Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, October 9, 2015

Angela of Foligno, "Female Evangelist"

Angela of Foligno ("equivalent canonization," 9 October 2013)


Of Angela of Foligno, theologian and emeritus professor Bernard McGinn writes, 
I like to describe Angela as one of the four "female evangelists" of thirteenth-century mysticism. I use the term "evangelist" in a perhaps provocative way, not only to underline the stature of these four women (Angela, Hadewijch, Mechthild, and Marguerite Porete) as the most important female mystics of the thirteenth century, but also to emphasize the bold, quasi scriptural claims they made for their writings.*
It is important to note that doubts have been raised about whether such a historical person as "Angela of Foligno" ever existed. For his part, McGinn notes that there is a middle ground between taking later accounts of her life at face value and dismissing her biography as a "mystic tale." 

An eighteenth-century print of the
thirteenth-century mystic
We will follow McGinn, then, in saying that Angela of Foligno was probably born about the year 1248, in the Umbrian province of Perugia, to a fairly affluent family. She was married and had a number of children.

At the age of forty, Angela had a dream that would change her life. Francis of Assisi appeared to her in a vision, with the result that she came to regard her previous life as sinful and determined to live a life of purity and the pursuit of perfection. (According to legend, Angela was wealthy, beautiful, and vain--definitely sinful.)

As a married mother, pursuing a life of spiritual purity might not have been easy. Like Margery Kempe, Angela of Foligno found her road to the religious life blocked by her very human family. (There is no evidence that Kempe would have encountered the ideas of Angela of Foligno in England, as she did for Birgitta of Sweden, but on her pilgrimages she did visit sites associated with the Italian visionary and might have learned about her. Certainly there are remarkable parallels in their experiences and behavior.)

But by 1388 Angela's "problem" was solved--her mother died, and then, a few months later, her husband and children died. Angela was able to begin her religious life by giving away her possessions.

With one female servant, a woman named Masazuola, she became, by 1291, a tertiary of St. Francis--that is, she became a member of a "third order" of the Franciscans, someone who, for a variety of reasons, may not take formal vows to join a religious order but who, as a lay person, lives outside the convent according to the ways of life of those who live inside. (For a discussion of tertiary orders, click here.) 

In 1292, under the direction of a spiritual adviser whom McGinn refers to as "Brother A." (other sources identify him as Father Arnoldo of Foligno), Angela began to dictate the story of her conversion and a "narrative of her inner journey," twenty stages on "her itinerary to God." A further set of ten stages, which Brother A. found difficult to understand and condensed into seven "supplementary stages," were incorporated into her memoriale, completed in 1296.

Angela's remains are in the
Church of St. Francis in Foligno
In 1298, according to McGinn, the book was submitted for approval, which it received. Brother A then revised the Memorial (1299-1300), adding a series of thirty-six instructiones, which "reflect Angela's teaching between 1296 and her death in early 1309." 

The whole is known today, depending on the edition or translation, as Il libro della Beata Angela da FolignoThe Spiritual Journey of the Blessed Angela of Foligno according to the Memorial of Brother A, or Angela of Foligno: Complete Works.

Angela of Foligno was beatified by Pope Clement XI on 11 July 1701. In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI spoke on Angela at a general audience. Angela of Foligno was given an "equipolente canonization" by Pope Francis on 9 October 2013 (here's an explanation of what that means). 

For an extended discussion of Angela of Foligno's Book, see McGinn's The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism--1200-1350, vol. 3 of his History of Western Christian Mysticism.


This dome, which includes a representation of
Angela of Foligno, is in the Basilica Cattedrale di San Feliciano
in Foligno, where Brother A. met her and transcribed her 
book of memories and instructions

*I've posted on Mechthild of Magdeburg and Marguerite Porete. I will add a post about Hadewijch of Antwerp, McGinn's fourth "evangelist," later in the year--but, in the mean time, there's a great introductory essay here.