Nuns' Priests' Tales

Men and Salvation in Medieval Women's Monastic Life

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Fiona J. Griffiths
The Middle Ages Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , February
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Fiona Griffiths has produced a hopeful, almost romantic book about medieval priests, monks, and canons whose job was the cura monialum: the care of nuns. Nuns’ Priests’ Tales rehearses the arguments made by men to justify and promote religious partnership with women during the ecclesiastical reforms of roughly the 11th-12th centuries. 

According to Griffiths, historians have correctly identified two seemingly contradictory trends in the reforms: . Reforming church leaders demanded strict celibacy among ordained and vowed men and women, often based on misogynist rhetoric linking women, carnality, and sin. At the same time, women’s religious communities proliferated across Europe after 1100. Documentary evidence tends to be lurid and disapproving, but surely not every priest who said mass for the sisters or helped balance their accounts was on a booty call. Why does the written evidence suggest otherwise? One of Griffiths’s aims is to recover the “tales” of these nuns’ priests, that is, “the ideas, motifs and rhetorical strategies” these men shared to articulate their mission (7). A few of these proponents are well-known to historians, such as Abelard, who sent letters and rules to his ex-wife, Abbess Heloise of The Paraclete. Despite his notorious personal history, Griffiths argues, Abelard’s ideas about the value of spiritual partnerships were actually typical of many men who worked with religious women. 

Griffiths culled the letters, sermons, and hagiographies of the reform period for references to the joint work of religious men and women. A handful of advocates supply much of her evidence: Robert of Arbissel, Abelard and Heloise, Goscelin of St. Bertin, Anselm of Canterbury, and men who composed vitae of mystics such as Christina of Markyate. Griffiths reconstructs their arguments in support of their interactions with vowed women, and mines them for spiritual ideologies promoting the partnership of religious men and women. 

Medieval proponents of mixed-sex partnerships sought familiar models to justify men’s ministry among women. They appealed to scriptural precedents including Mary and Martha and St. John and the Virgin Mary. They also wielded Saint Jerome’s writings as weapons in defense of spiritual partnerships among the sexes. Cranky Jerome got into trouble for satirizing clerics who hung around with female donors, although he himself consorted with rich Roman matrons and their daughters. Medieval priests reinterpreted Jerome’s experience, painting him as an innocent victim of vile gossip, just as they were, who rightly praised women’s intellects and argued for the superior efficacy of women’s prayers. Like Jerome, Abelard and Odilo of Cluny, Gerhard of Reichenberg and other reforming men preferred the company of religious women to that of their confrères because vowed women enjoyed a status unattainable by men: they were brides of Christ. As wife of the Lord, Heloise played domina to Abelard’s loyal servant, and he reaped the salvific benefits for his humble ministry (105). 

Other reliable models of partnership came from hagiography. Benedict of Nursia and his fictive sister St. Scholastica offered a model of collegiality based on blood kinship. Augustinians, by contrast, were keen on the mother-son model provided by their own patron saint and his mother Monica. Griffiths points out a shift in monastic interpretations of Augustine’s writings on concupiscence: by the 12th century, the same Augustine who fled female contact after his conversion became the exemplary half of a sinless, kin-based spiritual partnership of mother and son.

Why did men bother to care for nuns, Griffiths asks, given the prevailing rhetoric against the cura? What did they get out of it besides trouble? Griffiths suggests that Abelard and other nuns’ priests regarded service to pious women as a shortcut to salvation. Female virgins and visionaries had direct access to God as bride or mother, and could intercede on behalf of their male supporters. Some women, such as Heloise or Christina of Markyate, managed to establish themselves as famously intimate with Jesus—often thanks to advertisement by their male supporters who, in turn, rode the veil-tails of their patronesses to heaven.

Griffiths’s argument seems obvious as soon as she states it: historians have paid too much attention to theological disregard for women during the 11th-12th century reforms. Just because some documents of the period promoted sexual apartheid doesn’t mean that ordinary Christians practiced or accepted it. Still, what Griffiths sees as a sudden investment in male-female partnerships and the development of new models to justify them, I would call an ancient, continuous tradition that occasionally surfaces in textual and material sources. Women and men of earlier centuries relied on the same models for spiritual collaboration as later reformers, and battled similar anti-female rhetoric. In the 8th-century life of St. Áed Mac Bricc, for example, the bishop roamed central Ireland and often lodged at communities of nuns. In one episode, a woman in one of these monasteries was abducted by a rapist. Áed went after them and found that the victim had unfortunately dropped dead. He chided and converted the repentant villain, who became a monk, and resuscitated the girl, who returned to the community where they all continued to live and work. Despite the prevailing cultural anxiety about religious women’s mobility suggested by this hagiographic lesson, the episode also makes clear that men and women worked and lived together in the Christian communities of early medieval Ireland long before Abelard decided it was a good idea. They too sought biblical and hagiographical models to support this practice.

Still, Griffiths has outlined a striking dissonance in historical discussions of ecclesiastical reforms in a particular historical moment. I hope other medievalists borrow and refine this commonsensical approach—especially scholars of material culture, archaeologists, and specialists in peripheral regions of medieval Christendom, whose findings might substantiate Griffith’s premise. The ordinary collaboration of men and women is the sort of longue durée that constantly escapes historians’ notice, partly because the study of conflicts over sex and gender makes for more colorful scholarship.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lisa Bitel is Dean's Professor of Religion and Professor of History at the University of Southern California.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Fiona J. Griffiths is Professor of Medieval History at Stanford University. She is author of The Garden of Delights: Reform and Renaissance for Women in the Twelfth Century, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.


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