Claire Waters

title.none: Gongora and de Hemptinne, eds., The Voice of Silence (Claire Waters)

identifier.other: baj9928.0501.038 05.01.38

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Claire Waters, UC Davis,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Gongora, Maria Eugenia and Therese de Hemptinne, eds. The Voice of Silence: Women's Literacy in a Men's Church. Series: Medieval Church Studies, vol. 9. Turnhout: Brepols, 2004. Pp. xiv, 224. $67.00 (hb). ISBN: 2-503-51488-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.01.38

Gongora, Maria Eugenia and Therese de Hemptinne, eds. The Voice of Silence: Women's Literacy in a Men's Church. Series: Medieval Church Studies, vol. 9. Turnhout: Brepols, 2004. Pp. xiv, 224. $67.00 (hb). ISBN: 2-503-51488-X.

Reviewed by:

Claire Waters
UC Davis

This volume of essays is the product of an extended, and clearly very rewarding, Chilean-Flemish collaboration. The contributions range widely, but all of them have to do either with Hildegard of Bingen (whose Symphonia was the particular focus of the Chilean team) or with women's spirituality in the Low Countries. As this pairing would suggest, visionary literature and mysticism, as well as religious community, are significant themes throughout.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, "From Hildegard to Hadewijch: The Reappearance of the Female Voice in Medieval Literate Culture," offers four essays on Hildegard and finishes with one on Hadewijch. The emphases are varied. Jeroen Deploige begins this section with an account of Hildegard as prophetess by way of the theories of Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu. He gives a brief review of ecclesiastical attitudes toward (especially female) prophecy and argues that Hildegard displays both magical and prophetic characteristics in her writings. He concludes that Weber's categories are a useful guide but need to be used with careful attention to historical specificities--a point that, as he notes, Weber himself acknowledged in formulating his schema (5). We then turn to Maria Eugenia Gongora's intriguing though rather compacted discussion of the visual and imagistic impact of Mary's depiction as virga and as feminea forma in Hildegard's Symphonia. At some points one would like further explication of enticing points, such as the tangled and overlapping gender associations of the two images, but Gongora's overall account is rewarding and her point about the biblical roots of the virga image and the more neoplatonic resonances of feminea forma offers a compelling reminder of Hildegard's syncretic thinking and visionary imagination. In the third chapter, Maria Isabel Flisflisch argues that Eve and Mary are repeatedly juxtaposed and contrasted in the Symphonia, Mary being associated with the heavenly Jerusalem, light, and purity, while Eve falls in with the earthly paradise, darkness, sexual lust, and so forth. She notes, though without reference to the previous essay, that femina and feminea forma can encompass womanhood, both Eve and Mary (41-42) and suggests--with reference also to the work of Barbara Newman--that we might see this as indicating a relationship of unity rather than opposition. The fourth chapter of this section, by Beatriz Meli, brings together and harmonizes, as it were, the approaches and concerns of the previous three essays (social context, textual explication, typology) in a close reading of the St. Ursula texts in the Symphonia--Hildegard's only extended treatment of a female saint, as Meli notes. Meli argues that the Ursula texts show virginitas attaining the ultimate auctoritas as Ursula becomes not only Christ's bride but a figure for him, and her reading both offers a sense of Hildegard's capacious creative imagination and demonstrates her intense pragmatism as a visionary who was also leader of a community. The article ends with a convincing claim for Ursula's value as both a corporeal and a spiritual symbol of the story of the foundation of the Rupertsberg. Meli's essay is followed by an equally compelling one by Veerle Fraeters. Fraeters offers a beautifully organized discussion of the individual and collective structure of Hadewijch of Brabant's visions. She argues that Hadewijch's visions have a clear and consistent structure that presents outer situation (e.g., liturgical setting where the vision was experienced); the vision itself "in the spirit"; mystical union with God, described as being "out of the spirit"; and return to oneself. She divines a similar form in the book of visions as a whole, which moves through a roughly ascending series of visions and ends with a non-visionary account of their import. She discusses the relationship to other visionary writings, noting that overall Hadewijch's approach is more in line with those of male clerical writers who recorded women's visions than of other women visionaries or nuns recording their sisters' experiences, and ends with the intriguing claim that the structure of Hadewijch's visions and her book closely follows one of Richard of St Victor's accounts of the four stages of violent love, and leaves the visionary with the task of working in the world to help others as the truest form of unity with God. Like Meli's piece, this essay nicely brings together issues of individual literacy and creativity with their communal context.

The essays in Part II, "Religious Women and Their Books: A Flourishing Reading and Writing Culture," turn more centrally to the categories suggested by the book's title, those of gender and literacy. Walter Simons examines the role of literacy in beguine communities and self-concept from very early days, as well as the (often hostile) responses of clerical observers. Simons gives an incisive account of the subject with tremendous wealth of bibliographic and manuscript detail, noting along the way that surviving accounts of beguine libraries are almost certainly inadequate, since the structure of beguine life (which did not involve a vow of poverty) tended to mean that books were not donated to or kept in libraries, but remained with their owners to be bequeathed as they wished. A number of intriguing points about specific cases and situations along the way contribute to a rich account of the whole range of literate practice and participation--book culture in its broadest sense--among beguines. The essay by Therese de Hemptinne that follows, which begins with a general overview of women and books, might have fit more comfortably before, rather than after, Simons's more specific discussion, as de Hemptinne offers an introduction to certain topics that are more briefly noted by the preceding essay. From its survey of the field, the chapter moves on to account of how books could link lay and religious or semi-religious communities through gifts, bequests, sharing, and conversation, thus working against a sense of separation between the world and the cloister. Youri Desplenter's chapter then builds on what has gone before, reviving the question of music to remind us of the living world of performance and daily worship so central to book usage in the late-medieval context and tying the collection back in to the discussions of the Symphonia with which we began. Desplenter looks particularly at a number of manuscripts that present vernacular (in this case, Middle Dutch) prose translations of liturgical hymns and suggests that they may provide a window onto the practices of certain "semi-religious" communities as they moved toward a more strictly liturgical mode of worship. He goes on to demonstrate that comparison of the manuscripts' content can complement art-historical work already done and thus help to establish their origins and interrelationships. Like the essay by Meli in part I, this discussion brings specific, material questions (of manuscript transmission and ownership, of liturgical practice, of the maintenance of community) to bear on larger issues of women's place in the spiritual developments of the later Middle Ages.

The book's final section, "Literate Women Beheld by Men: Male Representations of Female Writing and Reading Practices," moves us into the world of reception, both medieval and modern, of issues connected to women's literacy. Katrien Heene looks at how sermons, exempla, saints' lives, and didactic treatises treat the question of women's education and learning, noting that these are usually encouraged for purposes of moral improvement, before turning to depictions of holy women in vitae and exempla. She notes that the valuation of literacy as opposed to infused divine knowledge varied--neither was necessarily preferred over the other, whether for women or men. The essay is helpful in its coverage of sources and has some nice ideas for possible future inquiry, such as the suggestive observation that often the most learned women represented in saints' lives are not the saints themselves but their female amanuenses (159). The next piece, by Jeffrey Hamburger, offers a wonderful synthesis of close reading, commentary on the field, and attention to material and historical context. Hamburger discusses a sermon by Johannes Tauler in which the latter expounds upon an image from Hildegard's Scivias that was in some form reproduced in the refectory of the nuns to whom Tauler was preaching. This situation, sufficiently fascinating in itself, also provides Hamburger with the basis for an erudite but very clear discussion of the differences between Hildegard's and Tauler's approaches to the role of vision in mysticism, concluding that there is something irreducibly paradoxical in Tauler's use of and attitude toward images. Like the chapters on music, this essay helpfully broadens our sense of what "literacy" might have meant in the contexts discussed, and its return to Hildegard in this later context contributes to the cohesiveness of the collection. In the penultimate chapter, Geert Warnar presents his objections to recent scholarship that studies women mystics in the context of "vernacular theology," with particular reference to the relationship between Jan Ruusbroec and beguine spirituality, here exemplified by Hadewijch. He argues that rather than being an admirer or imitator of Hadewijch, as some have suggested, Ruusbroec was far more indebted to the work of male clerics and scholars of mysticism and indeed looked on Hadewijch and the beguines with considerable suspicion. While it is fair enough to suggest that some appreciations of medieval women's mysticism could use a more historicist basis, the work to which Warnar alludes here (such as that of Barbara Newman, Ursula Peters, and Bernard McGinn) would not seem particularly subject to such criticism, and the author's tone is strikingly polemical in the context of the collection. His view, somewhat problematically, appears to be that one must either see the mystics as, in his words, "superior" to the ecclesiastical establishment and recognized as such in their own time--the view he rejects--or accept that they were generally condescended to, where they were not ignored, by male ecclesiastics. Other essays in the volume, including those of Fraeters, Heene, and Hamburger, demonstrate the possibility of a more nuanced approach to the relationship between women mystics and the "clerical elite" than one of either rejection or superiority, on either side. The volume ends with Wybren Scheepsma's presentation of an essentially unknown vision cycle by (probably) an early-fifteenth-century religious woman from the Low Countries. Scheepsma gives a quick overview of the development of the genre of visionary literature and its declining fortunes in the wake of the Devotio Moderna before turning to the content and, especially, the transmission of these visions. The essay offers helpful pointers toward further discussion in its exploration of the manuscript's history, and sets it in the context of the repression of Alijt Bake's visions in 1455. Scheepsma points out that while the visions of this cycle mainly address questions of obedience and monastic discipline as these affected the visionary and her sisters, and thus do not make claims to theological or doctrinal knowledge, they were nonetheless sufficiently suspect that their eventual clerical redactor felt the need to provide a substantial prologue and epilogue to fend off potential criticism.

While certain essays stand out as major contributions, overall the strength of this volume is what Marysa Demoor, in a brief afterword, calls its "enriching interdisciplinarity" (224) and its variety of approaches, particularly as these point us toward the need to consider literacy beyond books and return it to its full material context. While the collection may initially give the sense of being somewhat unfocused--and here one might wish for a more comprehensive introduction and further cross-references between the articles--it ends by conveying the rich interconnections of its various materials and providing an excellent introduction to its field of inquiry. English-speaking readers, in particular, can be grateful for the valuable new (and, through the copious footnotes, older) scholarly discussion that this collaboration so generously makes available.