John W. Coakley, Women, Men, & Spiritual Power: Female Saints & Their Male Collaborators,Columbia University Press, Chichester, West Sussex and New York, 2006.

John W. Coakley, Women, Men, & Spiritual Power: Female Saints & Their Male Collaborators,Columbia University Press, Chichester, West Sussex and New York, 2006. £27.95, ISBN 0 231 13400 2 (hardback), pp x + 354

Reviewed by: Margaret Jackson-Roberts, independent researcher, February 2008 

The author is a Professor of Church History at New Brunswick’s Theological Seminary. His expressed aim in this book is to “explore some encounters between holy women and the clerics who associated with them” (p3) and to consider what was at stake, particularly for the men, as a result. He is concerned with ‘the text as an expression of the historical person of the writer, hagiographical intentions and all.’ (p6). He focuses chronologically on the period from the twelfth to the early fifteenth century as witnessing the appearance in the West of a new kind of female saint, typified by asceticism, interior devotion, visions, revelations and mystical states. The method he adopts is to take nine case studies to illustrate where the development of a particular relationship between a male cleric and a holy woman possessing these gifts resulted in an account rendered by the former that sheds light on them from his perspective. This posits two contrasting polarities; that of the officially sanctioned, male cleric, possessed of a degree of religious authority with the informal insights of a woman who might not even have the status of a cloistered nun.

The selected case studies range from the familiar (Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena) to the more obscure (Dorothy of Montau) and are drawn from the men’s own writings rather than those of the women. Only two of them were nuns; two had previously been married, but all shared the common ground of austere lifestyle and an intense inner relationship with Christ. It was this that fascinated their male collaborators, who were often aware of a missing affective dimension in themselves and their religious lives that these women seemed to supply.  Coakley makes reference (footnote 9 to Chapter 11, p318) to the use by twelfth century Cistercian abbots of feminine imagery to give expression to ‘such virtues as gentleness, compassion, tenderness, emotionality’ and he stresses that these male clerics had recognised the lack of and need in themselves for these qualities in order to balance the more rational, intellectual virtues demanded by their calling.

The choice of  individuals to be studied was determined by the inclusion in the male hagiographers’ narratives (for these are not biographies per se) of themselves, working alongside their female subjects, whom without exception they admired and took to be genuine, in spite of detractors, and after submitting their revelations to some questioning and other tests. Charismatic women, having no place in the official ministry of the medieval church, were liable to be viewed with suspicion, especially when they impacted, as Catherine of Siena vigorously did, upon sensitive public and political matters such as the papal schism and exile to Avignon. The words recorded are not those of the women themselves but were noted down in the course of successive conversations and presented to an accepting audience, sometimes in a conscious attempt to bolster the case for canonisation. The men had of course to consider their own position in order to avoid the taint by association of scandal, either sexual or heretical, and by the end of the period surveyed here scepticism had set in; the line between intense affective devotion, with attendant visions, and witchcraft was a fine one. To a post-Freudian mind the issues of hysteria and sexual fixation are bound to occur, (though this may be a prism too far); there is however some evidence of the latter in the last case study, where the learned academic and cathedral canon John Marienwerder fantasised that were he not in holy orders he would like to spend his life by Dorothy’s side: ‘if he were free of his vow of religion he would go wherever she was, to serve God with her and receive her consolations’ (p204).

Some of the revelations were frankly erotic in content; although it appears that the image of Christ as heavenly bridegroom was used more by the men, the women often referred to an extraordinary degree of intimacy with Christ: ‘[Dorothy] was granted now his kiss, now his embrace, now his murmurings, now the interior of his chamber.’ (p197). Indeed, Coakley makes the point that these relationships provided an opportunity for realisation of an idealised priestly marriage between two contrasting sets of virtues, which indicates how profound they could be and influential for both parties.

The book is clearly written and well structured, though the general reader would benefit from some previous knowledge of the religious history of the period. The final chapter provides a very good summary of the main themes, and could well stand alone for those who, pressed for time, do not need to consider the detailed argumentation, which is supported by very full notes at the back, including Latin, German and Italian extracts in the original languages. However, this degree of detail does provide a fascinating insight into a series of collaborations which in some instances evolved into true partnerships. The traffic was by no means one way, and the female mystic often ended up instructing her male collaborator in the finer points of interpretation of scripture and the meaning of her interaction with Christ, thereby provoking a longing in him to attain the same heights of devotion.

One is left wondering at the potential for such close working. On the one hand it seems naïve to our less innocent age to take such narration on trust as constituting evidence of anything other than a pathological state of mind, but on the other it argues for a healthy respecting of different perspectives within a shared agenda. Reading it left this reviewer with a host of unanswered questions about the medieval religious atmosphere that felt a need, and created a space, for such intimate dealings with the second Person of the Trinity.