Saturday, 27 April 2013

Women theologians in Christian history

I gave a talk last week at the Oxford Graduate Christian Union, called 'What have Women done for Christianity? Women theologians in Christian history'.
They recorded it: so should you wish you can listen to it here.

Alternatively, if you would like the full text of my notes (not an accurate transcript of the recording), here is the text. I should warn you, it is around 5,000 words.

Let me begin with a (long) quotation.
One day as I was sitting alone in my study surrounded by books on all kinds of subjects, devoting myself to literary studies, my usual habit, my mind dwelt at length on the weighty opinions of various authors whom I had studied for a long time. …

[I] wonder how it happened that so many different men - and learned men among them - have been and are so inclined to express both in speaking and in their treatises and writings so many wicked insults about women and their behavior. Not only one or two … but, more generally, from the treatises of all philosophers and poets and from all the orators - it would take too long to mention their names - it seems that they all speak from one and the same mouth.

Thinking deeply about these matters, I began to examine my character and conduct as a natural woman and, similarly, I considered other women whose company I frequently kept… hoping that I could judge impartially and in good conscience whether the testimony of so many notable men could be true.

To the best of my knowledge, no matter how long I confronted or dissected the problem, I could not see or realize how their claims could be true when compared to the natural behavior and character of women.
Yet I still argued vehemently against women, saying that it would be impossible that so many famous men - such solemn scholars, possessed of such deep and great understanding, so clear-sighted in all things, as it seemed - could have spoken falsely on so many occasions that I could hardly find a book on morals where, even before I had read it in its entirety, I did not find several chapters or certain sections attacking women, no matter who the author was. …

And I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have designed to make such an abominable work which, from what they say, is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice. As I was thinking this, a great unhappiness and sadness welled up in my heart, for I detested myself and the entire feminine sex, as though we were monstrosities in nature’

That was written by Christine de Pizan, in 1405. Christine was a court poet and author, sometimes identified as the first professional woman writer in Europe. Widowed at 25 she supported herself and her children by becoming a court poet in France, and wrote several bestselling books. This is from the beginning of ‘The City of Ladies’, which was published in 1405. It began life as a riposte to the famous ‘Romance of the rose’, which characterized women as essentially temptresses and adulterers, and which Christine identified as a deeply misogynistic text. She starts her ‘City of Ladies’ in true academic form with a literature survey, noting how widespread a deeply misogynistic view of women is in theology. And, she says, she is confused by this, as it doesn’t fit her experience of women – or her understanding of God, who does not create evil things.

The passage I began with goes on:

 ‘in my lament I spoke these words:
Oh, God, how can this be? For unless I stray from my faith, I must never doubt that your infinite wisdom and most perfect goodness ever created anything which was not good. Did You yourself not create woman in a very special way and since that time did You not give her all those inclinations which it please You for her to have? And how could it be that You could go wrong in anything?

Yet look at all these accusations which have been judged, decided, and concluded against women. I do not know how to understand this repugnance. If it is so, fair Lord God, that in fact so many abominations abound in the female sex, for You Yourself say that the testimony of two or three witnesses lends credence, why shall I not doubt that this is true? Alas, God, why did You not let me be born in the world as a man, so that all my inclinations would be to serve You better, and so that I would not stray in anything and would be as perfect as a man is said to be? …

I spoke these words to God in my lament and a great deal more for a very long time in sad reflections, and in my folly considered myself most unfortunate because God had made me inhabit a female body in this world.’

The rest of the book is then constructed around three mythological ladies – Reason, Rectitude and Justice – help her to construct a city made of women, collecting together stories of women throughout Christian history and classical legend who demonstrate how great and righteous women are indeed made, and how foolish it is to think the opposite. The illustration at the top of this post is from her book.

De Pizan’s book shows clearly that debate about the role of women in creation, and the role of women in theology, is not just a modern phenomenon.

It is also an excellent example of some of the issues surrounding the contribution that women have made to Christian theology over history. Women’s theological writing has often been in genres that have only recently been recognized as comprising theology. Women have, at least since around the twelfth century, been by definition laity not clergy, and so their writings have suffered or flourished with those by lay men, as spiritual fashions or ecclesiastical rulings have allowed, promoted or disallowed lay theology. Women have often discussed women’s issues and the role of women in theology, and to the extent that those have not been issues the mainstream theological or ecclesiastical establishment has wanted to discuss, their writings have been marginalized – either deliberately, or simply by the academic death of lack of citations because one has chosen an unfashionable field of enquiry.

The growth of feminist approaches to both history and theology in the last few decades - and perhaps also the need of a new generation of historians and theologians to carve out new niches for their phds! – has led to the revitalising of Christian theology by the recovery and critical appreciation of women’s voices from the past. 

An early and very influential book was Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s work ‘In Memory of Her’, which focused on the women who are either barely mentioned, or not mentioned at all in the Bible, but whose presence can be inferred. Since then it has become part of mainstream biblical scholarship and preaching to note the presence of women in the biblical texts, and to retrieve and publish the work of female theologians of the past. 

It is though still relatively common to see lists of major theologians, or anthologies of Christian writings, which include either no women at all, or only one or two examples, often Julian of Norwich or another of the medieval mystics. This is often defended on the basis that, sadly, the way the world was in the past meant that women simply weren’t given the education or the opportunity to write. The giants of Christian theology were indeed all male and there is not a lot we can do about that, runs the argument. 

Yet in mainstream history we have largely discarded the ‘great men’ way of doing history in favour of a much more nuanced and multi-vocal approach. Historians are very used nowadays to seeking out the stories and voices wherever possible of those normal members of society who were having history, in the old model, done to them. And as theologians have gone looking for women theologians of the past, they have found them, working away in whatever ways were just about deemed culturally acceptable and open to them at the time. 

To understand this marginalization, it is necessary to grasp the very fundamental changes that took place in church organization and in theology in the middle ages.  The development of universities and the new assertion of papal power all combined to professionalise and clericalise religious authority and the right of theological enquiry. (See Gary Macy, The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination; and my Essential History of Christianity pp.44-57).
The amazing role of the early abbesses, for example,has been rediscovered in recent decades. Double monasteries, containing communities of both monks and nuns, were relatively common in England before they were banned in the papal reforms of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. And double monasteries were always headed by an Abbess, who was in overall charge of both communities; the most famous example, of course, being Hilda of Whitby.
These abbesses were until around the twelfth century, ordained to their posts and status as abbesses, which was understood as a particular vocation and order. 
This stature of the abbess Leoba von Tauberbischofsheim shows her with her crook, typical of the era.

There are several ordination rites for the post of abbess in the Vatican archives, for example (Macy). And they were considered of a status equivalent to bishops: they were invested with a mitre and crook at their ordinations, and they were responsible for many things that were later reserved to male clergy. Abbesses heard confessions, for example, both of their own monks and nuns and often of the local community; they pronounced blessings and they appear to have often also presided at communion. They also often held the ordinary ecclesiastical jurisdiction for an area, and in some places invested the bishops. Only with the twelfth century changes in the understanding of ordination that were imposed by the papacy to try to enforce a male celibate priesthood on the whole of Europe were abbesses effectively laicized, and thereafter increasingly marginalized.

Many of these abbesses were extremely learned theologians in their own right, as well as presiding over learned communities and acting as patrons of theologians. If we take Hilda of Whitby as an example: she is best known for hosting the Synod of Whitby, and as patron of the early English poet Caedmon. It seems likely that Whitby was chosen for the crucial Synod that decided the future direction of the English Church because Hilda had already established a great reputation as a thoughtful, learned and reflective community leader. Hilda herself is not known to have left theological writings, but it seems likely that her theological insights were crucial in determining the decision of the English king to follow Roman rather than Celtic customs, a decision that prevented early English Christianity from becoming a backwater.

Many other abbesses and nuns are known to have contributed to theology in their writings as well as their patronage and teaching, and these are increasingly being researched and published. An article by Paul Rorem in Theology Today – on your list of references – lists many of those who have recently being rescued from obscurity. An early and prolific example was Hrotsvit, a Saxon Benedictine from Gandersheim. 

Her literary output includes lives of the saints, histories, and ‘brief dramas of Christian martyrs and heroines’, in which ‘the early Christian women are noble, brave and wise, constantly outwitting the Roman men who are corrupt, evil and…foolish’ (Rorem: Theology Today, 2003).

Hildegard of Bingen was a twelfth century Benedictine abbess, and a visionary and polymath. She wrote saints' lives, poetry, philosophy and composed music, and also wrote down her prophetic visions, in three  books Scivias (‘know the way’) (1141–52) , Liber vitae meritorum (The book of Life’s merits or rewards) and Liber divinorum operum (the book of divine works). She also wrote a book of natural science, invented a new alphabet and a form of modified shorthand medieval latin for the use of her nuns, and founded two monasteries.

The picture shows Hildegard receiving divine inspiration.

Hildegard was also a prolific letter writer and preacher, and was fearless in pointing out abuses and seeking reform, unafraid of any authority with whom she disagreed. On one occasion she wrote to her own archbishop, over some dispute, ‘And so your malicious curses and threatening words are not to be obeyed. You have raised up your rod of punishment arrogantly, not to serve God but to gratify your own perverted will’! (Rorem).

She was a quite outstanding woman and scholar, and was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in the medieval period. Although the formal sainthood process was never completed, she has been referred to as a saint by several popes, and n 7 October 2012, Pope Benedict named her a Doctor of the Church, the fourth woman of 35 saints given that title by the Roman Catholic Church. He called her "perennially relevant", "an authentic teacher of theology and a profound scholar of natural science and music."

Another brilliant abbess was Heloise, of Heloise and Abelard fame. The very fact that she is known primarily for her youthful love for and illicit marriage to the equally brilliant Abelard, and not for her own contributions to the life and thought of the church, speaks volumes for how women theologians have been routinely dismissed and denigrated. It has sometimes been assumed that Abelard in fact wrote both halves of their famous correspondence, even though Abelard himself described her as possessing an outstanding intellect, and she led her community successfully and wrote significantly long after his death.

Most images and writings have focused on the romantic story of star crossed lovers, and show Heloise at best as distracted from her books by a handsome young man, at worst languishing! In fact they seem to have had an extremely equal relationship, esteeming each others intellectual abilities as much as loving each other, and their correspondence and other writings testify that each saw the other as an intellectual equal and academic partner.

Heloise was born in around 1090 and died in 1164. She was a brilliant scholar, accomplished in Latin, Greek and Hebrew and had a reputation as one of the leading minds of her day. She became a nun, prioress and then abbess, and her best known writings are her correspondence with Abelard, though she also made significant contributions to a theological ethics of intention and other areas, and was a notable monastic reformer. 

Another major reformer who changed the shape of the medieval church quite significantly was Clare of Assisi, and again her reputation has generally been eclipsed by a man with whom she worked closely, Francis of Assisi.

Clare of Assisi (1194 –1253), was one of the first followers of Saint Francis. She heard him preach one day and experienced a profound conversion, and soon after secretly left her parent’s noble house and took vows of poverty. She founded the Order of Poor Ladies, and wrote their Rule of Life—the first monastic rule known to have been written by a woman. Initially the order was under the direction of Francis, but Clare became abbess in 1216, and successfully defended her order against successive attempts by various bishops and popes to water down the vows of strict poverty that she felt to be the calling of her community. Two days before her death, she finally received a papal bull confirming that the Rule she had written was to be accepted as the governing rule of the Order. Following her death, the order she founded was renamed in her honor as the Order of Saint Clare, commonly referred to today as the Poor Clares. She was canonized as a saint only two years after her death, in 1255. 

Pope Alexander IV’s bull of canonisataion makes great play with the Latin pun on her name: ‘CLARE OUTSTANDINGLY CLEAR WITH CLEAR merits, in Heaven with the clarity of great glory, and on Earth with the splendor of sublime miracles, is clearly clear.’

He goes on to praise her gifts: ‘She governed her monastery, and the family entrusted to her in it, solicitly and prudently…in ministry studious, in exhortation attentive; diligent in admonition, in correction moderate, temperate in precepts; in compassion outstanding, discrete in silence, in speech mature, and well considered in all the things opportune to a perfect government’.

Many other women were also actively involved in writing theological and liturgical texts in the early medieval period. For example, stories and fables by Marie de France and saints lives and descriptions of visions by eg Elisabeth of Schonau and Hildegard of Bingen, enjoyed a wide circulation and were widely influential on popular belief and piety (Rorem). Women were historians (an example is the twelfth century Byzantine historian Anna Commena, whose Alexiad shaped the Orthodox understanding of the First Crusade), hymn writers, and so on. These roles could to some extent continue even when women’s roles as theologians per se became more circumscribed, as we shall see in a moment. 

Other women, of course, played important political roles in shaping the way in which the church and state interacted and developed. Two good examples of female politicians and negotiators whose role should be mentioned are Matilda of Tuscany, who ‘ruled vast stretches of Lombardy and Tuscany in the eleventh century with both military and political expertise’, and who was ‘the primary Italian political and military supporter of the reforming popes during the investiture conflict’. The investiture conflict was a major clash between the papacy, still relatively weak but trying to extend and consolidate its influence over the nascent nation states of Europe, and the rulers of those nation states who were jealously guarding their inherited rights and responsibilities for the church in their territories. Since the relative (though always in practice limited) success of the papacy in asserting its authority over ecclesiastical affairs throughout Europe was critical in determining not just church but European and in some ways world history over the medieval and early modern periods, Matilda’s intervention can be seen as extremely influential.

A later example is of course Elizabeth I.

Another aspect of women’s theological writing that has been rediscovered in recent years has been particular genres that were available to women from the middle middle ages onwards, when it was no longer acceptable for them to write academic theology as such, now narrowly defined and controlled by the new universities and the church authorities. 

The medieval mystics, of which Julian of Norwich is only the best known example, were very often women, and this was clearly a way in which women with great spiritual wisdom or theological gifts were able to use those in an acceptable – indeed, in a very highly valued – way.  Mystical and charismatic gifts continued to be a way in which women could play an important role in religion into the early modern period, when such gifts were considered appropriate (women were very promininent for example in some of the prophetic and radical groups that emerged during the English commonwealth period). But for much of the post medieval Christianity, such mystical visions were considered rather suspect. Some genres remained as avenues for women’s theological contribution, however.

The most well known of these genres is poetry. Women writing poetry was very widely accepted, and with the invention of printing women’s poetry could even be published acceptably and enjoy a very wide readership. Some of these poems, are in fact carefully argued theological treatises, simply arranged in poetic form. such as those by Aemilia Lanyer – who is best known as being identified, rather tenuously it must be said, as being a candidate for being Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’. Lanyer (1569–1645) wrote a single book of poems, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail God, King of the Jews).(1611). As the title suggests, the poems are of great theological interest, and are also of great interest for the history of women’s theological reflection on women. The title poem is a long narrative piece depicting the passion from the point of view of the women surrounding Jesus.
The most famous poem now is an astonishing piece of feminist theological polemic, ‘Eve’s Apology’, Lanyer points out that if, as the theologians say, Adam
was Lord and King of all the earth, 
    Before poore Eve had either life or breath.’
Then surely he cannot put all the blame for the fall on Eve. If man is stronger and wiser than woman, then Adam’s sin in accepting the apple must be the greater:
 ‘Her fault, though great, yet hee was most too blame; 
What Weaknesse offerd, Strength might have refus'd, 
Being Lord of all, the greater was his shame’.
In an audacious move, Lanyer goes on to point out that the apple was the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and that therefore man should thank woman if he is to be proud of his suprerior knowledge.    
‘Yet Men will boast of Knowledge, which he tooke 
     From Eves faire hand, as from a learned Booke.’ 
The furious thrust of the poem is that although Eve might have initially taken the apple, men condemned Jesus to die; how dare they then claim to be the superior sex?
  Her weakenesse did the Serpents words obay; 
     But you in malice Gods deare Sonne betray. 

Whom, if unjustly you condemne to die, 
Her sinne was small, to what you doe commit; 
All mortall sinnes that doe for vengeance crie, 
Are not to be compared unto it:                                       

Then let us have our Libertie againe, 
And challendge to your selves no Sov'raigntie; 
… Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine 
Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny?                     
     If one weake woman simply did offend, 
     This sinne of yours, hath no excuse, nor end.’

This poem is an extraordinary piece of feminist theology, and makes one wonder how many other women were saying or thinking similar things that we are unaware of in our limited view of history through the lens of the male writers with whom we are more familiar.
Another genre that was particularly available to women in the sixteenth and seventeenth century was the ‘Mother’s Legacy’. This was a book of theology written, or supposedly written, whilst a woman was pregnant. It took the form of a letter to her unborn child, the idea being that, if she were to die in childbirth, this is the substance of the faith that she would otherwise have taught the child in infancy. These were often substantial theological treatises, and again were frequently published and enjoyed wide sales. They were often published with a foreword pointing out that since the initial composition of the letter, the mother had found that other mothers of her acquaintance had found it helpful in teaching their own children, and that on the advice and entreaty of the local bishop it was now offered to a wider public. 

This form of literature has a long pedigree. In the ninth century, a woman called Dhuoda wrote a ‘Handbook for William: A Carolingian Woman’s Counsel for her Son’, a treatise on theology, prayer, society and morality. Such treatises circulated relatively widely for their day in hand-copied forms, but the genre really took off in the seventeenth century, when there was widespread access to cheap printing and a much larger audience of literate and pious women eager to purchase and read such books.

This genre is only recently becoming more accessible and more widely studied. Jennifer Heller, ‘The Mother’s Legacy in Early Modern England’, was published by Ashgate in 2011. 

Heller used around 20 printed and manuscript texts composed between 1575 and 1672, and explores how legacy writers used the genre to secure status for themselves, as perhaps all writers do:  of course to shape their children's beliefs and behaviors, but also to intervene in the religious and political upheaval debates that characterized the early modern period. As she says, ‘a woman who assumes maternal authority [particularly in the emotionally charged situation of potential deathbed advice] challenges no gender hieararchy, but rather fulfils her religiously sanctioned duty to raise her children’. They were often keenly aware of religious and political nuances, and comment on a range of issues from the proper way to pray ‘to the doctrinal underpinnings of the Eucharist’, Church-State relations, and how the Church should be governed.

So,  the lens of Christian feminism, which has inspired historians and theologians to look back over the history of the church and see whether and what women did contribute, has led to a rapid realization that women have indeed done a great deal for the Church. And not simply as faithful Christians, good mothers, teachers of the young and doers of good works – women have, we realize when we look, been active theologians, reformers and commentators throughout Christian history. At some periods – mainly what we now call the dark ages – they have found this easier than in others, but the extent to which women’s contributions have been marginalized over history is astonishing. Even when it was least acceptable for them to do so, women were writing theology, they were simply having to use alternative genres to achieve acceptance and publication opportunities. 

As academics now, we know from our own experience and interests that women have minds as able, as incisive, as analytical as mens: and that some women have minds that are much more able, incisive and analytical than most mens! The same has of course been true throughout history, and where there social and economic circumstances have made it possible, intellectual women have always sought not just to follow Christ but to follow their vocations to think, write and influence the Church. I hope, whatever your field of academic enquiry, you will be inspired to do the same.