Outlier Saints: The Case of Zita of Lucca

by Mary Harvey Doyno (Humanities & Religious Studies, California State University, Sacramento)

In my book The Lay Saint: Charity and Charismatic Authority in Medieval Italy, 1150-1350 (Cornell Univ. Press, 2019) I dedicate a chapter to exploring the rise and significance of Zita of Lucca’s civic cult. Zita (d. 1278) was the domestic servant of a prominent Lucchese family, the Fatinelli. She earned a saintly reputation not only for her religious rigor, her charity and the many miracles that sprang out of those twin pursuits but also for her dedication to hard work. As her late thirteenth-century vita (anonymously authored but likely the work of a canon from her neighborhood church, San Frediano) describes, no matter how taken up Zita was by her prayers, visions or concern for the poor, this serving saint always made sure her employer’s floors were mopped and their bread perfectly baked. And it wasn’t just the Fatinelli whom Zita impressed: her Lucchese neighbors were keenly aware that they had a saint living amongst them. After her death, as her corpse was carried towards its burial plot, a great crowd jockeyed to touch Zita and rip off a bit of her clothing so that they might be left with a tangible memento of their saintly neighbor.

A key part of my interest in Zita’s civic cult sprang from the way in which it exhibited traits so distinct from the tropes and conventions I had identified in other lay civic cults in communal Italy. Unlike those other cults, Zita’s cult made no mention of her undergoing a conversion experience (she had simply always demonstrated saintly behavior) and said nothing of Zita having the kind of ongoing relationship with a confessor that marked the religious lives of other female lay saints such as Margaret of Cortona or Umiliana dei Cerchi. Moreover, I noticed that much of Zita’s saintly profile articulated ideas and ideals that I was coming increasingly to associate with the civic cults awarded to laymen. Not only was Zita celebrated for seamlessly integrating her penitential life with her working life (as was Pier ‘Pettinaio’ of Siena), and for taking extensive pilgrimages (as was Giovanni of Urbino), the descriptions of her spiritual ecstasies, while often dramatic and arresting, retained an insistently outward focus. Like so many of the laymen I was studying, Zita’s vita remained uninterested in reporting how she interpreted or processed her moments of spiritual frenzy.

But an aspect of this outlier cult that I didn’t explore and which continues to perplex me is the mendicant orders’ seeming disinterest in Zita. Unlike every other thirteenth-century female lay saint I studied (Margaret of Cortona, Rose of Viterbo, Umiliana dei Cerchi, Vanna of Oriveto, and Margaret of Città di Castello), Zita would not be subject in the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries to the historical revisionism Alison More has recently explored in her work on female religious identity. Thus, Zita would never be reimagined into a fictive history of the mendicant orders’ early interaction with female lay penitents and would never be subject to a hagiographic campaign aiming to associate her with so-called “mendicant” traits or ideals. An absence I find all the stranger for the fact that when Zita’s cult arrived rather mysteriously in England (renamed Sitha) in the fourteenth century, it seems to have been of particular interest to English Dominicans.

What was it about Zita’s profile that kept her outside the purview of such fictive reimagining? Why did neither the Dominicans nor the Franciscans feel the desire, or perhaps more to the point, the need, to enfold her into their histories? Often our study of the cult of saints focuses on the myriad of meanings, connections, and charges placed upon these, to borrow Peter Brown’s term, “very special dead.” But I am left wondering what might be learned from thinking more about opportunities that are not taken up—saintly profiles that are passed over or discarded. What might they tell us about the complex web spun to create a saint’s cult?


Mary Doyno is an Assistant Professor in the Humanities and Religious Studies department at Sacramento State University and author of The Lay Saint: Charity and Charismatic Authority in Medieval Italy, 1150-1350 (Cornell University Press, 2019).

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