General and Miscellaneous -- the Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Middle Ages by Clarissa W. Atkinson

By McLaughlin, Mary Martin | The Catholic Historical Review, October 1995 | Go to article overview

General and Miscellaneous -- the Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Middle Ages by Clarissa W. Atkinson


McLaughlin, Mary Martin, The Catholic Historical Review


The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Middle Ages By Clarissa W. Atkinson. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 1991. Pp. xiv, 274. $24.95.)

Early in this impressive book, Clarissa Atkinson reminds us of the exemplary case of the young North African matron, mother, and martyr, Perpetua. Writing her own account of the events preceding her death, at the very beginning of the third century, she rejected her father's appeal to her familial and maternal ties the proud insistence that the only name by which she would identify herself was the name of "Christian." For Perpetua and her companion, Felicitas, who went to the arena fresh from childbirth, motherhood was "neither an obstacle nor an avenue" to holiness, to the martyrdom by which they proclaimed their Christian identity and sacred vocation. When the present study reaches its end, in the early modern centuries, motherhood itself had come to define the "good" Christian woman. For both Protestants and Catholics, "women's reproductive labor served both God and man; developing ideologies idealized and enforced such service." To discover how and why these and earlier ideologies came to share in the "construction" of Christian motherhood is the central purpose of an inquiry that belongs, as its author carefully notes, more to the history of ideas than to social history.

In her excavations of motherhood's "vast buried history," she is by no means inattentive to the "real," that is, biological mothers o appear, at times significantly, often fleetingly, in the pages of this book. They appear most actively as the late medieval "mothers of love and tears" whose saintly achievements contributed to a major reshaping of Christian motherhood. With these and similar exceptions, however, this artifact of history and ideology was largely the creation of men rather than the work of mothers themselves. Its ideologies were formed and reformed in a world controlled, broadly speaking by fathers, a world whose religious and intellectual Life, during much of this period, was dominated by the celibate men who powerfully influenced successive phases in the Christian construction of motherhood.

Assembling the building-blocks of the new "institution" in its diverse ancient contexts, Atkinson's early chapters focus on the challenges that Christian mothers offered to, and encountered in, traditional social and physiological views of motherhood. To ancient notions of modernity as women's sole or primary claim to status and significance, early Christian women such as Perpetua opposed a conviction that motherhood was essentially irrelevant to their spiritual aspirations. Challenging these aspirations in more complicated ways were the sometimes conflicting, chiefly male notions of physical motherhood and, more generally, of women's bodies, and the meanings of sex and gender, propagated in the works of ancient and medieval science and medicine. Often stressing female inferiority, learned writers might well convey ideas of maternity supporting the incompatibility of "health" and "holiness."

Holiness was, in any case, the goal strongly stressed by the exaltation of virginity and spiritual motherhood that marked the new ideology most vigorously fostered by the dominant monastic life and culture of the early Middle Ages. In spiritual motherhood, the only religious leadership open to women, as Atkinson notes, the term "mother," transformed, retained its ancient power. Its early representatives, commonly virgin abbesses of women's monasteries, displaced the physical mothers to whose often precarious fortunes during these centuries we have a singular witness in the manual of advice composed by the ninth-century Frankish noblewoman, Dhuoda, for her young son.

Uniquely joining virginity and maternity, the changing images of the Virgin Mary introduce the next phase in the remodeling of motherhood, which Atkinson explores in a perceptive analysis of the stages in the theological, and popular, construction of the Mother of God. …

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