The Cruelest of All Mothers

Marie de l'Incarnation, Motherhood, and Christian Tradition

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Mary Dunn
Catholic Practice in North America
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , October
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Ursuline nun, Marie de l’Incarnation (1599-1672), (Marie Guyart, before entry into religion at age 31)—educational builder of New France, canonized by Pope Francis in 2014—is known as both a missionary and mystical writer. Her sanctification is based on her central role in girls’ schooling in the nascent colony of Quebec, as detailed in autohagiographical Relations published in her lifetime, and afterwards by her son Claude Martin, himself a monk. Mary Dunn focuses on the relationship between Marie—the mystic and missionary—as mother, and her son—first “abandoned,” then destined for religion. She employs their epistolary exchange, which Dunn has published as From Mother to Son: The Selected Letters of Marie de l'Incarnation to Claude Martin (Oxford, 2014), for productive consideration of maternal abandonment as spiritual ascension. The Cruelest of All Mothers—the title deriving from Marie’s hyperbolic term for her own appraisal of her rejection of Claude—skirts Marie’s vocational work, and instead focuses on the liminal moment of departure from young son upon taking up a religious vocation, a moment that was infinitely extended with her departure from France to Quebec at age 40.

Mary Dunn’s approach involves examination of this mother-child relationship through the perspectives of Christian hagiographical traditions, early modern French family law and convention, and modern psychoanalytical insights, as found in Jacques Lacan and Julie Kristeva particularly. Dunn additionally offers a meditation on her own experience as mother to a child, Aggie, who from birth has faced developmental challenges, and whose own future is uncertain. Dunn asserts “lived experience as valid source of knowing” (18), and it is interesting to see the comparison between Dunn’s world and that of Marie Guyart. Entailing the very opposite of abandonment, Dunn’s reflections on her life with Aggie nonetheless illustrate the ways in which contemporary psychoanalytic theory can be applied to the evolving bond between mother and child—from the non-linguistic “semiotic” to the “symbolic,” that is, from the regime of non-verbal meaning to that of articulated meaning and control—and link us empathetically with the striking dilemma posed by Marie Guyart’s separation from her eleven-year old boy.

Dunn introduces the theme of “abandonment” in the first chapter, which looks at competing historical discourses: Marie’s Relations, and biographical materials edited and promoted posthumously by her son. Marie understood her departure from the world, and her son, as a form of martyrdom. Certainly Marie’s actions constituted the “resistance of social practices” (49) of seventeenth-century France, the subject of Chapter 2. Much research, including Barbara Diefendorf’s “Give Us Back Our Children: Patriarchal Authority and Parental Consent to Religious Vocations in Early Counter-Reformation France” (Journal of Modern History 68 [1996]) points to the high level of disapproval of unchecked surrender to religious vocation. Certainly Marie’s career advice—to follow Christ in poverty—and her determination to deny him inheritance, went against a deeply-felt practice of supporting children through bequests and every other means available. But “abandonment” in the case of Claude cannot be understood literally. Marie arranged for her son’s education with the Jesuits at Tours: this was his inheritance, and his subsequent career in the Church suggests early recognition of aptitude (even in his rebellious teenaged years). And Marie’s calling to the Ursulines was hardly countercultural: they were an ascendant religious movement that, through worldly engagement, offered prime opportunity for godly service.

Having established the fraught pro-family climate of early modern France, Dunn’s third chapter invokes deep currents of Christian anti-maternalism and constraints on female religious. Dunn argues that early Christian representations of the mother who gives up her child—the paradigmatic example being St. Perpetua—assert a transformation of the mother: she becomes Christ-like through renunciation of her children, and, extricated from motherhood, ascends to heaven. “Heaven has no place for mothers,” argued Tertullian: faith demanded more than natural affection and the comforts of family, and conversion entailed separation, just as Christ foretold in Luke 14:26.

The medieval case, detailed in Chapter 4 is more diverse. Abundant examples of holy mothers, as plotted by Caroline Bynum and others, show ambivalence towards the presence of children in the midst of progress towards sanctification. St. Birgitta of Sweden (1302-73) left her family in order to attend to charity: saintly ministration of other’s needs precluded care for her own biological children.  St. Guibert of Nogent’s mother abandoned him, and showed the way to his later turn towards sanctity. These saintly examples, Dunn argues, illuminated Marie Guyart’s pathway, even as they sealed maternity’s subordination in heroic Christianity.

Theory takes center stage in the final chapter. Dunn analyzes modern Christianity’s understanding of the meaning of maternity in light of contemporary theorization of infantile dependence as a “ritual of abjection” or separation. Dunn suggests that a psychoanalytically-informed theology of motherhood—redetermining it as love, or agape –overcomes the ancient Christian opposition between maternity and mystical ascension, and reveals the godliness of motherhood itself. In Kristevan interpretation, Marie’s rejection—abjection—of her role as mother, and of her son as “embodied proof” of motherhood, was the only means whereby she could “draw the boundaries of her mystical subjectivity” (136).  Abandonment of motherly responsibility was a visible indication, to Catholic France, of her upward gaze and unwavering vocation. This reviewer might add a paradox that Dunn does not draw: Marie de l’Incarnation would spend the rest of her life teaching young girls at the convent school in Quebec. New France’s teacher-saint gave up her own family in order to serve young, dependent, and vulnerable children, and be a mother, hardly “the cruelest,” to them all.

The Cruelest of all Mothers is a strong contribution to our understanding of religious vocation for early modern women, and of the deeply complicated cultural semiotics of motherhood in both religious and lay contexts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter Goddard is Associate Professor of History at University of Guelph.

Date of Review: 
May 20, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mary Dunn is an assistant professor of early modern Christianity at St. Louis University. Her first book, From Mother to Son: Selected Letters from Marie de l’Incarnation to Claude Martin, was published by Oxford University Press in 2014. She has also published articles in the Canadian Historical Review, Quebec Studies, and the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, among other journals.


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