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Letter to Women

The Vision of Women

Carolly Erickson, The Medieval Vision, Essays in History and Perception, Oxford University Press, 1976, ch. 8.

In the l 140’s the abbot of Rievaulx set down the unusual events that took place at the Gilbertine convent of Watton in Yorkshire. He had been a witness to some of them, and he recorded them, he wrote, believing that misfortunes could edify as surely as miracles. The story concerned an oblate brought in childhood to the priory by Archbishop Henry of York. She was only four years old when she came to Watton, and Ailred noted nothing of her parentage or condition. By the time she reached girlhood it was clear that she had no monastic vocation. She showed neither love of religion nor respect for the order, and showed moreover “an impudent eye, immodest speech and a lustful walk.” The nuns tried to correct her but their words had no effect; beatings failed as well. In time she turned her lascivious thoughts to secular men, and even to monks.

One day it happened that brothers from the men’s house (Gilbertine priories in England were invariably double monastries, with convents of both nuns and monks) had to come into the women’s cloister to make repairs. Out of curiosity the misfit nun—Ailred did not record her name—watched them work, and her attention rested on the handsomest of them. Their eyes met and they caressed with a look; at once, Ailred wrote, “the winding serpent slithered his way into both their breasts, and gladdened the vitals of the man.” Sweet speech broke the silence between them and in time, their feeling melting into one, they “sowed the garden of love.”

Afterwards they met when they could, secretly and at night. The sound of stones on the convent roof was their agreed-on signal, and they met in a hidden place outside the convent walls. Despite their elaborate precautions, neither her sisters nor the clerics who guarded the convent were at first aware of the girl’s rendezvous. Unhappy girl, Ailred wrote, nothing could dissuade you from your evil. Reverent thoughts were shut out by the filth in your blind heart, and you were lost. “Shut your ears, o virgins of Christ, and open your eyes. She goes out a virgin of Christ, and returns an adulteress! ”

Eventually the sisters became suspicious when they heard pebbles falling on the roof night after night, and their first thoughts were of the irreverent girl. The sudden flight of her lover from the monastery aggravated their suspicions, and calling the girl before them the “wiser matrons” forced her to confess the whole story. What she told them stupefied them at first, but then “their zeal blazed forth from their very bones, and, looking round at one another, they beat their hands together in anguish and rushed upon her.” Snatching the veil from her head, some said she should be burnt, others that she should be skinned, and still others that she should be bound to a stake and roasted over the coals. She was beaten and thrown into the convent prison, fettered and chained.

But imagine, Ailred went on, what a lamentation arose when day after day her womb swelled larger and larger. Then all the nuns felt her shame as if it were their own, as if the eyes of ridicule were turned against them, and the teeth of betrayal. They wept alone and together, and in their frustration they attacked the girl once again. But when their passion subsided a little, they met together to decide her fate. Afraid to expel her for fear her death from want and exposure would be on their hands, still they could not keep her, for her screams in childbirth would reveal her shameful condition. Finally one of them suggested that “the adulterous whore with the pregnant belly” be given to the execrable author of her wickedness. To expedite this the girl herself told her sisters where to find her lover, who would be at their meeting place that night, and concluded stoically, “Let the will of heaven be done.”

Monks from the adjoining house were brought in to hear the story then, and together with the nuns they planned the capture of the renegade monk. When he appeared later expecting to meet his beloved—now “a secular not only in habit but in his thoughts”— he met instead a monk disguised as the girl, and as he went up to him the others sprang at him from the bushes and “applied the bitter antidote of their clubs, and put out his amorous fire.”

By the time the captive was brought before the nuns, they had : abandoned their original plan. No longer intending to send him away with the girl, they asked the monks to leave him in the convent for a while, on the pretext of forcing him to confess his crimes. Left alone with him, they threw him to the floor and pinned him down. Pulling out the cause of all his crimes for all to see, they thrust a knife into his unwilling hands and forced him to castrate himself. In a final act of revenge one of the sisters snatched up the bloody remains of his manhood and threw them in his mistress’ mouth.

Like the sword of Levi, or the zeal of Phineas, through these fearless virgins chastity has triumphed and the injury to Christ has been avenged, Ailred wrote. I praise not their deed but their zeal, not their shedding of blood but their emulation of the saints. What might they do to preserve their chastity, when they have done so much to avenge it?

The story of the nun of Watton—which has been retold here as nearly as possible in Ailred’s language—says more than any abstract description about the view of women in the middle ages. Although most of the principal characters in Ailred’s account were women and women in a monastic order at that, there was little in their behavior that we would call feminine or religious. But as so often happens it is our meanings that are at fault and not the words themselves. Twelfth-century femininity included heartless cruelty; twelfth-century religiosity embraced barbarity. This incident may not have been typical of convent life, but it was not unique either. Abelard had made love to Heloise in the refectory of a convent and like the wretched sister at Watton Heloise had become pregnant while living among sisters vowed to chastity. Abelard was castrated for his lustful crimes (although Heloise was avenged by her relatives, not by the nuns of Argenteuil) and later, after he had taken orders himself, Abelard feared for his life as abbot of St. Gildas. Abelard’s account of his misfortunes was written a decade before the events at Watton, and the tale of his affair with Heloise was well known in England. It is conceivable that these famous events influenced the Gilbertine sisters in their revenge, but neither castration nor convent violence were uncommon in the twelfth century, and there is no reason to assume inspiration from the famous scandal.

Ailred’s story has been retold less for its sensationalism than because it draws together so clearly the themes that formed the vision of medieval women: misogyny, female docility, female savagery, an exaggerated emphasis on virginity and an exaggerated abhorrence of sexual sins. All of the women in the story are evil, all of them are described as caricatures of vice rather than as real people. Ailred was a humanist and classical scholar who wrote with insight and subtlety on other themes, but in his account the nuns of Watton became one-dimensional and repellent. The wayward young nun was condemned for being independent and unsubmissive: her sisters were equally ungovernable in their pitiless fury. Their anxiety about their common chastity was equaled only by their loathing for fleshly sin, and Ailred commended both.

The young girl’s rebellion against convent life, the attraction of the lovers, the elemental passions of the nuns—all were seen from a peculiar angle of vision. Disobedience, lustful temptation and vengeance were dominant in all the actors, and the evil results of what they did were as inevitable as their motives were clear.

Butt the attitudes reflected in this account were not Ailred’s alone, nor were they the invention of medieval thinkers; they were an integral part of the patristic heritage. They appeared in the third, fourth and fifth centuries in response to the ethics of late antiquity and to the needs of the early church, and they were given lasting formulations in the works of Cyprian, Augustine, and, above all, Jerome.


Early Christian doctrines of marriage, sexuality and the status of women were formed in the dark years between the anarchy of the third century and the definitive barbarian triumphs of the fifth. The gradual Christianization of the empire begun by Constantine helped to establish the administrative structure of the church, but heresies still prospered in the world of late Roman society, and troubled the meditations of ascetic Christian theologians.

Gnosticism was among the most dangerous of these heresies, and caused the greatest confusion over the appropriate position of women in the church. The gnostics believed that the created world was inferior to the spiritual reality it imperfectly reflected. Matter was evil; therefore to create a material being was to create evil, and in consequence procreation was condemned. Many gnostic sects wanted to do away with women’s maternal functions entirely, and saw marriage as the devil’s work. “Marrying and reproducing,” they wrote, “are said to be instigated by Satan.”

This view was widely held even outside gnostic circles. An ambiguous passage in 1 Corinthians had said that Christians were to be saved “by the works of women,” and some took this to be an anti-procreative verse. In his Stromata, the second-century bishop of Alexandria, Clement, attributed these words to Jesus: “I am come to abolish the works of women.”

Closely connected to the abandonment of childbearing was the idea that women ought to preach, baptize, and prophesy alongside men. There were abundant biblical precedents for this: the daughters of Philip prophesied and preached, Phoebe, Prisca, and other women were important leaders in the early church, and the frequent mention of such women as Theonoe, Stratonice, Eubulla and Artemilla in the Christian apocrypha made it clear that the Jewish idea of excluding women from the ministry was not dominant in the first centuries of Christianity. Legends ascribed important roles to the wives of the apostles—by her martyrdom Peter’s wife was said to have eclipsed him—and Clement wrote that they went with their husbands as fellow missionaries. The largest number of women preachers, however, were found among the gnostics, and it was a gnostic sect, Montanism, that promoted their ministry most effectively. Two of the chief Montanist leaders were women, and the group had female bishops as well as priestesses. The most startling Montanist beliefs came in a vision Priscilla received while she was asleep on the holy mountain at Pepuza. In her dream, Jesus came to her “in the form of a woman clad in a bright garment” and slept by her side. The vision of the female Christ was perpetuated in Montanist liturgies and in their reverence for Eve, whose sin had brought on the miracle of the Incarnation. (Many early sects exalted women in their worship: the Collyridians, originally a Thracian sect, distributed bread from temporary altars which was sacrificed “to the name of Mary,” and other groups maintained they had received their doctrine through Mary. The sensualist Carpocratians even claimed descent from Salome.)

Gnostic sects probably gave a higher status to women than other groups, but women were a major influence in many early heresies. there were important women leaders among the Donatists, and the letters and chronicles of churchmen tell of individual women whose ministry was not associated with any group in particular, but who were effective as itinerant religious leaders. Women were not expressly prohibited from the priesthood until 352, and although in the early fifth century Epiphanios maintained that they had never risen above the rank of deaconesses, the Apostolic Constitutions contained a formula for the ordination of women. The shock and distaste of male clerics at female sacerdotalism revealed a growing prejudice against female ministry, and the churchmen who attacked women who preached and celebrated mass accused them of being instruments of the devil. Exorcism was to be the common remedy for women who assumed religious duties soon to be reserved to men alone.

When the first anchorites escaped to the Eastern deserts in the wake of the Decian persecutions, many among them were women. The ascetic feats they accomplished paralleled those of the male desert saints, and they showed the same aversion to comfort, palatable food and baths. But because the idea of female sanctity was improbable at best, many of these holy women had to dress as men in order to avoid discovery and condemnation. Early accounts of the desert fathers show their fear and hatred of women very clearly. In the Life of Saint Pachomius the biographer told of a young monk who ran wildly up to the saint and confessed that a woman had somehow gotten into his cell, seduced him by trickery, and vanished. Without waiting for an answer the tormented monk tore off across the desert until he came to a village and then destroyed himself by jumping into a furnace.

Temptation often came in female form, and the hermits and monks of the desert competed to see who had lived longest without the mischance of seeing a woman. Because of this the blessings of the desert saints were often denied to women, no matter how earnest their needs. A young Roman girl was said to have made a pilgrimage from Italy to Alexandria to be blessed by Saint Arsenius. Despite his refusals she forced her way in to see him, and enduring his utter rejection of her, begged him to remember her and pray for her. “Remember you!” he cried out, “it will be the prayer of my life that I may forget you!”

The misogyny of the anchorites is so well known that it distorts our view of relationships between men and women in the early centuries. Within the eremitical movement itself a form of religious marriage united men and women anchorites, and religious groups experimented with new definitions of sex roles

Throughout the eastern part of the empire, the institution called syneisactism involved large numbers of holy men and women in “spiritual marriage.” Some scholars have argued that the women living in these arrangements were little more than housekeepers but there is good evidence to support the view that they were equal partners with the men in evangelism and eucharistic ministry Though an occasional scandal indicates that some syneisacts broke their vows of abstinence, most seem to have found this life of mutual chastity congenial and even inspiring, and despite dozens of prohibitions by church councils of the early middle ages, syneisactism lasted until the spread of cenobitical monasticism made it superfluous.

Among laymen, asceticism could exist without rigid separation of the sexes and without misogyny. Among the Abeloites, all members of the group were married and lived continently, each couple adopted a boy and girl, who grew up to imitate their situation. In the 340’s, a council held at Gangra to condemn the fanatical anti-matrimonial teachings of one Eustathius recorded the existence of another group which attempted to obliterate distinctions of inferiority or superiority between men and women. The women in the group cut their hair—long hair symbolized their lower status—and wore the same clothes as the men. That women were the spiritual guides of these Christians is instructive, but their aim seems to have been to promote equality rather than female dominance. But these groups were condemned along with syneisacts, and it was the misogynist tradition that the church revered. Like the gnostic exaltation of women, syneisactism and other communal experiments were to remain a forgotten backwater of church history, while the antifeminism of the desert saints and church Fathers still rang through the monasteries and universities centuries later.


To Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine and even earlier writers such as Tertullian and Cyprian, the choice between the syneisacts’ unprecedented regard for women and the ascetics’ wary distaste for them was an easy one. They found little in the behavior of contemporary Roman women to alter the misogynist ideas they absorbed from the Latin classics; giving every appearance of independence, these women openly exploited the laws of marriage and inheritance (laws which punished adultery but tolerated prostitution) and combined sexual license with callous destruction of their unborn children. Roman mores were after all worlds apart from the lives of most Christian theologians. Puritans who lived in monastic isolation themselves, the Fathers were inclined by experience to antifeminism, and faced with the paradox of exalted Christian women and debased Roman ones, they hit on what was to become an enduring formula: they loved virgins but hated women. “Per mulierem culpa successit, per virginem salus evenit,” they wrote—“Sin came through a woman, but salvation through a virgin”.

The mass of women, in this view, deserved all the abuse antifeminists had poured out against them for centuries. Morally and physically weaker than men, they were at best a dangerous distraction, at worst the gateway to hell. By contrast, the few women who preserved their virginity were above criticism, and worthy of unusual veneration. Denial of the flesh was all the more remarkable in creatures so prone to lust and incapable of selfrestramt. Among the best-loved of the early female saints were those who combined both sides of women’s nature in a single life. From the Magdalene on, the repentant harlot had been a popular saintly image, not least because it reinforced the idea that holiness was not a natural inclination in women.

Patristic exaggeration of virginity was already strong in the writings of Tertullian, and after his conversion to Montanism he claimed that the chief sanctity was that of the virgin, and was willing to exclude “exceptional” women from the conventional restrictions against speaking in the church. Another third-century writer, Cyprian, made of virginity the distinctive mark of Christian holiness, and with Cyprian virginity ceased to be a matter of private observance and became a highly public virtue. Continence of the flesh was accompanied by a spiritual purity that was obvious to all. “Anyone who sees a virgin,” he wrote, “cannot be mistaken about what he sees.”

In the works of Cyprian and his later contemporary Ambrose, virginity became the province of a small group of superior Christians, and the term they used to describe it—integritas wholeness or intactness—strongly connoted female virginity. They created the idea that Christian women were divided into those who lived normal lives (which for most women meant married lives) and those whose chastity made them unmistakably superior.

Of course, these writers advocated virginity for all Christians men as well as women, and it would be wrong to assume that only women were exhorted to chastity. But male virginity was never stressed in the same way as female virginity, and when the second-century theologian Origen castrated himself out of devotion to sexual purity he was severely punished by the Alexandrian church, and excluded from the priesthood. By a venerable tradition, priests had to be “whole” men, but here wholeness was linked to sexual potency rather than to abstinence. By contrast, an entire genre of theological literature was addressed exclusively to young women, urging them to guard their chastity inviolate.

Here it must be remembered that while men had at least three sexual alternatives, in the thinking of churchmen, women had only two. Men could either marry, become ascetics, or live as bachelors. Women could choose only between marriage and the semi-cloistered life of a consecrated virgin. The idea of spinsterhood was foreign to the thinking of patristic theologians; they assumed that any woman who did not choose virginity would marry.

This reasoning could only reinforce the long-established concept that marriage was a poor second to a life of chastity. Tarnished by intercourse, the married state represented the triumph of lust over piety, flesh over spirit. Commenting on the Pauline text “Better it is to marry than to burn with vain desire,” Tertullian had argued that the “good” in marriage is really only a lesser sort of evil. Paul’s logic was no stronger, he insisted, than the argument that it was better to lose one eye than two. The development of monasticism discredited marriage still further, until by the middle of the fourth century an eastern bishop, Eustathius of Sebastia, maintained the extreme view that married people could not be saved, and attracted a large following to his opinion. So influential was this doctrine that two church councils were needed to check its spread, and in the vehement debate that followed several controversialists appeared who defended the opposite viewpoint.

One of these, Jovinian, was a married monk who denied the special efficacy of virginity. Jovinian spoke out in favor of marriage for priests as well as laymen, and challenged the pope in Rome and the prestigious (and married) Ambrose in his episcopal see of Milan. Synods in both cities drove Jovinian out, but in 412 he returned to Rome and harangued his many followers in open meetings. By this time Jovinian had brought down on himself the venerable irritation of Jerome, and in punishment for his blasphemy (he denied the virgin birth of Jesus) he was scourged with a leaden thong and exiled to the rock of Boa on the Dalmatian coast His followers were deported too, but not before one of them Vigilantius, had carried his doctrines into Gaul and Spain.

It was while the beliefs of Eusthatius, Jovinian and Vigilantius were being debated that the most influential of the Fathers developed their doctrines on marriage and the status of women. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in Africa, knew the danger of falling into the Manichean error of condemning all procreation, but his own youthful marriage had acquainted him with the power of sexual desire as well. He compromised; he linked marriage to sin but only to venial sin. “A permanent union for the sake of slaking incontinence,” he wrote, marriage was redeemed by the desire for children and by its sacramental character.

Though they disagreed on doctrine Augustine conceded that Jovinian was a sincere and virtuous man. Jerome conceded Jovinian nothing, and it was in Jerome’s lengthy treatise Against Jovinian that the most influential and enduring patristic statements on marriage and women are to be found.

From the outset, it was clear that Jerome wedded praise of virgins to distaste for women. Even the pagans of antiquity, he wrote, recognized that womanhood and virtue are mutually exclusive most of the time. While they approved of the few heroines who remained chaste, or who killed themselves to preserve their honor, classical writers knew that most wives were ill-tempered and vicious and that marriage made a man unfit for a life of philosophy or religion. The Christian revelation only made these truths more plain. “In view of the purity of the body of Christ,” Jerome argued, “all sexual intercourse is unclean.”

Jerome’s ideas on female education and behavior are evident in his vast correspondence. Many of his correspondents were women —fully half of his theological letters were written to nuns or pious matrons—and he liked to write little biographies of women whose conduct he admired. One of these was the young widow Blesilla, whose sudden and extraordinary asceticism led to tragic results, and was for a time a subject for scandal in Rome.

The daughter of Jerome’s pious correspondent Paula, Blesilla was widowed after only seven months of marriage, and with Jerome as her spiritual adviser she then began a regime of extreme austerity and self-denial. “Mourning the loss of her virginity more than the death of her husband,” Blesilla’s “steps tottered with weakness, her face pale and quivering, her slender neck scarcely holding up her head,” Jerome wrote in a letter to Paula. Her fasting brought on a fever, and within three months of her conversion Blesilla was dead.

Probably because of her high social standing her story was well known in the capital, and popular resentment against the monks and against Jerome in particular was very great. At her funeral, mourners whispered to one another that she had been killed by fasting, and asked “How long must we refrain from driving these detestable monks out of Rome? Why don’t we stone them or hurl them into the Tiber?” To the Romans, Blesilla was a victim of the exaggerated cult of austerity; to Jerome, she was a Christian heroine. But even as he praised her, he assigned her a rank in the female hierarchy, a rank that was determined by her physical purity alone. “As a childless widow she will occupy a middle place between Paula, the mother of children, and Eustochium the virgin”, Jerome wrote. And he added, “In my writings she will never die”.

Of course, Jerome admired more colorful women as well. His portrait of Marcella, an erudite widow whose life of austere scholarship paralleled Jerome’s own, exalted her learning and courage. (Marcella was indeed remarkable. She drove the Origenist heretics out of Rome single-handed, and faced the Visigothic invaders in 410 without flinching.) But Jerome was careful to note that Marcella deserved praise because she never overstepped the proper bounds of female conduct, and never assumed authority that might “inflict a wrong upon the male sex.”

Jerome’s recommendations for the education of girls, given in a famous letter he wrote to one Gaudentius, described behavior that was much closer to Blesilla’s than to Marcella’s. The letter actually outlined a plan for the training of a child who had been dedicated to a life of virginity, but medieval thinkers used it as a standard of education for all girls, whether they were to marry or not, and for centuries it was to serve as a commonplace of medieval writings on female education. Many of Jerome’s guidelines were negative, the young girl must know nothing of boys, and must be taught to dread playing with them; she must never learn the meaning of obscene words, and must avoid leaving her room. As an adolescent she was never to look at young men, never to hear sensual songs, and was to confide only in a “sober, grave and industrious” chaperone. The direction of her education he summed up in a single phrase: “Let her know nothing of the past, let her shun the present, and let her long for the future.”

By the time Jerome wrote, the course of Christian history had changed the Christian image of women from its apostolic form. Condemnations of heterodox groups in which women had been prominent as leaders and ministers meant that women would remain subordinate in the community of believers. The sacerdotal movement had put barriers not only between the clergy and laity but between the clergy and women; no woman could legitimately enter clerical orders, and a group of important councils had ruled that all clerics above the rank of deacon must remain chaste. Finally, a disproportionate admiration for virginity established the view that unlike men, women were to be judged according to their sexual status, with virgins high above married women in holiness and virtue. Jerome’s writings restated all these ideas, and added to them the chief arguments of classical misogyny. In his synthesis the patristic view of women received its most magisterial formulation. Augustine would write about marriage and sexuality with greater humanity than Jerome, and Chrysostom with greater intolerance, but neither would be read with more admiration by medieval thinkers.

These patristic doctrines reached the lives of ordinary Christians through the penitentials, and from there they passed into the canon law. Penitentials were written to guide priests in hearing confessions and assigning penance. Compiled for use in monasteries, the penance books catalogued sins from the viewpoint of an ascetic community. Sexual sins were given an understandable prominence in these compilations, and the punishments they merited were heavy. These punishments may have been appropriate for monks, but when applied to lay men and women they attached a stigma to sexual sins that was out of proportion to other forms of wrongdoing. In combination with Old Testament dictates and with popular superstition, the morality of the penitentials led to a distorted view of marriage and of female sexuality.

A large number of penitential cautions and prohibitions clustered around menstrual blood and its harmful effects. Hebrew law condemned couples. who made love during menstruation, and many early medieval writers described the diseased or misshapen children born of unions during the proscribed times. It was commonly believed that leprosy or epilepsy cursed children conceived amid the pollution of menstrual blood, and because of its association with witchcraft Isidore of Seville wrote that the poison of the menstrual flow withered flowers and aborted the fertility of the fields.

Fearing this contamination, churchmen were anxious to keep women away from the sacred objects of worship. At the Council of Chalcedon women were forbidden to approach the altar, and were allowed to grasp the host only through a veil. Other councils ordered women to be on their guard lest they carelessly befoul the church, and in the east no woman could enter a church while in an unclean state.

Closely related to the pollutions of menstrual blood were those which clung to a woman after the birth of a child, particularly a female child. Gregory the Great repeated the Hebrew formula that a woman must wait thirty-three days after the birth of a son and sixty-six days after the birth of a daughter before she could enter the church and receive the sacrament, and indeed the physical trauma of childbirth was accompanied by the spiritual trauma of virtual exclusion from the Christian community. As she neared her full term a pregnant woman was encouraged to take communion both because the likelihood of death was high and because from the onset of labor until her churching, she would bear the double stigma of unclean blood and the “filth of sin” (sordes peccati) without the consolations of the church. (The filth or “bodily uncleanness"—immunditia corporis—was the sinful residue of the lust of conception.)

By custom the child was favored over the mother at birth, a fifteenth-century pastoral handbook instructed midwives to save the infant’s life at the expense of the mother’s, “for that is a charitable deed.” Many women survived the ordeal of annual chlldblrth: it would be misleading to generalize from random examples, but among the eleventh- and twelfth-century Norman nobility large families of twelve to fifteen children born to a single wife were not uncommon, although a high proportion of the children died in infancy. But death in childbirth was a common hazard for medieval women, and not the least of its terrors was the prospect of unconsecrated burial.

Because in popular belief the blood of the afterbirth was thought to attract demons, a woman who died before she had been purified after giving birth was refused burial in consecrated ground, and denied admission to paradise. Even a pregnant corpse was excluded from the churchyard, since in the opinion of many theologians the unbaptized child in the mother’s womb invalidated her claim to Christian burial. Humane churchmen urged acceptance of these corpses, but without complete success, and even in areas where a consecrated grave was found for a woman unlucky enough to die while carrying a child, the burial was often done without dignity, in secret, and in a lonely corner of the churchyard.

Motherhood entailed spiritual risks for medieval women, yet marriage without children lay outside the expectations of medieval society. Both contraception and abortion were denounced in the penitentials, and although both were probably widely practiced they brought heavy penances. Intercourse without procreation had been unthinkable to patristic writers, both because it seemed to inhibit nature and because it made sexual pleasure rather than the generation of children the primary object of marital sex.

Even so, intercourse was surrounded with guilt and enmeshed in a tangle of restrictions. Lovemaking was not permitted on Sundays, Wednesdays or Fridays, or on any church feast; the penitentials forbade it during Advent, Lent and on rogation days, and it was of course prohibited during pregnancy and after childbirth, and while either spouse was fulfilling a vow of penance. By the fourteenth century sexual relations were explicitly outlawed during some 220 days out of the year, and there was no lack of influences urging voluntary abstinence beyond this. Lovemaking made a couple unclean, and unworthy to take the sacrament. Consequently Gratian advised husbands to keep themselves chaste for three or four or even eight days before accepting the Eucharist, and wives were urged by itinerant preachers to try to control their husbands’ lust. (In medieval discussions of sexual sins, it was normally assumed that the husband controlled lovemaking and that the wife only sinned if she willingly consented.) The natural arbiter of marital purity, the wife was encouraged to resist “unnatural” sex “even to death.”

These views contrasted oddly with the popular mythology of lust in which women were often seen as temptresses overcome by their sexual appetites, and indeed the polarized imagery of women’s nature that characterized patristic writings was very much in evidence in later centuries. Mutually contradictory models of female behavior were to be found in the writings of theologians poets and preachers. The Christian virago flourished alongside the nagging wife, the temptress alongside the ascetic virgin. Only in their degree of caricature did these images meet on common ground.

One reason for this was the continuing reverence for the writings of the Fathers. The letters and treatises of Jerome, Ambrose Augustine and Gregory were approached by medieval thinkers not as theological antiques but as living texts to be read and reread by every learned man and woman. In a real sense the sentiments of patristic writers were rewritten afresh with every generation, for as we have seen, medieval thought was agglomerative, and medieval writers savored quotations.

Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianus had a multiple rebirth in the twelfth century. Widely quoted by the Gregorian reformers and in the early canonists’ collections, the antifeminist arguments of Jerome were repeated by Abelard and by his students in their commentaries on the Sentences. Gilbert Foliot, Peter of Blois and John of Salisbury all incorporated Jeromian borrowings into their works, although John tempered his with backhanded counter-arguments in praise of women. But it was in a pseudonymous treatise of Walter Map that the views of Jerome were revived with greatest force and virulence.

The Dissuasio Valerii (Valerius’ Dissuasion against Marriage) was a merciless satire, irrefutable because of its outrageous exaggeration. “Friend,” Map wrote under his antique soubriquet “no matter what they intend, with a woman the result is always the same. When she wants to do harm—and that is nearly always the case—she never fails. If by chance she should want to do good, she still succeeds in doing harm." Jerome had said that with an extreme effort a few women could become exemplars of virtue. “Valerius” denied this. Women cause evil, he insisted, by their very presence; a virtuous woman is as rare as the phoenix. “A few women have brought back from the field of battle the banner of modesty—the Sabines, Lucretia, Penelope. But friend, no Lucretia ever existed, nor Penelope nor the Sabines. Fear them all.”

The Dissuasio was put into the mouth of an ancient author partly to deflect criticism and partly to take advantage of the contemporary taste for classical works. (Some took “Valerius” to be Valerius Maximus.) The work proved to be immensely popular; five commentaries on it were produced in the twelfth century alone, and before long Map acknowledged it as his own by including it in his longer work On the Frivolities of Courtiers. The Dissuasio repeated many of Jerome’s unflattering commonplaces about women and turned the flattering ones sour. Despising marriage, Map had little love for the alternatives, and even found something nasty to say about parthenogenesis. The subtle, mocking tone of the treatise is in evidence in this little story:

Weeping, Pacuvius confided to Arrius, “My friend, I have an unlucky tree at home. My first wife hung herself from it, and my second wife as well. Now I’ve just lost my third in the same way.” “I’m amazed to find you crying in the midst of such good fortune,” Arrius answered. “Think of the money that tree has saved you! Friend, give me a slip of it so I can plant one in my garden.”(1)

“Good reader,” Map added, “take care that you aren’t forced to beg for a slip of that tree, for you won’t be able to find one.”

The misogyny of Walter Map combined the most telling elements of classical and patristic writings against women with anecdotes and proverbs from popular folklore. Most writings against women occupied more formal and well-defined literary genres. Building on models provided by Juvenal, Cicero and Ovid, the classicist writers of the twelfth century revived the antique genres of satire, and used them in both Latin and the vernaculars. Within the two broad divisions of diatribes against marriage and Ovidian ridicule of women's sensuality, more specific thematic genres developed. In the pastourelle a shepherd-girl argued with a courtier over the preservation of her virtue. The twin forms of the "husband's lament" (chanson de mal marié) and the "wife's lament" (chanson de mal mariée) battled over which spouse had the worst lot. Women did not get the worst of the argument every time—some "defenses" succeeded—but few of these poems had anything good to say about marriage, and any condemnation of marriage was an implicit condemnation of women.

These poems elaborated the traditional range of feminine vices—stubbornness, arrogance, overweening lust, jealousy, vanity, faithlessness and shrewish competitiveness. Here they paralleled a view of women which was well developed in troubadour poetry. "Women," wrote the Provencal poet Marcabru,

are tricksters and know how to cheat and lie; wherefore they make their husbands support other men's children. May God never forgive him who wishes to honor and serve these passionate and impassioned whores who are worse than I can tell you. (2)

There were a good many antifeminist satirists among the troubadours, and their attitudes toward the women they loved were shot through with ambivalence. Like the patristic writers, they found admirable women particularly precious because there were so few of them, and their peculiar sexual code—which called for unrestrained eroticism up to the threshold of intercourse and not beyond—was intended to heighten their own pleasure and not to show respect for the beloved.

Much of the medieval literature that exalted women had its misogynist counterpart. If the troubadours balanced their amorous poems with attacks on the declining number of worthy women ("never have there been so many deceitful women since the serpent drew down the branch"), the arch theorist of courtly love, Andreas Capellanus, wrote a book against love at the end of his life. It was a convention of medieval letters to imitate Ovid's Ars amatoria and Remedia amoris; Chaucer and Boccaccio counteracted their anti-feminist arguments with the Legend of Good Women and the work On Famous Women. At the summit of this genre, of course, were the two parts of the Roman de la rose, which had no peer in its simultaneous praise and blame of women. Both parts of the Roman met with success, and both were the object of controversy.

The literary debate over the vices and virtues of women in time became an academic debate, and the querelle des femmes occupied some outstanding fifteenth-century thinkers, including the ambivalent feminist Christine de Pisan.

But like the literary works that preceded them the writings in this quarrel have the flavor of intellectual abstraction rather than of reality. The horizons of the argument were finite, and the choice of examples and authorities was narrow. Even when put into the Bemardine language of the spurious "Letter of Blessed Bernard to Abbot Codrille," the limited vocabulary of literary misogyny grew dull and dissolved into a string of classical tags. "Listen to what the philosopher Secundus told the Emperor Hadrian," wrote the anonymous author of the letter, trying to make the commonest of all antifeminist descriptions sound fresh: "Woman is man's confusion—an insatiable beast, a continual care, the dwelling of turbulence, an impediment to chastity, a man's destruction, the channel of adultery; she is the enslaving of a man, and his heaviest weight of all."

In the Morte de Garin, Blancheflor goes to her husband, Emperor Pepin, and asks him to help the Lorrainers.

The King hears her; . . .
He raises his fist and strikes her in the nose
Four drops of blood issue from it . . .
And the lady says: “Thank you so much, my lord!
If it pleases you, you may do it again." (3)

The contrast between the mundane brutality of the romance and the disembodied rhetoric of the querelle des femmes is broad and telling. Literary antifeminism can thrive on tradition alone; it need not reflect actual behavior. But there is no gratuitous misogyny in the chansons de geste, and the full range of male-female relations in the feudal period is evident there, as in the friars’ sermons When Friar Guillaume exhorted wives to tolerate their husbands’ beatings and other cruelty “since these can not help but add to your merits and increase the size of your eventual reward,” he was not repeating a literary commonplace.

Misogyny has been treated in various ways by medievalists. Literary scholars have argued that attacks on women were part of a narrow debate that went no farther than the polemics themselves. When Chaucer satirized women he was “attempting neither to abolish a code nor to transform a sex,” one commentator has written. His antifeminism was part of “a very courtly game, which fits excellently into medieval pomp and ceremony, themselves only half-serious . . .” Attacks are always more amusing than defences, and making fun of a thing indicates acceptance of it. D. W. Robertson, a scholar unusually sensitive to the design of medieval thought, still sees only one side of medieval misogyny. The writers of the middle ages, he has said, “condemn women not because there is anything intrinsically evil about women, but because men may easily be regarded as a source of fleshly rather than spiritual satisfaction."

To make antifeminism into an allegory of the fight against fleshly desires is to ignore the abundant evidence of physical mistreatment of women and the popular beliefs about their innate inferiority to men. On every level of medieval credence—from proverbs to theological arguments—the myth of feminine weakness and vice was perpetuated, and no woman was free of its stigma.

Crucial to this myth was the continued growth in the early feudal age of the concept of the Christian virago. The Stoic idea Jerome had echoed—of the strong and courageous woman, able to fight and to stand up to men—merged with Germanic ideas about women’s bravery and fighting ability. But the synthesis of the two created a hybrid and artificial image. Rather of Verona evoked it in his ninth-century Praeloquia:

Are you a woman? Seek then zealously to turn the mildness inherent in your name [mulier] to the virtue of submissive obedience rather than to the vice of dissolution. For in the beginning the woman was called virago—that is, strong and manly [from vir, man].... A man in mind, a woman in body, seek to conquer the spirit of mindless vice and pleasure . . .(4)

In this curious passage the strength women had in the past is contrasted with their present weakness. What virtue a woman might attain she had to borrow from male characteristics; self-discipline and reason were seen as masculine, self-indulgence and sensuality, feminine. Only by becoming a man in her mind could a woman control her unruly and sinful body.

For Rather a virtuous woman was a sort of hermaphrodite with the intellect of a man and the physiology of a woman, and since this union was precarious and rare, few virtuous women were likely to exist. This version of the virago concept helped to reinforce the enduring patristic doctrine that admirable women were rare; to these were added the restrictions and incapacities of feudal and canon law.

In general, married women were not allowed to inherit or bequeath land, or to appear in court on their own behalf. Indeed their legal personalities were not so much repressed as nonexistent, for under much of medieval law a woman was her husband’s property, like his plate and his horses. In England, a man could not sue his wife for infidelity because he would in effect be suing himself. (He could sue her lover, but the suit would claim property damage, not adultery.) Canon lawyers set out in detail the subordinate position of women. “Man is the head of woman,” Gratian wrote, and repeated the passage from the pseudo-Augustine which argued that whereas Adam was made in God’s image Eve was made from Adam, and thus women were not made in the likeness of God in the same sense as men were.

Writers of the next generation were to find an even more persuasive justification for the superiority of men. Aristotle’s writings on the generation of animals defined a female as a “misbegotten male”—a biological imperfection useful only in reproduction. The male seed ordinarily breeds other males, Aristotle taught, other perfect beings. But should the sperm be flawed, or affected by accident or climate, a female is formed instead. This inherent imperfection was closely linked to the intellectual inferiority of women; “woman is naturally subject to man,” Aquinas wrote, “because in man the discretion of reason predominates.”

The Aristotelian argument passed into law, theology and even literature. Boccaccio called woman “an imperfect animal, obsessed with a thousand revolting and abominable passions,” and by the time he wrote the case against women had grown weighty and complex; from poetry and popular myth it expanded to embrace the chief categories of medieval learning, and few thinkers failed to repeat and elaborate the stock arguments of the misogynistic corpus.

Given this overwhelming antifeminist brief it would be odd not to find at least a thin strand of pro-feminist sentiment. Writing to Heloise and the nuns of the Paraclete, Abelard tried to restore to them a sense of the worth of their sex.

What has been so necessary to our redemption, he wrote, and to the salvation of the whole world as the female sex which brought forth for us the Saviour himself? The singularity of which honor the woman who first ventured to intrude upon Saint Hilarion opposed to his marvelling, saying: “Wherefore turn away thine eyes? Wherefore shun mine entreaty? Look not upon me as a woman but as one that is wretched. This sex gave birth to the Saviour.” What glory can be compared to this, which that sex won in the Mother of the Lord? The redeemer might, had he wished, have assumed his body from a man, as he chose to form the first woman from a man. But this singular grace of his humility he transferred to the honour of the weaker sex. He could also have been born of another and a more worthy part of the woman’s body than are the rest of men, who are born of that same vilest portion wherein they are conceived. But, to the incomparable honour of the weaker body, he far more highly consecrated its genitals by his birth than he had done those of the male by circumcision. (5)

Though he was writing to nuns, Abelard’s praise was for all women. Unlike the patristic writers, who had reserved their approval for women vowed to chastity, Abelard located the source of women’s worth in the very sexuality the Fathers had condemned. Praise of women was not entirely foreign to vernacular literature either; along with their misogyny many romances commended the “preudefame” and declared that “a good woman illumines an entire kingdom.” The English Southern Passion explicitly blamed those who criticized women in songs and books when blameless women are a commonplace of everyday experience, and lamented that a woman who strays from virtue is censured a thousand times more roundly than a sinful man.

But the most influential effort to rehabilitate women came from the vernacular preachers whose sermons informed the popular theology of the medieval West after the middle of the thirteenth century. In their sermons for the first time marriage was exalted as a desirable condition and a source of spiritual blessing, and a large number of arguments were advanced in behalf of this teaching. Instituted in paradise, before the fall of mankind, marriage was to be recommended for its antiquity as well as because it was an agency of concord in human affairs. In support of married life mendicant preachers quoted the text from Ecclesiastes, “Blessed is the man who has a good woman,” and even adopted the curious if venerable logic that marriage was good because it often resulted in daughters, and hence increased the number of virgins.

Another of the reasons commonly given for the excellence of the married state was that Mary had chosen to become a wife; here as in many other areas of moral theology her life was called up as an example for all women to follow. But this advocacy of marriage was based in a current of thought far broader than Mariology, a way of conceiving women’s lives that constituted a direct challenge to the patristic view of marriage as a pis aller. Several important mendicant theologians spoke of the “order” of married persons, and compared it advantageously to the religious orders of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Dominican Henry of Provins wrote that

the ordo of marriage is one whose statutes are not just from yesterday it has existed for as long as humanity itself. Ours and the Franciscan Order have only recently been established; all the other religious Orders belong to the era that becan with the incarnation. But the order of marriage is as old as the world itself. Moreover, our Order was the work of a simple mortal, a Spaniard, just as that of the Friars Minor was the work of a Lombard; it was God himself who instituted the order of marriage at the foundation of the world. (6)

Rehabilitating marriage could have gone far to rehabilitate ideas about women, but traditional antifeminist opinions were always stronger and more telling than philogyny. Abelard’s exaltation of women was accompanied by the old disparagement that “inasmuch as the female sex is naturally weaker, so is its virtue more acceptable to God and more worthy of honor,” and preachers who looked favorably on marriage in the abstract were more cynical when it came to judging actual unions. “Out of every thousand marriages,” the great preacher Bernardino of Siena insisted, “I believe 999 are the devil’s”.

When the experience of individual medieval women is examined, it is immediately apparent that in countless ways the realities of their lives were at odds with the abstract restrictions of theology, law, literature and folklore. The apparent contradictions are heightened when the biographies are those of noblewomen or others who belonged to the literate minority, and medieval women’s history has often been written as if it could be reconstructed from these contrasts. In this model, the power, achievements or relative freedom of a few medieval women were taken as proof that the rest were similarly unhampered by theoretical restraints.

But this assumption is misleading, on two counts. First, the historiographical bias that entered women’s history with the feminist movement imposed restrictions of its own, defining women’s past according to narrow modern concepts of limitation or liberty. But during most of the middle ages these categories had little meaning; in fact they obscure more important changes that affected women. And second, the few surviving biographies cannot without distortion be taken to stand for the incalculably varied experience of medieval women as a whole.

It now appears that, however much we may come to know of about the vision of medieval women, we will never have more than fragments of information about their real condition. Like the Jews women were excluded from most of public life, and what concerned them was thought to be both atypical and unworthy of record. Yet the most far-reaching themes in women’s history may very well be those which seem on the surface to have least to do with the whole of medieval society. The Frauenbewegung, or “women’s movement” of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the revival of female ministry and evangelism, the enclaves of female guilds and of women’s medical learning have seemed to both medieval and modern historians to form closed worlds, outside the mainstream. But much of the substance of woman’s history lies within these separate worlds, and although relatively little is known about them, they can shed light not only on the experience of medieval women but on medieval society as a whole.

The best-known of these separate domains is the one the nineteenth-century historian Karl Bucher called the Frauenfrage, or “woman question.” Whatever their conscious and unconscious motives, beginning in the early years of the thirteenth century large numbers of women in northern Europe chose to live together in the self-supporting houses called beguinages. The life they shared was anomalous in its form; beguines imposed on themselves a regimen grounded in piety and religious observance, but they generally took no vows and spent their productive time making cloth. Since Bucher’s time historians have argued over the precise nature of the beguines, some arguing that they were the product of a growing urban class-consciousness or of demographic shifts, others insisting on their essentially religious character. Neither interpretation attributes the phenomenal growth of the beguinage to the fact that they offered women the first respectable alternative to binding monastic vows or marriage. The beguine was a new treasure: a woman who lived in a pious community but was free to leave it at any time, a woman whose life was balanced between religious devotion and profitable labor, a woman who was not directly answerable to any man, and who, within her community, was entirely self-determined and entirely self-supporting.

Furthermore, the beguine movement may be seen as only one part of a broader change in the behavior and expectations of women that began in the twelfth century. They entered fervently into the revival of asceticism associated with the Premonstratensians and Cistercians early in the 1100’s. Accounts of women followers of Norbert of Xanten, founder of the Premonstratensians, told how “their behavior was even more strenuous and strict than the men’s”, while the women among the Cistercians

voluntarily assumed the order of Citeaux, passionately, yea freely. And putting aside their linen garments, dressed only in woolen tunics, . . . they not only did women’s work but also labored in the fields, clearing woods, pulling thorns and brambles, and, working assiduously with their hands, in silence they strove for their bread. (7)

In their enthusiasm a growing number of women defied the antique law of the church which, in the fourth century, had decreed that “no woman, no matter how learned or holy, may presume to teach men assembled together,” and not only preached but assumed priestly functions. A continuing stream of denunciations of women preachers reached a climax early in the thirteenth century, when Honorius III ordered the bishops of Valencia and Burgos to refuse the pulpit to abbesses, and the Dominican Humbert of Romans insisted that women must not be allowed to preach because of their inferior intelligence and status, their weakness for luxury, and because of the stigma of Eve, whose words had sealed the fate of mankind.

Although complaints about women priests were made throughout the middle ages, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries they were often linked to accusations of heresy, and it is clear that women were active and vocal participants in the heterodox groups of that age. A Premonstratensian abbot writing against the Waldensians devoted a lengthy chapter to the scandal that women among them were allowed to preach, arguing that if the scriptures enjoined silence on women and subjection to their husbands, it was all the more inappropriate for them to preach to other men. Abundant evidence shows that among the Cathars, women commonly attained the highest spiritual station, becoming perfectue and administering the Cathar sacraments and preaching. Others joined together to live communally, working to support themselves and entire convents of perfectae flourished in the south of France.

The similarity of these heretical women to the northern European beguines was noted by contemporaries, and led to denunciations and persecutions of both groups. But in reality the orthodox beguines of Flanders and the heretical women who lived communally in southern France may have been part of a monolithic change in the lives of medieval women, a renewed impetus toward participation and leadership in public life which found its readiest expression in the burgeoning religious movements of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. And by facilitating new forms of economic organization and increasing the numbers of adherents to new religio-social doctrines, alterations in women’s behavior were not only significant in themselves but in that they helped to determine the direction of medieval society in its entirety.

In the end any attempt to define the view of women resolves itself into an attempt to re-create the psychological climate within which most women lived out their lives. While many of the determinants of this climate are known, others remain to be discovered before the outlines of women’s history become clear. Until then the historian must listen for the infrequent sound of women’s voices in , chronicles and other records. “I am but a woman,” wrote a German nun in the eighth century whose name has not been preserved, “weak on account of the frailty of my sex, neither supported by the prerogatives of wisdom nor sustained by the consciousness of great power, yet impelled by earnestness of purpose . . .”

What unites these voices most consistently is a shared conviction of their place in the hierarchy of creation, below men and angels and yet above the lower animals. This condition they accepted as uniquely and appropriately their own, and the more learned they were the more eloquently they defined their role.

For woman is weak, and looks to man that she may gain strength from him, as the moon receives its strength from the sun; wherefore is she subject to the man, and ought always to be prepared to serve him. ...

For when God looked upon man he was well pleased, for man was made in his image and likeness.... But at her creation woman partook of a mixture of the two [man and God]; she is a different creature, created through another than God, . . . The woman is therefore the creation of the man . . . and the man signifies the divinity, the woman the humanity, of the Son of Cod. The man therefore presides over the tribunal of the world, ruling all creatures, while the woman is under his mastery, and subject to him. (8)

The woman who wrote these words, Hildegard of Bingen, was among the most learned figures of the twelfth century, yet she saw no reason to question the status she described. The circumstances of Eve’s creation, and her grave sin, proved the inferiority of all women, and attempts to redeem them were effectively opposed. For when it came to women, medieval perception lost its flexibility. From the age of the Montanists on, attempts to shape a countervision of women were drowned out or suppressed.

In the Dominican Annals of Colmar, the chronicler recorded that

A virgin came from England, fair to look on and eloquent in speech, who said that she was the Holy Spirit, made incarnate for the redemption of women. And she baptized women in the name of the Father, the Son and herself.

What obstacles the Englishwoman who believed she was the Holy Spirit encountered during her ministry to redeem women are not recorded. But after her death her corpse was exhumed and burnt, and at least two of the women who believed in her died at the stake.

Footnotes

1. Dissuasio, ed. Wright, p. 151.

2. Quoted in A. J. Denomy, “Fin'Amors: The Pure Love of the Troubadours, Its Amorality, and Possible Source”, Mediaeval Studies, VII (1945), 144.

3. Quoted in Leon Gautier, La Chevalerie (Paris, 1884), p. 350.

4. Rather of Verona, Praeloquia, ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia Latina, 136, 191.

5. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, tr. C. K. Scott Moncrieff (New York, 1926), pp. 159-160.

6. LaMarche, La Chaire française, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1886), p. 429.

7. Guibert de Nogent, De laude S. Mariae, ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia Latina, 156 (Paris, 1880), 1001-1002.

8. Hildegard of Bingen, Liber divinorum operibus simplicis hominis, ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologia Latina, 197 (Paris, 1882), 885.



Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

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Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

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