Colette lived in, what some have called, the most hideous selection of time and space in history: the Hundred Year War in France. The English came, robbing, pillaging and taking hostages, needing to be bought off. The French came to drive out the English; they, too, lived off the land. The Strippers of the Wheat: the marauding private war bands came, fighting their own vendettas, torturing, burning, raping; indiscriminately hiring themselves to either side and exacting tribute. The crops failed, the plague came. So many died there were none left to bury the dead. The Church was in fragments; it was the age of the "Babylonian Captivity." There was one Pope in Avignon and one in Italy. Yet the well-nigh atheistic illuminators of the fat, millionaire Duc de Berry's Books of Hours mainly depict rose gardens, hunting dogs and banquets, all under the signs of the Zodiac in a fallacious chivalric bubble.
She was born in 1381, at Corbie, a village near the River Somme; (one of the battlegrounds of the First World War.) Unlike Clare and Francis, who came from wealthy, aristocratic and merchant families, Colette was the child of a peasant artisan, a stone mason who worked on Corbie's Benedictine Abbey. Colette had arrived very late in her parents' lives. According to her contemporary biographers, Andre de Vaux and Perrine de Balme, her mother was 60 when she was born after prayer to the heavenly patron of children, St Nicholas.
Life for the future
Colette was left an orphan in her early teens and a ward of the Benedictine Abbot, Raoul de Roye. Refusing to be married off, she tried her hand at various religious ensembles, including the Poor Clares. Finally, she settled to be an anchoress, rather in the style of Julian of Norwich. A cell was built for her on the side of Corbie Parish Church and in 1402, she was perpetually enclosed, complete with the solemn ceremony of bricking up the entrance of her hermitage. But God had other ideas.
In a series of visions Colette saw, as it were, the whole corrupt social fabric of her age, collapsing into destruction like leaves swept into a furnace. There was nothing exaggerated in her visions. She could almost have seen the reality by looking out of the window. Then she saw St Francis come before the Lord, and kneeling down, he begged, “Lord, give me this woman for the reform of my Order". For the Franciscan Order, too, had been part of Colette's vision of a destroyed world. To Colette's horror the Lord graciously bowed his head in assent.
St Clare and St Francis seem almost like legends; myths of a sunrise age, compared with Colette. Colette was diamond grit in the wheels of history.
And Colette refused. The Lord showed her a vision of a great golden tree from which sprung other trees: she was the first tree and the nurslings were the houses she was to found. Unimpressed, she pulled up the trees and threw them out of the window. As she would not look at him, God took away her ability to see at all. As she refused to listen, she found herself deprived of the power of hearing. Such was the struggle that the thought of having to reform the Franciscan Order wrought in her. In the end, exhausted by her own refusal to serve, she gave her heart and will over to God - and agreed.
Now, all she needed was freedom to move - (she was still an anchoress), support, and permission from at least one of the Popes, and some followers. God sent them.
Pierre de la Saline was a Franciscan friar, deeply troubled by the state of the Church and the world. He visited another anchoress, Marie Amante, far away in Avignon. Enlightened by a vision, Marie sent Father Pierre to Colette. He arrived there in the company of one of the most powerful women of his age, Blanche of Geneva, sister of the previous Avignon Pope. Before her, few walls remained standing. She swept Colette up and took her to see Pope Benedict XIII - Pedro de Luna. He blessed Colette, gave her the black veil of a professed Poor Clare, and sent her out to reform the Franciscan Order. She was twenty five years old.
The first house she reformed was Besançon. In her travels she had picked up a number of followers. Together they now began to recreate the Gospel way of life of the original Poor Clares. Miraculously, she had somehow obtained a copy of the Rule of St Clare. The original manuscript of the Rule had been buried with St Clare in 1253 and was only unearthed at the end of the 19th Century.
The Poor Clare sisters had been forced ten years after Clare's death, to adopt the rule of Pope Urban IV, if they wished for the continued support of the Friars; but Colette restored Clare's own rule. Though relatively few of her letters survived the sacking of the French and Belgium Colettine houses during the French Revolution, it is known that she corresponded with Paula Monaldi and Caecilia Coppolla who were working for the reform of the Clares in Italy, and with St Bernardine and St John of Capistrano who were founding the reformed Friars, as well as with Cardinal Giuliano Gesarini, the Cardinal Legate of the Council of Basle which was convened to reduce the multiplicity of Popes. The Cardinal (the letters are still extant) was touchingly anxious that she would think of him as her son and humbly sent an alms to buy her and her sisters woolen underwear.
None of those who encountered Colette were left unchanged. She numbered both Armagnacs and Burgundians among her benefactors, as she crossed battlefields and negotiated peace.
Re-forming the scarred face
The women who followed Colette came from every level of society. Even as she had seen in her visions the brokenness that extended across every strata of life, so she was to see its mending in those who came to join her; peasant women who had been her childhood companions in Corbie, and princesses from the Bourbon House of Naples were amongst those she selected as abbesses for the houses of her reform.
Colette reformed the Friars, and until later rearrangements of the Order of Friars Minor in the early twentieth century, there were branches of theorder that held the title Colettari. She did not achieve her ends by haranguing anyone. When invited to speak to the (very unreformed) friars of Dole, she knelt humbly on the floor and prayed - and she remained in prayer, never saying a word.
Blanche of Geneva, the great lady who had helped to start Colette's reform, had asked to be buried in whatever community Colette happened to be at the time. So they buried her at Poligny. Colette had also intended to be buried there (and had prophesied it), but the weariness of a long life devoted to her sisters, travelling from house to house, wore her out finally at Ghent, in Belgium. She died there on 6th March 1447. However, God uses even political chaos to fulfil the words of his saints. During the French Revolution the monastery at Ghent was in danger, and Colette's relics were sent for safety to Poligny, in Savoy, where they are cherished and venerated to this day.
Pictures: Early statue of Colette from Bruges Monastery, Photo of tableau of Colettes cell TMD, Chasse of her relics Poligny.