Women and the Religious Life in Premodern Europe

Article excerpt

Women and the Religious Life in Premodern Europe. By Patricia Ranft. (New York: Saint Martin's Press. 1996. Pp. xvi, 159. $39.95.)

A hundred years ago, Lina Eckenstein published Women under Monasticism, 500-1500 (Cambridge University Press, 1896), which has remained the only available survey of medieval women's religious life in the Middle Ages in English. Patricia Ranft has now attempted a similar feat, adding two centuries on either end to her survey but reducing its content to a slender 150-page volume, emphasizing repeatedly that this is a "selective" history. She announces a triple purpose: (1)"to provide an accessible survey of the major events and places, interpretations and persons responsible for the various types of religious societies women have formed in the past"; (2) to make available the results of focused research in specific branches of the subject; (3) to remedy the deficit in women's religious history relative to that of men.

Eight chapters in roughly chronological order are subdivided into brief essays of one to five pages.The principle of selection is not always clear: capsule biographies dominate some chapters; others are geographically distributed; some feature varieties of religious life.To illustrate, Chapter 4,"The Fruits of the Monastic Revival," is subdivided into "New Orders" and "Other Options. "New Orders" is further subdivided into Fontevrault, the Order of the Paraclete, Premontre, Gilbertines, Cistercians; "Other Options" consists of unlabeled paragraphs on the military orders, Hildegard of Bingen, and Elisabeth ofSchonau. Chapter 5, "The Appeal of the Vita Apostolica," is subdivided into Unorthodox and Orthodox groups. The former contains a single subtitle, "Cathars and Waldensians," while the latter includes The Poor Ladies: Second Order of St. …