- Medieval Holy Women:Intersections of Sanctity and Power
In the past several decades, medieval research has increasingly engaged theoretical questions at the forefront of scholarship in the humanities, contributing to some of the most pressing topics of humanistic enquiry: the mechanisms of marginalization, the anthropology of power, the construction of sexual difference, and the nature of the self. As many scholars have noted, the medieval world provides rich opportunities to rethink aspects of the modern one. In particular, it offers fertile ground for the testing and elaboration of theories of gender, especially in the realm of religion; recent years have witnessed productive scholarship on the fluidity of medieval gender categories, made possible by the inherent paradox of Christianity as a religion that—at least nominally—celebrated weakness. According to the Gospels, it is the meek who will inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5) and the last who shall be first (Mark 9:35; cf. Matt. 20:27).
Although these sayings do not refer explicitly to women, many medieval writers interpreted them as implying that women, marginalized by their purportedly natural feminine weakness, would inherit the earth, alongside the poor and the meek. These teachings ultimately provided a means for certain monks and clerics to celebrate "woman" as a conceptual category, despite—or perhaps because of—the generally subordinate status of flesh–and–blood women. Not only could women be "first" spiritually (in that they were "last" temporally), but the supposed frailty of both their bodies and their intellect was thought to provide a means of fusion with the suffering human God, as historian Caroline Walker Bynum has so persuasively argued. The spiritual advantages that women's inferior status [End Page 153] allowed them meant that "woman" increasingly became not just "good to think with" but actually good to be.
John W. Coakley's recent book, Women, Men, and Spiritual Power, offers a fascinating study of the spiritual power that could be attributed to medieval holy women on the basis of their supposedly distinct relationship with the divine. Building on several decades of influential work in the field of medieval religion, Coakley turns his attention here to the complex relationships between holy women and the male clerics who composed their biographies and who thus provided—in many cases—the only evidence that we have for a holy woman's life. Arguing that such men were drawn to their female subjects by a mixture of admiring fascination, adoration, and, not least, a nagging sense of their own spiritual inadequacy, Coakley sets out to investigate the delicate negotiation of power and authority that the relationship between a holy woman and her clerical admirer necessarily involved.
Coakley's case is persuasive. As he argues, male biographers—who, as clerics, were the bearers of uncontested ecclesiastical authority—sought in holy women a source of spiritual power that lay outside their own elite, male, and clerical culture. Anxious that clerical office and education had disqualified them from the direct access to God that they supposed holy women to enjoy, these men were drawn to women, seeking them as spiritual mothers, teachers, and friends. Such men often attributed ecstatic spiritual experiences to holy women, describing in vivid and sometimes erotic terms the relationship between a saint and Christ, her heavenly bridegroom. For Peter of Dacia, the thirteenth-century biographer of the German holy woman Christine of Stommeln, Christine's status as a bride of Christ lay at the heart of her spirituality and provided one of the reasons that Peter found himself attracted to her. Peter depicts himself as Leah to Christine's Rachel, the rejected bride displaced by her younger, more beautiful sister. While...