Often times, the medieval world we depict is an aristocratic one, full of kings, knights, ladies in waiting in their castles and gardens. The story of the common man can be easily lost amid the romanticized glamour of court intrigues and even famous battles.
The story of woman, whether noble or common, is more than likely told as a corollary to the man she is wedded to or to unusual circumstances found in surviving historical records.
One “common” woman that defies all conventions was Maria Torribia, also known as St Mary of the Head (Santa Maria de la Cabeza), the wife of St Isidore the Worker and the mother of St Illan. Her commitment to her faith was facilitated by having married someone who accompanied her in that path but she solidly stood on her own in terms of independence and religious fervor.
The young Mary Torribia, or Toribia, was born probably to a CONVERSO or Mozarabic family between 1095 and 1100 in Caraquiz, a small town near Uceda, known for its high Jewish population, not far from a Madrid which was under Muslim occupation and in the throes of advancing Christian armies. According to hagiographers, her early years were very typical of women of the period. She served her family , is orphaned young, and lived for a time in service with relatives in the town of Torrelaguna. Mary would eventually inherit a small farm there upon the death of her mother. It is in this town where she would also begin to work in the sacristy of the local church, meet a farm laborer fleeing the reconquest upheavals of Madrid named Isidore , who is employed by a local landowner, Don Juan de Vargas, and wed him in the Church of the Magdalen. Isidore , who had a reputation for being a very devout Christian, was also from a converso family. After her marriage to St Isidore, she worked with him side by side in the fields. From very early in the marriage, the couple developed a reputation for service to the community, digging wells to help in an area of scant water resources and other charitable activities. They shared their income with the town, establishing a charity, for example, for the yearly distribution of wine, cheese and bread on the feast of the Assumption. Both achieved notoriety for various miracles.
The marriage produced one male child, later also known for his sainthood and miracles, and the family life was conducted in an atmosphere of holiness. Marital abstinence would become the hallmark of their marriage following the miracle drowning rescue of the then 5 year old Illan from a well. The family moved to Madrid in 1119, in the middle of the drive to reconquer the city from the Muslims and the Cordoba Caliphate, to work the lands and home of Don Juan de Vargas, and many miracles follow them. After they finished raising Illan, the couple, in keeping with their religious outlook, decided to live separately. St Isidore remained in Madrid while Mary returned to their farm in the province of Guadalajara. Accounts of where their son resided are contradictory. Historical records show that he spent his adult years as a hermit near Toledo.
Mary retired as a hermit, an anchorite, and lived at a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary at Caraquiz, near the Jarama River. The inhabitants of Uceda would help her maintain this shrine. She would beg the town for the oil to keep the lamps burning at the hermitage. By then, her holy reputation had already been established. It is said that she often crossed the river by stepping on the mantle of the Virgin Mary who frequently appeared to her. Despite her holy reputation, some of her neighbors were jealous and quickly gossiped that she was committing adultery, an accusation that reached her husband Isidore in Madrid. Isidore returned to Torrelaguna to spy on her and quickly witnessed to the miracle of her walking on the mantle upon the river.
Her visions were not limited to the Virgin Mary. In 1171, an angel appeared to her to inform her that Isidore was close to death in Madrid. Mary rushed to his side and stayed with him until he died.
After Isidore’s death, Mary returned to her shrine which she continued to maintain and dedicated her life to prayer and good works. She died in 1175 and buried in her shrine. Following her death, a cult of veneration quickly spread throughout Madrid, its environs and the peninsula. She was beatified in 1697 by Innocent XII and canonized in 1752 by Benedict XIV. Her remains are buried with the incorrupt St Isidore under the main altar of the Real Colegiata de San Isidro church in Madrid. Her feast day is September 9th. Her iconography shows her with a spindle and oil lamp. She was chosen as one of the patron saints for World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011.
Of particular interest due to iconography of the saint:
“Santa Maria de la Cabeza….” (Teresa Diaz Diaz)
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