Margaret of Cortona (c 1247-97) has been called the Second Magdalen – although there is nothing in the gospels to cast any aspersion on Mary Magdalen’s morals.
A peasant’s daughter, Margaret was born at Lavinio, in Tuscany. Her mother died when she was only two, and her stepmother proved antipathetic. The girl did, however, possess the trump card of beauty, and after catching the eye of a local nobleman she eagerly played it.
He carried her off to his castle in Montepulciano, where she lived as his mistress for nine years, bearing him a son. Even at this stage, though, Margaret found ways of helping the poor. And when moralists lectured her on her abandoned ways she laughed, telling them that she would end up as a saint.
Perhaps this happened sooner than she might have wished. One day she was sitting in her chamber when
a favourite hound came in whining and led her into the forest, where she found her lover’s corpse.
He had been mysteriously murdered and in the upshot Margaret had no choice but to leave her life of corrupted luxury.
She returned with her son to her father’s house, but though the old man proved amenable, the stepmother remained inflexible.
It did not help either, at least from the worldly point of view, that Margaret insisted on indulging in ostentatious public penances for her abandoned life in Montepulciano. She would appear in church with a rope around her waist; she would kneel at the church door so that all might look down upon her; and, as if that did not suffice, she would interrupt Mass with a public confession of her wickedness.
It is easy enough to understand why her father and stepmother eventually drove her and her son from the house. The outcasts found refuge with the Franciscans at Cortona. Still, however, Margaret’s self-dramatising instincts were not exhausted.
She cut her face lest her fatal beauty might lead more men to their ruin. Then, returning to Montepulciano, she hired a woman to lead her by a rope around her neck, and to cry out: “Look at Margaret, the sinner.”
Once her son had grown up, Margaret was admitted to the Third Order of St Francis. As the years passed she became more and more of an ascetic and recluse. She did, however, acquire a confessor who conveyed the supernatural communications she enjoyed to the world at large.
Her body lies in a silver shrine above the high altar in St Basil’s, Cortona. In 1901 Edith Wharton published a poem purporting to be spoken by Margaret on her deathbed:
…Suppose my lover had not died,
Think you I ever would have left him living,
Even to be Christ’s blessed Margaret?