contributor.author: Catherine M. Mooney

title.none: Petroff, Body and Soul

identifier.other: baj9928.9503.005 95.03.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Catherine M. Mooney, Virginia Commonwealth University

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Petroff, Elizabeth Alvilda. Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Pp. xii + 235. $35.00 (hb) $14.95 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.03.05

Petroff, Elizabeth Alvilda. Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Pp. xii + 235. $35.00 (hb) $14.95 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Catherine M. Mooney
Virginia Commonwealth University

Elizabeth Petroff's latest book, a collection of eleven essays of both previously published and revised material, continues her useful work on medieval religious women, especially women flourishing in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. The book is divided into three parts: the first including essays of a more general nature, the second comprised of more focussed and thematic discussions employing close analysis of texts by and about women, and the last united by the theme of female mystics' effective assertion of their own authority despite the decidedly misogynist cast of their society. The arguments are articulately expressed and generously supported by medieval texts, making it at once a thought-provoking work for specialists and an intelligent introduction for newcomers to the field of medieval religious women.

Petroff synthetically presents recent scholarship regarding medieval holy women in addition to introducing new readings of both well-known and little discussed texts. She sounds a number of themes that are by now familiar to medievalists: the ability of holy women to break through the conventions imposed upon the majority of medieval women, their tendency to express themselves through bodily metaphors, their privileging of experiential over intellectual knowing, the visual and affective dimensions of their spirituality, and the role reversals which take place between medieval holy women and their theoretically more powerful confessors and patrons. Some aspects of these essays which make them appealing to nonspecialists may prove disappointing to those more familiar with the scholarly literature. Her first essay, for example, which serially introduces the life and writings of eight women (Christina of Markyate, Hildegard of Bingen, Hadewijch of Antwerp, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, Angela of Foligno, Catherine of Siena, and Julian of Norwich) is largely derivative. While one expects an author to draw on the established findings of other specialists, particularly when commenting on so many figures, it is surprising to find that even primary source quotations have been culled from secondary works.

But Petroff is an original thinker, as she again demonstrates to readers in other essays. Her second essay considers the theme of unmasking in the depiction of a dizzying array of women including Dante's Beatriz, Petrarch's Laura, saints, a prostitute, a woman warrior, and a domineering woman of a French fabliau. She isolates several patterns uniting these seemingly disparate sources, the most outstanding being that unmasking women occurs when women — saints, sinners, soldiers or literary inventions — are independent of male authority, thus prompting the men around them to probe for and reveal the unexpected sources of their authority. An essay focussed on the writings of Beatrijs of Nazareth and Hadewijch of Antwerp lucidly introduces the striking flowering of pious lay women in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century northern and southern Europe, a movement comprehending individuals and associations as varied as the beguines, tertiaries, the Umiliati and the followers of Francis and Clare of Assisi. Beatrijs and Hadewijch (who is discussed in greater detail in a later essay) are representative of a new attention in late medieval spirituality to the complexity of desire or love and its articulation through sensual erotic language. While I question the applicability of jouissance, l'ecriture feminine, or other concepts drawn from French feminist theory to medieval literature (pp. 56-62, 204-224), the accompanying discussions about the significance of love and bodily metaphors underscore prominent themes in high and late medieval women's spirituality.

Petroff is at her most incisive when undertaking close textual analyses, a case in point being her engaging essay on Hrotsvit of Gandersheim's verse legends Pelagius and Agnes. Her discussion of Agnes is a sensitive study comparing the story of St. Agnes as recounted by Hrotsvit with an earlier depiction by Pseudo-Ambrose and a later thirteenth-century French hagiographical account. Hrotsvit's Agnes, in marked contrast to these accounts of passive victims stoically enduring suffering at the hands of voyeuristic persecutors (and hagiographers), remains the central, controlling subject of the story, active, authoritative, inspiring and personally powerful.

The essay on the transformative power of the image of the serpent-dragon examines its appearance in the early Christian story of St. Margaret of Antioch, its subsequent retelling in the late-thirteenth century Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine and an anonymous fourteenth-century Tuscan legend. She develops her argument further by considering serpent episodes in the vitae of the two Italians, Umiliana de' Cerchi and Verdiana of Castelfiorentino. These stories point up obvious sexual tensions surrounding strong women who choose virginity and who thereby assume a heroic virtue empowering them to transcend conventional sexual stereotyping and to transform their worlds.

Comparative analysis of yet another type would have enhanced and strengthened Petroff's interpretations in several of her essays. The focus on one or a few women in each essay effectively exploits her gift at conveying the power of personal stories, but I sometimes found myself wishing for more of her insights about the prominence of, for example} the serpent-dragon motif in these writings relative to portrayals of other women of the same region and epoch, portrayals of women in the period immwdiately preceding, and, most importantly, portrayals of these women's male counterparts. Explicit or implicit throughout the book is the distinctive character of these women qua women, whether the topic be women's unknowability, spirituality, mode of religious organization, or representation by male writers. Comparing writings by and about the women with texts by and about medieval holy men would confirm or deny the unique character of such women. Petroff suggests (probably quite rightly) that medieval mystical texts by women "derive from a different experience of the body, a different epistemology, and a different relationship to language" (ix). She notes the differences sometimes demarcating male hagiographical and religious writings from texts by women. With this distinction in mind, in an essay synthesizing insights into the rule attributed to Clare of Assisi, Petroff argues for the "revolutionary" character of the religious rule attributed to Clare who chose "a male voice, a male rhetoric, to safeguard the existence of her communities" (72) while yet introducing innovative ideals into her vision of community. Women's associations, whether formalized by life according to a rule or extraregular, did indeed tend to reflect less hierarchy and more porous boundaries than male associations. I would not go quite so far as Petroff who associates the "uniformity of commitment" demanded in the rule with the creation of a "collective" (69), describes the relatively diminished hierarchy among Clare's sisters as "a democratic innovation" (68), and considers this rule to reflect a "utopian vision" — terms to my mind suggesting more radicality than I think the rule warrants. There was, after all, an abbess and distinctions among the sisters (officers, the "discreets" who counseled the abbess). If this were a male order, one wonders whether such uniformity might not be described as regimentation. Perhaps more importantly, the reader needs examples from texts regarding holy men to confirm the extent to which these women stand apart from their male counterparts. While Clare was reluctant to be named abbess, so too was Francis of Assisi disinclined to assume leadership of his male followers. Francis also fundamentally diminished distinctions among the friars. Despite Clare's persistence in requesting the privilege of poverty (a desire reminiscent of Francis' radical commitment to material poverty), she, like Francis, was remarkably submissive to male ecclesiastical superiors.

In another essay, Petroff suggests that the thirteenth-century Italian saints Umilta of Faenza, Umiliana de' Cerchi, Verdiana of Castelfiorentino, and Fina of San Gimignano were knowingly cast by their hagiographers in imitation of the Desert Fathers, thus establishing a sort of secondary literary cycle modelled on the Vitae Patrum. Through comparison of the texts about these women with Athanasius' Life of St. Antony, whom Petroff uses as a paradigm for the other Fathers, she highlights allusions within the vitae to, for example, the desert, solitude, and St. Antony in addition to motifs prevalent in the Vitae Patrum such as the their fierce asceticism and power over animals representing demonic temptations. With no explicit references to earlier hagiography about women or contemporary hagiography about men, the reader is unable to assess the ultimate uniqueness of these texts. Taming or befriending wild animals is a theme prevalent in hagiography of other periods as well. Hagiography about Italian male saints roughly contemporaneous with these women also idealizes the solitary life, saints who reside in cells and hermitages, and rhetoric at times reminiscent of the desert. Saints as common as Francis of Assisi or as obscure as Torello of Poppi passed significant portions of their lives in solitude, practiced extreme austerities, compelled wild animals to obey their commands, and invoked the memoy of or imitated desert ascetics such as St. Antony. Perhaps more notable than these similarities is that most of these saintmy figures, male or female, "hermit" or not, were closely connected to urban societies.

But even without more explicit discussion comparing these women with medieval men, this book stands as a significant contribution. The thought-provoking character of these essays is borne out by the curiosity they enkindle, the ever more complicated issues they raise. Petroff goes further than most scholars in pressing for clarity not just about women, whether historical figures or idealized inventions, but about the more elusive question of gender. Throughout the essays she persuasively shows how medieval holy women, both as authors and subjects, manage to transcend sex roles and gender stereotypes. Her familiarity with the material ranges well beyond more famous figures such as Hrotsvit, Hadewijch, and Margery Kempe to include a host of women, particularly Italians, heretofore overlooked in English-language scholarship. Specialists and non-specialists alike will profit from this book.