All This and Heaven, Too

Three Medieval Views of Women

translated and edited by Gloria K. Fiero and Wendy Pfeffer and Mathé Allain
Yale University Press, 168 pp., $8.95 (paper)

“It tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me,…the men all so good for nothing and hardly any women at all, it is very tiresome.” That was the verdict on “real solemn history” of Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. The two very interesting books here reviewed add to the tally of works that over the last twenty years or so have undermined the second part of Miss Morland’s proposition, which was once all too justified; women are without doubt winning their place in history.

That said, however, and apart from the fact that both books concern women in the Middle Ages, the two books are very different. Sabina Flanagan’s scholarly biography of Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth-century visionary, studies one of the most unusual women of her time, who was also a profound and original religious writer. Three Medieval Views of Women presents the texts of three short poems (dits) on the subject of woman, with attractive verse translations into English, together with two introductory essays, putting them and the attitudes expressed in them into a literary and historical context. Though all three are anonymous, they all seem clearly to have been written by men, and there is nothing original or profound about their manner or the view which any one of them expresses. Though there is I think a kind of way in which the two books may be said to complement each other, initially they demand entirely separate discussion.

In every way, the life and achievement of Saint Hildegard of Bingen were truly remarkable. She was born in 1098 at Bemersheim near Mainz, the tenth child of a local noble family. At the age of eight she was enclosed as a recluse in a hermitage attached to the monastery of Disibodenberg, under the care of the high-born anchoress Jutta of Spanheim. Further recruits were soon drawn to the anchorage, which grew into a convent attached to the monastery; and when Jutta died in 1136 Hildegard was chosen to succeed her as abbess. By this time, by means that are not entirely clear, she had acquired a considerable command of Latin together with a thorough knowledge of the Bible and an acquaintance with a wide range of religious literature. The real turning point in her life came in 1141. From her infancy on, as she herself makes clear, she had been subject to visions, but up to this point (though she had confided in Jutta) she had kept these to herself. In this year, as a result of an experience of unusual intensity, she felt compelled to make known and to publicize what had been revealed to her, and began writing the first and most famous of her three great visionary works, the Scivias (“make known the ways of God”). In 1147, at the Synod of Trier, Pope Eugenius III, after reading extracts from the still incomplete book, endorsed the divine nature of her revelations and gave her his apostolic permission to continue…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.