Religious Women in Early Carolingian Francia: A Study of Manuscript Transmission & Monastic Culture by Felice Lifshitz (review)
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manuscript studies, Carolingian, France, Francia, Monasticism, textual transmission, religion, women, nun

Felice Lifshitz. Religious Women in Early Carolingian Francia: A Study of Manuscript Transmission & Monastic Culture. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014. Xxii + 349 pp. $55.00. ISBN 978-0-8232-5687-7.

While studying a group of related early medieval manuscripts in Würzburg, Felice Lifshitz began to notice subtle ways in which their scribes had redacted the texts they contained. These manuscripts, copies of patristic and early medieval theological treatises, were associated with Bishop Boniface of Mainz and his associate, Abbess Leoba of Tauberbischofsheim, thus with the movement of Anglo-Saxon missionaries on the Continent in the early eighth century. Through close scrutiny, Lifshitz was able to trace these manuscripts to several women’s communities in the pre-Carolingian Rhineland, and to make the series of deductions about their social and intellectual context that form the core of this bold and deeply learned book.

In the first three chapters, Lifshitz identifies the several women’s communities in the Rhineland with the political and economic stature to copy manuscripts such as these. She gives an overview of the monastic ideal of syneisactism (men and women living chastely in egalitarian communities) in the Main and Tauber valleys, showing that women’s houses such as Karl-burg, Zellingen, and Ochsenfurt (which predated the foundation of the See of Würzburg in 741), as well as notable later foundations such as Kitzingen, were independent cultural centers with their own schools and scriptoria, and participated in networks of trade, embassies, and gift exchange in the Trier area equal to those of famous local men’s houses such as Echternach (pp. 17–20). Lifshitz draws two important conclusions from her thorough [End Page 361] review of relevant literary and archeological data: that this corner of pre-Carolingian Francia was already fully Christianized before the arrival of Boniface and the foundation of the monastery of Tauberbischofsheim by Leoba, and that there was a remarkable degree of gender equality in the early medieval Rhineland. Leoba may even have ruled both Tauberbischofsheim and the men’s house of Fulda (later the home of Hrabanus Maurus) as a double community (p. 5).

This study of the interconnections of early medieval monastic houses in Francia is already a significant contribution to scholarship, but Lifshitz adds a surprising turn to her study at the end of chapter 3 and in the next four chapters, in which she gives close readings of the textual anomalies that first drew her attention to these manuscripts. She shows that copies of Augustine’s Commentary on the Gradual Psalms and Gregory the Great’s Homilies on the Gospels copied at Karlburg omitted sections of these texts that “utilized women as figures of weakness or subordination, expressing some virulently misogynistic ideas” (p. 40). For example, Augustine’s commentary on Psalm 133, which ends with a characterization of Eve as a dangerous temptress, was omitted from a Karlburg manuscript (Würzburg, Universitätsbibliothek [UB], because “there was no motivation for the women of Karlburg to permit their copy of a spiritual classic to culminate in such offensive imagery, so they eliminated it” (p. 40). Here, Lifshitz contrasts the approach of the female scribes of Karlburg and related houses to those at the northern French monastery of Notre-Dame-des-Chelles, founded by the Merovingian queen Bathild in the seventh century, where only the offending lines, rather than the complete text, were omitted (p. 40). The takeaway point is certainly that women scribes in the early Middle Ages independently redacted patristic texts that denigrated women, in a self-conscious way that Lifshitz characterizes as feminist.

Besides textual analysis of manuscripts of Augustine, Gregory, and Isidore of Seville, in chapter 4 Lifshitz also gives a striking reading of figural exegesis in a full-page crucifixion miniature in a copy of the Pauline epistles from Kitzingen (UB, fol. 7r). Although a newer foundation, Kitzingen was the house that came to replace Karlburg in prominence in the Carolingian era (pp. 21–23). This image has been described as a mixture of “oriental,” “insular...