Luca Parisoli

title.none: Makowski, Quasi-Religious Women and Canon Lawyers (Luca Parisoli)

identifier.other: baj9928.0703.003 07.03.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Luca Parisoli, University of Calabria and Centre de theorie et d'analyse du droit (UMR 7074 CNRS),

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Makowski, Elizabeth M. "A Pernicious Sort of Woman": Quasi-Religious Women and Canon Lawyers in the Later Middle Ages. Series: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Canon Law, vol. 6. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005. Pp. xxxiii, 170. $44.95 (hb) $44.95 (hb) 0-8132-1392-4. ISBN: 0-8132-1392-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.03.03

Makowski, Elizabeth M. "A Pernicious Sort of Woman": Quasi-Religious Women and Canon Lawyers in the Later Middle Ages. Series: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Canon Law, vol. 6. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005. Pp. xxxiii, 170. $44.95 (hb) $44.95 (hb) 0-8132-1392-4. ISBN: 0-8132-1392-4.

Reviewed by:

Luca Parisoli
University of Calabria and Centre de theorie et d'analyse du droit (UMR 7074 CNRS)

This book by Makowski is a really interesting one. She looks at the matter of quasi-religious women in a way unusual for medieval historical literature. Usually historians in search of a better understanding of heretical ways of life--plainly heretical or in some way unorthodox--look for an understanding of the substantial truth of the ideas and doctrines associated with this religious manifestation. More generally, every person interested in medieval women's piety is concerned with the nature of their activities and of their beliefs. Sometimes quasi-religious women affirmed their orthodoxy in the Catholic Church; sometimes other quasi-religious women affirmed their orthodoxy against the "false" Catholic Church in Rome; sometimes these women ignored the matter of orthodoxy as a part of their identity. This is the point of view of quasi-religious women about themselves; then there is the point of view of other religious and social actors about them, and this judgment may be also a matter of orthodoxy. The question could be stated: "is the activity of this group of beguines (for example) in conformity with the Faith of Catholic Church?" But there was a class of intellectual actors who established another question, not about substantial truth. Medieval canon lawyers established the question of normative truth: "is this group of beguines (and not "this or that activity of") in conformity with the normative will of the Apostolic See, i.e. the pope?" Makowski points out that this is the question that concerned medieval canon lawyers, and this is her first great contribution to the historical discussion. Makowski makes a valuable contribution to the scholarly effort to assess the views of canon lawyers on this matter, and this is very useful for the reader. She offers us also a general interpretation of the opinions of canon lawyers, by stressing a historical evolution of their attitude.

At first, Johannes Andreae, author of the Glossa Ordinaria to the collection of canon law Clementinae--i.e. the standard interpretation of this legal collection--stressed that quasi-religious women must be judged by their profession of fidelity to the Pope: if the Holy See (Makowski uses this expression, I prefer the more medieval Apostolic See) approves the way of life of a religious community which is not a religious order--even if it has its own rule--then this community is a licit one. This is the case for women belonging to the Third Order of Saint Francis. But if there is no mark of this pontifical approbation, the religious community is not a licit one, and the judgment of Henry of Susa, the great canonist of the previous generation (d. 1271), about quasi-religious women as "a pernicious sort of woman" is well-founded.

This opinion is quite universal (with very few exceptions, maybe only one) in the fourteenth century. Later, in the fifteenth century, the opinions of canon lawyers are more and more different, and they pass from the exclusivity of the criterion of conformity to the pope's normative will to the co-existence of this criterion with other criteria of a more substantial nature (for example, "is the way of life of this group of quasi-religious women a holy one or not at all?").

I think that Makowski offers a real contribution to modern scholarship concerning the history of medieval piety, but I suggest that the content of her book is not merely a display of scholarly erudition. Eric Voegelin's thesis about the people of God [1] and Pierre Legendre's Dogmatical Anthropology [2] may be very useful in understanding Makowski's analysis in the context of the history of the longue durée of Western civilisation.

But first of all, a little remark about scholarly knowledge. There is something missing in the sources utilised by Makowski: she speaks about canon lawyers, but maybe canon thinkers would be a more accurate term. There is a technical approach in the idea of canon lawyers, i.e. a canon lawyer is somebody devoted to an intellectual activity defined in a scholastic way, as the commentary of canonical collections, i.e. the glossa. But canon law is not only a technical matter: Harold Berman stressed that canon law is the reply of the Catholic Church to medieval Roman law, by using Roman sources and by using the tradition of Catholic Church. [3] So, it is not necessary to be a canon lawyer (in a limited sense) to give a great contribution to canonic thought. This is the case of summae confessorum, the canonic argumentation developed by theologian-lawyers. A great deal of Makowski's work is about Franciscan Tertiaries, so, it would be interesting to know the opinion of Franciscan brothers (Ofm, not members of the Third Order) who wrote some very famous encyclopaedias of canon and Roman law. As Franciscans, they were concerned with the question of the identity of the Franciscan order, and with the danger of a confusion with fraticelli and more generally with heretical communities; as normative thinkers, they were concerned with an argumentation not established solely in a spiritual approach.

At the beginning of fourteenth century, there is the case of the Summa astesana; in the fifteenth century, there is the case of the Summa angelica, the first book burned by Luther as an act of rebellion against the Roman Church. But there is also the case of the Tabula iuris by John of Saxe, a Franciscan source of the Summa astesana. I wonder if there is nothing about quasi-religious women in these works, and if that is the case, it would be information of the greatest importance. But it is easy to suggest the analysis of another source to somebody working on medieval ideas: Makowski's research is excellent, but a scholarly approach to medieval learning is endless, sometimes dangerously endless. To escape this danger, I come back to the general conclusion of "A Pernicious Sort of Woman".

I disagree with Makowski, so I employ her words: "the canonists did not follow the theoretical guidelines established by academic commentary, even when they themselves had written the arguing cases that featured or were produced for quasi-religious clients, they use instead a wide variety of techniques to circumvent such guidelines" (140). There is nothing factually wrong in Makowski's argument, but I think that this is a bad way to speak about a normative matter. Starting from the same set of sources, I would prefer to say that "the canonists established a strong general criterion for judging fidelity to Catholic Church, i.e. the manifestation in quasi-religious women of the will to obey the Apostolic See and the manifestation of this will in asking the Apostolic See to accept their way of life. Nevertheless, when the legal cases are more and more individualised and specific--about this or that community, for example--canonists may use legal arguments to stress that this individual and this specific group of quasi-religious women is not an illicit one because of their way of life, even if this way of life was not legally approved by the Apostolic see." I see no incongruities, and no particular pragmatism: every legal judgment is pragmatic in that it concerns a specific case, but "pragmatic" in this meaning is not synonymous at all with "utilitarian."

Was the idea of the conformity of individual will to the will of the Apostolic See an originality of canon lawyers and a merely formal conception of truth? Not at all. It was a canonist who brought forward this idea, but this canonist, Sinibaldo Fieschi, was also a pope, Innocent IV (1243-1254). In his Commentaria in quinque libros decretalia (Ad liber I, firmiter), Innocent IV speaks about implicit faith, i.e. the fact of believing in everything that the Catholic Church declares to be the object of true faith. The strength of this implicit faith is so great that if I believe in some wrong idea, but I profess also to believe in everything accepted by the Catholic Church, and I renounce the defense of my wrong idea when somebody tells me that this idea is wrong, in this case the belief of the Catholic Church is my belief, because the fidelity to the Apostolic see is stronger than my (acknowledged) wrong idea.

So, a quasi-religious woman accepting a heretical idea but at the same time professing fidelity to every belief asserted by the Apostolic See is not heretical at all; another quasi-religious woman accepting the same heretical idea, but without professing the same fidelity to Rome, is simply heretical. Henry of Susa, a contemporary of Innocent IV, says quite well that quasi-religious women are dangerous, because every believer not professing fidelity to Rome is ipso facto dangerous, and every believer professing this fidelity is not dangerous, even when he is on the wrong side.

The Apostolic See, and canon lawyers faithful to the Apostolic See (not the strong majority in the fifteenth century, preceding Martin Luther's rejection of canon law), were faced with the necessity of countering the movements opposing the ecclesiastical institution. Voegelin stresses that the "centuries from 1000 to 1500 are characterized by the digestion of radical spiritual movements through a series of minor reformations as well as by the social, sometimes bloody, suppression of the indigestible dregs of such movements." [4] And "the legitimate grievances of a spiritual movement, its call for reform in the Christian sense, may be accompanied by a hostile attitude toward civilizational values" (Voegelin, 134-135). Voegelin analyses the case of Franciscanism between orthodoxy and heterodoxy in vol. II and vol. III of his History of political ideas. He speaks about beguinism in vol. IV (182-185), and his general analysis of the movement of the "people of God" is very rich in suggestions, especially for the history of longue durée. There is at least one psychoanalytical phantasm in medieval movements: the contemporary philosophical name of this phantasm is "nihilism" (Voegelin, IV, 176-177).

The norm against the phantasmatical danger of groups of quasi-religious women must be a symbolic one, in that this norm must refer, in a Lacanian terminology, to the Founding Reference, i.e. to the Pope, who has in his body the law, as head of the Apostolic See. This is the idea of the entire research agenda of Pierre Legendre: he writes recently Ce que l'Occident ne voit pas de l'Occident (Mille et une nuits, Paris 2004), concerning the "implicit" groundwork of Western civilization "unseen" by Western peoples, that the Catholic Church "s'est constitué une autre Bible, occulte celle-lô...le monument romano-canonique" (Legendre, 50). Canon law is a normative Text, but implicit, associated with the foundational Text, the Bible, an explicit one. This is "la formation d'une généalogie occulte" (Legendre, 50), i.e. the identity of Western civilization in its psychoanalytic genealogical groundwork.

A quasi-religious woman is dangerous in that she is looking for a way of life without Text. There is a Text, the Tradition of the Catholic Church--the Bible plus the Canon Law--but if a quasi-religious woman prefers to avoid any reference to this Tradition, she is immediately a danger for this Institution. This woman is the manifestation for the searching of another Text, or for no Text at all. In the first case, it is the challenging of the Catholic Church in favour of another church; in the second case, the contemporary name is anarchy. So, if there is any "incongruity" in canon lawyers, this is a matter of fifteenth-century thinkers, anticipating in some way the radical denial of canon law by Martin Luther (but Calvin speaks differently about normativity).

Finally, even if I disagree with the "Assessment and Reassessment" (139-148) of Makowski, I think that her opinion must be seriously discussed. And she makes an excellent contribution to historiography by analysing quasi-religious women in the normative context of speech, and not the more classical (and sometimes abused) spiritual one.


[1] See History of Political Ideas, I-VIII, vol. IV, published in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, University of Missouri Press, vol. 19-26, vol. 22, pp. 131-214.

[2] See Law and the Unconscious: A Legendre Reader, London 1997.

[3] See the first volume of his essential Law and Revolution.

[4] History of political ideas, IV, Collected Works, 22, p. 134.