Tuesday, April 8, 2008

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


There is a need, for scholarship, to separate the study of medieval women, from the modern day political issues that confront women. For me, this would mean that the study of medieval women could be carried in the same fashion as one would study medieval peasants, and merchants. In many respects the study of peasants and merchants could serve as a useful model for those who study women. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the study of peasants and merchants was hopelessly intertwined with the present day issues of Socialism, Capitalism and the rights of workers. Since then the field has matured. While the issues of Capitalism and the rights of workers have not gone away, it is possible to write about such issues in various historical contexts while completely divorcing what one writes from having anything to do with the modern incarnations of these issues. Medieval merchants and peasants were not proto-capitalists and proto-labor movements; they were their own entity and must be studying on their own terms.

Similarly, while I do not expect the issues of women’s empowerment and women’s spirituality to disappear, one should be able to write about medieval female visionaries in a way that is not a commentary on women’s empowerment and women’s spirituality in modern times. The women we have dealt with here were not some nascent women’s movement, waiting for the dawn of modernity to come out into the open. They existed within the context of late medieval Catholic theology; the issues they dealt with and their thought structures came from that world. To understood them we must remove ourselves from the equation and humbly and enter their world on their terms.

I would see the whole question whether or not female spirituality was a form of empowerment for women in the Middle Ages as a trap. The very wording of the question bespeaks of modern concerns. Today most historians would find the question of whether or not merchants in the Middle Ages demonstrated true class consciousness to be quant, silly and ultimately meaningless. It creates a false dichotomy in which one must choose between equating medieval merchants with moderns or creating straw-men out of them. The only intellectually honest response is to say that medieval merchants had a class consciousness, but not in the way that moderns would use the term; this effectively makes the term, and hence the whole question, meaningless. I would hope to see the day when the question of whether women were empowered or really created their own form of spirituality during the Middle Ages will be treated with the same scorn. To ask this question is to create a false dichotomy between saying that medieval women were like moderns or turning medieval women into straw-men for the prejudices of moderns. All one can say in response to such a question is that the whole issue of empowerment meant something very different for people in the Middle Ages, rendering the original question meaningless.

The question that should guide research is how does female spirituality fit into the larger narrative of the evolution of Christian thought in the later Middle Ages. The goal being to integrate medieval women into medieval intellectual history. One should not be able to get away with the traditional narrative of medieval religious history, going from Francis of Assisi and Bonaventure to Albert the Great and Thomas Thomas Aquinas to William of Ockham without talking about Hildegard of Bingen, Bridget of Sweden and Catherine of Siena. This has nothing to do with empowering women. This is a matter of our narrative of the Middle Ages being incomplete without them.

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