Related Lives: Confessors and Their Female Penitents, 1450-1750.
Jodi Bilinkoff's title, Related Lives, refers to the human relationships that developed within the sacrament of confession in the cultures of Catholic Christendom on both sides of the Atlantic from 1450 to 1750. Bilinkoff derives her information about these relationships from the manifold forms of life-writing, commonly known as "lives; written by or about the two actors required for the performance of sacramental confession, confessor, and penitent. Confessors, who came from the ranks of the ordained clergy and religious orders, conducted the sacrament, which in addition to hearing the penitent's account of sinfulness, entailed assigning penance, and on judging it completed, pronouncing absolution. The term "penitents" refers to any person making confession to a priest in the course of the practice of the Catholic Christian faith, although as the subtitle indicates, Bilinkoff delimits her study to women confessants.
For her investigation, Bilinkoff assembled a corpus of forty-nine "lives" that portray relationships between men and women that germinated or developed in the practice of confession. Generally speaking, these texts can be considered life-writing (biography and autobiography) in that they rely at least in part on narratives of the lives of either confessor or penitent. Further, they are hagiographical, meaning in this context that at least one of the subjects is a saint, a term used for a person considered unusually pious or efficacious in securing divine intervention, and not reserved for posthumous attribution or official pronouncement. These labels belie the idiosyncratic nature of the texts, into which the writers have imported numerous additional genres, such as letters of spiritual direction, journal entries, transcribed conversations, doctrinal statements, and sworn testimony. Any given "life" may include two or more of these genres in various combinations and sometimes less than seamlessly connected. Bilinkoff notes that some of these pastiches have been accurately described as "cut-and-paste jobs."
While none of these texts approaches the range of spiritual exploration or rhetorical power of the prototypical Christian spiritual autobiography, Augustine's Confessions, they reached very large audiences. The recently invented printing press enabled the Church to distribute them for instructional use in its far-flung evangelical projects: in Europe, reinforcing the Catholic faith to minimize further defections to Protestantism; and in the so-called New World, converting native peoples to Christianity, thus to save their souls as well as to extend the footprint of Church and state over large new territories. As a historian, Bilinkoff mines these texts for information about the Roman Catholic Church, its priests in particular, as well as social and cultural features of early modern life, such as marriage, gender, privacy, spirituality, and literacy. For its attention to the men in these texts, more often read during the past two decades for information about the women, Related Lives complements two recent and similarly important books: Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters, edited by Catherine M. Mooney (Pennsylvania, 1999) and Women, Men, and Spiritual Power: Female Saints and Their Male Collaborators, by John Coakley (Columbia, 2006).
Bilinkoff considers that the three centuries between her delimiting dates, 1450-1750, comprise a coherent period in Catholic Christendom in several respects, including the renewed attention to the sacraments in reaction to the Protestant repudiation of them as well as to internal charges of laxity and corruption that had been festering for at least two centuries. Attempts to recapture the rigor of the early Church, movements variously known as the Counterreformation or Catholic Reform, culminated in the authoritative doctrinal canons issued by the Council of Trent in 1563. Bilinkoff forthrightly admits that her linguistic limits restricted her geographical boundaries to Spain, France, Italy, and Portugal, along with colonies in Spanish America and French Canada. Because this region encompassed the majority and mainstream of Roman Catholic Europe and the most relevant colonies, the omission of Eastern European and Flemish Catholics, for example, does not diminish the significance of her conclusions.
By making confession a precondition for communion, the Council of Trent gave increased significance to the sacrament that Martin Luther famously pronounced ineffectual for himself. The ligature of confession to communion increased the frequency of confession, sometimes to once a week, thus heightening the intensity of the interaction between priest and penitent. While most men and women made confessions and took communion, women were more likely than men to participate in these sacraments, and to do so more often, with the result that the majority of the encounters, hence the relationships, between confessor and penitent were gendered male-female.
With her title for chapter 2, "How to be a Counter-Reformation Hagiographer," Bilinkoff calls attention to the fact that a priest writing such a hagiography often acquired spiritual stature by association. Certainly some confessors had personal ambitions, whether to demonstrate their prowess in spiritual direction or to claim enlightenment acquired in the company of a spiritually gifted penitent. Most of these authors also had their institutional obligations in mind: to fulfill the confessor's responsibility to portray models of devotion and to defend the sacrament of confession and doctrines such as the intercession of saints. More often than not, the power of the human relationship, forged by the frequency, confidentiality, and personal nature of the sacrament, eclipsed purely personal and institutional motives, however. Most confessors represented here wrote to express admiration and affection for their penitents (as in life of the future St. Catherine of Genoa), gratitude to their mentors or superiors (Pedro Ribadeneyra on Ignatius of Loyola, a male-male relationship Bilinkoff uses for comparison), or praise for the region, nation, or monastic order associated with the saint. In addition to access to the saint, Bilinkoff mentions "literary bent" and "literary vocation" as attributes of some hagiographers, citing the evidence of their having written numerous texts, sometimes in other genres, such as doctrinal treatises. Below, by way of conclusion, I suggest some ways such a "literary bent" might be located within these texts.
In the title of chapter 3, "Whose 'Life' Is This Anyway?" Bilinkoff suggests the frequent intrusion of confessors' autobiographies into biographies of the saints. These texts represent the collaborative enterprise of confessor and penitent, with portions often written by additional hands or giving voice to motives and interests of numerous witnesses. One of the three case studies Bilinkoff presents in this chapter, Mariana de Jesus (1565-1624) and Juan Bautista de Santisimo Sacramento (1553-1616), illustrates the idiosyncratic provenance of a "life." As a young girl in Madrid, Mariana exhibited precocious piety and although she did not join an order, she privately committed herself to rigorous sanctity based on the model of St. Catherine of Siena. In 1598 Juan Bautista, a member of the Mercedarian order newly arrived in Madrid from the provinces, became Mariana's confessor. Their relationship benefited both of them, as he validated her mystical experiences and facilitated her affiliation with the Mercedarians as a tertiary, while her reputation for piety, which he helped to create and disseminate, contributed to giving him the authority to found a Mercedarian friary under a reformed rule. When in 1613 his superior requested that he make a record of Mariana's spiritual life, he transcribed some of his conversations with her and also wrote his own reminiscences. Their parts differ considerably in emphasis: she concentrates on her own spiritual experiences, while he focuses on the Mercedarian order's sponsorship of Mariana and on the miracles her piety effected for others. The two-part manuscript remained unfinished from Juan's death in 1616 until 1660, when Juan de la Presentaci6n, a member of the reformed Mercedarians, the third hand in this textual creation, pressed their document into service for his chronicle of the order.
Bilinkoff's title for chapter 4, "Soul Mates" suggests the sense of unusually strong, even divinely ordained, compatibility evoked by most of these confessors and penitents. With respect to mutual understanding and intimate communication, these pairs rivaled and often surpassed the typical early modern husband and wife. Most marriages of the period rested on financial arrangements and familial alliances rather than personal affinity or sexual attraction. Men and women lived most of their active lives in separate or minimally overlapping spheres, women in the private domain and men in public life. For women, confined to the home and children, the reinvigorated sacrament of confession provided a very attractive expansion of their repertoire of interactions with men. Like the larger society, the Church assigned different roles to the genders. To women, the Church attributed capacities to receive divine revelations and to effect miracles through their intercessory prayers. Because the Church also designated imaginative excesses and susceptibility to deception by the devil as feminine, it considered that women should be directed by men, to whom the Church attributed superior powers of reasoning and judgment.
These hagiographical texts portray these relationships between confessor and female penitent as intimate and affectionate, but entirely chaste. Nonetheless, as Bilinkoff remarks briefly but tantalizingly in the last sentence of the chapter, these relationships often aroused gossip. Even granting that these relationships never involved sexual intercourse (and I am not completely convinced of that despite an informative footnote contrasting coercive, abusive relationships with these "related lives"), the kinds of physical interaction Bilinkoff describes, effecting bodily changes in one another and nursing each other through long illnesses, might well have enabled sexual arousal of some kind. Here I share the curiosity of the gossips, I suppose, though I wish not to sully any reputations but to interrogate the texts for clues to the full dimensions of the relationships, both the sordid and the sublime, and the expression given to the sexual energies so obviously channeled into these relationships, even if most often repressed or suppressed. Also, any intense relationship usually produces some severe conflicts and disappointments, as did that between Teresa de Jesus (later St. Teresa of Avila) and Jeronimo Gracian. Teresa felt a strong personal attraction to Gracian at first sight, and she valued his family's connections to the court of Philip II, but eventually she would have reason to feel abandoned, perhaps even betrayed by him.
The final chapter, "Reading Habits," in which Bilinkoff confines her discussion to the female readers of hagiographical texts by and about women, brings some of the most interesting conclusions. Women were avid readers of the lives of female saints; illiterate women managed to hear them read aloud. Female readers found much to inspire them in these lives, including the relative independence accorded holy women and nuns; the respect and attention deriving from divine favors; arenas for the exercise of their abilities and sympathies; and their relationships with men. Even having studied St. Teresa's writings, I confess that I had never considered that some early modern female readers of her Life quite possibly found her interaction with her confessors (principally Garcia de Toledo, as she had not yet met Gracian) an intriguing, appealing part of her narrative. Women began to fashion themselves on the model of these saintly women, sometimes encouraged by spiritual visitations from them, as well as signs such as shared national identity, similar life circumstances, or coincidence of given names.
In this excellent book, meticulously documented, with a clear line of argument articulated in energetic, readable prose, Bilinkoff not only contributes important new data to the history of early modern religious practices but also enlarges the range of literature in the period. She also paves the way for more literary analyses of these texts. Despite the generally pedestrian prose and formulaic plots of the "lives" I would like to see scholars examine what literary features they might include, such as figurative language, allusions to scripture, structural devices, and stylistic resources of individual writers. Also, the press of even closer readings than Bilinkoff's might yield information about submerged frictions, romantic fantasies, and other aspects of these relationships that were less than regular and thus censored or left unexpressed. Bilinkoff has expertly covered the historical terrain, and the fact that she opens some new avenues in other disciplines only increases the significance of this solid piece of scholarship.
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|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
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