Cynthia Ho

title.none: Newman, From Virile Woman to Woman Christ (Ho)

identifier.other: baj9928.9702.003 97.02.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Cynthia Ho, University of North Carolina, Asheville,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Newman, Barbara. From Virile Woman to Woman Christ: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. Pp. vi, 355. $41.95 (hb), $19.95 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-812-23273-9 (hb), 0-812-21545-1 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.02.03

Newman, Barbara. From Virile Woman to Woman Christ: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. Pp. vi, 355. $41.95 (hb), $19.95 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-812-23273-9 (hb), 0-812-21545-1 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Cynthia Ho
University of North Carolina, Asheville

The central concerns of this work, the place of the female worshiper and of the feminine divine in Christianity, engages academic scholars in a number of disciplines. But they are equally fascinating for culture watchers interested in religious issues. Resurging interest in the feminine aspect of the Christian God is, in Newman's phrase, "a perennial underground current." Since the Middle Ages, Montanists, Quakers, Shakers, and much more recently the Branch Davidians (before David Koresh's take-over of the leadership from George Roden's widow) have continued to reopen and reexamine the motif of a feminine Holy Spirt.

From Virile Woman to WomanChrist, a collection of Newman's essays, studies medieval Christian women in a wide variety of circumstances: "They were nuns, beguines, recluses, tertiaries, irregulars; they were virgins, mothers, widows and women who had lovers; their origins were noble or peasant or bourgeoises; they were highly learned or illiterate or anywhere in between; they were eulogized, canonized, persecuted, burnt." Newman scrutinizes texts concerning this wide range of women "for the clues they hold about women's gender-specific dilemmas, choices, and ways of being Christian during the period from approximately 1100 through 1500" (2). As the title indicates, the book explores the two paths open to pious women: the virile woman (the woman who piously attempts to become like a man in her faith) or the WomanChrist (the woman who develops a new dispensation or a new understanding of the old dispensation which privileges feminine involvement in the church). The theoretical views of two male authors -- Abelard presented in Chapter 1 and Cornelius Agrippa in Chapter 7 -- delineate the chronological and the ideological parameters of the women Newman discusses. "When these intellectual firebrands [Abelard and Agrippa] addressed the woman problem in Christianity, both created new paradigms that still have power to startle, for they show us the furthest bounds attainable by proto-feminist thought in their respective eras" (8). The continuity of the chapters and the progression of the argument intend to trace the movement from one pole to another, and while this is an effective organizational method, at times it does not completely satisfy because the complexity and subtlety of the overall argument being offered defy too neat a packaging.

Newman also carefully grounds her study in an acknowledgment of the religious reality of the women she is studying. In contrast to a number of latter-twentieth-century studies of religious medieval experience, Newman, simply put, "persist[s] in the belief that religious texts bear witness to religious experience." She explains that "To leave a space for transcendence means to allow for the possibility that, when historical subjects assert religious belief or experience as the motive for their actions, they may at times be telling the truth" (17).

Chapter 1, "Flaws in the Golden Bowl: Gender and Spiritual Formation in the Twelfth Century," begins with a study of the "norms' of the female religious against which the later examples will be contrasted. The first part situates Abelard's monastic writings within the context of a wide range of formative literature. For example, in his response to Heloise's third letter, Abelard denies essential gender difference: "as in name and profession of continence you are one with us, so nearly all our institutions are suitable for you" (19). Newman then traces in "the literature of formation" the ways in which theory presented women as equal, while she notes that practice in fact gave them less freedom (21). Women could counter the misogynist construct presented by both male and female authors in two ways, both of which are discussed at greater length throughout the book. First is the "virile woman" who in being masculine becomes the equal to men; second is in an inverted hierarchy that leaves men behind while elevating the feminine. Newman's study of the implicit and explicit messages in religious texts ranges over familiar topics such as the differential treatment of chastity and less familiar ones such as teaching the communal life (34) and the interest in spiritual growth or dynamism (43).

Chapter 2, "Authority, Authenticity, and the Repression of Heloise" offers an excellent reading of Heloise's own discourse in contrast to the masculine norming of Abelard in Chapter 1. A current review of criticism shows that surprisingly little work has been done on Heloise's writings, apart from the continued debate on the topic "Did Heloise write her own letters?" Thus, in many ways this is one of the strongest chapters of the book because it fills an important interpretive lacuna. Some of the essays in this collection have appeared previously in journals. Chapter 2 first appeared in the Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 22.2, and since that time Newman's arguments on Heloise's authorship (and perhaps her later editorship) of the letters have received critical accolades for her sensitive and persuasive handling of the issue. In this regard, see Nancy Partner, "No Sex No Gender," Speculum 68 (1993): 419-43. In tracing the history of the controversy over the authenticity of Heloise's letters Newman makes the intriguing argument that "There is, in short, an uncanny resemblance between the debate about the text and the debate within the text" in that modern questions about the text attempt to reinforce male authority (46) the way the critics envision Abelard (or some other male author) imposing his authorship over the text.

In her Introduction, Newman points out that in addition to religion and literature, she draws from the disciplines of theology, psychology and sociology. She later specifically defends the use of psychological arguments: "If our goal is to do justice to a text that offers, among other things, two of the most candid probings of conscience and consciousness that medieval sources preserve for us, we will hardly advance by renouncing any of the tools at our disposal" (53). Newman then skillfully uses psychological theory to argue the reasonableness and common sensedness of her approach to the letters. Most important, she asks two questions about the personalities revealed in the letters: first, why would Abelard express such sentiments in a public text; and second, what did Heloise read that created the mind-set from which her opinions sprang. In answering these questions, Newman proves Heloise's authorship, and by extension Abelard's non- authorship, of Heloise's disputed letters, while at the same time confirming the validity of her own method of inquiry.

Chapter 3, "'Crueel Corage': Child Sacrifice and the Maternal Martyr in Hagiography and Romance" investigates women who, in being virile in their pursuits of Christ, make sacrifices both for God and the patriarchal social structures in which they find themselves. Newman examines "a group of saint's lives in which mothers, normally young widows, win praise for abandoning small children or even acquiescing in the children's deaths in order to take religious vows" (77). Here virile woman is turned to woman of tears. This "essay compares the maternal martyr of hagiography with her sister in romance -- the Griselda type heroine who sacrifices her children not for God, but for her husband" (10). The study begins with a discussion of Eastern parallels of a father's sacrifice and turns to the unique "'maternal martyr' paradigm [which] emerges as a tenacious literary convention that duplicates tendencies in the cult of Mary, but also responds to potent social forces acting on medieval mothers, especially young widows" (77). Newman then convincingly argues that the romance maternal martyr replicates the hagiographic sacrifice in designating her children as "goods" which stand in the way of holy commitment. Newman goes on to identify three motifs of this sacrifice: family sacrifice as in biblical paradigms; the maternal martyr such as the mother of Guibert of Nogent who gave up her children as a means of rejecting her own ties to the world; and the cruel mother but loyal wife who sacrifices her children for her husband's benefit. In this last element the romance parallels the phenomena seen in hagiographies. Children are sacrificed for the sake of marriage, to mark the importance of marriage bonds. "Amis and Amiloun" and "Tale of the Seigneur du Chastel" offer two examples wherein the good woman has "total identification with feudal honor and patriarchal values" (103). Interestingly, Newman notes the response of the recent critic Erich Auerbach who even in the 1940s is sympathetic to "paternal honor with maternal martyrdom" (104).

In this chapter we see a number of traits in the book which make it intellectually satisfying as well as entertaining to read. The use of texts range from those familiar only to specialized audiences to those known by most people with a passing interest in medieval literature or women's issues. In addition to more obscure texts, Newman discusses Margery Kempe and "Melibee" and their relationship to the issue of children within marital and religious politics. Throughout the book cross-cultural and cross-generational comparisons make arguments vivid and interesting. In this chapter, as in others, Newman also offers graphic modern connections and comparisons such as examples of contemporary fictions of child sacrifice, Sophie's Choice and Beloved.

In Chapter 4, "Threshold of the Dead: Purgatory, Hell, and Religious Women," Newman argues that the new interest in purgatory offered women "a new sphere of influence for [their] ministerial gifts" (11). Here for the first time in the book we see the WomanChrist role which "inspired a remarkable motif in the theology of a few mystical women, namely a view of hell radically at odds with the orthodox stance on divine justice and eternal punishment. Intercession for souls in purgatory was a clear recommendation for devout women and highlighted by their hagiographers. Among the arenas for women were love service to the family's dead (115) or "Co-Redemption" by which Newman means the transference of merit from a woman's psychological or physical pain to a sufferer in purgatory: "In the context of the prayer for the dead, the familiar stereotypes of masculine justice and feminine compassion could exalt them in defiant humility to God's place" (122). The interesting theological development which came out of these women's purgatorial service was their mystical challenge to Hell's existence. In challenging God to meet the fulness of their own mercy these women seem to be contesting God's own pity/justice (127). The mystic's ultimate mission (as in the case of Mechtild) is "like Abraham arguing with God over Sodom and Gomorrah [in that] she personifies mercy outraged at the sight of vengeance"(128). Marguerite of Porete implies the abolition of hell in her "demande d'amour" in which, with her ultimate mystical love of God, she declares herself to be "the very salvation of all creatures and the glory of God" because she is the sum of all evils (129).

Newman concludes: "on this point, the difference between saint and heretic is more a question of style than of substance. Both covertly assert power against God on the basis of their very nothing-ness, challenging him once more 'to use the things that are not' -- namely themselves -- to confound 'those that are' -- namely the pains of hell" (129). These women's doubts of hell become part of the development of the WomanChrist. For mystics, questions of hell's reality were an "outgrowth of orthodox purgatorial piety" which gave women an expanded empathy. In addition, by their very marginality women had less institutional investment in the orthodox upholding of the idea of hell (135).

Chapter 5, "La mystique courtoise: Thirteenth Century Beguines and the Art of Love," explores the complicated dynamics of the mystical love affair as it was pursued by three literary beguines: Hadewijch, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete. Newman begins by distinguishing "La mystique courtoise" from the more widely discussed monastic discourse of bridal mysticism or "Brautmystik," the "eroticized contemplative practice based on allegorical reading of the Song of Songs and popularized by Bernard of Clairvaux" (138). Newman introduces the text Regle des Fins Amans as an invaluable key to understanding this uniquely thirteenth-century beguinal rapprochement between monastic allegory and secular love poetry (140). Newman also casts this mystic love as a reflection of two elements of the woman: the bridal self and the courtly self. The three important elements of "la mystique courtoise" are first, the topoi of earthly life as exile from God; second, an uncloistered ethos of joyfulness; and third, a contempt for the uncomprehending masses.

Newman provides distinguishing elements among the different ways in which this mystical courtly love can be configured. For example, Mechtild's Flowing Light of the Godhead displays an "emphatically feminine" voice which is both playful and erotic because "at the heart of the divine triad she always found a couple" (151). In these women we see the first overt, specific instances of the WomanChrist which counterpoints the virile woman. For Mechtild, the "abjectly loving soul no longer seeks her Beloved because she is identified with him, imitating Christ's passion so perfectly that she becomes herself a WomanChrist" (162). Hadewijch, in contrast, presents her views in two versions. In Visions she grows toward bride-ship, but in her letters she is much closer to the anguish of the troubadour mode (148). Of the three central women in this chapter, Marguerite Porete is the most critical of Brautmystik. For her, in becoming "amie," she becomes a free soul and lives in a permanent union with God, removed from the separational longings of the other mystics (152). While for both Mechtild and Hadewijch the mystical union is a temporary rather than a permanent state, for Marguerite the mystical union is potentially a permanent state which separates the mystic from the usual redemptive, striving activities of the less perfected Christian. Despite the differences in these women, especially Marguerite's "heretical" stance, all share the goals which Newman locates in Richard of St. Victor's study of erotic obsession On the Four Degrees of Violent Charity which juxtaposes the mystic's "violent charity" and the moral opposite of untamed sexual passion. To illustrate the beguine's contacts with courtly love, Newman reads these same issues in both Roman de silence and Marie's "Yonec."

Chapter 6, "Womanspirit, Woman Pope," is a further discussion of those women (and men) who actively pursue the WomanChrist model, but with an apocalyptic bent. Newman begins by noting the "recurrent linkage of apocalyptic designs with the notion of deity incarnate in a female body and served by feminine priests" (14). One of the most interesting discussions here concerns the Guglielmites whom Newman examines not only as examples of thirteenth-century "enthusiasm" but also as revivalists of "an ancient form of alternative Christianity" which links female charismatic leadership and a feminine Holy Spirit." The story of the Gugliemites presents an interesting trinity containing a princess turned late-in-life prophet, Guglielma, a.k.a. Princess Blazena; her charismatic priestess and aspiring Popess Maifreda; and her personal hagiographer and the producer of "a canon of new epistles and new gospels" about her, Andrea Saramita. The Guglielmite doctrine, or at least Saramita's version of it, concerned a new female dispensation (188). Interestingly, the followers of this group do not seem to be the disenfranchised as so often seen in the other examples, but rather affluent and socially active members of all classes. Much that we know about the group is revealed in the interrogation records which Newman skillfully weaves into a dynamic story of one group's striving for a newly inclusive religion brought forth by a female pope.

The second "would-be atavar" of the spirit Newman discusses, Na Prous Boneta, shares the female apocalyptic vision of the Guglielmites, but she actively "came to believe that she herself was the predestined bearer of the Spirit" (196). Other historical figures who offer variations of this theme are the sixteenth-century humanist Guillaume Post who renewed these ideas in the name of his spiritual "Mother of the World," Mother Johanna, and the confraternity of Eternal Wisdom under the guidance of Fra Battista da Crema (later known as the Congregation of San Paolo).

In this chapter, Newman takes on a number of wide-ranging topics: she demonstrates that the idea of a female Holy Spirit had been long lived in Christianity; she discusses the more radical aspects of Marian piety; she offers the example of the female Holy Spirit in a painting in the Bavarian chapel of Urschalling; and she discusses the interesting example of female eucharistic symbolism in the normally misogynistic Romans La Queste del Saint Graal. Here again, the use of a literary parallel reveals the fabric of the society from another vantage point and reiterates the cultural importance of the religious topics being discussed. This chapter illustrates the book's rich use of multiple sources and multiple critical approaches which reveal subtle shades in the complex religious and lay milieu. For those somewhat abashed by the plethora of examples, two appendixes, "Religious Literature of Formation, 1075-1225" and "Glossary of Religious Women" come in handy. In Newman's pursuit of her overall thesis, nuancing all the individuals carefully, some pieces don't always seem to rejoin the central argument. Nevertheless, this slight lack in thematic tidiness lends the book a sense of intellectual honesty, for as Newman has commented there is no "univocal discourse" nor a neat "binary grid" (245) but rather multiple expressions of the human spirit.

The final chapter, "Renaissance Feminism and Esoteric Theology: the Case of Cornelius Agrippa" examines Agrippa's "On the Nobility and Superiority of the Female Sex," a text which critics in its own day and today cannot agree upon. Its very genre, satire or feminist tract, is still contested. Newman closes with this text because "it embodies a perfect equipoise -- if not a flagrant contradiction -- between the opposing ideals" of gender equality (virile woman) and female superiority (WomanChrist). Agrippa's brief, scandalously popular tract shows the two gender strategies in a moment of convergence or amalgamation, on the way to forming a composite that we could recognizably call 'feminist'" (15). The specifics of Agrippa's arguments concerning Eve, Christ's incarnation, use of biblical example, etc., are interesting in themselves and demonstrate his seeming to have it both ways while at the same time, to mock women with an absurd argument and "to construct a feminist case more radical than anything that earlier or later defenders of the sex had to offer" (242). Here he certainly adds a striking bookend to Abelard at the opening of the book whose arguments for theoretical equality have a much different social end in mind.

Newman closes with the thoughtful plea for meeting these mystics on their own ground: "Their alterity lies in the fact that they were Christians...for it was not because of their commitment to feminism, self-empowerment, subversion, sexuality or 'the body' that they struggled and won their voices; it was because of their commitment to God.... Only by taking their Christianity seriously can we hope to make sense of them" (246).