Ulrike Wiethaus

title.none: Coakley, Women, Men, and Spiritual Power (Ulrike Wiethaus)

identifier.other: baj9928.0704.003 07.04.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Ulrike Wiethaus, Wake Forest University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Coakley, John W. Women, Men and Spiritual Power: Female Saints and Their Male Collaborators. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Pp. x, 354. $45.00 (hb) 0-231-13400-2 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.04.03

Coakley, John W. Women, Men and Spiritual Power: Female Saints and Their Male Collaborators. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Pp. x, 354. $45.00 (hb) 0-231-13400-2 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Ulrike Wiethaus
Wake Forest University

The author presents an analysis of hagiographic accounts of female saints from Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries, composed between ca. 1150 and 1400. These texts, authored, transcribed, edited, and/or translated by clerics, left traces of the relationships between the female visionaries and the clerical authors. John Coakley investigates nine well-known cases: those of Ekbert and Elisabeth of Schönau, Guibert of Gembloux and Hildegard of Bingen, James de Vitry and Marie d'Oignies, Peter of Dacia and Christine of Stommeln, Angela of Foligno and Friar A., Margaret of Cortona and Giunta Bevegnati, Henry of Nördlingen and Margaret Ebner, Catherine of Siena and Raymond of Capua, and John Marienwerder and Dorothy of Montau.

In a perhaps ironic historical twist, John Coakley's own work has a predecessor in the female voice: five of the nine relationships scrutinized in his volume were also the focus of Catherine M. Mooney's edited book, Gendered Voices. Medieval Saints and their Interpreters (1999), to which Coakley contributed an essay on Peter of Dacia and Christine of Stommeln. Whereas Mooney's book focuses on the women saints hidden in the male authors' hagiographic writings, Coakley's attention is set exclusively on the clerics themselves. His study scrutinizes not spiritual power as his book's title suggests, but the varying modes of engagement of clerical representatives of institutional power with female visionaries. The title's evocation of "collaboration" as the defining modality of these interactions hides a more nuanced analysis and a more disturbing conclusion. Coakley suggests that when read diachronically, the nine case studies contain instances of collaboration in the sense of an equal partnership, yet end in the troublesome silencing of female visionaries and the corollary dominance of institutional power void of spiritual presence. According to Coakley, the clerical project of a textual (re)production of illiterate, semi-literate, and literate female saints and their utterances begins as literary experimentation in the twelfth century, gains literary momentum as male self-confidence grew in the thirteenth century, and declines with its gradual, institutionally driven destruction of female visionaries by the end of the fourteenth century. Methodologically, Coakley chose to minimize wider social and historical contexts in favor of a close textual reading of his sources " observe the way he [i.e., the scribe] decides to present her, and his relationship with her...the historical person of the writer, hagiographical intentions and all" (6). The author works with an interpretative set of assumptions that posit masculine dominance as stable ("men exercised authority over the women," 2), and men as desiring in women what they themselves perceived to be lacking, that is, "the deeply affective elements of faith, the Spirit that blows where it will, the immediate presence of God" (3).

According to the author, what led to this brief thawing period between 1150 and 1400 in the history of otherwise icy gender relationships in much of Western Christendom was unilaterally due to male agency: a rise in male self-confidence, an "extended moment in the life of the late-medieval church when clerics could have enough confidence in their powers to entertain the question of the limits of clerical authority and, in answering it, to find some room for experiment" (213).

By positioning male scribes as the primary agents not just in the construction of texts, but also in the formation of the social role of female visionary, and by devising sharp boundaries between male and female domains and in the "two-sphere model of authority" (spiritual and institutional), Coakley works with a hermeneutic dualism that obfuscates perhaps more than it enlightens. Female visionaries, like their clerical scribes and editors, identified with the Church as an institution and as a spiritual home; even as critics, they were loyal Christians. Especially in monastic contexts and if from a wealthy family, women could wield institutionally sanctioned authority precisely as members of the Church and thus were supported and empowered by its authority. Working with one or more male scribes and editors was at least as much an expression of female status and prestige as it was an example of male literary experimentation (cf. Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Siena). Rather than supporting the assumption of stable masculine power and identity at work in the production of the genre, the cases suggest that gender and gender roles could be unstable for either sex. For example, Elisabeth of Schönau learned to conceive of herself as the author of the Liber Viarum Dei in consultation with another woman, Hildegard of Bingen. She was told during a trance that her visionary labors were manly; it was indeed her brother Ekbert who feminized her role (cf. Anne Clark's perceptive essay in Mooney, op.cit., 35-52).

Conversely, male clerics much like women visionaries could be subject to profound mystical experiences (e.g., Henry Suso, Richard Rolle), and women could write about male mystical experiences (e.g., Gertrud of Helfta). Furthermore, a clerical career did not by definition guarantee unequivocal institutional support. If not more so than other Christians, the clerical caste had to submit to ecclesiastical control and censorship. Negotiating the medieval version of the "good old boys' club" and a hierarchy of offices and limited spheres of influence, often at a distance to the geographic centers of institutional decision-making, the scribes and editors of female visionary utterances tended to work in comparatively low positions of institutional power. A too rigidly conceptualized juxtaposition of masculine and feminine voice, institutional and spiritual power, however defined, seems thus not to do justice to the complexity of the primary data. And precisely because the medieval Church was believed to be the ultimate locus of the sacred, scribes and visionaries engaged with each other, sharing a belief in the religious efficacy of sacraments, sacred space, and office. In the experientially generous medieval landscape of faith, visions constituted only a small and comparatively unstable fraction of possible hierophanies. Lack of experiential access to the sacred as the author's central argument for the scribes' "deep attraction" to the visionaries (17), seems thus more a modern projection than a medieval reality, even though some scribes indeed expressed "vision envy." Would it be inconceivable to argue the less dramatic diachronic scenario that male-engendered hagiographies declined as female-authored (auto-)hagiographies increased, the former thus simply becoming increasingly superfluous?

Coakley's strength, however, lies in teasing out a cleric's individual choices in working with his materials. Coakley's contribution to contemporary scholarship on female visionaries lies in wisely reminding us that their male scribes and editors reflected with sometimes remarkable nuance on their tasks. Unlike men of greater power, they were able to recognize the limits of institutional discourse and, at least for a time, proved willing to explore and acknowledge the vital presence of female spirituality.