- Women, Men and Spiritual Power: Female Saints and Their Male Collaborators
Ever since medievalists rediscovered holy women a generation ago, the men who chronicled them have occupied a peculiar niche. In the idealizing mirrors of saints' lives, we glimpse not only female ascetics and mystics, but also the clerics whose fascination with them enables our own. As feminist historians in the 1980's and '90's debated the extent of women's agency, two sharply differing images of such hagiographers emerged. Portrayed by some as humble, self-effacing conduits to charismatic women, they were seen by others more as barriers—men bent on delimiting women's access to authority and, by extension, our own access to women's voices. In a series of influential articles from the 1990's, John Coakley struck a welcome balance, weighing the specific desires, anxieties, and goals that governed friars' involvement with religious women and their promotion of saint cults. The present, long-awaited book is the culmination of that project.
Building on the work of Caroline Bynum, Dyan Elliott, and Catherine Mooney, Coakley argues that high-medieval clerics perceived a complementarity between their own priestly, institutional authority and the unofficial but compelling powers of holy women. The female mystic's raptures, revelations, and ascetic feats betokened a direct access to God that priests admired and envied, while at the same time fearing potential delusion and abuse. Thus at the center of every vita stands a triangle comprised of Christ, a priest-confessor, and a charismatic woman. Coakley focuses unapologetically on the priest's role, asking how each perceived his relationship with the woman and her own relationship with Christ. His nine case studies begin in the mid-twelfth century with Ekbert of Schönau and his sister Elisabeth, and end in the late fourteenth with John Marienwerder and Dorothy of Montau. All the accounts ring changes on a now-familiar theme of spiritual partnership, sparked by awe yet tinged with caution.
Coakley's great merit is that he has no axe to grind, no grand theory to prove, so he is free to explore the subtleties of each case. As a result, we see not abstractions or caricatures, but the complex interplay of personalities in their concrete worlds. Despite commonalities, all the women and their hagiographers emerge as distinct individuals. At times we can even surmise the shared traits that brought two people together in collaborations lasting sometimes a year or two, sometimes decades. On one end of the spectrum we find [End Page 916] Raymond of Capua and Catherine of Siena, two enormously forceful, confident personalities. Coakley stresses the polemical edge in Raymond's vita: knowing that he needed to defend Catherine the political activist against her critics, Raymond deliberately emphasized Catherine the mystic, creating a larger-than-life portrait that would set hagiographic standards for centuries. At the opposite pole, Coakley introduces another Dominican, Peter of Dacia, who longed for a holy woman so desperately that he all but invented one. Left unfulfilled by his scholastic training, Peter's soul caught fire only when he met the beguine Christine of Stommeln. In a series of hagiographic texts, Peter insisted on representing Christine as a bridal mystic, though the experiences she reported herself tell a different story. When we read of the joy Peter felt on seeing Christine pelted with excrement flung by invisible demons, we can sense the intensity, if not the precise nature, of their psychological bond.
As the capstone of a well-established scholarly edifice and a spur to further research, Coakley's elegant study belongs in every medievalist's library.