Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sisters in Arms

By popular request, I'm now commenting on Jo Ann McNamara's Sisters in Arms.  Well, OK, not exactly by popular request--but Notorious put in a request, so that's one.  I do try to please my public, small though it be. 

Now over ten years old, this is still an impressive book, and an essential resource for those interested in women's monasticism, not just in the Middle Ages, but from the origins of Christianity right down to the present. Its great strength is McNamara's ability to synthesize a great mass of scholarship on religious women, on extremely diverse periods, and make a coherent whole out of it.  One of its major flaws is the flip side of that: because McNamara is wielding a quite broad brush, at times the book sweeps over variation in a given period.  

The other major flaw is the index.  It's simply not helpful.  Someone apparently decided that this book only needed an index of personal and place names.  There is, therefore, no thematic index at all: if you would like to see where McNamara discusses her favorite theme of syneisactism (roughly, partnership between religious men and religious women), or reform, or sexuality, or virginity, or charity, or...well, you get the idea.  There is no index to help you, you will simply have to hunt through this massive tome yourself.  I've spent more time than I can count riffling through the book, muttering, "I could have sworn she talks about authority and disobedience in here somewhere...maybe it was this other, that's much too late..." etc.

Lacking time to reread the entire book, I concentrated on ch. 9-13, which cover the high Middle Ages (roughly, 1100-1400, here).  These five chapters give an excellent overview of issues in women's monasticism during this period, but don't address my current preoccupations (benefaction and patronage) to any significant degree.  McNamara notes women flocking to join charismatic preachers like Robert of Arbrissel, attempting to affiliate with the Cistercians, forming informal beguine houses, and so forth, but offers few comments on the lay supporters of such houses.  There is, nonetheless, excellent stuff here: the dominant theme is the male clerical hierarchy's desire to separate itself from religious women, while simultaneously regulating the behavior of the women.  One of the chapters is a good discussion of the financial burdens of women's monasteries, another is a fine introduction to female mysticism in the period, and yet another addresses damaging preoccupations with the sexuality of enclosed women (among historians as well as medieval churchmen).  

In short, I remain impressed with McNamara's accomplishment here.  It is hard to imagine a more thorough summation and synthesis of scholarship on religious women, c. 1996.  A revised and updated version would look rather different, since the book has itself helped to establish paths for research in the intervening years.  I only wish it were easier to make use of its wealth of information.

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