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Related Lives: Confessors and Their Female Penitents, 1450-1750.

Related Lives: Confessors and Their Female Penitents, 1450-1750. By Jodi Bilinkoff. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005. xiv + 184 pp. $45.00 cloth.

In recent years, religious women including those with formal religious vocations, lay sisters, penitents, or exceptionally pious laywomen known as beata have been the subjects of numerous studies. But little attention has been paid to women and the confessional, especially to the spiritual friendship between female penitents and their confessors. Stephen Haliczer's important work on Sexuality in the Confessional (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) was limited to one geographic area, and Thomas Tentler's Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977) focused on a limited period of time. There have been a number of fine narrative histories of confession and penance, studies of theological debates about the meaning of penance and salvation, examinations of confessors' manuals, and studies of organized groups of penitents. Professor Jody Bilinkoff's study goes deeper into confessional relationship and the meaning of holiness, spiritual direction, and a penitential life for women. In this original and provocative study, Bilinkoff raises interesting questions about the relationships that emerged from the confessional between the female penitent in search of salvation and her male confessors who listened and assigned penances.

This is not a book about sexuality in the confessional. Rather it is an original and provocative study of the lives and the writing about the lives of female penitents by their confessors, spiritual directors, or other men who became intrigued or inspired by their lives. Drawing from hundreds of possible texts, Bilinkoff has chosen forty-two life narratives of saintly women that derived from the confessor-penitent relationship, from male promoters or biographers, or from autobiographies that apparently originated from the prompting of a confessor. Geographically the texts cover the heartland of Catholicism from Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, Canada, and Spanish America and temporally from the period between 1450 and 1750. The women were from a variety of religious backgrounds: some had religious vocations, others were widows who entered convents as nuns or lay sisters, and still others were pious laywomen. Their male biographers were as varied as their subjects: secular priests, Jesuits, bishops, cathedral canons, and a few members of religious orders.

Why, asks Bilinkoff, did their confessors or other near-contemporary men write about the lives of these women? Although admittedly basing her study and conclusions on a small sample, Bilinkoff, because of her judicious choices of texts and their subjects, is able to make valid observations and convincing conclusions about the lives of holy women, their confessors, and biographers. According to Bilinkoff, hagiographies about uncanonized saintly women were written for a variety of reasons: to validate the subjects' unusual piety, to present women with examples of female piety, as a way for their spiritual directors to certify that their spiritual daughters were unquestionably orthodox, to establish documentation against the eventuality of canonization, and even to aid in transmitting orthodoxy and Catholic culture to colonies in the New World.

Bilinkoff reminds her readers that the period of her study was one of transition from the medieval to the modern church that included the challenges of the Reformation. Thus these biographical texts carried a special significance in the development of the early modern penitential culture, which included popular preachers and their sermons that focused on sin and salvation. Catholic culture at this time was marked by the laity demanding frequent confession and Communion and the rapid growth of penitential confraternities in the cities and towns across Western Europe. Historians are well aware of the longing of devout laity for lives that might lead to spiritual perfection, and for more frequent confession and Communion. But here in the examination of these rich and complex texts from different European milieus, the individuality of the penitents and of their biographers emerges in a powerful and nuanced way.

This study is not just about spiritual friendships between pious women and clergy. Many previous studies have dealt with this topic. The unique contribution that Bilinkoff makes in this study is to show us hagiography that transcends the formulaic. Here through her choice and analysis of the texts, we become acquainted with the individuality of both the holy women and their biographers. Moreover, she convincingly demonstrates the importance of this literary genre for promoting Catholic culture immediately before, during, and after the upheavals of the Reformation and Counter Reformation.

Aside from the subjects and authors of these texts, Bilinkoff notes the significance of the "sheer number and wide distribution" of the texts. This leads her to explore book production and dissemination and what the autobiographies and biographies reveal about the impact of books, especially these books on women's lives. There is no doubt that there were plenty of examples of hagiographical best sellers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of which her examples are but a portion. Who was reading these books; how did women "discover" them; who especially among the pious women did ordinary women identify with is the subject of her final chapter. Through examination of publishers' data such as numbers of printings, and women's reports of their reading and interaction with the Lives, Bilinkoff demonstrates a fervent readership that she argues "played a pivotal role in the preservation and perpetuation of Catholic culture."

This book is a gem. It is, like all of Bilinkoff's previous work, carefully researched. She reveals her methodology, the questions that lead her to and through this study, and her choice of sources. She provides a unique insight into the lives of pious women and their spiritual biographers and ordinary women who read the books. Finally, we have a unique glimpse of early modem European culture. Scholars and their students will find much to examine and ponder in this study.

Charmarie J. Blaisdell

Northeastern University, Emerita
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Author:Blaisdell, Charmarie J.
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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