Women and religion in the middle ages

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The Middle Ages is closely identified with religious manifestations. Romanesque and then Gothic Cathedrals with their majestic spires, flying buttresses, copious carvings, and glorious stained glass windows were visible signs epitomizing people's piety. Nuns and monks, pilgrimages, saints, and the crusades are examples of additional evidence that medieval people were imbued with their Christian faith. Some historians refer to the high middle ages as the Age of Faith. There was not a separation between Medieval culture and Christian culture. Nearly all art, literature, festivities, and rituals were Christian in context. Calendar dating used a saint's name not a number like we do today. People's speech was punctuated with Christian references. Goodbye in English was the same as Adieu in French and Adios in Spanish, meaning God be with you or Godspeed.

There were various religious opportunities for women in the Middle Ages. Nunneries were open to young girls whose families had enough money to provide a dowry comparable to one for marriage. In some places, widows, unmarried older women, orphans, illegitimate daughters, girls with birth defects, political prisoners, and wives separated from their husbands were allowed into the convents. Sometimes women and girls were placed in nunneries to keep them from inheriting a huge estate. Katherine Beauchamp was forced to become a nun at Shouldham in 1367 to stop her from claiming inheritance rights to the vast Beauchamp estates. William, the Duke of Normandy, and his wife Matilda established a monastery and nunnery at Caen in France. It was to assuage their guilt for marrying within the forbidden five degrees, and to celebrate his successful conquest of England. They also gave their young daughter Cecila to the convent.

Wealthy women were benefactors in the establishment and maintenance of these nunneries. A religious calling was not mandatory for females to enter nunneries. There were many orders for women to choose from: Benedictines, Cluniacs, Cistercians, Premonstratensians and Poor Clares. Since the most respected thinkers in the Middle Ages came from monastic orders, monastic ideals of asceticism and chastity dominated philosophies about sanctity. Virginity was as highly revered as in the early days of Christianity. What the nuns did in the convents was different than what the monks did. Besides following the liturgical hours for prayer and meditation, nuns embroidered liturgical garments and altar pieces, and copied or illuminated manuscripts. Some female houses also did the laundry and other housekeeping chores for neighboring priests or monks. In poor nunneries women did their own housework, but in wealthy convents they hired out all household tasks.

Convents also offered women many advantages: the opportunity for advanced education, an outlet for their creative talents, and the executive chance to be the administrative head of the nunnery, the abbess. As an abbess, the woman had tremendous privileges and benefits. While over the course of the Middle Ages, some of their authority was lessened, being an abbess was special. Some English and German abbesses of large and important houses were equal with the greatest spiritual and temporal lords of the realm. In Germany these women went as representatives to the Imperial Diet, the legislative body for the Holy Roman Empire. One Saxon abbess even was allowed to mint coins with her likeness on them. Late medieval abbesses were influential mediators in political or military crises, common enough during this time.

Another classification of authority in the Middle Ages were the canons and canonesses. Canonesses were highborn women who lived under a monastic rule, but with fewer restrictions. Residing in the residences of these establishments, the women were often allowed to retain their personal goods, keep maids, and sometimes even return to lay society. In many of these communities only the abbess had to be celibate. Because nunneries with canonesses as opposed to nunneries with abbesses, were usually more wealthy, powerful, and independent, male ecclesiastical authorities eventually succeeding in causing their decline.

Mendicant orders such as the Poor Clares, the feminine branch of the Franciscans, were usually located in towns, mixing freely with the townspeople. The Poor Clares did not wander from town to town as the male Franciscans did, because nuns were not allowed this privilege. Margaret of Corton, born of a peasant family around 1247, was a Poor Clare, taking special care of pregnant women in foundling hospitals and houses of refuge. A special monastic order for women were the Beguines. They usually were located in Northern Europe. They did not have to take strict vows, and could leave if they wanted to get married. They had to work to support themselves because they were not from the wealthy class. Some made lace (Belgian lace was famous), others were fullers, washing the wool in the canals for weavers. Others took care of the elderly and sick, and some operated schools. In some of the towns the Beguines even had citizenship rights, usually reserved for men. In other towns the sisters did not pay taxes on their earnings, making them persona non gratia with the guilds, who did pay taxes. When some Beguines translated the Bible into German and French, forbidden by church authorities, and other Beguines openly debated questions of faith and theology, severe consequences occurred. Margaret Porete composed a mystical work entitled The Mirror of Simple Souls. In 1310 she was burned at the stake when it was denounced as a heretical work. Because of some of the Beguines' independent lifestyles, authorities in certain areas charged them with vagrancy, begging, and even prostitution or lesbian relationships.

Double monasteries, usually led by an abbess were important, especially in the early Middle Ages. A double monastery was where there were both a monastery for monks and a nunnery for nuns, with the official head an abbess, not an abbot. As the Middle Ages progressed, the number of double monasteries declined, because church leadership did not like the feminine political structure. While England had the most double monasteries, they were also found in France and Germany. St. Hilda, the abbess for the double monastery at Whitby in northern England, was perhaps the most famous and most learned abbess. Another double monastery was Fontevrault Abbey, founded in 1099. There were three thousand monks and nuns there in the first half of the twelfth century. This is where Eleanor of Aquitaine is buried, and where she spent the last years of her life. It was only closed in the French Revolutionary period.

Many other religious opportunities were open for women in the Middle Ages. The most important Crusades from 1095-1271, while mainly composed of knights who were to fight the infidels or Muslims in the Holy Land, were sometimes accompanied by their wives and families. One contemporary chronicler of the Crusades reported that some 50,000 women died of plague during the First Crusade in 1095. While medieval statistics can be grossly flawed, we know that women fought and died alongside the men. Other women went along as prostitutes. Perhaps the most valuable women were those who washed the clothes. Other women went to atone for past sins. Some women who did not go paid for others to go. Isabella of France used her entire inheritance to send ten knights on the seventh Crusade. One of the most interesting outcomes of the crusades was the advent of courtly love literature. This is discussed elsewhere.

Pilgrimages offered one of the few acceptable excuses for women to travel beyond their homes. Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales reflects this chance to travel, and is in many ways pilgrimages are analogous to holidays and vacations of today. Women's ability to go on pilgrimages was more limited than men's and in Chaucer's tales of the twenty-nine pilgrims only three are women. Until the fourteenth century nearly 86% of female pilgrims were from the lower classes. Once the pilgrims arrived at their destination, women sold pilgrim badges and other souvenirs from booths located near the shrines. Perhaps the most famous pilgrim was Margery Kempe, ca. 1373-1438, who one author called a "wandering evangelist". We learned about Margery when her dictated memoirs were discovered approximately seventy-five years ago attached to another manuscript. After the birth of her first child she apparently suffered what we call today, severe postpartum depression. By her account, visions of Christ restored her senses and she went on to have thirteen more children. When she was about forty she began to have visions, and Margery became convinced that Christ wanted her to live in celibacy, and devote the remainder of her life to pursuing holiness. She then got her husband to accept a vow of celibacy, and she spent most of the next twenty years travelling to pilgrimage sites, including long trek to Jerusalem, plus Our Lady of Walsingham and Thomas Becket's Shrine at Canterbury Cathedral in England. Copious weeping made her fellow travelers disconcerted, and many rejected her because of her odd behavior. Although she was regarded as mentally unbalanced during her life and since, her love for Christ made a deep impression on many. Colin Hill has edited her writings in the Book of Margery Kempe.

Margery Kempe may also be called a mystic. Mysticism was practiced by nuns, peasants, townswomen, and aristocrats. Mystics had visionary experiences, usually with Christ, and many of them were called bridal mystics, signifying their relationship with Jesus. Some of these visions of God were sexually gratifying like Beatrice of Nazareth, (d. 1268): "it seems...the veins are bursting...the bones softening...the throat parching...the body in its every part feels this inward heat, and this is the fever of love."

Hildegard of Bingen, as one of the most powerful abbesses was also a mystic. Born near the German city of Mainz, she was a sickly child. Her parents gave her to the anchoress Utta. Hildegard who was tutored by Utta, remained with her mentor when she formed a small Benedictine Nunnery. After Utta's death, Hildegard became the abbess. From the age of five Hildegard claimed to have visions and to have been directed by the divine light: "The visions which I saw I did not perceive in dreams or sleeping nor in delirium...but watchful and intent in mind I received them according to the will of God." Saying she was commanded by God four times to write down her visions, Hildegard finally did so, and her Know the Ways of the Lord was published, a combination of science, theology, and philosophy. During this time Hildegard was examined by a commission appointed by Pope Eugenius, and she was removed from all taint of mental illness. Her visions were acceptable. Gaining fame as a result of these, Hildegard was then free to travel around giving sermons on them, an unheard of privilege for women. She also was free to exorcise and prophetize while on her tours. Political and religious leaders, and popes and rulers sought out impute from Hildegard via letters and personal appearances. Composing the music and words to religious songs for the church and other occasions provided Hildegard an additional emotional release for her busy schedule. Some music historians are now giving her credit for beginning the process of opera because some of her music was so powerful that people were known to swoon when listening to it. Interested in all areas of knowledge and life, Hildegard wrote at length on herbal medicine, and even gave sexual advice to marital couples. Truly, Hildegard was an extraordinary woman.

Julian of Norwich, 1342-1413 was an English mystic. Little is know of her life except that she spent many years in a cell attached to the walls of St. Julian's Church, where she received a series of revelations while in a state of ecstasy, describing them in her The Revelations of Divine Love. Germany and England seems to have had the most male and female mystics. Whether women were more emotionally inclined and thus more prone to mystical experiences has been hotly debated by historians and psychologists. Caroline Bynum in her Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women argues against some kind of inherent female emotionalism. She suggests visionary experiences women had frequently transported them into priestly roles denied them in real life. It gave them direct authorization to act as mediators to others. Many nuns gained wide acclaim for their visions and revelations, while others met with ridicule and threats from church authorities. Even Hildegard was accused by some as demon-possessed.

Joan of Arc was a young peasant girl who had visions, placing her too in the category of a mystic. Joan lived in France when the French and English were fighting intermittently for nearly a century, an event known today as the Hundred Years' War. Ostensively this was fought when the English king felt he was unfairly denied the kingship of France. Greed and power were the major motivators over the wine and wool trade, and the medieval knights in Europe sought many opportunities to prove their military and ransom-gathering prowess. While France greatly outnumbered the English, the war was being waged on French soil, and as Joan was growing up, England was winning. Joan had visions from an early age from God and his angels St. Catherine and St. Margaret. Finally they convinced her to seek out the French dauphin, get him crowned at Rheims, and lead the French soldiers against the English, who had possession of the walled city of Orleans. With charisma and pluck, Joan led the successful siege of Orleans, and in a short time the English were retreating. France won the war, but Joan lost her life. Captured by the English, Joan was turned over to the ecclesiastical authorities to stand trial for heresy. Her refusal to wear female clothing throughout her imprisonment was used against her together with her avowed trust in her voices. As excommunication and death were the only options for punishment of a heretic, she was burned at the stake in Rouen, the penalty for heresy to avoid having the victims' remains turned into relics for worshipping.

Throughout the entire Middle Ages, the most popularly worshiped saint was the Virgin Mary in both the western and eastern churches. Since the fifth century the "Veneration of Mary" as it is sometimes referred to was widely diffused among the various Christian communities. In 431 the Council of Ephesus gave it official sanction of the church. The feast days associated with Mary were among the most popular of the year. The Veneration of Our Lady represents two rival aspects of Christian theology. If Christ is both judge and mediator then sinners could look to Mary who would mediate with Him. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who was the de facto spiritual founder of the Cistersian Monastic Order, noted, "if you fear the father, there is Christ the mediator. If you fear him, there is his mother. She will listen to you, the son will listen to her, the father to him." When the Cistercians were formed, all their churches were dedicated to Mary. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the apogee of her popularity, most all cathedrals and many churches erected were dedicated to Our Lady, Notre Dame, the Virgin Mary. Perhaps the most famous of these Gothic cathedrals is Notre Dame of Paris. At Chartres Cathedral south of Paris, their most prized relic was Mary's nightdress that she was wearing the night she gave birth to Jesus. Other churches had drops of her milk that she fed to Jesus. Marianoltry was popular with peasants, townsfolk, and gentry, and gave medieval society what they perceived as a direct link to Jesus.

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