Fashion in the Age of Datini

Petrarch on Maria of Pozzuoli

Petrarch, Rerum Familiarum Libri, book 5 letter 4 (to Giovanni Colonna in 1342 or 1343)

Translation from Francesco Petrarca, Rerum Familiarum libri I-VIII. Aldo S. Bernardo tr. 4 volumes (State University of New York Press: Albany, NY, 1975) pp. 240-242

This letter is one of the very few reports of a female soldier from western Europe in the middle ages which is not long after the fact or a scandal-story. It therefore deserves to be online. The letter begins below.


While many marvelous things have indeed been created by that God "who alone creates great wonder," He nevertheless created nothing more wonderful on earth than man. Thus of all things I saw on that day that I am describing to you in this letter the most remarkable was the strength of mind and body of a woman from Pozzuoli. Her name is Mary. Her outstanding trait is the preservation of her virginity; although she is a constant companion of men who are often men of arms, no one, as almost everyone is ready to attest, has assailed the virginity of this strict woman either seriously or in jest, more out of fear, as they relate, than out of respect. Her body resembles rather that of a soldier than a

(p. 241)

virgin, her strength is such as to be desired by veteran soldiers, her dexterity is rare and unusual, her vigorous age, condition and enthusiasm are those of a powerful man. She practices not with cloth but with weapons, not with needles and mirrors, but with bows and arrows. She is marked not by the signs of kisses and the lascivious signs of the bold teeth of lovers, but wounds and scars. Her primary concern is with arms, and her mind disdains the sword and death. She wages an hereditary war with her neighbors in which already a large number have perished on both sides. Sometimes alone, often attended by a few others, she came to grips with her enemy and to this day she has always emerged the victor. She is quick to engage in war, slow to disengage, she attacks her enemy boldly, as she weaves ambushes carefully. She endures hunger, thirst, cold, heat, wakefulness, and weariness with incredible patience. She spends her nights under the open sky and travels fully armed, she rests on the ground and considers among her delights the grassy turf or her shield on which she lies. Among such continuous hardships she has changed considerably in a short time. Not too long ago when my youthful desire for glory led me to Rome and Naples and to the King of Sicily, she attracted my attention as I saw her standing there unarmed. When she approached me today armed and surrounded by armed men to pay her respects, I was taken by surprise and returned her greeting as if to an unknown man until warned by her laughter and by the gestures of her companions I finally managed to recognize under the helmet the fierce and unpolished virgin. There are many fabulous stories told about her; I am repeating only what I saw. Powerful men from different parts of the world had assembled, men hardened by warfare whom chance had caused to stop there although they were directed elsewhere. Having heard the reputation of the woman, they were driven by the desire to test her strength. Hearing about this, we all agreed to ascend to the fortress of Pozzuoli. She was walking in front of the doors of the church in deep meditation which caused her not to notice our approach. We approached to ask her to supply us with some kind of proof of her strength. At first excusing herself for some time because of pain in her

(p. 242)

arm, she finally ordered that a heavy stone and an iron beam be brought to her. After she had thrown it into the center of the group she urged them to try lifting and competing. To be brief, a long contest ensued among equals, and everyone tried his hand as if in great rivalry while she acted as observer judging the strength of each of the men. Finally, with an easy try, she showed herself much superior to all, causing stupefaction in the others and shame in myself. We eventually left, being in a condition which prompted us to give less faith to what our eyes had seen than to the belief that we had been subjected to some kind of illusion. It is said that Robert, that greatest of men and of kings, once sailing along these shores with a large fleet, stopped at Pozzuoli intrigued by the wonders of such a woman and desirous of seeing her. In my opinion this does not seem to be quite believable because living so close to her he could have summoned her. But perhaps he landed there for some other reason, being desirous of viewing something new and being naturally eager for all kinds of knowledge. But let the burden of proof for this matter, as with everything else I heard, lie with its tellers; as for me the sight of this woman has rendered more believable whatever is narrated not only about the Amazons and that once famous female kingdom, but even what is told about the virgin female warriors of Italy, under the leadership of Camilla whose name is the most renowned of all. What should keep one from believing many instances of something which I would have been perhaps slow to believe if I had not had personal experience? Indeed, just as that ancient heroine who was born not far from here, at Piperno, at the time of the Trojan downfall; this more recent Camilla, was born at Pozzuoli in our times. This is what I wanted to have attested in my short letter to you. Farewell and enjoy good health.

23 November.

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