Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 98 (December1999): 37-44.
Catherine of Siena. By Giuliana Cavallini, O.P. Cassell Academic. 163 pp. $60 cloth, $21.50 paper.
The Flowing Light of the Godhead. By Mechthild of Magdeburg. Translated and introduced by Frank Tobin. Paulist. 373 pp. $34.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.
Joan of Arc: Her Story. By Regine Pernoud and Marie–Veronique Clin. Translated and revised by Jeremy Duquesnay Adams. St. Martin’s. 304 pp. $27.95.
Roses, Fountains, and Gold: The Virgin Mary in History, Art, and Apparition. By John Martin. Ignatius. 265 pp. $14.95 paper.
Saints’ Lives and the Rhetoric of Gender: Male and Female in Merovingian Hagiography. By John Kitchen. Oxford University Press. 255 pp. $49.95.
Teresa of Ávila and the Politics of Sanctity. By Gillian T. W. Ahlgren. Cornell University Press. 188 pp. $39.95.
Whether a Christian Woman Should Be Educated and Other Writings from Her Intellectual Circle. By Anna Maria van Schurman. Edited and translated by Joyce L. Irwin. University of Chicago Press. 148 pp. $35 cloth, $16 paper.
Women and Spiritual Equality in Christian Tradition. By Patricia Ranft. St. Martin’s. 307 pp. $39.95.
Women in the Days of the Cathedrals. By Regine Pernoud. Translated and adapted by Anne Cote–Harriss. Ignatius. 266 pp. $17.95 paper.
What to do about the female saints? Arriving at an acceptable consensus regarding the holy women of Christianity has been a persistent problem for feminist theologians. The first wave of the women’s movement tended to take a disparaging stance toward the nuns, lay spinsters, wives, mothers, queens, widows, repentant courtesans, and martyrs whom the official Church had canonized, deeming them if not downright neurotic, then at the very least the daddy’s girls of the religious power structure, rewarded with halos for their passivity and deference to their male betters. In her widely read 1986 book Alone of All Her Sex, Marina Warner typically reinterpreted the Virgin Mary as a consummate creature of patriarchy whose incompatible virtues of chastity and maternity could not be imitated by real–life women but could be used as sticks by men for beating them into submission. Nonetheless, Warner, like Henry Adams before her, could not help being overwhelmed by the abundance and sheer beauty of the art, architecture, music, and literature created in the name of the Theotokos over the centuries (it is Notre Dame Cathedral, after all, that still rules Paris), so her book turned out to be only half a polemic against patriarchy. The other half read like a reprise of The Virgin and the Dynamo.
Furthermore, women scholars, led by Caroline Walker Bynum, the Columbia University historian (and believing Christian) who is one of the leading medievalists of the late twentieth century, quickly discovered that the female saints and Christian mystics were actually powerful figures who wielded surprising influence over men despite their secondary social status. (Bynum, for example, has demonstrated that it was women who spearheaded the rise of devotion to the Eucharist and other Catholic spiritual practices previously held to have been rammed down the throats of the laity by the male clergy.) We have feminism to thank, and justly so, for the academic cottage industry that has grown up around such previously little–known mystics as St. Hildegard of Bingen and the medieval sub–saints Julian of Norwich and Margery Kemp.
Unfortunately, ideology is often the universal solvent in this new blend of feminism and hagiography. Many of the studies portray their female subjects either as postmodern "subversives" intent on undermining all–pervasive male hegemony, or else as adepts in a sort of "women’s way of knowing" how to be holy. The assumption behind the latter theory is that male saints tend to focus individualistically on their own spiritual progress, while other–directed females practice charity and identify with social outcasts: Augustine of Hippo versus Dorothy Day.
Teresa of Ávila and the Politics of Sanctity, by Gillian T. W. Ahlgren, a theology professor at Xavier University, is of the subversive school—sad to say, for Ahlgren deeply admires her subject. Teresa (1515–1582), a Spanish Carmelite nun (she took the religious name Teresa de Jesus), monastic reformer, and prolific writer, is one of the best loved of Catholic women saints and possibly the most brilliant, rivaled in intellect only by her fellow Carmelite of this century, the recently canonized Edith Stein. Like Stein, Teresa’s well–to–do Castilian family were converts from Judaism—conversos—and their lot was not an easy one, as all non–converting Jews had been expelled from Spain only twenty–three years before Teresa’s birth, and the conversos who stayed behind tended to be objects of unwelcome attention from the Inquisition.
Teresa entered the Carmelite order at about age twenty. In those days, and for several centuries afterwards in the Old and New Worlds, many Spanish convents were essentially pious group homes for the unmarriageable daughters, and those not interested in marriage, of the upper crust. The wealthier nuns lived comfortably (keeping themselves busy with fine needlework and using the convent’s poorer nuns as their cooks, gardeners, and housemaids), entertained guests (including men) freely, had access to their own property, and even wore jewelry with their habits.
Teresa was serious about her religious vocation, but she suffered from poor health and was no more than conventionally pious until she was about forty years old, when she had a mystical experience while praying before a statue of Christ. It was the first of many episodes of ecstatic trance, including the mystical piercing of her heart by divine love that the famous Bernini statue memorializes. She started writing about her experiences, turning out hundreds of letters and numerous books, including her own Vida, or autobiography. She had no education to speak of—that is to say, she knew no Latin except what she had heard in church—but she wrote in lively demotic Spanish laced with humor and frankness. She began to pray alone for long periods of time, to fast severely, and to wear under her clothing penitential cilicios, or "disciplines"—barbed armlets and waistbands that wounded and infected the flesh.
At the same time, Teresa became determined to restore the Carmelite order to its original strict form, the form in which she herself had come to live, in which the nuns embraced poverty and hardship, cloistered themselves from the outside world, and spent long hours daily in mental prayer. Starting in 1562, when she was nearly fifty, she traveled the length and breadth of Spain establishing some seventeen houses of "discalced," or barefoot, Carmelites dedicated to arduous living. It was not an easy task, for the new convents typically lacked the wealthy endowments of their "calced" counterparts, and Teresa and her nuns often lived humbly in fact as well as in spirit. Her influence spread to the male branch of the Carmelite order, which began its own reforms under her mystic contemporary St. John of the Cross. Teresa had a rare gift for combining rigorous asceticism and intense spirituality with rugged practicality, high–spirited determination, and a bottomless reservoir of charm. When she was not rapt in ecstasy in her cell, she was dazzling readers with her writings, or in the convent kitchen cooking for the sisters. Nuestra santa madre was the title she bore among male and female admirers alike.
As Ahlgren’s admirably researched monograph (her archival sources include the unpublished writings of some of Teresa’s nuns) indicates, Teresa was also a controversial figure. The calced Carmelites tried to thwart her reform movement—but her worst problems derived from her status as a mystic, particularly as a female mystic, claiming direct inspiration from God. At the time of her birth, Spain abounded with charismatic holy women, known as beatas, some affiliated with religious orders, some lay, who dedicated themselves to lives of prayer, reporting visions and mystical experiences. Many beatas became spiritual fixtures of their communities, their homes turning into local shrines visited by men and women alike seeking counsel, and even the beatas’ own priest–confessors sometimes deferred to them in matters of spiritual guidance.
Official Catholicism has always taken a cautious, even oppositional, stance toward mystical experience and claims of direct divine inspiration, especially in cases where the mystics have insisted that what they learned in their private revelations superseded Church law and authority. Furthermore, some of the beatas had aligned themselves with an early sixteenth–century Spanish movement later condemned as heresy and known as the alumbrados ("enlightened ones"), who viewed themselves, rather like the Gnostics of early Christianity, as a spiritual elite entitled to bypass the sacramental participation and good works required of ordinary believers.
At the same time in Germany and Geneva, Luther and Calvin were averring in a different way that the Church’s mediation between the individual Christian and God was largely unnecessary. The Counter–Reformation, whose aim was to stanch such Protestant sentiments, was particularly hard on mystics and encouraged women to enter convents rather than pursue sanctity on their own. As a conversa, Teresa was already open to suspicion, and starting in the 1570s, when she was well on in years, her writings became the subject of six separate investigations by the Inquisition, although she was never charged with heresy and her books were not censored. She felt obliged to assure her readers over and over of her loyalty to the Church and its institutions—that "obedience gives strength," as she declared. She often wrote humbly of her "weak nature" that Christ himself had fortified.
However, Ahlgren’s analysis of Teresa’s writings does not stop with the observation that there was an element of shrewdness as well as sincerity in her disarming openness about the state of her soul. Like many other feminist commentators, Ahlgren makes some perfectly valid points and then overdoes them. In Ahlgren’s view, institutional religion, Counter–Reformation Catholicism in particular, is mostly a Feuerbachian superstructure masking and also furthering men’s efforts via culture and politics to keep their women in line, to exert "controls . . . over women who aspired to holiness," as Ahlgren writes.
Viewed through Ahlgren’s heavily smoked ideological lenses, convents are prisons, humility is no virtue (the Virgin Mary receives the usual feminist drubbing here), and Teresa’s protestations of unworthiness and her submission to Church authority were entirely spurious, "rhetorical strategies" aimed at presenting herself as "inoffensive in a time and culture that found esoteric religious experience threatening and that firmly denied that a woman could embody such religious authority."
A little of this heavy–handed reductionism goes a long way, and in the end, Ahlgren’s argument is not particularly convincing. She ignores, for example, the male mystic John of the Cross’ far more serious troubles with the Inquisition. Furthermore, the supposedly misogynistic Catholic Church started canonization proceedings for Teresa in 1591, a mere five years after her death, and less than thirty years after that—a blink of an eye for the slow–moving Vatican—she had the official status of saint. (Ahlgren maintains that her canonization might have been pushed through in order to boost the tourist business at Ávila, and that Teresa’s hagiographers bowdlerized her biography for public consumption—well, maybe.)
John Kitchen’s Saints’ Lives and the Rhetoric of Gender promises by its title to be yet another dreary ideological dissection of the processes that create female saints. Those ominous postmodern buzzwords "rhetoric" and "gender" are not encouraging, and this densely written, academic jargon–filled monograph reads like the warmed–over doctoral dissertation (from the University of Toronto) that it is. Unlike Ahlgren, who writes gracefully and tries to put Teresa into a cultural context, Kitchen does not bother to provide any background information about his topic, women saints of the Merovingian period. The nonspecialist reader, who may not quite remember who the Merovingians were (the Frankish kings who ruled France and its environs during the three centuries before Charlemagne’s era) and to whom such worthies as Dagobert II and Childeric III are not household names, needs more help than Kitchen gives. One has to look elsewhere for even the sketchiest curriculum vitae on St. Radegund (518–587), the Frankish queen and abbess whose two Latin biographies, one written by her friend the poet and bishop Venantius Fortunatus and the other by a nun in her convent named Baudonivia, are the chief subject of Kitchen’s book.
Despite all this, Kitchen has written an important book that anyone interested in Christian attitudes toward women should take the trouble to wade through. He takes on, and convincingly refutes, the second school of feminist hagiography mentioned above, the school that views female sanctity as a maternal, people–person alternative to the supposedly preening and asceticism–oriented ideal of male sainthood. Kitchen’s book also serves as a useful counterbalance to the subversive school of writing about female saints that Ahlgren’s monograph represents. But first, a few words about Radegund herself.
Although she is little known in America, whose Catholicism is culturally Irish, St. Radegund was for many centuries one of the most popular holy women in the European lands where the Franks put their stamp: throughout Central Europe, up into Norman England (where she was a patron saint of Cambridge University’s Jesus College), and down into Italy. Daughter of a Thuringian king assassinated by his own brother, she was married at age twelve to the Frankish king Clothar I, some thirty years her senior, after the latter raided Thuringia, kidnapped her, and carried her back to France as part of the booty.
Such shockingly early, essentially forced, marriages to much older husbands, as well as bloody internecine combat with women as the war–prizes, were ordinary occurrences in the lives of the semi–barbarian Northern European royalty. Some of the cradle–robbing kings were nominally Christian (Clothar’s father, Clovis I, had been baptized a Catholic only a generation earlier), but like many a present–day celebrity, they flouted the Church’s marriage laws and practiced polygamy, serial and otherwise, just as they had done in pagan times, sowing putative heirs like winter wheat on the northern soil. (Radegund’s nuns would later include the legitimate and illegitimate offspring of more than one Frankish pretender.)
Radegund was one of at least seven wives and steady concubines in Clothar’s household over the years, and she may well not have been the only woman he called wife during their union. She put up with Clothar, who taunted her for her childlessness and was repeatedly unfaithful to her despite her fairy–tale princess beauty. She devoted herself to the Church, to which she had recently converted, and to the poor, who idolized her. According to her biographers, she dedicated herself to securing freedom for prisoners (one need only imagine the conditions in medieval jails), and she founded a leprosy hospital where she herself often changed the lepers’ dressings and kissed their sores.
Radegund finally left her husband after he murdered her brother. She took the veil over Clothar’s ferocious opposition, which included the intimidation of several bishops (when one prelate demurred at consecrating her, she put on a habit, strode up to the altar, and dared him not to make her a nun) and a failed abduction aimed at returning her to court. She finally succeeded in establishing her own monastery at Poitiers (paid for by a repentant Clothar), one of the first "double," or mixed–sex religious houses in which men as well as women reported to her as abbess. The rule that Radegund adopted for her nuns required them to learn Latin and to spend at least two hours a day in study. Although the convent was strictly "enclosed"—shut off from the outside world, including most visitors—Venantius Fortunatus corresponded regularly in Latin verse with Radegund and another nun and sent them flowers.
At the same time, Radegund was having intense mystical experiences in her cell and was subjecting herself to a series of fleshly mortifications so violent and so subliminally erotic—binding her body with chains and branding her breasts with a red–hot brass plate bearing an image of Christ—that, as Kitchen points out, most modern–day hagiographers delicately skip over the details. She took on the lowliest chores in the convent, cleaning the privy and shining the sisters’ shoes, and she personally fed, bathed, and handed out new clothes to the hordes of beggars who were fixtures at every medieval monastery.
The parallels between Radegund’s saintly career as narrated by her Dark Age admirers and Teresa’s as narrated by herself and her contemporaries a thousand years later are striking: the urbane literacy, the authority over men, the mystical experiences, the severe penances, the lowly tasks cheerfully performed, the commitment to a most austere form of female religious life—even the survival of both saints to ripe old ages for their times, as though their holiness was good for their health. Both were associated with numerous reported miracles during their lives and after death.
Although Teresa is obviously not in Kitchen’s Merovingian purview, this similarity of saintly phenotype is his very point. In Kitchen’s view, there is no such thing as "a distinctive female sanctity." For the early medieval hagiographers he writes about, there was but one form of sanctity; it demanded nearly impossible heroism; and for that reason, it was defined as male. In a culture in which there was only one "feminine" role for a high–born woman—contracting or being contracted into a dynastically advantageous marriage and then breeding heirs—becoming a saint meant in some sense becoming a man. By turning away from the conventionally feminine—leaving one’s husband or parents, cutting one’s hair short, putting aside fine clothes and jewelry, giving oneself over to fasting, prayers, chastity, and physical hardship—the saint, much like the spinster–suffragette of the early twentieth century, bought herself freedom and spiritual power, even to the point of miracle–working. "The living holy woman gains a reputation as a healer," writes Kitchen of a Merovingian biography of St. Monegund, another Frankish woman, who broke off sexual relations with her husband to live as a hermit.
The life of severe self–denial that her contemporary Radegund chose, and the self–torture that seems bizarre by today’s standards, had a purpose: enabling the saint to achieve martyrdom in an age without religious persecution, and thus to imitate Christ. A female ascetic could be, and was, the equal of any male ascetic. Not surprisingly, folk legends abounded in ancient and medieval times of women who went so far as to disguise themselves as men and enter male monasteries in their quest for holiness (the medieval tale of Pope Joan is a variant on these stories). "Becoming a man leads to power," Kitchen observes of the virgin Papula, said to have donned male attire and fled to a monastery to escape her worldly parents, to have been chosen as abbot over the men, and to have worked miracles from her tomb after her death (when her true sex was at last discovered).
Nor was this view of the female saint as "virago," or man–like woman, merely a fancy of misogynistic male hagiographers who could not believe that a real woman could be holy (Gillian Ahlgren’s explanation for why men canonized Teresa). It was part of women saints’ own self–conception. Kitchen traces the prototype for Radegund’s model of sanctity—and by extension Teresa’s—back to the third–century North African martyr Perpetua, who wrote a vivid autobiographical narrative before being thrown to wild animals in the arena at the age of twenty–two.
In it she described a vision in which she turned into a male athlete who defeated an opponent in a wrestling match, a prefiguration of her victory over evil by her death. Perpetua was not a masculinized woman (she agonized over being separated from her baby son while in prison), but in bearing witness to her faith she had to reject—at great emotional cost—a normal maternal life. Indeed, one may find the template for such radicalism in the New Testament itself, in Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus declares that Mary of Bethany, who forsakes housework to sit at his feet, "has chosen the better part," in contrast to her house–busy sister Martha.
Furthermore, as Kitchen points out, just as the "male" virtue of heroic asceticism was expected of saints of both sexes, medieval hagiographers also expected both sexes to practice to the extreme the supposedly "female" virtue of charity. One of the favorite stories of the Middle Ages, he notes, was that of St. Martin cutting his cloak in half with his sword so he could share it with a shivering beggar. Both of Radegund’s biographers, the male Fortunatus and the female Baudonivia, celebrated the saint’s rigorous monasticism as inseparable from her social activism (Fortunatus called her a "Martha," while Baudonivia called her a "Mary"), and later medieval writers regarded the two treatments of Radegund’s life as complementary, not rival, presentations. It is not surprising that this glamorous, fervent, and by all accounts unyielding sixth–century woman galvanized the European imagination for so long. (It is worth noting that the twentieth–century martyr Franz Jaegerstaetter, guillotined in 1943 as the only Austrian who refused to serve in Hitler’s army, came from a village called St. Radegund.)
Patricia Ranft’s Women and Spiritual Equality in Christian Tradition explores these same themes more fully and on a broader canvas. Ranft, a professor of history at Central Michigan University and author of several well–regarded works on medieval women’s spirituality, in this book presents a sophisticated and highly readable survey, pitched to non–scholars, of female holiness from New Testament times to the Enlightenment. Her overriding theme is simple: she started experiencing "frustration" at reading over and over in feminist scholarship that "Christianity was at its core misogynist" and that "because it was so influential in shaping Western ideas, Christianity was largely responsible for Western misogynism." She grants that there have been strains of Christian theology that have deemed women to be men’s inferiors, and that institutional Christianity has often all too readily accepted prevailing norms of women’s social subordination, but in the spiritual realm, Christian women were never inferior. The same commandments—of fidelity and devotedness in marriage, for example—bound both sexes, and both sexes were told they would share body and soul in the resurrection of Christ.
While there is no record that women held high office in the early Church, they constituted an independent source of religious authority by virtue of their sheer pious energy, as the apostle Paul’s evident respect for his benefactresses makes clear. When it came to the courage that made martyrs, women (as well as slaves, children, the elderly, and others regarded as weak) were often at the forefront, turning conventional hierarchies upside down and striking awe in male hearts. The story of Perpetua’s martyrdom, and that of her slave Felicitas, who had given birth only two days before joining her mistress arm in arm on the bloody sand of the circus floor, was read aloud in North African churches along with the Gospels, Ranft notes. The cloistered nuns and anchoritesses of the Middle Ages, far from being the prisoners of male control that feminists often make of them, actively sought out silence and seclusion so they could pray, and also so they could have a respite from the adulation of the local folk, who typically regarded lady hermits as celebrities, like the beatas of Teresa’s day. "How seldom nowadays will you find a recluse alone," the twelfth–century abbot Aelred of Rievaulx observed. "At her window will be seated some garrulous old gossip pouring idle tales into her ears."
What is remarkable about the tough–minded embodiment of female sanctity that Ranft delineates, persisting from the martyrs to Teresa of Ávila and beyond, is its consistency over the centuries: a useful corrective to the currently fashionable notion that religions constantly change with the culture around them. Another immensely readable book, Women in the Days of the Cathedrals, a reissue of a study of eleventh–century France by the recently deceased French medieval archivist Regine Pernoud, suggests that the high spiritual regard in which Christianity held women eventually spilled over into secular life.
Thanks to a centuries–long spell of mild weather and such productivity–enhancing innovations as the horse plow and the water mill, the first two centuries of this millennium were a time of burgeoning rural prosperity in Western Europe, and women, eased of much back–breaking toil, were the chief beneficiaries. A third medieval invention, the indoor chimney, made the hearth the center of the home and the housewife who presided over it a queen, holding court amid her huge array of household implements and bathtubs (contrary to stereotype, medievals loved to bathe).
In the towns, women who lacked husbands for one reason or other carried on such "male" occupations as furrier, glovemaker, button–maker (buttons were another medieval invention), bookbinder, candlemaker, innkeeper, barber (which meant that they practiced medicine), and even moneylender—and the records show that they paid taxes at the same rates as their male counterparts. In the food trades, including baking, sausage and cheese–making, beer–brewing, and poultry–vending, women entrepreneurs outnumbered men. Medieval Frenchwomen entered into contracts, made wills, administered estates, and to a large extent controlled their own property. They devised haute couture: sexy clothes cut close to the body and headdresses and hairstyles that went in and out of fashion with the seasons. At the convents, which operated girls’ (and sometimes boys’) schools, large numbers of upper and middle–class young women learned to read and thereby became an avid market for a torrent of devotional literature in Latin and the vernacular languages.
The dawn of the modern era actually saw a decline in women’s fortunes and legal standing. Pernoud pinpoints the devolution as beginning with the rise of the university, which was barred to females and which supplanted the monastery (and the convent) as the locus of higher learning. Scholasticism, the philosophy of the universities, promulgated Aristotle’s doctrine that women were intellectually and morally less competent than men, giving rise to a late–medieval genre of mocking antifeminist literature, about which Christine de Pisan (who had to rely on her father’s tutoring for her fine education) complained in 1400: "The lies and many other grievances / That each day [women] receive from these disloyal men / Who blame, slander, and deceive them."
Later, the Protestant Reformers shut down the convents altogether where they could and ordered the nuns to marry. Luther maintained that a woman who vows herself to virginity "blasphemes and despises God," and he himself took to wife a former nun, Katherine von Bora. While the Protestants did exalt Christian marriage, which the Catholics had tended to neglect as a source of holiness, the Reformers’ arrangements relegated women strictly to the home, where the husband or father did not have to share his authority with the confessor, the bishop, or the mother superior.
Anna Maria van Schurman (1607–1678), the highly intelligent, artistically gifted, and deeply religious Dutch Reformed (until she joined a charismatic sect) woman who in 1638 published the tract Whether a Christian Woman Should Be Educated, was an anomaly in her time, as was the very idea of a woman learning Latin, the language in which she wrote. Schurman was lucky: She was tutored alongside her brothers in the classical authors; her learning, poetry, and musical talent early on caught the attention of queens and leading male intellectuals (including Descartes); and she got herself admitted to the Utrecht guild of painters in 1643. She had concluded that while marriage and domestic life were proper vocations for some of her sex, "an unmarried woman" of means and leisure "can and ought to have time for . . . the study of letters," but until the nineteenth century there were few who agreed with her.
Post–Reformation Catholicism retained its convents and its distinctive tradition of female spirituality, but as Patricia Ranft points out, it was a tradition whose currency became devalued as the reigning culture became more secular. "In a religious society one’s religious status is the most significant status," while "in a secular society one’s religious status is often the least significant status." It is a long walk from Baudonivia of the Dark Ages, learned in Latin, to Teresa of the Age of Humanism, who knew almost none. Indeed, Anna Maria van Schurman had a Catholic counterpart, the Mexican nun Juana Inès de la Cruz (1651–1695), who amassed immense erudition outside the university (to the point that her bishop reprimanded her), wrote mystical poetry, and argued spiritedly and in vain for the higher education of her sex. A century later, Montesquieu could declare without dissent from his fellow philosophes: "Reason is never found among those with beauty."
Nonetheless, the later Middle Ages and the centuries that followed continued to produce women of extraordinary mystical experience who exerted astonishing spiritual authority on the order of Teresa. Increasingly, they were to be found outside of convents, like the beatas of Spain, or only loosely connected to religious orders. Mechthild of Magdeburg (1208–c.1294) was a Beguine whose Flowing Light of the Godhead, originally written in German, is a richly imagined mystical recapitulation, much like some of Teresa’s writings, of the lived experience of God’s intense love for the human soul. The Beguines were lay women, mostly in Northern Europe, who took vows of virginity and lived in communal houses that enjoyed papal protection for a time but were eventually dissolved for being inadequately supervised by the Church. Mechthild ended her long life of contemplative solitude somewhat ill at ease in a Cistercian convent whose nuns had far more formal learning than she.
St. Catherine of Siena (1347–1380), whose biography by Giuliana Cavallini, O.P., editor of a critical edition of her writings and director of the Centro Nazionale di Studi Cateriniani in Rome, is an authoritative introduction to this increasingly popular saint, never quite became a nun. Catherine, one of twenty–five children born to her astoundingly fertile mother, Lapa dé Piagenti (she and her twin sister were the second youngest), refused to marry, to the consternation of her parents. Although having begun at age four a lifelong series of visions of Jesus and having made a vow of perpetual virginity at seven, she became only a lay member of the Order of Preachers. That meant she wore the Dominican habit but continued to live at home with her family.
It was a horrible time. The Black Death had reduced Europe’s population by two–thirds during Catherine’s infancy, the Hundred Years’ War was tearing apart France, factional warfare raged through the Italian city–states, and the papacy had decamped from Rome to Avignon, discrediting and demoralizing the Church. Nonetheless, starting in her late teens, Catherine began a lifetime of traveling around Italy nursing the sick and plague–stricken, mediating family and political disputes, attracting a ragtag entourage of male and female followers (including an English monk), and through a series of impassioned letters (among more than three hundred that survive) succeeding in persuading Pope Gregory IX to bring the papacy back to Rome.
Finally, St. Joan of Arc (1412–1431). In their recently translated biography Joan of Arc: Her Story, authors Regine Pernoud and Marie–Veronique Clin extrapolate from the thorough fifteenth–century documentation of her short life to develop the story of this quintessential lay mystic. (She was also, by the way, a quintessential example of John Kitchen’s gender–crossing theory of sanctity, cutting her hair short, wearing men’s clothes, probably to discourage sexual overtures, and becoming in the process "the most famous cross–dresser of all time," as Florence King has observed.)
A barely literate peasant girl from Lorraine, Joan began to hear "voices" at the age of thirteen that she attributed to God and the saints; at age seventeen she led a French army whose exploits helped end the Hundred Years’ War; and at age nineteen she was burned at the stake after a heresy trial engineered by the occupying English that was a legal travesty by anyone’s standards. The transcripts from that trial are still extant, and they reveal that Joan, although denied a lawyer in contravention of procedural rules and forced to wear leg irons throughout, held her own quite capably against a panel of forty–four clerical inquisitors, mostly from the faculty of the University of Paris. Twenty–five years later a second trial ordered by Pope Nicholas V nullified the verdict, and by then Joan was already a national heroine, celebrated in poetry by both Christine de Pisan and François Villon. This new translation of the Pernoud–Clin biography of Joan, by Jeremy Duquesnay Adams, a history professor at Southern Methodist University, includes maps, a glossary of characters, and a detailed chronology, and is to be recommended highly.
In Women and Spiritual Equality, Patricia Ranft observes that a medieval peasant woman going to Notre Dame Cathedral at Chartres to celebrate the feast of the Annunciation would have found herself surrounded by art, music, and sermonizing that "focused on the spiritual perfection of one creature, a woman." Roses, Fountain, and Gold, a survey of Marian art, literature, and apparitions through the ages by John Martin, a Catholic poet, ought to be the book that brings home the fact that the saint the Christian church chose to glorify above all others was that woman, Mary of Nazareth. Unfortunately, Martin’s effort is marred by far too breezy diction (calling the Battle of Lepanto "the Don John–Ali Pasha free–for–all," for example) and many too many apparitions of a dubious, even crackpot nature. When we read at the end of the book that Mary warned an Irishwoman in 1988 that the Maastricht Treaty would be the work of the Antichrist, the Church’s institutional skepticism toward the outpourings of female visionaries can seem dishearteningly warranted. Martin needs a little more authorial distance from his subjects.
What this array of books tells us is that the women whom Christianity has honored as saints, no matter what age they lived in, have never been the teachers’ pets of patriarchy as has been fashionably supposed. From New Testament days to our own age, which has already informally canonized Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, the life of Christian holiness has always been a profoundly countercultural life, requiring its practitioners, male and female, to stand up against prevailing mores, temporal rulers, and even misguided or malevolent Church authorities. Women saints in particular have often had to reject the ordinary comforts of being a woman in order to bear their particular witness. Their extraordinary heroism is something that ideological feminists such as Gillian Ahlgren, moderate feminists such as Patricia Ranft, and out–and–out traditionalists such as John Martin can join ranks in praising.
Charlotte Allen is author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus (Free Press).