12.03.15, Hill, Women and Religion

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Becky R. Lee

The Medieval Review 12.03.15

Hill, Carole. Women and Religion in Late Medieval Norwich. Studies in History. Woodbridge: Royal Historical Society and The Boydell Press, 2010. Pp. xii, 204. ISBN: 9780861933044.

Reviewed by:
Becky R. Lee
York University

In Women and Religion in Late Medieval Norwich, Carole Hill argues that the women of late medieval Norwich "were the fulcrum of a highly innovative lay piety as well as personal participants in an evolving and vibrant religion" (16). That piety was the incarnational piety popularized on the Continent transformed into a devotio moderna able to reconcile their spiritual aspirations with the preoccupations of marriage, household and marketplace that filled their days.

To recover the piety of women in late medieval Norwich, Hill dedicates four of the five chapters to the cults of female saints popular in Norwich at the time: St. Anne, St. Margaret of Antioch, St. Mary Magdalen, and St. Bridget of Sweden. In each chapter, Hill explores the ways veneration of the saint worked to sanctify the assumed carnality of her female devotees, and to validate their quest for an interior life, offering "a powerful interpretation of female spiritual potential" (18). Chapter one focuses on the cult of St. Anne. Drawing upon contemporary legenda and iconography, Hill demonstrates that the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary and grandmother of Christ was revered as the cogenetrix of Christ, and consequently was considered to be instrumental in the redemption of humankind--without the benefit of virginity. Often depicted as a thrice-married merchant's wife and mother of two other daughters, St. Anne mirrored the lives of many late medieval women, sanctifying their mundane realities. Simultaneously, she affirmed women's spiritual nature, being commonly depicted as teaching Mary to read, reinforcing the mother's role as spiritual guide to her children.

In her examination of the cult of St. Margaret of Antioch in chapter two, Hill suggests that as puzzling as the identification of this adolescent virgin martyr with childbirth is, "subtle layers of meaning related to the carnal experience that was the lot of most women" can be found (61). Although St. Mary Magdalen's story also resonated with women's perceived concupiscence, Hill demonstrates in chapter three that her popularity was more complex than that. Her involvement with the physical body of Christ as repentant sinner washing his feet, companion in life, and attendant to his body in death associated her with the Eucharist, endowing her with potent intercessory powers. Hill argues in chapter four that the preoccupation of St. Bridget of Sweden, wife, mother, widow and visionary, regarding her son's salvation affirmed women's responsibility for the spiritual education of their children, and consequently for their very salvation. Bridget's choice to live as a bride of Christ after the death of her husband of thirty years also validated the vocation of chaste vowess for widows. The fifth chapter examines the participation of Norwich women in the seven corporal works of mercy. Shifting the focus from women's bodies to their responsibility to care for the bodies of others, Hill traces the eucharistic connotations of each "comfortable work."

This brief summary of the chapters does not do justice to the variety of evidence Hill employs and her skillful reading of it, nor to the sophistication of her analysis. In each chapter, evidence from archival, literary, testamentary, architectural, iconographic, and other material sources is woven together within a frame of the relevant theological understandings, and economic, political, and cultural contexts, to present as nuanced a picture as possible of each devotion and its attendant practices. Hill's analysis is equally nuanced, exploring the layers of meaning, probable and possible, Norwich women's devotions held for them.

The thoughtfulness and creativity of Hill's analysis is most evident in her attempts to illuminate the piety of the wives of merchants and artisans who are often hidden in the shadows of coverture. Hill finds clues in their charitable, commemorative and literary commissions; the depictions of their lives in the works of Norfolk and Suffolk poets, dramatists and authors; and the activities of the gilds to which they belonged. She also searches them out in the wills of the elite, finding networks of piety that crossed the established social divides.

Hill's exploration of the piety of lay women in late medieval Norwich is skillful, informative and thought provoking. The twenty color plates, three appendices documenting the material evidence in Norfolk and Norwich for the cults of St. Anne, St. Margaret of Antioch and St. Mary Magdalen, and the voluminous notes, combined with Hill's creative use of material and testamentary, as well as literary and archival sources to recover the piety of women from social strata below that of the nobility and gentry make Women and Religion in Late Medieval Norwich an excellent textbook for university courses in medieval culture and religion, and medieval gender studies and women's studies. It will also be a welcome addition to the libraries of scholars in those fields.

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Author Biography

Becky R. Lee

York University