Discussion Post for THE LIFE OF BLESSED MARGARET OF CASTELLO, Introduction

Audio recording of this post:

Welcome to our group reading of The Life of Blessed Margaret of Castello, by Father William Bonniwell, OP! This is the first of twelve discussion posts in which I will share some of my thoughts about our reading for the week, pose some questions for all of you, and invite you to share your thoughts in the “Comment” sections at the bottom of these pages. I am confident that our discussions will be fruitful and beneficial to all as we read this book together. I am less confident about the speed or consistency of this website. Your comments may be delayed in appearing. Please let me know if you experience difficulties of that kind and I will do my best to address them. Let’s also try to be patient with our technical limitations as well as our personal limitations, relying on the prayers of Saint Margaret of Castello, whose indomitable patience we will come more and more to appreciate during our reading of this book,

I refer to “Saint Margaret of Castello” though our book is called The Life of Blessed Margaret of Castello. As many of you may know, Saint Margaret of Castello was canonized just this year, on April 24th. Her canonization was solemnly celebrated in Citta di Castello in Italy on September 19th. These were most happy events, the fruit of many prayers, and the inspiration for our discussion of this book. They also explain any confusion we might have had between the use of the titles “Blessed” (pre canonization) and “Saint” (post canonization.)

This first discussion post about the introduction of this book is necessarily different from the rest of our discussion posts. Our future discussion posts, of course, will not include the kinds of introductory paragraphs you just read. This discussion post is also different from the rest because the Introduction is different from the rest of the book. Obviously, that is true of every book. But I think it is especially true of this book, as I will try to explain.

In Father Bonniwell’s short Introduction, he gives us a detailed description of his medieval source material: biographies, manuscripts, and old documents. He also refers to “the many persons in Citta di Castello” who assisted “in my researches every time I visited their city,” adding that “the eager cooperation given me resulted in unearthing valuable data not given by the medieval biographers.” He concludes, “to all my Italian ‘assistants’–my deepest and warmest thanks!” (page xiv). Earlier in his Introduction, Father Bonniwell says:

Any biographer of Margaret of Castello works under a handicap, for Margaret meets none of these requirements: she committed no crimes; she was not witty; and certainly she was not beautiful. She composed no sublime poem, painted no famous picture, and she occupied no outstanding position in politics.

Page xii

Father Bonniwell implies that he is a “biographer.” That might seem obvious considering that his book is called The Life of Blessed Margaret of Castello. This self-designation is also consistent with his detailed attention to historical sources in the rest of the Introduction. But, as we will see when we start reading the book itself, it reads less like a biography and more like a work of historical fiction. To explain this seeming contradiction, I would like to give a brief account of how Father Bonniwell went about writing and publishing this book. I hope that will help us understand the kind of book that we are reading.

The story of Father Bonniwell’s authorship of this book is recounted in another book: Blessed Margaret of Castello: Servant of the Sick and the Outcast, by Mary Elizabeth O’Brien, OP, published in 2017. In Chapter 1 of her book, Ms. O’Brien refers to “Bonniwell’s extensive research conducted in Rome, Paris, Metola, Margaret’s birthplace, and Citta di Castello, the setting of Blessed Margaret’s ministry to the sick and the outcast” (page 6). She quotes a letter from Father Bonniwell in which he relates his difficulties getting his book published, saying that the latest would-be-publisher “said ‘the same thing all the publishers say: “no one has ever heard of Margaret of Metola” and “The biography is too factual.”‘ Bonniwell added: “They want it fictionalized; that is the rage in biographies just now.” Within yet another two months, on June 1, 1951, he wrote ‘I finally got the “popularized” version of my book typed'” (page 10).

Due to the demands of publishers, Father Bonniwell has “popularized” this book by casting it in the mode of historical fiction. Nevertheless, this book is extensively researched, relating the events of Saint Margaret’s life in the mode of historical fiction but with the historical accuracy of a “factual” biography.

In the passage I quoted above, Father Bonniwell remarks upon the biographical “handicap” of Saint Margaret of Castello’s apparent historical insignificance. “And yet,” he says,

We are confronted with an astonishing fact: during the course of six hundred years more than twoscore writers–nearly every one of them men of unusual education–chancing upon some manuscript that contained an account of Margaret’s life, thought it well worth their while to publish the story of this obscure girl.

Page xii

Margaret’s story inspired more than 40 publications and still she remained “obscure” to the extent that “no one has ever heard of Margaret of Metola.” Astonishing. Makes you want to read her story, doesn’t it?

Questions:

  1. I only quoted a few short passages from Father Bonniwell’s Introduction to The Life of Blessed Margaret of Castello. Is there anything else in the Introduction that stood out to you?
  2. What are your expectations as you begin reading this book, whether you are getting to know Saint Margaret of Castello for the first time or have long been familiar with her life? What do you hope to gain from our reading and discussion of this book?
  3. My reflections on the Introduction of our book were largely about the genre or kind of book we are reading: biography / historical fiction. Do you have any initial thoughts about the pluses and minuses of those ways of telling Saint Margaret’s story?

Please share your thoughts in the “Comment” section below. Feel free to respond to the questions I posed above or to reflect upon anything else in this week’s reading, my reflections on this weeks reading, and/or comments that other people have posted.

18 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LIFE OF BLESSED MARGARET OF CASTELLO, Introduction”

  1. I think her significance v. info. available shows God’s hand working to showcase her significance, and how we all can contribute and become saints. We are all called to become saints.The Holy Spirit worked through those biographers so her life would be known to us. Margaret’s is a life worth studying and emmulating, indeed.

    I wasn’t aware of this Saint. As I read, I hope to find points to remember so that I can encourage myself and people I meet who think they have nothing to offer, or who feel abandoned, discouraged or depressed.

    The genre’s quotes made a profound impression on me. The abililty of the dialogue to elicit emotion is compelling. A six year old with such perspective puts me to shame. The discussions addressed perspectives a reader might have. Although we are assured this has been thoroughly researched, I’m still wary that the genre might misrepresent Margaret somehow.

  2. What came to mind when I read the introduction was “as much as things change they stay the same”.
    It’s amazing in society how your value is assessed simply on appearance and status in life.
    Hearing a little about St. Margaret, I’m very interested in learning about her life, the struggles and hardships, how she overcame and was able to show such love and kindness
    I know it has a lot to do with God. As human beings we must be able and willing to accept God, as we go through pain, suffering, and loneliness.
    I have seem many people who would be classified as beautiful just because of physical features; to me that does not make you beautiful. To me beauty is defined by your character, the way you treat others and your att

  3. Thank you for arranging this group. I work in healthcare but read this book before I went into healthcare over 30 years ago. I am now rereading it with all of you from a different perspective and discerning how it might impact my work with patients. I was initially concerned it was not a factual biography years ago but now am more interested in how the lives of the Saint’s speak to us and can influence our lives and spiritual development, so a strict recounting of facts is no longer a concern for me.

  4. It is terrifying to read how barbaric people were at this time. So barbaric, that they inspired the details in Dante’s Inferno. On the contrary, this time period also produced great works of sculpture and architecture.

    This is the first time hearing of this Saint. I am expecting the book will reveal a remarkable life. I hope to gain a new perspective from learning about the life of a Saint so long ago.

    I think the story would be more enjoyable written as a narrative. But because of the time period and all of its interesting details, it is important to take time for the author to just describe the historical events time period.

    Thank you for holding this book club!

  5. #1 & #2) One quote that I noticed in the introduction is “he (Canon) tells us nothing of the contemporary political issues, local customs, the harsh laws concerning crime, or of the horrors of a medieval prison.” Canon did not want to write about the medieval life that everyone k knows. I am looking forward to learning about that life, as my knowledge of history is limited.
    #3) I am grateful that the book is written as a historical fiction, as I am not a historian and will get more enjoyment from a book written in that format.

  6. I am not familiar with St Margaret of Castello and am looking forward to learning about her life. As a starting point I prefer historical fiction–they are usually shorter and easier to read. Then if it’s someone I want to know more about, I can find a biography.
    Thank you Father Jonah for leading this book discussion.

  7. In response to Fr. Jonah’s third question, I think it’s generally true that before the advent of modern historical scholarship, pretty much all biographies, especially those about saints, were “hagiographies.” These somewhat idealized recountings of saints’ lives were intended to enkindle devotion and inspire admirers to follow the example of the saints. In this book I think we have a blending of established facts about St. Margaret’s life, some hagiographic embellishments to inspire readers to admire her genuine holiness, and some fictional elements to fill out the story. As a reader I’m comfortable with that approach.
    If Fr. Bonniwell gave us just the facts and only the facts for which we have clear, corroborated evidence, I think I would still be blown away by the incredible courage, faith, charity, and holiness of St. Margaret’s life, but it would be less engaging to read. Also, it would leave it to my imagination to fill in the details about what it must have been like for her to endure and rise above all the challenges she faced. I’m happy to have someone who has studied the historical context and gathered anecdotal material about St. Margaret fill in those details for me in a way that he judges to be plausible and consistent with what is known about her and the historical and cultural context in which she lived.

  8. 2. . I’d like to learn more, actually something, about someone who was “ordinary” and became a “saint” like Mother Theresa or St Theresa, to name only two. These are the saints I relate to when I pray the Communion of Saints…many of my ancestors, despite not being canonized.

    3. As to biography and historical fiction…plus and minus. Biography may be more accurate. .based on findings and recorded data (can also be boring sometimes) whereas, historical fiction may be easier to read, and therefore, easier to relate to.

    Either way is ok.

    1. Interesting that there is no zeitgeist…like writing today without mentioning Roe v Wade or BLM…What is good life, quality of life…life received from God?
    Interesting that Margaret was an embarrassment, an “inconvenience”…Later, coming to be known as the Minister to the Sick, the Patron of the Unwanted (like in leper colony, HIV, abortion unwanted pregnancy, euthanasia…etc.) Funny that there is no actual city of Castillo. Like…no person named “ROE”…
    Thank you. Vera O

  9. I am a few chapters in and I have really been enjoying this book. I wasn’t expecting it to be in a “historical fiction” format but it works great for me – I usually read quite slowly but this book is a page-turner. I think the advantage of writing this book in a historical fiction format is it can capture a broader audience, especially the younger ones. Even though I do also enjoy biographies, they are usually very thick and can take a long time to read, thus they may not attract people who don’t like to read very much. I knew the outline story St. Margaret but did not know much details. I am excited to get to know her better!

  10. Barbara Brady says:
    October 6, 2021 @ 4:15pm – Sorry I missed yesterday’s Discussion Group. After reading & answering the questions, the first- due to Father Bonniwell’s deep research he “sounds like” he knew her! I also read O’Brien’s book: “Blessed Margaret of Castello” and while reading the many sources, I found myself “listening” more intently to Fr. Bonniwell!
    The second – I was not overly informed previously about Margaret and as a former active Nurse for 36 years, I could relate with her as “servant of the sick”!
    The third – The “Introduction” in a short space gave quite a compelling history of the era!
    Thank you Fr. Jonah for this wonderful opportunity!

  11. I echo the gratitude that is owed you Fr. Jonah, and Fr. Bonniwell also. I add a thank you to Mary Elizabeth O’Brien,OP who is mentioned in the discussion post. Is she Ms.Mary… or Sr. Mary? I relate to her book …Servant of the Sick and the Outcast. I wonder what her response to Fr.Bonniwell’s own remarks that the publishers said that his ” biography is too factual…”

    I love history being an important part of the “biography” as there is such an intersectionality that can reveal the depths of a persons life. I would want to be a little clearer on what is said in the discussion post- A “mode of historical fiction but with the historical accuracy of a factual biography”

    I am pleasantly surprised to hear of the canonization of Margaret of Castello. My expectations are to trust that this is God’s work,. For someone who was considered to be “insignificant” and to be” servant to the sick and outcast” to be brought to our awareness now is revealing generally speaking. I look forward to seeing this is more specific ways.

  12. Thank you, Father Jonah, for guiding us through this journey together.

    It is humbling to reflect on how difficult sanctification is. It took Margaret 700 years to become a saint after: experiencing a lifetime of silent physical and emotional suffering in relative obscurity; being imprisoned in both a physical cell and a malformed bodily vessel; joyfully undergoing self-imposed mortifications and penances; demonstrating consistent and unwavering faith in God; loving all of mankind including those who rejected her; offering luminous insights, prophetic visions, and ecstatic prayers; interceding to bring about hundreds of miracles; presenting an incorruptable corpse post-mortem; concealing three perfectly etched pearls in her heart–just to list a few of her accomplishments.

    For those of us who are unworthy of even becoming a manuscript topic, how can we dare attempt to become saints? I hope to gain perspective on this topic through our exploration into the life of Saint Margaret of Castello and by learning how she transformed the ugliness around her into the beauty we now recognize.

    As for the format of the book, I just pray that we do not dismiss the incredible events that led to her sanctification as an embellished or fictionalized account of her reality.

    Happy reading, everyone!

  13. Despite all of the good and bad historical events going on while St. Margaret was alive, someone had the foresight to record what was going on in her “insignificant” life. I wonder how it came about that that person saw how important St. Margaret was and would be in the future.

  14. Saint Margaret grew up in turbulent times during “the eve of the Renaissance” and for some reason, she was still the subject of numerous biographies. It was not clear to me why this was the case since her life was so “insignificant”. The authors did not have to “popularize” her story before writing about her. I enjoyed the Preface more as it provided additional background information.
    I have no specific expectations except to learn more about her special life despite all her physical imperfections. Her story speaks to our societal values where many things are disposable including lives. Her story also speaks to the value of life from the fetus to the old and infirmed. For myself, the “Right to Life” argument spans this entire spectrum.
    I am unclear as to what is meant by the term “historical fiction”. I would prefer to read an accurate historical biography about Saint Margaret that talks about how special her life was despite her many physical afflictions. How a life can still be special and have value.

  15. “I only quoted a few short passages from Father Bonniwell’s Introduction to The Life of Blessed Margaret of Castello. Is there anything else in the Introduction that stood out to you?”
    The contrasts of her times described by Fr. Bonniwell seem very close to what we are experiencing today. Consider the shame felt by her parents at bearing such a disfigured child, and the tendency today to shame those whose views do not coincide with “public opinion.” The thirteenth and twentyfirst centuries seem to be on similar wave-lengths.

    He says, “…no biographer could desire a more colorul or more stirring time and place as a background for his narrative.” The contrast between Margaret and her times makes Margaret notable, as she follows Christ and not the world. The qualities of many women considered worthy of biography are worldly things, judged by worldly eyes; Margaret’s beauty is like Christ’s on the Cross.

    I am not certain why Fr. Bonniwell says that Margaret has been consigned almost to oblivion by friendly writers. Haven’t they made it possible to study her life with much more accuracy and detail than we have for other saints? The idea that she is not well known may need to be examined; a friend of mine has long had a devotion to her.

    I am grateful that the Canon, “ the medieval biographer,” approached with a skeptical mind, and verified what had been written by the anonymous author. It is a blessing that the Dominicans found reason to re-publish the work, so that even when the original was lost the text remained.

    Fr. Bonniwell says that the Canon was writing for his times and contemporaries. The Canon says that he verified many other things that he did not record because everyone already knew them. Didn’t the same thing happen with the Gospels?

    2. What are your expectations as you begin reading this book, whether you are getting to know Saint Margaret of Castello for the first time or have long been familiar with her life? What do you hope to gain from our reading and discussion of this book?

    I hope to learn more about her, to spend time in her presence and with Jesus, and to accept what God has given me.

    3. My reflections on the Introduction of our book were largely about the genre or kind of book we are reading: biography / historical fiction. Do you have any initial thoughts about the pluses and minuses of those ways of telling Saint Margaret’s story?
    Personally I prefer reading historical fiction, as it makes it easier to empathize with the subject; for purposes of learning from the saint, however, history seems preferable although requiring more effort to read.

  16. I’ll start off my comment with a sincere “thank you” to Fr. Jonah for organizing and leading our book discussion. I am very grateful to be part of your discussion group. I read this book over 20 years ago, and am excited to read it again. I’m looking forward to seeing what parts stand out to me since when I read it the first time around I had just one toddler (our first child), and that toddler is now 27 years old. It’s been a busy 27 years, we’ve been blessed with 7 children — one of which is Br. Linus. I had to laugh — I actually found a book report that Br. Linus wrote on this book during his homeschooling years. I am already appreciating things differently, including the introduction. I hadn’t appreciated the time in history when I read it the first time around. To know that she was in the same time period as Dante is very helpful. And my final comment is that I had to smile when I read the sentence, “In 1937, a Dominican, shocked by the Canon’s poor Latin, rewrote the book in classical Latin.” It’s fun to read that as a Dominican Mom.

  17. 1. the necessary suffering aspect
    2. hope to gain a way into Heaven and an experience there-of however remote
    3. as an older (73) person, I can no longer make a distinction between history and fiction: all one in memory

    1. Brian,

      I know what you mean about no distinction between history and fiction. Memory is a funny thing!

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