12.06.02, Wallace, Strong Women

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Joel Rosenthal

The Medieval Review 12.06.02

Wallace, David. Strong Women: Life, Text, and Territory 1347-1645. The Clarendon Lectures in English. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xxxi, 288. ISBN: 978-0-19-954171-3.

Reviewed by:
Joel Rosenthal
State University of New York at Stony Brook (emeritus)

In this dazzling display of erudition David Wallace has amplified his 2007 Clarendon Lectures and in doing so has provided us with a fascinating and thought-provoking "compare and contrast" study of four women of deep religious conviction and practice. They are presented in two pairings: two women of the later Middle Ages (Dorothea of Montau, 1347-1394 and Margery Kempe of Lynne, c. 1373-c. 1440) and two Catholic women of the Counter-Reformation who began life in Protestant England (Mary Ward of Yorkshire, 1585-1645 and Elizabeth Cary of Drury Lane, 1585-1639). All four shared a conviction--worked out in varying ways--that a life dedicated to spirituality was the life to live in God's world and under Christ's blessings and mandates, no matter how awkward or difficult or even dangerous this might prove to be. They chose, or found themselves on, very difficult paths for their pilgrimages (undertaken both literally and metaphorically). Furthermore, each woman's pathway is "alive" for us today because a contemporary either wrote for them (as with Margery's dictated autobiography) or about them (as in the life written by her cloistered daughters to give us the tale of Elizabeth Cary); contemporary scribal practice and modern scholarship and reader-reception both come in for kudos on this score. Furthermore, not least among their similarities, each was only set free to follow the rocky road to her Jerusalem upon the death of a key male figure whom they saw as an impediment, a roadblock to the quest for spiritual autonomy; a father and then a husband who beat her, for Dorothea, bemused husbands for the others. Each of Wallace's four women--with one chapter per heroine--had to fight the obstacles of male-oriented authority, of hierarchies and social structures that cast an unsympathetic eye on the pursuit of individualized, feminine spirituality. In a less sympathetic phrasing, we can say that we have four religious cranks who would not back down, living though they were in a world where most found the accepted boundaries of religious practice and enthusiasm quite adequate for their spiritual aspirations and where women who pushed the boundaries, let alone crossed them, were all the more suspect.

Wallace sets Dorothea of Montau's quest for spiritual expression and uneasy peace into the context of the Drang nach Ostend that brought people of Germany, such as her father, out to that border (or liminal) realm of what is now Poland, then being settled by the Teutonic Knights. Dorothea, child of a mother whose fingers were deformed from her constant resort to her rosary, began from age seven to inflict punishment upon her own body. In her desire to mortify her flesh--the "willing submission to physical pain twinned with willing application of it" (8)--we have the litany of the hair shirt, the log pillow, the hurlings to the ground, semi-starvation, needles in the feet, burns from boiling water, and other ways of identifying with the crucified savior. Being enclosed in an anchorite's cell was, no doubt, just the logical extension of an unending search for a humility that reached "self-obliteration;" Dorothea found this solace in enclosure at Marienwerder. We know of this painful life because Father Johannes Marienwerder became her spiritual historian and has left us a vita that both chronicles her spiritual journey and offered the material for a canonization campaign that began shortly after her death in 1394 and that finally came to fruition in 1976 (Paul VI). Given the presence of Hussite heretics and of newly- Christianized folk in what was very much a frontier world, a local saint who was almost a martyr, almost a recreated virgin recluse (despite nine children), and a local girl, might have been an attractive hammer against the Church's enemies. Instead, Dorothea's cult was suppressed in 1544 and it really not until such as George Eliot (with Middlemarch reflecting aspects of her story) rediscovered her that her cause (for canonization) gained some of its long-lost momentum. In more recent times the image of Dorothea as a beacon of east-oriented Germanization has had a sinister side, as we might imagine, though today we also focus on her life as a feminist engaged in her own version of a search for a life course. The irony is that we know of Dorothea's painful odyssey through the account of a priest, an "author [who] was keen to desexualize his candidate saint" and to make her a role model who conformed to masculinized agenda.

Margery Kempe is certainly the most familiar of Wallace's strong women, at least to the Anglophone world. Wallace begins this chapter by discussing how Margery's tale became accessible to modern readers. As he presents it it is very much a tale of the 1930s, with the decade's focus on women's consciousness (thanks to Virginia Woolf) matched perhaps by its concern for hysteria and neurosis (credit Freud for this). As the Teutonic knights had "controlled Dorothea's textual afterlife" (62), so Margery's fate and fame rested on the labors of her 15th century scribe and on the modern scholarly labors of Hope Emily Allen, William Butler-Bowdon, and Sanford Meech (though more credit should go to Ruth Meech). And as Dorothea could be a heroine of a German push against Slavic Europe to the east, Margery--the restless and always-seeking daughter of a mayor of Lynne- -could be cast in 1936 as the English Joan of Arc. Wallace traces the popularization of this eccentric heroine: the front page of the Times Literary Supplement (13 December, 1941, a week after Pearl Harbor) and other unlikely and improbable public viewings. But against this wave of fervor there was also the interest in analyzing what was "wrong" with Margery; why that restless search, that nerve to denounce any and all deemed to be of lesser faith, the need to travel to Jerusalem and Rome and Danzig--Dorothea country, we note--as well as to cathedrals and market squares and bishops' palaces in England? Wallace argues that we should not pathologize Ms Kempe; her case study makes considerable sense in the context of her world, at least if we accept the pronouncement with which he opens the book: "literature is the truest history" (xv).

Mary Ward ("Holy Amazon") spent her life as an evangelist of Roman Catholic good works and an educational mission. To do this she had to fight two great enemies: the heretics of her native land who had broken with Rome and the powerful forces within her Church that, in keeping with the decrees of Trent, wanted her safely and securely placed within the cloister. She resisted both with all her strength and spirit, seeing her mission as one that entailed sending "religious women to the streets" (134). And so well were her words and the details of her life suppressed that it is only in the last decade or two that the various lives and autobiographical fragments (in English, Italian, and French) have become readily accessible. An exile from both England and Rome, this precocious woman who had written plays as a child began life very much in the setting of the Yorkshire recusant community: hiding Jesuits, knowing men who ran with Guy Fawkes, and eventually striving to turn her version of the Poor Clares into an English missionary effort. Working mostly on the Continent, she shaped a role for herself and her followers that drew ecclesiastical censure; misled by Urban VIII whom she though had sided with her cause, travelling across central and Eastern Europe, befriended by Emperor Ferdinand II, and muzzled by the Bill of Suppression of 1629. Though her schools enrolled as many as 465 girls in Vienna alone, at their high point, she was an outcast, imprisoned or forcibly enclaustrated at Angerkloster, though eventually released and free to return to England in time to meet Queen Henrietta Maria in 1639. Wallace finds the influence of romance literature in the lives of Mary, as well as in her own works--a visionary idea of a calling in the world, of female companionship and disciple-ship, of a flight from suitors and father so she could be free "to do her own thing." She just was determined to stand outside so many of other people's boundaries, if need be. Her labors "to marry the intensity of religious enclosure with travel" (191) put her beyond the pale as defined by many different forms and figures of authority. It is both inspiring and sad.

Elizabeth Cary ("Vice Queen of Ireland") was much more in the mainstream of English society, though her 1626 conversion to Rome alienated her husband, lord deputy of Ireland. This dramatic and drastic move would, her mother lamented (though perhaps incorrectly), be catastrophic for her and for all those around her. Since four of her daughters eventually converted and two of her sons flirted--in and out, with Rome--Elizabeth's decision clearly paved the way for children who were to follow her spiritual lead. And the daughters, as nuns on the Continent, not only remained steadfast (unlike their brothers) but were responsible for writing and thereby preserving the life of their mother that keeps her contribution to the team of "strong women" on the table. But unlike the other women we have seen, Elizabeth "of Drury Lane" stayed much in London society; no commitment to the cloister, no withdrawal from the pleasures of (Protestant) society. She knew the court and was known at the court and she enjoyed the theater, though she also tried to set up an industrial enterprise (badly underfunded) so Irish women could work and have an independent life and income. She was an enthusiast, what her daughters saw "their mother's violence as a quality essential to a life begetting a Life," (i.e., their biography of her) (241).

This presentation of the four women is enhanced to many illustrations, many from the Wallace camera. We see Marienkirche as viewed from Gdansk, the guildhall at King's Lynn, Elizabeth Cary's tomb at Tanfield, among other glimpses into the world they inhabited. The bibliography is impressively large and wide-ranging. Wallace goes to great lengths to chart and elucidate the currents of interest in his women--in the publication of their lives, in the editing of what they themselves wrote, and in their appearance in fiction and non-fiction over the centuries. He loops them together, when possible; fictitious paths, crossing over the years, as well as genuine interest by the later ones in the earlier ones, as they could know of them. If the separate pilgrimages of these women do not strike a sympathetic chord in the reader (or the reviewer), the question of how and why they could generate and exhibit so much enthusiasm seems a reasonable question. What impulses drove Dorothea to punish her own body? Perhaps the answer is the same ones, or much like those, that pushed Margery Kempe on her relentless, insightful, and self-pitying journey (both in a physical and a spiritual-psychological sense). Why did Mary Ward choose such an individualized and difficult path to get to Rome? And perhaps strangest of all, why did Elizabeth Cary go that way, or at least part of that way? In turning students to a study of medieval and early modern life a question to pose is to what extent were they like us, to what extent did they differ. Wallace's impressively presented case studies certainly point to the relevance of this question.

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Author Biography

Joel Rosenthal

State University of New York at Stony Brook (emeritus)