15.02.01, Griffiths and Hotchin, eds., Partners in Spirit

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Sara Ritchey

The Medieval Review 15.02.01

Griffiths, Fiona J., and Julie Hotchin. Partners in Spirit: Women, Men, and Religious Life in Germany, 1100-1500. Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts, 24. Turnhout: Brepols, 2014. Pp. 423. ISBN: 9782503540962 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Sara Ritchey
University of Louisiana, Lafayette

Scholars of medieval Europe have long incorporated methods from feminist historiography and gender studies to produce rich interpretative models of female religious experience in the late eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. JoAnn McNamara, for example, has contributed powerfully to our understanding of the effects on gender relations of the eleventh-century ecclesiastical reforms, which worked to create the figure of the holy woman as a singular mode of feminine authority. Caroline Walker Bynum has emphasized the centrality of the body in cultivating (or, as it turns out, constructing) a distinct sphere of female experience. And Dyan Elliott has alerted us to the growing intensification in these centuries of clerical suspicion and restriction of female visionary capacity. The resulting picture of post-Gregorian medieval Europe reveals an all-male celibate clergy that demonized women based on their assumed hyper-sexuality, curtailed their opportunities to serve the Church in any official capacity, and grew increasingly averse to providing them with necessary pastoral care. Working within the parameters set by this model of decline, scholars of medieval history, literature, and religious studies have focused on the multiform ways that women claimed a charismatic authority alternative to office holding, thus focusing attention on the many "holy women" that have come to dominate scholarship in these fields in recent decades. To be sure, this attention is sustained in part by the distance of many American medievalists from their source base. Because we have relied, often by necessity, on edited volumes produced by the likes of Migne and the Bollandists, our sources have been primarily literary and, more specifically, devotional and hagiographic. As such, they tend to prescribe and project religious ideals that may obscure the ordinary lived experience of female religious life.

Partners in Spirit seeks to intervene with precisely this narrative of decline in women's opportunities in religious life and the attendant notion of clerical hostility toward religious women. It does so, in the majority of essays collected here, by explicitly turning away from literary and devotional texts, and toward more routine sources of daily monastic life, including charters, accounts, necrologies, and chronicles. Focused on the twelfth through early sixteenth centuries in German-speaking lands, the essays contribute a portrait of diversity, negotiation, and mutually beneficial relationships within the cura monialium. Each contributor is dedicated to moving away from prescriptive evidence, spiritual ideals, and extraordinary circumstances in order to consider the ordinary, daily dynamic of local religious communities. The collected essays thus reveal a far greater degree of collaboration than scholars have previously noted. Rather than a waning of female authority and opportunity, these authors find multiple sites of negotiation and cooperation between women and men in religious life and increased opportunities for collaborative leadership within their communities.

Griffiths and Hotchin's introductory essay--a broad sketch of institutional change from 1100 to 1500--makes a compelling case for the reevaluation of contemporary historiographic models of clerical avoidance of women. Outlining the significant increase in opportunities for women to enter religious life after the twelfth century, they give attention to the existence of double monasteries within Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and to the multiple possibilities opened up by experimentation among Cistercians, mendicants, beguines and laywomen, as well as the Modern Devout and the Observant movement. Griffiths and Hotchin maintain that this diversity of religious expression was met with a diversity of clerical support for women in the form of pastoral care. They emphasize that women received varying degrees and forms of pastoral care from monks, canons, and secular priests, with some clerics visiting women regularly, others living within their communities, and still others maintaining ongoing negotiations about their intensity of involvement. They stress as well that, in addition to receiving pastoral care, nuns often came into contact and cooperation with men who, as provosts, provisors, father abbots, and lay brothers, were responsible for other practical aspects of community life. Among this variety, Griffiths and Hotchin argue for the creative agency that women assumed in negotiating the terms and definitions of enclosure, which differed according to time and place; they maintain, "it remained possible for women and men to uphold the ideals of physical segregation while nevertheless sustaining close spiritual bonds or jointly attending to matters of benefit to the whole community" (28). Readers should note the excellent bibliography appended to this essay, one that would make a terrific contribution to introductory graduate courses on medieval religious life.

Organized according to three chronological periods, the first cluster of essays in Partners in Spirit explore the institutional arrangements for women that emerged from movements for monastic reform in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. Elsanne Gilomen-Schenkel surveys women's involvement in Swiss monasticism where, between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, Augustinian canons and Benedictine monks maintained numerous double monasteries. Combining charters and necrologies with a few narrative sources such as monastic chronicles, a miracle collection, and memorial records, Gilomen-Schenkel shows the filiation of double houses established by Hirsau, St. Blasien, Marbach, and the Premonstratensians of St Martin in Laon. What these sources reveal, however, is disappointingly sparse; "There is no question that numerous double monasteries came into being during the period from the late eleventh until the early thirteenth century; many of these were in Switzerland. Nevertheless, the history of double monasteries remains, in large part, unknowable" (66). Still, Gilomen-Schenkel's essay provides evidence counter to the narrative of clerical avoidance of women that, indeed, foundations existed that incorporated women into "double" houses. Next, art historian Susan Marti asks how shared religious life was visually portrayed. Focusing on book illumination and production, Marti emphasizes that collaboration between the sexes was vital to the identity and self-understanding of double monasteries. This identity was complex, however. Examining miniatures, for example, in the Guta-Sintram Codex from Marbach-Schwarzenthann, she notes that the visual portrayal of shared community was produced at the precise moment when the male community at Marbach was disassociating spatially from the female convent eight kilometers away at Schwarzenthann. In other locations, such as Muri in the Swiss canton of Argau, illuminations nevertheless represent both male and female authority figures even though the double monastery was not explicitly portrayed as a visual representation. Marti's study thus indicates the important role of imagining a shared community in which both sexes participated equally in religious life, even when they were physically separated. Finally, Eva Schlotheuber offers a comparison of twelfth-century Saxon Frauenstifte to thirteenth-century female communities in Normandy. She highlights geographic variations in the implementation of enclosure as a result of monastic reform. While Saxon communities adopted the office of the provost, which limited the authority of abbesses, the visitation records of Eudes of Rouen show that Norman communities remained relatively active and unfettered by clerical authority. The essays in this section thus remind us of the institutional variety that resulted from monastic reforms of the eleventh century.

The second cluster of essays, covering the period from 1120-1250, opens with Fiona Griffiths' study of the pastoral care provided by Guibert of Gembloux to the nuns of Rupertsberg. Guibert's experiences at Rupertsberg are documented in a series of letters that reflect a culture of support for the cura monialium, and indicate that monastic relationships with women were often spiritually rewarding. Guibert's flock at Gembloux, Griffiths shows, was not pleased with his departure, and feared the instability and vulnerability to criticism that his absence potentially introduced. Griffiths concludes that Guibert's desire to remain at Rupertsberg, even despite these acknowledged complications, attests to the reciprocal spiritual friendship and benefits he received from remaining there, benefits based on a gender difference that he could not experience at Gembloux. The following essay, by Shelley Amiste Wolbrink, examines an array of documents (charters, letters, chronicles, papal privileges, episcopal confirmations, chapter decrees) to decipher the various roles performed by priests at Füssenich and Meer, two Premonstratensian women's communities in northwest Germany. Against the scholarly picture of Premonstratensian rejection of women, Wolbrink finds that men and women in these communities cooperated in daily routines and administration--they acted as witnesses to charters, served together in church, and worked to acquire relics. Anthony Ray next evaluates two letters of spiritual instruction written by Thomas, a cantor at the Cistercian monastery of Villers, to his sister Alice, a nun at Parc-les-Dames. Ray argues that the letters are part of a larger correspondence that Thomas maintained, via his sister, with the entire community of women at Parc-les-Dames, one that relied on male spiritual exemplars. Ray finds in these letters (and in Villers' support for female communities more broadly) evidence of strong spiritual relationships between Cistercians of both sexes continuing throughout the thirteenth century. The three essays in this section illustrate a high degree of willingness, even desire, among male clergy to work among female religious during a period of monastic experimentation.

Finally, the third section of the anthology explores urban experiments in religious life that characterize the period from c.1260 to 1500. Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane, in an important essay on lay religious women in Würzburg, shows that German beguine communities proliferated long after the Council of Vienne in a multiplicity of institutional forms that benefitted from strong pastoral relationships with mendicants. Throughout, she emphasizes the "elasticity" of economic, social, and sacral bonds between lay religious women and their monastic, mendicant, clerical, and civic supporters. She argues for a broader historical consideration of religious institutions, in order to encompass the informal, often ad hoc, services and relationships that characterized lay religious women's houses. Wybren Scheepsma explores the relationship of the Dominican Hendrik van Leuven and the beguine Petrissa, for whom he provided pastoral care. Examining archival records, Hendrik's vita, and his spiritual writings, Scheepsma argues that Hendrik cultivated his visionary gift as a specifically feminine trait, one that he shared with, and perhaps even learned from, Petrissa. Next, Sigrid Hirbodian investigates the relationship between female mendicant convents in Strasbourg and their spiritual directors, showing that women were able to use their filial and political ties within the town council in order to negotiate the terms of their pastoral care from Observant Dominicans and conventual Franciscans. Sara Poor contributes a multi-layered essay on the appearance, in fifteenth-century German devotional manuscripts, of variations on the "Sister Catherine Treatise" in which unlearned women, including lay sisters and wives, act as teachers to male clergy. Poor notes that the Observant reform had the effect of greatly increasing German devotional literature in women's communities, where women meditated on brief texts like the Sister Catherine Treatise. Such texts, she shows, modeled a negative theology in which the spiritual goal was to imagine the eradication of social identity and social bonds in order to achieve divine union; however, the manuscripts in which these stories were recorded simultaneously affirm female social identity and emphasize the hierarchical social bonds that constrained women readers. An essay by Sabine Klapp closes this section with an examination of the canons of St. Stephan in Strasbourg, who were subject to the Stift's abbess. She finds that the canons of St. Stephan collaborated with women in the social and economic life of the Stift, cooperating in liturgical duties, elections, and administrative activities. Indeed, until the late fifteenth century, when canons began to emancipate themselves from the authority of the abbess, social and economic considerations appeared far more crucial to the daily life of the Stift than did considerations of gender. Once again, the essays in this section emphasize institutional variety and the multiform ways that women negotiated their needs and the terms of their communal life.

This fine collection concludes with an afterword by John Coakley. Coakley seeks to reconcile the essays' "ordinary" sources, which lack a highly gendered treatment of authority, with the extraordinary hagiographical sources with which he has worked so deftly. Gender and sexuality have, after all, occupied much of our historical attention because our narrative sources--vitae and treatises of spiritual instruction--are preoccupied with a highly gendered vision of religious authority. Coakley welcomes the challenge posed by these essays to decenter the place of gender and to reevaluate the gendered basis of religious authority. And yet there is a hint of lamentation that the essays' concern with "the annals of normal life" do not ground a clear place for the experience of the religious imagination (the exception, he notes, is the essay by Sara Poor; I would add that Susan Marti, Wybren Scheepsma, and Fiona Griffiths all consider, though not as centrally, the effects of the imagination on daily life).

With the exception of Griffiths' "Monks and Nuns at Rupertsberg," no single essay in Partners in Spirit stands alone to establish the presence of mutually beneficial spiritual relationships between the sexes; nevertheless, as a whole, the collection produces a rich mosaic of local instances of negotiation, cooperation, and variety in modes of pastoral care in western Europe from 1100-1500. Its authors' greatest contribution is to clear historiographic space and point a way forward as they insist on the firm contextualization of gendered representations of religious authority and on their measurement against other categories that shaped the daily experience of communal life. Many of these essays--those by Susan Marti, Shelley Amiste Wolbrink, Sarah Poor, and Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane, in particular--succeed in exposing new categories of religious experience, including intensity of pastoral care, institutional stability, inversion of authority, and (imagined) spiritual equality; but continued work among "ordinary" documents will reveal additional categories by which we can balance and relativize gender. How these additional categories overlapped with and were informed by those, like gender, that we have long recognized in prescriptive sources can only be determined from a more complete integration of the ordinary with the extraordinary. One hopes that efforts towards such integration will disrupt lingering bifurcations of prescriptive ideals and daily reality.

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Author Biography

Sara Ritchey

University of Louisiana, Lafayette