05.02.19, Wood, ed., Women and Religion

Main Article Content

Fiona J. Griffiths

The Medieval Review baj9928.0502.019


Wood, Diana, ed.. Women and Religion in Medieval England. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2003. Pp. xiv, 185. ISBN: 1-84217-098-8.

Reviewed by:
Fiona J. Griffiths
New York University

Like many collections of essays, Women and Religion in Medieval England stems from a 2001 conference on the topic of "English women and religion, c. 500-1500," sponsored by the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education. The purpose of the conference was twofold: first, to highlight the role of women in the religious worlds of medieval England and, second, to make recent research on the topic more widely accessible. On both counts the volume has succeeded. The eight essays that it contains provide a useful introduction to some of the methodological issues involved in the study of medieval women and religion, while at the same time presenting the fruits of previous research alongside some new conclusions. Their subjects range widely, from the fate of religious women in Anglo-Saxon England and the architecture of women's religious communities to the spiritual implications of childbirth for lay women and the piety of late medieval noblewomen. The practices of both lay and religious women are featured, as are those of women of all social classes, although inevitably the sources favor women of status and influence. The volume extends chronologically from Sally Crawford's discussion of burial practices during the "Final Phase" or "Conversion Period" (c. 650-800) to Margaret Aston's examination of the role and prominence of women amongst Lollard groups.

Given the volume's chronological and thematic range, the essays that it includes are necessarily disparate. Apart from the overarching theme of women and religion, there is little explicitly linking them together; however, many of the methodological issues that they raise are shared. The difficulty involved in "finding" women of the past is a recurrent theme, as are the limitations of the sources. Not only are women largely absent from many of the written records that have formed the foundation of medieval history, but since most of the sources that do mention them were written by men, they are inevitably subject to a gender bias and must be examined with particular care. Noting that texts written for women by churchmen are often stereotypical, Rowena Archer asks, "If the Church's view of how women in the world ought to behave is no longer accepted uncritically by historians, then how much greater should be the caveats about its views on how women ought to behave in those matters which most nearly touched it, namely religious observance?" (119) The volume as a whole reflects Archer's critical approach to the sources.

Recognizing the need to explore sources beyond the written record to chart the religious lives of women, several of the volume's authors turn to ancillary subjects such as archaeology and art history. Sally Crawford examines burial practices in seventh- and eighth-century England as a means to chart women's early attraction to Christianity and their status within their families and kin groups. James Bond explores physical evidence for female monastic houses in England to determine the extent to which women's communities differed from men's. "Is there," he asks, "anything about the setting, architecture, plan, or economic organization of nunneries that distinguishes them from monasteries?" (46) Carole Rawcliffe considers physical evidence for women's piety in childbirth, noting the girdles and prayer-rolls they used, the images, brooches, and pendants they commissioned and wore, and the saints to whom they turned for help in labor. Interestingly, these saints were not gender-specific: male as well as female saints were invoked by laboring women. Finally, in her essay, "Women and the Word of God," Henrietta Leyser examines evidence for the types of books that women owned, arguing that nunneries were at the "cutting-edge of spiritual literacy" (42). Taking on some of the most pressing questions in the study of medieval women and religion--the role of images in female spirituality, the gender specificity of medieval piety in general, and the significance of erotic imagery in devotional texts for women--Leyser offers a fresh approach to much of the received wisdom in the field.

Other essays move beyond traditional interpretations of the written evidence in order to suggest new models. Sarah Foot revises David Knowles's conclusion that female monasteries had "disappeared" in late Anglo-Saxon England, demonstrating that women continued to engage in the religious life, but that they did so in ways that have largely been lost to the historian's view. What she discovers is a vibrant religious culture for women that took place primarily outside of the traditional monastic setting: while there is little clear cut evidence for "monasteries" of women at this time, women described as religiosae feminae, ancillae Dei, and sanctimoniales appear in various sources, proof that they continued to embrace the religious life despite the shortage of women's monasteries. The "disappearance" of nuns becomes, then, simply a shift towards a more informal, and thus less easily identified, form of the religious life. Rowena Archer challenges the persistent belief that later medieval English noblewomen were intensely pious, pointing out the very few women on whom such an idea is founded and the enormous chasm between the theory and the practice of women's lives.

The realities of noblewomen's lives forced them, not always unwillingly, into the world, leaving little time for the rounds of meditations and devotions that are commonly ascribed to them. R. N. Swanson also takes a new approach to a popular subject in his essay, "Will the Real Margery Kempe Please Stand Up!" Noting that Margery is "probably the most written-about woman of medieval England," Swanson nonetheless observes that her Book provides little direct information concerning her life but is, instead, "a construct, with its own agenda" (141-2). The episodic nature of the Book, its silence concerning Margery's early life, and the circumstances in which it was written--in particular the role of Margery's scribes--together make it problematic as a historical source either for Margery's life and spiritual practice or for women's spirituality more broadly. In an effort to move away from the traditional focus on Margery's extraordinary spirituality, Swanson looks beyond the themes favored by Margery and her scribe: the tension between her earthly marriage and desire for chastity, her travels, and her relationship with Christ. Teasing out the distinction between Margery the pious woman and Margery the spiritual "oddity" is the purpose of his enquiry.

Finally, Margaret Aston focuses on the largely unseen women who were drawn to Lollard heresy in late medieval England. Looking beyond the predominance of men among those tried for heresy, she reveals the unorthodox activities of Lollard women as wives, missionaries, and teachers. The "lack" of Lollard women in traditional accounts, she argues, is a function of the sources, and not a reflection of the reality. Although women were named with less frequency than men in judicial proceedings and, when they were tried, were treated more leniently than men accused of similar crimes, Aston interprets these facts as evidence for the widespread gender-bias of judges. Since they did not expect to find female heretics, they simply failed to "see" them. "Does this not tell us more about the persecutors than the persecuted?" she asks, noting that "contemporary assumptions about gender roles made it easy for women to shelter behind men" (172).

In addition to asking new questions and showcasing some fresh approaches to more traditional ones, Women and Religion in Medieval England highlights the lives of some lesser known women. James Bond touches on the activities of Abbess Euphemia of Wherwell as a monastic builder. Faced with the possible collapse of the presbytery of her abbey church, Euphemia authorized its dismantling and laid the foundation stone for the new structure herself. Margaret Aston introduces Joan White, the largely unknowable wife of a Lollard leader. After her husband's death at the stake in 1428, Joan continued with the missionary work that they may have begun together, providing one example of women's involvement in Lollard teaching and proselytizing. Other, more prominent women are subject to reinterpretation, as for instance in Rowena Archer's discussion of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York (d. 1495), one of the so-called "famous five" whose lives have been taken as evidence for noblewomen's piety. Questioning the pious image that has attached itself to later medieval noblewomen, Archer focuses her attention on Cecily's early life, before she retired from the world. "What of the seventy years before Cecily's retirement?" (124) Archer asks, noting rumors of her adulterous behavior. Taking a similarly skeptical approach to the famed piety of Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester, Archer suggests that her piety may have been due to her failure to maintain an oath of celibacy following the death of her first husband. Eleanor "may well have felt the need for penance in her life," she quips (129).

Taken together, the essays in this volume present a sweeping, if episodic, impression of women's activities within the spiritual landscape of medieval England. The topics explored are by no means comprehensive; this collection is probably not suitable for adoption in an undergraduate, or even a graduate course. Certain topics are underrepresented, for instance the interaction of women with the official "church" (more attention is paid to women's religious practices than to their official standing) or the role played by men in facilitating (or obstructing) women's spiritual lives. Of all the essays, only Swanson pays serious attention to women's interaction with men within the religious life, focusing first on Margery's husband, John, and then on the male priests and confessors who appear in her Book. As he observes, Margery "operates in a world where spiritual sustenance is largely mediated through men," (146) a point that Rawcliffe also makes in her discussion of childbirth rituals. Yet despite these small quibbles, the volume achieves its goal: restoring women to discussions of religion and making both available to a broad public.

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Author Biography

Fiona J. Griffiths

New York University