18.10.15, Griffiths, Nuns' Priests' Tales

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Constant J. Mews

The Medieval Review 18.10.15

Griffiths, Fiona J. Nuns' Priests' Tales: Men and Salvation in Medieval Women's Monastic Life. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. pp. x, 349. ISBN: 978-081-2249-750 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Constant Mews
Monash University

In this monograph, Fiona J. Griffiths follows up her study of the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Hohenburg, The Garden of Delights: Reform and Renaissance for Women in the Twelfth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007) with a study of how twelfth-century monks justified their involvement in the pastoral care of religious women. Rather than interpreting their literary efforts in a negative light, as attempts to control such women, she presents the stories that they told about women as part of a broader movement of religious renewal in the twelfth century. Having devoted her earlier monograph to a community of women following the Augustinian Rule, her focus in this volume is largely monastic. Griffiths thus makes only limited reference to Augustinian canons like Norbert of Xanten and Gilbert of Sempringham (although she provides many useful bibliographical leads in her endnotes to individual chapters). The figure to whom Griffiths most often refers as exemplifying monastic concern for women is Peter Abelard, whom she presents as participating in a broader movement of concern in the twelfth century for the pastoral care of women. Her argument could be seen as apologetic, as on p. 31: "While recognizing the force and pervasiveness of medieval clerical misogyny, my purpose in this book is to take seriously an alternate possibility: that the symbiosis of male and female within the religious life could be a spiritually meaningful and long term phenomenon, as Kaspar Elm suggested--and not a temporary curiosity."

The notion of "an alternate possibility" is potentially problematic, as it is never quite clear whether male involvement in the pastoral care of women might itself be coloured by misogynist assumptions about women who stepped outside the roles expected of them. One need only think of Abelard's comment in the Historia calamitatum of his disapproval of the practice in certain religious communities (notably at Fontevraud), where women were placed over men, and his preference that Heloise be referred to as diaconissa rather than as abbess. Admiration for religious women was often accompanied by strict expectations about their behaviour.

This book effectively demonstrates the reality of debate in the twelfth century about models of masculinity, at least within monastic circles. She highlights a number of significant cases of male religious continuing to be involved with religious women, even in the face of clear moves by ecclesiastical authority to limit such relationships. The ruling issued by the Second Lateran Council in 1139 against nuns singing in the same choir as monks of or canons highlights official concern about the dangers of excessive proximity between men and women. The stories that Griffiths tells about monks admiring religious women (and sometimes, although not always, listening to what they had to say) are important as exemplifying how ascetic tradition did not necessarily exclude interaction with religious women. In drawing attention to the men who respected what women like Christina of Markyate and Hildegard of Bingen had to say, Griffiths is rightly arguing against making blanket generalisations about misogyny in medieval religious life.

While the major focus of this book is on the twelfth century, Griffiths does well to discuss earlier precedents, notably of Jerome in the late fourth century and of Paschasius Radbertus in the ninth century. As she observes, one core model of such a relationship was provided in John 19: 26-27 where Jesus entrusts John to his mother and vice versa. For Jerome and his many readers, this was a relationship between two virgins, and thus of value to those who insisted on virginity as a prerequisite for a spiritual relationship between men and women. Griffiths also comments on other verses, such as Paul's declaration (I Cor. 9:5) that he had as much capacity as the other apostles to "take a woman as a sister" (sororem mulierum circumducendi), a passage that modern translators understand as being about the capacity of the apostles to marry, but which medieval readers understood as being about celibate men having female companions. Jerome, who was perceived in fourth-century Rome as breaking with social convention by his enthusiasm for chaste relationships with powerful women, effectively established what would become a social norm within religious life in subsequent centuries. A major concern of Griffiths is to show how the precedent set by Jerome in his relationships with women were as influential as the example of female followers of Jesus in legitimizing such relationships in the twelfth century.

In a chapter on "Brothers, Sons and Uncles," Griffiths explores the particular popularity in the early medieval period for religious men often writing for or about women who were biologically their sisters. Although we know nothing about Scholastica, Benedict's sister, other than what Gregory the Great tells us, she provided an example that religious women could look to, demonstrating that they could pursue a spiritual vocation as much as men. Within a society in which opportunities for women were so much defined by their capacity for raising children, rejecting marriage was one way in which some women could choose an alternative way of life and command respect within society. Our insights into what medieval women felt about the religious opportunities open to them are inevitably shaped by what subsequent generations of monks and clerics thought fit to communicate. Only in rare cases, like Heloise at the Paraclete and Hildegard at Rupertsberg, do we gain some insight into how such women negotiated with male religious authority. To focus, as Griffiths does, only on male perspectives inevitably raises a question of whether we are getting the whole picture. Yet when we look at the overwhelming bias in the surviving record towards male religious telling stories about other men, it becomes evident that the move in the twelfth century for some monks and preachers (like Robert of Arbrissel) to concern themselves with the spiritual life of women marked a departure from convention.

A manuscript of particular interest to Griffiths is the so-called Guta-Sintram Codex, named after the two scribes, female and male, who participated in its redaction. In particular it includes Beati pauperes,part of a sermon of Abelard originally delivered to the nuns of the Paraclete and heavily indebted to the example of Jerome, but clearly of interest to both the men and women of the Augustinian community at Marbach as well. (Griffiths includes an edition and translation of this text on pp. 199-200, although unfortunately without an introduction that might remind the reader of its authorship and significance.) Abelard's theme in this part of his sermon is effectively a paean in praise of religious women who had given up the world to embrace their heavenly spouse. While not radically different from other sermons of its type, the text brings out the larger concern of Griffiths to exemplify the movement with which she is concerned.

Griffiths does well to remind us that Abelard was only one of a cluster of contemporaries in the twelfth century who became aware of the potential of a new breed of religious women to offer edification and intercessory prayer within a Church, in which (as Heloise observed) there was much hypocrisy. This study implicitly raises questions about those cases where the boundaries of gender were transgressed (for example as in the story of the nun of Watton, as told by Aelred of Rievaulx). Religious women were expected to conform to strict social norms, in which sexuality was firmly regulated. This monograph does not claim to offer the last word on what male religious had to say about nuns, or for that matter on what nuns (like Heloise) thought about those men who sung their praises, without always engaging in genuine dialogue. It does warn us, however, about the dangers of dismissing too quickly a significant body of Latin literature about religious women.

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