03.01.08, Renevey and Whitehead, Writing Religious Women

Main Article Content

Carolyn M. Craft

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.008


Renevey, Denis and Christiania Whitehead. Writing Religious Women: Female Spiritual and Textual Practices in Late Medieval England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Pp. xi, 270. ISBN: 0-8020-8403-6.
ISBN: 0-8020-3517-5.

Reviewed by:
Carolyn M. Craft
Longwood University

This collection of ten essays bound together by a common introduction and divided into four thematic groupings (anchorite spirituality and lay piety, Carthusian and female spirituality, femininity's representation in Anglo-Norman and Middle English religious poetry, and The Book of Margery Kempe) ably resurrects some influential medieval texts which had received little critical attention and also recontextualizes more prominent texts within the canon of religious literature written by or addressed to medieval women. In the editors' "Introduction," Denis Renevey articulates "female vernacular theology" as a subspecies of "medieval vernacular religious literature," and, in so doing, indicates that -- at least here -- gender distinctions are less basic to literary or religious classification than distinctions of Latin versus vernacular, religious versus secular, and medieval versus some other time period; he thus implies that "women's spirituality" and "men's spirituality" are very much the same, although he will also suggest that the former displays some "specifically feminine characteristics" (5). This schema accords well both with the perspectives of Athanasius and Jerome, who suggested that women needed to become as men (intellectual rather than passionate) in order to advance in the spiritual life, and with that of Bernard of Clairvaux, who suggested that the soul -- whether of a man or a women -- is always feminine in relationship to God, but Renevey's schema departs from the viewpoint of much contemporary feminist spirituality, though this latter difference may come, in part, from focus on the pathway more than on the final goal and from concern with differences of occupation and experience which women share-differences both Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, among others, noticed.

According to Renevey, vernacular theology is distinguished by "the linguistic phenomenon of fluidity, or mouvance" and even trilingualism, as well as by a characteristic movement "from the personal to the universal" (2). It is, of course, this latter movement which permits focusing on uniquely women's occupations and experiences combined with a universalizing which bridges the genders, as, for instance, when Julian uses maternal images for Jesus. Renevey points out that "the sheer number of translations from Latin texts attests to the commanding influence of Latinate culture in the way in which it fed the emerging vernacular with a large body of material" (3). In the wake of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), pastoral theology and vernacular religious literature flourished, but, as he also remarks, vernacular spirituality based upon twelfth century monastic models develops as well. Works in the "vernacular spirituality" category lack the evangelical and didactic focus found in the more pastoral literature. He feels the need, however, to consider both types of vernacular literature, the pastoral and the spiritual, under one sub-category, i.e. "female vernacular theology" (5). This move fruitfully places works such as Ancrene Wisse in the same subset with Julian's revelations.

Christiania Whitehead situates this volume vis-a-vis contemporary (1970s and later) commentaries on medieval women's experience. In doing so, she articulates the current volume's unique emphases on "a variety of close readings of specifically English spiritual material, in which texts are framed by their appropriate cultural and religious surround, set within their manuscript matrices, and probed to disclose the minute signs of engendering by which they become relevant to the requirements of female readers" (7) and praises earlier essay collections and books such as those of Caroline Walker Bynum and Barbara Newman. Using primarily an historicist methodology, these essays "deliberately...intersect...two discursive fields: those of female spiritual practice and female textual practice. In other words, we are primarily interested in the relation of women to religious books, both as writers, as receivers, and as often contentious objects of representation within them" (7). Most of the essays forge new ground, while the essays about Margery contain new focus on "the specifically religious influences which determine her career" (10), a focus whose exploration is essential to taking Margery seriously as a religious writer.

What Renevey and Whitehead implicitly show as they discuss the essays in their four thematic groupings is that there was far more than linguistic "mouvance" in these writings: ideas originating in a monastic environment are transposed first for an anchoritic audience and finally for a devout lay audience. Conversely, Carthusians become interested in non-Carthusian texts, such as writings by Rolle, Julian, Ruusbroec, and Porete, and they themselves produce texts, such as the Speculum devotorum, for a non-Carthusian, female audience -- perhaps specifically for a Bridgittine audience. The tendency to describe the female believer's body "as a defensive habitation, presenting an inviolable surface of defiant virginity against the lures of the external world," that is, as a "fortress" (13), illustrates a different type of fluidity where animate and inanimate categories merge. The very inconsistency of the "metaphor of inhabitation, whereby the believer's body prepares itself for future indwelling by Christ, is suddenly abandoned in favour of poetic imagery in which the believer enters Christ's flesh through his wounds and through a dissolution of the will" (13-14), illustrates yet another type of blending of categories. In the final thematic grouping, Margery's sexual desire on the eve of the feast of Margaret of Antioch, a legendary saint celebrated as a virgin martyr, and Margery's own "redemption as a type of the Magdalen is achieved through her mystical marriage and entry into the company of celestial virgins," even though Margery has borne fourteen children, a fluidity in which metaphor trumps factuality (14). Margery's "performing body" becomes her "primary text," even though "its performance, triggered by Margery's imaginative reenactment of the Passion incidents, fails to produce coherent meaning" and "is misinterpreted by her audience," necessitating Margery's providing "her own hermeneutics on her performing body"-that is, her book (15); so body "read" as book must, in an act of great fluidity, birth a literal book. The autobiographical impulse comes not only from audience misinterpretation but also from her own psychological disorder, i.e. from the merging of external and internal motivation. Thus Renevey and Whitehead's introduction unites a diverse collection of essays into a powerful argument for broadening our perceptions of medieval culture and for recognizing the necessary fluidity of categories contemporary medievalists impose, as well as of categories found in the medieval texts themselves.

Bella Millett's "Ancrene Wisse and the Book of Hours" examines the first of eight sections of Ancrene Wisse, the section dealing with devotional practice. Instead of having the anchoresses say the "Divine Office" in its full, canonical version, Ancrene Wisse substitutes the Little Office of the Virgin, a shorter form which, at least in De institutione inclusarum, the guide for anchoresses by Aelred of Rievaulx (c.1160), is to be used only as devotional supplement, not as a replacement for the "Divine Office." The appropriate substitute, according to Aelred, for illiterate anchoresses is "manual work and frequent repetitions" of the Our Father and any psalms the anchoress might know (21). Millett finds the primary audience of Ancrene Wisse neither literate in the medieval sense of fluent in Latin reading, nor illiterate in the modern sense; that is, falling between the capabilities of Aelred's highly literate nun and those unable to read anything. The Ancrene Wisse addressed lay-anchoresses rather than the older kind who were already nuns; it may have been influenced by early Latin Books of Hours while, in turn, influencing later Books of Hours produced for the laity. Much that Millett writes is tentative because the provenance of Books of Hours is still largely unknown, "but it is likely that the spread of such devotions to the laity was accelerated, even if it was not initiated, by the new developments in extra-monastic religious life"(31).

Marleen Cre argues that British Library, MS Additional 37790 (Amherst), a collection of texts and excerpts of texts about contemplation, may well have been "produced within a Charterhouse, or commissioned by the Carthusians" (46); however, she acknowledges that "an argument against this assertion would be the fact that all the texts but one in the anthology are in Middle English rather than in Latin, the ordinary language of texts intended for a monastic audience" (49). She finds the chief appeal of the anthology to be "its diversity of voices taken in conjunction with its thematic unity" (53), and then asks why two texts by women, Julian of Norwich and Marguerite Porete, appear in the company of texts by men, especially since even the grounds of Charterhouses were normally open only to men. She answers that Revelations and The Mirror of Simple Souls "describe their authors' experiences within genres that necessitate a greater effort of interpretation on the part of the reader" (53), the former being a visionary text, the latter a dream-vision without the usual "framework of the dreamer falling asleep" (55). Cre observes "that a characteristic of affective English religiosity is its interest 'in the rhetoric of ecstasy, in the ability of words to convey the feelings which accompany elevated states of the soul, and...on the subjective component of all religious language when it is used in an affective context'. The Carthusians may have been interested in the Revelations and The Mirrorfor this very reason" (57; Cre cites N. Watson in an article in R. Voaden, ed., Prophets Abroad [Cambridge, 1996], 46). According to Cre, Carthusian spiritual interests were fluid enough to encompass diverse genres and lay as well as religious authorship.

In "Spirituality and Sex Change: Horologium sapientiae and Speculum devotorum," Rebecca Selman finds the latter work "intrinsically concerned with the nature of female spirituality,...[it focuses] on the way the figures of Mary and Bridget are used in the text to engender identificatory practices in the reader," while the former text is "male-centred" (63-4). She analyzes the way feminine readers are brought into the Speculum text through identification and through "the addition of the feminine pronoun to one of the quotations from Suso's Horologium" (74). In the Speculum, according to Selman, "Women are not a special category with their own peculiar spirituality. Rather, they are presented as equal to men in spiritual experience" (74), a refreshing perspective indeed, at least to this contemporary reader. One of her endnotes does, however, provide an interesting caveat: Mary is set up as a model for women except in childbirth, where the Speculum author "negates the pain of childbirth. In so doing he sets Mary apart from other women" (78, n. 38). Perhaps this exception occurs because childbirth is an aspect of women's lives that men (including Speculum's author) cannot experience first hand, or perhaps the doctrinal teaching that Mary remained a virgin during and after childbirth necessitated that exception?

Anne McGovern-Mouron's essay analyzes the Liber de modo bene vivendi ad sororem and its Middle English version, the Manere of Good Lyvyng for clues to its authorship as well as its use of biblical imagery which gently leads its recipient "out of the world and into the monastery, and once within she is guided out of her own physical self into the scriptural and allegorical garden of the Song of Songs" (92). McGovern-Mouron views the sensitivity with which the male author addresses the spiritual needs of his female recipient as an indication that, contrary to "male institutions, such as the new religious orders[']" suspicion of women religious and reluctance "to take charge of their spiritual and practical needs, nonetheless, some individual members were prepared to look after their spiritual sisters to the best of their abilities" (93). "A Fortress and a Shield: The Representation of the Virgin in the Chateau d'amour of Robert Grosseteste" by Christiania Whitehead does an excellent job of articulating the conflicting metaphors -- appreciative, castle-like, quasi-divine, regal, judicial -- for Mary and providing "possible counter-readings which can be brought to Mary's allegorization as a fortress" while eschewing "the implication of premeditation" (127). She notes that "quasi-divinity...elevated her [Mary's] gendered standing and made her a powerful locus of inspiration and invocation for women religious...[yet] her assumption of regal and judicial roles [made her] largely irrelevant to the women who courted her. This, together with Mary's metaphorical tendency towards masculinization and bodily erasure, and her inhabitation of forms committed both to the suppression of female sexuality and the extension of female enclosure and control, depleted her efficacy as an object of aspiration for normal medieval women, or, at least, located exemplary religious practice within behaviours which involved a diminution of biological female gender" (126-127).

Karin Boklund-Lagopoulou's article "investigates the textual constructions of the female body" found in thirteenth and fourteenth century Middle English religious lyrics (134). It begins by pointing out that initially "the religious lyrics do not appear to offer any conception of the female body at all. Explicitly, the lyrics are rarely concerned with women, and virtually never with women's bodies as such" (134). In contract, the secular courtly lyric is "almost obsessive in its erotic attention to the female body" (134). Indeed, the lady's physical absence as the lyric is composed is disguised by "the very erotic focusing on the female body in the courtly lyric" (135). The secular tradition has its "misogynist satirical tradition. . . where the female body appears as a grotesque parody" (135), while the religious death lyrics grimly "conceive the body as the material prison of the soul" (136) and even catalogue body parts. In the religious tradition, the speaker is not gazing on the body, as in the courtly tradition, but rather inhabiting a now dysfunctional body. Boklund-Lagopoulou finds that "sin may have been brought into the world by a woman, but the lyrics concern themselves very little with the supposedly greater disposition of women to sin or with their assumedly inescapable attachment to the body" (138). Even the many courtly-language poems to the Virgin "never catalogue the beauties of Mary's body...most poems to the Virgin appear to conceive of her physicality exclusively in terms of the breasts that nursed the Christ-child, the womb which bore him, [and] the tears which she wept at the Crucifixion. Both Julia Kristeva and Marina Warner have written about this reduction to milk and tears as a dematerialization of Mary's body" (Boklund-Lagopoulou 139). Instead of cataloguing of her body parts, she is catalogued through "multiple metaphors derived from centuries of patristic biblical hermeneutics and usually mediated to the vernacular lyric by the Latin hymns" (139). After discussing the ways that "Christ is seen as symbolically female," Boklund-Lagopoulou concludes that "Since the desire for identification with, and rebirth through, the suffering body of Christ is overwhelmingly the most common topic of Middle English religious lyrics and devotional prose, our reading would thus lead us to conclude that the female body is not as absent from medieval religious literature as it would seem at first sight, but that it is, as it were, disguised-in a body which is sexually male, but symbolically often female" (148). The believer enters the body of Christ and "rests in Christ's heart like a child in its mother's womb" until rebirth, that is resurrection, when, "as the Middle Ages saw it, the body will retain its gendered nature, male or female, through all eternity" (150).

The final four essays, by Samuel Fanous, Naoe Kukita Yoshikawa, Denis Renevey, and Richard Lawes provide new readings of Margery Kempe's book. Fanous investigates its internal emphases to recover some of the relationship between Margery and her two amanuenses, concluding that "while Margery's voice rings clearly from the text, it is evident that the narrative has been shaped in a highly sophisticated way by a clerical mind familiar with and competent in hagiographic modes of discourse" (171). Yoshikawa focuses on the effect on Margery of the liturgical veneration of virgin martyrs, especially St. Katherine, St. Margaret, St. Barbara, and also Mary Magdalen, the penitent who through conversion gained similar status: in the Sarum Missal "Mary Magdalen is also included in the company of these virgin saints [Katherine and Margaret] and remembered for the pardon she gained through the love of God" (189).

The Magdalen is, of course, an especially fruitful model for Margery as Margery struggles with her sexual experience and desire which conflict with her perception of her call to become a bride of Christ; Margery continues to struggle until her vision of her own deathbed assures her of salvation. Focusing on the visions at the end of Margery's Book 1, Renevey calls attention to how Margery re-enacts the Passion as a performer, so that she becomes "part of the liber naturae. Whoever reads her astutely will be able to uncover a divine message" (199). The Anselmian tradition, with its emphasis upon self-inflicted physical suffering in imitation of the Passion of Christ, and the influence of that tradition on anchoritic spirituality become the interpretative background for Margery's own performance: they explain her seeking Julian of Norwich's approval. According to Renevey, "As a character, Margery's movement in and out of sacred history creates a sense of fluidity and evanescence which is unmatched in any other mystical account" (208). This fluidity leads him to wonder when her performance is only mental and when the mental is echoed in her body. Margery is unusual, so unusual that her "conversations with Christ...create an intimacy between her and Christ which is unequalled in other English vernacular writings" (205); nevertheless, her spirituality "was...heavily reliant upon devotional practices which were current during her lifetime" (210). This influence of anchoritic, affective, and liturgical spirituality on Margery, well detailed by Renevey, reveals that this eccentric mystic was more related to mystical tradition than she has hitherto appeared to be.

Richard Lawes, a psychiatrist who applies psychological theory to the study of late medieval and Renaissance literature, examines both previous attempts at diagnosing Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, and Thomas Hoccleve and also their writings. He finds that Hoccleve had "several depressive episodes , with one episode of probable mania," leading to a diagnosis of "bipolar affective disorder" (225-226). Lawes perceptively turns his diagnosis into analysis, finding that profound disturbance of self-concept through mania leads to the person's becoming "not only less self-confident but also more aware of the motions of his own inwardness" (228). He suggests that "like Hoccleve, Kempe seems to have suffered only one episode of psychosis" after the birth of her child, and that both Hoccleve and Kempe "subsequently had episodes of a psychological disorder which was not psychotic" (231). About Julian, he is somewhat more tentative, "Whatever psychological disorder may have been present in her sickness, it was clearly directly related to a temporary, 'one-off', organic, 'bodily' disturbance of brain function" (236). Lawes demonstrates that "the medieval impulse to record life events and subjective experience on a realistic level is, in these texts, related to the intensity and strangeness of the experience itself and the strength of its challenge to the coherence of the individual's inner world" (239). In the process, Lawes has also demonstrated that "splits between outer realities and inner forms of being, problematizations of individual identity, and 'puzzled selves', were entirely possible in pre-modern England" (239), an important conclusion not only for understanding these writers but also for discovering the history of consciousness.

Written by scholars with educational or professional ties to England or the continent, the essays in this collection provide some of the details for more complex generalizations about the medieval period, the medieval mind, medieval texts, and about women's place in all three of them. At the same time, they suggest new avenues for research and new readings of texts.

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Author Biography

Carolyn M. Craft

Longwood University