Constance H. Berman

title.none: Ranft, Women and the Religious Life (Berman)

identifier.other: baj9928.9809.008 98.09.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Constance H. Berman, University of Iowa,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Ranft, Patricia. Women and the Religious Life in Premodern Europe. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. Pp. xvi, 159. $17.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-312-17679-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.09.08

Ranft, Patricia. Women and the Religious Life in Premodern Europe. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. Pp. xvi, 159. $17.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-312-17679-1.

Reviewed by:

Constance H. Berman
University of Iowa

Pa tricia Ranft's study can at best be called "a little book for beginners," to paraphrase Benedict of Nursia's description of his compilation of monastic regulations. It covers roughly the same time-span as did David Knowles' From Pachomius to Ignatius, and I am happy to say that it gives serious attention to the contributions of women living the monastic life -- efforts which have been neglected until relatively recently. It is refreshing to have scholars looking at religious women after the long years in which standard texts like Knowles' second edition of his The Monastic Order in Medieval England relegated all twelfth-century nuns to a single paragraph. This survey only scratches the surface of an interesting topic.

In treating the earliest nuns, the author provides the standard list of Christian women living religious lives, but only in the most straight-forward way. At the risk of being deemed a post- modernist, I can only comment that these chapters lack the problematizing of sources undertaken recently by Elizabeth Clark and give no consideration of the gamble which families took in allowing their women to become Christian in a period of transformation described recently by Peter Brown -- a period in which it was not clear which Christianity would win out. Evidence from hagiographical texts is repeated without question, whether we are speaking of the Life of Macrina whose author is writing about the activities and interactions of his own siblings, or three rival lives of Radegunde and her monastery, or Jacques de Vitry's account of the first Beguines, or Clare's struggle to maintain her own community's vow of property -- a struggle over apostolic poverty best understood in a larger context.

Prescriptive texts too are taken literally. For instance, with regard to the papal bull Periculoso, Ranft assumes that legislation about enclosure proves that it was enforced -- whereas many recent discussions have suggested the opposite; the usual interpretation is that frequent legislation may indicate an on-going problem, rather than conformity or enforcement. Definitions are given which fail to comprehend larger problems; in truth every woman's house must be a double community in some sense because of its need for a priest to say mass. Moreover, in such communities of the early Middle Ages women could command because the authority of royal and aristocratic class was far more important than gender. These are points much discussed recently, but missed by this author. Similarly, the perils of mysticism and of the life of the Beguines (often accused of heresy because of the economic threats they posed) are lost in a naive celebration of womanly power in the late Middle Ages -- fraudulent power because it was such a dangerous path to take.

The issues raised here -- and one could point to others -- have elicited much discussion over the past few years among feminist scholars of medieval religious women. Most of their work seems to have been as ignored by this author as it was by the editors of a recent (much complained of) edition of Speculum. There is much in print on religious women for the period; studies by Elizabeth Makowski, Roberta Gilchrist, Brian Golding, Marilyn Oliva, Jo Ann McNamara, Sharon Elkins, Sally Thompson, Jane Schulenburg, Penny Gold, Penny Johnson, Bruce Venarde, and the recent translation of Grundmann's classic 1935 text come to mind, as well as the excellent collections of articles edited by Sister Lillian Shank and John Nichols, and any number of journal articles in a variety of places from Citeaux to Revue Mabillon to the Proceedings of the Western French History Society and Gesta, might have been included in the author's reading.

Documentation and presentation are faulty. For statements on both Cathar and Templar women, there is no reference -- yet what is said, if true, is far from the standard interpretation; there are better citations on Cistercian women, for instance Brigitte Degler-Spengler, than an unpublished PhD dissertation and a frightfully bad survey of women's houses from Cahiers de Fanjeaux. Quotations about the "poison of Praemonstratensian women" are lifted from earlier surveys without identifying medieval authors. Translations are infelicitous -- nuns "showered with" forests? Troyes is not in Belgium, Visitandines is not a place, and le Tart and Fontevrault are not correctly placed on the map on page 14. The complexities increase with the early modern period; I can find no information in the index about the Sisters of Charity in the cover illustration; are these the daughters of Charity?