Nancy Caciola

title.none: Lehmijoki-Gardner, Worldly Saints (Nancy Caciola)

identifier.other: baj9928.0202.002 02.02.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Nancy Caciola, University of California, San Diego,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Lehmijoki-Gardner, Maiju. Worldly Saints: Social Interaction of Dominican Penitent Women in Italy, 1200-1500. Bibliotheca Historica 35. Helsinki: Suomen Historiallinen Seura, 1999. Pp. 189. ISBN: 9-517-10097-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.02.02

Lehmijoki-Gardner, Maiju. Worldly Saints: Social Interaction of Dominican Penitent Women in Italy, 1200-1500. Bibliotheca Historica 35. Helsinki: Suomen Historiallinen Seura, 1999. Pp. 189. ISBN: 9-517-10097-3.

Reviewed by:

Nancy Caciola
University of California, San Diego

The use of hagiographies as a rich source for the history of medieval women has been among the most important advancements in medieval historiography of the past two decades. By now this trend has affected the discipline at all levels, from undergraduate teaching, to graduate dissertation researches, to conference presentations and panels. Indeed, the study of medieval women saints remains among the strongest sub-fields within medieval studies, and the proliferation of monographs and essay collections devoted to the topic shows no signs of abating. Yet as this conversation enters its second generation, it risks losing some of its freshness. The study of medieval women saints is now sufficiently well-established to permit some intellectual recycling, and not all new publications offer new perspectives on the material.

Happily, Maiju Lehmijoki-Gardner's Worldly Saints: Social Interaction of Dominican Penitent Women in Italy, 1200-1500 adds an appealing new voice to this conversation. Her study is a close investigation of the dense network of linkages that connected religious laywomen to the broader world around them: family, community, religious order, city. Thus rather than exploring women's inner experience, Lehmijoki-Gardner treats the women's social context in all its multi-layered complexity. In so doing, she treads an avenue of investigation that has received little attention in previous English-language publications. Lehmijoki-Gardner evidently is Finnish (to judge from her acknowledgments), but her scholarly outlook is reminiscent of the Italian historiographical tradition, which has long been characterized by strong engagement with the urban context of late medieval religious movements. Whatever the origins of Lehmijoki-Gardner's scholarly stance, however, I am glad that she has brought her work to an English-reading audience, for Worldly Saints recontextualizes familiar evidence in useful new ways. The book should be effective for undergraduate teaching as well as for more advanced scholars seeking a different viewpoint on this material.

By defining her investigation as devoted to Dominican penitent women in Italy, Lehmijoki-Gardner signals her commitment to a close reading of a limited number of sources from a unified socio-religious field. The subjects of her study include Benvenuta Boiani, Giovanna of Orvieto, Jacopina of Pisa, Margherita of Citta` di Castello, Sybillina Biscossi, Villana Botti, Catherine of Siena, Maria Mancini, Maria of Venice, Margherita of Savoy, Margherita Fontana, Magdalena Panatieri, Osanna of Mantua, Stafana Quinzani, Lucia Bartolini Rucellai, Columba of Rieti, Lucia Brocadelli, Catherine of Racconigi, and Osanna of Cattaro. Inevitably, however, Catherine of Siena dominates the sample, both because of the large amount of surviving evidence about her, and because she was such a towering influence upon the women who followed her in time. While this imbalance occasionally has the unfortunate effect of making the other women appear as mere supplements to Catherine, there really is no way to avoid or redress this inequality. Lehmijoki-Gardner thus wisely chooses to acknowledge Catherine's evidentiary preeminence in her study openly.

In another regard, however, Catherine's status as prima inter pares remains tacit. Catherine of Siena is the only woman in Lehmijoki-Gardner's sample to have been formally canonized, yet the book refers to all nineteen women as "saints." This has the effect of leveling the spiritual hierarchy that forms the heart of late medieval sanctity, with its increasingly elaborate and bureaucratic investigative procedures aimed at authenticating saintly status. I found this decision troubling: in a study that is explicitly devoted to women penitents' relationships with their contextual world, surely canonization matters in some way. I shall return to this point briefly below

Lehmijoki-Gardner's strict delimitation of evidence is both a strength and a weakness of Wordly Saints. On the one hand, the close investigation into the lives of these nineteen pinzochere, all living between 1255 and 1565, permits Lehmijoki-Gardner to elucidate common patterns of life that may be viewed as distinctive to Dominican laywomen, and also to trace the networks of influences these women exerted upon one another. These are insights that would be unavailable from a wider, more diverse evidentiary sample. On the other hand, Worldly Saints cleaves so closely to the level of thick description that this reader occasionally wished for a broader frame of analysis. Most of the book is a synchronic presentation of the forms of life adopted by these women within their historical context. The first four chapters of the book foreground thematic expositions over historical or cultural analyses. Only in the last of five chapters does Lehmijoki-Gardner offer a more explicitly diachronic analysis, focusing upon an area of cultural tension and a resulting historical change.

The Introduction to Worldly Saints is numbered as Chapter 1, and gives a brief recounting of the book's goals and themes. I shall therefore move on to the first substantive chapter, Chapter 2. "Attending the Celestial Spouse in Poverty and Humility" is devoted to discussing the forms of religious life that began to involve the laity in great numbers beginning around the turn of the twelfth century. As Lehmijoki-Gardner points out, enclosure regulations for female monasteries had been only laxly enforced in the generations leading up to the penitent movement; thus the idea of a home-dwelling nun already had some social currency even before the advent of the vita apostolica model. What was truly distinctive about the new movements, Lehmijoki-Gardner suggests, was "not the form of life itself, but the fact that women's piety in the secular world was seen as a sanctifying ideal" (29). Worldly Saints sketches out the broad panorama of these movements, beginning with the humiliati and the beguines. The chapter then traces the differing developments of the Franciscan and Dominican penitent branches, drawing attention to the fact that the Minors were far more effective in gaining early recognition for their Third Order than were the Preachers. The lay penitents of the latter group existed for more than a century before gaining a full papal imprimatur. Lehmijoki-Gardner reads this fact as indicative of a greater ambivalence and caution amongst the Dominican promoters of laywomen than among their Franciscan counterparts. The chapter closes with a series of thumbnail sketches of the nineteen women whose vitae form the main evidentiary base of the book.

Chapter 3, "In Church, at Home, or Wherever She Went," investigates the physical spaces in which Dominican pinzochere conducted their religious lives. Living as members of secular communities, yet also as devotees of the religious life with stern commitments to prayer, poverty, and (if possible) chastity, penitent women were expected to fulfill demands from two different worlds. These demands could sometimes be in sharp conflict, most notably in the case of widows. Such women might be expected to maintain a household and care for children and property, while simultaneously adopting the habit of a penitent and a rigorous schedule of prayer. As Lehmijoki-Gardner notes, however, though widows often appear in the background of texts devoted to other women penitents, there are no substantial hagiographies devoted to penitent widows in their own right. This fact suggests that such women may often have adopted penitential dress as a way of fulfilling social obligations to their husband's families, rather than to satisfy individual religious impulses. For contemporaries the most impressive type of penitent, at least in terms of inspiring hagiographies, seems to have been an unmarried daughter pursuing a religious life in the parental home. These were, of course, the circumstances surrounding Catherine of Siena's religious career, and Lehmijoki-Gardner devotes a central section of this chapter to discussing Catherine's hagiography, especially the description of her "mental cell." This is how Catherine's admirers described her preparation of an interior space in which to pursue pious meditation, while minimizing the tumult and distraction of the urban home. In a similar vein, the Dominican Third-Order habit could itself become a mobile, yet enclosed "space" in which the penitent could act in the world yet remain symbolically separated from it.

The fourth chapter, "One Should not Abandon Other People," explores the unique advantages of a worldly life for pursuit of the vita activa. While a large proportion of studies of medieval women saints focus upon their interior life and experience--the vita contemplativa--Lehmijoki Gardner here again turns her gaze outward and in so doing uncovers fruitful new perspectives on the material. The chapter provides a close investigation of sanctification through moral engagement and activity, rather than through astounding supernatural graces or miracles. The main focus here is on the symbolic transposition of the moral values of the cloister to the worldly sphere. Thus monastic values like manual labor and charity, for example, were reinscribed within the domestic context of the urban home through the creative appropriations of penitent women. A section on "sanctifying house chores," for example, explores the ways in which Dominican penitent women and their hagiographers understood domestic labor as a form of charity. Indeed, Lehmijoki-Gardner points out that the focus of the Dominican hagiographies, in particular, was on the strict privatization of acts of charity, as in praying for a neighbor, private teaching and nursing of the sick, or meditative exercises surrounding chores. This forms a contrast with the more public and outward-directed charity of some of the Franciscan penitent women, such as Margaret of Cortona. Again, the benefits of Lehmijoki-Gardner's coherent data sample is here illustrated to excellent effect.

Chapter 5, "Because the Internal and Mental Functions are the Most Noble," is in my view the most ambitious section of the book, and therefore also the most engaging. Here Lehmijoki-Gardner treats criticisms of penitent women's worldly piety, noting that public responses to these individuals ranged from adulation to skepticism. As Lehmijoki-Gardner notes, the women's own families often presented a consistent series of obstacles to their choices. Parents urged them to marry, to moderate their asceticism, or to be more sociable; siblings complained of their strange habits; husbands and children felt neglected. The broader Dominican Order, too, sometimes presented difficulties to their own penitent followers. Women who were too ascetic and religious for their families sometimes were regarded as too worldly by other Dominicans. Moreover, women who became too magnetic or extreme could elicit ambivalence or even censure from the Order since, as Lehmijoki-Gardner astutely points out, "individualism in such collective organizations as medieval religious orders was regarded negatively (133)."

Lehmijoki-Gardner alludes only briefly to the broader disputes occurring at this time over penitent women (127). Acknowledgment of the discernment of spirits and the related issue of canonization, for example, could have extended Lehmijoki-Gardner's discussion of these criticisms to the more universal social level that they occupied at this time period. Indeed, it was not just families and fellow-Dominicans who were concerned about penitent women: this was an issue of rather intense public dispute, most notably at the Council of Constance. Thus it was in the context of this chapter, in particular, that I noticed the "flattening" of the saintly hierarchy that I alluded to above. That public controversies about these women existed at all implies that they were not universally regarded as saints; to designate them all by the vocabulary of sanctity is to disguise this historical reality.

In conclusion, however, I would like to draw attention to a rather trenchant insight of Chapter 5. One result of the social tensions over penitent women, Lehmijoki-Gardner argues, was a move "toward a more secluded female piety (127)" that occurred over the course of the fifteenth century. Thirteenth- and fourteenth-century pinzochere were most likely to pursue their religious prerogatives in private homes, and remained attached to the public sphere of the marketplace, the neighborhood church, and local plazas. By the sixteenth century, however, such women were more likely to withdraw to religious communities that maintained a relatively strict separation from the world. To be a worldly saint thus became a less viable option as the Middle Ages wore on, for pious women increasingly were encouraged to pursue a cloistered, communal religious life. This is an important argument that helps historicize women's religious movements. By identifying this moment of transition in the contextual setting of Dominican women's piety, Lehmijoki-Gardner directs our attention to the diachronic dimensions of the subject, its moments of rupture and evolution. This material suggests that the Dominican penitents, like the beguines and the humiliati before them, were increasingly regularized and brought under the direct supervision of representatives of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.