Wednesday, August 29, 2007

More Orthodox Women

Some may not understand why, here at millinerd, the subject of medieval women increasingly comes up. Perhaps, as with the musical numbers in Grease, when the topic arises you look the other way and await resumption of the normal plotline. Yet there is a reason.

In the last several decades, outspoken historians have gone to the Middle Ages in search of fast and loose heretical women - women they wished to posthumously recruit to help subvert patriarchy. Fine as it may be to criticize patriarchy (or any other disordered archy), more recent historians have been waking up to the fact that this approach made for grossly unrepresentative history: most medieval women weren't burned at the stake for heresy (a fact accounted for by the perpetuation of the human race through the medieval period).

There were problems with the method besides its inaccuracy. Never mind that such behavior is uncomfortably similar to that of an unrestrained frat-boy on Spring Break (searching for fast-and-loose women); another problem with the method was that it left many orthodox women of the present assuming that church history is against them, when in fact it is heretical women of the present who are, historically speaking, so much more alone.

Corrections to the historical record, so lately warped, have not been coming from sideline scholars. I've already mentioned the esteemed Carolyn Walker Bynum. Also to be noted is Harvard's Jeffrey Hamburger, who has made a successful career out of correcting theoretical trend-mongering in medieval art history:
"Despite the temptation to enlist medieval women in modern struggles, they should not be interpreted exclusively in terms of the opposition between repression or resistance, authority and subversion. Some women, especially those outside religious orders, championed heterodox or heretical beliefs and paid with their lives. But to rehearse or even to romanticize the notion that heresy ran rampant among women is merely to reiterate the preferred charge of their most hostile critics. More often than not, female mystics, at least as idealized by their advisers, served (or were co-opted) as champions of orthodoxy and ecclesiastical reform. Moreover, many nuns were little interested in mysticism, if by mysticism we mean extravagant forms of piety beyond those prescribed by rules and liturgical rites. We should no more imagine enclosed women in a permanent state of ecstasy than we should give credence to the salacious stories of 'wayward' nuns so widely circulated during the later Middle Ages." (31).
Romanticizing heretical women (or men) is to parrot the charge of their most hostile critics. It's a thought worth considering.