St. Bernardino of Siena:
Two Sermons on Wives and Widows
[Coulton Introduction] No mere extracts can do justice to St
Bernardino's mission-sermons, yet no book of this kind could be
complete without some specimens. The following are taken from
the course of 45 sermons preached in the great public square of
his native Siena during August and September of the year 1427,
and in the 48th year of his age. How these sermons were recorded,
the writer of the Prologue tells us himself.
"Moreover, how well-pleasing and acceptable to God were
the labors which the Saint endured for His honor and to the profit
of his fellows, is shown among other things by this present Book,
which, as it sets a new style and rule for preachers, so God has
willed that, (as it were beyond all fashions hitherto established,)
these sermons should be collected and written for the love and
increase of devotion. Wherefore the great and mighty God inspired
one Benedetto di Maestro Bartolomeo, citizen of Siena and shearman
of cloth; who, having a wife and many children, few worldly goods
and much virtue, and leaving for that time his daily work, gathered
and wrote these present sermons word by word, not omitting a single
word which he did not write even as the Saint preached it ....
And, that you may note the virtues and graces of this shearman
Benedetto, as he stood at the sermon he would write with a style
on waxen tablets; and then, when the preaching was ended, he would
return to his workshop and commit to paper all that he had already
written on the aforesaid tablets: so that on the same day, before
setting himself to his own work, he had twice written the sermon.
Whosoever will take good heed of this, shall find it as marvelous
in performance as generous in conception, that within so brief
a space he should have written so full a matter twice over, not
leaving one syllable unwritten-nay, not the slightest of all-
that fell from that sacred mouth, as may be manifestly seen in
this present Book."
The reporter does in fact note even the preacher's interjections,
the occasional protests of his hearers, and the casual interruptions
natural to these open-air sermons- "You there, by the fountain,
Citing your wares there, move off and sell them elsewhere Don't
you hear, you there by the fountain?" - "Let us wait
till that bell has stopped."-"Give it to that dog I
send him off I send him that way I give it him with a slipper!...
That's it; when one dog is in trouble all the rest fall upon him!
Enough now, let him go" (II, 270; III, 305, 405)
The [extracts] I give here are as continuos as possible,
from five sermons on marriage and widowhood, which not only show
the saint at his best as a stylist, but perhaps throw more light
on medieval conditions than any others.
WIVES AND WIDOWS
[Extracts from Sermons 27-32i, You shalt love your neighbor
as thyself. Luke 10.27.]
We have to speak this morning of the love and affection that the
man should bear to his wife, and she to her husband
is wise has brought her daughter to this morning's sermon: she
who is but so-so, has left her in bed. O! how much better had
you done to bring her to hear this true doctrine! But to the point.
Let us see this morning the three foundations of my discourse.
The first is called Profit, the second Pleasure, and the
:third Honesty or Virtue, which is all one
Let us begin with the first, with Profit. If a thing be of little
profit, you love it little. - See now the world's love: do two
vicious folk love each other?-Yes indeed.-Why then? - for some
profit that they find. O worldlings, if the profit be small, small
shall be the friendship between you! You shopman, does such and
such a one come and get him hose at your shop? - Yes - Do you
love him? Yes-Why? For your own profit, I say. For, were he to
go to another, you would have no more profit of him, and no more
friendship. So also with the barber: take away the profit, and
you have taken the friendship. Why, if one be a barber, and other
another go to be shaved by him, and the barber cut his cheeks
be sure that he would lose all love for him, and go there no more.
Why then? Because the man is neither profitable in his eyes, nor
pleasant, nor honest. I knew a man who was at a barber's shop
for the shaving, and who cried, "Ha, what are you doing?"
"What am I doing" replied the barber "why, I am
shaving you". "No," (said the other) "instead,
you are flaying me" Let this suffice for the matter of Profit.
Now let us add Pleasure to Profit, as with the man who entertains
a mistress that keeps his house, washes for him, cooks for him,
lays his table and so forth; and with all this profit he has also
the pleasure of the flesh: all the more is their friendship. Yet
if she be of a swinish nature, unkempt, unwashed, careless of
her household, then is the love and friendship so much the less.
Well and good for a while; but presently, if she fall sick, to
the hospital she goes! Why should you make bile for her sake?
gone is all your love, for you have neither pleasure nor profit
from her.. . This is no true love: true love should be riveted
by the three corners: true love is as God's love, which has in
itself Profit and Pleasure and Honesty to boot.. . . Moreover,
each should seek above all for goodness [in his spouse], and then
for other advantages; but goodness first, goodness first of all.
Consider now and think of such as choose their wives for other
reasons; for example, of such as take a wife for her good dowry's
sake; if then they be affianced, and the dowry come not, what
(do you think) shall be the love betwixt them both? A love stuck
together with spittle! Nay, even though the dowry come in due
time, yet is this an inordinate love, for you have not looked
to the true aim; many a time has money driven men to do many things
whereof they have afterwards bitterly repented. Wherefore I say
to you, lady, take not for your husband the man who would fain
take your money and not your self; take rather him who would take
you first and afterwards your money with you; for if he love your
money more than you, you are in evil case... Behold! I am neither
Pope nor Emperor; would that I were! This I say, for that I would
proclaim a custom, if I could, that all women should go dressed
in one fashion, even as the Roman women who all go dressed in
linen, for their magnificence they all wear white linen, on back
and head, the wives of princes no less than other women. And when
they go mourning, they go all dad in somber colors; there, truly,
is a fashion that pleases me well. When they go to pardons, they
go in light attire: no labor of drawn thread in their garments,
no spoiling of the stuff with snippings and slashings, no such
spoiling of good cloth to make their bravery! Wherefore I say
to you, lady, take no husband who loves your stuff more than your
body.. . . Has the man gotten the stuff without other goodness
or virtue?-Yes-Then, when the woman comes to her husband's house,
the first greeting is, "You ask come in an evil hour";
if she hear it not in word, yet at least in deed, for the man's
one thought was to have her dowry.. . Wherefore, you ladies who
have daughters to marry, see to it that they have the dowry of
virtue to boot, if you would have them beloved of their husbands..
. . Are the occasions of love but slender? then shall the love
itself be slendor. Do you know their nature? For example, do you
know the nature of mine host's love for the wayfarer? The traveler
comes, and says: God save you, Host! Welcome, sir - Have you anything
to eat?-Yes indeed -Then cook me a cabbage-soup and two eggs -
The meal is eaten and paid, the traveler goes on his way, and
no sooner is his back turned than that friendship is forgotten:
while the eggs are yet in his bellly, that friendship is already
past. For it was riveted at no corner; such friendships are as
frail as a pear-stalk: shake the tree and the pears will straightway
fall; there is no strong bond of love to hold them. If the friendship
be frail, small is the love; if the pleasure be small, small again
the love; if there be little virtue, slight love again! ...
Wherefore I bid you all, men and women, follow virtue, that your
love may be founded on these three things, Profit, Pleasure, and
Honesty; then shall true friendship reign among you. And when
you have these three things, hear what David says of you; "Your
wife shall be as a fruitful vine, on the sides of your house."
Lo! all these three things are here. First, Honesty: your wife - your own wedded wife. Secondly, Pleasure: as a vine --how
delightful a thing is a vine at the door of a house! Thirdly,
Profit, a fruitful vine --rich in grapes and profitable;
from which three things grow and enddures true love between man
and woman. Enjoined by the sacrament of Holy Matrimony: of which
I know twelve reasons, four to each point. See now, and learn
them. Four, I say are the reasons under honesty, and four under
pleasure, and four under profit.
The first four, of honesty, you shall learn tomorrow, when I shall
speak of the sacrament of marriage; and I believe that, when I.
shall have preached to you of the right deeds of matrimony, seeing
that you have not done them, you shall all shrive yourselves again;
for you have committed many sins which you have never confessed.
Tomorrow, therefore, you shall see whether any bag of sins be
left, and you shalt hear into what sins I shall enter, as a cock
goes upon his dunghill. Have you ever noted the cock when he come
upon the dung? how daintily he goes, with his wings spread aloft
far from defilement, that he may fly to his post ! So will I do;
as a cock upon the dunghill, so will I enter thereupon; wherefore
I bid you bring your daughters tomorrow, for I promise you that
I believe you have never heard a more profitable sermon. I say
not [only] that your married daughters should come, I say all
both married and to marry; and in my sermon I will speak so honestly
as to avoid all defilement; even the very least! -- I misdoubt
me sore of you; I believe so few are saved among those who are
in the married state, that, of a thousand marriages, nine hundred
and ninety-nine (methinks) are marriages of the devil. Ah me!
deem not that Holy Matrimony is an asses' affair; when God ordained
it, He di not order it not that you should wallow in it as the
swine wallow in the mire. You shall come to-morrow and know the
truth. --But to my subject again, and to my first four reasons;
take them with discretion; 'tis a sacred matter. And I say that
there are many friars who say " would that I had taken a
wife ! " Come tomorrow, and you shall say the contrary of
this. I say then, there are four reasons that make for the honesty
of this God-ordained marriage. Have you noted, when the pack sits
ill [on a mule] and the one side weighs more than the other? Do
you know that a stone is laid on the other side that it may sit
straight? so I say of matrimony: it was ordained that the one
might aid the other in keeping the burden straight. And mark me,
women, that I hold with you so far as to say that you love your
husbands better than they love you.
First reason: the spouse you have is the spouse ordained for you
by God. Second reason: she is espoused to you by plighted faith.
Third reason: you should love her after Christ's example. Fourth:
for her own tried virtue.
First, she has been ordained for thy spouse by God, Who ordained
this from all eternity [Genesis 2:18 and 1:28; Matt. 21:6]....
Secondly, espoused by plighted faith. Do you not see that, when
you consent to matrimony, a sign is given you, to last you whole
life long? You, woman, receive the ring from your spouse, which
ring you bear on your finger, and you set it on that finger which
has a vein running straight to the heart, in token that your heart
consents to this marriage; and you should never be espoused but
with your consentient Yes....
Thirdly, marriage is love. What does Paul say in the fifth chapter
of his epistle to the Ephesians?-"Husbands, love your wives
as Christ also loved the Church." . . . Would you have a
faithful wife? Then keep faith with her. Many men would fain take
a wife and can find none; do you know why? The man says: I must
have a wife full of wisdom -- and you yourself are a fool. This
sorts not: he-fool sorts well with she-fool. --How would you have
your wife?-I would have her tall -- and thou art a mere willow-wren;
this sorts not. There is a country where women are married by
the ell-yard. It came to pass that one of these people wanted
a wife, and would fain see her first: so the girl's brothers brought
him to see her, and she was shown to him without shoes or head-gear;
and, measuring her stature, he found her tallest of all the maidens,
and he himself was one of those puny weaklings! In short, they
asked of him, "Well, is she to your mind? " "Yea,
truly, she pleases me well." But she, seeing how miserable
was his presence, said, "Yet are you are not to my mind."
Lo, was that not right? --But to my point again. How would you
have this your wife ? -- I will have her an honest woman -- and
you are dishonest: that again is not well. Once more how would
you have her? --I would have her temperate -- and you are never
out of the tavern: you shall not have her! O. how would you have
this wife of yours -- I would not have her gluttonous -- and you
are ever at your fegatelli: [note: slices of pig's liver,
wrapped in the fat of the caul, and roasted brown]: that is not
well. I would have her active -- and you are a very sluggard.
Peaceful -- and you would storm at a straw if it crossed your
feet. Obedient-and you obey neither father nor mother nor any
man; you deserve her not. I would not have a cock -- well, you
are no hen. I would have her good and fair and wise and bred in
all virtue. -- I answer, if you would have her thus, it is fitting
that you should be the same; even as you seek a virtuous, fair
and good spouse, so think likewise how she would fain have a husband
prudent, discreet, good, and fulfilled of all virtue.. . .
And no to my second head, of Pleasure.. . . Read Paul in the fifth
chapter of his Ephesians; "he that loves his wife, loves
himself."-How may this be?-Have I not already told thee that
she was made of his own flesh, and by God's hand?
...Wherefore, in the teeth of all filthy revilers, I hold with
the women, and say that woman is cleaner and more precious in
her flesh than man; and if a man hold the contrary, I say that
he lies in his throat, and will prove it against him. Will you
see? Why, tell me, did not God create man out of clay? -Yes -
then, O ladies, the reason is as clear as day! For woman was made
of [Adam's] flesh and bone, so that she was made of more precious
things than you. Lo! you may see a daily proof how the woman is
cleaner and daintier than you. Let a man and a woman wash as well
as they can or may; and, when they are thus washed, let each take
dean water an wash again, and then note which of the two waters
is the dirtier, and you shalt see that the man's is far fouler
than the woman's. Why is this? Why, wash a lump of clay and see
the water that comes therefrom, and see how foul it is. Again,
wash a rib with the flesh belonging to it, and the water will
indeed be somewhat foul, yet not so foul as that wherein you have
washed the day. Or, to put it better, wash an unbaked brick and
you shall make nothing but broth: wash a bone, and you shalt make
none such. So say I of man and woman in their nature and origin:
man is of clay, but woman is of flesh and bone. And in proof of
the truth; of this, man, who is of clay, is more tranquil than
woman, who is of bone; for bones are always rattling.
For you women shame upon you, I say -for while I say my morning
mass you make such a noise that methinks I hear a very mountain
of rattling bones, so great is your chattering! One cries: Giovanna!
another, Caterina! another, Francescal Oh, the fine devotion that
you have to hear mass! To my own poor wit, it seems sheer confusion,
without devotion or reverence whatsoever. Do you not consider
how we here celebrate the glorious Body of Christ, Son of God,
for your salvation? You should therefore sit here so quiet that
none need say hush! But here comes Madonna Pigara, and
will by all means -sit in front of Madonna Sollecita [i.e. "Mrs.
Slow" and Mrs. Worry"]. No more of this! First at the
mill, first grind: take your seats as you come, and let none come
hither before you.-Now to my point again
Now to my third division, of Profit, under four heads.. . Firstly,
the preciousness of fruit. O how precious are the fruits of a
good woman, as the Scripture says: By their fruits you shall
know them: ... Many consider not the value of a boy or a girl,
and many folk who have them hold them of little worth, and when
their wife brings forth a little girl, they cannot suffer her,
so small is their discretion! Why, there are men who have more
patience with a hen, which lay a fresh egg daily, than with their
own wedded wife: and sometimes the hen may break a pipkin or a
drinking-vessel, and the man will not strike her, all for love
of her egg and for fear of losing the profit thereof. O madmen
thrice worthy of chains! that cannot bear with a word from their
wife, who bears such fair fruit, but if she speak a word more
than he thinks fit, forthwith he takes the staff and will beat
her; and the hen, cackling all day long without end, you have
patience with her for her paltry egg's sake; yet the hen will
perchance do you more harm in broken vessels than she is worth;
and yet you bear with her for her egg's sake! Many a cross-grained
fellow, seeing perchance his wife less clean and delicate than
he would fain see her, smites her without more ado; and meanwhile
the hen may befoul the table, and he will suffer it. Do you not
consider your duty in this matter? Do you not see the pig, again,
squeaking and squealing all day long, and always befouling your
house? Yet you bear with him until he be ripe for the slaughter.
You have patience with him, only for the profit of his flesh,
that you may eat thereof. Consider now, wicked fellow, consider
the noble fruit of the woman, and have patience; not for every
cause is it right to beat her. No!-There, enough now of this first
point.. . .
The third point is the remembrance of her necessity .. . . Wherefore,
as you see that your wife endures travail on every side, therefore
you, O husband, if she fall into any need, be sure you help her
to bear her pain. If she be with child or in childbirth, aid her
so far as it lies in you, for it is your child also. Let all help
her in any way they may. Mark her well, how she travails in childbirth,
travails to suckle the child, travails to rear it, travails in
washing and cleaning by day and by night. All this travail, see
you, is of the woman only, and the man goes singing on his way.
There was once a baron's lady who said to me: "Methinks the
dear Lord our Master does as He sees good, and I am content to
say that He does well. But the woman alone bears the pain of the
children in many things.---bearing them in her body, bringing
them into the world, ruling them, and all this oftentimes with
grievous travail. If only God had given some share to man if only
God had given him the child-bearing!" Thus she reasoned;
and I answered: "Methinks there is much reason :by side."-Now
to our point again!
Some men say, "What need have I to take a wife? I have no
labour; I have no children to break my sleep at night, I have
the less expense by far. Why should I undertake this travail?
If I fall ill, my servants will care for me better than she would."
Thus you say, and I say the contrary: for a woman cares better
for her husband than any other in the world. And not him alone,
but the whole house, and all that needs her care. Hear what Solomon
says: "He that poses a good wife, begins a possession."
- "Well," says another "I will not take a wife,
but rather keep a mistress; then at least I shall be cared for,
and my house and my household."-Nay, I tell you: for thus
the woman will be set on laying up for herself alone.- all her
study will be of stealing; and, seeing things go ill, she cares
not, but says within herself "Why should I pain myself to
look so closely into every little matter? When I am grown old,
I shall no longer be welcome in this house.". . Wherefore,
I say, it is better to a wife. . . and when you have taken her,
take heed to live as every good Christian should live. Do you
know who knows this? That man know it who has her, the good housewife,
who rules the whole household well. She sees to the granary, she
keeps it clean, that no defilement may enter in. She keeps the
jars of oils, and notes them well:-This jar is to use; and that
jar is to keep. She guards it, that nothing may fall in it, and
that neither dog nor other beast come near it. She sets all her
study and all her care that the jars be not spilt. She orders
the salt meats, first in the salting and afterward in the keeping,
she cleans and them orders them:-This here is to sell, and that
there is to keep. She sees to the spinning, and then to the making
of linen cloth from the yarn. She sells the bran, and with the
money she buys yet more cloth. She gives heed to the wine-casks,
lest their hoops should break or the wine leak at any point. She
provides the household with all things. She does not as the hired
servant, who steals of all that passes through her hands, and
who cares not for the things as they go away; for the stuff is
not her own, therefore she is slow to pain herself and has no
great love for them. If a man have neither wife nor other to rule
his household, know you how it is with the house? I know, and
I will tell you. If he be rich, and have plenty of grain, the
sparrows and the moles eat their fill thereof It is not set in
order, but all so scattered abroad that the whole house is the
fouler for it. If he have oil, it is all neglected and spilt;
when the jars break and the oil is spilled, he casts a little
earth on the spot, and all is done! And his wine? When at last
he comes to the cask, he draws the wine without further thought;
yet perchance the cask shows a crevice behind, and the wine wastes.
Or again a hoop or two is started, yet it may go its way for him;
or the wine turns to vinegar, or becomes utterly corrupt. In his
bed, know you how he sleeps? He sleeps in a pit, even as the sheets
chance to have been tumbled upon the bed; for they are never changed
until they are torn. Even so in his dining-hall; here on the ground
are melon-rinds, bones, peelings of salad, everything left lying
on the ground almost without pretense of sweeping. Know you how
it is with his table? The cloth is laid with so little care that
no man ever removes it till it be covered with filth. The trenchers
are but sparingly wiped, the dogs lick and wash them. His pipkins
are all foul with grease: go and see how they stand! Know you
how such a man lives? even as a brute beast. I say that it cannot
be well for a man to live thus alone-Ladies, make your curtsey
to me.. . .
The next sermon is on the same text and the same subject: though
specially intended for the daughters, it is still more outspoken
than its predecessor.
My beloved, seeing that we showed yesterday the love which ought
to be between wife and husband, yet we showed it not fully: for
sometimes their love of each other will become carnal and displeasing
to God. Wherefore we will speak this morning the manner in which
each ought to love the other.. . . For ignorance excuses not from
. . . So for example of a priest who undertakes to do his priestly
work, that is, to consecrate the Lord's Body, and knows not the
manner nor the words of consecration, how would you hold this
man excused? If, indeed, he sins even in that he does not as he
should. Hear now what befel once upon a time; for this is to our
present point. There were two priests who spake together, and
one said unto the other, "How do you say the words of consecration
for Christ's Body? "I" (said the other) "I say Hoc est Corpus meum" Then began they to dispute one
with other: "You say not well"-"Nay, it is you
who says ill"-and, as they disputed thus, there came another
priest to whom they told the whole matter, and who said: "Neither
one of you says well, nor the other, for the true words Hoc
est corpusso meusso": and proceeded by demonstration:
"You see how he says corpusso, wherefore the adjective
should be meusso; therefore (I say) henceforth say
you nothing else but: Hoc est corpusso meusso." To
which speech the others consented not: wherefore they accorded
together to a parish priest near by, going to him of set purpose
and laying the case before him. Then the parish priest answering
"Ha, what needs all this ado? I go to it right simply; I
say an Ave Maria over the Host!" - Now, I ask you,
are these men excused? See you not that they make men adore a
God a mere piece of bread? Be sure that each of them commits a
most deadly sin, seeing that it was their bounden duty to do after
the manner which Jesus Christ has ordained to Holy Church. So
I say also that, whatever a man does, it is his bounden duty to
know all that pertains to that thing
.But the mother sins
more than the daughter, if she does not teach as she ought. I
say that the mother should teach her under pain of mortal sin;
for otherwise she sets her daughter in grievous peril, together
with her husband.. . . Moreover, you confessors, whenever such
folk come into your hands, take heed that you admonish them shrewdly.
For whence comes this?-from not knowing that which they should
know. In old days, this sacrament was wont to be held in the greatest
devotion, and no girl went to her husband without confession and
communion. Men had much more devotion to the sacraments than they
have in these days.. . .
Moreover I say, you are not excused by your evil purpose: for
there are some men and women who say they love not to hear such
things in public sermons.-Why will you not hear? -Because I would
fain do after my own fashion, and my ignorance will hold me excused
- That is as the prophet David says: "He would not understand
that he might do well": he would not hear, that he might
do after his own will.-Oh (said he) I do it not through unwillingness
to do well! These things are not lawful matter for sermons, therefore
I will not hear - What! how then, if they are lawful to do, how
(I say) is it not lawful for me to admonish thee? A hit, a palpable
hit, in your teeth! Know you what? You are like unto Madonna Saragia.[
ie "Mrs Cherry"] Lo! I will tell you what befel once
upon a time in Siena. There was a lady called Madonna Saragia
who loved well those great cherries of the Mark. She had a vineyard
that lay out there-you know, out towards the convent of Munistero.
One May, therefore, when her farmer-bailiff came to Siena, Madonna
Saragia asked him: " Have you then no cherries yet in the
vineyard?" "O," said he, "I waited till the
should be a little riper." And she: "See then that you
bring them on Saturday, or come not hither to Siena again!"
The bailiff promised; and on the Saturday he took a great basket
of cherries and came to Siena and brought them to the lady. When
therefore she saw him, she made much of him, and took the basket.
"Thrice welcome! Oh. how much good you have done me!"
and, taking the basket apart into her private chamber, she began
to eat the cherries by the handful; (they were fine and large,
they were cherries of the Mark!) To be brief, she took a skin-full
of the cherries. Then, when her husband came home to dinner, the
lady took a little basket of these fruit, and laid them on the
table, and said: "The bailiff is come, and has brought us
a few cherries." And when the meal was finished, she took
these cherries and began to eat thereof, in the bailiff's presence.
And as she ate, she took them one by one and made seven bites
of each cherry; and in eating she said to the bailiff: "What
eating is there of cherries out in the country?" "Lady,"
said he, "we eat them as just you eat them in your room:
we eat them by the handful!" "Ugh! la! " cried
she, " How says the fellow? fie on you, knave!" "Lady,"
said he again, "we eat them as I have said."
Here the preacher goes on to comment on Rom. 1:27, I Thess.
4, 4, I Cor 7:4, Exodus 20:14, and Ezekiel 18:6
From C.G. Coulton, ed, Life in the Middle Ages, (New York:
Macmillan, c.1910), Vol 1, 216-229 [The translation in Coulton
has been considerably modernized here.]
This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book.
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(c)Paul Halsall August 1996