Jamelah Reads the Classics: St. Guglielma by Antonia Pulci

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.

5 Responses

  1. AntoniaWell, Jamelah, I truly

    Well, Jamelah, I truly thank you for bringing a hitherto unknown name to my consciousness.

    I fully intend to google (not a euphemism) and discover more of her work. Excellent choice of classic, I might add. A one-act play seems right for these days of unusually short attention span. Also a holy dose of forgiveness would go a long way round these parts.

    What’s next?

  2. Hi Judih! Next up is another
    Hi Judih! Next up is another play, The Tragedy of Mariam, though I have some non-classics to squeeze in before I get to it, so it’ll be appearing at an unspecified future date (hopefully not to far in the future, however).

  3. Well worth the wait, Jamelah.
    Well worth the wait, Jamelah.

    Top notch summary of a significant classic. When I finished reading this, I was glad to know about Antonia Pulci and grateful for your crisp presentation.

    That’s a lot of action for a one-act play! The forgiveness part is sort of like when Joseph, of Technicolor dream coat fame, forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery. They should make a movie with Uma Thurman as Guglielma.

  4. putting on the listand yes if
    putting on the list

    and yes if the subject of this email instantly rang out to the tune of the original american idol ‘putting on the hits’ then you’re with me litkicks and i love ya!

    anyway, thanks to jamelah for the read. i’ve always felt that some unseen divinig rod has been leading me to new ‘classics’. honestly i’ve been trying to read them all, but also trying to avoid that old list printed for the lone purpose of getting you to subscribe to some sort of old timey columbia records racket, where you had to cancel a thousand times to get them to stop charging you….

    sorry, call me tangent boy, the real reason for this post is to give a couple of my latest read, and hope that you grab at them. i have finally come out of my bellow phase, and for those of you that have yet to go all saul, stop right now and go get one, it’s so f’n good! i don’t know how to list the suplerlatives, suffice to say they would be whitman like in their number.

    enough of that, i like saul, he’s my latest find, and litkicks you should know by now, bellow does it.

    anyway, today my subject is the two authors i have found post bellow. specifically, herotodous and dos passos.

    i find myself reading two books at once, sort of switching horses, but after crossing the stream, i’d hate to buck wisdom or even encourage the practice here to the impressionable minds that frequent litkicks.com…

    on to the others…


    i’ve stumbled upon one of those must reads. and i know there are several more, new to the list petrarch, thank you jamelah. you know the type, the ones that hold the quotes, characters, events that so much is borrowed or alluded to. even if you hate faust (like i do), or dickens or jesus, moses, confuscious, sun tzu, buddah, aristotle, plato, etc….you have got to read them. well in this case i find myself digging it.

    herodotous has got style. you can tell he loves the word and at most points succeeds so well in telling the story that you find yourself perfectly willing to give him an inch or two on what might now be considered, science.

    herodotous takes upon himself the task of writing history. pretty novel idea they say, although who knows what was lost to fire, and this may simply be the text that survived. my thumb is up in either case. here a wonderfully written guess at the story of the greeks, persian and egyptians, how can you go wrong.

    concurrent with old man herodotous is john dos passos. now to serve as a disclaimer, i am only about 145 pages into the first volume (42nd parrallel) of the usa trilogy, something that is considered to be his only masterpiece. however, while reading it, and it takes a bit to get into, i found myself honestly wanting to scream ‘this is fucking awesome.’ so….uh, give it a shot.

    i’ll write more when i get through but keep searching, there’s so much good.

  5. great…looking forward to it
    great…looking forward to it whenever it hits the newsstands!

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