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23.02.04 Otaño Gracia/Armenti (eds.), Women’s Lives

23.02.04 Otaño Gracia/Armenti (eds.), Women’s Lives

Scholars working in the field of medieval religion and mysticism, especially those with an interest in feminist approaches to religious women, have profited for decades from the foundational work and innovative perspectives of Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff. Many female religious figures, even those who are now familiar names, first appeared in the pages of Petroff’s work. Her anthology Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature, published in 1986 by Oxford University Press, offered many first-time translations of crucial female-authored texts as well as insightful essays that pointed the way to further studies. She opened a door that many scholars, myself included, walked through with enthusiasm. The ten essays in the volume under review are supplemented (as part one) by reprints of two of Petroff’s most important pieces: “Women and Mysticism in the Medieval World” and “Male Confessors and Female Penitents: Possibilities for Dialogue.”

The remaining three parts of Women’s Lives reflect the concepts of the subtitle. In all of them the authors offer us a fascinating panorama of medieval women, from well-known figures such as Hildegard of Bingen to a mystical Berber queen and a Chinese woman warrior. Not all essays are equally successful, but all of them pay tribute to Petroff through their choice of subject matter and approaches.

Borja de Cossío opens part one with a penetrating study of Teresa de Cartagena, a fifteenth-century Cistercian nun and the author of the “first proto-feminist treatise in the history of Spanish literature” (58). Marginalized by her deafness and accused of plagiarism and possible heresy, she was--despite her powerful family--in need of protection and empowerment, which appeared in the shape of her patroness Juana de Mendoza. A study of the historical and political background and close readings of a series of crucial images in Teresa’s writings illustrate the functioning of a female community where the members sustain and empower each other. Andrés Amitai Wilson deals with “Hildegardian Remixes” by which he means Hildegard von Bingen’s adoption and adaptations of existing musical models. His focus on Marian theology and imagery in Hildegard’s music relies much on Barbara Newman’s work, as Wilson acknowledges. (Strangely, one of the most important foremothers studying Hildegard’s music, Margot Fassler, goes unmentioned.) In his close reading of some of the Marian hymns, Wilson focuses in part on “Mary’s virginal maternity” and erotic elements, including the “carnal language of the immaculate conception” (89). Surely, the images analyzed here are of the Virgin Birth and not of the immaculate conception (the doctrine stating that Mary was conceived by her parents without original sin), which would engender a different iconography and which was in any case a doctrine Hildegard never engaged with, as Barbara Newman has shown. [1] Rebeca Sanmartín Bastida’s chapter on “Language and Trance Theater” (translated from the Spanish by Otaño Gracia) is somewhat problematic. Dating from 2012 and at almost forty pages three times as long as the other pieces, it spends too many pages covering well-trodden ground, such as the male writer/female mystic configuration, treated many times since Petroff’s pioneering work. The chapter aims to apply performance studies to the visionary activity, but only the last six pages deal with the “trance theater” of the title. Here, Sanmartín Bastida examines the different inspirations for and modalities of what could be called theatrical mystical visions. The preceding sections offer a lengthy but unfocused overview of “Writing, Reading, and the Mystic Word” with many, many brief examples, a kind of bird’s eye view of a vast and complicated landscape. This piece would have profited from some tightening and updating.

Part two on “Reception” offers a tighter focus with four excellent articles. Susan Signe Morrison in ten cogently argued pages uses the image of “smuggled balsam” to demonstrate how Hugeberc of Hildesheim, the eighth-century nun first brought to prominence in Petroff’s 1986 anthology, created a multi-layered account of Saint Willibald’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land. As Willibald, the bishop of Eichstätt, successfully smuggled balsam out of the Holy Land--because the citizens of Tyre who detained him failed to smell the balsam and thus could not confiscate it--Hugeberc’s tale contains precious elements that only the initiated will be able to access. Framing her reading with Pierre Nora’s distinction between “lieux de mémoire” and “milieux de mémoire” (143), Morrison gives avivid account of the many genres that contribute to pilgrimage literature. Finally, the account of Willibald’s pilgrimage allows readers to accomplish the journey by proxy while at the same time witnessing Hugeberc’s “writing journey” (149), in which she takes on masculine traits while feminizing Willibald. Barbara Zimbalist homes in on the thirteenth-century Flemish holy woman Ida of Nivelles whose Vita eschews an emphasis on female suffering and highlights instead Ida’s visionary experiences, in particular her conversations with Christ (the topic of Zimbalist’s recent book [2]). Ida is shown to be a collaborator in her own Vita, “a collaboratively authored, communally produced text” (161) that relies much on orality and multi-lingual (Latin, French, Dutch) translation. Ida becomes a guide for her community through this collaboration and thus helps shape its devotional behavior. This is just one of the many crucial insights of Zimbalist’s innovative perspective. The next two essays take us beyond the borders of Europe, to China and North Africa respectively. Lan Dong offers a detailed analysis of the life, afterlife, and varying representations of the twelfth-century femaleChinese warrior Liang Hongyu during the Song Dynasty. In texts dating from the twelfth to the nineteenth century many, often conflicting, images of this warrior emerge: in historical writings we see the honored military leader, while in literary texts she is generally depicted as a courtesan. Dong rightly emphasizes the first category, showing that her military achievements, facilitated by her family background and her marriage to a military official, allowed her to transgress “the gender norms that define and divide male and female domains and behavior” (184). Thus Liang Hongyu fits into the lineage of “transgressors, rule-breakers, and flouters of boundaries” (184) that Petroff explored for the European middle ages. Denise K. Filios transports us to pre-Islamic North Africa with her in-depth reading of the depiction of the Berber queen al-Kāhina in the ninth-century chronicleThe Conquest of Egypt by Ibn ʾAbd al-Ḥakam As a resistance fighter and leader against the Muslim subjugation of her region, she was inspired by her prophetic visions. By her sacrificial death she simultaneously delayed the conquest of her North African region by the Muslim forces and saved her sons by having them integrated into these very forces. Filios’s nuanced analysis of this male-authored chronicle reveals that a close look at the queen’s mystical speech cited by the male author allows us to read “against the grain” (189) and thus to discern her true power in the midst of military defeat.

The last section begins with another excursion into Muslim territory with the curious legend in the late thirteenth-century South English Legendary stating that Saint Thomas Becket’s mother was a converted Saracen princess. Why did one of the most venerated English saints need to have a Muslim mother? asks Meriem Pagès. She shows that different manuscripts of the South English Legendary put varying emphasis on this princess who followed the saint’s father, Gilbert Becket, all the way from the Holy Land to London and converted to Christianity. Relying heavily on Robert Mills’s 2011 study of Becket’s “heathen mother” [3], Pagès concurs with Mills that the princess’s animal-like nature was erased by baptism (211) and that Becket’s real mother’s Norman French-speaking heritage was also erased. This erasure is especially marked in the Laud manuscript (composed over a century after Becket’s death in 1170) which thus makes Becket a truly English saint in an era when English culture started to become dominant. In addition, Pagès rightly observes, an exotic princess who converts for love, a figure imported from popular romances and epics, heightened the legend’s appeal to lay audiences. Madalina Meirosu also considers conversion, in her case that of sinful prostitutes in the plays of the tenth-century German nun Hrotsvith of Gandersheim, another author featured prominently in Petroff’s anthology. For Hrotsvith, Meirosu argues, the salvation of the prostitutes, let alone female “self-assertion” (221), was not the central concern. Rather, “the prostitutes serve as a foil for the self-definition of the heroic male virgins who redeem the fallen women” (217). Male eloquence used in persuasion and male virginity are thus simultaneously glorified. A detailed analysis of Hrotsvith’s play about Paphnutius’s success in converting Thais illustrates this configuration, in which the male converter enjoys the same advantages and privileges that men in general “enjoyed in medieval Christianity” (226). Claire Taylor Jones closes the volume with one of the most theory-minded essays. In “Liturgy and the Performance of the Mystical Self” she frames her analysis of female religious liturgical activities with Foucault’s ideas about “technologies of the self” and Merleau-Ponty’s “discussion of genre and embodied meaning” (233). The liturgy, she argues, can be seen as restraining, even something to be resisted. While paying tribute to Petroff’s recuperation of silenced female voices, Jones at the same time warns against our own era’s preference for medieval women who were “strong-willed, autonomous, individual, free” (231). Religious women immersed in and performing the liturgy may not seem models for those who admire female agency only when it “articulates itself through resistance” (231). Jones shows how the embodied performances of liturgical songs, rituals, and processions create a “liturgical self” and thus a “mystical subject” (242) that is autonomous within the freely chosen framework of the liturgy.

All in all, the women who populate the pages of this volume are fascinating and the essays do them justice. They pay tribute to Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff’s work by using it, amplifying it, and by showing how far-reaching and transformative it has been for medieval feminist studies.



1. See Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), 159.

2. Barbara Zimbalist, Translating Christ in the Middle Ages: Gender, Authorship, and the Visionary Text (University of Notre Dame Press, 2022).

3. Robert Mills, “Conversion, Translation and Becket’s ‘Heathen Mother’,” in Heather Blurton and Jocelyn-Wogan Browne, eds., Rethinking the South English Legendaries (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), 381-402.