contributor.author: Margaret Pappano

title.none: Peters, Patterns of Piety (Margaret Pappano)

identifier.other: baj9928.0410.010 04.10.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Margaret Pappano, Queen's University, Kingston, pappanom@post.queensu.ca

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Peters, Christine. Patterns of Piety: Women, Gender and Religion in Late Medieval and Reformation England. Series: Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xv, 389. $65.00 0-521-58062-5. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.10.10

Peters, Christine. Patterns of Piety: Women, Gender and Religion in Late Medieval and Reformation England. Series: Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xv, 389. $65.00 0-521-58062-5. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Margaret Pappano
Queen's University, Kingston
pappanom@post.queensu.ca

Patterns of Piety: Women, Gender and Religion in Late Medieval and Reformation England is somewhat of a general title, rendering it unclear what exactly will be explored in the ensuing 349 pages. It turns out that such a title is necessary since Christine Peters casts her net widely, examining an immense range of devotional practices and forms of piety. Given the historical breadth of her study, which does in fact live up to its subtitle in its coverage of both medieval and early modern societies, her book is clearly an accomplishment, revealing layers of carefully-laid research. It is particularly impressive and entertaining to read for its imaginative deployment of evidence: wall-paintings, church warden's accounts, wills, religious treatises, funeral sermons, advice literature, dramatic texts, ballads, and court records are just some of the kinds of material discussed. (Thankfully, the book is also abundantly illustrated.) Since Peters has concentrated on the experience of the middling laity, a group that is not always well documented, this variety of evidence is necessary to make her case. In general she is careful to engage with the critical debates around certain kinds of evidence, so there is not a bewildering assortment of materials thrown together but arguments created around specific genres.

The book is divided into two parts: Medieval Catholicism and Early Modern Protestantism. The great virtue of the book is that it is about both plus their relation to one another. As such, the book stands out from many studies that ultimately subordinate one period to the other in the interest of generating a field-specific argument. Both medievalists and early modernists will find many things of use and many of their assumptions challenged in this study. Peters' central argument is that late medieval "Christocentric devotion offered a bridge to the Reformation in terms of religious understanding." (4) Her first five chapters are devoted to consolidating her position on medieval devotional life in the parish context. She maintains that fifteenth-century devotions showed a tendency to an exclusive focus on Christ's passion, which separated him from a human drama of suffering and thus the average parishioner. She demonstrates that, in contrast, saints lost their power as intercessors and became humanized, responsible for particular tasks but not for the soul's salvation. Moreover, virginity was downplayed as an element in the special status of saints, bringing them closer to parishioners' experience. Although the Virgin Mary maintained a role as an intercessor, she was frequently shown petitioning her son rather than acting on her own and had a diminished value in terms of her maternity and divinity. Peters claims that fifteenth-century England favored representations of the adult, crucified Christ and pietà over the Christ Child and Madonna. The former iconography places the Virgin Mary as a "witness, representative and tutor of mankind." Such a change accounts for the Virgin's appeal equally to men and women, stripping her of a specific gendered orientation. Peters cautions against reading the passionate mystical writings that celebrate merging with Christ in the parish context. She insists that the wounded Christ was a symbol of "moral obligation" rather than identification for the average parishioner. All of this laid the groundwork for the more individual relation to a more abstract God that emerges in the Reformation. The first section reads almost like a complete and very insightful book on late medieval religion.

The second section is an even longer and covers Reformation practices in terms of lay responses and representational strategies. There is more focus on the domestic unit with chapters on "The Godly Woman" and "Godly Marriage." Peters returns to the subject of Virgin Mary and the saints from section one to argue that the Virgin and Mary Magdalene are reformulated to express distance from and incomprehension of Christ, echoing the laity's own experience. This change appears as an attenuation of a process already begun in the fifteenth century. While the medieval section included a chapter on Eve, demonstrating a tendency to place responsibility for sin jointly on the couple, the Reformation section includes a chapter on Adam in which Peters argues that Adam is frequently depicted as solely responsible for the fall, a product of the Protestant promotion of male rationality and responsibility as central to the family. One of the most interesting discussions in the second section has to do with the development of the "Susanna and the Elders" story in Renaissance culture. Peters maintains that its prominence has to do not so much with Susannah's role as a model of proper behavior for wives' faithfulness to their husbands but as a model for all in terms of faithfulness to God. Here, as elsewhere, Peters' larger motive is to show that a representation that has been traditionally seen as relating to women's concerns was actually relevant to both genders.

In addition to her main argument about continuity through Christocentric religion, Peters has a sub-plot: the experience of women in devotional life. In her development of this theme, Peters responds to historians who have generally located loss for women in the shift from medieval Catholicism to Protestantism. Focusing exclusively on religious representation, Peters does not discuss the impact of fluctuations in power in the economic and political sphere on these issues of representation. She maintains that in fact many experiences of parish-based devotional life were non-gender specific in Catholicism and continued as such under Protestantism (or if they were gender-specific, this could be explained in terms of access to different kinds of resources or performance of social roles, but not, it seems, gender bias). In both periods women were seen as more prone to and or responsible for piety, but despite this, there were not many gendered aspects of religious practice. Peters argues that men and women participated in religion more as individuals and in non-gender-specific ways. I wondered about the implications of this. If women were more responsible for piety in the family and more associated with pious practices, but yet piety itself is marked as non-gendered, should one see whether there was a deliberate attempt to take something important that women do and represent it as non-gendered so as to diffuse some of the value onto men?

In general, Peters locates her project in local, specific structures and avoids making arguments that could be construed as feminist. She is not concerned with a pattern of social behavior but with patterns, most of which demonstrate that men as well as women were targets of constrictive behavioral models (she uses the term "stereotype"). Her work becomes highly polemical at times, as she takes on scholars like Laura Gowing for what amounts to charges against their too-quick assumptions about misogynist rhetoric in early modern texts. Clearly, a great strength of Peters book is her focus on masculine discourses which show how men's behavior was monitored and formulated according to religious prescriptions as much as women's. In her chapter on "Godly Marriage" she examines the marital advice literature, responding to critics who have misinterpreted the concept of female "subjection" and not examined the equal focus on the male role in such literature. In her close analysis of William Gouge's Of Domesticall Duties, she argues that subjection is mutual, albeit different, for both marriage partners, and both are bound up with proper Christian subjection to God. Men's roles are also prescribed in these domestic models: although their role is not to obey, they must assume authority, which entails its own set of practices. She argues, "Authority is harder to maintain than subjection, because it requires a more careful exercise of judgement. The wife might find the duty of reverence hard to square with the behavior of her husband, but it was at least clear what she was supposed to do." (324) Such a sentence makes some sense in the context of her analysis of the advice manuals, which shows some complex maneuvers in describing how the husband was to exercise his powers over the wife. But it is also troubling because even if a wife has the relief of knowing more precisely what is expected from her, it does not necessarily follow that it is easier to resign herself to a role with such little scope for independent expression and responsibility. Would she have said that her role was easier than her husband's? What is at stake in asserting that one gender has it easier than another? I wondered why Peters chose to make a value judgment at this point in her text. Indeed, she appears to anticipate critical response a few paragraphs later when she writes, "This framework of understanding does not mean that the idea of wifely obedience or subjection was insignificant, but that it could be understood in a way that was more acceptable and less one-sided than historians often assume. It does not need to be seen in terms of misogynistic oppression, whether conscious or unconscious, but rather as part of a balance of duties." (326) She then goes on to argue that "although the women of Blackfriars chafed at some of Gouge's statements, it is notable that the female name which grew most in popularity in the seventeenth century was Sarah, the model of the submissive and obedient behavior of wives to their husbands" (326). I found the argument about the name "Sarah" a perplexing use of evidence in this context. Although I assumed that Peters included it here to demonstrate that the submissive and obedient model of a wife was actually accepted by early modern women, I couldn't see how this was relevant unless we could assume that the submissive wives chose the names of their daughters. Maybe they obeyed their husbands and went along with whatever name he wanted?

This raises a more general question about methodology. Although Peters is attentive to the situatedness of her evidence in class terms, she fails to point out that most of the texts she includes are written by men or produced in male-controlled institutions and therefore fails to discuss the implications of this bias on the representations she studies. Because she is concerned to argue that many of the models hitherto seen as misogynist or targeted at women are actually not, it seems critical that she note the paucity of female-authored discourse. Peters refers to the fact that Gouge's female parishioners had protested his model of wifely subjection, only to dismiss it. But it is precisely these voices that have been left largely undocumented in her study. If others have made too much of them in her view, perhaps it is because they are so rarely preserved and this should be taken into account.

Overall, I was deeply impressed by the scholarship of the book, the skill of argumentation, the care of presentation, and the imaginative use of diverse materials. I consider it unfortunate that the author occasionally allowed her argument to be driven by scholarly polemic rather than historical evidence. Otherwise, this is a fascinating, insightful, and challenging study well worth the price of a Cambridge University book.