Mary C. Erler

title.none: Mulder-Bakker, Lives of the Anchoresses (Mary C. Erler)

identifier.other: baj9928.0610.002 06.10.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Mary C. Erler, Fordham University

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Mulder-Bakker, Anneke B. Myra Heerspink Scholz, trans. Lives of the Anchoresses: The Rise of the Urban Recluse in Medieval Europe. Series: The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Pp. 300. $55.00 (hb) 0-8122-3852-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.10.02

Mulder-Bakker, Anneke B. Myra Heerspink Scholz, trans. Lives of the Anchoresses: The Rise of the Urban Recluse in Medieval Europe. Series: The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Pp. 300. $55.00 (hb) 0-8122-3852-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Mary C. Erler
Fordham University

Using the published vitae of five women who lived in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries "between the Seine and the Elbe," Anneke Mulder-Bakker reflects on the meaning for women of the anchoritic vocation. The central focus of her study is the public and pastoral function shared by most of these women. Mulder-Bakker's formulation is challenging: "the anchoritic existence actually approached that of a parish priest...[both followed] a recognizable way of life...serving their fellow human beings...both underwent a solemn ritual...but unlike the priest, the father (pater) of the community of believers, who was present in the church only when the services required him to be, the anchoress (mater) actually lived in the church...she was like a mother, always at home" (13-14).

Four themes recur in the stories of these women: their membership in an oral, not a written, culture; their formation (and that of most people) through the use of a model, imitatio morum; the influence of Mary as teacher (Maria doctrix); and the positive effect of age on their public lives ("wise old women").

All four of these elements are present in the life of Guibert of Nogent's mother (ca. 1030-after 1104) who, when widowed, took her household--her two sons, two chaplains and a tutor--to what may have been a family monastery in northern France. There she "found an old woman in the habit of a nun, who she compelled to live with her and from whom she learned the practices of self-discipline." Visions in which she imitated the Virgin further contributed to her spiritual development. Her son Guibert's account says that all were eager to speak with her; he calls her manner "refined and moderate," yet encompassing the authority of a bishop. Three years before her death she was consecrated as a vowed widow. Thus Guibert's mother, through her imitation of examples both visionary and earthly, and through the authorization provided by her anchoritic status, in the latter end of her life became a spiritual adept whose counsel to those who sought her out constituted a public ministry different from the priestly one but parallel to it.

The author then proceeds to trace these same elements in the lives of several later women. Yvette of Huy (1158-1228), whose biography was written by Hugh of Floreffe, a Premonstratensian canon, was remarkable for the variety of forms her religious life took. Widowed at eighteen, she became a vowess, working at a leprosarium where she founded and headed one of the earliest beguine communities. At age 33, in a public ceremony, she had herself enclosed as a recluse and experienced a vision of being entrusted to Mary's care. This Marian authorization enabled Yvette to warn, advise, and admonish a vast clientele of lay and religious followers and her visions, like those of Guibert's mother, conferred what Mulder-Bakker calls a prophetic authority, one widely recognized by her society. The author suggests that Yvette may even have celebrated agape meals with her clientele and have served in the choir during the celebration of the Eucharist. (74)

Mulder-Bakker's summary of the education received by about a dozen of these Low Countries holy women shows that the ability to read, and even to read Latin, was not so uncommon as we may think. In fact it is their learning that distinguishes the two women friends, Juliana of Corneillon (1192-1258) and Eve of St. Martin (d. after 1264). Juliana's life, like that of Yvette, was marked by the remarkable freedom and diversity of social forms available in her region and period, though she was never a recluse. Orphans, she and her sister were brought up at Corneillon, a leper hospital sponsored by the city of Liege and staffed by sisters under a prioress and brothers under a prior, none of whom took vows. Retired laypersons lived there as well, and children were schooled there. At Corneillon, Juliana studied Latin literature, met scholars and clerics, and her disciple Eve. In a vision of the imperfect full moon, Christ communicated to her his desire for a feast commemorating the institution of the Eucharist, and for twenty years Juliana struggled to evolve the theology of Corpus Christi. Together with a younger colleague John, she wrote its office as well, though eventually it was Thomas Aquinas's composition that was used. Comparing the two offices, Mulder-Bakker concludes that Juliana saw the occasion as a communal festival for believers, presenting the Eucharist as a foretaste of heavenly bliss, while Thomas emphasized the mysterious nature of the Eucharist and the divine suffering which made redemption possible. She believes that his formulation of the office was influenced by hers, and in fact the strength of this chapter and the next, on Juliana's friend Eve, is the author's exploration of what was in fact an intellectual circle. The ideas of Hugh of St. Cher on prophecy, for instance, may be indebted to his friendship with Juliana, and the evolution of a rule for beguine women, in 1246, was the work of Jacques Pantaleon, later Pope Urban IV, who knew both Juliana and Eve and shared their affective spirituality. Here, Mulder-Bakker's themes of oral culture and Marian exempla recede in favor of a strongly prophetic emphasis in these female lives (her biographer says of Juliana "anointing [of the Holy Spirit] was her teacher").

The presence of a circle is suggested again in the life of Lame Margaret of Magdeburg (ca. 1210-ca.1250), whose spiritual searches were described by her Dominican confessor John. The author notes that Mechtild of Magdeburg was living in the city at this time, as was the male mystic Wichmann of Arnstein. Margaret's authorizing moment came early for the author's paradigm, about age thirty rather than forty, and she concluded her life at the Cistercian Agnes convent--whether as a nun or an anchorite seems uncertain. In Lame Margaret's seizure of a public teaching apostolate we can see a parallel, though Mulder-Bakker does not mention it, with the longing to preach expressed by her contemporary Mary of Oignies and more generally, with many women's desire for an active role in the church. This desire, and the urban, public (hence imitable) character of Margaret's life, perhaps accounts for its popularity: it survives in amazing fifteen copies or translations (as with Margery Kempe's Book, they include a number of condensed versions.)

Mulder-Bakker's central effort is to explore the circumstances that allowed these women their diverse, more-or-less public forms of participation in the life of the church. She emphasizes the status afforded by the anchoritic role, the respect and the authorization to act that the anchorhold provided. Yet another factor may be at least as powerful. Because the anchoritic life was not lived under rule--a point the author makes repeatedly, but which students of English anchoritism will find quite familiar--despite various hierarchical controls it could never be so regulated as monastic life was. Here, in anchoritism's potential for self-invention, rather than in the status it conferred, we might see the source of these public female careers whose common note seems often to be found not in the selection of the anchorhold, but in the liberating possibility of a succession of life choices.

The Marian element in many of these lives seems a stronger authorizing force, particularly in its familiarization of a spirituality of female service. Daringly, Mulder-Bakker sees "the prophetic succession of Mary and her servae" as parallel to "the apostolic succession of Christ and his servi."

Whether age should be considered a key to female public religious authority remains, in its treatment here, somewhat impressionistic. English historians have been thinking for some time about this question as it applies to widows, the larger class to which most of these anchoresses belonged. For instance it is discussed by Caroline Barron in the introduction to Barron and Sutton's Medieval London Widows 1300-1500 (1994). Mulder-Bakker's support for her thesis that age was an enabling factor in female lives is not so much historical as anthropological and liturgical. She refers to a rite for the consecration of deaconesses in a tenth-century Romano-German pontifical, and she several times traces a continuity of function between the deaconesses of the early Christian period and the women who are her subjects. Because we know so little about the work of deaconesses, however, and because there is not general agreement as to their place in the structure of the primitive Church, these attempts to place medieval anchoresses within this particular tradition may be considered somewhat speculative. Further recuperative historical work on the subject of women and age would be desirable.

Despite these reservations, Lives of the Anchoresses is a stimulating exercise. Besides its thoughtful exploration of the gendered nature of religious authority, it calls attention to the phenomenon of urban anchoritism, a vocation still imperfectly understood. The curious, long-continued, conjunction of the solitary and the city needs further work by scholars. Simon Appulby, for instance, London's last anchorite at the Dissolution, had extensive neighborhood connections with his parish, with its churchwardens and parishioners, with a priests' guild nearby, and with an adjoining Augustinian monastery-just the kind of connections made by Lame Margaret in thirteenth-century Magdeburg. In each case an identification of the anchorite as neighbor, rather than the anchorite as recluse, seems warranted. Henry Mayr-Harting called this the "hinge function" of the twelfth-century anchorite, referring to the counsel, medicine, and practical charity an anchorite often gave his/her neighbors. When Yvette of Huy's biographer called her "mediatrix," he was describing a spiritual function, but anchorites' mediation could be physical as well as spiritual, and was often accomplished in conditions not at all isolated.

Mulder-Bakker is interested, too, in the intellectual closeness between these women and their male confessors, biographers, and acquaintances, though she does not go so far as to suggest that this exchange might also be an authorizing force for women. (Or rather, she suggests the influence of female visionary on male theologian, not the reverse.) Yet one of the volume's most compelling efforts is its gestures toward an intellectual history of thirteenth-century Liege, with its masculine and feminine components. The depiction of such fascinating and fruitful connections suggests that an alternate title for this volume might well have been Lives of the Anchoresses and Their Friends.

The translation occasionally lapses from the idiomatic: "grandiose" where "grand" would be appropriate (108); "in full flourish" (119, 130) for "in full flower" or "flourishing," and split infinitives are everywhere found. A map locating the anchoresses would have been a most useful companion to these essays and its absence seems a real lack. The jacket design is charmingly Puckish, with an anchoritic arm reaching out of its window to pick a flower (from the de Brailes Hours, BL Additional MS 49999).