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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: April 2020

Preface to Part VI: Laywomen as Leaders


In a patriarchal culture where female influence often seems thin on the ground, the essays in Part VI offer a refreshing perspective on the contributions of the elusive laywoman. Maureen Miller (in Chapter 19) focuses on the eleventh century, examining elite women's roles as patrons of monastic foundations in Italy. Rachel Koopmans’ study (Chapter 20) provides an interesting contrast through its orientation around the prominent role that non-elite women played in English miracles stories from the mid-twelfth to mid-thirteenth century. And Barbara Newman's essay (Chapter 21) examines the impact of the spirituality of the laywoman – the Beguine, Mechthild of Magdeburg – on the cloistered nuns of Helfta. If the introduction of the category of gender into academic discourse has sometimes led to consternation and self-doubting among historians, these three chapters reassure us that the traditional category of “women” is still an effective tool for historical analysis. They also provide new opportunities for assessing how the analysis of women engages many familiar historical tropes, while at the same time revealing some telling changes over time.

Maureen Miller's study “follows the money,” pointing to the number of elite women who responded to clerical requests for financial support of reformed monastic communities. Appeals to elite women have always been a reliable index for discerning contemporary concerns. For the Venerable Bede, it was the conversion of the husband that was at stake; for the eleventh-century clergy, it was reform. And yet, despite this venerable coalition between elite women and the clergy, I am nevertheless struck by the altered terms of engagement. For example, Bede recounts that when Pope Boniface attempted to hasten Queen Ethelberga's progress in the conversion of the husband, he offered a silver mirror and an ivory comb inlaid with gold. In Miller's analysis, however, the gifts seem to be moving in a different direction. It is the English queen, Matilda, being solicited to provide priestly garments for Bishop Ivo of Chartres who, as inducement, promises to remember Matilda as he says Mass.