From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature / Edition 1

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Why did hagiographers of the late Middle Ages praise mothers for abandoning small children? How did a group of female mystics come to define themselves as "apostles to the dead" and end by challenging God's right to damn? Why did certain heretics around 1300 venerate a woman as the Holy Spirit incarnate and another as the Angelic Pope?

In From Virile Woman to WomanChrist, Barbara Newman asks these and other questions to trace a gradual and ambiguous transition in the gender strategies of medieval religious women. An egalitarian strain in early Christianity affirmed that once she asserted her commitment to Christ through a vow of chastity, monastic profession, or renunciation of family ties, a woman could become "virile," or equal to a man. While the ideal of the "virile woman" never disappeared, another ideal slowly evolved in medieval Christianity. By virtue of some gender-related trait—spotless virginity, erotic passion, the capacity for intense suffering, the ability to imagine a feminine aspect of the Godhead—a devout woman could be not only equal, but superior to men; without becoming male, she could become a "womanChrist," imitating and representing Christ in uniquely feminine ways.

Rooted in women's concrete aspirations and sufferings, Newman's "womanChrist" model straddles the bounds of orthodoxy and heresy to illuminate the farther reaches of female religious behavior in the Middle Ages. From Virile Woman to WomanChrist will generate compelling discussion in the fields of medieval literature and history, history of religion, theology, and women's studies.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An erudite and wonderful book."—Caroline Walker Bynum

"Barbara Newman has written the most wide-ranging and throughly researched study to date of women's religious literature of the Middle Ages. Ranging across time . . . regional and linguistic borders . . . and genres, Newman provides enough examples to sink an armada of skeptics who would dismiss medieval female piety as somehow unrepresentative of high medieval culture. The range of examples is itself dazzling, and students of religious and feminist history will treasure this book. . . . But to prodigious learning and careful scholarship Newman adds . . . a writer's gift for being both clear and engaging. . . . From Virile Woman to WomanChrist is not only good scholarship but a good read."—Studies in the Age of Chaucer

"Newman skillfully searches out explicit and implied attitudes toward the female sex. She uncovers, in addition to expected differences, a key contrast in what is meant by formation for each sex. . . . This book makes splendid contributions to religious and literary studies on more than one front. . . . The sheer comprehensiveness of the texts, themes, and persons integrated into this study recommends it to a wide readership."—Speculum

"In this engaging, informative work, Barbara Newman intends to explore 'women's gender-specific dilemmas, choices, and ways of being Christian during the period from approximately 1100 through 1500.' . . . The important work of Newman certainly helps us to understand the background of the emergence of this still very 'intricate web' . . . of religious and intellectual teachings by women."—The Journal of Religion

"Barbara Newman has written an erudite and wonderful book. Drawing on and in many ways surpassing the flood of work on medieval religious women produced in the past fifteen years . . . , she gives us a set of learned, thoughtful, and interrelated essays, written in lucid and beautiful prose. . . . From Virile Woman to WomanChrist should be required reading in every university-level women's studies course—for its method, its substance, and its prose."—Caroline Walker Bynum, The Catholic Historical Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812215458
  • Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/28/1995
  • Series: The Middle Ages Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 424
  • Sales rank: 731,387
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 8.94 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Newman is Professor of English and Religion at Northwestern University. She is author of Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard's Theology of the Feminine and editor and translator of Hildegard of Bingen's Symphonia.

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Table of Contents


1. Flaws in the Golden Bowl: Gender and Spiritual Formation in the Twelfth Century
2. Authority, Authenticity, and the Repression of Heloise
3. "Crueel Corage": Child Sacrifice and the Maternal Martyr in Hagiography and Romance
4. On the Threshold of the Dead: Purgatory, Hell, and Religious Women
5. La Mystique Courtoise: Thirteenth-Century Beguines and the Art of Love
Excursus 1. Hadewijch and Abelard
Excursus 2. Gnostics, Free Spirits, and "Meister Eckhart's Daughter"
6. WomanSpirit, Woman Pope
7. Renaissance Feminism and Esoteric Theology: The Case of Cornelius Agrippa

Appendix A: Religious Literature of Formation, 1075-1225
Appendix B: Glossary of Religious Women
Works Cited

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