Veerle Fraeters and Imke de Gier (eds), Mulieres Religiosae: Shaping Female Spiritual Authority in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods, Brepols, Turnout, 2014. €90,00, ISBN 978-2-503-54912-5 (hardback), pp. v + 311
Reviewed by: Dr Naomi Pullin, University of Warwick, February 2015
Veerle Fraeters and Imke de Gier’s Mulieres Religiosae: Shaping Female Spiritual Authority in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods demonstrates the various ways in which pious women could acquire and express spiritual leadership. The edited collection is the result of a 2007 conference entitled ‘Mulieres religiosae’, which interrogated the development of women’s spiritual authority from the middle ages to the early modern period. Traditional histories of Christian women have viewed their inability to access positions of official religious authority as a constraining experience for their identities and spiritual development. As a consequence, much of the historiography on female religious experience has tended to view pious women either as the victims of male oppression, or as being denied agency over their own spiritual development. One of the primary goals of the collection is to counter such views and to explore ‘a rather more nuanced picture of spiritual authority in line with more recent scholarship on cross-gender friendships and authorship with gender-neutral approaches to affective spirituality’ (p. 4).
The collection of case studies explored in this volume are vast in terms of their geographical and chronological scope, covering a huge area of Europe over six centuries. They highlight the importance of the communities where female authority was nurtured and the ways in which these groups of pious women could create and claim spiritual authority collectively. The twelve chapters that comprise this volume follow a loose chronological structure, charting changes in how female spiritual authority was shaped and expressed. This is explored in detail in the Introduction, where the editors emphasise the increasing importance of the religious community in conferring authority on women, as their identity needed to be asserted through consensus and asserted in relation to the broader group.
María Eugenia Góngora begins to map the changing experiences of female spirituality and spiritual authority in her chapter ‘Elisabeth von Schönau and the Story of St Ursula: Visionary Authority and the Cult of Saints’ (pp. 17-35). Góngora explores the writings of Elisabeth von Schönau, who wrote extensively on her visions of the martyrdom of St Ursula, showing the ways in which Elisabeth used her visions as a means of negotiating power both within her own religious community and beyond the walls of the cloister. The focus of the chapter is almost exclusively on the life of St Ursula and would have benefited from more emphasis on Elisabeth as an individual. It would also have been helpful to learn more about how her visions were received by her contemporaries and how her writings helped to sustain her religious community beyond her lifetime, as this would have enhanced Góngora’s claims about her spiritual authority. Andrea Worm in her chapter ‘‘‘You shall all live together in harmony and spiritual unity”: Images of Abbesses and Female Religious Communities in the Empire’ (pp. 37-85) offers a different image of spiritual authority. This is achieved through exploring the changing images of abbesses in relation to female religious communities during the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. This leads Worm to the interesting conclusion that new ideals of a communal life emerged during the Twelfth Century, as a result of the Gregorian Reform movement. Worm’s use of pictorial depictions of nuns and their convents also provides an interesting methodological approach for scholars seeking to access the lives of women who have left no written records.
Viktória Hedvig Deák’s essay: ‘Beguines in Hungary? The Case of St Margareta of Hungary (1242–71): A Mystic without a Voice’ (pp. 87-108) provides an important addition 1 to the history of the medieval convent, by exploring the development of feminine religious authority in Eastern Europe. Deák describes St Margareta as a ‘mystic without a voice’, because of the lack of an appropriate spiritual ‘culture’ and ‘infrastructure’ in Hungary in which to express her mystical experiences at this time (p. 105). Such a conclusion underscores the importance of shifting the historical gaze away from the better-known sites of female spiritual authority such as those in the Low Countries and Italian city states. It also highlights how, despite these cultural limitations, Margareta was still able to use her mystical experiences to convey her religious authority, making her ‘the first representative in Hungry of a new spirituality, that of the mulieres religiosae’ (p. 105). The spiritual authority of another relatively unknown woman is explored by Piroska Nagy in her chapter ‘Sharing Charismatic Authority by Body and Emotions: The Marvellous Life of Lukardis von Oberweimar (c.1262–1309)’ (pp. 109-126). Lukardis was a Cistercian nun who constructed her holiness from her own bodily weakness and sickness. Interestingly, her suffering enabled her to become a part of a new culture where pain was interpreted as a positive religious experience. In particular, Nagy emphasises the positive influence that Lukardis’s community had in making her a holy woman and constructing her vita, which she argues gave them collective spiritual authority.
The concept of female spiritual authority was never clearly articulated by the Medieval Church and Imke de Gier and Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker in their chapters on Marguerite Porete (pp. 127–50) and Jeanne de Valois (pp. 151–68), respectively, do a masterful job of offering a convincing portrait of female spiritual authority in Medieval France, and the various nuanced forms that it could take. Gier emphasises the fact that authority within the Church did not necessarily have to be present for spiritual authority to be conferred upon women. Indeed, as she suggests in her study of Marguerite Porete, it was the act of writing in the vernacular that imbued her with authority, because it enabled her to articulate ‘a process towards union with God’ (p. 129). Similarly, Mulder-Bakker argues that Jeanne de Valois’s religious authority as a Cicstercian nun enhanced her authority in the secular sphere. Her role as a mediator of political affairs provides an important insight into how religious women were vital parts of the regular social order, as women whose knowledge of the divine empowered them to act in the public domain of city and country.
The agency and authority imbued by these mulieres religiosae is neatly encapsulated in the writings of Julian of Norwich, who Kathleen M. Smith discusses at length in her chapter ‘Language and Authority in Julian of Norwich’s Showings’ (pp. 169-91). In contrast to much of the historiography written on Julian’s Showings, Smith provides an original reinterpretation of her writing by exploring the importance of language, rhythm and sound. The chapter occasionally overlooks the historical context of Julian’s writing, particularly in terms of the socio-religious climate that enabled her vernacular writing to thrive. Nevertheless, Smith effectively demonstrates how Julian’s distinct use of language enabled her to convey her visionary experiences of God to her audience. The importance of religious community in conferring female spiritual authority is further developed in Sylvie Duval’s chapter: ‘Mulieres Religiosae and Sorores Clausae: The Dominican Observant Movement and the Diffusion of Strict Enclosure in Italy from the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Century’ (pp. 193-218). Using statistical data from the monastery of San Domenico in Pisa, Duval charts the changing understandings of feminine religious life within the Dominican Observant Movement in Italy over the later medieval and early modern periods. The chapter successfully shows the social and economic factors which led women to lose some of the religious functions open to them earlier in the period. In particular, Duval draws attention to the increasing importance of strict enclosure as a means of preserving family status and reputation, and thus establishing female spiritual authority. 2
The Bridgettine Abbey in Sweden is the focus of Eva Lindqvist Sandgren’s chapter on ‘Book Illumination in the Bridgettine Abbey of Vadstena’ (pp. 219-42). Scandinavian religious culture is a topic often neglected in the historiography, and Sandgren offers an insightful assessment of how the Abbey’s book illumination can be situated within a wider culture of international exchange. In particular, Sandgren uncovers identifiable similarities between the Vadstena illuminations and those in countries like Finland, Norway and England, which is suggestive of an extraordinary degree of contact and mobility between monastic communities from a wide range of countries. The importance of group identity and spiritual consensus is further developed in Mathilde van Dijk’s chapter on ‘Female Leadership and Authority in the Sisterbook of Diepenveen’ (pp. 243-64). Dijk effectively shows, through a case study of the life of one sister, Salome Stricken, how the Sisterbook enabled women to fashion their religious identities by providing aspiring Sisters with spiritual role models to guide them towards perfection. At times the discussion lacked a bit of focus and could have engaged more with the idea of the specifically gendered nature of the Sisterbook, but Dijk nevertheless conveys the significance of female spiritual leadership in building religious communities.
The chronological focus shifts somewhat to explore seventeenth-century female religious in the final chapters of the collection. Perhaps one of the most enlightening and significant essays of this volume is Ping-Yuan Wang’s examination of the communal letter- writing activities of the ‘spiritually unremarkable’ Visitation nuns in Brussels between 1668 and 1699 (p. 268). Wang argues that the mundane practice of epistolary writing became ‘the foci of convent life’ for these lesser-known nuns, ‘around which ordinary and extraordinary happenings alike revolved’ (p. 268). This allows the often-overlooked role of ‘ordinary’ nuns to be placed at the centre of this analysis. These were women who were not renowned for their transcendental or visionary experiences, but whose writings nevertheless enabled them to claim a sense of collective authority. Wang shows how these circular letters enabled these women to foster a sense of collective identity and shape the wider religious community by conforming to, rather than subverting, a particular set of gender ideals. Caroline Giron-Panel’s chapter ‘Piae Virgines Choristae: Musicians for the Greater Glory of God and the Venetian Republic’ (pp. 287-99) provides an interesting ending to the discussion. The seventeenth-century Venetian Ospedali offers an important case-study of a female religious community that operated outside the walls of the cloister and which played a vital role in nurturing female musical talent. Although brief, the chapter shows how female musical activity opened up opportunities for women from humble origins, since it provided an important model of convent life that enabled them to fulfil their religious vocations and facilitated, in later life, a sanctioned musical career within the protective environment of the cloister.
Collectively, these case studies demonstrate how contemporary understandings of religious authority need significant revision when the spiritual experiences of women are considered in relation to one another. Overall the volume succeeds in providing a more nuanced picture of female religious experience in the medieval and early modern periods. However, it is limited by its chronological focus. Indeed, the title and introduction are somewhat misleading in claiming to explore how women’s spiritual authority evolved from the high Middle Ages to the early modern period. This is owing to the fact that only two of the twelve chapters in the collection assess the experiences of women after the fifteenth- century. The parameters of the volume also needed to be much more clearly defined, as the focus is almost exclusively on Catholic women, rather than Christian women more widely. The spiritual authority acquired by women within Protestantism and other religious sectarian movements, for example, would have provided an interesting point of comparison to some of the ideas explored in the volume. Moreover, despite the important decision to embrace both the religious and gendered identities of these women, some of the conclusions are 3 hindered by an overriding tendency to view the status of religious women as declining throughout this period, because of the rise of forced enclosure and formal monasticism. Current research into European convent life has demonstrated that female enclosure was not necessarily a negative force and that female inmates found ways to negotiate patriarchal constraints.
This is a matter that often seems to get overlooked in the collection. This, however, does not detract from the fact that the volume succeeds in showing the tangible ways in which women were able to display agency in shaping their spiritual lives and in assuming positions of authority. The volume has been fashioned for a specialist audience, and will most directly appeal to those scholars interested in the history of Catholic women in the period before the Reformation and Council of Trent. However, scholars interested in the relationship between gender and religion during this period will learn much from the innovative methodologies and approaches employed in this interesting collection of essays, which ‘reveal a dynamic pattern in terms of possibilities for women to display agency in shaping their spiritual lives’ (p. 14).
 Claire Walker has shown in her study of English convent life in France and the Low Countries that the nuns were not simply passive objects of unwelcome reform. They were given plenty of opportunities to negotiate the terms of their foundation, existence and tax status. Emily Clark has also argued that many of these religious women, including the reformer Teresa of Avila, viewed clausura as liberation from secular distractions, rather than a mechanism for patriarchal control. See Walker, Gender and Politics in Early Modern Europe: English Convents in France and the Low Countries (Basingstoke, 2003), p. 49; and Clark, ‘When Is a Cloister Not a Cloister? Comparing Women and Religion in the Colonies of France and Spain’ in Emily Clark and Mary Laven (eds), Women and Religion in the Atlantic Age, 1550-1900 (Farnham, 2013), pp. 69-72.