M-Relig-Women-art - 12/4/14
"Medieval Religious Women: Their Use of Feminine Imagery and Their Sense of Self" by Lord James Northfolke.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
This is a condensed version of my submittal to Kingdom A&S.
This was first published in the March 2009 issue of "Quoth The Raven", Barony of Raven's Fort, Ansteorra.
Medieval Religious Women: Their Use of Feminine Imagery and Their Sense of Self
by Lord James Northfolke
By the time of the Middle Ages, the story of religious women had been a long narrative of fear for men. Beginning with Eve in the creation story in the Bible, women's voices were disturbing, linked to the fear of female flesh and desire. According to Medieval theologians, women had made their own "silent" destiny by sinning through the first human speech—"the dialogue concerning the [fruit]...led to the expulsion from Eden and set humankind on the path of history." Woman was sinful as she snatched language from man and used it in invading public and domestic space. She was also quite dangerous in that her charismatic and prophetic speech provided claims to relations with the sacred.
Here is a discussion of this claim of religious women to that of the sacred, particularly how they viewed femininity, themselves, and what entailed their sense of self. Some religious women were writers, especially in religious mysticism. This sort of genre incorporates the women's religious visions dealing with questions of the Church, God as Father, and, chiefly and most importantly, their relationships to Christ as his brides.
Caroline Walker Bynum states that during the period from the latter twelfth century to the early fourteenth century, women's opportunities for participation in specialized religious roles increased significantly. The piety of these women began to take on characteristics distinct, and noted, of their male counterparts. She holds that for the first time in the history of the Church there was a sort of women's movement that speaks to specifically female influence on the development of piety.
Why was this so? Penelope Johnson asserts that while most medieval women "accepted their role in patriarchal society, religious women still often challenged the authority of their male superiors." She follows that because of the high birth (nobility) of some nuns, a climate of assertive behavior seemed natural. Nuns were collectively empowered by their communal privileges as they were no longer individual females defined by the men in their life (fathers, husbands, etc.), but, rather, assimilated into a new "corporate persona." These women also had ties to the outside world. They were involved in caring for the poor, keeping the nobility in line, and leading legal challenges to protect their rights and property.
Johnson continues that monks and nuns during the Middle Ages were, essentially, equal. During this time, when men and women shared the monastic institution, participants and structure flourished. There was a common vision of equality in the order of grace where there was "neither male nor female" (Gal. 3:28) and a freedom from the biological and societal disabilities women faced in the order of nature.
Johnson shows that, in three ways, female and male experience were similar: in spiritual life, especially with monastic vows; hierarchy, with notions of a superior; and with economics.
In comparing the ability of women and men in holding to their monastic vows, Johnson asserts that women were more guilty in owning property, equal in keeping chaste, and men having a harder time being obedient. Because of this, she concludes that being male or female had no bearing on keeping vows, and both were equal.
In the hierarchical realm, the bulk of authority rested in the superior of the monastic community. In this way both the abbess and abbot was a person of importance in and out of the monastery. Nunneries provided a means by which women could exercise administrative and legal abilities like those of their male counterparts. Finally, economically, nunneries behaved no differently than the male monasteries in economics that included activities of directing interaction with money borrowers and lenders as well as commerce through taxation on merchants' merchandise. However, nunneries had the extra expense of housing male clerics as the nuns were not allowed to administer the sacraments. Thus, in these instances, it can be seen that being equal in "profession" was not, on the whole, necessarily difficult.
There were, basically, three substantive differences between religious men and women: monks could be ordained to the priesthood while nuns could not; women were more tightly cloistered than men; and convents were generally poorer than monasteries. These were important as they are what, essentially, kept men and women separate. This separatism fosters not only a sense of the "other," but also a sense of self.
In her Jesus as Mother, Caroline Bynum argues that during the Middle Ages the notions of being female (biologically) and the ideas of femininity (for males) are not the same. Feminine religious images should not be taken literally. The use of feminine imagery by the Cistercians show a conception of Jesus as mother that reveals not an attitude toward women, but a sense of a need and obligation to nurture other men and to achieve intimate dependence on God. The notion of feminine and self as understood by female mystics, of course, differ. These women are inclined to a contact and unity with God and Christ's humanity, especially through the Eucharist and its emphasis on Christ's blood.
Bynum's book shows women's attitudes (already an achievement) and attitudes placed upon them to be probably more complex than that of simple patriarchal authority. She demonstrates that women mystics could use the route of mysticism as an alternative to the authority of office. God is accessible to women and they are complimentary to the Church. It is interesting that while men uphold feminine characteristics, which are in personalities of men as well as women; they still see female as subordinate. Bynum would agree with Johnson that the cloister was an alternative. Bynum would go further to say that mysticism was an alternative to priesthood.
These women discussed here not only view themselves within the hierarchical realm of the Church, they also manage the system to their benefit. For them notions of femininity, though subordinate in the world, are equal to masculinity in spirituality. This system works because they are able to see and show God and Christ as having these feminine attributes. With this equality the mystics strive for a relationship of compromise with men, both striving for reconciliation with God. Moving from the images of spiritual/male and physical/female (and the negative connotations therein), these women are beginning to realize the physical with Christ's humanity and, conversely, Christ's feminine attributes of nurturing, caring, and the like. With this there is also the emphasis on Christ's blood and his feeding of the soul. Bynum would point out that women writers did not use this image of God/Christ as mother in a way that associated it with their own leadership roles or with leadership in general. They simply projected themselves into the role of child of the Mother. Men, on the other hand, sometimes paralleled the Motherhood and their own.
While this is not to say that women were not still viewed as subordinate and being the "weaker" sex, it appears that there is a sort of movement in that women are more clearly defining themselves and their relation to the world around them. They began, quite cleverly, to find ways in which to gain power or status in a male dominated hierarchical Church. They began to show to themselves and men the moral importance of women, the spiritual equality of the sexes, and God's feminine side.
Bynum, Caroline. Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. New York: Zone Books, 1991.
________. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
________. Jesus as Mother. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
Johnson, Penelope. Equal in Monastic Profession: Religious Women in Medieval France. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Regnier-Bohler, Danielle. "Literary and Mystical Voices" in A History of Women in the West: Silences of the Middle Ages. ed. Christiane Klapisch-Zuber (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 428-9.
Copyright 2008 by James Van Roekel, 209 Royal Oaks Street, Huntsville, TX 77320. <jamesnorthfolke at gmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.