Double Standard for Women Saints Two Books - One History, One Fiction - Explore How Women Attained Sainthood in the Medieval Church

Article excerpt


ca. 500-1100

By Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg U. of Chicago Press


By Michele Roberts

Ecco Press

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 industry.

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 society."

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. …


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