Tuesday, November 25, 2008

General Exams 1: Medieval

Today I took the first of my written exams for my generals; it was for my medieval minor. The test was a take home, open book and open notes. I had twenty four hours to answer the questions given with a 2500 word limit. Dr. Daniel Hobbins gave me three questions from which I had to choose two of them.

The question that I chose not to answer was:

When R. I. Moore published The Formation of a Persecuting Society in 1987, he brought the study of marginalized groups (Jews, heretics, and lepers) to the center of attention in medieval studies. Choose any three books and discuss each author’s approach and strategies for dealing with a marginalized group in European history. You may also address whether or not the author is in any way responding to Moore.

I was seriously thinking of doing this question. What I would have done was turn the question into a discussion of why the bottom dropped out from underneath the Jews in Western Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In 1096 you had the Crusades and the massacre of Jews in the Rhineland, but this is mob violence. Jews are still protected, both by the Church and by the secular authorities. In the twelfth century the Church begins to take an interest in Jewish money lending. 1144 we see the first ritual murder charges. Later in the century we have the first expulsion of Jews, which was carried out by Philip Augustus in 1182. This was rescinded and only covered a small area, greater Paris more or less. Things get really bad during the thirteenth centuries. Jews come face to face with full blown blood libels and desecration of the Host charges. They are subjected to an intense missionizing campaign and the assault on the Talmud that came its wake; the Talmud was burnt in Paris in 1242. By the end of the century Jews have been expelled from England and by the beginning of the fourteenth century they will be out of France as well. There are large scale massacres, possibly even worse than the Crusades, in Germany, effectively bringing an end to that community as well.

R. I Moore’s theory is that this turn of events was connected, one, to the general persecution of other marginal groups such as heretics and lepers and, two, that the source for this persecution was the rising clerical and merchant classes, which saw Jews as unwanted competition. In essence Moore sees this new persecution as being intimately connected to the twelfth century humanist and economic revolutions.

There are a number of other works of scholarship that come to mind to compare Moore to. Dominique Iogna-Prat’s Order & Exclusion: Cluny and Christiandom Face Heresy, Judaism, and Islam (1000-1150) takes a very similar line to Moore. Focusing on the thought of Peter the Venerable, Iogna-Prat builds a case for a major shift amongst Christian thinkers toward viewing society as a whole as a Christian society; one that was actively in a struggle with opposing forces, particularly Islam. Because of this the Church all of a sudden begins to take an interest in Jews and heretics within the borders of Christendom and begins to see them as a problem. Like Moore, Iogna-Prat sees the persecution of Jews as an extension of the move against heretics and other dissidents. Unlike Moore, Iogna-Prat directly connects this shift to the Church.

Jeremy Cohen, in his Friars and the Jews, argues that the key players in this shift were the newly formed mendicant orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. These groups, so Cohen argues, turned away from the Augustinian witness doctrine which had traditionally protected Jews. With the witness doctrine no longer applying, Jews become sitting targets for persecution.

Guido Kisch is a third perspective. His Jews in Medieval Germany, written during the 1940s, deals with Jews from the perspective of their status in various German law codes. His essential argument is that the introduction of Roman law into Germany, during the twelfth century, marked a downturn for Jews, because it specifically singled them out. No longer were Jews simply residents of the cities that they lived in; now they were in a special legal category all of their own. (Warning to all those that may be tempted into reading Kisch. Jews in Medieval Germany makes for a very effective sleeping pill and is useful for hand to hand combat. Handle with care.)

In the end I chose not to do this question as it was taking me down a highly interpretative angle and it would be a distinctively Jewish history response.

Here is the first question I did and my response:

The study of medieval religious history over the past generation has drawn much of its energy and inspiration from the study of religious women. Compare the approaches to the study of medieval women in works such as those of Bell, Bynum, Caciola, Coakley, Elliott, Schulenburg, and Voaden. You may address common themes and questions, areas of dispute or conflicting interpretations, and the strengths and/or limitations of these studies.

During the latter Middle Ages we see numerous examples of female religious leaders, and movements. Women such as Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373) and Catherine of Siena (1347-80) took on highly public roles, daring to criticize the Church hierarchy. These figures have provided the gist of much of modern scholarship on medieval religious life. I wish to discuss several examples of this to show how different scholars have confronted this issue of a “women’s” Christianity.

In Holy Anorexia, Rudolph Bell offers a psychoanalytical analysis of the phenomenon of extreme fasting in the vita of Christian holy women. Bell makes the highly provocative comparison between medieval women fasting, holy anorexia, and the relatively modern phenomenon of anorexia nervosa. Anorexia nervosa is a psychological disorder disproportionally affecting upper class teenage and young adult white women. Its chief symptoms are that the affected person takes an extreme interest in dieting and losing weight. This results in the person abhorring food and refusing to eat. When forced to eat the person will simply regurgitate what they ate. If not treated, the person is likely to starve to death.

According to Bell both medieval holy anorexics and modern suffers of anorexia nervosa, are responding to a lack of control in their lives, particularly as women. The very act of fasting is itself a submission to the demands of the outside world. For modern anorexics that outside world is that of a secular middle class. For medieval women that outside world was the Christian patriarchy of the Church.

In contrast to Bell’s psychoanalytical explanation for the attitude toward food displayed by certain medieval women, Caroline Bynum’s Holy Feast, Holy Fast, attempts to approach the issue from the perspective of the medieval world view. Clearly the women who starved themselves did not see themselves as merely trying to gain more control over their lives in the face of a patriarchal existence; they saw themselves as good Christians, acting in accordance with Christian theology or at least their understanding of Christian theology. This then becomes an opportunity for Bynum to reconstruct the theology of women in the late Middle Ages; one built around food, fasting and the Eucharist.

Unlike Bell, who views asceticism as being separate from food, Bynum views food and fasting as being intrinsically linked to each other, rejecting the dichotomy between eating and fasting; they are all part of one continual narrative, Christ suffering in order to bring about the salvation of the world. Of course men, during this time period, also identified themselves with Christ’s humanity and enacted his suffering. Women, though, approached the issue differently from men in that women viewed this through the particular lens of their experience as women. Women, unlike men, give birth to children and nurse them. Their bodies bring forth life and sustain it; their very bodies are food. Women in the later Middle Ages saw the narrative of Christ’s birth and death in this light. The human Christ came out of the body of Mary. He is the food which the faithful literally eat. The priest bringing forth the Eucharist could be a woman bringing forth a child. Christ bleeding from the lance in his side could be a woman giving forth milk from her breast.

The other side of the image of Christ as the food that nourishes the world is his suffering on the Cross. According to Christian theology, Christ gave his very flesh to bring nourishment to the world. Women imitated this by giving over their bodies. Bynum argues that, while men also fasted, it is in the vitae of female saints that food becomes a central motif. You see women who become saints because of their fasts or because they live off of the Eucharist. With men fasting is incidental. Francis of Assisi fasted, but his fasting is seen in terms of his embodiment of the poor and naked Christ.

Dyan Elliott criticizes Bynum’s positive narrative and, in its place, offers a narrative of a downward decline in woman’s spiritual activity from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. In the twelfth century, clerics seized on woman’s Eucharistic visions as proof of the Church’s teachings on Transubstantiation. Thus the female spirituality, which Bynum sees as a mark of the independent voices of women, was really something created by the male Church hierarchy in order to promote their own power at the expense of populist brands of Christianity, which were labeled “heresies.” Many of these “heretical” groups, such as the Guglielmites, granted women a larger role than in traditional Catholicism and allowed women to preach; women even appear as leaders in these groups.

Elliott makes her case by connecting various holy women to the Inquisition. Gregory IX (r. 1227-41) was the founder of the Inquisition. He was also a major sponsor of various holy women. He supported Mary of Oigenes (1177-1213) and the Beguine movement as well as Elisabeth of Hungary (1207-1231). Elisabeth of Hungary’s confessor was Conrad of Marburg (d. 1233), a close associate of Gregory IX. Conrad of Marburg, soon after Elisabeth’s death and after he successfully pushed for her canonization, became an inquisitor. Elliott argues that Conrad gained an aura of sanctity for himself because of his association with Elisabeth. This protected him from any opposition and allowed him to pursue heretics as he wished.

Elliot connects the very practices associated with female spirituality to the Inquisition. The practice of women torturing their bodies and the veneration of women as living relics was part of a shift away from martyrdom as the ideal to a new ideal that one should be dead to the world. The reason for this was that the Church was in a struggle against heresy and was actively executing heretics. As such the Church did not wish to allow these heretics to be turned into martyrs. Instead the Church created a new ideal of living martyrdom and offered up women as useful manifestation of it.

In the long run this process and mechanism for examining women, to see if they were under the influence of the Holy Spirit gave way, in the fifteenth century, to the creation of the process and mechanism for examining women to see if they were under the influence of the Devil. The same Inquisition culture that promoted the veneration of women in the end turned around and started hunting down women as witches.

Rosalynn Voaden sees prophecy as representing one of the very few areas in which women could be empowered even within a patriarchal system such as the Church. This empowerment depended on having access to the discourses found in the formal Church structure. Educated women could form useful alliances with members of the Church hierarchy and could translate their experiences in ways that men would understand.

The focus of Voaden’s work is on the concept of discretio spirituum. This was a methodology developed by clerics in the later Middle Ages to differentiate between people acting under the influence of the Holy Spirit and those acting under the influence of the devil. Voaden uses discretio spirituum to analyze the cases of two female visionaries, Bridget of Sweden and Margery Kempe and how they were received by the Church; Bridget of Sweden was successful at navigating the discourse of discretio spirituum, while Margery Kempe failed at it. Margery comes across, in her writing, as a very forceful and independent personality while Bridget of Sweden comes across as a blank cipher. Margery Kempe took a strongly independent role for herself; even though she attempted to gain the approval of the Church, she failed to hold on to a spiritual director. While she gained the respect of many ecclesiastical authorities, she constantly quarreled with her spiritual directors and hence could not hold on to one. Bridget of Sweden succeeded in maintaining the aid of Alfonso of Jaen, who went on to advocate for her canonization. Margery Kempe seems to have been fairly unlearned, particularly in matters related to discretio spirituum, while Bridget of Sweden was relatively well educated and, in particular, understood discretio spirituum. Margery Kempe’s visions tended to be more corporeal, while Bridget of Sweden’s visions were of an intellectual nature. Margery Kempe was a married woman, who had abandoned her husband for life as a wondering pilgrim. Furthermore she engaged in activities that seemed to veer rather closely to preaching. Bridget of Sweden, though she was originally married, became a nun after the death of her husband.

Despite the fact that Bridget of Sweden was portrayed by Alfonso of Jaen as a meek passive servant of the Church, her status as a visionary made a major power. Kings and popes alike heeded her advice. She involved herself in the Hundred Years Wars, supporting the English. She played a crucial role in bringing the papacy back to Rome from Avignon. She did live as a cloistered nun, but traveled about, working to create her own order of nuns, the Bridgettines.

John Coakley in Women, Men and Spiritual Power, like Bell and Elliott, analyzes medieval female spirituality from a male centric point of view. Unlike Bell and Elliott, though, Coakley has a more positive view of the women involved; they are more than mere puppets of their clergymen. In this sense Coakley serves as a useful bridge to Bynum’s position. Coakley focuses on how male clergymen looked at the female mystics in their charge and integrated them into their spiritual worldview. As with Voaden, Coakley sees the subjugated state of women in the later Middle Ages as ironically serving to empower them.

Coakley builds his case around a series of case studies of various female mystics and their male clerical collaborators. The first relationship that Coakley deals with is that of Elisabeth of Schonau (1129-1164) and her brother Ekbert (c. 1120-1184). Ekbert was careful to show his control over Elisabeth. He inserted himself into his writing. It is he who decides what should be revealed to others. Ekbert was concerned with theological matters and used Elisabeth as a research assistant of sorts to help him get answers from above. For example at one point he asks her if the Church father Origen was in Hell or not. Throughout the account of Elisabeth’s visions we find that the angels tell her to ask the learned doctors to explain to her what her visions mean. Elisabeth thus becomes a mere cipher, with which men of the Church could communicate with Heaven.

Hildegard of Bingen and Guibert of Gembloux (c. 1125-1213) had a very different sort of relationship. Guibert was different than Ekbert in that Guibert did not put himself forth as the gatekeeper for Hildegard. Guibert only came into contact with Hildegard at the end of her life. For the most part she managed to operate outside the model of female visionary male confessor champion. Guibert serves merely to record Hildegard’s actions and is of no real consequence.
While Elliott viewed James’ portrayal of Mary of Oignies in terms of being a supporter of priests with her Eucharistic devotions, Coakley sees James as granting Mary a level of power parallel to that of a priest. She did not deal with doctrine rather she was given knowledge about specific individuals. This allowed her to aid priests by letting them know about the states of the souls of the people in their care. Elliott sees this role of aider to priests, cynically, as pawns of the priesthood. Coakley sees this as a sign of independent power.

The relationship between Catherine of Siena and Raymond of Capua (1330-99) offers an excellent example of the final stage of evolution in the relationship between clergymen and female visionaries. Raymond consciously put himself forward as Catherine’s defender against those who doubted her prophecies or who questioned her refusal to eat. He is a witness to her life but is also an active partner in her labors.

Coakley, like Elliott, sees a downturn in the Church’s acceptance of female visionaries in the later part of the fourteenth century. The fact that Raymond had go as far as he did to defend Catherine’s sanctity demonstrates a growing skepticism on the part of the Church hierarchy. If the Church was beginning to show a greater level of interest in such women it was not in a way that boded well for them.

This answer of mine is essentially an abridged version of an essay that I wrote earlier in the year and posted on this blog. It is not cheating if you are cribbing off of yourself. I sent Dr. Hobbins an email asking him if I could just hand him the original paper. He said that it was fine to take from my paper but that I needed to give him a "new text." So I had to do some work on this answer.

Here the second question and my response:


The standard historiographical model of the late Middle Ages sees this period as one of crisis and even decline. Many scholars of the past generation have attempted to modify this model or to discard it entirely. Describe the different approaches to the late Middle Ages in any general surveys (Cantor, Southern, Funkenstein) or monographs that you have read (e.g., Blumenfeld-Kosinksi, Elliott, Smoller, Coleman, Iogna-Prat, or any others). Are any general trends or shifts in attitude visible in these studies? Does the standard model still appear relatively intact?

The late Middle Ages often receives short shrift. The standard historiographical model of the late Middle Ages, from the end of the thirteenth century through the early fifteenth century sees this period as one of crisis and even decline. A good example of this, at a popular level, is Barbara Tuchman’s Distant Mirror. The problem with the late Middle Ages is that it suffers from being between the Scholastic “Twelfth Century Renaissance"”and the Renaissance of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries so it is likely to be overlooked even by traditional defenders of the Middle Ages. Also the late Middle Ages saw a number of rather cataclysmic events on a number of fronts. There was the Black Death, which wiped out approximately one third of the European population and would come back periodically every few decades over the next few centuries to wreck its havoc. The late Middle Ages saw the series of conflicts between England and France known to us as the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). From the perspective of the Church this was a difficult period as well, with the Great Schism splitting the Church (1378-1415) into two and briefly three factions. I would like to offer some examples of attempts to rehabilitate the late Middle Ages both in terms of the “grand narrative” and in terms of specific case studies.

Norman Cantor viewed the late Middle Ages as the “Harvest of Medieval Thought,” opting to, in essence, go with a long Renaissance and in include the later Middle Ages as part of the Renaissance:

The crisis of the later Middle Ages did not distract the intellectuals and artists of Latin Christendom from theory and creativity. On the contrary, the gloom and doom of the times made them think all the more deeply about the nature of God, the universe, mankind, and society. In the midst of devastation from pandemics, war, climatic deterioration, and economic depression, they exhibited a passion for learning of all kinds – for linguistic and literary innovation, for philosophical and scientific inquiry, for massive productivity and creativity in the visual arts. No era in western civilization left a heritage of more masterpieces in literature and painting or seminal works of philosophy and theology. (Civilization of the Middle Ages pg. 529)

Cantor holds up the work of Duns Scotus and William of Occam as the preeminent examples of late medieval thought. Particularly with Occam, Cantor saw the Scientific Revolution really as starting in the fourteenth century with the shift toward emphasizing empirical observation and the breakaway from Aristotle. This had to wait until the sixteenth century for its full flowering due to the lack of societal support, there were no University chairs devoted to empirical science in the fourteenth century, and the undeveloped state of mathematics at the time.

In light of the inherent limitations in the way of scientific progress during the late Middle Ages Cantor focuses on mystical developments. This, for Cantor, is a legitimate form of progress and not a mere sinking into superstition because he sees late medieval mysticism as being rooted in a certain individualism in that we see an emphasis on the personal relationship of the lay individual to God, to Christ and to the Eucharist, essentially unmediated by the clergy. This becomes an important bridge into Renaissance humanism. Cantor’s approach to such figures as Thomas a Kempis and Nicholas of Cusa owes a lot to his teacher Richard Southern and how he approached Anselm. For Southern, Anselm marked a major shift in Christian thought. Anselm argued that Christ had to come down in human form and died on the Cross as a man in order to pay the price of humanities sins. According to the traditional understanding Christ, by taking on a human guise, tricked the Devil into trying to take his soul. By doing this Satan broke his original agreement with God that gave him a claim over the souls of mankind and, as such, the agreement became null and void. In the traditional perspective, human beings are passive spectators in a contest between God and the Devil. Anselm made Christ’s humanity, his life as a human being and his human suffering on Calvary, of central theological importance. This set the stage for a flowering of humanist thinking that expressed itself in theology, in philosophy and even helped bring about the rise of the medieval romance.

Laura Ackerman Smoller’s History, Prophecy, and the Stars: The Christian Astrology of Pierre D’Ailly, 1450-1420 is an example of the rehabilitation of one particular late medieval thinker from being pushed aside simply as an unoriginal thinker and, as such, unworthy of scholarly interest. Smoller acknowledges that from the perspective of simply looking at D’Ailly’s parts he was not an original thinker. What interests Smoller about D’Ailly, though, is how D’Ailly brought together such widely different currents as theology, astrology, Apocalypticism and church politics, creating something uniquely his own.

D’Ailly was one of the leading French theologians in late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries and the teacher Jean Gerson, the dominant figure in fifteenth century Scholasticism. The event that dominated D’Ailly’s life and thought was the Great Schism. The main focus of D’Ailly’s thought was his attempt to place this schism within the context of Christian theology. During the early years of the schism, D’Ailly saw this event in terms of the Apocalypse and the coming of the Anti-Christ. The Church was breaking up; such a disaster must prefigure the End of Days. Later in life, as D’Ailly became one of the leading figures involved in the conciliatory movement, first at the Council of Pisa in 1409 and then at the Council of Constance from 1414-1417, to get all the papal claimants to abdicate and allow the Church to be brought back together in the leadership of a new pope. In order to justify this new turn, D’Ailly turned to astrology. According to his astrological calculations the Apocalypse would not occur until 1796, leaving plenty of time for Church reunification.

Smoller is following in the footsteps of the late Marjorie Reeves in her incorporation of prophecy into the narrative of the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the rise of naturalistic thinking. For Smoller, D’Ailly’s turn toward astrology and his attempt to work out a prophetic narrative of history has nothing to do with him being “superstitious.” D’Ailly is part and parcel of the shift toward a mechanized view of the world. D’Ailly saw history as being subjected to set laws with causes firmly rooted in the natural world; in this case the influence of the stars. This is not really all that far removed from the work of Kepler and Newton and their mechanized heavenly motions.

My final example of an attempt to rehabilitate the late Middle Ages as a time of legitimate cultural growth is Joyce Coleman’s book, Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France. Coleman presents medieval literacy as being aural based. That people read aloud either to themselves or to others even when they could do otherwise because they preferred hearing texts. Coleman posits the existence of an aural reading culture thriving particularly during the late Middle Ages where people where actively interested in reading, if not by their own power than simply by taking part in hearing others read.

Running through the book and tying it all together is an analysis of Chaucer. Chaucer has traditionally served as an example of the rise of a silent reader. At various points in his famous Canterbury Tales, and his less well known work such as Troilus and Criseyde, talks about reading and addresses himself to a reader. This has traditionally been interpreted as Chaucer writing with the assumption that his work would be read by privately by an individual. The fact that Chaucer also talks about people listening to stories is brushed aside as Chaucer giving a nod to traditional forms of narrative. Coleman rejects this interpretation of Chaucer and offers her own analysis of Chaucer using her theory of aurality. According to her reading of Chaucer, when he talks about a reader he is referring to someone either reading his work aloud to a group or someone having his work read to him. This reading of Chaucer has the advantage over more traditional readings in that it takes into account his references to the telling over of his work and the reading of it.

For Coleman, Chaucer and the aural mode of reading that he represents is an important piece in the creation of the reading society. It is not that print was invented in the fifteenth century and all of a sudden people went from being medieval illiterates to Renaissance literates. The Middle Ages, of course, was a far more literate age than the stereotype would suggest and there was plenty of illiteracy during the Renaissance. What is crucial here, though, was that the printing revolution in the fifteenth century came in the wake of reading revolution that occurred during the late Middle Ages. This mass rise in popular reading, both for pleasure and for business, brought about the rise of print. As such the late Middle Ages must be viewed as an important cultural watershed in its own right.

The work of scholars such as Cantor, Smoller and Coleman offer an alternative perspective of the late Middle Ages. No one is trying to push away such calamities as the Black Death, the Hundred Years War and the Great Schism, but that is not the entire story. There is another side to this story which also has to be told. Similarly, on an intellectual front, there is more to the late Middle Ages than the hardening of Scholasticism into hard dogma, killing all original thought. This was also the era of Occam, of Cusa and of a Kempis. Even scholastics such as D’Ailly, who, at first glance, might seem to have been nothing more than redactors of the scholastic tradition, upon examination, also come into their own as important thinkers in their own right.

In this case I also cribbed a little off of my earlier work, something that I posted here. I did go quite a bit over my word limit. I assume no one will really mind. Well next on the schedule is my exam is early modern with Dr. Robert Davis. It will be under the same general format as this exam. I do not expect to the same luck as I had this time around. I am looking forward to it. For now I guess I should be packing to go home for Thanksgiving. I can start panicking again once I get through the weekend.

1 comment:

Miss S. said...

I feel your response on the "religious women" question was very good. I have engaged in no former study of Christianity or its foundations. But growing up Protestant and going to Catholic school for a while, I always got the impression that female ascetics were simply repenting (punishing?) themselves for being more "inherently sinful" than their male counterparts. Christianity seems to present male=good (Jesus), and female=bad (Eve, Mary Magdalene). The female conceives in sin and bears a sinful being that is in need of salvation from a male source. Therefore, a woman must resort to more extreme acts of penitence in order to reach a level of holiness. On the surface, fasting and celibacy seem to be equal burdens on both sexes. However, with women, this not only effects them, but their children or their ability to have children. Therefore, they themselves are also preventing the "creation of more sin".