Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Women and the Medieval Church.

I'm slowly savoring Stages on the Road, a collection of Sigrid Undset's essays on saints. I'm half-way through St. Angela Merici, an Italian woman of Medieval times who explodes every preconception about the downtrodden Catholic women of the "Middle Ages."

Undset opens the essay with a sharp, incise overview of the Medieval view of the fairer, weaker sex:

"[W]e can find expressions of every possible conception of the relations between man and woman -- except the view that after all there may be no great difference between men and women."

She goes on to make and defend the astonishing claim that, "[T]he fact is that, so long as Catholicism was the dominating element in the intellectual life of Europe, a woman who really had a contribution to make to the spiritual life of her time was given an opportunity to do so."

Hold the horse and milk the cow, what did she say?

That's right: "Even in such spheres of work as in general were looked upon as the property of men were not closed to those women who really had the power to accomplish something in them. People did not exactly expect to find such qualities in women every day, but if a woman possessed unusual gifts nobody thought her unwomanly on that account; she was merely considered to be an unusual woman."

She cites as examples the tremendous (and--in our post-Protestant school systems--forgotten) lives of Julian of Norwich, Margery Kemp of Lynn, Hildegard of Bingen, Paula of Rome and her daughter, Eustochium, Roswitha of Gandersheim, St. Gertrude, St. Mechtild of Magdeburg, and St. Mechtild of Hakeborn. To these more obscure names are added Bridget of Sweden (Undset's own native land), Catherine of Siena, and Teresa of Avila. I could spend years and still not read everything these women wrote, travel to the cities they traveled, or even approach all the prelates and so-called "men of power" to whom they prophesied.

(Side note: What in heaven's name do we mean by "power in the Church"? Can anyone explain why power is even an issue? If power is an issue for me, then I'm obviously a very bad Christian... which I am, but you know.)

Undset notes, "What made it possible for all these women to develop and make free use of their peculiar and unusual gifts was the fact that they lived in a world in which women were encouraged to cultivate what talents they had. If they could read and write, and that excellently, this implies of course that women who had learnt to read and write were no rarities--that they were surrounded by women and men who shared the same intellectual life in some degree."

Then the kicker:

"The necessary condition for the lively correspondence between the nuns and their spiritual leaders was the recognition of a sphere in which men and women could meet as human beings of equal value; the belief that in the sight of God a masculine soul and a feminine soul were equally precious, alike of such eternal value as to deserve His imparting Himself to them and forming them--but a masculine soul was a masculine soul and a feminine soul was a feminine soul. The differences and variations were a part of the diversity with which the Creator had adorned His creation."

Hot dang. A "recognition of a sphere" in which men and women can be equally precious in the very fact of their existence sounds much better than the current NPR trope: "It's vital that we have the same number of women in science as men in science! Inequality in the math department is unacceptable! Until there's a woman in the White House, this country cannot be safe for women!" Really.

Undset's essay is a must read--and it's worth buying the book to let publishers know that we want more of her caliber. She has a way of cutting to the essentials of the faith that is so utterly refreshing that, for the first time in weeks, I have enough energy to write those letters to the editor I ought to be writing.

Me and St. Mechtild.


Melanie B said...

One of the things I've loved about Undset's biography of Catherine of Siena is how often she takes the time to set the scene and interpret the medieval worldview for her modern readers.

I hadn't heard of this book but will definitely add it to my wish list. Sounds awesome.

Phoenix said...

LOVED Undset's bio of St. Catherine of Siena. MUST get this volume as well. Interesting that many hated Catherine--or tried to hate her--but their problem with her wasn't that she was a woman acting out of place, but that they thought she was putting them on.