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Illuminating Female Agency: The Rise and Fall of a Transgressive Literary Tradition

How sequestered medieval women consecrated the act of reading in defiance of the early Christian patriarchy.

Illuminating Female Agency: The Rise and Fall of a Transgressive Literary Tradition
Cara Ianuale

Cara Ianuale

February 10, 2024
3 Minutes

At first glance, this 1477 illumination of Mary of Burgundy seems innocuous: the duchess prays peacefully while angels attend the Virgin and Child. This scene of a woman reading is, however, one of many that male clerical authorities would seek to censor throughout the medieval era. Fears of female agency prompted clerical authorities to reaffirm the place of the pious laywoman in the home, developing cultural imperatives of physicality and materiality that clashed with the growing religious ideal of mentality. Women tried to navigate these contradictory conditions through commissioning, reading, and circulating books of prayer—however, these books were ultimately “regendered” by men who laid claim to this practice of female literary agency.

Medieval Europe saw the radical transformation of the Christian devotional experience. In the Early Middle Ages, the home was a shelter for early Christians whose devotional practices faced persecution. There was no distinction between the practices of domesticity and piety—acts we might regard with little religious import today, like cooking or gathering wood, were opportunities to show your irrevocable devotion to Christ. A climacteric came in 313 A.D. with the legalization of Christianity. Without the compulsion for secrecy, people enthusiastically began constructing church buildings. This drastically altered laypeople’s routines and circulation patterns. Instead of sheltering inside your home to pray, you regularly traveled to churches to pray with your community. This new travel offered women new opportunities for meeting and movement.

Despite the proliferation of church building and clerical organization, the home did not lose significance in the medieval imagination—rather, the newly-formed all-male church clergies, threatened by specters of female mobility and power, instituted a conflicting set of moral codes for pious laywomen that simultaneously decreed and dismissed the importance of a physical, material home to their religious duties. Male authors wrote countless texts instructing housewives how to set a rhythm of piety, from prayer to rest to recitation of matins. Sustaining this all-consuming cycle became central to their purpose and identity as an anchor of the home—crucially, it ensured that they didn’t have substantial time to congregate with other women. Additionally, material devotional culture was becoming more popular. Materiality was championed as a determiner of spiritual truth and it was the woman’s responsibility to enshrine the home with paintings, textiles, lamps, and other everyday objects that displayed persuasive biblical imagery. Yet clerical authorities’ conditions for lay sanctity were contradicted by the emerging spiritual transcendence movement championed by medieval ascetics. The spiritual transcendence movement urged the exploration of mental pathways from the mundane to the divine realm, posing an indifference to physical and spatial limitations of the home. How could women simultaneously confine themselves to the material home and disregard the importance of physicality?

The Three Living and the Three Dead, the prayer book of Bonne of Luxembourg, Duchess of Normandy.

Archangel Gabriel genuflecting, right hand on shoulder of female manuscript owner kneeling at prie-dieu, Hours of the Virgin: Matins

Many women attempted to navigate these conflicting expectations by reading and circulating books of hours with imagery of female religious figures. Used to pray the canonical hours, these Christian prayer books were ideal: they offered an avenue for spiritual transcendence that did not require the corporeal detachment of the female body from the home. Women commissioned books and passed them down to their daughters, forming multi-generational circulation networks of religious knowledge that transcended temporal and spatial confines. In this literary lineage, women were illustrated as possessors, not intercessors, of religious values. Each page’s intricate illuminations relayed the visual knowledge as well as the words necessary to assist women in the creation of mental worship spaces.

Mary of Burgundy reading from a book of hours, Hours of Mary of Burgundy

The Magdalen Reading, Rogier van der Weyden

A page from a 1477 illuminated manuscript Mary of Burgundy reading from a book of hours shows Mary of Burgundy seated alone, reading her book of prayers by a window. The window opens into a church hall where the Virgin and Child rest, flanked by praying women and a kneeling deacon. While the solid wall provides a barrier between Mary and the church hall, the foregrounding of the book aligned with the window suggests that the book itself enables the enclosure’s (figurative) porosity that allows Mary to receive divine knowledge in her isolated oratory. The significance of the book of hours is affirmed in other aspects of visual culture as well. In Rogier van der Weyden’s The Magdalen Reading, Mary intently reads an ornate Bible while figures standing above her engage in common household activities. Her curled posture suggests a deep engrossment in her reading and an obliviousness to the mundanities of her surroundings. Rather than her physical surroundings, the act of reading allows her to mentally traverse landscapes of lay sanctity. These depictions of reading support that, in navigating contradictory clerical expectations, women were able to paradoxically pave an avenue of female agency and knowledge.

John of Berry with Saints, Brussels Hours.

Attempts at lasting female agency proved futile, however: illuminated manuscripts of agentic female religious figures were figuratively and oftentimes literally concealed, burying women’s spiritual knowledge with reductive depictions of women as entirely passive vessels transmitting religious values. Because clerical authorities placed intense scrutiny upon pious laywomen’s activities, it was only a matter of time before men appropriated this transgressive literary tradition. In addition to commissioning books of hours for themselves, men began to take possession of existing books of hours originally owned by women. They frequently altered the imagery to reduce women to intercessors (as opposed to possessors) of religious value and leave their own masculine mark. One example of a “regendered” prayer book is the Brussels Hours, where John of Berry rests at the center of his dedication page, depicted at the same scale as the saints. The pages are bordered with quatrefoils featuring swans, John of Berry’s personal emblem. The distortion of the typical hierarchy of scale coupled with the regular recurrence of his emblem refocuses men as the agentic devotees of Christ.

Studying these books of hours reveals how threatened male powers took over the transformation of a secular practice into a consecrated domesticity. Indeed, the idea that organized religious ideals were deliberately developed and manipulated to curb women’s authority does not sound odd in contemporary religious and social contexts. How might medieval women's paradoxical adherence to and rejection of tradition linger in today’s religious and domestic spaces?

(Cover Image: The Prayer Book of Bonne of Luxembourg, Duchess of Normandy, via The Met)

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