Carolyne Larrington

title.none: Mooney, ed., Gendered Voices (Larrington)

identifier.other: baj9928.0107.010 01.07.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Carolyne Larrington, St John's College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Mooney, Catherine, ed. Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Pp. iv, 248. $39.95 HB 0-812-23485-5. ISBN: $19.95 PB 0-812-21687-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.07.10

Mooney, Catherine, ed. Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Pp. iv, 248. $39.95 HB 0-812-23485-5. ISBN: $19.95 PB 0-812-21687-3.

Reviewed by:

Carolyne Larrington
St John's College

This collection of eight essays, with a foreword by Caroline Walker Bynum, and introduction by the editor, investigates a topic of considerable interest in mystic studies, the nature of the collaboration between (usually) the female, less-educated, often lower-status mystic and her male, clerical and often highly-educated collaborator in the production of texts about the mystic's life, visionary experiences and theology. Catherine Mooney's lucid introduction outlines the key questions which the contributors address: how to distinguish between male and female voices in the surviving textual evidence, how to estimate their genderedness, and how far genre is relevant, considering the differing conventions of letters (often authored by the mystic herself) and 'official' hagiography, in particular the type of documentation necessary for canonisation processes. Questions of authorisation, both on the part of the mystic and for the hagiographer, are also explored.

Mooney highlights two main areas of focus, the first being the process by which words of both women and men become texts. What happens when a vernacular is transcribed into Latin? Is the filter this process represents one which produces common effects in different collaborations? Where the texts of women writers are preserved alongside the same material differently treated by men, it becomes possible to see which themes, attitudes and aspects of reported experience are gender- specific, and, possibly, a method which allows the identification of the female voice within male-authored texts can evolve, so that we can undertake "reading with a sharper eye". (4) The second area of focus is the divergent emphases in theme and content. The female mystics speak of themselves as more active and assertive, while their male collaborators see them as mysterious and other-worldly. Imagery differs; Hildegard herself, for example, hardly makes any use of nuptial imagery while one of her hagiographers, Theodoric of Echternach, employs it freely. The hagiographers also correct the prototypes for their female collaborators, orienting them towards female models whether Old or New Testament, or among the saints, rather than the males with whom the female mystic might often identify herself. Later anthologisations and florilegia serve to give a relatively neutralised and conformist impression of the mystic where the reality (as in the case of Wynkyn de Worde's selections from Margery Kempe, set against the "Book of Margery Kempe" itself) may be far more contentious and challenging.

The individual contributors provide both uniformity of topic and variety of treatment, usually endeavouring to sketch the necessary introductory facts about lesser-known figures as well as addressing some aspects of their collaborative partnerships which bring the questions outlined in the introduction into sharp relief. Barbara Newman's examination of Hildegard shows how the collective and successive authors of her Vita mould her own account of her life, changing it from first to third person and back again, underlining the authorisation she received from the pope, and realigning her with female Old Testament figures rather than the prophets with whom she identified herself. Anne L. Clark's chapter on Elisabeth of Schonau dissects the ways in which Elisabeth's brother Ekbert "managed" his sister's visionary output, not only recording her visions but asking questions prompting Elisabeth to find answers to questions which interested him: the bodily assumption of the Virgin, or Ursula and her 11,000 virgins for example. Elisabeth's voice can, it is argued, be uncovered in the texts, insisting on her own experience rather than on comparison with biblical models, which is her brother's habitual mode. Elisabeth does not notice her femininity as problematic, but regards her visions and her relationships with God and his saints as fundamental to her life, while for her brother the visions are quite separable from Elisabeth's existence in the world.

Catherine Mooney's account of Clare of Assisi shows that where Clare of Assisi regards herself as actively following in the footsteps of Christ and of Francis of Assisi, her hagiographer prefers to present her as herself constituting a footprint, and the delicate footprint of the Virgin Mary, at that, rendering her as a conduit or mediatrix, a mark rather than a maker of marks in the world. This effacement of Clare's agency also leaves its traces on the later vitae of Francis, who becomes unrecognisably misogynistic in consequence. Amy Hollywood is able to compare Beatrice of Nazareth's own "Seven Manners of Loving God" with the treatment of the same material by her hagiographer. Beatrice's accounts of her soul's experience, imagined in metaphorical terms, become somatic symptoms to her hagiographer: the "as if" is elided and she is depicted as under literal attack by demons, and racked by fevers. Beatrice talks about her soul; the hagiographer writes about Beatrice as if she were a unitary self. Hollywood takes issue with the focus on the somatic which has shaped the study of female mystics hitherto and argues for an exploration of interiorisation, away from the male-regulated interpretation of bodily signs, or visions which can be verbally recounted towards ecstatic and inexpressible experience.

The final two chapters, Karen Scott on Catherine of Siena and Dyan Elliott on Dorothea of Montau take different approaches to their subjects. By now the idea that it is the male observer who is interested in the female body as a site for God's miraculous interventions and signs to the world and that the female saint herself is relatively unconcerned with her corporeality is becoming familiar. Scott demonstrates how Catherine herself stressed her apostolic calling, how Raymond of Capua rearranged and ordered her spiritual and visionary experiences, including her accounts of mystical death, with the aim of producing an acceptable vita for canonisation purposes. Careful close reading of a late letter of Catherine in which she offers up her heart to save Rome from revolt against Raymond's treatment of the same experience as a simple matter of Catherine's willingly dying to save the city illuminates the differences between saint and hagiographer that we have come to expect. Dyan Elliott's account of John of Marienwerder's involvement in the elevation of the problematic Dorothea of Montau focuses on John's self-authorisation strategies, John only has control over and access to Dorothea for the last 20 weeks of her life; during this time her unruly past must be interrogated to provide her hagiographer with the material he needs for an authoritative account of her marriage and earlier spiritual experiences. Elliott makes eloquent use of canonization documents to show how John controlled the textualisation of Dorothea to such an extent that his account is ventriloquised by those who had known the saint in the past and who bear witness at the canonisation proceedings. She marvellously captures "the double-edged idiom of self-effacing self-aggrandisement so characteristic of mystical discourse" (185) which this collection so deftly teases out.

For a volume so closely focussed on one particular aspect of the mystical tradition to avoid repetitiousness, to prove its overall theses, to introduce a group of figures who are often not particularly well-known and to advance our understanding of the mystic's collaboration and textualisation is a considerable achievement which the editor and her contributors have brought off triumphantly.