Maifreda had taught her followers that she was destined to rule all Christendom: that she would be elected pope.
Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland
Things didn’t end so well for Maifreda. She was burned at the stake. Having followed in the footsteps of Guglielma, her fate was sealed when Guglielma’s past was revealed.
Guglielma, so it was reported a year after Maifreda’s execution, had come to the city ‘saying that she was the Holy Spirit made flesh for the redemption of women; and she baptised women in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of herself.’
She taught a form of dispensational theology: from the Creation to the coming of Christ, it was the Age of the Father; from Christ until now, the mid-thirteenth century, it was the Age of the Son. Now it was the Age of the Spirit, and whether sanctioned by her or not, Guglielma’s followers believed her to be the Spirit. The Age of the Spirit was to be a feminine age.
After her death, Maifreda claimed to see Guglielma rise again.
A year after Maifreda’s execution, and twenty years after Guglielma’s death, the inquisitors took a crowbar to Guglielma’s tomb. The corpse was removed, a great fire was lit. The bones were burned to ashes and scattered. Her tomb was smashed to pieces and her images were crushed underfoot.
A nude female statue was discovered while digging the foundations of a house in Siena. It turned out to be Venus, the goddess of love. This ancient masterpiece was too beautiful to be left hidden. It was taken to the city’s great central plaza and placed on top of a fountain.
At once, everything began to go wrong.
A financial crash; a rout of the Sienese army. Five years later, the Great Dying – the plague – reached the city in 1348. It raged for months. In the end, over half of Siena’s population had succumbed.
Yet, this was not the end of it. An army of mercenaries extorted a massive bribe from the government; there followed a coup; the city’s nearest and bitterest rival, Florence, would inflict a massive military defeat.
“From the moment we found the statue, evils have been ceaseless.” So said the leaders of the new governing council. Its nudity was contrasted with everything that the Virgin Mary represented.
On 7 November 1357, workmen pulled down the statue of Venus. Hauling it away from the piazza, they smashed it into pieces. Chunks of it were buried just beyond the border with Florence.
Prostitutes offered to pay for one of the windows of the great cathedral of Notre Dame. This offer was rejected by the leading theologians of the university in Paris. Two decades later, in 1213, one of these same scholars ordered all women convicted of prostitution to be removed from the city. In 1254, the king sought to banish them from all of France. (Clearly, men such as these had no understanding of the laws of supply and demand).
Having failed at these attempts, the tactic changed to one where the prostitutes would have to advertise their own infamy. They were forbidden to wear a veil; they were required to wear on their dresses a knotted cord.
Yet, what of Christ’s example? “If any of you is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” We know that the accusers left, and that Jesus also did not condemn the woman – only admonishing her to sin no more.
And for this, there is the example of Pope Innocent III. Endowing a hospital in Rome, he specified that it offer a refuge to sex-workers. To marry a prostitute was the work of sublimest piety.
Three decades after the plague, Catherine would write to a monk who was much troubled about the workings of the universe. She would offer: Nothing could wipe out the gift of free will given by God to every mortal.
Catherine would encourage Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome from Avignon. Three months later, he was on his way. Unfortunately, within a year of his arrival, he was dead – with two rival popes elected in his stead.
Catherine died at 33 years of age – fitting, so it seems. Her emaciated body was witness to her tremendous fasting. She died not only a virgin, but also a bride. When she was twenty years old, her reward had arrived: Christ came to her. The Apostle Paul, Dominic, and other saints, would serve as witnesses. King David would play his harp.
All of this, however, was overshadowed by the wedding band. Let’s just say it was evidence of Jesus’s circumcision when He was young (her confessor said it was a normal gold band, but Catherine would always claim otherwise).
Catherine was canonized in 1461. She is also a Doctor of the Church, one of only thirty-seven to be so honored.
They knew that their Lord, risen from the dead, had first revealed himself, not to his disciples, but to a woman.
The Gospel writers have different, overlapping, lists of the women who first saw the resurrected Christ. But women they were. Women were the first preachers of the Good News.