Religious Women in Early Carolingian Francia: A Study of Manuscript Transmission and Monastic Culture

By Diem, Albrecht | The Catholic Historical Review, April 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Religious Women in Early Carolingian Francia: A Study of Manuscript Transmission and Monastic Culture


Diem, Albrecht, The Catholic Historical Review


Religious Women in Early Carolingian Francia: A Study of Manuscript Transmission and Monastic Culture. By Felice Lifshitz. [Fordham Series in Medieval Studies.] (New York: Fordham University Press. 2014. Pp. xxiv, 349. $55.00. ISBN 978-0-8232-5687-7.)

Felice Lifshitz's book poses two provocative theses: First, that early-medieval female monasticism was determined by a feminist consciousness, and second, that this consciousness manifested itself in structures of autonomous textual transmission within networks of female communities. Lifshitz argues that this consciousness flourished especially in the syneisactic monastic world that was established in the (as she terms it) Anglo-Saxon cultural province, the region in which AngloSaxon monks and nuns-particularly St. Boniface and his female and male followers-shaped ecclesiastical and monastic structures.

Defying (perhaps understandable) hesitations to apply a modern and still highly politicized concept to the early-medieval world, Lifshitz convinces the reader that it makes sense and, indeed, is hermeneutically productive to examine early-medieval Christianity in the context of feminism, albeit by specifically defining feminism as propagating gender equality, claiming participation in liturgical activities, and rejecting patriarchal and misogynist patterns of thought.

Lifshitz develops her theses around a collection of six manuscripts preserved in the Universitätsbibliothek Würzburg that she convincingly identifies as products of the scriptoria of the Franconian female communities of Karlburg and Kitzingen. Her approach is based on two premises that are widely accepted in medieval studies but have not yet been applied in this particular context. The first premise is that there is a decided absence of uniformity in Christian thought in the early-medieval period. Within, and sometimes stretching, the borders of orthodoxy there exist a vast variety of viewpoints, even on crucial theological questions such as the issue of gender differences, the value of virginity and female autonomy, and the range of options for active participation in Christian life and ecclesiastical structures. The second premise is that textual transmission-the choice, selection, and presentation of texts-is based on conscious decisions that are determined by this plurality of viewpoints.

These premises imply that it is indispensable to move away from printed editions and reconstructions of a presumed Urtext and to work with the texts as they appear and are assembled and arranged in the manuscripts themselves. Lifshitz applies this "whole-book approach" in an exemplary manner, combining the entire apparatus of Hilfswissenschaften (codicology, paleography, philology, and so forth) with both a profound knowledge of theological frameworks and meticulous analyses of texts and images. …

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