How is one able to conduct a saintly life in the secular world? Many later medieval lay women found an answer in the Beguine movement in northern Europe, penitent organisations of mendicant orders, or in other religious associations for lay people. This study addresses the devotional life of one of these groups, namely the Italian Dominican penitent women. The focus is on the hagiographic descriptions of these women’s active piety (vita activa) and their public presence in the world. This book examines how the Dominican penitents were actually situated in the world, and what were their techniques for saintly living in that world. These lay women did not withdraw from the world into a specifically defined religious space. Instead they created spiritual fulfillment within their ordinary lives by following specific religious practices, exercising pious customs, and by drawing a mental, rather than physical, boundary betweeen themselves and the world. The vita activa, which was principally manifested in penitents’ service work, charity, and teaching, complemented their mystical and contemplative piety. In fact, the hagiographies stressed the importance of concrete acts of neighborly service. This book examines the various forms of active service work available to the Dominican penitent saints and their role in these women’s spiritual perfection. Finally, Worldly Saints studies the criticism that women’s public piety attracted. The paradigm of the worldly penitent sanctity shifted toward a more secluded, almost monastic, piety, particularly at the turn of the sixteenth century. Women’s prayerful, inner spirituality was clearly easier for the contemporaries to accept than their active and public displays of piety.
Keywords: Italy, monastic system, convent, Middle Ages, women, Dominican