Remembering Countess Delphine’s Books: Reading as a Means to Shape a Holy Woman’s Sanctity

  • Nicole Archambeau
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In 1348, at the time of the first wave of the Black Death, the holy woman Countess Delphine de Puimichel was making one of her many visits to the Holy Cross convent in Apt, Provence.1 It was evening and she wished to eat alone in the room the convent reserved for her. The nuns wanted to make sure, however, that if Delphine needed anything, they would hear her call. So they asked Rixendis de Insula, a nun in her early twenties, to wait outside the holy woman’s door for a summons. After a while, Rixendis heard a bell ring from inside the room. She opened the door and saw the holy woman sitting at the table. Delphine was not eating; instead, she was weeping. Her face was red, her eyes full of tears, and her veil was wet with the tears she had shed. Delphine told Rixendis to clear the table quickly, leave, shut the door, and not come back in. Delphine told her that the tears were caused by an illness of the head (infirmitatem capitis). Rixendis believed her and thus did not consider carefully that the tears might come from penitence and devotion. Other ladies at the convent, including the noblewomen Lady Rostagna and Lady Beatrice de Sault, told her that Delphine often spent the whole or most of the night praying, reading, and weeping, so she slept very little.2 Rixendis worried that Delphine’s weeping would cause consumption of the brain.


Fourteenth Century Witness Testimony Bell Ring Church Father Papal Court 
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  1. 1.
    Witness testimonies come from the critical edition of Delphine’s inquest: Jacques Cambell, OFM, Enquête pour le Procès de Canonisation de Dauphine de Puimichel Comtesse d’Ariano (Turin: Bottega d’Erasmo, 1978). This critical edition was made using two main copies of Delphine’s inquest, including Bibliotheque Méjanes, ms. 355 in Aix-en-Provence, France, and at what was then St. Leonard College Library, ms. 1 in Dayton, Ohio. See Cambell, Enquête, pp. xxxxii. My translations maintain the meaning and structure of the testimony without the many repetitions, formalized identifying phrases, and passive constructions of the original. Page references in this chapter will refer to the critical edition. For Rixendis de Insula’s testimony, see pp. 486–487.Google Scholar
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    For an overview of penitence and humility, see Donald Weinstein and Rudolph Bell, Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christendom, 1000–1700 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 153–157.Google Scholar
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    The accusation appeared in Article 25, see note 13. For an overview of the term beguine, see Ernest McDonnell, The Beguines and Beghards in Medieval Culture, with Special Emphasis on the Belgian Scene (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1954), pp. 430–438. In the fourteenth century, the term “beguine” had very different meanings in Southern France than it did in Northern Europe. While being called a beguine in Flanders or Northern France did not automatically question a person’s status as a Catholic Christian, it could in Southern France. The term evoked both the Cathar heretics of the thirteenth century and the Spiritual Franciscans of the fourteenth.Google Scholar
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    This is not to say Delphine’s canonization inquest could have become a heresy inquest. For a comparison of the two types of inquest, see Dyan Elliott, Proving Woman: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).Google Scholar
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    Paul Armiger, “Dauphine de Puymichel et Son Entourage au Temps de Sa Vie Aptensienne (1345–1360),” in Le Peuple des saints: croyances et dèvotions en Provence et Comtat Venaissin à la fin du Moyen Âge (Avignon: Institut de Recherches et d’Etudes du Bas Moyen Age Avignonnais, 1986), pp. 111–124.Google Scholar
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  32. 44.
    This text could be The Lives of the Fathers by Jerome. Other convents in the later Middle Ages owned this text including that of Barking in Essex, England, as we see in David Bell, What Nuns Read: Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1995), p. 115.Google Scholar
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    See Bernard of Clairvaux, The Steps of Humility, trans. George Bosworth Burch (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950), pp. 209–210.Google Scholar

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© Charlotte Newman Goldy and Amy Livingstone 2012

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  • Nicole Archambeau

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