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13.10.17, Melville and Müller, eds. Female vita religiosa

13.10.17, Melville and Müller, eds. Female vita religiosa

This volume contains a lively introduction and fourteen substantial essays arrayed under six sub-headings. Chronologically the papers range from the fourth to the thirteenth century and geographically they stretch from Egypt to Ireland. No papers treat Iberia, Scandinavia, or the Slavic world but no volume can do everything and this one is very good. Most of the papers are self-consciously historiographical. They set their topics within bodies of scholarship and then, usually, challenge the default assumptions present in that scholarship. A few papers are methodological. Many of the papers bring new sources into the discussion or read old sources in new ways. The volume will be valuable to non-specialist readers who can use it to get up to date on a host of subjects. Beginning graduate students will find in the book hints and clues for countless dissertation topics.

At the risk of doing each chapter some injustice, let me try to summarize them. In the interest of space I shall omit their (often long!) titles.

Jacques Dalarun's sparkling introduction surveys the earlier Middle Ages from the vantage point of the twelfth century. He says little that is new but says many things that it is good to have in mind. He notes ironies: Reform of individuals led to reform of the world; renunciation of wealth brought wealth; vows of chastity and celibacy required religious communities to engage continuously with the lay world for recruits and, accordingly, one cannot usefully speak of conflict between clergy and laity. He then rapidly surveys some well-known issues: There were always many more male than female houses (perhaps by a factor of 6 or 7 to 1); female houses were more aristocratic but male houses were richer; nuns had no life beyond the cloister as monks often did; male houses were largely autonomous whereas female houses needed both clergy and laborers; the tendency from the Carolingian period for most monks to be ordained meant that the Eucharistic liturgy vastly exceeded the efficacy of nuns' prayers—with all kinds of consequences; the fixation on virginity is as evident as it is difficult to explain.

Claudia Rapp looks at late antique Egypt and challenges traditional assumptions in two ways. She notes that the assumed progression from eremitic to cenobitic monasticism conceals a lot of "gray zones." And it is in those gray zones that one is most likely to find women. Women could live as consecrated virgins in their homes or in very small groups near large male communities. In either case, they are hard to find. The harsh desert environment made it difficult for women to live alone and the sources pertain mostly to male communities. A careful reading of the evidence shows that there were desert mothers whose teaching and authority were sought and respected.

Georg Jenal surveys what can be known about female ascetics in the Latin West in the fourth and early fifth centuries when the male movement was achieving prominence. By carefully combing the sources he identifies consecrated virgins and widows, consecrated wives who left their marriages (usually their husbands did so as well), and nuns living in community. In addition to using descriptive sources, Jenal reviews hortatory works (e.g. Jerome's famous letters 22 to Eustochium and 107 to Paula), as well as ecclesiastical and imperial legislation. Although by the early fifth century asceticism was more deeply rooted in the East than in the West, there is nevertheless evidence for a surprising surge of female asceticism, initially largely aristocratic and then gradually reflecting wider social groups.

Albrecht Diem studies the Regula cuiusdam ad virgines a text probably written in the seventh century and usually attributed--wrongly Diem says--to Waldebert of Luxeuil. The bullseye on Diem's target is the argument, traditional in medieval and modern tellings, that female monasticism was dependent, derivative, and inferior. By carefully sourcing and interpreting the Regula Diem is able to argue that it was brilliant and original and he suggests that female monasticism may actually have been superior. He explores in particular mutual love in the community, daily confession rituals in the community, the rule of silence, conduct and discipline, liminality and claustration. In all, the Regula sketched a radically new ideal of communal life.

Stephanie Haarländer takes us to Ireland and to the long controversy between Armagh and Kildare for something like primacy. Cogitosus put an emphasis on Kildare that is unique in Irish hagiography although oddly he discussed only the church and not the community. However one understands the shape of Irish monasticism, and the matter is still in part sub iudice, in the early days women had greater visibility and possibilities.

Anne-Marie Helvetius investigates the Merovingian world, an area where she has made distinguished contributions. The earliest houses were family affairs and are almost invisible to us. The influence of Caesarius led to the first attempts to regulate female monastic life but the evidence shows that his influence varied greatly from place to place; generalizations are dangerous. Eventually queens and aristocratic families became key founders leading to more and grander communities and the introduction of the Benedictine Rule. Amand however founded houses based on teaching and culture in distinction to Columbanian houses stressing prayer and retreat. There are two things to take away: First, diversity was the norm--huge houses under cloister, small houses under austere rules, groups dedicated to laus perennis, scattered communities, and learned ones. Second: women were not separate from their world, rarely lived under fixed rules, and were often mixed up in politics.

Sarah Foot identifies and tries to explain some key trends in Anglo-Saxon England. Ruling families played a key role in establishing a good many women's communities--exact numbers are beyond reach--but after a high point in the late seventh century the number of female houses, and probably of double houses, declined. The reasons for this trend are several and hard to weigh against each other: Vikings; the Carolingian reforms and, concomitant with them, a rising number of monk-priests and a disinclination of noble families to endow nuns' prayers; the connection between land and the military obligations that nuns could not fulfill.

Stefan Weinfurter tells a fascinating tale about the spectacular rise of the cult of Saint Walburga. The sister of Willibald and Wynnebald, she was a member of the Bonifatian circle. She was the subject of multiple vitae, and her relics were translated several times. Walburga's relics were initially contested between powerful Franks and Bavarians and those struggles drew kings into them which paved the way for Walburga's veneration all over the German kingdom. Connections between German kings and Cluny brought Walburga to France. Eventually her local and monastic association with Heidenheim was exchanged for episcopal association with Eichstatt and then with almost Europe-wide fame. She was almost a classic "noble saint" and by the late Middle Ages her story was embellished by making her the daughter of kings. This paper is an exemplary study of how the cult of a woman can be studied in ways typically reserved to men.

Giancarlo Andenna studies foundations in the Lombard north from the late seventh to the late eighth century. At least 13 women's houses were founded, all by laymen, and at least 21 men's houses, almost all founded by clerics. Andenna devotes particular attention to the exceedingly complex landed arrangements surrounding these houses which tended to consolidate the holdings of aristocratic families. By assessing laws, charters, and narratives, Andenna says a lot about women's rights to and control over property. A particularly interesting feature of the article concerns the building up of Santa Giulia and San Salvatore in Brescia. Queen Ansa and her daughter Anselperga collected land and nuns from all over Italy, creating in the process a remarkable network. Charlemagne broke up this network after 774 but by the 850s Lothar recreated what might be called the "Ansa Plan" on behalf of his daughter Gisla. The point is that women acting on their own behalf and in their own interests had a more dynamic role in Italian--and presumably not just in Italian--monasticism than has usually been supposed.

Katrinette Bodarwé begins with Heloise's letter to Abelard in which she explains how difficult it would be for a community of women to follow the Rule of St. Benedict. Of course, by the middle of the twelfth century there were a good many houses actually following the Benedictine Rule so Bodarwé looks at manuscripts to see what evidence they provide for the adaptation of the Rule to the circumstances of a female house. She finds that a few houses in England and Spain revised the Rule so extensively that it became in effect a new rule but in houses that derived from the Carolingian reforms the Rule was normally subjected to more or less adaptation and revision. One serious problem bedevils this fine study: we have very few manuscripts of the Rule from women's houses.

Hedwig Röckelein takes up Bodarwé's problem from a different angle. The latter's research was prompted by Heloise, yes, but more so by the potential implications of the Carolingian imposition of Benedict's Rule. Röckelein opens by noting that women's houses, and their rules or customs, have been overlooked because they have left behind far fewer and less rich sources than men's houses. Thus she goes on a quest to see how the Lotharingian reforms, as well of those of Cluny and Hirsau, impacted women. I cannot begin to summarize her detailed discussion. She tells a riveting story of abbots, bishops, and aristocrats and their female foundations. But she also asks about how "reform" and the Rule of St. Benedict affected women. Her argument is that while there were many, many more female houses founded under the influence of the reforms than has heretofore been suspected, Benedictine nuns were in fact less free than non-Benedictines and canonesses. Libertas ecclesiae could have drastically different meanings.

Bruce Venarde returns to Robert d'Arbrissel, to whom he has devoted important studies, with a new twist. Typically Robert is seen as unusual, radical, counter-cultural. Venarde does not deny that Robert was any of these things but decides to look at him from a different point of view. He compares Robert backward in time to St. Benedict, largely through Book Two of Gregory's Dialogues, and forward in time to St. Francis. Under these optics Robert turns out to have been less strange than is usually assumed. At the same time, Venarde invites us to rethink the shape and nature of twelfth-century religious reform.

Fiona J. Griffiths explores women's patronage of churches with liturgical gifts, especially fine cloth work, for clues about those women's participation in the liturgy. Spanning the period from the ninth century to the thirteenth, she takes off from Valerie Garver's demonstration that fine cloth work was by no means a casual preoccupation of aristocratic women. Women's gifts sometimes arose from their own volition and sometimes were requested. Although of course denied the priesthood, women could, through the vestments priests wore at the altar and the cloths, particularly antependia, that covered those altars, insert themselves in a powerful way in the celebration of the Eucharist. Griffiths' wonderful color plates need a lot of looking at.

Jane Burton focuses on England and Wales and dives into the murky waters surrounding the place of women in the Cistercian order. She shows that a few houses enjoyed full incorporation into the order while other houses had less formal associations with it. There was no one-size-fits-all model and one cannot take literally the often repeated male denial of women's participation. In some ways, her big question is What did it mean to be Cistercian?

Franz J. Felten brings his vast erudition to the experience of women in twelfth-century religious life and, more specifically, to the Cistercian "problem." Like so many of the other chapters in this book, Felten's finds richness, diversity, and complexity. He says it is important to see that male attitudes ranged from promotion and support to rejection of and silence about women. Felten's arguments turn on a remarkable chart of foundations. It shows that down to 1237 there were vastly more male than female houses and then that in later times the trend was dramatically reversed. He concludes that the lack of women's houses in the early decades must be true and not a distortion caused by poor sources. Likewise, the disinclination to accept women found in normative sources, particularly but not exclusively Cistercian ones, cannot be regarded as distorted or anomalous. At the same time, some orders, such as the one founded by Norbert of Xanten, were more hospitable to women which implies that Cistercian, or Cistercian-inspired sources do not tell the whole story.

The chapters in this important book invite consideration of the overall richness and complexity of women's ascetic/monastic experience. That experience must be judged on its own terms and not compared with or derived from men's experience. The authors also show repeatedly that women's experience is documented more poorly than men's experience, yes, but also differently and that, therefore, greater industry and imagination is required to find and understand the women. If that suggests that the book is old fashioned, then one might reply by saying that there is still a lot of old fashioned work to do. The chapters in this book are rigorously empirical; gender, for example, almost never appears as a tool of analysis. That is not a criticism. This book shows clearly that there are vast data to be uncovered before theoretical consideration is devoted to them. On final reflection, it is interesting to see how the chapters in this book line up with the themes and questions posed by Dalarun. He spoke first at the conference that launched this book but his introduction reads like a disco di clausura!