Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

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

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

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

Article excerpt

Women, Men and Spiritual Power: Female Saints and Their Male Collaborators. By John W. Coakley. (New York: Columbia University Press. 2006. Pp. xii, 354. $45.00.)

Ever since medievalists rediscovered holy women a generation ago, the men who chronicled them have occupied a peculiar niche. In the idealizing mirrors of saints' lives, we glimpse not only female ascetics and mystics, but also the clerics whose fascination with them enables our own. As feminist historians in the 1980's and '90's debated the extent of women's agency, two sharply differing images of such hagiographers emerged. Portrayed by some as humble, self-effacing conduits to charismatic women, they were seen by others more as barriers-men bent on delimiting women's access to authority and, by extension, our own access to women's voices. In a series of influential articles from the 1990's, John Coakley struck a welcome balance, weighing the specific desires, anxieties, and goals that governed friars' involvement with religious women and their promotion of saint cults.The present, long-awaited book is the culmination of that project.

Building on the work of Caroline Bynum, Dyan Elliott, and Catherine Mooney, Coakley argues that high-medieval clerics perceived a complementarity between their own priestly, institutional authority and the unofficial but compelling powers of holy women. The female mystic's raptures, revelations, and ascetic feats betokened a direct access to God that priests admired and envied, while at the same time fearing potential delusion and abuse.Thus at the center of every vita stands a triangle comprised of Christ, a priest-confessor, and a charismatic woman. Coakley focuses unapologetically on the priest's role, asking how each perceived his relationship with the woman and her own relationship with Christ. His nine case studies begin in the mid-twelfth century with Ekbert of Schonau and his sister Elisabeth, and end in the late fourteenth with John Marienwerder and Dorothy of Montau. …

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