Since time immemorial, women have always expressed a great desire and affinity for religious activities and services. This is the case with Christianity, as seen in the importance of Mary Magdalene in Christ’s earthly life. Subsequently, various communities have been established all in a bid to provide opportunities for women to live a life dedicated to Christ and the church.
However, accounts of female monasticism have received limited attention compared to male monasticism. For instance, in David Knowles’ work detailing the status quo in medieval England concerning religious and monastic orders, he hardly referred to female monasticism. Worse, in those instances, he painted women as intellectually inferior and materialistic. (Knowles, 1963)
Noteworthy, this demeanor towards female monasticism emanates from the years of female marginalization in the religious hierarchy. One predicated on the deep mistrust of women following the belief that Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden taints women.
However, irrespective of this demeanor and limited research attention, female monasticism has had a significant impact in the Christian church as early as the 6th century. In this light, this essay examines female monasticism in the twelfth century as a response to these issues of marginalization and distrust. It utilizes the experience of Hildegard to explore women’s efforts for autonomy in their monastic life.
What is Female Monasticism?
Monasticism involves giving up worldly routine and embracing life in service of Christ as fully as practicable. It concerns a process of withdrawal from society in a bid to live a more pious life. It was derived from the Greek term monachos, which translates to “a solitary person.”
Noteworthy, women who engage in monasticism are nuns, and they usually retreat into the company of other nuns to undertake a daily life of prayer and service. They live a life of self-denial of water and food in a bid to resist the devil. They also perform various functions such as assisting the poor, nursing the sick, and housing travelers.
Exploring Female Monasticism in the Twelfth Century via the Experience of Hildegard
At the end of the eleventh century, the Christian church was closing in on its first millennium and, as such, was more amenable to reforms. In turn, this reform played a massive role in female monasticism as it enabled their rise to prominence in the hierarchical religious structure. (Temple-Council, 2019)
Notably, Arnold of Brescia instigated this reform. He lamented the temporal authority of bishops and the mass wealth of clergies. Then, along with other Romans who shared his views, they succeeded in removing Pope Eugenius III from office. Although he left office, thanks mainly to differing views with other powerful men on the church’s purity, the political status quo allowed the rise of Hildegard of Bingen (c 1098 to 1179). (Temple-Council, 2019)
Hildegard was an abbess who attracted various appellations such as seer, prophet, poem, composer, and holistic healer. Born to an affluent family as the tenth child, her family dedicated her to the church right from birth. As such, when she was eight years, her parents transferred her responsibility to anchoress – Jutta of Sponheim.
She then received her education at St. Disibod, a monastery where she pledged to monastic life. Later, in 1136, she was made abbess by her fellow nuns following the death of Jutta. Noteworthy, this was mostly thanks to her visions and writings, which eventually received papal approval. (Temple-Council, 2019)
Although she believed in the superiority of a man and the feebleness of a woman, it was only as much as she thought it was attributable to God – the Creator. As such, she gave support to women’s efforts at religious service while affirming the strength of women’s spiritual power and conviction. Subsequently, she established a feminine theology that viewed the church as “Ecclesia” and considered it equivalent to consecrated virgins. (Temple-Council, 2019)
In the same vein, she supported the church reforms and was critical of activities like fornication, pluralism, greed, insubordination, negligence, simony, and adultery among clergies. In this light, she expressed her wrath for Fredrick I, who, according to her, was responsible for harming Ecclesia. She professed heavy words as inspired by God to address the malice displayed by Fredrick I. (Temple-Council, 2019)
Noteworthy, this is remarkable as, at the time, it was hardly in the place of a nun or woman to express such religious conviction and call down the anger of God on a vital ruler. As such, she represented the emergence of an authoritative voice from the much-maligned female gender. (Temple-Council, 2019)
When men raised doubts about her claims to such conviction, she reaffirmed that it was God’s will to utilize her – a weak vessel – to communicate his thoughts. Hence, by asserting that her conviction was by God’s grace, rather than seized by her, she convinced others of women’s relevance in monasticism. (Temple-Council, 2019)
However, arguments emerged that the prominence of female monasticism and Hildegard’s dissenting voice during this period was due to the papal authority’s circumstances. Noteworthy, during her lifetime, precisely twelve popes emerged, ruling from the holy see. (Temple-Council, 2019)
Also, various anti-popes – seven – who were puppets of influential secular leaders emerged. It was also a period when the church paid attention to war crusades against the invading Muslims. As such, this supposition created a less hostile environment that contributed to her prominence. (Temple-Council, 2019)
Regardless, this period was an essential point for female monasticism. Thanks to the life of Hildegard, it was established that women could effectively and prominently engage in religious activities. (Temple-Council, 2019)
As early as the sixth century, the scope of women’s role in monastic living has been conceptualized differently by women and men. Notably, men made efforts to control women’s religious lives, occasioning various challenges to them. However, thanks to upheaval and reforms, women got their chance to have their voices heard in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.
Noteworthy, female monasticism in the twelfth century benefited greatly as the voice of Hildegard of Bingen became prominent. Regardless, it is necessary to state that this is merely one of the efforts during this period as both group and individual efforts varied across clime.
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