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Women, Men, & Spiritual Power: Female Saints & Their Male Collaborators.

Women, Men, & Spiritual Power: Female Saints & Their Male Collaborators. By John W. Coakley. (New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 2006. Pp. ii, 354. $45.00.)

In this book, the author studies narratives by men of the lives of nine late-medieval female prophets and mystics. John W. Coakley understands that though gender and power play an important role in human relationships, life is richer than this, and he subtly draws out the many factors at work in the collaboration between his female subjects and the clergy who wrote about them, often caught between their desire to maintain authority over these women and a fascination with their spiritual gifts, which could lead to a desire to be tutored by them. The result was often a kind of partnership in which the gifts of each stood side-by-side, each building up the other. The argument, sketched out in the introduction, is that until about 1400 clerics were confident enough in their own authority to question its limits, but often that, as is argued in the conclusion, their confidence waned as they became increasingly nervous about female charismatic power, resulting in such things as the view that what once had been considered privileged access to God was instead witchcraft.

In the first chapter the author addresses the religious authority, and the nine following chapters study one of the paired cases. Coakley draws attention to the fact that women's prophetic functions tended to coordinate to men's public functions, rather than to undermine them. Especially the second and third chapters, on Ekbert and Elisabeth of Schonau, and on Guibert of Gembloux and Hildegard of Bingen, examine the idea that men and women had different spheres of authority. Some matters introduced in passing could have borne more thorough discussion: thus Ekbert's statement that "fornication" is "a term which does not apply to the married" implies a specific understanding of fornication not necessarily present in earlier centuries (31). The chapter on Hildegard is particularly satisfying. One of Coakley's aims is to show the variety of relationships between his holy women and their collaborators. Often these involve some form of subordination, but Hildegard understands that her calling as prophet is simply different from that of Guibert as priest. Hildegard saw functional distinction to flow from sex distinction (priest as male, church as female), not from masculine domination. Each had a proper sphere, each their own kind of authority, and these were not ranked, though, as Coakley puts it, Hildegard's claim is that "her words are God's words" (63). One of the themes of subsequent chapters is that, in her understanding of her calling, Hildegard anticipated what was to come.

In chapter four, Coakley analyzes "James of Vitry and the Other World of Mary of Oignies," the earliest instance of a cleric writing about a mystic Beguine lay woman. The following four chapters treat a series of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century clerics who both sharply distinguished between the priestly and charismatic forms of authority and played with the idea of role reversal in ideolizing their respective visionaries. Especially good chapters on Catherine of Siena and Dorothy of Montau conclude the book and argue for growing caution towards charismatic women as we approach 1400.

Glenn W. Olsen

University of Utah

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Author:Olsen, Glenn W.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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