Academic journal article Magistra

Feminine Rhetoric in the Prayers and Correspondence of Anselm and Bernard: Variations in the Language of Reform

Academic journal article Magistra

Feminine Rhetoric in the Prayers and Correspondence of Anselm and Bernard: Variations in the Language of Reform

Article excerpt

Reform in the High Middle Ages has several different meanings, some of which can be contradictory. Regarding the clergy, "reform" indicates a time when church doctrine and hierarchy became institutionalized and the church sought to free itself from outside political and military domination. For women, "reform" had a different connotation, since the changes engendered by monastic and papal reform often limited them from participation in this movement.

However, an examination of Anselm of Canterbury's (1033-1109) own particular language of reform, which is deeply personal and evokes maternal and familial imagery, has shown that he sought to make spirituality more accessible to both the laity and those dedicated to the monastic life, and in doing so, created an alternate vision of reform. Anselm also offered new spheres of spiritual activity for women. In particular, Anselm had close spiritual and personal links with several nuns and noblewomen, suggesting a desire to cultivate women's spirituality as part of his reform methodology.

It is essential to discern, however, whether Anselm's creation of a new spiritual rhetoric was especially unique, and whether his interpretation of reform influenced later reformminded clergymen. To explore this question, this article compares Anselm's language, particularly his maternal rhetoric, to the rhetoric of one of the greatest reform-minded theologians, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). Interestingly, this comparison of Anselm's and Bernard's personalized and feminine imagery has resulted in more differences than similarities.

Anselm's renewal and re-emphasis of feminine imagery as part of his language of reform most certainly influenced Bernard's, but how each theologian used this imagery could be quite different.1 While Anselm used feminine terms to emphasize compassion, humanity, and family, as well as to bond with his spiritual friends on a more personal level, Bernard preferred to use feminine terms, particularly breast imagery, to emphasize to fellow clergymen the laity's and their own dependence upon the authority of their superiors. Thus, both Anselm and Bernard revived and re-interpreted common feminine imagery, but through different modes of expression and with distinctly different intentions, which highlights the differences in their overall visions for reform.

When it comes to speaking of God, Christ, and the saints as mothers, Anselm and Bernard were equally comfortable with using this imagery in their letters, prayers and sermons. For example, in his prayer to St. Paul, Anselm includes common New Testament imagery of God as a nurse, but then personalizes this imagery in a more emotional and personal manner: "Mother, this dead man is certainly your son. Dear mother, recognize your son by the voice of his confession; he recognizes his mother by her loving compassion."2 To Jesus he prays, "Christ, my mother, you gather your chickens under your wings ... for by your gentleness the badly frightened are comforted, by your sweet smell the despairing are revived."3

Anselm also justifies this maternal rhetoric as he addresses both Paul and Jesus, "Why should I be silent about what you have said? Why should I conceal what you have revealed? ... You have revealed yourselves as mothers [Paul and Jesus]; I know myself to be a son. I give thanks that you brought me forth as a son when you made me a Christian."4

Bernard's feminization of Christ is not as obvious in his writings as other forms of maternal imagery; however, feminization of the divine does occasionally come up in his letters. For example, in a letter to a novice Cistercian he writes, "Do not let the roughness of our life frighten your tender years ... if you feel the stings of temptation ... draw life from the wounds of Christ. He will be your mother, and you will be his son."5 This letter is representative of Bernard's use of maternal imagery, for it typifies Bernard's intentions to soften his letters of instruction. …

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