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

Women, Men and Spiritual Power: Female Saints and Their Male Collaborators, by John W. Coakley. Gender, Theory, and Religion series. New York, Columbia University Press, 2006. 354 pp. $45.00 US (cloth).

Women, Men, and Spiritual Power provides a well-researched and insightful exploration of the dynamics of authority between female visionaries and their male confessors between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. Coakley begins with the familiar suggestion that the power of female mystics, derived from their direct relationship with God, was dichotomous to the institutional authority of clerics and the Church. However, in nine chapters that form the bulk of this book, he nuances precisely how these two separate spheres of authority interacted by carefully examining the relationships of nine female mystics and the men who provided them with spiritual guidance and, ultimately, legitimacy.

The two earliest pairings Coakley examines are Ekbert and Elisabeth of Schonau and Guibert of Gembloux and Hildegard of Bingen. His evidence suggests that the relationship between these mystics and their confessors do not yet reflect a system of discrete, separate spheres of power, for Ekbert controlled who had access to Elizabeth's visions, and Guibert--though Hildegard resisted this characterization--framed Hildegard's visions as a part of her monastic calling, shared by himself and, indeed, all religious. Coakley argues, rightly I think, that the model of parallel spheres of authority can only emerge when mystics and confessors do not share institutional authority: that is when male clerics begin to take charge of lay female visionaries, as they do in the thirteenth century. Thus, it is in the writing of James of Vitry on Mary of Oignies that the first conscious attempt is made to describe the separate spheres of power which James and Mary inhabit. For Peter of Dacia, Christine of Stommelm fulfills something that he finds lacking in himself, namely an intimate relationship with God. The relationship between Angela of Foligno and her unknown Franciscan confessor is also presented as a two-sphere system, though the anonymous author of the Memoriale suggests that the power of the mystic is not so different from that of a teacher or scholar. In this way, the anonymous friar lessens the distinction between his own institutional authority and Angela's inspirational power. In the relationship between Margaret of Cortona and her confessor, Giunta Bevegnati, Coakley sees Margaret explicitly questioning the limits of priestly authority in the face of spiritual power, derived from God himself.

For Coakley, however, it is in the relationship between Catherine of Siena and Raymond of Capua that "the two-sphere model of religious authority comes into its full maturity." Yet within this two-sphere system, there is a hierarchy for Raymond, who--unlike earlier male confessors--does not present himself as dependent upon Catherine and constantly stresses his own priestly authority over the saint. Similarly, in the last pair examined, Dorothy of Montau and John Marienwerder, Dorothy's spiritual authority is described as being used to help John understand her revelations. Dorothy's spiritual wisdom is presented as similar to the knowledge gleaned by scholars through reading books. For this reason, Dorothy's revelations can be wrong, just as a scholar can learn imperfectly. In this way, her spiritual authority is compromised and made inferior to institutional, clerical authority.

Thus, Coakley argues that while the twelfth through fourteenth centuries provided a space in which the relationship between the different spheres of female and male, lay and clerical authority were examined, by the end of the fourteenth century, the exploration had come almost full circle, returning to Ekbert's assumption of natural authority over the visionary Elisabeth of Schonau. This resumption of clerical authority occurred at least in part as a result of increasing worry about the genuineness of mystics' experiences and visions. As Coakley demonstrates, by the late 1300s, clerical suspicion about the power and influence of holy women was on the rise, creating a need for male spiritual directors and hagiographers to defend their charges. One strategy for doing so was to stress a holy woman's orthodoxy by dwelling on her confessions and her obedience to her male spiritual guide. This trend, for Coakley, brings to an end the previous two centuries' exploration of how the separate spheres of authority operated in the relationships between female visionaries and their male confessors.

Women, Men and Spiritual Power fills a void in the research on female mystics by closely examining how different economies of power operated between women mystics and their clerical confessors. Yet Coakley's work also raises questions for future research, particularly in the realm of the connection between gender and authority. For example, Coakley suggests that relationships of authority differed when visionaries and advisors both resided in the monastic realm, raising the question of the extent to which institutional status as much as gender played a role in defining power relationships. Further, Coakley's focus upon female mystics and their male confessors begs the question of how the relationships of power changed when the visionary was a lay male, a field of exploration just beginning to be mined. An excellent introduction to how male confessors used a variety of strategies to understand and negotiate their own influence in the face of female mystics' claim of spiritual authority directly from God, Women, Men and Spiritual Power nonetheless raises new questions for the field of medieval mysticism.

Donna Trembinski

Brown University
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Author:Trembinski, Donna
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2006
Words:882
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