restricted access Four: Mothers and Families
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67 C h a p t e r F o u r Mothers and Families In his work The Body and Society, Peter Brown poses this interpretive option for scholars of ancient texts: “Rather, they [the Apocryphal Acts] reflect the manner in which Christian males of that period partook in the deeply ingrained tendency of all men in the ancient world, to use women ‘to think with.’”1 Brown’s approach resembles Douglas’s notion that considerations for the human body reflect larger concerns within the body politic. Drawing also on the conclusions of the structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, Brown argues that male authors present women as a means to verbalize concerns for Christian identity in a seductive pagan society. His project, like current feminist scholarship , approaches women as literary constructions employed by male authors to didactic ends.2 Cameron, for example, relates late antiquity’s obsession with the virginal body to the political purity and security of the Christian empire.3 Feminine imagery reveals not only social expectations of women but also political and theological designs promoted by a male elite. Such a methodology affords a better understanding of how hagiographers and theologians of Christianity and Islam used the image of Mary and Fatima. Medieval writers certainly intended their models to provide 68 Chosen among Women guides for women to imitate; yet they also employed Mary and Fatima to think about matters of politics and theology. By using Mary and Fatima as symbols to think with, medieval authors articulated ideals of orthodoxy or rightness. Male writers developed the notions of right doctrine, right communities, and right gender. Early Christian and Shi`ite theologians formulated their doctrinal orthodoxy by explaining Mary’s and Fatima’s role as holy mother to their holy families. Each group’s rightness refers to the nascent religious identity evolving among their own ranks; it does not imply universal recognition of a true or pristine Christianity or Islam. In the specific case of Shi`ism, for example, Shi`ite Muslims were neither demographically dominant in the Muslim world nor (except for a brief time during the mid-tenth century) politically successful in the medieval period. Doctrinal orthodoxy applies to the specific theology and ideology shaped by religious thinkers about their own rightness, their own identity. By highlighting Mary’s and Fatima’s relationship with their sublime progeny , these authors fashioned feminine authorities on matters of theology and morality. Mary, as the mother of God, gave expression to the nature of Christ; and Fatima, as the Imams’ mother, verified the status of the ahl al-bayt. Right doctrine became flesh in both Mary and Fatima. As doctrinal orthodoxy developed and became a matter of identity , both the Christian and Shi`ite communities needed to clarify their boundaries and sharpen their polemics against the other or the heretic. Although cogent theological statements in the early medieval period certainly exist, many dogmatic statements and concerns are embedded in texts about women. As medieval authors distinguished their own nascent communities from unorthodox ones, they used identification with holy women as a marker. Hagiographers reified Mary’s and Fatima’s heavenly attributes in terms of miraculous maternity and domestic deftness. As the female was increasingly identified as the core of the family unit, she also emerged as a politically galvanizing symbol for the group she represented. With the establishment of a matriarchal figure at its center, what might otherwise be just another political faction was transformed into a spiritual family—the social group that creates the deepest affective bond among its members. Although both groups sought to create a spiritual community , Christian and Shi`ite hagiographers exalted two very different styles of motherhood. The Christian theologians’ Mother Mary extolled a more sublime maternal model wherein the bride wed a heavenly Bridegroom and often (but not always) adopted a life of chastity. This path was a path of perfection. Shi`ite authors offered Fatima as a more practical model for Muslim wives and mothers to emulate; Islam lauded temporal marriage and motherhood over the more symbolic, spiritual pattern followed by monastics. The Merovingians employed the Christian maternal image to provide themselves with a political pedigree in the sixth and seventh centuries . The new Frankish dynasty converted to Christianity and vigorously employed Christian symbols as a means of authorization among the Gallo-Roman elite they supplanted. Frankish texts sanctioned female monasticism and Merovingian rule by adapting abbesses and queens to a Marian heavenly...