Women of God and Arms: Female Spirituality and Political Conflict, 1380-1600.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. 264 pp. index. tbls. bibl. $55. ISBN: 0-8122-3892-3.
Close on the heels of Nancy Warren's terrific Spiritual Economies: Female Monasticism in Later Medieval England comes Women of God and Arms, a wide-ranging look at politics and female devotional practices in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England, Spain, and France. Like Warren's earlier book, Women of God and Arms focuses on the representational force of constructions of female piety, or, in Warren's (and Pierre Bourdieu's) term, their "symbolic capital." Yet whereas Spiritual Economies considered a handful of women's monastic communities in England, this new contribution is more ambitious. Warren returns to the community at Syon, considering its continental afterlife as a breeding-ground for subversives who returned surreptitiously to Protestant England. But she makes room for powerful queens like Isabel of Castile, prophets like Elizabeth Barton (executed by Henry VIII for complaining about his divorce to Isabel's daughter Katharine), and shrewd saints such as Colette of Corbie, who "parlay[ed] the symbolic capital available from her spirituality" (27) into material and political support from the Burgundians. A suggestive epilogue takes us to the new world, where the English Protestants Hariot and DeBry associated the heads of the ceremonial carvings from Algonquians' rituals with "the faces of Nonnes covered with theyr vayles" (176). Such language shows that medieval female spirituality retained as much representational value in 1600 "as it held for the dukes and duchesses of Burgundy and Isabel of Castile, although its value has been radically transformed" (177).
This last point addresses one of Warren's primary concerns: to argue for the continuity between medieval and early modern via an enduring fascination with women who transgressed conventional roles to intervene in political and even military affairs. The transgressors themselves frequently invoked the language and practice of piety to make their actions more palatable and more forceful. Margaret of York emphasized her devotion to Saints Barbara, Agnes, and Anne, long popular in Ghent, to "shape a new version of urban, public life beneficial to the ducal cause" (42). And the Augustinian friar Martin de Cordoba stressed Queen Isabel's purity and "legitimate royal descent" (96) to liken her with the Virgin Mary and differentiate her from the rival contestant for the throne, the "bastard" Juana. Yet if stereotypes of female spirituality were a potent resource for Isabel's supporters and Isabel herself, they could also come in handy for critics of these unconventional women. In the book's most complex chapter, "The Sword and the Cloister," Warren traces a triangular relationship among Joan of Arc, Margaret of Anjou (wife of England's Henry VI), and Christine de Pizan, author of, among many other things, poems celebrating Joan. Here we learn that Joan's martial success prompted a crisis of English masculinity that led editors and translators of Christine's works to invent for their author a life in a cloister from which she could not have intervened in state affairs--something anxious Englishmen wished was the case for their French queen, Margaret. On the other hand, given the ease with which Saint Colette moved between religious and political spheres, it was also the case that "female political agency is inescapably present even--perhaps especially--in the cloister" (86). Perhaps this is a point of which Hariot was uneasily aware when he wrote his reports about the Algonquians from Virginia.
The story Warren tells is a bracing one, enriched by dense networks of association she draws between secular and sacred, England and France, and Europe and the New World. Occasionally intrusive references to Zizek or Bourdieu make it more complicated than it might have been, particularly when allusions to contemporary critiques might have been just as illuminating. There are few statements about the symbolic capital of devotional practice more trenchant than chapter 21 of The Prince, where Machiavelli applauds Isabel's husband Ferdinand for carrying out great military successes "under the mantle of religion" (suggesting, of course, that male rulers also manipulated conventions of medieval spirituality, as Warren notes in regard to Henry VIII. Might Ferdinand have borrowed some of his strategies from Isabel?). Introducing Machiavelli might also have forced Warren to ask about the degree of sincerity involved in pious practices. It is an unanswerable question, but hard not to ask while reading about Colette's strategies to muster support for her foundation, or Margaret of York's fostering of Anglo-Burgundian relations. A kind of reductiveness creeps into these first two chapters, leaving the reader with the impression that the spiritual existed only for the purpose of transforming it into something more tangible. True, scholars have argued that women in positions of power like Margaret engaged in devotional practices to compensate for their lack of political influence, and the activist role of saints such as Catherine of Siena has long been minimized. Warren is right to correct the historical record. Yet her accounts of Margaret of York and Colette lack the nuances found in her discussions of Christine de Pizan's English legacy, the treatises written promoting Isabel's sanctity, and competing versions of England's Lancastrian past. I think that she is more subtle, and convincing, when discussing textual representations of women's struggles to bring together worldly and religious aims, or in some cases, to advance their religious causes in the world.
All in all, Warren offers much food for thought and debate as she identifies a diverse array of spiritual images and practices that were ripe for appropriation in early modern Europe. Intelligently written, Women of God and Arms is a welcome contribution to ongoing conversations about the many ways in which gender, politics, and religion converge, a topic more than a little relevant to our own times.
New York University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2006|
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