Most of the things I’ve been doing lately have involved not reading the classics, which I think has a lot in common with what many people do most of the time. Be that as it may, I am back, having just finished Antonia Pulci’s one-act St. Guglielma, and I have a few remarks.
Antonia Pulci (whose work was translated by James Cook, the translator also responsible for this version of Petrarch and is available in a lovely volume: Florentine Drama for Convent and Festival: Seven Sacred Plays) was a fifteenth-century Italian writer who, after the death of her husband, founded an Augustinian order and lived out the rest of her life in the convent. The type of plays Pulci authored — sacre rappresentazioni — are short plays about religious subjects, and in Pulci’s case are largely hagiographical (read: about saints) and deal with women and their concerns in society. These plays are convent dramas and as such are meant to be performed by women for women. So, something like 15th-century Lifetime TV, then.
St. Guglielma follows the life of — wait for it — St. Guglielma, the daughter of the King of England who, despite a desire to live a life of pious chastity, is married to the King of Hungary. Once married, Guglielma convinces the king to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and take her with him, which he thinks is a swell idea in part, deciding to go on the pilgrimage but to leave Guglielma in Hungary to run the kingdom. Once the king is gone, his brother, who’s pining for some hot Guglielma action, tries to seduce the queen but is shot down. Guglielma decides to keep it to herself so as not to cause an uproar at court, but this turns out to be a bad idea because as soon as the king returns the brother falsely accuses Guglielma of being a ho in her husband’s absence. The king, kind, wise fellow that he is, has Guglielma imprisoned and sentenced to death, because, you know, why talk to your wife when you can just have her killed?
But Guglielma is saved when pity is taken upon her and the executioner sets her free and burns her clothes to make it look like she was killed. She’s lost in the forest (or a wasteland, as the text calls it, so maybe not a forest after all) and it seems kind of Snow White-ish for a little while, but instead of finding the cottage of seven dwarves, she is met by Mary (mother of Jesus) who helps her, and later by two angels who also help her. She’s given the gift of healing, and ends up at a convent where she sits at the gate, healing the sick. As luck would have it, the king’s dastardly brother is stricken with leprosy, and the king takes him to this miraculous healer at the convent. She heals the brother, the king leaves his kingdom to the barons, and the three of them go to a little place in the aforementioned wasteland to live happily ever after. Because retiring to a wasteland is really the way to go.
So that’s the story. It proves, unequivocally, that Guglielma was a lot nicer than I would’ve been in similar circumstances, since I probably would’ve let the brother die and then, if it were in my power to do so, put a pox on the king for having me needlessly sentenced to death. Of course, that’s just one of the many reasons why I’ll never be a candidate for canonization.
Anyway, as a piece of literature, St. Guglielma is a quick, entertaining read, largely due to the fact that its story is so dramatic. (Yes, a dramatic play. What a novel concept. Ahem.) If you’ve read any literature from this era (like, say, Boccaccio or Petrarch) then you’ll know that in literary works, women were objects that were acted upon to further a plot (or in the case of Petrarch, write really creepy poetry), but weren’t creatures with their own minds or wills or abilities. In this regard, Antonia Pulci’s writing serves as a foil to the popular portrayal of female characters, despite the fact that in this day and age, living a life of religious piety and forgiving one’s enemies might seem at worst backwards and at best quaint. So, kudos to you, Antonia Pulci for going against the grain (and being a good writer!). Indeed, kudos to you.