03.07.20, Newman, God and the Goddesses

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Amy Hollywood

The Medieval Review baj9928.0307.020


Newman, Barbara. God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages. Series: Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Pp. xiii, 446. ISBN: 0-8122-3691-2.

Reviewed by:
Amy Hollywood
Dartmouth College

In her wonderfully rich and challenging new book, Barbara Newman explores what she calls the third pantheon of medieval Christianity. Alongside the saints and the old pagan gods, poets and intellectuals also write of "allegorical goddesses," who mingle "freely with both of the others" (2). Generally referred to as allegorical or female personifications, Newman insists on applying the term goddess to these figures. To do otherwise, she insists, runs "the risk of blunting their emotional force and trivializing their religious import" (2). Like Hildegard Keller in her recent study of medieval German poetry and theology, My Secret Is Mine: Studies on Religion and Eros in the German Middle Ages (2000), Newman shows that medieval Christian monotheism includes within it feminine avatars of the divine. "The God of medieval Christendom," she writes, "was father of one Son but many daughters: Sapientia, Philosophia, Ecclesia, Frau Minne, Dame Nature, Lady Reason, and the list goes on" (1). Newman offers in-depth analyses of three of these daughters -- Nature (Chapters 2 and 3), Love (Chapter 4), and Wisdom (Chapter 5) -- as they appear in medieval poetry, philosophy, and theology, as well as a demonstration of the ways in which the Virgin Mary, often associated with Wisdom, becomes part of the Trinity -- at least as symbolically represented within late medieval texts and images (Chapter 6).

I here only have space to touch on some of the broader themes raised by this extremely learned and intelligent book. Newman's accounts of her chosen goddesses are brilliant in their clarity, depth, and precision. At the same time she makes larger claims about medieval theology. The first hint of what will become one of the book's most important arguments emerges in the opening chapter, in which Newman asks about the ontological status of Nature, Wisdom, Love, and the other female personifications found throughout medieval texts. Since many of these figures are depicted as appearing to the narrator in dreams or visions, the philosophical question inevitably leads to ones of genre and interpretation. Newman both follows recent critics in arguing that all vision texts are literary creations and acknowledges that every personification cannot be "granted the same ontological status or the same degree of authorial conviction." Rather, the interpreter of visionary and allegorical texts must strive "to distinguish between substantive beings and mere rhetorical tropes" (33). Newman argues that there are two kinds of personification in medieval texts -- Platonic and Aristotelian. Interpreters should read "the former as epiphanies or emanations of a superior reality, the latter as 'accidents existing in a substance,' personified only for the sake of analytical clarity" (34). She goes on to suggest that Platonic personifications are treated with reverence and love by the narrator, depicted using biblical language, and presumed to have a relationship with God. They are also, she claims, the figures most likely to be referred to as goddesses, brides of God, or daughters of God.

Whereas scholars usually distinguish between visionary and allegorical texts, Newman draws distinctions within the corpus of medieval visionary and allegorical writing. In the process, she articulates a new category of theology, what she calls in the book's final chapter imaginative theology. According to Newman, "the hallmark of imaginative theology is that it 'thinks with' images, rather than propositions or scriptural texts or rarefied inner experiences -- although none of these need be excluded. The devices of literature -- metaphor, symbolism, prosopopoeia, allegory, dialogue, and narrative -- are its working tools" (298). Dream and waking visions are both central to imaginative theology and Newman's new category enables her to recast traditional questions about the relationship between the two. Again, all medieval visions come to us as written texts and so are literary in at least some sense. The salient distinction, then, becomes that between "vision as epiphany and vision as heuristic device" (300). (A key question is the extent to which this distinction can be mapped onto that between Platonic and Aristotelian forms of personification.) But even here, the lines are less clearly marked than we might think. As Newman argues, visions could inspire one to write and conversely, "the desire to write could inspire a poet to construct visions" (299). Perhaps even more importantly, much recent work on medieval devotional life suggests that the devout engage d in meditative practices that made full use of their imaginative faculties and that often resulted in visionary experience. In other words, for medieval people the use of the imagination as a devotional and theological tool in no way diminished the potentially revelatory nature of the resultant experiences.

Even as Newman demonstrates "just how thin and porous the boundary between epiphanic and heuristic visions could sometimes be" (301), she also argues that poets and imaginative writers achieved a degree of freedom unavailable to theologians and visionaries. This relative freedom rests, Newman suggests, on the presumption that their claims were to be read as fictional. At the same time, "authentic visionary recital" gained in prestige (and in danger) because of its truth claims, so that imaginative writers often imitated visionaries and mystics when they wished their assertions to be taken with utmost seriousness. Newman leaves relatively unexplored the extent to which the complex relationship between truth claims and the nature of visionary accounts is tied to gender. The wealth of material she presents, however, is tremendously suggestive.

First, Newman makes clear the extent to which women's religious authority rested on epiphanic and visionary claims. Conversely, her analysis enables us to see the extent to which a women like Christine of Pizan was able to write works of theological import whose authority rested on the prestige of the classical tradition, literature, and learning rather than on claims to extraordinary experiences of God. Thus the divide between epiphanic and heuristic visions cannot itself be gendered in any simple way. In addition, Newman's materials suggest in ways that she does not fully articulate that the divinization of the feminine occurs in both epiphanic and heuristic visions, but in markedly different ways. Thus, working on the assumption that Newman cites most of the cases known to her in which the term goddess is explicitly used, we see that they are, in fact, few and far between. Moreover, there are crucial differences between the kinds of texts in which the term goddess appears and those in which key female figures simply are God.

Thus Alan of Lille refers to Theology as a goddess in his Anticlaudianus, a work heavily influenced by classical and late antique poetry and thought. Christine of Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies opens with the appearance of three "goddesses of glory" -- Reason, Right, and Justice -- and her Boethian Christine's Vision refers to Lady Philosophy as "excellent goddess" (22, 31). All of these texts have theological implications, as Newman rightly argues; yet they are also deeply indebted to classical poetic traditions in which personification allegory plays a central role. Moreover, none of them are epiphanic visions. Mechthild of Magdeburg's Flowing Light of the Godhead is the only text Newman cites that does not situate itself explicitly in relationship to classical poetic traditions and in which the term goddess is used in the context of an epiphanic vision. Tellingly, Mechthild refers to the Virgin Mary as a goddess rather than one of the virtues (274-75). (The other relevant example from mystical literature appears in Henry Suso's Little Book of Eternal Wisdom, in which he refers to Wisdom as "one like the goddess" [207].)

Yet for Mechthild, as for her near contemporaries Hadewijch and Marguerite Porete, Lady Love is one if not the primary form in which God appears. God is Love and Love is feminine, so although the term goddess is not used, the divine is clearly feminized. The question then becomes why the feminization of the divine is effected differently within different kinds of medieval texts. One possibility, suggested above, is the direct influence of classical sources on writers like Alan of Lille and Christine of Pizan. Making use of non-Christian allegorical traditions, Alan and Christine rely on the authority of these traditions in order to bring that practice into specifically Christian texts. The key question here is whether non-Christian allegorical texts refer to such personified figures as goddesses If they do, an important source for Alan of Lille's and Christine of Pizan's language may rest in non-Christian sources. Another related possibility is that the term goddess could be used with much greater safety within heuristic visions than within epiphanic ones. The available evidence allows us to hypothesize that in a context in which the truth claims of visionary experience were most marked it was acceptable to represent God as feminized through biblically warranted associations of God with love or wisdom, but it was another thing entirely to refer to God -- or his daughters -- as goddess. On the other hand, perhaps it was simply that Mechthild, Hadewijch, and other visionaries saw God as Lady Love and so had no need to name her as the goddess she so clearly was.

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Amy Hollywood

Dartmouth College