Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Time Magazine Article on Twilight

Time Magazine has an article out on Stephenie Meyer and the Twilight series. It has a nice analysis of Meyer’s style of writing and how it differs from that of J.K Rowling. While the author of the piece acknowledges that Twilight is not high literature he clearly respects Meyer as a writer and does not turn his nose down at her for writing "teen lit."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ben Stein’s War: A Review of Expelled

I am a practitioner of Orthodox Judaism and a believer in evolution. My view as to the role of religion and science has been heavily influenced by the work of Rabbi Natan Slifkin and Dr. Francis Collins. Because of this I am fairly hostile to intelligent design and its promoters. So I came into Ben Stein’s documentary, Expelled, with apprehension. I think Win Ben Stein’s Money was the greatest game show in the history of television, featuring Ben Stein’s dry wit and the spectacle of him putting his money where his mouth was, matching himself against the show’s wining contestants. I have tremendous respect for Ben Stein’s intelligence and the thought of him taking the stand on behalf of intelligent design was disconcerting to say the least.
Expelled is a film that will have a lot of people saying a lot of different things about it. Religious conservatives will likely declare it to be a stunning refutation of Darwinism and pretty much everyone else will see it as a pile of rubbish. Be careful about accepting at face value what you hear about this film; this is one of those films that one must see for oneself. The film is very open ended and one can imprint almost anything you want onto it; this is a weakness of the film, but also just might be its saving grace.

Judging just from the film, I am not certain were Ben Stein stands on the issue of intelligent design. He is clearly critical of what he sees as a Darwinian establishment that, from his point of view, has used strong arm tactics against all those who would dare to challenge Darwinian orthodoxy. Proponents of intelligent design are portrayed sympathetically as scientists who are the victims of a totalitarian Darwinian establishment, which seeks to quash all dissenters. This point is emphasized by frequent cuts to footage of the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. To be fair to Ben Stein he specifically denies that the theory of evolution caused the Holocaust. He just believes that evolution was a key enabling factor in the rise of the Nazis. Further than this I am not certain. Is Ben Stein an actual supporter of intelligent design or is he simply defending their right to dissent? For that matter what does Ben Stein mean when he uses the terms intelligent design and Darwinian evolution; does intelligent design mean that evolution came about through a creator and does Darwinian evolution mean that evolution happened without a designer?

This lack of clarity severally weakens the film, turning it into a hodgepodge of vague generalizations. We are given a parade of people representing either “Big Science” on the one hand or who are dissenters from it. The film never really clarifies what each of these people hold. I think the film would have benefited if each interviewees were asked if they believed in God and if so what sort of God they believed in and to what extent they were willing to accept the theory of evolution.

I believe that this film, despite itself, is useful precisely because it illustrates the problem that has plagued the whole debate over evolution, which unfortunately, all too often, has descended to rhetoric, vague generalizations and accusations. While Expelled has all of these same flaws, I did not find it to be mean spirited and Ben Stein, to his credit, conducts himself with a high level of class.

This ambiguity over what the intelligent design debate is supposed to be about plays itself out very nicely over the course of the film. In the film, the head of the Discovery Institute, which has spearheaded the intelligent design movement, denies that there is anything religious about his group’s work and that they are simply critical of certain elements of traditional Darwinism. Advocates of intelligent design claim that they are not arguing for the existence of God. Believing in some sort of High Power, might offer a solution to some of the issues they raise, but that is simply speculation and has nothing really to do with their work as scientists. On the other side, Richard Dawkins, one of the most outspoken opponents of intelligent design, when interviewed, is perfectly willing to acknowledge the possibility that life was seeded by some being of “higher intelligence,” but that this being must have also come into existence by some sort of naturalistic process. So what is everyone arguing about? I guess it is that intelligent design advocates claim that Darwin is flawed. But there are a lot of ongoing debates within the scientific community as to many of the details of evolution via natural selection, such whether it happened gradually or whether it happened through relatively sudden shifts. The advocates of intelligent design do not seem to be actually rejecting Darwinian evolution so what is all the fuss about?

Despite the fact that I disagree strongly with what I think the film is trying to say, Ben Stein still manages to be entertaining. Maybe this is just me trying to see the good in what Ben Stein has produced here, but I do think that he has accomplished something worthwhile.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Medieval Reading and Chaucer: A Review of Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France

Joyce Coleman’s book, Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France, is an attack on Orality/Literacy theory, that the technological shift from an oral to a literate culture was accompanied by a revolution in how mankind viewed the world, and in particular the work of Walter Ong. According to Ong western society evolved from an oral society toward a literate one through a number of stages. Western society started off in a state of primal orality, exemplified by Homer. As society evolved and literacy spread literary type thinking began to become more prominent. That being said “oral” residues remained. An example of this is the prominent role during the Middle Ages of oral reading, reading texts out loud, either to oneself or to others. The move to silent reading marked one of the final transitions into the literate society and hence to the birth of modernity. An oral mode of thinking focuses on tradition and the community. The bard of an oral society passes on traditional narratives to his community. Even in terms of language, there is an emphasis on repetitiveness and the familiar. Within such a system there is no space for critical analysis nor is there any space for an individual. Even under the model of oral reading, which dominated the classical and medieval periods, which had written texts, the act of reading was still a communal affair that served to strengthen the cause of tradition and left no room for the individual. Literacy allows for man to take a critical view of himself and the world around him and hence allows for the rise of rationalism. The silent reader has a personal relationship to the text that is not bound by the authority of community and tradition. Coleman objects to this paradigm because it treats the Middle Ages as one static period and fails to take into account the sifts within society that occurred. Moreover, when historians attempt to locate this mysterious sift from orality to literacy they come up with different periods. Did this shift occur during the Carolingian period with the scholarly circle surrounding the court of Charlemagne? Was it in the twelfth century with the rise of scholasticism and the medieval university? Did the literate society come into being as a result of the cultural changes of the fourteenth century? Did orality survive even the rise of the printing press? Above all Coleman sees the discussion of orality versus literacy as being hopelessly entrapped in a progressive view of history. Man is supposed to have progressed from the primitive mode of orality to literacy, which allowed for the rise of modern rational man. For Coleman, an oral mode of communication is in no way inferior to a literate mode. The decision to switch to a literate mode does not imply that one has become more sophisticated or that one is all of a sudden more capable of engaging in the rational inquiry into the nature of man and the universe. Coleman presents medieval literacy as being aural based; that people read aloud either to themselves or to others even when they could do otherwise because they preferred hearing texts. Aurality serves Coleman as a bridge between the oral and literate society. By talking about aurality she avoids the pitfall of having to deal with different “rises” of the literate society. Coleman offers examples of different types of aurality that differ from each other not in a progressive sense but merely pragmatically. There were different types of readers who read for different purposes. The recreational reader, the religious, and the professional reader might in different situations have read silently to themselves or had someone read to them. Having a text read out loud did not imply any lack of literacy on the part of the listener. Running through the book and tying it all together is an analysis of Chaucer. Chaucer has traditionally served as an example of the rise of a silent reader. At various points in his famous Canterbury Tales, and his less well-known work such as Troilus and Criseyde, talks about reading and addresses himself to a reader. This has traditionally been interpreted as Chaucer writing with the assumption that his work would be read by privately by an individual. The fact that Chaucer also talks about people listening to stories is brushed aside as Chaucer giving a nod to traditional forms of narrative. Coleman rejects this interpretation of Chaucer and offers her own analysis of Chaucer using her theory of aurality. According to her reading of Chaucer, when he talks about a reader he is referring to someone either reading his work aloud to a group or someone having his work read to him. This reading of Chaucer has the advantage over more traditional readings in that it takes into account his references to the telling over of his work and the reading of it. While I agree with Coleman’s main argument, that orality not a deficiency, and I find her analysis of Chaucer to be quite interesting, I do not think that her argument about aurality marks a real break with Orality/Literacy theory. She has overplayed the groundbreaking nature of her work by creating a straw-man out of Orality/Literacy theory in general and of Ong in particular. I do not read Ong as rejecting any of Coleman’s major assertions. Ong was not trying to create a ranking system between orality and literacy. On the contrary, by analyzing orality he was trying to present an oral mode of thinking as an equally valid alternative to a literary mode. In the end Coleman does not deny that the rise of mass literacy affected how people thought and Ong is not advocating a progressive understanding of history.

Friday, April 11, 2008

A Slightly Polemical Discourse Which I, For Good Reason, Left Out of My Eulogy for My Grandfather.

Last November there was a major dinner in honor of my grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Chinn of Blessed Memory. The dinner was held in a hotel in downtown Pittsburgh and people came from across the country to pay their respects to my grandfather. In attendance were many city officials and civic leaders, the vast majority of whom were not Jewish. In short, it was a beautiful though not the sort of event you would expect to be hosted for an Orthodox rabbi who spent his life avoiding the spotlight. The guest speaker for this event was Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky. This was a great honor as Rabbi Kamenetsky is the head of a prominent Yeshiva in Philadelphia and is recognized as one of the leading Haredi rabbis, a Godel. Also, it should be said that Rabbi Kamenetsky is a busy man so the fact that he came was incredibly kind of him.

Rabbi Kamenetsky gave a speech built around a story found in the Mishna in which Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma refused to live in a specific city, even when offered great wealth, with the reply: "Even if you give me all the silver and gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I will dwell only in a place of Torah..." (Pirqai Avot 6:9) Rabbi Kamenetsky used this story to talk about building cities devoted to Torah. He spoke well but in Yeshivish English. It was the sort of speech that would not have been out of place in a gathering of Yeshiva students. I suspect that Rabbi Kamenetsky has, in fact, given versions of this same exact speech to his students. Despite Rabbi Kamenetsky’s talent as a speaker, the speech went on for more than a half an hour, stretching my patience.

After the dinner, to my shock, my father commented that the speech was inappropriate considering the audience, as a large percentage of them were not Yeshiva students, not Orthodox and not Jewish. My father then proceeded to commiserate with those people there who were forced to listen to a speech that they could not have understood and must have made absolutely no sense to them. My father is one who will usually go out of the way to defend the Haredi world so to see him be more critical of something than I warmed my heart.

I think this incident is useful in that it demonstrates how clueless Rabbi Kamenetsky is when it comes to the world at large. And Rabbi Kamenetsky is usually held up as an example of a Haredi Rabbi who is moderate and open. He had no idea how to speak to an audience that was not Yeshiva students. I can do a better job at changing how I speak based on my audience and I have Asperger Syndrome. My brain, at a basic level, processes information differently than normal people. The only difficulty Rabbi Kamenetsky has to work under is that he is from a different socio-religious group. Of course, a mark of a great intellect is the ability to cross over such divides and reach people from different backgrounds.

The difference here is that I have spent a lifetime being told that I have to consider the social conventions of the society around me. I may earnestly resist this but, at the end of the day, I do make the attempt to work within societal conventions, particularly when it is clearly in my interest to do so. Rabbi Kamenetsky, it would seem, has spent his life being toadied to by those around him and has never had to seriously consider the general society at all. In the end what we have is a person who, despite his great intellect, is unable to communicate with anyone outside his narrow group even when given the chance.

The Haredi world likes to claim for itself the authority over, not just Orthodox Jewry, but all Jews. They wrap their leaders in the mantel of Gedolei Yisroel, the great ones of Israel. The fact that they claim this should obligate them to at least be able to give a coherent speech in the language of the country they live in that can be understood by the people of the country they live in. Since Rabbi Kamenetsky cannot be bothered to live up to this simple standard why should anyone, Orthodox or not Orthodox, even make the attempt to listen to what he has to say?

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.

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 confidant 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 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 latter part of the fourteenth century. The fact that Raymond had gone 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.

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.

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.

Friday, April 4, 2008

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

Caroline Walker Bynum: Holy Feast and Holy Fast.

In contrast to Bell’s psychoanalytical explanation for the attitude toward food displayed by certain medieval women, Bynum attempts to approach the issue from the perspective of the medieval world view. Clearly the women who starved themselves did not see themselves as merely trying to gain more control over their lives in the face of a patriarchal existence; they saw themselves as good Christians, acting in accordance with Christian theology or at least their understanding of Christian theology. This then becomes an opportunity for Bynum to reconstruct the theology of women in the late Middle Ages; one built around food, fasting and the Eucharist.

Unlike Bell, who views asceticism as being separate from food, Bynum views food and fasting as being intrinsically linked to each other, rejecting the dichotomy between eating and fasting; they are all part of one continual narrative, Christ suffering in order to bring about the salvation of the world. Of course men, during this time period, also identified themselves with Christ’s humanity and enacted his suffering. Women, though, approached the issue differently from men in that women viewed this through the particular lens of their experience as women. Women, unlike men, give birth to children and nurse them. Their bodies bring forth life and sustain it; their very bodies are food. Women in the later Middle Ages saw the narrative of Christ’s birth and death in this light. The human Christ came out of the body of Mary. He is the food which the faithful literally eat. The priest bringing forth the Eucharist could be a woman bringing forth a child. Christ bleeding from the lance in his side could be a woman giving forth milk from her breast.

Since women represent the flesh, women could represent the human side of Christ particularly since Christ’s physical side came from Mary. By doing this women could turn the traditional “misogynistic” paradigm on its head. Women might be carnal, sinful and irrational, but these very attributes could give them a special relationship to God, unattainable even by priests. If women are carnal then so much the better for identifying with Christ’s humanity. If they are sinful then so much the better for identifying with Christ’s redemption. If they are irrational than so much the better for transcending the bounds of reason and comprehending God.

The other side of the image of Christ as the food that nourishes the world is his suffering on the Cross. According to Christian theology, Christ gave his very flesh to bring nourishment to the world. Women imitated this by giving over their bodies. Bynum argues that, while men also fasted, it is in the vitae of female saints that food becomes a central motif. You see women who become saints because of their fasts or because they live off of the Eucharist. With men fasting is incidental. Francis of Assisi fasted, but his fasting is seen in terms of his embodiment of the poor and naked Christ. For women the issue was food. Saints such as Christina the Astonishing and Lutgard, because of their fasting, exuded oil, in one case from her breasts and in the other case from her fingertips.[1] Catherine of Siena nourished herself by drinking the puss from the body of a sick woman.[2] Bynum makes a big deal out of the fact that the main manifestation of women abstaining from food was their living solely off of the Eucharist. This is crucial to her attack on Bell. Bell does not deal with the issue of the Eucharist. For Bynum the whole issue of fasting is linked to Eucharist devotion and makes no sense without it.

While Bynum criticizes Bell for reading the problem of anorexia nervosa back onto medieval women, she believes that the fasting of medieval women may shed light on how to handle anorexia nervosa. As Bynum sees it, the problem with modern psychological views of anorexia nervosa is that:

… they do not take seriously the symbols used in women’s experience or the ideologies formulated about it, they have cut the phenomenon of refusal to eat off from its context of food-related behavior. Moreover, they have neglected female attitudes toward suffering and generativity. Yet one suspects such attitudes to be part of the context in which modern girls, as well as medieval ones, view both bodies and food.[3]

While Bynum states quite emphatically that she does not wish to return to the Middle Ages or bring back medieval notions of piety, she believes the medieval world as possessed a far richer understanding of symbols:

Medieval people saw food and body as sources of life, repositories of sensation. Thus food and body signified generativity and suffering. Food, which must be destroyed in order to give life, and body, which must be torn in order to give birth, became synonymous; in identifying themselves with both, women managed to give meaning to a physical, human existence in which suffering was unavoidable. …
In contrast, modern people see food and body as resources to be controlled. Thus food and body signify that which threatens human mastery. They signify the untamed, the rebellious, the excessive, the proliferating. … Breasts are not, to modern people, symbols of food. The onset of puberty is not an occasion for rejoicing by an adolescent girl or her parents. Menstruation is less a prelude to creativity and affectivity than a frightening sign of vulnerability. Body and food are thus symbols of the failure of our efforts to control our selves.

Underlying Bynum’s work is a desire to save the Middle Ages, or at least the female part of it, from being dismissed by moderns as a dark pit of patriarchy, misogyny and sexism. In dealing with medieval patriarchy one can all too easily be led into the simplistic assumption that men had power and were viewed as the superior ones while women lacked power and were viewed as inferior. Traditional scholarship has assumed that women in the Middle-Ages, having accepted the misogyny of the patriarchal society around them, hated their bodies and punished them through fasting and self mutilation. In contrast to prevailing views, Bynum argues that women were not aping clerical power; rather they were creating an alternative role for themselves. Inspiration served as a counterweight to clerical ordination. The focus on the suffering of Christ countered Christ the High Priest.

Women’s adoration of the Eucharist could be used as a form of female power. Take the example of Lidwina, who, so her vita claims, could tell that her priest was offering her unconsecrated communion.[5] What we have here is a model for women to be able to challenge the male priesthood from within the paradigm of Christian theology itself.

Bynum’s attempt to rehabilitate medieval women and give them their own voices is dependent on the assumption that these women really were creating their own religious vision and not simply internalizing the views of male theologians. Bynum seeks to accomplish this by arguing that this trend toward fasting found amongst women went against the general trend within the church toward moderation. I find this description of the later Middle Ages to be too simplistic. Furthermore her need to claim that the female spirituality she deals with was something feminine does not allow her to fully explore the context in which this spirituality occurred. While this is a fascinating work, which I find to be completely convincing in its overall argument, I believe that this book would have been even stronger if Bynum had made a serious attempt to integrate the theology of her holy women into general late medieval views on the humanity of Christ. This female spirituality could be seen as another dimension of the veneration of Christ’s humanity, one that cannot be ignored by scholarship.

[1] See Bynum, Holy Feast Holy Fast pg. 122-23.
[2] Ibid pg. 171-72.
[3] Ibid pg. 207.
[4] Ibid pg. 300.
[5] Ibid 127-28.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

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

Rudolph Bell: Holy Anorexia

In Holy Anorexia Rudolph Bell offers a psychoanalytical analysis of the phenomenon of extreme fasting in the vita of Christian holy women. This work is based on the case studies of 170 women recognized as saints, blessed, venerables or servants of God who lived from 1200 to the present in Italy. More than half of them displayed what Bell would classify as anorexia. Bell makes the highly provocative comparison between medieval women fasting, holy anorexia, and the relatively modern phenomenon of anorexia nervosa.[1] Anorexia nervosa is a psychological disorder disproportionally affecting upper class teenage and young adult white women. Its chief symptoms are that the affected person takes an extreme interest in dieting and losing weight. This results in the person abhorring food and refusing to eat. When forced to eat the person will simply regurgitate what they ate. If not treated, the person is likely to starve to death.

While Bell makes use of Freud, who understood anorexia nervosa as a food/sex oral fixation, Bell’s understanding of anorexia is based primarily on the work of Hilde Bruch. According to Bruch, anorexia nervosa gives women autonomy and a sense of identity. The act of engaging in anorexic behavior can be seen as a dialectic between the desire for control and the meekness in which the girl was raised. The girl has a desire for control but feels guilty about it. The result is that she acts out her desire for control through the construction of meekness and obedience:

Now she will excel, in an intensely personal contest of her choice, over her feelings and drives. She will be an individual, not a daughter or a pupil. She does not seek to goad her parents into opposing her and resorts to silence, deception, secretiveness, and outright lying to avoid having them enter her contest, her world. Good girl that she is, she goes willingly to the doctor, very calmly explains that nothing is wrong, and dutifully agrees to do just as he says. She refuses rewards for eating heartily and willingly accepts punishments for leaving too much on her plate. In the bathroom she practices sticking her fingers down her throat and regurgitating quietly, so that no one will be disturbed.[2]

Bell wishes to draw certain parallels to female ascetics. He portrays Catherine of Siena as a young virginal anorectic whose behavior eventually killed her. Veronica Giuliani is the recovered anorectic and Angela of Foligno is the anorectic who married and had children:

In both instances [holy anorexia and anorexia nervosa] anorexia begins as the girl fastens onto a highly valued societal goal (bodily health, thinness, self-control in the twentieth century/spiritual health, fasting, and self-denial in medieval Christendom). Her peers, and especially her parents, pursue this goal with only marginal success, more often than not honoring it only in the breach. She, by contrast, emerges from a frightened, insecure, psychic world superficially veiled by her outwardly pleasant disposition to become a champion in the race for (bodily/spiritual) perfection. Her newly won self-esteem and confidence initially receive the approbation of those she depends upon – parents, teachers, counselors – causing her to deepen her self-denial pattern until it takes over as the only source of her sense of self. Anorexia becomes her identity, and ultimately the self-starvation pattern continues beyond her conscious control.[3]

For Bell the moral, in the cases of both medieval holy anorexics and modern suffers of anorexia nervosa, is that ultimately these women are not in control of their lives. The very act of fasting is itself a submission to the demands of the outside world. For modern anorexics that outside world is that of a secular middle class. For medieval women that outside world was the Christian patriarchy of the Church.

One could argue that several of the people that Bell refers to were older than the usual age for anorexics. For example, Angela of Foligno was nearly forty when she began her career as a visionary. Also Bell seems to automatically assume that whenever any of these women died young it was because of anorexia. It was quite common for people, during the Middle Ages, to die young. There were lots of ways for this to happen without the recourse to anorexia. My real problem with Bell is that his work is built on the assumption that it is possible to understand extreme asceticism amongst European women in the later Middle Ages outside of the context of late medieval Catholicism. If these women really were no different than modern day anorexics then the fact that they, or the men who wrote their vitas, chose to formulate their situation within the context of late medieval Catholic theology is of incidental interest at best. In this sense Bell’s work is highly ahistorical.

Despite the basic flaws inherent within the very premise of the book, Bell manages to produce a credible work of scholarship. This is a line of scholarship that probably had to be pursued, if for no other reason then so it could be put to rest. I do not believe that anyone could have framed this issue in a better way than how Bell did it.

[1] The first recording case is from late the seventeenth century.
[2] Bell, Holy Anorexia pg. 18.
[3] Ibid pg. 20.

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

(This is a paper that I wrote for a course I took this past quarter. Since the issues that I deal with in this paper are things that I deal with here on Izgad I have decided to put this paper up as a series of posts.)

Christianity is generally looked upon as a patriarchal religion. Christians believe that God came down in the form of a man, Jesus of Nazareth, and died to save mankind from Original Sin, which was brought about by a woman, Eve. While women appear in various Gospel stories and it would seem that Jesus possessed female followers, Jesus’ apostles were all men. It was to men that Jesus gave the authority to preach his word and to cast out demons.[1] The primary books of Christianity, the New Testament and the writings of the Church fathers, were written by men. The Church excluded women from its leadership.[2] Paul forbade women to preach, saying that: “The women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they should be subject, even as the law also says. But if they desire to learn anything, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is a shame for a woman to speak in the church.”[3] Not only were women shut out of the Church hierarchy, they were also viewed as sources of sin. Women, as the bearers of the legacy of Eve and Original Sin,[4] were viewed as more earthly, less rational and, if left unchecked, likely to corrupt men.

That being said women, throughout the history of Christianity, left their mark on the Church. Women played a leading role in spreading the Christian faith. Christian women were venerated as saints and martyrs.[5] During the latter Middle Ages we see numerous examples of female religious leaders, and movements. Women such as Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373) and Catherine of Siena (1347-80) took on highly public roles, daring to criticize the Church hierarchy. The source for this power lay in the belief that women possessed a special relationship with Christ, manifesting itself in prophetic visions, their personal identification with the Passion and their adoration of the Eucharist. This raises the question as to the extent these things can be viewed as part of a female Christianity. Were the female spiritual movements of the later Middle Ages an expression of a unique feminine understanding of Christianity or were these movements simply reflections of the male Church hierarchy.

In this paper I will be looking at five books that deal with this issue from different perspectives. Rudolph Bell’s Holy Anorexia and Dyan Elliott’s Proving Woman take a male centric view on these movements, seeing them as reflecting male ideas. In contrast to this, I offer Caroline Bynum’s Holy Feast, Holy Fast, who analyzes these movements from a more female centric point of view and argues that these movements came out of a distinctively feminine view of the world. Finally I offer Rosalyn Voaden’s God’s Words, Women’s Voices and John W. Coakley’s Women, Men and Spiritual Power, who view these movements as part of an ongoing dialogue of the female visionaries and the clergymen who followed them.

[1] See Luke 9:1-2. Also see Matthew 28:19 and Mark 16:15.
[2] The discovery of non-canonical gospels and Gnostic literature has shown us that the early Church was far more open to women than previously thought. These texts did not play any role in medieval thought. As this paper is concerned with the Middle Ages, it is the patriarchal tradition in Christianity that we most deal with.
[3] I Corinthians 14:34-35 (Recovery Version)
[4] See I Timothy 2:14
[5] See Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg’s Forgetful of Their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society CA. 500-1100.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Blog for my Grandfather

My cousin, Bat-Zion Landesman, has just started a blog, http://rabbichinn.blogspot.com/, to collect stories and pictures of my grandfather. Anyone who knew him is free to post on this blog.