Nancy Bradley Warren, Women of God and Arms: Female Spirituality and Political Conflict, 1380-1600, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. ISBN-13: 978 0 8122 3892 1 (hardback), pp. viii + 264.
Nancy Bradley Warren’s new study takes as its central theme the political value of medieval female spirituality. Structured around six chapters examining a range of religious, aristocratic and royal women, the book explores the “symbolic capital” exploited by pious women and their secular supporters. Her subjects span overlapping time-periods and participated in the political culture of a number of countries, giving the analysis a wide-reaching depth. Attentive to the subtle manipulations of public ceremonies and representation so central to the period, Warren shows the extent to which religious and political activities were intertwined, and ultimately argues that female spirituality was a rich and malleable source of legitimating symbols, both for the women themselves and those who championed them.
Chapter 1 examines the reforming activities of St. Colette of Corbie, paying particular attention to the problems her female authority posed for male Franciscan houses, to her struggles for independence from the Observant reform movement, and to her productive relationship with the dukes and duchesses of Burgundy. Warren adeptly handles the many contemporary factors complicating Colette’s reform mission. Colette’s canny management of her secular connections is shown as mutually beneficial: winning support for her own new foundations, Colette lent her spiritual credit to secular politicians. Thus, the Burgundy rulers associated themselves with Colette in order to consolidate their own political legitimacy.
Chapter 2 explores the ways in which Margaret of York (wife of Charles the Bold of Burgundy, and sister to Edward IV of England) took advantage of her status as a devout woman to gain acceptance for her husband’s political strategies, particularly in Aachen and Ghent. Her support for monastic reform is considered in terms of its Anglo-Burgundian political benefits, as in her encouragement of her brother’s support for the Brigittine Syon Abbey and of his foundation of Observant Franciscans at Greenwich – a house largely populated by friars from Burgundian territories. Such connections between English and continental religious houses are further illuminated by her brief discussion of Anne d’Orléans (sister to Louis XII of France, and abbess of Fontevraud), whose efforts to spread reform to English daughter-houses are placed in their contemporary political context.
Chapter 3 imagines the connections between Joan of Arc (whose legacy as the archetypal woman of God and arms stalks the book), Margaret of Anjou (sister of Charles VII of France, who married Henry VI of England) and the French author, Christine de Pizan. The focus here is on English responses to and receptions of these women, whom Warren argues became “focal points for gendered and nationalistic anxieties” (p. 80). She traces English attempts to contain the threat posed by these French women – most strikingly in the (fictitious) representation of de Pizan as a cloistered nun.
Chapter 4 concentrates on Queen Isabel of Castile, examining her own self-construction as a model of female spirituality in order to confirm her legitimacy as a ruling queen. Focusing on two texts – Martín de Córdoba’s Jardín de nobles donzellas and the anonymous La Poncella de Francia – Warren tracks their juxtaposition of “expected models of female religiosity with symbolic support for female military and political authority” (p. 106) and identifies their importance for Isabel in construing key events of her reign: the succession; her military involvement in the reconquest of Granada; and the discovery of the New World.
Chapters 5 and 6 return the narrative to English events, examining the roles of women religious during the turbulent years of the Reformation. The revelations of the visionary Benedictine nun, Elizabeth Barton, manifested divine anger with Henry VIII for his attempts to divorce Katherine of Aragon (daughter of Isabel of Castile) and to establish himself as head of the English church. Warren handles the Barton story particularly well, deftly outlining the troubling aspects of her visions for the King, and state attempts to marginalise the voice of this woman religious by shifting responsibility onto her male confessor. Chapter 6 discusses the political activities of Sisters Elizabeth Sanders and Marie Champney, members of the exiled Brigittine Syon community during the reign of Elizabeth I. In addition to their clandestine agitation in England itself, Warren discusses their competing version of Tudor history via the writing of histories of the Syon foundation, thus extending this history of medieval female spirituality into the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, she argues that Queen Elizabeth’s incorporation of the cult of the Virgin Mary to her own self-fashioning shows the continued political importance of medieval female spirituality in the latter period.
Chronologically, the book embraces both the late medieval and the early modern periods; Warren holds that the distinction between the two should not stand – that many key elements of medieval female spirituality carry through to the early modern, post-Reformation period. It is a stance which suits this book, although it is questionable whether it would apply so neatly to other studies. Here, however, it enhances the impressive narrative sweep, which adds substantially to our understanding of religious women of different nationalities who reached beyond political borders, and the connections between them.
Lecturer, Department of English,
National University of Ireland, Galway