Women, Men, and Spiritual Power: Female Saints and Their Male Collaborators

Women, Men, and Spiritual Power: Female Saints and Their Male Collaborators

Women, Men, and Spiritual Power: Female Saints and Their Male Collaborators

Women, Men, and Spiritual Power: Female Saints and Their Male Collaborators

Synopsis

In Women, Men, and Spiritual Power, John Coakley explores male-authored narratives of the lives of Catherine of Siena, Hildegard of Bingen, Angela of Foligno, and six other female prophets or mystics of the late Middle Ages. His readings reveal the complex personal and literary relationships between these women and the clerics who wrote about them. Coakley's work also undermines simplistic characterizations of male control over women, offering an important contribution to medieval religious history.

Coakley shows that these male-female relationships were marked by a fundamental tension between power and fascination: the priests and monks were supposed to hold authority over the women entrusted to their care, but they often switched roles, as the men became captivated with the women's spiritual gifts. In narratives of such women, the male authors reflect directly on the relationship between the women's powers and their own. Coakley argues that they viewed these relationships as gendered partnerships that brought together female mystical power and male ecclesiastical authority without placing one above the other.

Women, Men, and Spiritual Power chronicles a wide-ranging experiment in the balance of formal and informal powers, in which it was assumed to be thoroughly imaginable for both sorts of authority, in their distinctly gendered terms, to coexist and build on each other. The men's writings reflect an extended moment in western Christianity when clerics had enough confidence in their authority to actually question its limits. After about 1400, however, clerics underwent a crisis of confidence, and such a questioning of institutional power was no longer considered safe. Instead of seeing women as partners, their revelatory powers began to be viewed as evidence of witchcraft.

Excerpt

When you come out from the cells of contemplation where the eternal king
has so often brought you as his bride, your fruitfulness for us is something
better than wine or the fragrance of the finest perfumes. For it is then that,
through your writings, you make us partakers of the visions of holy things
that you saw with unveiled face when you were in the embrace of your
bridegroom. Running along quickly amid the fragrance of your perfumes,
you draw us after you.

—GUIBERT OF GEMBLOUX TO HILDEGARD OF BINGEN, 1175

IN THE WEST, the period from the late twelfth century through the end of the Middle Ages witnessed a new kind of female saint or holy woman, known for a combination of asceticism and interiorized devotion typically accompanied by visions, revelations, and mystical states. The names of some of these women are familiar to the general reader today—Catherine of Siena and Julian of Norwich, for example—but there were also many others who had their own small or large groups of admirers in the period. Contemporaries wrote vitae (saints' lives) about such women. Some of the women also produced writings of their own, usually in the form of spiritual autobiographies and collections of revelations. These account for much of what Peter Dronke has called the “astounding proliferation” of literary works by women from the twelfth century on, against the mere handful of such works that survive from earlier periods. Well into the twentieth century, modern scholars tended to treat these holy women, with a few exceptions, as examples of what was excessive or even pathological in medieval piety. But in the past few decades attitudes have changed, and scholars now recognize the importance of the sources about these . . .

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