Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature

Article excerpt

From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature. By Barbara Newman. [Middle Ages Series.] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1995. Pp. vi, 355. $39.95 cloth; $18.95 paper.)

Barbara Newman has written an erudite and wonderful book. Drawing on and in many ways surpassing the flood of work on medieval religious women produced in the past fifteen years (a torrent within which her own Sister of Wisdom was a significant stream), she gives us a set of learned, thoughtful, and interrelated essays, written in lucid and beautiful prose. Truly interdisciplinary in her instincts, Newman has a gift for close and subtle reading of texts without straining to place them in the dichotomies that have too often dominated feminist and non-feminist interpretation of the Middle Ages-secular versus religious, masculine versus feminine, literary versus theological, heterodox versus orthodox, praxis versus belief. Although her tone falters occasionally in the first two chapters, with chapter three she hits her stride. "Crueel Corage," which studies the theme of maternal martyrdom and child abandonment against the context of patriarchal social structure, literary trope, and hagiographical stereotype; "On the Threshold of the Dead," which assembles new texts to demonstrate earlier scholarly work on the special relationship of women to purgatorial suffering; "La mystique co?4rtoise," an interpretationrare in its delicacy-of three of the major mystics of the Middle Ages; and the witty yet ultimately serious readings in chapters six and seven of thirteenthand fourteenth-century sectarian movements and of Cornelius Agrippa as feminist, more than feminist, and other than feminist: these are studies to treasure and re-read.

Newman's title From Virile Woman to WomanChrist perhaps misleads, and although the last three pages of her introduction are a model of how introductions should be written, she elsewhere shortchanges her own readings. …

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