15.10.32, Lifshitz, Religious Women in Early Carolingian Francia

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Cinzia Grifoni

The Medieval Review 15.10.32

Lifshitz, Felice. Religious Women in Early Carolingian Francia: A Study of Manuscript Transmission and Monastic Culture. Fordham Series in Medieval Studies. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014. pp. xxii, 349. ISBN: 9780823256877 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Cinzia Grifoni
Institut für Mittelalterforschung, Austrian Academy of Sciences
cinzia.grifoni@oeaw.ac.at

In the author's own words, the Religious Women of the title have made "an effort to read manuscripts with microscopic intensity and a gendered lens" (202). This reflects Lifshitz' general approach in this book as well. The manuscripts in question, seven in total, currently reside in Würzburg, and have been used by the author to study two female monastic communities in the Main Valley in the eighth century. Following her conclusions, these manuscripts can only have been written for internal use by female writers belonging to those communities. Her argument as to why that is the case presents us with a thought-provoking, fascinating, but sometimes perplexing attempt to reconstruct the self-perceptions, needs, and agency of the religious women that form the focus of this volume. The book is structured according to a tripartite division. The first three chapters form the introduction, the central part in four chapters delves into specific elements of seven Würzburg manuscripts, and the last two present the main conclusions. A short preface aimed at explaining the concept of Medieval Feminism opens the book. Ten colour-plates, notes to the chapters, a bibliography and a general Index listing persons, themes and some of the manuscripts mentioned round out the volume. The bibliography itself has been divided into two sections. The first offers a list of the manuscripts analysed or mentioned in the book, unfortunately without any description of their contents--no matter how brief--nor an indication of the pages where these single manuscripts are mentioned, which does limit the usefulness of this seven-page overview. The second section, rather unconventionally, includes both modern editions of primary sources and secondary literature in one single list.

In her preface, the author gives a brief survey of gender studies, and the way they have included the Middle Ages in their field of investigation. Lifshitz attaches great importance on the monograph The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to 1870, published in 1993 by Gerda Lerner. Among the main aims of her own work, Lifshitz wants to use her own results to confirm or accentuate some of Lerner's statements. The codices Lifshitz analyses provide evidence for retrieving traces of a particular, limited form of feminism, which she, following Lerner, defines as "a resistance to patriarchal ideas, particularly as they concern women" (xix).

Part One ("Introductions: People, Places, Things", 1-62) begins with a chapter called "Syneisactism and Reform". Here the author discloses the main aim of the book, i.e. a study of manuscripts thought to have been produced and used by women in what she refers to as the Anglo-Saxon cultural province in Francia, a region that was heavily influenced by Insular ideas--however, a precise spatial and temporal definition of what the author means by this concept cannot be found in the book. According to Lifshitz, such manuscripts reflect, through their idiosyncratic contents and structure, a gender-equal conception of the life of eighth-century (ecclesiastical) people in the Main Valley. Lifshitz starts by describing the meaning and the historical evolution of syneisactism, a religious behaviour consisting in a chaste cohabitation between men and women, which, the author states (5), found great diffusion in seventh- and eighth-century England. Mostly due to the influence exercised by Boniface and his pupil Leoba in the Main Valley, syneisactism spread out in this area, where women, lay and religious, already enjoyed a high social and legal independence. Evidence for all this is found in the correspondence of Boniface and Lul, and by a small group of manuscripts connected to the Main Valley, to which the author refers but with hurried hints (s. notes 36-38 on p. 209). Lifshitz goes on to illustrate how the end of the eighth century brought along some far-reaching changes, when the Carolingian church reform movement seriously threatened religious women's independence and political relevance. Nuns settled in the Main Valley met such changes with little enthusiasm and tried to cope with them as best as they could. Interestingly, as Lifshitz affirms, their defensive strategy consisted in creating collections of partially readapted texts, which were supposed to sponsor and defend women's religious liberty of action. In particular, manuscripts originating from the Würzburg area and containing particular selections of legal collections would testify to the attempt of offering resistance to misogynistic pronouncements. In those codices, the reader indeed observes an absence of specific canons or passages usually associated with these texts, which Lifshitz explains as an intentional omission or modification made by the medieval copyist. Nevertheless, the evidence supporting such striking narrative is not always as unambiguous as the author presents it. For the Institutio Sanctimonialium, for instance, Lifshitz explains the absence of a large majority of Cyprian's misogynistic De habitu virginum from the initial part of the manuscript by postulating an act of deliberate cutting. However, Cyprian's complete text is present in only one witness of the Institutio. The other manuscripts transmit only an incomplete, or shorter, version of the Institutio, and do not include Cyprian's text at all--be it intentional or not. This reviewer would have welcomed a broader discussion about the supposed contents of the Institutio and, in general, a more cautious handling of a text like this, which still awaits a critical edition and a comprehensive study about its manuscript transmission. In the final part of the chapter, Lifshitz shows how, despite resistance, reforming attempts had already succeeded before the middle of the ninth century. Out of all possible centres, it was Boniface's foundation of Fulda that served as the main propagator of these reforms. From Fulda, conservative views concerning religious women's liberty of action spread and overcame the more gender-equal attitudes espoused by the circle around Boniface in the Main Valley. The texts Lifshitz uses to support this argumentation are Rudolf of Fulda's Vita Leobae and Miracula Sanctorum, as well as a quotation from an exegetical work by Hrabanus Maurus, "who was alone among Carolingian ecclesiastics in espousing strongly misogynistic views" (14)--unfortunately, the precise reference to Hraban's quoted commentary is lacking, as well as considerations about the exact biblical text Hrabanus was commenting on and the sources he had used himself. Lifshitz interprets the fact that Leoba's remains were translated to a newly built church on the Petersberg near Fulda as a deliberate banishment from public view. In this very church, as the author claims following Rudolf's Miracula, relics of the Saviour, the Apostles, and numerous martyrs were preserved (15). This observation leads to the question whether placing Leoba's relics in such a great company could indeed reflect the intention of banishing and forgetting her. A completely different interpretation on this topic is offered, for instance, by Janneke Raaijmakers in her The Making of the Community of Fulda, c. 744-c. 900 (Cambridge, 2012), at 220-221, but Lifshitz does not mention it in her bibliography.

In Chapter Two ("The Anglo-Saxon Cultural Province in Francia") Lifshitz shows how the middle Main Valley was a Christianized region already before the arrival of Boniface and his companions, who thus did not need to evangelize the local people or to eradicate forms of paganism. Indeed, the fertility and wealth of this portion of Franconia had allowed Frankish aristocracy to support both private places of Christian cult and an ecclesiastical infrastructure. With the help of the two maps placed on p. xxiii the reader can easily follow Lifshitz' description of the monastic and educational centres of this area, "predominantly women's communities" (18), which were active already before the 740s. Three female monasteries are given particular attention, namely Karlburg, Zellingen and Ochsenfurt. Their economic characteristics as well as their intellectual and social impact are reconstructed also on the basis of archaeological finds, and it is noteworthy that these demonstrate the presence of a scriptorium at Karlburg already before the 740s. Lifshitz goes on to describe the foundation in 741 of the Würzburg bishopric by Boniface. The struggles involving Boniface's allies Carloman and Pippin, the sons of Charles Martel, on the one side, and their half-brother Grifo on the other, turned out to be very favourable to Boniface. The new Würzburg bishopric was richly endowed with lands expropriated from Grifo, and the significant support granted by Carloman and Pippin allowed Boniface to found new monasteries in the region. The most famous among these was Fulda, followed closely by the two women's houses of Kitzingen and Tauberbischofsheim for his female companions Thecla and Leoba. Lifshitz stresses how both these female communities, especially Kitzingen, developed to important educational and cultural centres, so that they, along with Karlburg, could have been responsible for the production of the still extant eighth-century manuscripts described in the following five chapters of the book. Remarkably, by stating this Lifshitz rejects the possibility that these codices could have originated either from a male scriptorium in Würzburg that was presumably established by its first bishop Burkhard or, as Bernhard Bischoff supposed, directly from England or from elsewhere on the continent.

A great deal of scholarly work shines through the pages of Chapter Three ("The Gun(t)za and Abirhilt Manuscripts: Women and their Books in the Anglo-Saxon Cultural Province in Francia"). Lifshitz' engagement in the examination and analysis of seven eighth-century manuscripts preserved in Würzburg is impressive and will certainly give impulse to further discussion and research. The manuscripts Lifshitz describes here, and then in more detail in the following four chapters, are Würzburg, UB M.p.th.f. 13; 17; 78; 28a (all dated by Bernhard Bischoff to second third of the eighth century) and Würzburg, UB M.p.th.f. 45; 69; 28b (dated to the final third of the eighth century). Lifshitz assigns a Karlburg origin to the first four manuscripts, and places the production of the latter three at Kitzingen. Following Bischoff, the women's names of Gun(t)za, to be read twice on the margins of Würzburg UB M.p.th.f. 13, and Abirhilt, appearing once in Würzburg UB M.p.th.f. 45, are linked to the first and second group of manuscripts respectively. Undoubtedly the most interesting result of the chapter is the identification of a partially erased and mostly unreadable booklist contained in the manuscript Basel, Universitätsbibliothek, F III 15a (folios 17v-18r) as the library catalogue of Kitzingen (and not of Fulda, as previous scholarship had affirmed, although not unanimously). Lifshitz retraces the seven manuscripts mentioned above among the entries of this list. Furthermore, she provides a new reading for the mostly damaged title of the list (Kizinga Libri instead of Isti sunt nostri libri). Finally, she makes the valuable suggestion that it was Eigil, Fuldas abbot-to-be, who visited the female community of Kitzingen as travelling monk shortly before 800, and who wrote down the list of books at the local library on some blank leaves of the manuscript now in Basel. Although the identification of some entries of the booklist with specific Würzburg manuscripts is not always beyond doubt, as in the case of epistulae apostolorum identified with the Pauline Epistles of Würzburg, UB M.p.th.f. 69 and sermones sancti Augustini identified with Augustine's "Commentary on the Psalms" in Würzburg, UB M.p.th.f. 17 (37), Lifshitz' reconstruction is shrewdly conducted and very stimulating. She offers specialists a valuable hypothesis to discuss.

Chapters Four to Seven form the second part of the book ("Textual Analysis", 63-182) and are dedicated to the examination of specific aspects of the seven Würzburg manuscripts mentioned above. In Chapter Four Lifshitz offers a completely innovative, sometimes courageous, lecture of the crucifixion image that precedes the Pauline Epistles in MS Würzburg UB M.p.th.f. 69. She affirms that it had been drawn by a woman, and that it "showed Paul visualizing himself as the crucified one" (76). The next chapter deals with Augustine's "Commentary on the Gradual Psalms" contained in Würzburg, UB M.p.th.f. 17 and Gregory's "Homilies on the Gospels" in Würzburg, UB M.p.th.f. 45. The way Augustine and Gregory conceived of and treated women in these exegetical works explain the reason why female religious, at Karlburg and Kitzingen respectively, decided to copy and transmit these texts. Still, they could not resist editing out some remaining misogynistic passages, or emphasising some more overtly "feminist" parts. Similar reflections about the contents of the transmitted texts lead Lifshitz to conclude in Chapter Six that the Apostolic Passionary contained in Würzburg, UB M.p.th.f. 78 has a Karlburg origin, and that the miscellany of homilies, female saints' passions and other--seemingly original--compositions contained in Würzburg, UB M.p.th.f. 28b Codex 1 stems from Kitzingen originally. The role played by women in the conversion of heathen in the narratives contained in both text corpuses or their depiction as holy heroines of the faith, as well as the preeminent position held by the Virgin Mary, would indeed explain why the nuns decided to produce for their internal use a (revised) copy of such texts. These should be understood as a reaction "against those Carolingian reformers who wished to limit the public and ecclesiastical roles of women" (147). Chapter Seven concludes this cluster. It starts with a presentation of the peculiar recension of Isidore's "Synonyms" contained in both Würzburg, UB M.p.th.f. 28a and 28b Codex 3, then continues with a look at the modified version of the "Liber Scintillarum" of Würzburg, UB M.p.th.f. 13, and finishes with the original collection of sermons transmitted by Würzburg, UB M.p.th.f. 28b Codex 2. Due to the overwhelming moral and gender-neutral nature of their contents, Lifshitz bestows on all these texts the function of a rule-equivalent guide for proper monastic behaviour.

While the analyses certainly demonstrate the author's deep knowledge of the manuscripts studied, and offer much food for thought, Lifshitz' inclination to always consider any textual variations and adaptations (omissions, abbreviations and the like) as deliberate, telling modifications introduced by the very (female) scribe of the manuscript under scrutiny does give this reviewer pause. The author never contemplates at all the possibility that such changes could be, at least in part, the result of either a banal slip or an accurate reproduction of a corrupted exemplar on the part of the writer.

In her two concluding chapters (Part Three, 183-206) Lifshitz firstly stresses the active role played by nuns in pastoral and liturgical activities in the middle Main Valley. Then she emphasizes the importance of conscious modifications of texts and cultural networks as strategies employed by women in order to create and divulge a feminist self-consciousness. Moreover, she suggests that also the two manuscripts Würzburg, UB M.p.th.f. 32 (of liturgical nature) and Würzburg, UB M.p.th.f. 26 could be linked respectively to Karlburg as place of origin and to Kitzingen as place of keeping, given their feminist, syneisactic and gender-egalitarian contents.

In closing, Lifshitz has written an interesting book in which she presents new perspectives and scenarios on an ongoing debate. As such, it nonetheless at times appears more polemical than analytical, and should be handled with care. Those who are willing to take up the gauntlet, however, will be rewarded with a provocative study of female religious communities in eighth-century Francia, which undoubtedly will raise as many questions as it provides answers.

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