Double Standard for Women Saints

Two books - one history, one fiction - explore how women attained sainthood in the medieval church.


ca. 500-1100

By Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg U. of Chicago Press


By Michele Roberts

Ecco Press

308 pp., $24

Among the summer offerings are two books by women about women - women saints, to be exact. Both are drawn from one of the remotest periods of Christian history, when the Roman Catholic Church was extending its influence all over Europe, and sainthood was a growth industry.

In their books, American scholar Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg and London-based fiction writer Michele Roberts address the conditions, religious and secular, under which medieval women struggled to cope, contribute, and prevail.

Schulenburg places her historical study, Forgetful of Their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society ca. 500-1100, at the intersection of two currently burgeoning areas of historical research. One is hagiography, or the official accounts of saints' lives. The other is the status of women in medieval society and the church.

Historians have generally ignored Latin hagiography as unreliable. Compiled years or even decades after their subjects' deaths, hagiographic writings were extended eulogies, propaganda pieces intended to laud the saintly qualities of their protagonists. However, Schulenburg has found in them "incredible richness and an untapped wealth of information for historians studying early medieval society."

Her book is crammed with skillfully presented, though often repetitious, information about Radegund, Margaret of Scotland, Clotilda, and a host of other Catholic women saints. Distilled from Latin, French, German, and English sources, these accounts unquestionably fill blanks in one's knowledge of the Middle Ages.

The sweep of 600 years is rough-hewn into two periods. The first was marked by a less formalized, structured church. Queens and abbesses could, despite male-generated rules and prohibitions, function to an extent as patrons of the church, founders and administrators of monastic communities, peacemakers, social reformers, domestic proselytizers, healers, educators, and prophets. The church especially valued and rewarded wives and mothers who dedicated themselves to converting their royal sons and husbands - and often, as a consequence, whole kingdoms - to Christianity.

Then came the Carolingian, Cluniac, and other reforms of the mid-8th and 9th centuries - "a concerted attempt," writes Schulenburg, "at redefining authority and reorganizing society and the Church." Women's opportunities, already circumscribed, diminished. The number of monasteries for women shrank and, as a result, so did the number of women saints. Over the next two centuries, women found themselves increasingly controlled, segregated, and consigned by church fathers to passive domestic roles.

Schulenburg's title, "Forgetful of Their Sex," refers directly to the demand for integritas - total virginity. "For women," Schulenburg points out, "the preservation of virginity was the single most essential prerequisite for a life of Christian perfection.... For their rigorous repudiation of their own sexuality and espousal of virginity, they often won the highest patristic compliment: they were praised for their spiritual virility, for progressing toward perfect manhood."

She devotes an entire chapter to this subject, showing how fear, suspicion, even misogyny, led to an exaggerated emphasis on chastity, virginity, ascetic practices, and self-mortification.

Other chapters discuss and copiously illustrate medieval marriage and motherhood, women's sibling relationships, the profound importance of chaste friendships among men and women of the church, and saints' longevity.

From cover to cover, Schulenburg is the scrupulous academic. She never really lets her hair down and tells us how she feels about these medieval women, beyond calling the strongest of them "uncommon ... independent ... intrepid." If she feels indignation about what so many women suffered during that era, readers won't learn it from this book.

The obvious audience for "Forgetful of Their Sex" is specialists in medieval and religious studies and women's history. But its subject matter and readability give this book a broader appeal. It will be a kind of "roots" experience for some readers. They will hear the voices, haunted and haunting, of their distant ancestors and understand more about themselves.

Michele Roberts's collection of short stories, Impossible Saints, is another take altogether on the subject of women and sainthood.

With writing that is subjective and feminist, irreverent and, at times, offensive, Roberts has designed "saints" who are only lightly tethered to Earth or to any historical models. Her very human women aren't there to be loved or admired but to be accepted for what they are and do. They cope, some of them cleverly, some pathetically, with the mostly loutish, insensitive, strange, or selfish men around them.

Roberts is a good storyteller, but her concept of sainthood is unorthodox, to say the least. Sexual references, including incest, abound. The stories are uneven in quality. Some are flights of fancy not grounded in earthly reality or solid research and seriously lacking in detail and development.

She intersperses chapters of the longer "Story of St. Josephine" among a series of unrelated short stories, but Josephine fares better if her chapters are read as a unit. Roberts bounces back and forth in time, sometimes including characteristics of several eras in a single story. With Schulenburg's book as a reference, "Impossible Saints" is easier to fathom.

"Forgetful of Their Sex" makes a substantial and needed contribution to a specific body of knowledge. "Impossible Saints," regrettably, doesn't score an equivalent success.

* Linda Giedl is a freelance writer living in Boston.

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