Fiona Griffiths

title.none: Dor et al., eds., New Trends in Feminine Spirituality (Griffiths)

identifier.other: baj9928.0011.002 00.11.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Fiona Griffiths , University of Lethbridge,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Dor, Juliette, Lesley Johnson, and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, eds. New Trends in Feminine Spirituality: The Holy Women of Liège and their Impact. Medieval Woman: Texts and Contexts. Turnhout: Brepols, 1999. Pp. 2, 349. $45.00. ISBN: 2-503-50768-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.11.02

Dor, Juliette, Lesley Johnson, and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, eds. New Trends in Feminine Spirituality: The Holy Women of Liège and their Impact. Medieval Woman: Texts and Contexts. Turnhout: Brepols, 1999. Pp. 2, 349. $45.00. ISBN: 2-503-50768-9.

Reviewed by:

Fiona Griffiths
University of Lethbridge

The second volume in a series devoted to the 'texts' and 'contexts' of medieval women, New Trends in Feminine Spirituality brings together fifteen essays addressing various aspects of medieval women's religious experience. The bulk of these were presented as conference papers at Liège in 1996; only two appeared previously elsewhere. The subtitle of the book might seem to suggest that the essays concern themselves primarily with the holy women of Liège; however, their subjects, geographic scope and chronology in fact range much more broadly. Few of the essays confine themselves either to Liège or to the thirteenth century, the period highlighted in the introduction as the suggested site of a woman's renaissance. Rather, they include French Flanders from the mid-thireenth century, late medieval England, fourteenth-century Sweden, northern France and the contemporary United States. Beguines, recluses, devout laywomen, demoniacs, and one man in women's clothing -- Dame Procula of the fifteenth-century N-Townplays -- comprise the subjects.

This tremendous breadth of subjects reflects the comparative purpose of the volume's editors. Taking the much-studied diocese of Liège as a test case for female spirituality, the volume seeks in part to determine if it can be seen as indicative of a "women's movement" in Europe during the thirteenth century. Was Liège a"special case," as Brenda Bolton argues for the low countries, or did it exert influence across Northern Europe in shaping women's religious lives (part two of the subtitle -- the 'impact' of the holy women of Liège)?

In conjunction with its emphasis on Liège, the volume poses seminal questions concerning the direction of contemporary scholarship on medieval religious women. In their shared introduction, Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and Marie-^Ãlisabeth Henneau ask, "Was there a women's movement in the thirteenth century and is such a question meaningful in its medieval context?" (p. 1). Although posed almost as an afterthought, the second question ("is such a question meaningful?") is of tremendous methodological importance. The authors recognize the "huge increase in interest in medieval women, and especially medieval holy women, of the last twenty or thirty years" (p. 17). This is an interest, of course, of which New Trends is a product. Conscious of the need to examine the impulses that animate contemporary scholarship, Wogan-Browne and Henneau go on to question, "what kinds of investments and constructions are useful in scholarship on medieval women? How to re-conceive a historiography from which women were largely absent without simply creating a past in the image of our own generation" (p. 17).

As it examines the new trends in women's spirituality that emerged during the thirteenth century, New Trends also provides a possible forum for the discussion and evaluation of new trends in contemporary scholarship concerning medieval women. Unfortunately only a few of the essays take up the challenge for scholars to explore the influences underlying contemporary scholarship. Penny Galloway notes the ways in which scholars' interests shape the telling of history, emphasizing the spectacular and downplaying the ordinary in the case of religious women. Ulrike Wiethaus explores the fascination with medieval women in the modern media in an essay entitled "Female spirituality, medieval women, and commercialisation in the United States." Ultimately, however, the questions posed by Wogan-Browne and Henneau are more provocative than prescriptive. The volume's essays may not answer these questions directly; even so, together they contribute a vast store of comparative knowledge from which the reader can begin to draw her own conclusions.

Following the introduction, the volume is divided (although not explicitly, which would have been of enormous help to the reader) into four sections of unequal length. The first section, which comprises the first three essays, deals with particular themes in the lives of medieval religious women. Barbara Newman's essay "Devout women and Demoniacs in the World of Thomas of Cantimpre'" is adapted from an article that appeared first in Speculum in 1998. In it, she highlights the prevalence of women amongst those who suffered from demonic torments from the thirteenth century (p. 38), suggesting that in many cases "demoniacs bear a startling if superficial resemblance to prophetic female saints" (p. 47). Through her sympathetic and insightful treatment of the life of Christina Mirabilis ("the Astonishing"), Newman also explores the complex relationship that existed between the female saint and her male biographer. She charts the way in which Christina's literary transformation from lunatic to saint was achieved by her biographer, Thomas of Cantimpre'^Î. Else Marie Wiberg Pedersen's "The In-carnation of Beatrice of Nazareth's Theology" takes as its starting point the premise that "many of the assumptions and allegations about holy women as extremely self-abnegating figures can be ascribed to their hagiographers" (p. 61). Beatrice's case is unique in that, unlike many of the other mulieres sanctae who can be known only through the hagiographic lens of a male biographer, Beatrice was also the author of a vernacular treatise, the Seven Manieren van Heiliger Minnen. Through her comparison of Beatrice's Seven Manieren with the Latin vita Beatricis composed by an anonymous confrater, Pedersen draws attention to the hagiographer's tendency to externalize and physicalize the internal and spiritual in Beatrice's theology. Underlying her paper is the question: how feminine is 'feminine' spirituality? Or put another way, to what extent was 'feminine' spirituality the product of women and not simply a construct of male-authored hagiography? In the final essay of this section, "Undutiful Daughters and Metaphorical Mothers among the Beguines," Alexandra Barratt explores the family dynamics and use of maternal imagery in the lives of female saints.

The three essays which constitute the second section deal most directly with the comparative intent of the volume: Penny Galloway, "Neither Miraculous nor Astonishing. The Devotional Practice of Beguine Communities in French Flanders;" Brenda Bolton, "Twelfth-Century Religious Women. Further Reflections on the Low Countries 'Special Case';" and Bridget Morris, "Brigittines and Beguines in Medieval Sweden." Galloway's essay challenges one of the most prevalent trends in scholarship concerning women's spirituality -- the emphasis on the spectacular. From her examination of beguine communities in Douai and Lille, Galloway concludes that beguines in community adhered to a "thoroughly conventional patters of religious observance" (p. 123). Her study demonstrates that the highly charged accounts of female piety that appear in the accounts of Liège were not a part of the community practices of ordinary beguines in French Flanders just a generation later. Brenda Bolton begins her essay by asking why there were never beguine communities in England, an area that was similar in many ways to the lowlands. Following a brief but very valuable bibliographic survey of recent scholarship, Bolton proceeds with a detailed examination of the demographic factors that made the beguines of the lowlands a "special case" in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century. She then offers a comparison between the situation of beguines in the lowlands and that of recluses in England, and, although her essay does not close with a "conclusive answer" (p. 151) to her original question, she provides a wealth of learning in the process. In the last essay of this group, Bridget Morris explores similarities and differences between St. Birgitta of Sweden, whose religious life joined the public with the contemplative, and the holy women of Liège. Suggesting tht irgitta probably had some knowledge of Marie d'Oignies (p. 167), Morris asserts that neither she nor other beguine women, heavily influenced Birgitta's piety.

The third section is taken up with essays that examine the impact that women exerted on each other's religious lives, or, put another way, the ways in which women taught and transmitted pious practices. Space does not permit a detailed discussion of each of the six essays: Marjorie Curry Woods, "Shared books. Primers, Psalters and the Adult Acquisition of Literacy among Devout Laywomen in Orders in Late Medieval England;" Carolyne Larrington, "Representing the Presentation. The Candlemas Vision and Marie d'Oignies' Role in its Dissemination;" Anneke Mulder-Bakker, "The Prime of their Lives. Women, Age, Wisdom and Religious Careers in Northern Europe;" Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, "Satirical Views of the Beguines in Northern French Literature;" Katie Normington, "Dreams Made Public? Juliana of Mont Cornillon and Dame Procula;" and Jane Chance, "Speaking in Propria Persona. Authorising the Subject as a Political Act in Late Medieval Feminine Spirituality." Finally, the last section examines the modern reception of and engagement with medieval religious women. It includes Wiethaus, Luce Irigaray's translated essay, "The Way of the Feminine" and Antonia Lacey, "Gendered Language and the Mystic Voice. Reading from Luce Irigaray to Catherine of Siena." Poems by Anne Blonstein, thematically a part of this section, are scattered throughout the volume.

In part because of the number of essays included in the volume -- fifteen plus introduction -- and in part due to the all too often disjointed nature of collections, New Trends is at times lacking in unity. Although the introduction poses a number of important questions concerning scholarship by and about medieval women, these do not provide the focus for the individual essays, some of which appear to be related only tenuously to the volume's purpose. Key terms are used vaguely. Neither the editors nor the contributors offer a workable definition of "feminine spirituality" -- a pivotal and potentially misleading term. What do we mean when we speak of feminine spirituality, as opposed to female or even women's spirituality? Indeed, how far is it possible to identify pieties presented in medieval male-authored female saint's lives as 'feminine'? New Trends provides no answer. Unfortunately many of the most interesting issues suggested by the title were never fully addressed, for instance the extent to which so-called 'feminine' spirituality may have been the construct of male hagiographers and what this may have to tell us about medieval categories of gender. From a brief mention in the introduction (p. 19), only Pedersen deals with these issues at any length.

Whatever the drawbacks of so large a collection of essays, New Trends is successful in bringing together current work from North America, European and British scholars to shed light on the holy women of Liège. Together with the extensivebibliographies that follow most chapters and the review of recent scholarship that each contains, this makes the volume a welcome and much needed report on current scholarship concerning medieval religious women.