09.05.10, Bitel and Lifshitz, eds., Gender and Christianiity

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Becky R. Lee

The Medieval Review baj9928.0905.010


Bitel Lisa M. and Felice Lifshitz (eds.). Gender and Christianiity in Medieval Europe: New Perspectives. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Pp. 176. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4069-6.

Reviewed by:
Becky R. Lee
York University, Toronto, Canada

This volume of essays is dedicated to, and inspired by, Jo Ann McNamara, whose scholarship is described by Lisa M. Bitel in her introduction as being characterized by a "broad, unblinkered focus on the mutual operations of gender and religion in the medieval centuries" (7). Building upon McNamara's work, which focuses primarily on the earlier centuries of medieval Christian Europe, each of the five essays examines the interaction of dominant Christian discourses and gender ideologies shaping earlier medieval (i.e. prior to the 14th century) identities, beliefs and religious practices.

In "Tertullian, the Angelic Life, and the Bride of Christ," Dyan Elliott revisits McNamara's 1983 analysis of Tertullian's role in, and intention behind, identifying consecrated virgins as brides of Christ. Elliot acknowledges that there is much evidence in Tertullian's writings to support McNamara's conclusion that he invested consecrated virgins with the status of brides of Christ in order to "bring the independent virgin firmly under patriarchal control" (17). However, she contends that this was coincidental to Tertullian's primary concern, the boundary between the angelic and the human races, an issue of hot debate between orthodox and Gnostic Christians at the time. Tracing the development of Tertullian's thought in the context of the early church's attitudes toward marriage, virginity, and the angelic life, Elliot concludes that Tertullian married the virgin to Christ to keep her firmly and permanently identified with her sexed body. This was not in the interests of controlling women or the preservation of the gender hierarchy, as McNamara argued, but in defense of the belief in the incarnation of Christ.

In "One Flesh, Two Sexes, Three Genders?" Jacqueline Murray examines the usefulness of the concept of a "third gender" for explaining aspects of medieval society and beliefs. Using as her starting point McNamara's assertion that in the Middle Ages "gender (i.e. social roles assigned to the sexes) was on a spectrum, and a person's place on this spectrum was influenced not only by sex but also by class, mode of life, and personal characteristics" (36), Murray explores medieval perceptions of sex (i.e. physical characteristics and role in reproduction). Drawing from the texts of classical and medieval medicine, and medieval theology and hagiography, she first demonstrates that in medieval understanding there was also a spectrum of sexual identities, and that it was equally possible for slippage to occur along that continuum. Having established that medieval people saw gender and sex as mutable, thus allowing for the conceptual framework necessary for the development of a third gender, Murray posits that if there was a third gender, it was chastity. That is not a new conclusion. However, her reasoning is. Arguing that chastity allowed women to become more masculine, and required men to become more feminine, Murray asserts that becoming more like each other did not simply situate holy men and women at the center of the sex/gender continuum; that was the location of the morally suspect sexually ambiguous. Rather, in becoming more like each other, women and men bound to chastity would have been seen as a third gender modeled by Adam and Eve in the first Genesis account of creation, which describes them as being created together as one flesh.

Ruth Mazo Karras rejects the idea of a third gender in "Thomas Aquinas's Chastity Belt: Clerical Masculinity in Medieval Europe," asserting that "the fluidity that Murray sees along a spectrum from male to female might instead be seen as fluidity of meaning within the binary categories of masculine and feminine" (53). For Karras, "it is more useful to speak of multiple variations on the basic two [genders]," for this "allows us to observe the tensions inherent in 'masculine' and 'feminine' gender identities" (53). With evidence from works of hagiography, theology and monastic reformers, Karras argues that chastity did not feminize male clerics; rather, it was a distinct clerical (i.e. monastic) model of masculinity. Just as secular models of masculinity revolved around military pursuits and sexual activity, the clerical model of masculinity was based on strength of will and valiant struggle against temptation, especially sexual temptation. Theirs was "heroic chastity" (57). The implications of this clerical model of masculinity for medieval women are also discussed briefly. Cast as sexual temptations for men, and more prone to sexual temptation than men, by this model of masculinity, Karras concludes that unlike their male counterparts, women's heroic chastity does not constitute a distinct model of femininity; rather, it is considered to make them more masculine.

Felice Lifshitz offers another perspective on female and male chastity in "Priestly Women, Virginal Men: Litanies and their Discontents." In this essay, Lifshitz continues a consideration of the treatment of women in Carolingian litanies begun in an earlier essay ("Gender Trouble in Paradise: The Case of the Liturgical Virgo," 2007). There, she argued that "the liturgical virgo functioned as an ideological tool that aided male ecclesiastics of the Carolingian era in their struggle to bar women both from sacred space and from important official roles in Latin churches," in that it was used to exclude women from other categories such as apostle and martyr. Those roles were understood to have been "predecessors of leadership positions in the church" (87). Here, Lifshitz considers the flip side of that argument, how inclusion in "the litany category of virgo itself helped resist women's erasure from Christian liturgical activity and Christian officialdom" because it "created a symbolic association between the sainted virgines on the litany list and the paradigmatic virgo Mary mother of Jesus" (88). Lifshitz then turns to virginal men, who were excluded from the litany category virgo. She finds evidence through close examination of the manuscripts of Aldhelm of Malmesbury's De virginitate and their glosses suggesting that some men would have valued the same validation of their attempts to live chaste lives, both because there appears to have been little emotional or social support for the men engaged in that heroic struggle, and because they needed to control the discourse of chastity which afforded them the moral authority upon which their public power was based.

Lifshitz finds confirmation in Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg's "Women's Monasteries and Sacred Space: The promotion of Saints' Cults and Miracles," a study of early cult centers established in women's religious houses in France, England and Germany. Schulenburg examines the rules and miracle collections from these women's houses for information about spatial arrangements and what they reveal about access, lay traffic, hospitality, and the challenges and benefits of the pilgrimage trade. She discovers both ingenuity and practicality on the part of religious women in balancing strict policies of enclosure and the challenges of fostering a flourishing pilgrimage business within their monastic churches. Surprisingly, unlike the men's religious houses of the period, she finds no "indication of gender- based exclusionary policies practiced by those women's communities.Rather, it seems that they shared their sacred space and holy relics with miracle seekers of both genders" (84). This leads Schulenburg to conclude that "the walls of women's convents were not as impervious as one might think" (84).

Reading these essays was a joy. All five authors are mature scholars recognized for their groundbreaking work in medieval gender studies. Their familiarity with the sources, sophisticated understanding of the dynamics at work, and their ability to communicate that understanding in an accessible manner will benefit the scholar and the student alike. Together, these essays skillfully portray the complexity of the interactions at the intersection of gender and religion in earlier medieval Europe. The introduction written by Lisa M. Bitel complements the essays with an up-to-date historiography of the study of gender and religion in medieval studies. It also outlines the ground-breaking contributions that Jo Ann McNamara has made to that study. The one quibble I have with the book is Bitel's claim that the essays in the book "extend the definition of religious profession to mean more than monastic vows or formal ecclesiastical ordination" (3). The subjects of these essays are monastic women and men, and clerics. Non-religious women and men, when mentioned at all, merely play supporting roles.

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Author Biography

Becky R. Lee

York University, Toronto, Canada