Biography, Blog, Women's History

Catherine was the original breaker of the glass ceiling


Shelley Emling Author: Setting the World on Fire
Shelley Emling
Author: Setting the World on Fire

WHN Administration

The title and following quotes and excerpts from Chapter 2 (to be published as Part 2) are from Setting the World on Fire The brief astonishing life of Catherine of Siena by Shelley Embling.


Part 1


A modern Catherine, Catherine Middleton, married Prince William on April 29, 2011, the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena and the date of her death. Following the couple’s exchange of vows, the Bishop of London read aloud the saint’s most famous words: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire”. St. Catherine of Siena was one woman who did just that (Preface, xvii).

 Girls during this era were typically married off as soon as they were physically able to consummate a sexual relationship around the age of 12 or 13. For a medieval Sienese family like Catherine’s the marriage of a daughter was more than just a matter of finding a suitable mate. It was a way to solidify and lift up the fortunes and futures of every member of the household…Catherine’s obstinacy [about marrying] would have been incredibly problematic for her parents. “For the people of the Middle Ages, the family was still the most powerful protector of the rights and welfare of the individual. In a time so full of unrest and disturbance, the protection a man could expect from the community – whether state or town – was at the best uncertain…” (p.27).


Setting the World on Fire cover

Simone de Beauvoir placed Catherine of Siena and St Teresa of Avila on the same pedestal. In her book, The Second Sex, she called them both “saintly souls, beyond any physiological condition; their lay life and their mystical life, their actions and their writings, rise to heights that few men ever attain” (p.37)  


Lapa was dismayed by her daughter’s behavior, but she soon had an even greater crisis to deal with. In August 1362, when Catherine was 15, Bonaventura and her baby died in childbirth. The entire family was devastated. Catherine, too, was consumed by grief. History doesn’t reveal exactly what went wrong, only that God sent word to Catherine years later that her sister—unknowingly an obstacle to Catherine’s complete commitment to her bridegroom Christ—had gone to heaven after serving a very short stint in purgatory. Giacomo and Lapa had lost a daughter, but there were still three other unmarried girls in the family—Lisa, Catherine and Giovanna. It would have been customary for their attention to naturally shift next to Lisa, the oldest daughter after Bonaventura’s death. But for whatever reason, that wasn’t the case. Details surrounding the sisters are murky. Some accounts have suggested that Giacomo and Lapa tried to match Catherine with Bonaventura’s widowed husband, Niccolo de Giovanni Tegliacci. For Catherine, Niccolo was an especially upsetting prospect due to his previous penchant for indecent language (pp. 30-31).


…So angry was Lapa that she swiftly got rid of her housemaid and ordered Catherine to be the new family servant. The aim was to so overwhelm her with chores that she wouldn’t have time for praying or anything else. Lapa also took away her little bedroom and made her sleep in a corner of the kitchen, leaving Catherine with almost no privacy. Although the issue drove a wedge between her and her mother, Catherine managed to take the punishment in stride and found joy in serving others. Raymond wrote that she made a kind of game out of it, imagining that her father was Jesus, her mother the Virgin Mary, her brothers apostles and the kitchen a sanctuary. As such, she performed her daily duties contentedly by seeing her punishment as a catalyst for new spiritual growth. She later told Raymond how she had finally figured out the way to achieve solace and solitude even in the midst of chaos. “Build an inner cell in your soul and never leave it,” she said. Writing to a young widow years later, Catherine explained that people must make two homes for themselves: one is their actual home and the other is “a spiritual home which you carry with you always, the cell of true self-knowledge where you find within yourself knowledge of God’s goodness.” (p.29)


We’re not sure how long the debate about Catherine’s future dragged on. But according to early biographers, Mary Magdalene, once a woman of great wealth who turned into a repentant sinner, was a role model for Catherine starting around this time. Paintings of this exceptional woman, so prominent in all of the Gospels, would have been on display in Siena’s churches. Lapa warned Catherine that her lack of hair changed nothing in the long run and that—as soon as it grew back—the search for a suitable spouse would resume. Despite this, and despite the ongoing harassment by her brothers, Catherine gleefully performed her chores day and night without a single complaint. Frustrated, Lapa made a last-ditch effort to force her daughter to act like other girls her age by taking her to the fashionable natural hot springs in Vignoni about 30 miles south of Siena. The baths were considered a real treat that any young woman would have relished. But once there, Catherine asked to bathe alone. Her mother agreed, thinking her daughter just wanted some privacy. Catherine had other ideas, however. Instead of going to the pools with the pleasantly warm water, she went to the precise spot where the water entered the pool, scalding hot. She inflicted massive pain on herself by exposing her skin to the water while imagining she was enduring the torments of hell. When Lapa found her and discovered that her skin was red and wrinkled from the blistering water, she was beside herself. Later, when Raymond heard about the incident, he asked Catherine how she withstood such hot water. She replied that the Lord had filled her soul with such heavenly consolation that she was happy even in the midst of her pain (p.32).


Shelley Emling is a senior editor at The Huffington Post and her work has previously appeared in such outlets as The New York Times, Fortune, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The Times, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, and She covered Europe for six years for Cox Newspapers, a chain that includes The Atlanta Journal Constitution. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey.



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