Roman Legends: A Collection of the Fables and Folk-lore of Rome | Annotated Tale

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St. Margaret of Cortona


ST. MARGARET wasn't always a saint, you must know: in her youth she was very much the reverse. She had a very cruel stepmother, who worried her to death, [1] and gave her work she was unequal to do.

               One day her stepmother had sent her out to tie up bundles of hay. As she was so engaged a Count came by, and he stopped to look at her, for she was rarely beautiful. [2]

               'What hard work for such pretty little hands,' he began by saying; and after many tender words had been exchanged he proposed that she should go home with him, where her life would be the reverse of the suffering existence she had now to endure.

               Margaret consented at once, for her stepmother, besides working her hard, had neglected to form her to proper sentiments of virtue.

               The count took her to his villa at a place called Monte Porciana, a good way from Cortona. Here her life was indeed a contrast to what it had been at home at Cortona. Instead of having to work, she had plenty of servants to wait upon her; her dress and her food were all in the greatest luxury, and she was supplied with everything she wished for. Sometimes as she went to the theatre, decked out in her gay attire, and knowing that she was a scandal to all, she would say in mirth and wantonness, 'Who knows whether one day I may not be stuck up there on high in the churches, like some of those saints? As strange things have happened ere now!' But she only said it in wantonness. So she went on enjoying life, and when their son was born there was nothing more she desired.

               In the midst of this gay existence, word was brought her one evening that the Count, who had gone out that morning full of health and spirits to the hunt, had been overtaken and assassinated, and as all had been afraid to pursue the murderers, they knew not where his body was.

               Margaret was thrown into a frenzy [3] at the news; her fine clothing and her rich fare gave her little pleasure now. All amusement and frivolity were put out of sight; and she sat on her sofa and stared before her, for she had no heart to turn to anything that could distract her thoughts from her great loss. Then one day--it might have been three days after--a favourite dog belonging to the count came limping and whining up to her. Margaret rose immediately; she knew that the dog would take her to the count's body, and she rose up and motioned to him to go: and the dog, all glad to return to his master, ran on before. All the household were too much afraid of the assassins to venture in their way, so Margaret went forth alone. It was a long rough way; but the dog ran on, and Margaret kept on as well as her broken strength would admit. At last they came to a brake where the dog stopped, and now whined no longer but howled piteously.

               Margaret knew that they had reached the object of their search, and it was indeed here the assassins had hidden the body. Moving away with her own hands the leaves and branches with which they had covered it over, the fearful sight of her lover's mangled body lay before her. The condition into which the wounds and the lapse of time had brought it was more than she could bear to look at, and she swooned away on the spot.

               When she came to herself all the course of her thoughts was changed. She saw what her life had been; the sense of the scandal she had given was more to her even than her own distracting grief. As the most terrible penance she could think of, she resolved to go back to her stepmother and endure her hard treatment, sharpened by the invectives with which she knew it would now be seasoned.

               Taking with her her son, she went to her, therefore, and with the greatest submission of manner entreated to be readmitted. But not even this would the stepmother grant her, but drove her away from the door. She then turned to her father, but he was bound to say the same as his wife. She now saw there was one misery worse than harsh treatment, and that was penury--starvation, not only for herself, but her child.

               Little she cared what became of her, but for the child something must be done. What did she do? She went and put on a sackcloth dress, [4] tied about the waist with a rope, and she went to the church at the high mass time; and when mass was over she stood on the altar step, and told all the people she was Margaret of Cortona, who had given so much scandal, and now was come to show her contrition for it.

               Her sufferings had gone up before God. As she spoke her confession so humbly before all the people, the count's mother rose from her seat, and, coming up to her, threw her handkerchief over her head [5]--for she was bareheaded--and led her away to her home.

               She would only accept her hospitality on condition of being allowed to live in a little room apart, with no more furniture than a nun's cell. Here she lived twelve years of penance, till her boy was old enough to choose his state in life. He elected to be a Dominican, and afterwards became a Preacher of the Apostolic Palace; and she entered a Franciscan convent, where she spent ten more years of penance, till God took her to Himself.

               She cut off all her long hair when she went to live in her cell at the house of the count's mother, that she might not again be an occasion of sin to anyone. And after that, when she found she was still a subject of human admiration, she cut off her lips, that no one might admire her again. [6]



[1] 'La strapazzava,' a word particularly applied to overworking a horse.

[2] 'Di una rara bellezza.'

[3] 'Era disperata.'

[4] 'Un sacco crudo,' a loose garment made of harsh sackcloth that had not been dressed.

[5] Handkerchiefs are used so habitually for tying up parcels in Rome, that the narrator thought it worth while to specify that this one was a 'fazzaletto di naso.'

[6] The life is thus given in Butler:--'Margaret was a native of Alviano in Tuscany. The harshness of a stepmother and her own indulged propension to vice cast her headlong into the greatest disorders. The sight of the carcase of a man, half-putrefied, who had been her gallant, struck her with so great a fear of the Divine judgments, and with so deep a sense of the treachery of the world, that she in a moment became a perfect penitent. The first thing she did was to throw herself at her father's feet, bathed in tears, to beg his pardon for her contempt of his authority and fatherly admonitions. She spent the days and nights in tears; and to repair the scandal she had given by her crimes, she went to the parish church of Alviano with a rope about her neck, and there asked public pardon for them. After this she repaired to Cortona and made her most penitent confession to a father of the Order of S. Francis, who admired the great sentiments of compunction with which she was filled, and prescribed her austerities and practices suitable to her fervour. Her conversion happened in the year 1274, the twenty-fifth of her age.... This model of true penitents, after twenty-three years spent in severe penance, twenty of them in the religious habit, being worn out by austerities and consumed by the fire of divine love, died on the 22nd of February 1297.'

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: St. Margaret of Cortona
Tale Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Book Title: Roman Legends: A Collection of the Fables and Folk-lore of Rome
Book Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Publisher: Estes and Lauriat
Publication City: Boston
Year of Publication: 1877
Country of Origin: Italy
Classification: unclassified

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