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The Heretic Saint: Guglielma of Bohemia, Milan, and Brunate1

  • Barbara Newman


High above Lake Como in Lombardy, overlooking the cathedral city of Como and the southwestern branch of the lake, looms the tiny village of Brunate. It is a picturesque spot, beloved of mountain climbers, which enjoyed a brief heyday as a tourist mecca in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An efficient if ear-popping funicular railway, inaugurated in 1894, now scales the steep cliff in a brisk seven minutes. But in the Middle Ages, when most of our story is set, Brunate was as remote and inaccessible a site as one could hope to find. A hagiographer around 1600 described it as an “ignoble village on that mountain whose vast ridge towers above the city to the east.… The mountain is arduous and laborious to climb.” In 1578 the village had a mere 156 inhabitants, and as late as 1900 its year-round population was barely over 500.



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2. De B. Magdalena Albrica ordinis eremitarum S. Augustini, abbatissa Brunatensi Comi apud Insubres, Vita II, cap. 1.4 (AA.SS. May, torn. 3 [Paris: Palmé, 1866]), 255.

3. Antonio, Giussani, La Chiesa parrocchiale di S. Andrea in Brunate (Como: Bertolini Nani, 1909), 16.

6. The most important accounts of Guglielma and her followers are Patrizia, Costa, Guglielma la Boema, l'“eretica” di Chiaravalle (Milan: NED, 1985); Luisa, Muraro, Guglielma e Maifreda: Storia di un'eresia femminista (Milan: Tartaruga, 1985); and especially Marina, Benedetti, lo non sono Dio: Guglielma di Milano e i Figli dello Spirito santo (Milan: Edizioni Biblioteca Francescana, 1998).

7. For the trial record, see Marina, Benedetti, ed., Milano 1300:1 processi inquisitoriali contro le devote e i devoti di santa Guglielma (Milan: Libri Scheiwiller, 1999).

8. Giussani, mentions this detail in La Chiesa parrocchiale, 22. The gold, attached to the surface of the painting, must have been stolen sometime after 1909, accounting for the curiously unfinished look of Guglielma's headdress.

9. This iconography recalls a Trinitarian altarpiece the sectarians commissioned for Sister Maifreda's convent at Biassono, featuring two persons (God the Father and his Son) at the right and a third, St. Guglielma as the Holy Spirit, at the left. Also, at a devotional banquet circa 1294, Sister Maifreda dramatically announced Guglielma's identity as the Holy Spirit, after which Carabella Toscano discovered that three knots had suddenly appeared in her girdle—a Trinitarian sign that she and others understood as a “great miracle” in confirmation of Guglielma's divinity. Milano 1300, 80, 226; and page 14 below.

10. According to Giussani, a thorough cleaning of the fresco in 1905 revealed signs of repainting to remove a “third arm” once attached to the figure of the nun. This detail is hard to interpret, but may indicate that Sister Maifreda was originally making some gesture more assertive than the one we now see. La Chiesa parrocchiale, 21.

11. Parts of only three words can now be made out; the last is requiret.

12. Merlo, G. G., “Pietro da Verona–san Pietro martire,” in Culto dei santi, istituzioni e classi sociali in età preindustriale, eds. Gajano, Sofia Boesch and Sebastiani, Lucia (Rome: L'Aquila, 1984), 473–88.

13. Alexander Patschovsky, “Ketzerin oder Heilige—Guglielma Boema im Mailand der Visconti” forthcoming.

14. Sally, Brasher, Women of the Humiliati: A Lay Religious Order in Medieval Civic Life (New York: Routledge, 2003).

15. See Ferdinando, Reggior, L'abbazia di Chiaravalle (Milan: Banca popolare di Milano, 1970); Storia di Milano, 16 vols. (Milan: Fondazione Treccani degli Alfieri per la storia di Milano, 1954), 4:520–28.

16. Benedetti, , lo non sono Dio, 4648.

17. Stephen, Wessley, “The Thirteenth-Century Guglielmites: Salvation through Women,” in Medieval Women, ed. Derek, Baker (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978), 297.

18. Marjorie, Reeves, The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages: A Study in joachimism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969), 248–50; Bernard, McGinn, The Calabrian Abbot: Joachim of Fiore in the History of Western Thought (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 186–92; Wessley, , “Thirteenth-Century Guglielmites,” 292–94.

19. These are the records of the notary Beltramo Salvagno; those of a second notary, Maifredo da Cera, do not survive. Merlo, G. G., “Inquisitori a Milano: intenti e tecniche,” in Milano 1300, 22.

20. Andrea, Saramita, Milano 1300, 5658.

21. Garbagnate, Mirano da, Milano 1300, 70.

22. Marchisio, Secco, Milano 1300, 302.

23. Friedrich, Prinz, Böhmen im mittelalterlichen Europa (Munich: Beck, 1984), 132; Jaroslav, Pole, Agnes von Böhmen, 1211–1282: Königstochter—Äbtissin—Heilige (Munich: Olden-bourg, 1989), 1118, 136–41. Dante praises Přemysl Otakar II in Purgatorio 7.97–102, where the king is seen “comforting” his old enemy, Emperor Rudolph of Hapsburg.

24. Pole, Agnes von Böhmen, 15; Gábor, Klaniczay, Holy Rulers and Blessed Princesses: Dynastic Cults in Medieval Central Europe, trans. Éva, Pálmai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 202–9; Barbara, Newman, “Agnes of Prague and Guglielma of Milan,” in The Yale Guide to Medieval Holy Women, eds. Alastair, Minnis and Rosalynn, Voaden (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005).

25. I borrow this suggestion from D[arko] P[andakovic], Memoria di Santa Guglielma (Como, 2000)—a pamphlet printed for the festival of Sant'Andrea, November 30, 2000.

26. Petr, Pitha, “Agnes of Prague—A New Bohemian Saint,Franziskanische Studien 72 (1990): 326.

27. Annales Colmarienses maiores ad 1301, MGH Scriptores 17 (Hannover: Hahn, 1861), 226.

28. Vyskočil, Jan Kapistrán, ed., “Vita illustrissime uirginis sororis Agnetis ordinis Sancte Clare de Praga,” in Legenda blahoslavené Anežky (Prague: Universum, 1932), 104; Vyskočil, , The Legend of Blessed Agnes of Bohemia and the Four Letters of St. Clare, trans. Virus, Buresh (Chicago: private printing, 1963), 238, n. 32.

29. Andrea, Saramita, Milano 1300, 144. Czech historians, when they acknowledge Guglielma as a Přemyslid, call her either Blažena or Vilemina, the Czech form of “Guglielma.” We do not know exactly when or why she changed her baptismal name.

30. Andrea, Saramita, Milano 1300, 172.

31. Ibid., 58, 142–44.

32. Benedetti, , Io non sono Dio, 29.

33. Milano 1300, 58, 182, 240.

34. Ferno, Giacomo da, Milano 1300, 68.

35. Patschovsky, “Ketzerin oder Heilige.” Felicino Carentano, however, seems to have been close to Matteo Visconti for a time; see below, page 20.

36. Novazzano, Fra Gerardo da, Milano 1300, 92, 268.

37. Garbagnate, Francesco da, Milano 1300, 220.

38. Allegranza, Perusio, Milano 1300, 226–28.

39. Pirovano, Sister Maifreda da, Milano 1300, 102.

40. Danisio, Cotta, Milano 1300, 276–78.

41. Marchisio, Secco, Milano 1300, 304.

42. Benedetti, , Io non sono Dio, 9192; Patschovsky, “Ketzerin oder Heilige.”

43. Dyan, Elliott, Proving Woman: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004), 156–59.

44. Milano 1300, 64, 74, 92, 96, 132, 234–36, 254.

45. Benedetti, , Milano 1300, 36; Patschovsky, “Ketzerin oder Heilige.”

46. Bonadeo, Carentano, Milano 1300, 184.

47. Andrea, Saramita, Milano 1300, 144.

48. Benedetti, , Io non sono Dio, 37.

49. For this effort, which involved a collaboration with the Franciscans, see the testimony of Ferno, Beltramo da, Milano 1300, 204–8. On the significance of the episode, see Patschovsky, “Ketzerin oder Heilige.”

50. Malconzato, Sibilla and Novate, Dionese da, Milano 1300, 214–16.

51. Milano 1300, 178, 252–54. On Maifreda's clerical role, see Muraro, , Maifreda, Guglielma e, and Newman, Barbara, “WomanSpirit, Woman Pope,” in From Virile Woman to WontanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 182223.

52. Sister, Maifreda, Milano 1300, 80.

53. Garbagnate, Mirano da, Milano 1300, 7274.

54. Cotta, Danisio, Milano 1300, 240.

55. Novazzano, Fra Gerardo da, Milano 1300, 92.

56. Milano 1300, 68, 70, 252–54.

57. Ibid., 96, 100, 194, 256.

58. Merlo, Grado G., Eretici ed eresie medievali (Bologna: II Mulino, 1989), 115; Benedetti, , Io non sono Dio, 105.

59. On differences between Saramita's and Sister Maifreda's religious perspectives, see Muraro, , Guglielma e Maifreda, 121–34.

60. Müller, Daniela, “Der Prozess gegen Prous Boneta: Begine, Ketzerin, Häresiarchin (1325),” in Ius et historia: Festgabe für Rudolf Weigand, ed. Höhl, Norbert (Würzburg: Echter, 1989), 199221; Burnham, Louisa, “The Visionary Authority of Na Prous Boneta,” in Pierre de Jean Olivi (1248–1298): Pensée scolastique, dissidence spirituelle et société, eds. Boureau, Alain and Piron, Sylvain (Paris: J. Vrin, 1999), 319–39.

61. For the comparison with Na Prous and a history of the feminine Holy Spirit in Christianity, see Newman, “WomanSpirit, Woman Pope.”

62. Also at risk as relapsae were Bellacara Carentano and Sister Fiordebellina, the daughter of Saramita, who had abjured in the previous trial; but we have no record of their fate.

63. “Accepimus namque, quod nonnullae personae se contra sanctam catholicam Ecclesiam erigentes, etiam sexus feminei, dogmatizant se ligandi et solvendi claves habere, paenitentias audiunt et a peccatis absolvunt, conventicula non solum diurna faciunt, sed nocturna,… et praedicare praesumunt; tonsura clericali contra ritum Ecclesiae abutentes, Spiritum Sanctum se dare per impositionem manuum mentiuntur” (emphasis added). VIII, Boniface, Saepe sanctam Ecclesiam, in Enchiridion symbolorum, definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum, 33rd ed., eds. Denzinger, Heinrich and Schonmetzer, Adolf (Freiburg: Herder, 1965), 278. The italicized clauses could describe the iconography of the painting at Brunate.

64. Biscaro, Gerolamo, “Guglielma la Boema e i Guglielmiti,Archivio storico lombardo 6 (1930): 1620, and Patschovsky, “Ketzerin oder Heilige.”

65. Ferno, Beltramo da, Milano 1300, 204–8.

66. Muir, Dorothy, A History of Milan under the Visconti (London: Methuen, 1924), 1011.

67. Ibid., 12–13.

68. Ibid., 15–24. Matteo Visconti died of natural causes in June 1322 at the age of 75.

69. André-Michel, Robert, Le procès de Matteo et de Galeazzo Visconti, in Mélanges d'histoire et d'archéologie (Paris: Armand Colin, 1926), 149206. Excerpts from the depositions against the Visconti (Vatican, Ms. Vat. lat. 3936) are edited on pages 184–205. Unfortunately the manuscript does not preserve the names of most witnesses.

70. On the significance of this formulation, see Kieckhefer, Richard, “The Office of Inquisition and Medieval Heresy: the Transition from Personal to Institutional Jurisdiction,journal of Ecclesiastical History 46 (1995): 3661.

71. André-Michel, , Le procès, 197.

72. Ibid., 201. I give the names in their Italian forms as supplied by Benedetti in Milano 1300; the Latin forms in André-Michel are sometimes garbled.

73. André-Michel, , Le procès, 190.

74. Ibid., 191. On these charges, see Liere, Frans van, “Witchcraft as Political Tool? John XXII, Hugues Géraud, and Matteo Visconti,Medieval Perspectives [The Southeastern Medieval Association], 16 (2001): 165–73. Muir is skeptical, noting the informer's role as a double agent: History, 18–21. The more popular account of Patrucco, Ursula takes the accusations at face value: Die Geschichte der Visconti (Verbania: Alberti Libraio, 2001), 6.

75. Benedetti, , lo non sono Dio, 1113, citing Caffi, Michele, Dell'abbazia di Chiaravalle in Lombardia, Aggiuntavi la storia dell'eretica Guglielmina Boema (Milan: Gnocchi, 1843), 91.

76. Corio, Bernardino, Storia di Milano, ed. Guerra, Anna Morisi, 2 vols. (Turin: Unione tipografico, 1978), 1:563–64.

77. André-Michel, , Le procès, 196.

78. If the Visconti did at one point own this manuscript, it does not appear in the catalogue to their ample library. But the inventory of 1426 does list a fourteenth-century inquisitorial manuscript of Italian origin (now Paris, BNF lat. 3373), containing a Tractatus de haereticis and a list of Interrogationes faciendae haereticis per inquisitores. Pellegrin, Elisabeth, La Bibliothèque des Visconti et des Sforza, dues de Milan, au XVe siècle (Paris: Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1955), 247.

79. On the ideological rather than chronological structure of the manuscript, see Benedetti, , lo non sono Dio, 1314.

80. Milano 1300, 202. Matteo Visconti himself was present at this session, where the archbishop and inquisitors solemnly convened the representatives of that “secular judgment” to which condemned heretics were handed over for execution. It may have been on this occasion that Matteo secured the release or lesser punishment of those he wished to protect, although there are no records of any pleas for clemency. See also Patschovsky, “Ketzerin oder Heilige.”

81. Garbagnate, Mirano da, Milano 1300, 76. “Lady Dionese, wife of the late Lord Giacomo da Novate” (page 208), was the mother of Albertone.

82. Pellegrin, , La Bibliothèque des Visconti, 7072.

83. Bonfadini, Antonio, Vite di S. Guglielma regina d'Ungheria e di S. Eufrasia vergine romana, ed. Ferraro, G. (Bologna: Gaetano Romagnoli, 1878), v.

84. “Io me chiamo grande peccatrice, la gente mia sono quelli vogliono fare la volonta de dio.” Bonfadini, , Vite, 51.

85. St. Ursula was a British princess supposedly martyred by Attila the Hun; Constance, the heroine of the Man of Law's Tale, was married in a distant land and exiled from two kingdoms on account of religious persecution and slander; Griselda, long oppressed by a tyrannical husband, was finally reconciled with him; Guinevere was repeatedly sentenced to be burned at the stake, only to be rescued by Sir Lancelot.

86. Pulci, Antonia, “La Rappresentazione di Santa Guglielma,” in Sacre rappresentazioni del Quattrocento, ed. Banfi, Luigi (Turin: Unione tipografico, 1963), 533—77; “The Play of Saint Guglielma,” trans. Cook, James Wyatt, in Florentine Drama for Convent and Festival: Seven Sacred Plays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 103–33.

87. Ibid., 103, n. 1.

88. Muir, , History, 218–19; Lopez, Guido, I Signori di Milano: Dai Visconti agli Sforza (1262–1535) (Rome: Newton and Compton, 2003), 5556.

89. Castiglioni, Carlo, ed., introduction to Crivelli, Girolamo, Oratio parentalis in laudem Blancae Marine Sfortiae Vicecomitis (Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli, 1938), 3745.

90. For color reproductions, see Lopez, , Signori di Milano, plates 78.

91. Boureau, Alain, The Myth of Pope Joan, trans. Cochrane, Lydia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

92. Moakley, Gertrude, The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family: An Iconographic and Historical Study (New York: New York Public Library, 1966), 7273.

93. Confalonieri, Angelo M., La Beata Maddalena Albrici, Agostiniana, Badessa del Convento di S. Andrea in Brunate (Como: n.p., 1938), 1617.

94. De B. Magdalena Albrica, AA.SS. May, torn. 3, Vita 1, par. 1, 252; Vita 2, 1.4, 255.

95. Vita 1, par. 1, 252.

96. Vita 2, 1.5, 255.

97. Confalonieri, , Beata Maddalena, 3035.

98. Crivelli, , Oratio parentalis, ed. Castiglioni, 43, n. 2.

99. Borsieri, Gerolamo, Analecta 18, AA.SS. 259.

100. Borsieri, , Analecta 20, 259. The road to Brunate still affords a splendid view of Como.

101. Crivelli, , Oratio parentalis, ed. Castiglioni, 52.

102. Bergamo, Filippo da, Cronacha de tutto el mondo vulgare, ad 1442, cited in Castiglioni, 44.

103. Caffi, , Dell'abbazia di Chiaravalle, cited in Giussani, La Chiesa parrocchiale, 24.

104. Giussani, , La Chiesa parrocchiale, 22.

105. Ibid., 33.

106. Confalonieri, , Beata Maddalena, 4547. The third altar at San Andrea today is in fact dedicated to Albrizzi. There is a fourth chapel without an altar, honoring St. Vincent Ferrer.

107. Pandakovic, Memoria. The manuscript is the subject of a thesis by Gabaglio, Sergio, Il volgare a Como nel '400—Il notaio, il principe, il prete (University of Pavia, 1997).

108. Vita 1, par. 6, AA.SS. 253.

109. Pandakovic, Memoria; Ferrari, Andrea, Breve relazione della vita di Santa Guglielma, Figlia del Rè d'lnghilterra, e già moglie del Rè d'Ongaria (Como: Nicolò Caprani, 1642).

110. Albrizzi's official feast is May 15, the anniversary of her death, but in Brunate she is commemorated on the second Sunday of July to celebrate the last of her many translations, on July 12, 1936.

111. Burton, Richard F., Supplemental Nights to the Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, with Notes Anthropological and Explanatory, vol. 3, night 590 (n.p.: Burton Club, 1887), 189 n.

113. Benedetti, , Io non sono Dio, 25, n. 34.

114. Porete, Marguerite, Le Mirouer des simples ames, ed. Guarnieri, Romana, Corpus Chris-tianorum: Continuatio Mediaeualis 69 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1986); Guarnieri, Romana, “Lo Specchio delle anime semplici e Margherita Poirette,L'Osservatore Romano (06 16, 1946): 3.

115. Kirchberger, Clare, trans., The Mirror of Simple Souls (London: Burns, Oates, and Washbourne, 1927); published under the auspices of the Benedictines of Downside Abbey.

1 I gratefully acknowledge the Rockefeller Foundation at Bellagio and its director, Gianna Celli, for the patronage that enabled me to conduct this research. Theirs is a hospitality that would have honored any Renaissance prince, thanks to the gift of a modern princess, Her Serene Highness Ella Walker Delia Torre e Tasso. The noble Delia Torre family (now better known as Thurn und Taxis) has long since recovered from its fourteenth-century defeat by the Visconti, who figure so largely in my tale. My gratitude is also due to Don Saverio Xeres, the exceptionally helpful diocesan archivist of Como; to Signora Ezia Noseda of the Comune di Brunate; to Professor Alexander Patschovsky for generously sharing his unpublished work on the Guglielmites; and to Richard Kieckhefer for his fine photography and for insisting on the importance of obscure mountain churches.

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Church History
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