Fiona J. Griffiths, Nuns’ Priests’ Tales: Men and Salvation in Medieval Women’s Monastic Life, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2018. $69.95 (cloth). ISBN 978-0812249750, pp. 349.
Reviewed by Christine Axen, Fordham University, June 2018
Fiona J. Griffith’s new work joins conversations about the intersection of gender and religiosity in the Middle Ages by illuminating the role and self-perception of the nuns’ priest, whose ordinariness and ubiquity kept him from being the focus of contemporary texts. Famously caricatured by Chaucer, the nuns’ priest provided crucial sacramental support for convents, but found himself the butt of criticism and suspicion because of his engagement with religious women. In this work, Griffiths explores the spectrum of attitudes towards male guardianship over (and friendship with) religious women, the tensions surrounding the cura monialium, and, more broadly, male recognition of female sanctity. She argues that a cadre of men, notably including Jerome and Abelard, considered the spiritual care of women to be not only acceptable, but integral, to their own religious practice.
Chapter 1 situates readers in the curious lack of contemporary evidence or modern secondary work on the nuns’ priest. Though other male religious such as monks and hermits are routinely praised in the documentary sources, the nuns’ priests typically appear only within discussions of suspicion or temptation. Griffiths approaches the nuns’ priest using Biblical texts, letters, liturgical arrangements, manuscript illuminations, and textiles (though unfortunately some of these are obscured by low resolution photographs). Underrepresented in primary and secondary texts, though necessary for a convent’s basic sacramental function, the nuns’ priest is emblematic of the tensions between the increased separation of genders and the milestone expansion of female religious life during the Gregorian Reform period.
Griffiths calls into question the assumption that in the Middle Ages the best version of male religious life was regarded asone that was separate from its female counterpart. She argues that men like Jerome, Anselm, and Abelard should not be considered expectional in perceivingspiritual benefits in the care for women, rooted in the contemporary view of the spiritual dignity of New Testament women whose fidelity to Jesus outshone that of his male followers. By serving women, these men could serve Jesus by modeling themselves on the “friend of the bridegroom” (paranymphos) character embodied by the apostle John (p. 51).
Chapter 2 unpacks the Biblical models invoked by eleventh- and twelfth-century writers in support of male care for women. Robert of Arbrissel and others interpreted Jesus’ commendation of his mother to John as an implicit command; caring for women thus enabled men to perform an act of obedience to Jesus. The apostle Paul’s ‘sister women’ provided a model for scandal-free association between the genders and reinforced priestly identification with the apostles. Mary Magdalene in particular was used often in discussions of contemporary women, suggesting a foundational dignity associated with the female gender. Griffiths emphasizes that priests’ care of women did not stem from female handicap in religious matters; rather, men could improve their own status from association with such unblemished women.
Chapter 3 explores changing attitudes (from the Carolingian period through the twelfth century) towards Jerome’s spiritual friendships with Paula and others. Specifically because he suffered opprobrium and exile in his own day, Jerome served as an ideal model for medieval priests who weathered accusations and skepticism about their relationships with women. By the ninth century, depictions of Jerome as an ascetic or scholar were superseded by his role as a teacher of women. Paschasius Radbertus even signed his letters as ‘Jerome’ to his own ‘Paula’ and ‘Eustochium’—identified as an abbess and her daughter at Soissons (p. 89). Ultimately identification with Jerome enabled priests to defend their care of women in the face of accusations, turning this criticism into a mechanism for performing imitatio Christi—enduring revile like Jesus for friendships with women.
In Chapter 4, Griffiths tracks the shifting significance of biological family ties from Jesus’ call to abandon one’s family through the prevalence of opposite-sex kinship in monastic networks. Siblings and other family members routinely appear as relationships beyond suspicion, modeled on pairs such as St Augustine and Monica, Caesarius of Arles and Caesaria, St Benedict and Scholastica, and Ekbert and Elisabeth of Schönau.
Chapter 5 asks whymen sought care of women. Griffiths alleges that this support came from ‘the belief that men, even ordained men, could best access God through a religious woman and that a man’s salvation could be gained through her intercession’ (p. 141). Yet this optimistic point is challenged by the idea that medieval religious men expected spiritual returns on their investment in caring for women. Griffiths argues that gendering prayer commodifies it—rendering female intercession a currency or ‘counter-payment’ (p. 167) that men could earn through their support of religious women. The spiritual categories of virgin and bride of Christ, as used by male writers, placed women at the center of the salvific quest: surely Jesus would do anything for his bride, and by extension, for the male servants of his bride.
Covering themes from the early Church through the twelfth century, Nuns’ Priests’ Talesgives precedence to male voices speaking about religious women—a tactic that highlights positive male views of religious women, but which also privileges tropes and models that medieval religious women did not apply to themselves. However, in the conclusion, Griffiths discusses how prominent women like Heloise and Hildegard differently employed the motifs of bride and virgin in their own constructions of spirituality. In an especially fascinating coda, Griffiths analyses female-commissioned textiles, which enabled holy women to approach vicariously the off-limits altar through the use of self-portraiture and depictions of female models on items such as copes and antependia.
On the one hand, Griffiths’ focus on men’s voices indicates the centrality of female religiosity to male religious life; on the other it invites an interpretation of women as ‘vehicles for male spiritual experience and expression’ (p. 177). Certain points would be strengthened by opening the discussion to include well-known parallel themes: for example, discussion of the female-gendered brides of Christ begged contextualisation with well-known conceptions of monks as brides of Christ (here treated in one sentence on Bernard of Clairvaux), while the unassailability of the relationship between a holy woman and her priest could have been linked with positive effects to the later spiritual bonds between female mystics and their confessors. In the end, this work adds to scholarly resistance to the narrative of dismal female decline in the Middle Ages by appreciating the priests and writers who saw value in women’s spirituality—whether on its own terms or as a mechanism for male improvement. Regardless of the nuns’ priests’ motives, Griffiths validates the idea that medieval ‘women’s prayers were not a debased coin’ (p. 175).