Women of Independent Means? The Construction of Spiritual Life Stories in Late Medieval and Early Modern European Society

AHA Session 8
American Catholic Historical Association 1
Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Room 202 (Hynes Convention Center)
Sarah Gwyneth Ross, Boston College
Jodi Bilinkoff, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Session Abstract

A considerable number of women stood among the host of late medieval and early modern devotional authors in Europe, many writing spiritual life stories, a sort of autobiography that emphasized the role of the sacred in their individual experience.  By the fifteenth century, this was a well-established genre, arguably first appearing from the pen of Augustine some 1000 years before.  This panel will examine three female authors and their contributions to the genre in widely varying social contexts.  Panelists will consider how these women constructed images of themselves within the framework of male authority, as exercised by fathers, confessors and inquisitors. Just how dependent upon—or independent of—the mediation of men were these women when composing spiritual life stories?  What do the three individual answers to that question suggest about late-medieval and early modern European women and about the sacred society in which they lived?
Joan of Arc, perhaps the most famous of the women considered by the panel, was an early fifteenth century woman whose persona was constructed initially by a court that hoped to control her, and then by herself, first through her own actions and later while weaving her personal story for inquisitorial examiners.  As Larissa Taylor shall argue, Joan was neither purely the puppet of her creators nor a fully independent prophetess.  Teresa de Jesús, the well-known contemplative nun who wrote in the second half of the sixteenth century, spent a considerable part of her story describing the devil as a threat she struggled mightily—and in the end successfully—to control.  In her contribution to the panel, Elizabeth Rhodes will argue that Teresa’s comments on the devil provide a window into the contemplative’s own self-confidence in the face of confessors who questioned the legitimacy of her spiritual message.  Camilla Battista da Varano, an illegitimate daughter born to a Renaissance prince in late fifteenth century, wrote many devotional treatises, including a spiritual autobiography remarkable for its claims of visionary communication and mystical marriage.  William Hudon shall present a woman who carefully asserted the legitimacy of a do-it-yourself approach to the spiritual life—including pithy criticism of inattentive clerics—while simultaneously delivering expressions of self-deprecation and obedience. 
Together, these three papers shall exhibit part of the complexity of late medieval and early modern definitions of the sacred.  The papers shall encourage reconsideration of the range of devotional messages women composed in the one hundred and fifty years that separated Joan from Teresa.  We will examine the ideas of those who were well known and those who were not so well known, and within the different social contexts in which they emerged.  The broad range of intellectual and disciplinary approaches of the panelists—historical, linguistic, gendered, and theological—will be attractive to a broad audience at the Annual Meeting, given not just the diversity of members in the AHA, but also in the array of affiliated societies taking part.  Joint sponsorship by the American Catholic Historical Association will increase interest in the panel.

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