FORGETFUL OF THEIR SEX: FEMALE SANCTITY AND SOCIETY
By Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg U. of Chicago Press
By Michele Roberts
308 pp., $24
Among the summer offerings are two books by women about women -
women saints, to be exact. Both are drawn from one of the remotest
periods of Christian history, when the Roman Catholic Church was
extending its influence all over Europe, and sainthood was a growth
In their books, American scholar Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg and
London-based fiction writer Michele Roberts address the conditions,
religious and secular, under which medieval women struggled to cope,
contribute, and prevail.
Schulenburg places her historical study, Forgetful of Their Sex:
Female Sanctity and Society ca. 500-1100, at the intersection of two
currently burgeoning areas of historical research. One is
hagiography, or the official accounts of saints' lives. The other is
the status of women in medieval society and the church.
Historians have generally ignored Latin hagiography as unreliable.
Compiled years or even decades after their subjects' deaths,
hagiographic writings were extended eulogies, propaganda pieces
intended to laud the saintly qualities of their protagonists.
However, Schulenburg has found in them "incredible richness and an
untapped wealth of information for historians studying early medieval
Her book is crammed with skillfully presented, though often
repetitious, information about Radegund, Margaret of Scotland,
Clotilda, and a host of other Catholic women saints. Distilled from
Latin, French, German, and English sources, these accounts
unquestionably fill blanks in one's knowledge of the Middle Ages.
The sweep of 600 years is rough-hewn into two periods. The first
was marked by a less formalized, structured church. Queens and
abbesses could, despite male-generated rules and prohibitions,
function to an extent as patrons of the church, founders and
administrators of monastic communities, peacemakers, social
reformers, domestic proselytizers, healers, educators, and prophets.
The church especially valued and rewarded wives and mothers who
dedicated themselves to converting their royal sons and husbands -
and often, as a consequence, whole kingdoms - to Christianity.
Then came the Carolingian, Cluniac, and other reforms of the mid-
8th and 9th centuries - "a concerted attempt," writes Schulenburg,
"at redefining authority and reorganizing society and the Church."
Women's opportunities, already circumscribed, diminished. The number
of monasteries for women shrank and, as a result, so did the number
of women saints. Over the next two centuries, women found themselves
increasingly controlled, segregated, and consigned by church fathers
to passive domestic roles.
Schulenburg's title, "Forgetful of Their Sex," refers directly to
the demand for integritas - total virginity. …