03.12.26, RIches and Salih, Gender and Holiness

Main Article Content

Katherine French

The Medieval Review baj9928.0312.026


Riches, Samantha J.E. and Sarah Salih. Gender and Holiness: Men, Women and Saints in Late Medieval Europe. Series: Routledge Studies in Medieval Religion and Culture. London: Routledge, 2002. ISBN: 0-415-25821-9.

Reviewed by:
Katherine French
SUNY-New Paltz

Gender and Holiness: Men, Women and Saints in Late Medieval Europe is a multi- and interdisciplinary collection of ten essays that draws upon the work of both English and North American scholars. Although the editors claim that this collection is somewhat eclectic in its chronology, sources, and geography, it hangs together well because its contributors all address in some fashion the fundamental questions of how religious practice was mediated through discourses of gender and how concepts of gender informed religious sensibilities. One of the strengths of this collection of essays is the discussion of both masculinity and femininity. Theoretical discussions have long discussed masculinity as a gender, and indeed the medieval bibliography on this topic is now quite large, nonetheless it is nice to have a single collection that integrates both genders into more traditional concerns of sanctity, religious practice, and source use.

Three articles take up the issues of gender and sanctity as they apply to specific sources. Martha Easton in her article "Pain, Torture, and Death in the Huntington Library Legenda Aurea" looks at the gendering of the illustrations that accompany this highly and unusually illustrated edition of the Legenda Aurea. In the Legenda Aurea, male and female saints often share the same form of execution, however, male saints in this particular version are more often shown being executed, while women are shown tortured in ways that expose their female bodies. Yet many images of male and female saints fall outside this broad categorization and images of tortured saints along with representations of their nudity and pain make the gendering of these saints a complex issue. When seen through the lens of gendered execution practices found in medieval criminal law, Easton argues that the illustrations in this version of the Legenda Aurea "may represent an elision of gender"(53). Sarah Salih and Anke Bernau are literary scholars, and their works are the most overtly theoretical in the collection. Salih starts with the frequent observation that conversion narratives are gendered. Men's conversion generally brings about a break with their past, while women's conversion adapts their past life to their new religious vocation. This being said, Margery Kempe's conversion, as described in her Book, departs from this model. Salih takes this observation (not original to her, as she states) and compares Margery's conversion to those of Mary Magdalene and St. Paul in the Digby Mary Magdalene and St. Paul plays. Both texts come from East Anglia although they are not contemporary. Reading them together, however, produces interesting comparisons about the creation of subjectivity and identity before and after the conversion moment. Anke Bernau's article "Virginal Effects: Text and Identity in Ancrene Wisse" studies the way that the trope of virginity shapes and challenges the structure of this anchoritic text. Bernau considers the links between the potential impermanence of virginity and the construction of a virginal identity in the text.

Jacqueline Murray's essay "'The Law of Sin That Is My Members': the Problem of Male Embodiment" and Robert Mills' article "Ecce Homo" both look at issues of the masculine and male body and its meanings and problems for medieval culture. Murray argues that the medieval tendency to see the male body as natural obscures male just as much as it obscures female embodiment. Furthermore, Murray contends that modern discussions, which see the female body as sexed, implicitly assume that men have merely human bodies and thus continue this tendency. Murray proposes that both a metaphorical and a historical-contextual approach can help explore what it meant to be male in the Middle Ages. As examples of this approach she looks briefly at Abelard and nocturnal emissions. With these two examples, Murray shows how men, like women, faced the same gulf between lived experiences and the ideal of chastity and purity. Robert Mills also addresses the issue of "normal" male bodies in his extended speculation about the meanings and significances of what appears to modern readers as highly homoerotic mystical writings by men, such as Richard Rolle or John of the Cross. Mills starts by looking at how Caroline Bynum redrew the gender identity of Jesus as "mother" to see these types of writings as hetero- rather than homosexual. Mills goes on, however, to question how to view Christ's crucified body. Mills agues that Christ's body in pain is not clearly homoerotic, heteroerotic, masculine, or feminine, but a "site of scandal," (167) invested with both "hegemonic and counter-hegemonic significance" (164).

Another nice pairing of articles is Samantha Riches "St. George as a Male Virgin Martyr" and Katherine Lewis' "Becoming a Virgin King: Richard II and Edward the Confessor." Both authors look at how male saints are gendered. Riches starts by interrogating the classifications of saints that scholars and patrons often use, such as royal saint, cleric saint or virgin martyr. She argues that these categories tell us more about the concerns of those writing about the saint, than the saints themselves. From this position, Riches moves to analyze St. George in terms of the criteria usually reserved for virgin martyrs, a category of female saint. She argues that the category need not be limited to women. The many so-called feminine qualities that St. George shares with the virgin martyrs demonstrates something of the complexity of saint cults, which is often lost when looking only at wills or architecture. Lewis discusses notions of male virginity in her study of how and when King Richard II of England adopted the cult of St. Edward the Confessor as a personal favorite. Lewis argues that this association, which produced the famous Wilton Diptych, grew out of political expediency. Richard lacked an heir when his beloved wife Anne of Bohemia died in 1394. His adoption of the cult of a virgin king, who was popularly believed to have had a celibate marriage, speaks to his status as both a man and a king. It was a form of sanctity outside the concerns of most male subjects and served as a vehicle for creating a separate and royal type of masculinity.

Finally, Miriam Gill, P.H. Cullum, and Wendy Larson all explore aspects of local religious practice. Gill, in her article "Female Piety and Impiety: Selected Images of Women in Wall Paintings in England after 1300," looks at images of women in three motifs commonly found in parish wall paintings. They are: teaching the virgin to read, warning to gossips, and the seven corporal acts of mercy, which often portrays women performing the acts. Gill considers how these images served to teach women about ideal pious behavior and how women might have interpreted these images for themselves. Gill is cognizant that men would have learned from these images as well, but argues that gender would have been important in the reception of their messages. This piece not only analyzes differences between artistic and literary portrayals, but brings attention to often neglected art forms. Cullum's article, "Gendering Charity in Medieval Hagiography," looks at the ways that women and men gave charity. Although many scholars have noted that charity was often a women's avenue to sanctity, Cullum points out that women's limited access to money or property severely curtailed their charitable giving possibilities. Looking at female saints who tried to give charity despite orders from men not to, Cullum argues that charity not only brought these women sanctity, it helped to "obliterate the conventional hierarchies in which they were embedded and to collapse the dependencies of rich and poor into a single identity" (142). Larson looks at how gender shaped the cultic practices behind the veneration of St. Margaret and St. Marina. These two saints share the same vita, but St. Margaret was venerated in the West and Marina the East. The cultic practices associated with these saints varied significantly, and as the cults grew apart, gendered expectations figured in both visual and written retellings of the legend. Margaret became important as an intercessor in childbirth in the West, while Marina did not. Similarly the iconographic depictions diverged, showing, Larson argues the role of local needs and viewpoints in creating a cult.

Although the quality of scholarship varies, this is a strong collection of essays that is nicely coherent. The editors have chosen a range of articles that all illustrate the applicability of gender analysis to a variety of sources and topics. The volume also includes a generous number of illustrations. Despite the editor's claims to regional breadth, however, half the articles deal with aspects of gender and holiness in late medieval England. Still, the broad range of concerns and methodologies means that this collection of essays will be appealing to many interested in the next generation of scholarship on bodies, gender, and sexuality. This volume will also be of interest to those working in hagiography, art history, and "popular piety." Given its broad appeal, it is unfortunately priced outside the range of many libraries and most graduate students.

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Author Biography

Katherine French

SUNY-New Paltz