Sunday, April 6, 2008

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

Voaden, Rosalynn. God’s Words, Women’s Voices: The Discernment of Spirits in the Writing of Late-Medieval Women Visionaries.

Rosalynn Voaden sees prophecy as representing one of the very few areas in which women could be empowered even within a patriarchal system such as the Church. This empowerment depended on having access to the discourses found in the formal Church structure. Educated women could form useful alliances with members of the Church hierarchy and could translate their experiences in ways that men would understand. In the texts that Voaden deals with, she finds evidence that these female visionaries “co-operated with the prevailing ideology in general, and with certain representatives thereof, in the persons of spiritual directors and scribes, in particular, thus participating in their own empowerment.”[1]

The focus of Voaden’s work is on the concept of discretio spirituum. This was a methodology developed by clerics in the later Middle Ages to differentiate between people acting under the influence of the Holy Spirit and those acting under the influence of the devil. There were seven signs. One, that the person led a virtuous life under the guidance of a proper spiritual director. Two, the vision should inspire the soul with an overwhelming love for God and reverence for the Church. Three, that the visionary should feel a deep inward understanding of the truth. Four, that that only true things are revealed to the visionary. Five, that the vision bore good fruits. Six, that the visionary should be able to predict the hour of their death. Seven, that posthumous miracles be performed. According to Voaden:

… the doctrine was, in effect, a discourse, developed and elaborated by ecclesiastical authorities, a discourse which provided both a vocabulary to articulate visionary experience and a set of criteria to evaluate the vision and the visionary. In addition, discretio spirituum supplied a pattern for self-fashioning which extended to behavior, demeanor and modes of expression. Familiarity with, and skill in, the discourse was a vital factor in the textual – and physical – survival of the visionary. Facility with discretio spirituum empowered medieval women visionaries and enabled them to fulfil[l] their divine mandate to communicate revelation.[2]

The majority of the book is devoted to a case study of two female visionaries, Bridget of Sweden and Margery Kempe and how they were received by the Church; Bridget of Sweden was successful at navigating the discourse of discretio spirituum, while Margery Kempe failed at it. Margery comes across, in her writing, as a very forceful and independent personality while Bridget of Sweden comes across as a blank cipher. As historians, we might find Margery Kempe’s work to be far more interesting and worthy of preservation than Bridget of Sweden’s work for precisely the same reasons why the Church did not approve of her and approved of Bridget of Sweden. Margery Kempe took a strongly independent role for herself; even though she attempted to gain the approval of the Church, she failed to hold on to a spiritual director. While she gained the respect of many ecclesiastical authorities, she constantly quarreled with her spiritual directors and hence could not hold on to one. Bridget of Sweden succeeded in maintaining the aid of Alfonso of Jaen, who went on to advocate for her canonization. Margery Kempe seems to have been fairly unlearned, particularly in matters related to discretio spirituum, while Bridget of Sweden was relatively well educated and, in particular, understood discretio spirituum. Margery Kempe’s visions tended to be more corporeal, while Bridget of Sweden’s visions were of an intellectual nature. Margery Kempe was a married woman, who had abandoned her husband for life as a wondering pilgrim. Furthermore she engaged in activities that seemed to veer rather closely to preaching. Bridget of Sweden, though she was originally married, became a nun after the death of her husband.

Despite the fact that Bridget of Sweden was portrayed by Alfonso of Jaen as a meek passive servant of the Church, her status as a visionary made a major power. Kings and popes alike heeded her advice. She involved herself in the Hundred Years Wars, supporting the English. She played a crucial role in bringing the papacy back to Rome from Avignon. She did live as a cloistered nun, but traveled about, working to create her own order of nuns, the Bridgettines.

Voaden offers a fascinating analysis of the specific cases of Margery Kempe and Bridget of Sweden. My problem with this work, though, is that Voaden does not offer a broader context for the material she deals with. This work does not discuss the situation of men; how did the Church apply discretio spirituum to men? This is crucial because if the Church handled men in the same manner then discretio spirituum ceases to be a women’s issue. At the end of the day I am not convinced that discretio spirituum was a coherent ideology that was ever put into practice by the Church. It is too vague. The two male theologians that Voaden deals with, Alfonso Jaen and Jean Gerson, are perfect examples of this. Alfonso Jaen wrote on discretio spirituum to promote the veneration of Bridget of Sweden. Jean Gerson wrote to argue against her canonization. Did their respective decisions have anything to do with Bridget’s success at handling the discourse of discretio spirituum? In the case of Jean Gerson it is clear that he opposed her in large part because she supported the English in the Hundred Years War.[3] In the end discretio spirituum would seem to have simply been a discourse to be used to justify whatever one was inclined to believe from the beginning. The most a female visionary could hope to do in order to navigate the discourse of discretio spirituum was to tie herself to the right clergymen and hope that he would come through for her.

[1] Voaden, God’s Words, Women’s Voices pg. 3.
[2] Ibid pg. 4.
[3] Jean Gerson would later go on to write a book defending Joan of Arc. This would suggest he was less motivated by misogyny or the technicalities of discretio spirituum than by politics. See Dyan Elliott, Proving Woman pg. 264-96.

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