Alison More, Fictive Orders and Feminine Religious Identities 1200–1600, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, £60.00, ISBN 9780198807698 (hardback), pp. x + 203
Reviewed by: Kirsty Day, School of History, Classics, and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, August 2018
From around the late-twelfth century, male ecclesiasts both drew inspiration from and grew concerned about women who chose a form of spiritual devotion that was located ‘in the world’ over one which could be found in the prescribed regulations of the institutional Latin Church. Some clerics believed such women were heretics or susceptible to sexual impropriety; others believed that perfectly orthodox but ‘unregulated’ women might be accused of these sins. Some objected to aspects of the spiritual practices of extra-regular women — mendicancy, for instance — and others believed the idea of the via media espoused by the women and their protectors to be theologically erroneous in its entirety.
To quell these anxieties, clerics encouraged quasi-religious women to take on regular or semi-regular vocations and would often invent fictional histories that linked groups of these women to mythical founders who were more closely associated with religious orders. By 1600, owing to increased regulation these women began to resemble in outward appearance those who professed the monastic vocations that they had eschewed in favour of active spiritual service. In recent years, historians of these women — most commonly, scholars working on the beguines — have demonstrated discrepancies between the lived devotional experiences of irregular women and the canonical rulings which sought to curb or ban their vocations. A survey of the way in which the processes for the regularisation of these women as a collective were created and recreated across time and space, however, has not yet been attempted. This necessary analysis is what Alison More provides in her provocative and inspiring book.
Focussing predominantly on western Europe, More combs through the evidence for the creation and recreation of narratives for official histories and identities of female quasi-religious between 1200 and 1600. Her choice to develop her argument over a broad stretch of time and to transgress traditional boundaries of periodisation allows us to see how these narratives have repeatedly blotted out the evidence for women’s own work and spiritual imagination, and how these limiting mythologies become ossified as they are restated and reworked over time. An epilogue which treats the impact of modern confessional narratives and ecclesiastical regulations on histories of feminine religious identities demonstrates that this is not simply a tool of the medieval Church but a much more perennial instrument of patriarchal religious power.
Throughout the book, More tackles both the methodological challenges posed by the available evidence, most of which comes from male ecclesiasts, and the readiness with which historians of these women have accepted these narratives. Many histories of Elizabeth of Thuringia or the Franciscan tertiaries claim, for instance, that Elizabeth was a member or the founder of a Franciscan tertiary order. As More has shown also in her previous work on the institutionalisation of tertiary life, Elizabeth was not a tertiary or even affiliated with the order. Rather, she was cast posthumously as the founder of the tertiary order in the wake of the creation in 1289 of a rule known as Supra montem for lay penitents who were to be looked after by the Franciscan order. The attachment of Elizabeth to this order was also a tool used by clerics to link a canonically approved version of the type of religious life professed by Elizabeth to an established order. More’s careful unravelling of this myth and the many others that emerge across the book’s period of focus — the depiction of Catherine of Siena as a Dominican tertiary, for instance — draws attention to the mechanics of the ways in which invented traditions were used to curb women’s power and imaginative fecundity.
With the exception of chapters four and five, in which the author steps back to examine pastoralia and women’s direction of education in extra-regular communities, the book is structured broadly around the major canonical rulings regarding women religious and composition of rules and forma vitae that were prescribed to bring women religious in line with orthodoxy. What becomes clear across the course of the narrative is that the adoption of a rule is rarely indicative of affiliation or conformity with the norms of a religious order. Supra montem, the aforementioned rule for lay penitents was widely adopted by communities after its papal approval in 1289. Where historians have used the rule’s proliferation as evidence of the spread of a Franciscan tertiary order, More identifies a broad variety in these communities’ affiliation to religious orders; for instance, some followed the rule but received pastoral care from Dominican friars or the secular clergy. The adoption of the rule was not always motivated by a desire to follow a form of Franciscan spirituality but rather a response to a turbulent religious climate in which irregular women were often viewed with suspicion. Following the condemnation of the beguines at the Council of Vienne in 1311, those who were not affiliated with an established order faced accusations of heterodoxy as the condemnation was often understood to apply to all unregulated women and not only the beguines. Even when not done in response to fear, the adoption of a set of regulations did not always indicate vocation. During the Franciscan Observant movement of the late-fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the constitutions of Collette of Corbie were followed by both Clarissan nuns and female Franciscan tertiaries.
That decrees from on high did not reflect what happened on the ground might be unsurprising to those familiar with the book’s topic; however, what More provides is a sense of the scale of diversity and the variety of interpretation in forms of life that existing histories can present as limited. Moreover, More’s demonstration of just how unhelpful the evidence for prescriptions of monastic rules are in determining women’s spirituality and chosen identity is accompanied by More’s incisive analysis of devotional texts written by and for women. This examination allows us a glimpse into how women bypassed the limiting impositions of ‘order’ by emphasising their liminality and their relationship with the divine over official identity. Authors of both pastoralia produced for women, and of women’s own writings, show little concern over institutional identity; rather, the theological and social visions of these women form the core of these texts. More’s material and textual analysis of how women engaged with these texts shows that liminal women such as Alijt Bake (d. 1455), who participated in the devotio moderna, were clearly motivated by education of their communities and establishing a dialogue with the divine over adherence to a normative set of ideals or order identity.
As More so successfully deconstructs a number of problematic paradigms, I wondered why she did not single out the concept of institutionalisation, or indeed the ‘institution’, for explicit critique. Institutionalisation is one of the narrative threads of the book and, to my mind, More’s incisive analysis proves that the process of institutionalisation is made fragile, moot even, when those whom it seeks to institutionalise refuse to comply. For More, as for many other scholars of medieval religious life, an ‘institutionalised’ community seems to be a monastic one, represented by habits, rules, and hierarchies. Though it is clear that extra-regular women have a distinctive identity, much of More’s findings can be applied in slightly different ways to fully professed women religious. In addition, in treating the institution as something concrete and definable, the book is in some places at risk of suggesting that these structures might not work on a more insidious level to shape the mental frameworks of women beyond the regular/irregular binary. If not explicitly, however, both More and the women she studies prompt us to think about the pervasive nature of structures that frame themselves as established institutions, and whether — and how — it is possible to think outside of these structures.
In demonstrating so convincingly that identity and vocation is irreducible to order affiliation and the ways in which processes of regularisation were used by male ecclesiasts to suppress the provocative imaginative worlds of extra-regular women, More has written one of the most important books on medieval women’s religious devotion in the field. I hope that it pushes historians of these women who are not already doing so to rethink radically how we write their histories, and to refuse to replicate narratives that participate in their silencing. Those who seek an irregular religious vocation may also take comfort in how brittle these narratives prove to be when placed under scrutiny.