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Medieval Sourcebook:
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.


[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…She who 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 sin.

. . . 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. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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