09.03.03, Barr, Pastoral Care

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Elizabeth Schirmer

The Medieval Review baj9928.0903.003


Barr, Beth Allison. The Pastoral Care of Women in Late Medieval Women. Gender in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2008. Pp. x, 171. ISBN: 978-1-84383373-4.

Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Schirmer
New Mexico State University

Parish priests in late-medieval England, according to Beth Allison Barr, viewed their female charges as "ordinary parishioners who posed extraordinary problems for priests" (96). Barr bases this claim upon readings of "pastoral vernacular literature," that is, handbooks and sermon collections written by priests for priests, in English, to provide practical instruction in pastoral care. These texts, Barr argues, offer "gendered lessons" to parish priests, some "helpful" (that is, realistic and respectful about the spiritual needs of women parishioners) and others "harmful" (narrowly misogynistic, getting in the way of the responsible pastoral care of women). Taking the Festial of John Mirk as her central case study, and shoring up her claims with evidence from the (published) historical record, Barr illustrates the practical attitudes of clerical writings regarding the pastoral care of women, presenting a balanced account of a parish clergy committed to the cure of female souls but conscious of distinctive challenges posed by female parishioners.

Barr challenges the assumption that Latin traditions of clerical misogyny led to poor pastoral care for women. The "new genre" of vernacular pastoral literature, developed to educate a post-Lateran, post-pandemic clergy, did teach priests to "think differently" about women, but the English texts Barr describes are practical-minded and "realistic," offering positive as well as negative representations of female parishioners. Women in these texts are active in the spiritual lives of their parishes--often more active than men--and, while women's labor is downplayed, some texts do expand their perception beyond the traditional roles of virgin/wife/widow (for example acknowledging "singlewomen"). At the same time, women are "problematic parishioners": prone to sexual sin and dependent upon men, they appear as reluctant penitents only too willing to challenge the sacerdotal authority of priests. The pastoral care of women emerges from this study as a necessary but treacherous business.

Barr begins by defining the genre of pastoral vernacular literature. Rather than a decline in academic qualifications in the wake of the Black Death, Barr argues, these English manuals reflect a "shift in educational models," targeting a growing audience of "ordinary clergymen" in need of practical instruction in their craft. The two central chapters of the book consider "Pastoral Language" and "Pastoral Perceptions," asking how late-medieval English priests addressed and imagined their female charges. Barr's analysis centers on John Mirk's Festial, a popular and influential sermon collection based on the feasts and fasts of the church year (rather than on the lectionary) and full of narrative exempla. Her analysis of the Festial and its manuscripts is supplemented by other pastoral vernacular texts--Mirk's own Instructions for Parish Priests, the Speculum Sacerdotale, Quattour Sermones, Worcester Cathedral Library MS 172, British Library Additional Sloane MS 1485, and the Middle English Sermons edited by Woodburn Ross, among others--and by parish art and local historical records.

Chapter two, on "Pastoral Language," is devoted to a comparative study of the use of gender-inclusive language (phrases such as "good men and women") across the field of Festial manuscripts. Individual compilers, Barr finds, made individual choices about addressing women specifically; and while there are some trends--Group A manuscripts, for example, tend to include more gender-inclusive language than their Group B counterparts--virtually every manuscript incorporates women into sermons and passages focused on pastoral issues (regular church attendance, devotion to the saints, participation in the sacraments). Barr argues that "through their use of gender-inclusive language, some medieval English clerics 'rose above the general wave of anti-feminism': recognizing the critical role female parishioners played in pastoral matters and accepting clerical obligations to provide women with proper pastoral care" (39). This chapter makes a significant contribution to the field of Middle English manuscript studies, showing how much we can learn--about individual compilers and cultural trends--from patterns of variation within well-established manuscript traditions. I wanted to know more, however, about the "everyday clerics" who compiled Festial manuscripts: this broad category limited Barr's analysis, confining her to generalizing claims about parish clergy and their spiritual charges.

Barr's account of "Pastoral Perceptions" emphasizes the ambivalence of clerical attitudes towards women, often contrasting the "view from altar" presented in pastoral texts with evidence from the historical record. For example Barr notes that the few women defined by their work in Mirk's exempla are nearly all nuns or prostitutes, and she contrasts this to the evidence of working women found in Shrewsbury tax records. Adopting the term coined by Judith M. Bennet and Amy Froide, editors of Singlewomen in the European Past (U of Pennsylvania P, 1999), Barr notes that "the categories of women multiply in Middle English pastoral literature" (83), with some clerical authors even acknowledging the existence of "singlewomen" as a category distinct from virgin or widow; here Barr cites the historical example of Agnes le Roo, apparently a lifelong singlewoman who worked as a brewster. All women, however, are represented in these clerically-authored texts as particularly prone to sexual sin--a representation echoed in sketches of "sirens" in Durham Cathedral Cosin MS V IV 3 (which contains one sermon from the Festial) and images of "lascivious women" in parish church carvings.

The range of evidence Barr draws on here, combined with her grounding in Mirk's exempla, provides a solid basis for her claims, in the final chapter, about "Pastoral Care" in the period. While reminding us that vernacular texts are "less anti-woman than one might expect" (107), Barr here emphasizes the obstacles women were seen to create to their own pastoral care. In addition to the dangers posed by women's bodies to celibate priests--Barr more than once cites Mirk's injunction that a woman should kneel beside a priest in confession, and face away from him--women complicated already difficult elements of pastoral care by their reluctance to confess fully (especially sexual sin) and their tendency to challenge sacerdotal authority (especially in the eucharist). Barr's conclusion reiterates her call for a more nuanced and realistic understanding of clerical attitudes towards women at the parish level and summarizes briefly the "gendered lessons" she has traced.

Two appendices are designed to further study of the Festial: a helpful summary description of the major manuscripts (drawing on Fletcher, Power, and Wakelin, as well as on Barr's own examination of each manuscript), and a less helpful summary of its narratives, extracting the narrative elements of Mirk's exempla from their rhetorical context (while page numbers in Erbe's edition are given for each narrative, there is no indication even of its sermon's occasion). Barr works with modern translations throughout, and her readings suffer a bit, especially in comparison with those of Judy Ann Ford in her recent study, John Mirk's Festial: Orthodoxy, Lollardy, and the Common People in Fourteenth-Century England (D. S. Brewer, 2006). While Barr locates her study within the broader trajectory of clerical education, she does not ground it (as Ford does here) in the socio-political world of late-medieval England; Lollardy, for example, is listed only twice in the index. This difference in emphasis is refreshing--so much recent work on late- medieval English religious writing feels shackled to the Lollard controversy--but it highlighted what was, for this reader, a tendency to abstract pastoral care as a category from the complex social realities in which it was embedded.

The greatest value of this study lies in Barr's articulation of the genre of "vernacular pastoral literature," and in her careful attention to gendered language and gendered narratives within it. Barr's assessment of the evidence she collects provides a new picture of clerical attitudes towards women in the parishes of late-medieval England. Barr is right to remind us that clerical attitudes towards women were neither simple nor monolithic: vernacular manuscripts have far more to say than do Latin misogynist traditions about relations between working priests and their female parishioners. The tone of the book echoes (to my ear) the tone of its practical-minded, pastorally-focused objects of study, and I would occasionally have appreciated a sharper critical distance. Nor (as she is well aware) does Barr present new evidence about the historical lives of parish priests and their female charges. Nevertheless, The Pastoral Care of Women advances our understanding of gender difference in pastoral relationships, while productively expanding the range of questions we ask of Middle English religious texts.

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Author Biography

Elizabeth Schirmer

New Mexico State University