Religious Self Harm

Dyan Elliott, Proving Woman : Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Mary of OigniesDyan Elliott’s fascinating study of female spirituality in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries keeps you on the edge of your seat until the very last page. Few horror movies can rival Elliott’s book for pure bloodiness. Mary of Oignies (1177-1213), pictured, received a vision of a seraph after hacking off part of her body in penance for sins she had committed long ago. Other Begiunes threw themselves into rivers or sewers to keep their chastity intact, though (miraculously) none ever drowned. Elisabeth of Hungary (1207-1231) was repeatedly beaten by her confessor and his servant while he recited Psalm 50 to her – “now I arraign you and set my accusations before you.” She died at only 24 years old because of the extreme sufferings that she inflicted on herself. For anyone tempted by the extremes of asceticism, these women’s stories serve as an important reminder of how dangerous religious abuse can be.

Saint WilgefortisProving Woman (2004) is about more than just women doing nasty things to their bodies. Elliott explores the rise and fall of medieval cults of female spirituality. She shows how male writers promoted individual women as examples of piety and used them to promote the proper way to relate to priests, to confess sins, and to carry out penance. “Women,” she argues, “were believed to have a particular propensity to rapture – premised on the fragility, and hence susceptibility, of the female body.” Ecstatic spirituality and any accompanying prophecies were dangerously uncontrollable, but if they could be suitably guided and marketed then they served to prove that miracles still attended God’s church. At a time when the mystical and ascetic feats of the Spiritual Franciscans tempted people to associate with heretics, it was crucial for orthodox lay Christians to exhibit spectacular spiritual gifts, including martyrdom, that could attract widespread devotion to their cults. The popularity of female mystics did not last, however, and the half-hearted attempt by John Gerson (1363-1429) to defend Joan of Arc marked the rise of a widespread suspicion of female spirituality among learned males. Elliott argues that “over the course of the High and later Middle Ages … female spirituality (“always already” suspect) is progressively perceived as a substantial threat to the church and society at large. This gradual criminalization of female spirituality parallels the progressive efforts to constrain and even persecute women, an impetus most dramatically illustrated in the witch-hunts of the early modern period.”

Elizabeth of HungaryElliott dwells at length on the hagiographical traditions surrounding the Beguines and Elizabeth of Hungary, unpacking the medieval belief that self-mortification broke down the barriers between this world and the next. Through their suffering, even to martyrdom, these women gained direct access to God, becoming living relics. All of these women obeyed their spiritual fathers and confessors to the letter, however, and these men guided their devotion to make them into marketable saints. She examines how these men framed their hagiographies in ways that protected the women from heresy charges while making them more appealing to the popular imagination. This is not to say that the women themselves played no part in their fates. Elizabeth of Hungary, pictured, actively sought out her confessor, Conrad, because of his commitment to asceticism and absolute poverty. She encouraged him to be strict with her and it is clear that she wanted to express her devotion to God in this way.

The second  half of Proving Woman examines the inquisitorial culture that determined whether or not people really were saints. Elliott demonstrates that politics played an important role in saint-making, citing the case of Armannus Punzilupus of Ferrara (? – 1269), who was the subject of two simultaneous investigations. The first was intent on canonizing him, while the second sought to prove that he was a heretic.  There was a fine line between heresy and sainthood, and Elliott notes that the language used by clergymen investigating whether someone should be canonized was extremely similar to that used in heresy trials. As with many things in life, there are dangers lurking in what looks holy, wolves in sheep’s clothing, but also silver linings to every cloud. She concludes, “The confessional relationship … opened up a new world of spiritual fulfillment. This relationship could afford women unprecedented intimacy with and respect from the priesthood (whose members had also benefited from a sharp increase in symbolic power through the sacramental system, making their attentions all the more meaningful), the possibility of public adulation, considerable impact on the local community, and occasionally even a direct influence upon public life. And yet from the outset the path designated for these manifest embodiments of proof was strewn with substantial risks. On the most fundamental basis, there were profound threats to a woman’s physical well-being.”

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