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Anglo-Saxon Women and the Church.

Both of these books deal with the very early centuries of the Middle Ages. Sainted Women provides the biographies of eighteen extraordinary women of the sixth and seventh centuries who played an active part in the harsh transformation of Roman Gaul into the Merovingian kingdoms of Neustria, Burgundy, and Austrasia. It ends with the life of Austreberta, abbess of Pouilly, who lived to see the unification of the three early kingdoms under one king which inaugurated the proto-Carolingian period. Anglo-Saxon Women and the Church, on the other hand, is not so much concerned with the lives and works of the queens and abbesses of the eighth and early ninth century as with the attitudes towards women of the clerics who corresponded with the nuns or wrote treatises for their edification or education. Hollis uses this material to buttress her firm conviction that there was a lowering of the status of women during this period which was encouraged by an intentional and conscious downgrading by clerics of powerful women, encouraged by the increasing influence of the Roman rather than the Celtic church. She lays particular emphasis on the influence of Theodore's Penitential and its harshness on sexual sins and female inferiority but also accuses the historian Bede of demeaning women by attempting to suppress or gloss over the education or the achievements of nuns, including the powerful Abbess Hild of Whitby.

Sainted Women of the Dark Ages is a useful collection of hard-to-find sources, ably translated into English, and provided with extraordinarily full notes and historical background which places both the lives themselves and the complex background of early Gaul in an intelligible setting. Although the book calls on the talents and particular expertise of several scholars, the main outlines and framework are those of Jo Ann McNamara who, with Suzanne Wemple and on her own, has devoted a productive scholarly career to the ramifications of Frankish society and particularly to the place of women in that society. The chosen eighteen women are a fascinating group, and the excellent individual introductions and generous footnotes make it possible, even for those who are only minimally acquainted with the period, to be able to follow the lives with some intelligence and depth. Most of these lives were written by their contemporaries (four of them by women). The four written by Carolingian authors claim to have based their work on earlier sources, but it is fascinating to observe the difference in both style and attitudes. These lives were all designed, in the ongoing tradition of hagiography, to provide models for the conduct of nuns, since they were meant to be read aloud in the refectory or on the saint's feast-day. They are particularly interesting to the modern reader because of the glimpses they unconsciously provide into Merovingian attitudes and the important place of women in that often unexplored period. The high social status of these sainted women, who included three queens as well as members of the Frankish nobility, helps to highlight one of the remarkable characteristics of Merovingian hagiograpby which emphasized the temporal as well as spiritual power of such protectresses and their value to their society. Only the life of Genovefa (better known to many of us as St. Genevieve, the saviour and patron saint of the city of Paris) depicts one of the lower nobility. Other elements also differ from the expected saint's life. In the early sixth century as these lives show, monastic life for women had not yet taken root north of the Loire. Genovefa, though recognized and admired as a consecrated virgin, was not enclosed nor cut off from many of the activities of daily life. Nor was virginity seen as the only possible route to sanctity. About half of the women portrayed had been married and many of them had borne children. These early sainted women were close to the original identification of saints as martyrs, and the constant parallel is made between their willingness to suffer martyrdom and the sufferings they had to undergo. Great importance was placed on the mirades performed by the saint or at her shrine to actually validate her sanctity, even though many "miracles" seem unimpressive. McNamara has succeeded in conveying a very good sense of the importance of these retired queens and great ladies in their activities as abbesses. They obviously exercised power and worked with the bishops as colleagues in the mission of christianizing Gaul. Their grasp of the complex political issues was comprehensive and they remained, even in religious life, very ready to exercise power outside the convent walls. Sainted Women of the Dark Ages throws new light on an often unknown period and should be remarkably useful for those interested in women's studies or religious and social history.

Hollis's book is less cohesive. The individual chapters sometimes appear to be separate papers without sufficient organic connection and with a fair amount of repetition. Her argument for an intentional and wide-spread derical effort in seventh- to eighth-century Anglo-Saxon England to circumscribe the authority of the abbesses and to derogate the intellectual level of the convents is not altogether convincing. Her reliance on Theodore's Penitential as an example of seventh-century attitudes is somewhat suspect, for she admits that the Penitential was much revised and did not really circulate till the mid-eight century. Her accusation that Bede edited out of his works all but the faintest shadow of Abbess Hild and her influence seems overblown. It is unfortunate that considerations of length have limited the citations from the texts discussed so as to make comparisons more difficult. Hollis has brought up a question of considerable interest for women's studies but her evidence is not always convincing and the use of rather trendy vocabulary, especially in frequently making nouns into verbs, for example, "foregrounding," is often annoying. Certainly, bishops appointed from Rome were attempting to impose the more clerical pattern of religious governance but it is still a debatable question whether they were as effective in downgrading in this earlier period Anglo-Saxon women of even the highest social rank as Hollis would like us to believe. Her book should encourage further useful controversy in how to chart more accurately the decline in power of Anglo-Saxon women.
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Author:Labarge, Margaret Wade
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1994
Words:1034
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