Wordtrade LogoWordtrade.com

Religion Christianity


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Wordtrade LogoWordtrade.com


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Agnes Blannbekin, Viennese Beguine: Life and Revelations by Agnes Blannbekin, introduction and translation by Ulrike Wiethaus (Library of Medieval Women: D.S. Brewer) It has no doubt been more difficult for Christian women than for their male counterparts to pursue a purely religious lifestyle. Medieval European cultures defined women's proper role through their reproductive potential as mothers in a social system that privileged the rights of families over individuals and the rights of men over women. Girls were frequently married off at the onset of puberty and were expected to fit smoothly into the husband's family household economy through their domestic labor and the production of heirs to their spouses' lineage. Married women's right to own property and, once widowed, to inherit a sufficiently large proportion of wealth to keep them from a life of poverty, was severely regulated and differed widely across geographical regions and social classes.  Among the nobility, "surplus" daughters could be sent to a monastery with a dowry, often at a young age. Many of them used the cultural and financial resources of a monastery to develop their formidable talents as writers, composers, theologians, and educators. If a family had developed strong ties to a particular monastery, it could also use it as a safe and respectable retirement home for its widows, whose inheritance and personal wealth added to the monastic coffers?

Daughters from poorer families could participate in the cloistered life as so‑called lay sisters. They were not permitted to sing the daily liturgical off‑ices in the choir like noble nuns (the so‑called "choir nuns"), were only minimally educated in reading and writing skills, and had to perform the many menial tasks necessary to maintain the smooth daily operations of a monastery. Many female saints' stories tell us about a budding saint's brave refusal to get married and her determination to espouse herself to the heavenly bridegroom Christ instead. Such refusals could carry negative social consequences for the family if the daughter could not find a respectable niche, especially since for many of them admission to a monastery was not possible. Apart from a cloistered life in a well‑respected monastic community, young women, widows, and sometimes even married women could try to find one or more sponsors who would support them financially if they chose to live as anchoresses. Julian of Norwich (ca. 1343‑after 1416) is perhaps the best‑known medieval anchoress today. Her remarkable theological writings testify to the educational possibilities available to a woman who chose this path. On the other end of the anchorite spectrum, we find the sad story of Christina Mirabilis (d.1224), who tried to pursue the life of a hermit but was brutally persecuted by villagers when she searched for a place to live outside her village. She was eventually brought back to the village, bound with iron chains, and her legs were broken. It is likely that her maltreatment was possible because she lacked sponsorship and the protection of male family members.'

Medieval women, whether unmarried or widowed, found a third option that gave them more independence than enclosure as a nun or anchoress could afford them: communal same‑sex living with pooled resources, daily liturgical practices, prayer services for the poor, the sick, and the dead, but also relative freedom of self governance. Eventually, members of these groups came to be named "Beguines", and their living quarters a "Beguinage". Some architectural remains of Beguinages can still be found in towns and cities today, especially in the Low Countries. Despite this common name, communities could differ in many details, from size, material well being, and rules to loose pastoral and theological affiliation with either Franciscans or Dominicans. Some women who very likely were Beguines, such as Mechthild of Magdeburg (ca. 1212‑82 or 1292), also eventually joined monasteries in their old age.

The first woman recognized as Beguine by the Church is Marie d'Oignies (1177‑1213), whose life has been preserved for posterity by two illustrious biographers, Jacques de Vitry (1170‑1240) and Thomas of Cantimpre (ca. 1200‑70). Marie's life exemplifies the spectrum of medieval Christian women's choices discussed above: she was married at the age of fourteen, remained childless, and perhaps as a consequence chose to live as an anchoress for some years. Later in life she became the revered leader of a group of like‑minded religious women. As is true for other Beguines, Marie's contributions as a "cultural worker" should not be underestimated. Because of her exemplary lifestyle, her experience as a married woman, and also her charisma, a woman‑centered cult arose around her that sought to ensure healing and especially safe delivery during childbirth. The anonymous History of the Church of Oignies thus reports to us that

In those day there flourished at Oignies that most precious pearl of Christ, Marie d'Oignies. Those who enjoyed her patronage have transmitted to posterity the story of her life, which was endowed with the virtue of many miracles. In God's name she cured the sick, cleansed lepers, and drove out demons from possessed bodies and, what is more, raised the dead. Her very clothing is in our reverent possession still. When women in labor are wrapped in it, they are freed from the danger of death and rejoice in a happy birth.

We find most evidence about Beguinages in the Low Countries, northern and southern France, and Germany. In Italy, a similar movement developed, although the communities rather quickly attached themselves as so‑called tertiaries or Third Order to the Franciscan and Dominican orders. It is against this broadly sketched background that we can approach Agnes Blannbekin's spirituality.

The known facts of Agnes Blannbekin's life are quickly told, since our only source of information about her is her Life and Revelations. Her date of birth is not recorded. According to the vita, she was the daughter of farmers (perhaps from a village named Plambach) and displayed a religious vocation early on in her life. Blannbekin learned to read but not to write, and she dedicated herself to the celibate life of a Beguine in Vienna. We do not know whether she worked for a living like so many other Beguines, whether she lived alone or with other women, and whether others recognized her as a holy woman to the degree that her anonymous confessor and scribe did. Her reputation might have been ambiguous, since contemporaries sometimes derided her and thought her to be odd, for example, when she compulsively bowed toward a basement window that she passed on her way across town (chapter 44). In this incident, Agnes regained respectability only after a stolen Eucharistic wafer was discovered in the basement. On occasion, she felt wrongly accused and defamed (chapter 178).

Much of Blannbekin's autobiographical information follows well‑established patterns of thirteenth‑century women's mysticism: penitential exercises, fasting, eucharistic piety, visions, ecstasies, and auditions, prayers for others, and a strong attachment to the mendicant orders.

Although the text of Agnes's Life and Revelations paints such a lively picture of daily life in a religious subculture, modern scholars and writers have ignored the richness of Blannbekin's accounts in favor of a select few of her visions that challenged their own norms and world‑view. The following quotations may serve as illustrations of such selective appropriations of the Life and Revelations: "Agnes Blannbekin, a Viennese Beguine, d. 1315, provides repulsive proof of the impact of the imagination on female visionaries"; her visions are "more than questionable", "unusual and exotic [befremdlich] in their bizarre character", of "strongly obscene mystical content". The mystic herself is "scurrilous" and "adventurous", a "vacuous [blutleer]" yet "delicious" Viennese virgin." These unfavorable interpretations have only recently been replaced by a younger generation of medievalists, whose views no doubt have been shaped by greater appreciation for the cultural achievements of medieval Christian women mystics and the impact of the feminist "third wave".

In stark contrast to earlier approaches, recent studies have praised her visions for their "poetically amazing descriptive images". She herself is lauded as an "accomplished writer", "advanced" in her use of mystical metaphor; rather than being an eccentric, she is now defined as "solidly loyal in faith and practice to the institutional church

The fault lines of the current interpretive approach to Blanribekin's accounts lie not in the area of female religious respectability, but in contemporary Western concerns about female power and authorial independence. Concomitantly, we find a focus on issues of social dissent and the related question of mysticism as an expression of medieval (female) emancipation. Thus, scholarly evaluations of the 1990s tried to gauge the degree of influence of Blannbekin's anonymous confessor, who put into writing and also commented upon her orally communicated experiences, stories and insights (see, e.g., chapter 92). As can be expected, opinions range from the claim of Blannbekin as sole author to speculations about the authorial dominance of her confessor/scribe to the point of his erasure of any specifically "feminine" perspective from Agnes. 13 A related concern is that Blannbekin was not accustomed to Latin, which removed her even further from the scribe's sphere of influence. In this case, however, it might be of some comfort that the scribe's Latin, in Dinzelbacher's words, is "not only simplistic, but . . . simply bad". 14 I like to think that it is of such inelegant quality exactly because its grammatical and rhetorical structure is so close to Middle High German and thus Blannbekin's and her confessor's language of conversation and exchange. It might be another clue that much of the text was written during or immediately after a meeting between the two, especially given the fact that much of its compositional structure is in the form of a "diary". 15 It seems that the events recorded are listed without a uniform overarching compositional intent. Apart from the first few chapters which are programmatic in character, they generally follow the flow of the liturgical year and reflect the random patterns of town scandals, unrest caused by military conflicts, times of illness and health, emotional ups and downs, and so on. I know of no other medieval text that reflects the format of a diary in quite this way.

The quest for authorial independence in medieval women's literature, however, can miss two significant issues. The first is that in our need to counteract centuries of misogyny, we may become blinded to the fact that despite their inferior social position, medieval women, like their male counterparts, were still moral agents. Medieval women, like medieval men, had the choice to support or subvert Christianity's efforts to marginalize and persecute groups such as homosexuals, lepers, Jews, and people of color. Thus we find Agnes repeating the widely known legend about the death of sodomites at the birth of Christ (chapter 193‑94). She repeatedly condemns Jews (chapters 181,190,193‑94), presents a negative portrayal of Ethiopians and associates dark skin with evil (chapters 205,122,123), and interprets leprosy as a sign of moral corruption (chapter 28). When read from the perspective of any of these marginalized groups, Agnes's religious beliefs are put into sharp relief as an example of Christian hegemonic strategies, often successful, to employ its subaltern members to its own ends.

The second issue overlooked easily is the importance of literary genres in the construction of authorial personae. Blannbekin's Vita et revelationes is exemplary of a distinctly medieval genre in the history of Christian women writers: the co‑authored devotional text. Illiterate, semi‑Latinate or non‑Latinate female religious specialists would dictate revelations, autobiographical reflections, letters, and devotional teachings to male and sometimes female scribes, who often, but not always, also served as the female specialist's confessor, secretary, mentor, or pupil. It is still a matter of contention to what degree of precision the textual influence of male scribes can be categorized and classified. No doubt, each case of such collaboration must be studied carefully to determine the extent to which a female mystic and visionary controlled the final written product.

As the product of a collaborative process, such devotional texts take a complex transitional position between oral transmissions of religious knowledge and the single‑authored literary texts to which we are used today. For reason of their unique mode of production, 4o‑authored texts demand special attention, yet they also deserve to be treated as legitimate literary outlets for medieval Christian women. Other female authors besides Blannbekin who employed male scribes include the German visionary Hildegard of Bingen (1098‑1179), the Italian holy women Angela of Foligno (1248­1309) and Catherine of Siena (1347‑80), and the English lay woman Margery Kempe (ca. 1373‑1438), to name just a few. Clearly, the practice of co‑authorship transcends not only boundaries of gender, but also of religious orders (it can be found among the Benedictines, the Dominicans, the Franciscans), of class (noble, peasant, bourgeois), of geography, and of the divide between laity, monks, and clerics.

The Life and Revelations of Agnes Blannbekin exemplifies several characteristics of this widely used hybrid genre. These include the admiration a male scribe often voiced for his female co‑author. Unusual also is the close cooperation between two celibate members of a Church which judged any encounter between men and women as potentially dangerous and sinful and the authority each role permitted. Also worthy of attention are the points of contact between stereotypically "learned" (celibate, male, clerical) and "experiential" (female, monastic, Beguine, or lay) approaches to medieval spirituality and theology, and, finally, the complex ways in which women's voices survived in and became part of the written heritage of medieval Christian culture.

In Agnes's case, her anonymous scribe identified himself only as a "most insignificant and unworthy Brother of the Franciscan Order" (preface). He disclosed himself as her confessor (chapter 38). According to his testimony, Agnes repeatedly resisted sharing her extraordinary mystical experiences with him, and only after requesting and receiving affirmative signs from the Divine did she proceed to pass information on to him. "And although she was strengthened by God through such signs, she almost always talked to me with fear and shyness, prompted by me with frequent requests" (chapter 38; see also chapter 37).

The Life of Saint Douceline: A Beguine of Provence translated from the Occitan with Introduction and notes and Interpretive essay by Philippine De Porcellet and Madeleine Jeay (Library of Medieval Women: Boydell & Brewer) Excerpt from Introduction: Despite considerable scholarly attention, the early history of the development of the beguine way of life for women, like that of their male counterparts, the beghards, remains largely obscure. It is likely that, as Ernest McDonnell has suggested, it was a spontaneous movement which recognized no single founder. However, its ideological roots are clear enough; they can be traced from the widespread attempt to address the question of "whether each and every Christian might not be called by the command of the gospels and the example of the apostles to model his or her life on the gospels and apostolic standards". This movement, promoting a return to evangelical authenticity, was supported and disseminated by the vernacular preaching which was at the heart of the general movement towards the popularization of religion. Such popular preachers as Lambert le Begue who, in the late 1170s, promoted clerical reform in the diocese of Liege and translated portions of the Bible for the edification of laymen, were apostles of the new popular religious movement. This burgeoning lay spirituality was closely related to the rise of urbanization and its most well‑developed effects can be seen in areas where urban development was most pronounced.

In some areas monastic houses, unable or unwilling to accommodate more women, began to turn away new recruits, just at the time when women of the new urban classes were seeking some form of communal spirituality. The proliferation of new foundations of nunneries was insufficient for the ever‑increasing number of pious women, intent on adopting lives of devotion and poverty, especially in the diocese of Liege.'4 But this practical difficulty was compounded by the ambiguous attitude of the male orders: the Premonstratensians and Cistercians were reluctant to assume either pastoral or economic responsibility for the women and were anxious to exclude them from their abbeys, while women continued to be disadvantaged by not being allowed to regulate their own forms of religious life and to found their own independent orders.

There is evidence that pious women in the north were first attracted to the Premonstratensian order. When the order refused to accept more recruits they joined the Cistercians; when they too refused to take any more "these women formed communities belonging to no order at all, following no specific rule, but binding themselves in all strictness to commandments of female piety in chastity and poverty, prayer and fasting". By the early thirteenth century the emergence of the Franciscan and Dominican orders in Southern Europe provided new spiritual opportunities for men, but for their female would‑be followers the mendicant lifestyle was not a practical possibility. Moreover, both of the male mendicant orders strenuously resisted the women's claims on their ministry and their resources. 18

Yet while some women may have been thwarted in their efforts to join established orders, others may well have found the life of a beguine, one who lived a spiritual life while continuing to live and work in the world, a more satisfying way of emulating the apostolic life. It is clear that many of the communities of humiliati in Italy, as well as groups of mulieres religiosae in southern Flanders, predate the establishment of the Franciscan order. This new form of religious practice was to spread beyond Italy and Flanders and was develop a vigorous identity and momentum of its own.

The beguine's way of life can be seen as "semi‑religious", situated liminally between the formal religious life of a nun and the life of a lay woman. The beguinage was a retreat, especially well adapted to an urban society, where women living in common could pursue a spiritual life. Rather than being tied for life to a formal vow of poverty, chastity and obedience, the beguine's obligation to observe chastity and obedience was considered temporary in nature, conditioned by personal desire and contingent on residence in the beguinage. Simple vows, often made without witnesses, distinguished the induction of a beguine from the public profession made by a nun? As we shall see in Douceline's vita, the question of poverty was a complex one but, in general, beguines could retain their property or even acquire property while living in the community…

The conclusions of its first modern editor and translator into French, Abbot Albanes, have been corroborated by a more recent editor, R. Gout. The project of gathering information about the mystical journey of their founder and delivering her message through her biography must have emanated from the sisters themselves, who had an earlier version of the work read to them for the first time at the celebration of Douceline's feast on 1 September 1297. The most obvious indication of its authorship is the fact that the Life did not borrow the language of the learned and clerics, Latin. Rather, it was written in the vernacular Provençal. Also, as Albanes notes, no outsider could have described the location so precisely ‑ the oratory, dormitory and garden ‑ or known in such accurate detail the circumstances of the events recounted or been able to so often quote Douceline's own words. A reliable sign that the author of the Life belonged to the community of beguines is her unquestioning enthusiasm for the saint and her deep admiration for the institution, which is said to be under the protection of God and the Holy Trinity. At one point in the narrative, the author almost reveals her identity as one of the saint's "children" (14:32).

Albanes' identification of Philippine Porcellet as the author of the Life, among all the sisters who belonged to the important aristocratic houses of the region, is entirely convincing. Her entry into the community is described in some detail in the Life because it affords the opportunity to reveal Douceline's commitment to poverty; the holy mother declines Philippine's offer to donate her wealth This young widow, the mother of three daughters, was related to one of the most rich and powerful families of Provence. Her brother, Guillaume Porcellet, was a counsellor of Charles of Anjou, king of Sicily, the only Frenchman who was not killed in the massacre of the Sicilian Vespers. Philippine's wealth was to prove useful to the community, as when she acquired properties surrounding the beguines' house in Marseilles But her most significant contribution must have been her spiritual stature, recognized by Douceline herself, who designated her as the prioress to whom she would submit and whom she would obey.' After Douceline's death, Philippine was elected as the prioress of the convent and she held that office when the first version of the Life was written and read for the celebration of the founder's feast.

Because it was composed by a sister who was a member of the community, the text faithfully reflects the ideals and intentions of the beguines themselves. An indication of its importance for them is demonstrated by two miracles, one connected with its writing and another with its public reading. During the writing of the Life, one of the sisters began to have doubts about referring to Douceline as a saint 9a One night, Douceline appeared to a novice who was stricken by a sudden illness; she touched the novice's feet with her hand so that the sick sister was totally healed, then she showed herself to the doubting sister, who repented of her evil thoughts. This anecdote provides an illustration of all the sisters' involvement in the gathering and selection of data for the composition of the Life. The second miracle occurred the very day of the first reading of Douceline's Life when Maragde Porcellet, Philippine's niece, was cured of her loss of the power of speech Both stories stress the text's importance for the whole community, which was its primary audience. The purpose of the Life, beyond its role as spiritual model for the sisters, was clearly to promote the idea of Douceline's saintliness and to provide grounds for her canonization, a crucial element in ensuring the community's survival…

In contrast to these lives, where each individual account is transcended in order to provide a spiritual lesson to the reader, Douceline's vita conveys the Franciscan message, with the primary objective of promoting her own way of relaying that message through her institution. This author generally remains in the background, avoiding any overt reference to herself. Vitry and Cantimpre, on the other hand, demonstrate their command of the rhetoric of the genre. The topoi of professing their own ineptitude and humility and their authentication of the facts by presenting them as first‑hand information or learnt from reliable witnesses, are commonplaces which both biographers carefully develop. Other manifestations of their compliance with the rules of good writing are their introductory procedures, such as explaining the circumstances of the enterprise, the dedication of the work to its sponsor, and the exposition of its main divisions. More revealing are their relatively frequent interventions and comments which exhibit their familiarity with the scriptures or the writings of the Fathers as well as convey their own views. Their theological approach is reflected in the very structure of their works, their divisions reflecting the recognized stages on the path of perfection.

If Philippine briefly sacrifices to the compulsory humility topos and takes pains to provide evidence for the authenticity of Douceline's miracles, she does not indulge any overt display of scriptural knowledge, even if she consents to a few quotations in Latin, nor does she make any clear statement of her own opinions. This does not mean that her work lacks sophistication. Brunei‑Lobrichon has discussed the beauty of a text which philologists have considered a most remarkable piece of Occitan literature since Paul Meyer published some pages in 1871.

This vita is as well structured as the lives written by the author's male counterparts, in part because of the influence of Bonaventure's biography of St. Francis, the very text that transported Douceline into rapture when she read the life of the saint.' An Occitan version of the Legenda major was prepared at about the same date as Philippine's text' and the parallels between both lives go beyond their similar division in fifteen chapters. Many details in Douceline's experiences can be directly related to anecdotes recounted about St. Francis. Douceline's own constant references to his saintliness and his dedication to poverty, as well as to his holy stigmata (1:2: 5:9; 9:42; 9:44) are not just the result of her brother Hugh of Digne's teaching, but manifest her personal knowledge and interpretation of the saint's life. She demonstrates her attachment to the virtue of humility in choosing ‑ as Francis himself did ‑ someone in the community whom she could obey (4:9). Other striking correspondences are the role played by birds ‑ she is ravished by their singing (9:19) ‑ and their similar attitude toward the other sex, the sight of whom must be avoided. Both complied with that prohibition to the extent that Francis scarcely knew any woman by sight, and Douceline "hardly knew any man by his face" (6:4).

The importance of this translation is to provide much needed evidence for the religious lives of women as they themselves shaped them.

Headline 3

insert content here

WT Main | About WT | Review Links | Contact | Review Sources | Search

Copyright © 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Headline 3

insert content here