Monday, April 7, 2008

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

John W. Coakley: Women, Men and Spiritual Power.

John Coakley in Women, Men and Spiritual Power, like Bell and Elliott, analyzes medieval female spirituality from a male centric point of view. Unlike Bell and Elliott, though, Coakley has a more positive view of the women involved; they are more than mere puppets hanging of their clergymen. In this sense Coakley serves as a useful bridge to Bynum’s position. Coakley focuses on how male clergymen looked at the female mystics in their charge and integrated them into their spiritual worldview. As with Voaden, Coakley sees the subjugated state of women in the later Middle Ages as ironically serving to empower them:

Yet the very exclusion of women from the realm of priestly authority ironically endowed them with a new significance outside it. For there were desirable aspects of Christian experience that the institutional authority could not guarantee to clerics and indeed often seemed to block them from: the deeply affective elements of faith, the Spirit that blows where it will, the immediate presence of God. These became the particular province of holy women. Precisely as the clerics claimed ecclesiastical authority over the women who by definition lacked it themselves, they tended to invest those women with the potential to symbolize, and to provide for them, even if only vicariously, what remained beyond that authority – what the men themselves wanted but found to lie beyond their grasp.[1]

Women, Men and Spiritual Power unfolds as a series of case studies of such relationships between female mystics and their male collaborators.

The first relationship that Coakley deals with is that of Elisabeth of Schonau (1129-1164) and her brother Ekbert (c. 1120-1184). Ekbert was careful to show his control over Elisabeth. He inserted himself into his writing. It is he who decides what should be revealed to others. Ekbert was concerned with theological matters and used Elisabeth as a research assistant of sorts to help him get answers from above. For example at one point he asks her if the Church father Origen was in Hell or not. Throughout the account of Elisabeth’s visions we find that the angels tell her to ask the learned doctors to explain to her what her visions mean. Elisabeth thus becomes a mere cipher, with which men of the Church could communicate with heaven.

Hildegard of Bingen and Guibert of Gembloux (c. 1125-1213) had a very different sort of relationship. Guibert was different than Ekbert in that Guibert did not put himself forth as the gatekeeper for Hildegard. Guibert only came into contact with Hildegard at the end of her life. For the most part she managed to operate outside the model of female visionary male confessor champion. Guibert serves merely to record Hildegard’s actions and is of no real consequence.

Coakley sees James of Vitry’s (1170-1240) vita of Mary of Oignies as the “first thoroughgoing attempt by the confident of a holy woman to explore the idea of her charismatic authority as something discrete from his own priestly authority.”[2] While Elliott viewed James’ portrayal of Mary of Oignies in terms of being a supporter of priests with her Eucharistic devotions, Coakley sees James as granting Mary a level of power parallel to that of a priest. She did not deal with doctrine rather she was given knowledge about specific individuals. This allowed her to aid priests by letting them know about the states of the souls of the people in their care. Elliott sees this role of aider to priests, cynically, as pawns of the priesthood. Coakley sees this as a sign of independent power.

The relationship between the Beguine Christine of Stommeln and the Dominican friar Peter of Dacia strongly paralleled that of James of Vitry and Mary Oignies. In Peter of Dacia we see a further development of the theme of separate authority:

He regards Christine’s supposed access to God as the object of a deep desire of his own that his theological studies have left unfulfilled. He considers himself to benefit from her experience vicariously through the devotion she elicited in him, which however also represents a sort of consolation prize, which has accepted in lieu of that greater object of his own desire. He presents Christine as possessing a greater grace than he has himself, a foretaste of glory that has eluded him but might have been his; and thus he explicitly roots his fascination with her in a sense of his own spiritual deficit.[3]

Peter seems to have interpreted Christine’s vision through the medium of bridal mysticism; he portrays her as experiencing the joyous rapture of being swept up in Christ. This theme does not appear in Christine’s own writing. Christine focused more on the suffering she underwent at the hands of demons. The demons would interrupt her prayers, tempt her to commit suicide, to deny Christ and turn the host into snake and toads. Ultimately the picture we get of Christine, from her own writings, is a much darker and from the perspective of orthodox theology, more problematic from how Peter described her.

The Memorial of Angela of Foligno by an anonymous Franciscan friar can be read as having two voices, Angela’s and the Franciscan’s. The Franciscan portrays Angela in the traditional trops, writing of her devotion to the passion, the Eucharist and her prophetic visions. When we come to Angela’s voice we find that she does address theological matters in her work. One is struck by the directness of her encounter with the very being of God. Angela interprets her own visions, which blurs the line between her authority as a visionary and the priestly authority.
She speaks ultimately from a sphere of authority that is her own as a charismatic visionary. As for the friar, he proclaims the experiences of Angela the visionary saint to be beyond his comprehension, while at the same time articulating the substance of these experiences to the reader in words whose inadequacy becomes permissible on the basis of what Angela the theologian says about the essential inexpressibility of the experiences.[4]

The relationship between Catherine of Siena and Raymond of Capua (1330-99) offers an excellent example of the final stage of evolution in the relationship between clergymen and female visionaries. Raymond consciously put himself forward as Catherine’s defender against those who doubted her prophecies or who questioned her refusal to eat. He is a witness to her life but is also an active partner in her labors. As Coakley sees it:

… Raymond shows himself acutely aware of the distinction between the institutional powers of clerics and the informal powers of holy women, and he explores the relationship between the two through the medium of his own personal experience, like those other writers but, ostensibly anyway, in a manner more precise and calculated than anything discussed so far.[5]

Coakley, like Elliott sees a downturn in the Church’s acceptance of female visionaries in the later part of the fourteenth century. The fact that Raymond had go as far as he did to defend Catherine’s sanctity demonstrates a growing skepticism on the part of the Church hierarchy. If the Church was beginning to show a greater level of interest in such women it was not in a way that boded well for them.

For Coakley, female visionaries and their priests held separate realms of power. While the priests had to place the informal authority these women claimed to posses within the context of their own authority, derived from the church structure, “the approach that was to prevail, rather, was one that treated the official authority of the man and the extraordinary charismatic authority of the woman as discrete entities: each appeared effective in its own right without trumping, or being trumped by, the other.”[6]

While Coakley does not see these male authored texts as being particularly useful for the understanding of how these women understood themselves, he does view these texts as offering a form of female empowerment. For Coakley:

… that idea [of female spiritual power] is not a mere solipsism or fantasy, nor is it merely a tool to subordinate the women to the men. It is rather an attempt to take seriously – to articulate the significance of and in this sense to imagine – what were, in their devotees’ view anyway, the real powers of the women. The men accomplished this by thinking in terms of partnerships that, to be sure, did not undermine clerical authority yet that also acknowledged and explored the limits of the authority.[7]

The male authors focus on what they lack. Women are seen as the other.

To speak, therefore, of an idea of female sanctity in the male-authored literature … is to speak not simply of the women’s virtues but also of an economy of powers in which both the women and their male collaborators have a part. The texts propose a picture of cooperation or partnership between monks or clerics on one hand and holy women on the other, and thus a productive interaction between the institutional and informal powers that were their respective domains.[8]

Despite the fact that there is little that is new in this book, Coakley does an excellent job of bringing together a wide range of issues to form one coherent whole. I find Coakley’s work to be superior to Voaden’s in that Coakley deals with more people and that offers a broader context with which to understand them, not just discretio spirituum. He presents the relationships that he deals with as being varied and complex. He does attempt to force his case studies into a particular model. Rather he allows them to speak for themselves.

[1] Coakley, Women, Men and Spiritual Power pg. 2-3.
[2] Ibid pg. 214.
[3] Ibid pg. 90.
[4] Ibid pg. 129.
[5] Ibid pg. 171.
[6] Ibid pg. 214.
[7] Ibid pg. 221.
[8] Ibid pg. 227.

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