Saturday, April 5, 2008

Female Spirituality in the Late Middle Ages and the Search for a Feminine Christianity (Part IV)

Dyan Elliott: Proving Woman: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages.

Dyan Elliott criticizes Bynum’s positive narrative and, in its place, offers a narrative of a downward decline in woman’s spiritual activity from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. In the twelfth century, clerics seized on woman’s Eucharistic visions as proof of the Church’s teachings on Transubstantiation. Thus the female spirituality, which Bynum sees as a mark of the independent voices of women, was really something created by the male Church hierarchy in order to promote their own power at the expense of populist brands of Christianity, which were labeled “heresies.” Many of these “heretical” groups, such as the Guglielmites, granted women a larger role than in traditional Catholicism and allowed women to preach; women even appear as leaders in these groups.

Elliott makes her case by connecting various holy women to the Inquisition. Gregory IX (r. 1227-41) was the founder of the Inquisition. He was also a major sponsor of various holy women. He supported Mary of Oigenes (1177-1213) and the Beguine movement as well as Elisabeth of Hungary (1207-1231). Elisabeth of Hungary’s confessor was Conrad of Marburg (d. 1233), a close associate of Gregory IX. Conrad of Marburg, soon after Elisabeth’s death and after he successfully pushed for her canonization, became an inquisitor. Elliott argues that Conrad gained an aura of sanctity for himself because of his association with Elisabeth. This protected him from any opposition and allowed him to pursue heretics as he wished.

Elliot connects the very practices associated with female spirituality to the Inquisition. The practice of women torturing their bodies and the veneration of women as living relics was part of a shift away from martyrdom as the ideal to a new ideal that one should be dead to the world. The reason for this was that the Church was in a struggle against heresy and was actively executing heretics. As such the Church did not wish to allow these heretics to be turned into martyrs. Instead the Church created a new ideal of living martyrdom and offered up women as useful manifestation of it.

The culture of the Inquisition played a role in gathering evidence for a pious life. The very processes, which were used to canonize women, reflected an inquisitional mode of thinking:

The somatic nature of female spirituality meant that the requisite proofs of holiness were often of a physical nature. Since a holy person frequently received revelations in the course of a rapture, special care was taken to secure satisfying proofs of this condition. …
Women were believed to have a particular propensity to rapture – premised on the fragility, and hence susceptibility, of the female body. If the confessor could furnish evidence that the rapture was genuine, this was an important step toward establishing that the woman in question was in communication with the divine.

The very act of declaring women to be saints and miracle workers reflected medieval misogynist views on women.

In the long run this process and mechanism for examining women, to see if they were under the influence of the Holy Spirit gave way, in the fifteenth century, to the creation of the process and mechanism for examining women to see if they were under the influence of the devil. The same Inquisition culture that promoted the veneration of women in the end turned around and started hunting down women as witches.

Elliott deserves a lot of credit for offering a multilayered analysis of the connection between holy women and the Inquisition, taking into consideration the ways in which the thought processes of the Inquisition related to female spirituality. She could have taken the easy way out and simply contented herself with playing a game of gotcha, pointing out that many of the people involved with the veneration of holy women were also Inquisitors. Her analysis of the thought processes involved is what I find to be credible.

The problem with Elliot’s work is that she is caught up in the narrative of the “black legend” of the Inquisition, which sees the Inquisition as this dark menacing organization, terrorizing all of Europe. The Inquisition persecuted heretics and many prominent heretics were women. For Elliot this means that the Inquisition was an anti-women organization.

I would be inclined to read Elliot’s material in the opposite direction. The promotion of female sanctity in the later part of the Middle Ages led to Fourth Lateran Council, with its emphasis on the Eucharist and the rise of the Inquisition. The male Church hierarchy, influenced by a lay movement, came to put greater emphasis on the Eucharist. The fact that the Fourth Lateran Council also gave greater power to the clergy does not contradict this thesis. On the contrary one could argue that this move to increase the power of the clergy by declaring that only the clergy had the power to turn the bread and the wine of the Eucharist into the body and blood of Christ, only became necessary with the establishment of Transubstantiation. If the lay believer can consume the body and blood of Christ then he would have no need for a clergy unless that same body and blood could only be gotten through the intercession of the clergy. One could also argue that the adoration of the priesthood was itself part of this women’s spirituality. As Bynum suggests, women may have seen the act of the priest bringing forth the Eucharist as a woman giving birth.[2]

To take this a step further I would raise the possibility that women may have seen their priests, not as a part of the patriarchal hierarchy, but as emasculated men who were therefore, in a sense, women like themselves. Priests were men defined by their exclusion from the two activities most associated with the male gender, fighting and sex. Women, might have therefore, viewed their priests as men who had been made into women like themselves. I grant Elliott that the priests themselves may not have seen things in this matter. Most likely the clergy understood this female spirituality in ways that closely parallel Elliott. This in no way invalidates how women may have understood it.

The doctrine of Transubstantiation forced the Church into the difficult position of having to defend this doctrine. This led to the creation of the Inquisition and the thirteenth century crackdown on heretical groups such as the Cathars. The fact that such a campaign could succeed indicates that there was wide popular support for it. From this perspective the Inquisition becomes, rather than an attempt by the Church hierarchy to impose its will on society, but a manifestation of the Church hierarchy becoming ensnared by popular beliefs and forced to involve themselves with popular concerns. Since women made up half of the population and none of the Church hierarchy, much of popular medieval Christian beliefs came from them. This process reached a climax, in the fifteenth century with the rise of witch hunts. The charge of witchcraft arouse out of a distinctively women’s culture, which saw women as wielders of religious power, important enough to attract the attention of Satan.

[1] Elliott, Proving Woman pg. 182.
[2] See Bynum, Holy Feast, Holy Fast pg. 268.

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