Laurence Lux-Sterritt & Carmen M. Mangion (eds) Gender, Catholicism and Spirituality: Women and the Roman Catholic Church in Britain and Europe 1200 – 1900, Gender and History Series, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2011.

Laurence Lux-Sterritt & Carmen M. Mangion (eds) Gender, Catholicism and Spirituality: Women and the Roman Catholic Church in Britain and Europe 1200 – 1900, Gender and History Series, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2011. (hardback £55.00):  ISBN 978 0 230577 619 (paperback £19.99), pp xvi + 204

Reviewed by: Bernadette Flanagan, All Hallows College, Dublin City University, January 2011


This collection of essays traces part of its origins to a conference on ‘The Spirituality of Religious Women: From the Old World to the Antipodes1400 – 1800’ hosted in 2007 by the Melbourne College of Divinity. Two of the contributors to that conference, Rina Lahav who presented on Marguerite Porete and Querciolo Mazzonis who presented on Angela Merici have versions of their papers published in this collection. Two other conferences, one on the theme of Women and Religion in Britain, c. 1660‐1760 which was held at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford in June 2009 and the other entitled “Women and Spirituality” which was organized in Aix-en-Provence, France in 2009 by the Centre for Studies and Research in the Anglophone World at the University of Provence, in collaboration with the project “Who Were the Nuns?” at Queen Mary, University of London provided the scholarly networks from which the remaining papers were invited.

The ten papers cover the theme of the collection across five countries. Two papers represent the Italian experience (13thcentury, Clare of Assisi and 16thcentury, Angela Merici) and the French scene (14thcentury, Marguerite Porete and 19thcentury, Thérèse Couderc) and one paper represents Dutch material (17thcentury, Spiritual Virgins group) and a Spanish example (16thcentury, Teresa of Avila). Four papers represent the British perspective (17thcentury, Mary Ward / 17thcentury, Barbara Constable / 19thcentury, lady hymn writers / 19thcentury, Margaret Hallahan & Mary Potter).

The overall aim of the collection is to illustrate across time how the constructs of gender and spirituality interact innovatively within the world of Catholicism in the chosen geographical location. This aim is successfully achieved in three domains. Firstly, the sample lives that are chosen are sufficiently diverse to illustrate a great variety of forms through which women negotiated an expansion of territory in which to operate within Catholicism on the basis of their religious experiences. Secondly, the data is not forced into any procrustean framework. Men can be both protagonists for and antagonists towards the evolving public expressions of religious commitment by women. Spiritual conviction spurs on women to innovative public contributions whether these women are within or beyond the monastery wall. Thirdly, the collection of papers reflects an evolutionary perspective across the centuries represented in the book with intense female religious experience being of less significance for fuelling innovative contributions in the lives of women from later centuries covered by the collection.

The two constructs which shape the analysis of the contributors – gender and spirituality – are used in quite distinctive ways by the authors. Gender is employed as shorthand for role distribution and preconceptions regarding women. The construct, as used in this collection of essays, is affirmative of women’s potential for agency, autonomy and leadership. Philosophically the construct reflects a liberal feminist viewpoint, displayed in the conviction that the women portrayed ultimately wielded a transformative influence on Catholicism, particularly through their capacities of persistence and creativity in engaging clerical male oppositional forces. Even Marguerite Porete, who paid the ultimate price of execution for her efforts to subvert the clerical control of teaching theology, reaps the reward of having her work, Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls, treated as a classic today in spirituality studies, seven hundred years after her execution.

The construct of spirituality is less stable and somewhat diffuse in the manner in which it is employed in the collection of essays. It overlaps in an unspecified manner with piety (p.11), religious vocation (p.2), unmediated communion with God (p.3), direct knowledge of God (p.13), faith informed action in the world (p.2), contemplation, meditation and prayer (p.9), commitments to community and solidarity (p.10), sanctity (p.10), a strict morality (p.10), mysticism, prophecy and visions (p.11), empowerment through mystical self-surrender (p.12), practices such as spiritual reading, study and giving good example  (p.14). Ultimately spirituality is viewed in this collection of essays as ‘the nexus through which women have been socially constituted and ideologically stimulated’ (p.15). Such a view of spirituality may reflect the dominance of social, cultural and historical disciplines amongst the contributors. Thus, while all the elements named may be components of spirituality, they are not ultimately its central dynamic. Excellent scholarship in the ontology of spirituality – as opposed to its phenomenological manifestations – is available today. I have in mind such scholars as Mary Frohlichwho locates the essence of spirituality in critical interiority, that is, “a moment of communion with God, situated in history and memory yet also in some way transcending them, so that this moment creates a radically transformed memory that has significant historical impact”[1].

The collection of essays makes an important contribution to the Palgrave Macmillan ‘Gender and History’ Series. It will be helpful for students of women’s religious history, as an introductory text for the ten themes it covers. Each article is greatly enriched as an introductory resource for students by the excellent scholarly endnotes; a starting point for further research. As a work of synthesis in the era that it covers, articles are both brief and provide sufficient background for the uninitiated reader. It is an excellent resource for libraries and classrooms and one which may hopefully have future companion volumes.

[1] M. Frohlich, ‘Thérèse of Lisieux and Jeanne d’Arc:  History, Memory, and Interiority in the Experience of Vocation’, Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality6.2 (2006) 173-194 at 174.