Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Gift of Tongues: Women's Xenoglossia in the Later Middle Ages

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Gift of Tongues: Women's Xenoglossia in the Later Middle Ages

Article excerpt

The Gift of Tongues: Women's Xenoglossia in the Later Middle Ages. By Christine F. Cooper-Rompato. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. 2010. Pp. x, 217. $75.00. ISBN 978-0-271-03616-8.)

The practice of "speaking in tongues" has received scant scholarly attention, although it has remained firmly in the public eye thanks to the activities of Christians mostly of the charismatic persuasion. As Cooper-Rompato 's timely study reminds us, it is all too easy to oversimplify the terminology of what is a multifaceted phenomenon reaching back to the biblical narrative of Pentecost. Contemporary Christians tend to express a belief in glossolalia; in other words, that the Holy Spirit can move individuals to speak in an abstruse language that calls for an interpreter to decode the message. CooperRompato 's concern is instead with xenoglossia, a coinage borro wed from the psychologist Charles Richet. Xenoglossia takes two chief forms, what the critic calls "miraculous Latinity" (p. 123) - the ability to speak untutored in Latin - and "miraculous vernacularity" (p. 145) - the acquisition of other contemporary languages.

Hagiography is the first port of call for tracing the medieval depiction of this miracle. A sharp gender gap is discerned, as for male saints the gift of vernacular xenoglossia was usually tied up with the Pauline injunction to preach the Gospel. Where women's vitae are concerned, vernacular xenoglossia is "almost always semiprivate, and it emphasizes vulnerability and a certain lack of control or limited control over the language" (p. 40). The author deftly demonstrates that females were all too often caught up between the sometimes opposing expectations that they should prove conduits for sapiential wisdom and yet remain obethent servants of the patriarchy. With Latin xenoglossia the situation is even more challenging. Some saints like Christina of Stommeln were not blessed with immediate fluency, but with an accelerated ability to acquire Latin for the purposes of study. …

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