alone. My work that semester focused on Catherine’s letters to the community of women around her, a topic that I have continued to examine, and which served to propel this project forward. Today, we appreciate that Catherine is an example of a remarkable historical figure who carried out many tasks that were unusual for someone with her background. While Catherine was certainly an exception, she was surrounded by literate women who taught her to read, provided their services as scribes, and exchanged letters with her. In literature, examples of female communities include idealized contexts as in Christine de Pizan’s Le livre de la Cité des dames and Moderata Fonte’s Il merito delle donne. Historically, we are certainly aware of cloistered female religious communities, some of which proved to be the fertile grounds to launch the careers of figures such as Hildegarde and Teresa of Avila. Catherine’s community shows that there were other historical options for women to collaborate and be educated outside of dominant structures of Latinate male discourse. These women were able to take advantage of a dual-pronged approach to their daily experience: living spiritual lives affiliated with tertiary orders while living public lives outside of cloisters. Catherine in particular flourished within this context, but she was not the only one afforded this opportunity, as we see the echoes of others in her writing, sometimes as interlocuting scribes themselves.

In addition to the support that Catherine received from her community, Catherine’s special blend of spiritual activism served her well in her writing. Her 10-year letter writing career began in 1370 and provided her with a way to offer guidance and make political demands to those who were not geographically close. The content of her letters fed into her Dialogo, which she began writing in 1377, with the dialogue mirroring some letters explicitly. Though the Dialogo in particular is certainly closely linked to Catherine’s mystical experiences, her writing is also, in many ways, an extension of her tireless public outreach. Her precursor, Francis of Assisi, also used vernacular writing as a way to connect with his community and drive access to spiritual thought and devotion. And, similarly, Italian poets writing in the vernacular were also creating work that was more accessible, though for different reasons. We know that Catherine traveled extensively for a woman of her time, and she took companions who were both men and women with her throughout Tuscany and to Rome, where she served as an ambassador. But her local movements within hilly Siena were also incredible, considering that today there are escalators to facilitate pedestrian motion in the city, including to provide access to where Catherine’s father worked as a wool-dyer at the fontebranda which is at the bottom of a hill. Moving throughout Siena to care for the sick at the Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala near the Duomo, or to preach in the piazzas, or return home, Catherine moved all throughout the city while adhering to strict fasting and limiting her nightly sleep. Catherine’s itinerant spirituality and prolific writing were two aspects of her ambitious career that intersected with reforms of the church and the politics of her day.

Though my work has expanded to investigate Catherine’s Dialogo and Prayers, I believe the core of this project still pivots on the letters, as they are a manifestation of Catherine’s ability to drive community engagement and foster the reception of her work (and persona) in Europe. The letters speak to Catherine as a writer, a teacher, a spiritual advisor, and as someone politically engaged despite her marginalized status. They also show the depth and breadth of her connections, in terms of geography and in terms of class and religious status. The good works that Catherine carried out during her lifetime, and her writing that continues to be read and studied today, point to a person who was committed to bringing those who are marginalized to the fore, by providing them with access to spiritual guidance in the vernacular, through making religious doctrine applicable to their lived experiences with metaphors, and through serving those who could not help themselves in her deeds and in her words. The intention of this project is also to bring a marginalized voice to the fore, recovering a 14th-century literary figure who has been neglected due to the privileging of an elite canon.

Joining an increasing body of recent meaningful scholarship that has been making great progress to recover many overlooked and peripheral female voices of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, this work serves to fully assert Catherine as a writer of work that is literarily significant and worthy of textual analysis alongside male Italian authors of the Trecento, many of whom also wrote on religious matters and spirituality. The intention of the current work is to firmly cast Catherine of Siena as a literary figure through utilizing a gender theory framework and exploring her corpus of writing alongside contemporary poetry, through network analysis, and via the reception of her texts in England. Embedded within Catherine’s authorship are multifaceted literary expressions that present a range of intentionality and demand to be received in different registers. Catherine wrote a variety of texts that had practical, social, political, spiritual and cultural functions, offering multivalent readings that situate her writing as that which is imbued with historical and religious interests. She wrote as a mystic and religious figure but also as a literary practitioner and innovator of the emerging Italian language, very aware of rhetoric and the art of persuasion. Catherine was a writer who was certainly cognizant of her audience, the afterlife of her writing, and how her texts would be received. She wrote lively and literary prose and prayers that used inventive language and unique imagery, and presented her writing within a context that was consistent with the literature surrounding the topos of love. Catherine’s authorship, embedded within a community-based network and political and public life, presents a truly unique instance of an active 14th-century woman whose literary voice resonated across European vernacular languages and through history.

Having learned to write through her own community, and being a publicly-engaged individual who addressed her fellow Sienese in speeches in the piazza or through dispatched letters, Catherine was a mystical and literary figure who worked in the earthly realm in order to serve the divine. As both a learner and a teacher, who was tasked with delivering spiritual messages to others, the local language of her time was incredibly instrumental to gain followers and communicate. Building a network around her, Catherine connected disparate and diverse people together: she was a force that drove community engagement through the technology of writing.