Empowering Collaborations: Writing Partnerships Between Religious Women and Scribes in the Middle Ages 0415970598, 9780415970594, 0203491572

This study examines partnerships between medieval women and scribes. Kimberly Benedict argues that medieval female visio

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Empowering Collaborations: Writing Partnerships Between Religious Women and Scribes in the Middle Ages
 0415970598, 9780415970594, 0203491572

Table of contents :
List of Illustrations vii
Series Editor’s Foreword viii
Acknowledgments ix
Introduction x
Chapter One: Precedents 1
Chapter Two: Genre 17
Chapter Three: Mediation 33
Chapter Four: Sexuality 49
Chapter Five: Revisionary Histories 61
Notes 82
Works Cited 85
Index 89

Citation preview

STUDIES IN MEDIEVAL HISTORY AND CULTURE Edited by Francis G.Gentry Professor of German Pennsylvania State University A ROUTLEDGE SERIES

STUDIES IN MEDIEVAL HISTORY AND CULTURE FRANCIS G.GENTRY, General Editor BODIES OF PAIN Suffering in the Works of Hartmann von Aue Scott E.Pincikowski THE LITERAL SENSE AND THE GOSPEL OF JOHN IN LATE MEDIEVAL COMMENTARY AND LITERATURE Mark Hazard THE REPRODUCTIVE UNCONSCIOUS IN LATE MEDIEVAL AND EARLY MODERN ENGLAND Jennifer Wynne Hellwarth MYSTICAL LANGUAGE OF SENSE IN THE LATER MIDDLE AGES Gordon Rudy FAIR AND VARIED FORMS Visual Textuality in Medieval Illustrated Manuscripts Mary C.Olson QUEENS IN THE CULT OF THE FRENCH RENAISSANCE MONARCHY Public Law, Royal Ceremonial, and Political Discourse in the History of Regency Government, 1484–1610 Elizabeth A.McCaltney THE CONTESTED THEOLOGICAL AUTHORITY OF THOMAS AQUINAS The Controversies between Hervaeus Natalis and Durandus of St. Pourçain Elizabeth Lowe BODY & SACRED PLACE IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE, 1100–1389 Dawn Marie Hayes WOMEN OF THE HUMILIATI A Lay Religious Order in Medieval Civic Life Sally Mayall Brasher CONSUMING PASSIONS The Uses of Cannibalism in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe Merrall Llewelyn Price LITERARY HYBRIDS Crossdressing, Shapeshifting, and Indeterminacy in Medieval and Modern French Narrative Erika E.Hess PESTILENCE IN MEDIEVAL AND EARLY MODERN ENGLISH LITERATURE Bryon Lee Gligsby RACE AND ETHNICITY IN ANGLO-SAXON LITERATURE Stephen J.Harris ASPECTS OF LOVE IN JOHN GOWER’S CONFESSIO AMANTIS Ellen Shaw Bakalian


THE KING’S TWO MAPS Cartography and Culture in Thirteenth-Century England Daniel Birkholz THE MEDIEVAL TRADITION OF THEBES History and Narrative in the OF Roman de Thèbes, Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Lydgate Dominique Battles WORLDS MADE FLESH Reading Medieval Manuscript Culture Lauryn S.Mayer

EMPOWERING COLLABORATIONS Writing Partnerships between Religious Women and Scribes in the Middle Ages

Kimberley M.Benedict

Routledge New York and London

Published in 2004 by Routledge 29 West 35th Street New York, NY 10001 www.routledge-ny.com Published in Great Britain by Routledge 11 New Fetter Lane London EC4P 4EE Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group. This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005. “To purchase your own copy of this or any of Taylor & Francis or Routledge’s collection of thousands of eBooks please go to www.eBookstore.tandf.co.uk.” Copyright © 2004 by Routledge. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system without permission in writing from the publisher. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Benedict, Kimberley M. Empowering collaborations: writing partnerships between religious women and scribes in the Middle Ages/by Kimberley M.Benedict. p.cm.— (Studies in medieval history and culture; 27) Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-415-97059-8 (Print Edition) (hardcover: acid-free paper) 1. Women mystics—Europe—History—To 1500. 2. Authorship—Collaboration— History—To 1500. 3. Scribes—Europe—History—To 1500. 4. Literature, Medieval— Women authors—History and criticism. 5. Christian literature—Women authors— History and criticism. I. Title. II. Series. BV5077.E85B46 2004 270.5′082–dc22 2003027558

ISBN 0-203-49157-2 Master e-book ISBN

ISBN 0-203-58060-5 (Adobe eReader Format)


List of Illustrations


Series Editor’s Foreword






Chapter One:



Chapter Two:



Chapter Three:



Chapter Four:



Chapter Five:

Revisionary Histories




Works Cited





1. Madonna of the Magnificat. Photo by Erich Lessing. Used by permission from Art Resource, NY. 2. Detail of Mary and the Christ child with writing materials. Used by permission of the Onze Lieve Vrouwebasiliek, Maastricht, Netherlands. 3. The Christ child suckling and writing. Used by permission of the Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels. 4. The transmission of Birgitta of Sweden’s revelations. Used by permission of Ericsberg Castle, Katrineholm, Sweden. 5. Detail of Hildegard writing with Volmar and Richardis. Used by permission of the Biblioteca Statale, Lucca, Italy, and the Ministry of Cultural Assets and Activities. 6. Hildegard writing with Volmar. Used by permission of the Abtei St. Hildegard, Eibingen, Germany. 7. Hildegard working with Volmar and Richardis to record a vision of Divine Love. Used by permission of the Biblioteca Statale, Lucca, Italy, and the Ministry of Cultural Assets and Activities. 8. Hildegard recording a vision of humankind and the universe. Used by permission of the Biblioteca Statale, Lucca, Italy, and the Ministry of Cultural Assets and Activities. 9. Cover of Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life. Used by permission of Routledge Press. 10. Cover of Hildegard: The Last Year. Used by permission of Shambhala Press. 11. Cover of Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters, edited by Catherine M.Mooney, reprinted by permission of the University of Pennsylvania Press.

10 11 12 34 56 73 73 73 77 77 77

Series Editor’s Foreword

Far from providing just a musty whiff of yesteryear, research in medieval studies enters the new century as fresh and vigorous as never before. Scholars representing all disciplines and generations are consistently producing works of research of the highest caliber, utilizing new approaches and methodologies. Among the volumes in the Studies in Medieval History and Culture series are studies on individual works and authors of Latin and vernacular literatures, historical personalities and events, theological and philosophical issues, and new critical approaches to medieval literature and culture. Momentous changes have occurred in medieval studies in the past thirty years—in teaching as well as in scholarship. Thus the goal of the series is to enhance research in the field by providing an outlet for monographs by scholars in the early stages of their careers on all topics related to the broad scope of medieval studies, while at the same time pointing to and highlighting new directions that will shape and define scholarly discourse in the future. Francis G.Gentry


Many persons contributed to this project, and I am glad for the chance to thank them publicly. My undergraduate professors in the English Department at Wheaton College deepened my love of literature and encouraged me to pursue graduate studies. Leland Ryken and Alan Jacobs were particularly influential in those respects. At the University of Chicago, Christina von Nolcken mentored me through the writing of my M.A. thesis, which served as the foundation for this study. At Stanford University, I received outstanding support from my dissertation advisers George Hardin Brown, Shirley Brice Heath, and Andrea Lunsford. Their collective energy and enthusiasm made the writing process a pleasure, and their critical insights, lively discussions, and detailed readings of drafts strengthened the written product considerably. Thanks are also due to past and present staff of the Stanford English Department for helping me coordinate longdistance studies during the time I lived and worked in Seattle. Judy Candell, Chris Eichar, Dagmar Logie, and Nelia Peralta were especially important lifelines to the department. At home, I had strong backing from family and friends. My parents Jerry and Carol Biss, and my brother Erik Biss, were always willing to listen and able to make me laugh. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins gave encouragement too. Lorelle Skellie provided superb childcare that was essential to my ability to complete the project. My children Katie and Malcolm, who were born during the final years of research and writing, made my workdays more creative than before and offered daily reminders of how exciting learning can be. And my husband Stephen provided extraordinary support from start to finish. He made many sacrifices, including enduring several years of a commuter marriage, so that I could pursue my studies. Throughout my time in graduate school, he expressed keen interest in and steadfast optimism about my work. Of all the persons who contributed to this project, his involvement is the most extensive and most appreciated. In closing, I would like to dedicate this book to George Brown. He was the reason I went to Stanford, and he enriched my graduate school experience immeasurably through his intellectual insight, thoughtful instruction, and personal integrity.


WHAT LIES AHEAD: A SYNOPSIS OF THE STUDY Over the past twenty years, medieval scholarship has paid increasing attention to women’s writing, finding in it rich resources for research as well as much-needed correctives to intradisciplinary gender bias. During the same period, composition scholarship has taken greater interest in collaborative writing, discovering its value as a paradigm for authorship as well as a pedagogical tool. While such discoveries have had powerful impacts on their respective disciplines, together they have the potential to effect equally powerful interdisciplinary change, opening up new perspectives on women and writing. This study takes up one such perspective, focusing on writing partnerships between religious women and scribes in the Middle Ages, and characterizing the partners as collaborative writers. While such characterization is uncommon, it is not unwarranted. Medieval writing is an appropriate subject for a study of collaboration because, during the Middle Ages, authorship was understood broadly as a communal activity involving many persons. Participants included past and present thinkers who influenced the ideas in a text, craftspersons who assembled the text, readers who elaborated the text through annotations, and editors who subsequently refashioned the text for inclusion in other manuscripts. In particular, medieval women’s writing is well suited to studies of collaboration because of conditions governing women’s literacy in the Middle Ages. Often, women who wanted to write did so with the help of assistants, for reasons (discussed in more detail below) ranging from inadequate scribal skills to the need for increased textual authority. Likewise, medieval religious writing lends itself to studies of collaboration, insofar as the texts are ascribed not only to human authors but also to God, the author of all truth. Collaborative qualities are especially evident in visionary texts, which purport to be direct revelations from God to a human scribe. In many respects, then, holy women’s partnerships with scribes in the Middle Ages merit analysis as examples of collaborative authorship. This study argues that when read as narratives of collaboration, stories of medieval women’s partnerships frequently convey what modern readers might call feminist messages. The most obvious of these messages is that women can and even should wield power. More often than not in the narratives, women work with male scribes, but these heterosexual relationships are unconventional insofar as women usually assume dominant roles. Thanks to their special status as God’s confidantes, women gain spiritual and textual authority over their male partners. In addition to giving women power, the narratives grant women glory, characterizing them as spiritual and authorial role models. Often the women’s successes are highlighted through juxtaposition with their male assistants’ moral and scribal shortcomings. More subtly, the narratives embody feminist values insofar as they represent partnerships holistically, attributing both professional and personal significance to women’s relationships with their assistants. This is not to say that the narratives are


self-consciously feminist texts. Constructed centuries ago in a predominantly patriarchal culture, and concerned more with spiritual issues than social ones, the narratives address women’s achievements and interests only secondarily. But they also address such issues repeatedly, with the result that women’s concerns are inextricably woven into the narrative fabric. By looking closely at such threads, this study identifies intriguing patterns in narratives about women’s partnerships with scribes: namely, patterns of representation that are favorable to women. While this argument is meant to be accessible to a broad readership, it will be most meaningful to two audiences. The first consists of scholars who study medieval literature through the critical lens of feminist theory. In recent years, most feminist analyses of medieval women’s texts have privileged individual authorship, and thus have assumed that narratives of collaboration are less empowering for women than are narratives of solitary writing. Such analyses seek to minimize and even do away with the figure of the scribe in order to recover the female partner’s character and voice, presumed to be lost in the process of collaboration. In contrast, this study maintains that narratives of collaboration may not only be compatible with feminist principles, but also may embody those principles more fully than do many narratives of private writing. In short, this study seeks to effect a paradigm shift among feminist medievalists, a shift that will broaden current conceptions of female authorship and agency. The second audience to whom this study will be most relevant is scholars who study collaborative writing. Research in that field has focused mainly on present-day theoretical and pedagogical concerns, but has paid less attention to historical examples and representations of collaboration. Moreover, the research has emphasized certain aspects of the collaborative writing process at the expense of others: highlighting highly visible activities such as writing and revision, for example, but downplaying less visible activities such as invention. As such, the research has limited authority and applicability. Though valuable in many respects, it tends to be disproportionately invested in contemporary culture, and unbalanced in its use of the rhetorical tradition. This study offers an historical and rhetorical perspective which, when combined with studies of writing in other periods, may serve as a useful frame of reference in which to develop and refine current claims about collaborative authorship. WHY COLLABORATE: WRITING CONDITIONS IN THE MIDDLE AGES The topic of religious women’s writing partnerships in the Middle Ages often prompts a question among modern readers: why did such writers collaborate? Answers vary depending on the partnership in question, but they center on issues of writing technology, ecclesiastical policy, and gender roles. To begin with, writing in the Middle Ages was a specialized skill. Writers recorded their work on wax tablets and parchment, since paper was not readily available and affordable until the early fifteenth century. These materials required special attention; wax tablets had to be handled carefully so that their writing surfaces stayed intact, and parchment had to be treated chemically and scraped clean. Even if writers were fortunate enough to obtain parchment that had been treated beforehand, they had to prick holes and score lines into the material to facilitate straight and evenly spaced writing. Writers also needed to acquire or make pens from quill feathers, and had to sharpen the pens frequently during the transcription process. Furthermore, writers had to obtain or make ink from mineral and plant dyes. Equipped with these materials, writers were expected to follow certain script styles characterized by fine penstrokes and occasional elaborate flourishes. In addition to being a specialized skill in a physical sense, medieval writing was specialized in an intellectual sense, insofar as most official documents were written in Latin. Mere copyists might be able to get by with little or no knowledge of the language, as could authors who wanted to produce informal texts for private use, but writers who wanted to compose original and authoritative texts generally needed to be


proficient in Latin language and grammar. This was especially true in the early and high Middle Ages (400– 1200 AD), when Latin writing was more prevalent and was accorded higher status than vernacular literature. Because writing in the medieval period was such a complex activity, it became the province of a select group of people who had access to requisite materials and education, and who needed to produce texts on a regular basis. From the sixth through the eleventh century, that group consisted primarily of persons from religious orders and government administrations. By the twelfth century, the group had expanded to include professional scribes who worked for academic institutions. Even with this increase, however, only a relatively small part of the population in the Middle Ages had formal training in how to write legibly and coherently, in contrast to most modern societies where writing instruction is mandatory for all schoolchildren. Consequently, literacy had a narrower meaning in the Middle Ages than it does today. Writing was not a prerequisite for literacy; rather, literacy was predicated solely on the ability to read Latin. It was possible, then, to be literate without being able to write. Medieval society considered the activities of reading and writing to be separate, unlike modern conceptions of literacy that assume the activities go hand in hand. The conditions described above help explain why medieval persons often wrote with the help of scribes. Some collaborated out of physical necessity, having neither the skills nor the equipment needed to produce a text. Others collaborated out of linguistic necessity, being unable to compose fluently in Latin. Some collaborated for the sake of convenience: although they knew how to write, they found it easier to dictate to assistants than to undertake the chore of transcription by themselves, much like modern executives who delegate writing and typing tasks to secretaries. In all these cases, issues of writing technology made collaboration a helpful and often essential mode of composition. Another reason medieval writers worked collaboratively had to do with ecclesiastical policies. The writers on whom this study focuses wanted to record spiritual visions and experiences. Some of these writers were laywomen; as such, they had to be careful not to usurp the powers of the clergy, whose prerogative it was to interpret and communicate divine truths. In the late Middle Ages, laypersons that overstepped these bounds ran the risk of being labeled as heretics. Other writers in this study belonged to religious orders, but since they were nuns and not ordained priests, they too had limited authority to discern and declare holy mysteries publicly. The writers’ problems were compounded by the fact that they frequently wanted to write about new theological insights that had come to them directly from God, as opposed to writing about familiar theological truths that had been handed down through Biblical prophets and evangelists. Such innovative claims could be construed as challenges to orthodox doctrine and ecclesiastical authority, challenges that might warrant reprimand, excommunication, or even death. In response to the constraints described above, many devout writers formed strategic alliances with scribes who happened to be priests. The priests’ involvement in the writing process gave the texts credibility, insofar as the priests were assumed to have evaluated and approved the texts’ religious claims. In some cases, priests would serve as theological editors, amending texts so that they conformed more closely to traditional church teachings. Once the writing process was finished, priests could help distribute the texts to powerful audiences, submitting the books to bishops who in turn might share the texts with archbishops and even the Pope. On many levels, then, ecclesiastical culture made collaboration an expedient choice for religious writers. A final reason for collaborative writing in the Middle Ages had to do with gender roles, an important consideration in this study because of its focus on women writers. Of the small population for whom literacy was considered necessary and appropriate, women made up a smaller part still. Medieval society conceded that women might need basic writing skills in order to keep household accounts and convey simple messages. Advanced writing skills, however, were considered unnecessary because most literary vocations were effectively closed to women. A notable exception was the vocation of religious orders; since


such communities were committed to the preservation of sacred texts, it was acceptable for nuns to hone their scribal skills in their convent scriptorium. Outside the convent, however, women’s chances of receiving formal writing instruction were limited. Noblewomen and wealthy women might learn to write through the help of private tutors, but women of lower status had fewer connections and resources with which to obtain writing skills and materials. Of the women who were privileged enough to learn to write, fewer still had the opportunity to learn Latin, the language of power. Those living in religious communities became familiar with the Latin language through the liturgy, but unless they received grammatical instruction, they were equipped only to decode familiar texts, not to produce new ones. In addition to problems of ability, women writers often faced problems of authority. Whereas men in medieval society occupied official positions of power in the church, government, university, and marketplace, women had fewer contexts in which they could legitimately act, speak, and write as experts. In some settings, women were explicitly forbidden to wield authority. For example, they were not allowed to teach or preach on religious matters, in keeping with a literal reading of St. Paul’s epistles. In a culture of such constraints, aspiring women writers might be either dismissed as insignificant, or chastised for presuming to lay claim to authorial power. Because of the conditions described above, many women writers chose to work with male colleagues. In some cases, women collaborated with men who had received more formal training than they themselves had. Such partnerships ensured that the women’s texts would get written down accurately, and that the texts would conform to conventions of language and style. In other cases, women collaborated with men who possessed more authority than they themselves had. The men usually held positions of power that were exclusively reserved for the male sex, such as ecclesiastical offices. Such partnerships enhanced the status of the women’s writings, serving as a kind of textual accreditation that the public recognized and approved. The foregoing remarks are not meant to discount the existence and significance of same-sex collaboration; in some accounts of medieval partnerships, women collaborate with other women. But such accounts are far outnumbered by accounts of opposite-sex partnerships. The imbalance suggests that medieval women often collaborated because of gender-specific needs that could not necessarily be met by other women. WHO’S WHO: CASE STUDIES OF MEDIEVAL WOMEN WRITERS AND SCRIBES This study is organized around issues of collaboration, rather than around particular collaborators. To illustrate certain issues, however, the study’ draws on writings by and about five religious women who wrote collaboratively. The women and their partners were chosen according to the following criteria. First, the book surveys a broad range of partnerships spanning the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries, a period well suited to analyses of collaborative writing because of cultural transitions from oral to written modes of communication. Not only are the partnerships spread out over time, but they also are spread out geographically across Western Europe, the region where Christian views of authorship were most pervasive and well developed during the later Middle Ages. Finally, the partnerships are characterized by some degree of direct contact between writers. Some partners work separately and then meet to discuss their project, while others work alongside one another, but all the partnerships involve face-to-face interaction, a criterion that calls attention to the most clear-cut and dynamic cases of collaboration. Within these parameters, five partnerships stand out because they are identified in multiple written sources such as treatises, letters, biographies, church documents, and civil records. Moreover, many of the partnerships are depicted in diverse visual works ranging from manuscript illuminations to paintings to printed illustrations. Represented


so variously, the partnerships give rise to complex narratives about collaboration between religious women and scribes, narratives that invite and reward close analysis. The earliest of the five partnerships is that between Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) and her assistants. Hildegard was born into a noble family in the German Rhineland. At age eight, she was placed in a Benedictine convent in Disibodenberg, where she received an unusually thorough education. She remained in the convent well into adulthood, and eventually became the community’s abbess. Later, she established her own convents in Rupertsberg and Eibingen. Hildegard was renowned as a visionary and a prophet: she received divine messages which she disseminated through books, letters, and speeches. Although she knew how to read and write, she collaborated with several scribes. Composing in Latin, she would write a draft on wax tablets; the scribes would then review the tablets, correct her Latin grammar, and transcribe a final draft onto parchment. Her longest partnership was with a monk named Volmar, who was slightly older than she. Hildegard also worked with a young nun named Richardis of Stade, and a young monk named Guibert of Gembloux. With the help of these assistants, Hildegard produced numerous texts, including the Scivias (1141–1151), The Book of the Rewards of Life (1158–1163), The Book of Divine Works (1163–1173), and an extensive collection of letters that spanned her lifetime. A century later, another example can be found of a prominent female mystic who wrote collaboratively: the Blessed Angela of Foligno (1248–1309). Angela lived in the middle of Italy in the Umbrian valley, near the town of Assisi. A member of a wealthy family, she married when she was in her early twenties and had several children. By her own account, she lived a thoroughly secular life until her late thirties, at which time she experienced a profound conversion. When her immediate family died shortly thereafter, she dedicated herself to God, joining a Franciscan order for laypersons. Angela became well known for her visions and experiences of union with God. She eventually agreed to make a written record of her visions at the request of her priest, whose full name is not known but who refers to himself as “Brother A.”1 She dictated her visions in Italian, and Brother A. wrote them down and subsequently translated them into Latin. The resulting text is known as the Memorial (1291–1309). Angela also worked with anonymous assistants to produce letters of spiritual guidance, sometimes referred to as the Instructions (1297–1309). The next generation of female religious writers included Saint Birgitta of Sweden (1303–1373). Birgitta was born into a noble family in the Swedish province of Uppland, north of Stockholm. As a child she was deeply religious, and continued to be so as an adult, balancing personal piety with marriage and motherhood. She was widowed in her forties, after which time she became a nun and moved to Rome to work for papal stability and unity. She also founded her own religious order in Sweden. Throughout her lifetime, Birgitta received divine revelations that she eventually wrote down with the help of her confessors. One of them, Master Matthias, worked with her in Sweden. Three others—Prior Peter Olavsson of Alvastra, Master Peter Olavsson of Skanninge, and Bishop Alphonsus Pecha—worked with her in Rome. Although late in life Birgitta learned Latin, she composed most of her revelations in Swedish, and had her colleagues translate the documents into Latin for her. Together, they produced the Rule of the Holy Savior (1345–?), the Sermon of the Angel (1352–1353), and the Heavenly Book of Revelations (1349–1373). Birgitta’s career overlapped with that of Saint Catherine of Siena (1347–1380), who lived and worked in northern Italy. Catherine was born into a large middle-class family. As a child, she resolved to commit her life to God; by age eighteen, she had joined a Dominican lay community. She spent most of her life ministering to the poor in Siena, but she also traveled to Florence, Pisa and Rome on ecclesiastical missions. In addition to playing an important role in church politics, Catherine became well known as a spiritual counselor and visionary. She put down many of her ideas and visions in writing, dictating her texts to scribes because she herself was unskilled at reading and writing—at least until the final years of her life when, according to some hagiographic accounts, she received literacy as a gift from God. Catherine


collaborated with several Dominican sisters Alessa Alessa Saracini, Francesca Gori, and Giovanna Pazza— in the writing of her early Letters (approx. 1373–1374). Later, Catherine worked with several young laymen —Neri Neri di Landoccio, Stefano Maconi, and Barduccio Canigiani—to produce the rest of her Letters (approx. 1374–1376), as well as a visionary book called the Dialogue (1377–1378). The latest example of a collaborative writer considered in this study is Margery Kempe (1373–1450). Kempe was born into an upper-middle class family in the town of Lynn, on the eastern coast of England. She married at age twenty and bore fourteen children. Kempe became interested in the religious life as a young adult, but waited until she was in her forties to commit to a life of sanctity and chastity, a decision that her husband supported reluctantly. Her dramatic demonstrations of piety, combined with the fact that she was not affiliated with any religious order, often made her suspect in the eyes of ecclesiastical authorities. As part of her self-directed program of spiritual development, Kempe undertook religious pilgrimages throughout England, Europe, and the Holy Land. Late in life, she composed a spiritual autobiography known as The Book of Margery Kempe (1430–1438), assisted by several scribes to whom she dictated her experiences. Although the scribes’ names are not known, they can be distinguished from one another by their contributions to the Book, as recounted in the narrative itself. The first scribe was an unskilled writer who died during the early stages of the project; the second scribe was an unmotivated writer who produced almost nothing; and the third scribe was a competent writer who transcribed most of the text, albeit unwillingly at first. While this study focuses primarily on the women and scribes named above, it takes note of other writing teams as well, looking to them for supporting evidence as well as for alternative perspectives. Such partnerships include the Benedictine nun Elisabeth of Schönau (1129–1165) and her brother Ekbert, who lived in the German Rhineland and worked together to write down Elisabeth’s religious visions. Since they worked in nearly the same place and time that Hildegard worked with her scribes, they make it possible to compare writing teams in more depth than usual. A much different partnership noted in this study is that of Saint Dorothea of Montau (1347–1394) and Johannes of Marienwerder, canon of Marienwerder cathedral. The two developed a close bond when Dorothea was accused of heresy in 1391. After helping procure the holy woman’s acquittal, Johannes procured her an anchorite’s cell at his cathedral, and composed several accounts of her life. Insofar as their relationship was unusually one-sided in its distribution of agency and authority, it calls attention by contrast to more balanced qualities of other partnerships. Still other collaborative writers who receive mention include Saint Umiltà of Faenza (1226–1310), an Italian visionary who dictated sermons to nuns in her convent, and the German mystic Gertrude of Helfta (1256–1302), who dictated visions to nuns and also served as scribe to her colleague Mechthild of Hackeborn. These all-female partnerships offer an intriguing contrast to the female-male partnerships on which this study focuses. Although the writers cited above make only brief appearances in the following chapters, they are significant insofar as they enrich and complicate discussions of the study’s main subjects. WHAT MATTERS: SIGNIFICANT ISSUES IN MEDIEVAL COLLABORATION Using the case material cited above, this study examines five issues having to do with medieval women’s partnerships with scribes. Before outlining these issues, a word about methodology is in order. This study makes claims about partnerships as narrative constructions, rather than about partnerships as lived realities. It analyzes the ways medieval women and scribes are said to have interacted, rather than drawing conclusions about how they actually interacted. The distinction is necessitated by the nature of available evidence: texts whose originals are scarce or nonexistent, written hundreds of years ago for purposes of religious edification rather than historical documentation, and revised over time by editors and copyists


whose motives and abilities varied. Such texts cannot reasonably be read as direct reflections of the partners’ experiences. They can, however, be read as representations of the partners’ experiences, representations that may have been constructed in part by the partners themselves. In seeking to understand what the representations mean and what purposes they serve, then, the study acknowledges the real persons and experiences on which the narratives are predicated. Chapter 1 identifies precedents for medieval women’s partnerships with scribes. Looking back to postclassical and early Christian writings, medieval writers would have found historical examples of women working with men to produce religious documents. For instance, pairs such as Paula and Jerome, Italica and Augustine, and Gundrada and Alcuin collaborated in the following manner. The female partner would select a topic and ask her male colleague to produce a text on that subject. Often she would specify which genre the text should be written in. The male partner, in turn, would compose a text in keeping with the woman’s specifications. Once the text was finished, he would send it to the woman for approval, sometimes asking her to help correct and publish the work. In addition to historical precedents, medieval writers would have known of theological precedents for collaborative writing. Christian tradition posited God as an author who worked with and through human writers to compose the Bible. More importantly, Christianity used textual metaphors to describe Christ’s Incarnation, characterizing God and Mary as partners who collaboratively brought the divine Word into the world. In discussing these theological precedents, the chapter gives special attention to Birgitta of Sweden’s identification with and appropriation of Mary as an authorial role model. With this historical and cultural framework in place, chapter 2 turns its attention to medieval partnerships. The chapter focuses on the issue of genre, analyzing the ways that generic conventions shape narratives about holy women and their writing companions. The three genres discussed in the chapter— spiritual treatises, memoirs, and letters—are associated with distinct rhetorical purposes and styles, and thus represent women’s partnerships differently. Treatises represent the partnerships in relatively static terms, consistently showing the partners as harmonious and efficient workers, assigning them fixed roles in the writing process, and recounting their activities from an omniscient point of view. Such representations strengthen the treatises’ claim to accurately convey the unchanging word of God. Memoirs, by comparison, offer more varied representations of religious women’s partnerships with scribes. For instance, they often posit conflicts between partners, conflicts that are generally resolved in the female partner’s favor. Moreover, memoirs sometimes describe partnerships from the woman’s point of view, juxtaposing her voice with that of the omniscient narrator. Such rhetorical strategies serve the memoirs’ purpose of valorizing the holy woman and establishing her credentials as a potential saint. The most dynamic representations of women’s partnerships, however, occur in letters. Partners’ roles shift from one letter to the next: over the course of a long correspondence, one partner may be characterized variously as a helpful colleague, a beloved child, or a disloyal friend. Just as narrative subjects vary, so do narrative voice and point of view. On the one hand, partners may speak concurrently within a single letter, as when scribes add their own comments to visionaries’ dictated remarks. On the other hand, partners may take turns speaking to each other through a series of letters, engaging in long-distance dialogues. Such dynamic representations bear witness to letterwriters’ desire to address historically specific situations. To illustrate the main differences among the three genres, the chapter compares Hildegard of Bingen’s visionary texts, biographies, and correspondence. Whereas chapter 2 examines how the medium affects the message in narratives of medieval collaboration, chapter 3 looks more closely at the message itself, focusing on the issue of mediation. Human mediation of divine truths is an important theme in accounts of holy women’s partnerships with scribes, given the nature of the writers’ work. On one level, God’s words are mediated through the female visionary; on another level, the visionary’s words are mediated through the scribe. The implied parallel between heavenly


partnerships and human partnerships has significant theological implications. In some narratives, the divine message passes smoothly from one mediator to the next and arrives at its destination intact, confirming traditional medieval doctrine about the unconditional efficacy of God’s word. In other narratives, however, incompetent mediators interrupt the transmission of divine truth, a problem that suggests that human beings can affect spiritual reality for better or for worse. This proposition is made more controversial by the fact that in such narratives, incompetent mediators are usually ordained men, whereas competent mediators are women who may not even belong to a religious order. Through such characteriza tions, narratives about women’s partnerships subtly challenge ecclesiastical and patriarchal authority. In discussing these challenges, the chapter focuses on incompetent scribes in the writings of Margery Kempe and Angela of Foligno. Chapter 4 takes up another prominent theme in narratives about medieval women’s partnerships, namely, issues of sexuality and gender. Unlike men who write collaboratively, women who write collaboratively are characterized as enjoying intimate relationships with their partners. These relationships, however, are carefully regulated in the narratives so that textual intimacy does not give way to sexual intimacy. Such safeguards are necessitated by the writers’ religious commitments and by the edifying aims of their texts. The nature of the safeguards depends on the sex of the woman’s writing partner. For example, when the writing partner is a man, one or both of the partners may be described as physically unattractive; they may also be characterized as being far apart in age. More subtly, their relationship may be described as a kind of kinship in which the partners are literally or figuratively related to each other. Despite these narrative restrictions, the line between textuality and sexuality sometimes gets blurred, as when partners compose spiritual texts charged with erotic imagery, or when one partner—usually the male—forces the other to submit to his textual desires. When both writers are women, however, new restrictions are introduced into the narratives. The writing team may be expanded to include more members, so that two women are never alone together; the team may also be broadened to include male assistants, so that the team is heterosexual. In most cases, however, female scribes are eventually written out of the story through plot devices such as dismissal and death. The fact that they are always replaced by male scribes suggests that feminine collaboration did not fit comfortably into religious narratives in the Middle Ages. In comparing representations of opposite-sex and same-sex partnerships, the chapter focuses on Catherine of Siena’s relationships with male and female scribes. Having examined how holy women’s partnerships were represented by medieval narrators, the study concludes with a discussion of how the same partnerships have been represented by modern narrators. This perspectival shift in chapter 5 foregrounds ways in which both medieval and modern narratives are subjectively and strategically constructed; it also serves to contextualize this study and suggest directions for future research. Specifically, the chapter surveys treatments of medieval partnerships in twentiethcentury academic and popular writings, giving consideration to visual representations as well. The survey finds that modern critics have often followed medieval writers’ lead in privileging holy women over their amanuenses, highlighting the women’s individual accomplishments while downplaying scribes’ part in the writing process. Critics’ reasons for doing so, however, differ in many respects from the reasons that motivated their medieval counterparts. While some modern critics and publishers focus on holy women out of interest in the women’s theological insights, others do so based on feminist commitments to making women’s voices heard, while still others aim to capitalize on the mystique of solitary authorship for marketing purposes. Although such perspectives offer insights into some aspects of medieval women’s partnerships, they obscure other aspects, most notably the social character and feminist potential of collaborative authorship. However, given recent trends in literary criticism, composition theory, and


feminist studies, scholars now have at their disposal rich resources with which to develop broader and more inclusive perspectives on medieval women’s partnerships with scribes.

Chapter One Precedents

This study focuses on women and scribes who wrote together during the high and late Middle Ages. Before analyzing their writing, it is important to contextualize it: that is, to consider what traditions the writers were working in or against, and how those traditions may have shaped the writers’ perceptions of their own projects. By identifying precedents for collaboration between religious women and scribes, I will show how later partnerships—such as those between Hildegard and Volmar, or Birgitta and Prior Peter—were in some respects quite conventional, and were in other respects extraordinary. Although the later partnerships were grounded in Biblical and patristic traditions, they permitted innovations that resulted in increased agency and authority for women writers. HISTORICAL PRECEDENTS Surveying the early medieval period (400–1000 AD) in search of women who participated in the production of religious texts, one is struck by how often they appear to have worked collaboratively. While we know of few women who wrote by themselves, we know of many women who wrote with others. This is not to say that women could not or did not write alone. They may have done so and simply been overlooked by writers of history, although educational inequities would have made them less likely than men to write autonomously. For this study, however, statistics about women’s literacy are less important than stories that shape cultural perceptions of female authorship. Rather than determining how early Christian women “really wrote,” I want to examine how and why narrators in the early Middle Ages tend to represent women as collaborative writers.2 According to extant accounts, religious women’s literary partnerships generally followed a consistent pattern. The woman would initiate the writing process by selecting a topic, and would ask her partner— usually a priest or monk—to produce a text on that subject. Her authority to make such requests was based on several factors. Affection was one of the most prevalent factors; most partners shared close ties of friendship or kinship, and as such found satisfaction in working with and for one another. Personal obligation was another factor; in many cases, the woman had previously provided for the man’s physical and emotional needs, sometimes making major sacrifices for his sake. Certain women, for instance, extended extraordinary hospitality to Jerome when he moved to Rome. A more extreme example is Heloise, who entered a convent at Abelard’s request despite her own misgivings. In such cases, the man might pay his implicit debt by agreeing to the woman’s relatively minor request for writing. Perhaps the most powerful factor that gave women the right to request religious texts, however, had to do with gender roles within the church. While the church encouraged women to meditate on scripture, it prohibited them from teaching and preaching about scripture, even if they had extensive religious training. The prohibition effectively barred women from many forms of religious writing, such as the composition of



doctrinal and exegetical works. On the other hand, ordained men were free to produce such texts, and in fact had an implicit pastoral responsibility to do so if their fellow believers—especially the textually disenfranchised—sought to understand God’s word more fully through written works. In asking men to write about religious topics, then, women called on them to act as ministers of God’s word, a call that most felt compelled to answer. In addition to initiating the composition process and selecting the subject matter for the proposed text, the woman in a writing partnership would often help determine the genre of the text. She might ask for a sermon, for example, or a scriptural commentary, or a hymn. Through the choices outlined above, the woman played an important role in the phase of the writing process known as inventio, or invention. In a subsequent and closely related part of the process known as dispositio, or arrangement of material, the woman played a less visible role while her male partner’s authorial activities became more appreciable. He would compose a text based on the woman’s request; within the guidelines she had suggested, he decided which materials to include and how to present them. Once he finished writing the text, he would submit it to the woman for her perusal and presumably her approval as well, soliciting her involvement in the final phase of writing. Throughout the entire process, partners generally worked in separate locations. In some cases, they did so for convenience. Partners whose daily routines and responsibilities were dissimilar, as in the case of women at court and men in the cloister, found it easiest to work independently and to meet only at crucial times in the writing process. In other cases, writing partners worked separately out of necessity. Many lived far apart, for instance, and had to conduct their collaborative work through letters. And in nearly all cases, partners tended to limit their time together out of pru dence. Working closely with a person of the opposite sex was liable to give rise to gossip and scandal, as proved to be the case for some of the couples described below. Even when partners worked separately on writing tasks, however, they almost always had spent time together in other capacities—in social circles, for example, or in academic settings—and thus had engaged in the kind of direct interaction needed to sustain a dynamic partnership. Some of the earliest examples of textual teamwork among Christians, as described above, are the partnerships that developed in the late fourth century between certain women and Augustine of Hippo. Two women, Italica and Paulina, each asked Augustine to write about human beings’ perceptions of God. Their requests led to the production of complex epistles that later served as working drafts for sections of The City of God (Ferrante 53). Not only did the women set the writing process in motion, but they also helped with publication and revision, as evidenced by Augustine’s request that Italica present one of the texts to an unsympathetic audience and report their responses. Other women, such as Juliana, Maxima, and Seleuciana, prompted Augustine to compose shorter epistles about questions of orthodoxy and heresy (53). Again, the women appear to have played an ongoing role in the composition process. When Augustine sent them what he had written, he asked them to investigate the topics further and inform him of their discoveries, laying the groundwork for collaborative revision of ideas and texts. Around the same time (380–400 AD) that theological commentaries were being produced by Augustine and his female colleagues, equally important doctrinal works were being generated by certain Roman women and Jerome. Their partnerships are unusually well documented, and as such, they provide a wealth of information about collaboration among early Christian writers. The first such partnership was initiated by Marcella, a wealthy and powerful widow who was devoted to serious study of the Bible. Her collaboration with Jerome began as a series of conversations: having learned that the scholar had recently come to Rome, she invited him into her home to discuss difficult scriptural questions with her and other Christian women. Not content merely to converse, however, Marcella urged Jerome to write about the issues they had addressed (Kelly 94). She would set the composing process in motion by writing to her colleague about a



particular topic, and asking him to write back. Often the topics she chose had to do with issues of translation, as when she asked Jerome to write an exposition of the ten names of God found in the Hebrew scriptures, or to explain the meaning of the Hebrew words alleluia, amen, and maran atha (Schaff and Wace 43). Other times, she introduced topics having to do with issues of interpretation, as when she asked Jerome to define the cryptic “sin against the Holy Ghost” mentioned in Matthew 12:32, or to interpret the parable of the sheep and goats cited in Matthew 25:31 (56, 123). Occasionally she focused on issues of textual integrity, as when she asked Jerome to reconcile seemingly contradictory statements in the gospels about the resurrected Christ’s interactions with his followers (123). Not only did Marcella choose subject matter for Jerome to write about, but she sometimes provided him with rough draft material, as when she asked him to explain the meaning of the Biblical terms ephod and teraphim, and at the same time supplied him with information she had already compiled about those words (Kelly 95). That Marcella consistently initiated the composing process is clear from Jerome’s characterizations of her as a forceful writing partner. On one occasion, he complained good-naturedly, “You write nothing except what tortures me and compels me to read scriptures” (Ferrante 49), and on another occasion he referred to her ruefully as his “slave-driver” (Kelly 95), crediting her in each case with pushing the writing process along. Through her persistent and detailed inquiries, she made important intellectual contributions to the writing process, as Jerome acknowledged when he told her, “You provoke us with great questions and make our wit numb with inactivity; while you ask, you teach” (Ferrante 49, emphasis added). Following Marcella’s example, other women formed literary partnerships with Jerome during the time he lived in Rome. Prominent among these collaborators were an aristocratic young widow named Paula and her daughters Eustochium and Blesilla. These women were involved in, and often responsible for, the production of some of Jerome’s most significant works. For instance, Paula and Eustochium noted errors in his first edition of the Psalter—errors that he attributed to copyists—and asked him to undertake a second edition. The revised text gained wide recognition, and eventually became the standard Psalter used in most churches as late as the sixteenth century (Schaff and Wace 494). In their collaboration with Jerome, Paula and her daughters played many of the same roles in the writing process as Marcella did. Like Marcella, the women challenged Jerome to tackle challenging subjects. For example, Paula asked him to compile a complete bibliography of Origen’s works, which were controversial at the time. In making such a bold request, Paula not only determined the content of the book, but also influenced the means of textual production, for given the inflammatory nature of the material, Jerome felt compelled to do all the transcription work himself rather than assigning it to a secretary as he usually did (Ferrante 50). Like Marcella too, Paula and her daughters pressed Jerome to write prolifically. For instance, Blesilla asked him to translate Origen’s commentaries on the gospels, which totaled 65 volumes (Kelly 99, n. 34). Although Jerome did not carry out that Herculean task, he accepted other rigorous assignments, such as writing four commentaries within the space of a few months, at times composing nearly a thousand lines per day (145). Not only did the women set high standards for productivity, but they also established high standards of quality, as Jerome recounted in one of his letters to them: A few days ago you told me that you had read some commentaries on Matthew and Luke, of which one was equally dull in perception and expression, the other frivolous in expression, sleepy in sense. Accordingly you requested me to translate, without regarding such rubbish, our Adamantius’ thirtynine ‘homilies’ on Luke, just as they are found in the original Greek; I replied that it was an irksome task and a mental torment to write, as Cicero phrases it, with another man’s heart not one’s own; but yet I will undertake it, as your requests reach no higher than this. (Schaff and Wace 496)



The passage recalls Jerome’s partnership with Marcella, insofar as the women pressure their friend to carry out a writing project so difficult as to be “irksome.” But the passage also gives a unique glimpse into the strengths that the women brought to the composition process. If they were demanding taskmasters, they were also intelligent and well-educated ones who knew literary “rubbish” when they saw it. As such, they were capable of ensuring that the texts they helped create would be neither “dull” nor “frivolous.” In addition to initiating literary production, Paula and Eustochium played significant roles in the composition process right up to the final phases of editing, as evidenced by Jerome’s request that they evaluate his translation of the book of Esther: “Since you have zealously entered the Hebrew libraries and confirm the struggles of interpreters, holding the Hebrew book of Esther, look at the individual words of our translation so that you may know that I added nothing, but simply transmitted the history from Hebrew to Latin as a faithful witness” (Ferrante 51–52). As the preceding descriptions suggest, Paula and Jerome worked together particularly often. Their close textual relationship prompted Jerome’s critics to suggest that they were sexually intimate as well, a charge that the partners refuted. Although Marcella, Paula, and Eustochium’s partnerships with Jerome are the best documented and most often cited, many other women collaborated with Jerome on literary projects. A woman named Fabiola invited him to write about the significance of sacred vestments and rituals described in the Pentateuch (Kelly 211); Principia prompted him to write a commentary on Psalm 44 (Ferrante 48); Hedybia asked him to explicate complex passages and to reconcile apparent contradictions in the gospels; and Algasia led him to compose eleven chapters’ worth of close readings of the New Testament (Schaff and Wace 224). Such partnerships established an important precedent for later writing teams, particularly those made up of women and men. Partners ranging from Gisla and Rotrud and Alcuin, to Heloise and Abelard, all justified their literary exchanges by citing the example of the Roman women and Jerome (Ferrante 28). As the Christian church gained prominence in Western Europe over the next several centuries, writing partnerships took on new characteristics. More religious communities were established for women, a change that was reflected in writing teams: whereas earlier pairs had usually consisted of a lay woman and an ordained man, now the female partner was likely to have taken religious vows herself. An example of such collaboration can be found in the early eighth century, when a nun whose name is now unknown asked the Venerable Bede to write a commentary on the third chapter of Habakkuk, often called the “Song of Habakkuk” (G.Brown 55). Bede complied with the request, and later acknowledged the commentary’s collaborative origins when he cited it in his bibliography, describing it as a text written for a “beloved sister in Christ.” Available evidence suggests that this commentary was the only work Bede wrote for a woman (Ward 77); while he apparently was willing to accept women’s invitations to collaborate, he seems to have been less inclined to initiate such partnerships. At the same time that writing teams were becoming more closely tied to religious institutions, they also were establishing more connections to political power. This development had to do with the fact that the Christian religion was finding increasing favor among Western European rulers. As political leaders took steps to incorporate Christianity into their kingdoms, they opened up possibilities for partnerships between members of the cloister and the court. Toward the end of the eighth century, for example, extensive collaboration took place between Alcuin and several female relatives of Charlemagne (Ferrante 54). Gundrada, Charlemagne’s granddaughter, urged the theologian to compose a treatise about the reason of the soul. After drafting the treatise, Alcuin sent it to Gundrada with the suggestion that she read more extensively on the topic and then share her reading materials with him, a plan that would have allowed for continued collaboration with respect to ideas and, possibly, additional literary production. An equally significant document was created jointly by Gisla (Charlemagne’s sister), Rotrud (Charlemagne’s daughter), and Alcuin. Gisla and Rotrud determined the genre and topic of the text, insofar



as they petitioned Alcuin to write a commentary on the gospel of John. In their petition, they specified what the commentary ought to contain: teachings from “the holy fathers” and “the holy doctors,” both “the old and the new” (55). Alcuin appended their written request to the commentary that he subsequently drafted, calling attention to the collaborative origins of the latter. Upon completion of the draft, he submitted the autograph manuscript to Gisla and Rotrud for their approval, asking “if they deem it worthy to have it transcribed, that is, to publish it for him, with instructions for the copying and editing” (55). Alcuin’s request gives the impression that the women were involved in the composition process literally from start to finish, and that their contributions to each phase were substantial. Throughout the process, the partners appear to have been aware that they were working in a longstanding tradition of collaborative writing. Gisla and Rotrud likened Alcuin to Jerome in order to goad their friend gently into finishing his part of the writing project. They implied that if Jerome had been able to maintain productive partnerships with the Roman women even after he moved thousands of miles to Be thlehem, surely Alcuin should be able to keep up collaborative efforts while he was living in Tours and they were living nearby in Paris (Browne 254). Similar writing partnerships flourished in the eleventh century between several noble women and Peter Damian (Ferrante 56). Empress Agnes, Countess Hermesinde, Countess Blanche, and Countess Adelaide all prompted Peter to write letters concerning questions of scriptural interpretation. The letters proved to be significant insofar as they formed the basis for later editions of Peter’s biblical commentaries. A literary partnership also arose between Peter and one of his sisters, who wrote him a sophisticated letter containing “weighty questions about what existed before creation and what would exist after the end of the world” (56). In doing so, she determined not only the genre and topic of their written discourse, but also set the tone for the level of rhetoric they would employ. According to Peter, his sister’s questions led him to think along new and challenging lines, motivating him to draft complex answers and compile a bibliography of recommended reading on the subject. While the women mentioned above were instrumental in initiating writing projects, little is known about whether or how they may have participated in later phases of the writing process. The twelfth century saw the development of one of the best-known writing partnerships in western European history: that of Heloise and Abelard. After committing themselves to religious orders, the couple exchanged letters that were initially personal in nature, but which gradually expanded to include a variety of topics and subgenres. For instance, the correspondence led to the composition of a history of female monasticism, a rule for nuns, a biblical commentary, theological analyses, sermons, and hymns. Most of these documents were written at Heloise’s request. When commissioning the works, she generally laid down specific guidelines concerning their content and purpose. For example, when asking Abelard to write a rule for nuns, she urged him to “prescribe some Rule for us and write it down, a Rule which shall be suitable for women, and also describe fully the manner and habit of our way of life, which we find was never done by the holy Fathers” (Abelard and Heloise 160). By making straightforward demands about what the work should contain, and also offering subtle suggestions as to how Abelard might improve on existing documents, Heloise helped determine what shape the text would take. As one scholar has put it, Heloise’s letter of request in this case effectively “sketches the outline of Abelard’s response” (Ferrante 44). Upon receiving Heloise’s petitions for particular documents, Abelard carried out the task of writing by himself, but composed texts that embodied ideas and ideals that they had developed together. In some cases, Heloise’s influence on Abelard’s writing is readily apparent. For example, as their correspondence progressed, he adopted a more sympathetic stance toward women in response to her concern for her companions in the cloister (Clanchy, Abelard 254). One scholar has gone so far as to say that Heloise effected Abelard’s “conversion from antifeminism,” so that “from being conventionally patronizing and satirical in his ‘history of calamities,’ he becomes the champion of women’s religious equality in his essay



on the origin of nuns” (254). But Heloise also contributed to Abelard’s work in less measurable ways. Before he met her, Abelard had specialized in logic and oratory, but Heloise introduced him to moral philosophy, classical literature, and humanistic writing, subjects that came to figure prominently in his worldview and his writing. For instance, following Heloise’s lead, he became interested in pagan philosophers and tried to reconcile their views with Christianity in his writings, a project that gave rise to the notorious accusation that Abelard was “sweating to make Plato a Christian” (169). Thus even though Heloise did not actually work alongside Abelard during the tasks of composition and transcription, she contributed to the texts indirectly, so much so that it may be argued she gave Abelard’s writing its “distinctive character” (169). Once Abelard had finished composing the documents that Heloise had requested, he would send them to her for approval. Interestingly, she rarely commented on the texts; in subsequent letters to Abelard, she would simply present him with new proposals. It is as though she stopped the collaborative process short each time, refusing to engage in dialogue about the work that she and Abelard had just created together. On at least one occasion, she referred to their writing projects not as labors of love but as obligatory transactions, telling Abelard that he “owed” her more compositions, and that he ought to “make no delay in paying your debt” (257). Not surprisingly, Abelard responded in terms that were equally terse. One cannot help but wonder if the couple adopted such attitudes as a safeguard against textual intimacy, downplaying whatever satisfaction they might have experienced during the writing process. By denying themselves the final pleasures of collaborative work—mutual evaluation, affirmation, and celebration—they seemed to protest (perhaps too much) that their partnership was impersonal, and that their joint conception and delivery of texts was a strictly professional undertaking. The aforementioned examples of early medieval collaboration raise an important question. Can such partnerships plausibly be considered precedents for the later medieval writing teams that form the focus of this study? Scholars studying the early partnerships have traditionally characterized the female partner as a marginal figure, one whose contributions to the writing process are negligible. At the same time, the male partner has been perceived as a figure of great importance, one who merits the title of “the author” in most cases. The power of these views is evident in the modern-day public’s ignorance of the female partners (Marcella, Italica, Rotrud), coupled with their ready recognition of the male partners (Jerome, Augustine, Alcuin). Even when the female partner is well known, her authorial activity is often viewed more critically than the male partner’s, so much so that the authenticity of her work may be called into question. For example, scholars have long debated whether the re nowned Heloise really wrote the letters that are attributed to her, despite strong historical evidence of her literary ability. Those who would deny her participation in the writing process usually attribute the entire correspondence to Abelard, elevating him to the status of primary author while reducing Heloise to a textual puppet (Newman, “Authority”). Such inequitable treatment does not carry over into writing partnerships in the later Middle Ages. In fact, just the opposite takes place, insofar as historians have generally accorded high honors to the female partner (Hildegard, Angela, Catherine), but have paid little attention to the male (Volmar, Brother A., Neri). Thus it could be argued that early medieval partnerships have little or no bearing on those of later periods, insofar as the former do not correspond closely enough to the latter. Such an argument, however, accepts historical interpretation as fact. In constructing narratives about collaborative endeavors, scholars have necessarily been selective in their choice and presentation of data. For various reasons—research agenda, personal preference, cultural bias—most historians of the early periods have highlighted the male partner’s accomplishments. But it is possible to construct different narratives that, while maintaining historical integrity, are more forthcoming about the female partner’s contributions to the writing process. For example, alternate narratives could be created by simply



identifying the woman in discussions of authorship, rather than leaving her unnamed as traditional scholarship has tended to do. A more dramatic move would be to name the woman first when referring to writing partners, rather than always giving primacy of place to the male partner. The woman’s work could also be highlighted through grammatical choices, such as making the woman the subject of a sentence and identifying her work through active verbs. Historical records would then show, for example, that “Gundrada asked Alcuin to write,” instead of rendering her invisible in the claim that “Alcuin was asked to write.” Perhaps most importantly, the woman’s work could be judged by the standards of early rhetoric, which values invention just as much as composition, and certainly more than transcription. Seen in this light, early partnerships have more in common with later partnerships than was previously apparent. Across time periods, women consistently play significant roles: they set the writing process in motion, help determine subject matter and genre, and evaluate final products. Likewise, men’s roles show similarities across time: the male partners perform most of the actual writing, but relinquish the manuscripts at the end of the composition process. To make such comparisons is not to deny all differences between the early and later partnerships—significant differences are discussed below—but to acknowledge some commonalities that have hitherto been obscured by conventional historical narratives. The comparisons are useful insofar as they suggest that, rather than appearing ex nihilo, women’s partnerships with scribes in the high and late Middle Ages developed along already established lines, and furthered a rich tradition of collaborative writing. Just as the similarities between early and later writing partnerships are informative, however, so are the differences. One marked difference is that in the early partnerships, writers appear to work separately, as in the case of the Roman women who write down theological questions and send them to Jerome, or Heloise who sends letters to Abelard spelling out those texts he ought to write. While many partners also worked side by side for a time—for example, Jerome alludes to direct conversations with Marcella, saying that when they both lived in Rome, “she never saw me but that she asked something about scripture” (Ferrante 50)—such interactions are rarely woven into narratives that purport to describe the partnerships. Instead, collaboration is represented as the coordination of complementary but separate efforts. In later narratives, by contrast, writers appear to interact directly, as in the case of Angela dictating to Brother A., or Birgitta listening to Prior Peter read his translation of her work. While these scenarios of face-to-face collaboration do not seem revolutionary in themselves, they take on radical properties when juxtaposed with the stories that came before them. Compared to long-distance collaboration, direct collaboration seems more dynamic, permitting simultaneous conversation and debate that might shape the text in any number of ways. Moreover, direct collaboration seems startlingly intimate, allowing partners to spend time in seclusion sharing stimulating ideas. Thus the accounts of early partnerships provide points of reference against which to measure not just continuity, but change; they establish traditions that later narratives may sustain, but also subvert. Another difference between the precedents described in this chapter and the partnerships examined in subsequent chapters has to do with textual authority. In accounts of the early partnerships, writers produce religious texts that are scholarly in nature. They do so using their God-given abilities, trusting and praying that the texts will meet with divine approval. This arrangement grants the partners comparable degrees of authority, since both usually possess the basic analytical and rhetorical skills needed for such an endeavor. For instance, Heloise and Abelard are each familiar enough with patristic writings to use them as the basis for a rule for women: Heloise cites them in her written request for such a rule, and Abelard cites them in his corresponding composition. In the later partnerships, however, writers produce religious texts of a visionary nature. They claim that they do not exercise their own abilities at all, but merely record God’s message, believing that the texts are



divinely inspired and even divinely authored. In this scenario, partners possess unequal measures of authority, since only one person is privileged to receive God’s words firsthand; that person instructs the other on how the writing process should proceed. For example, when Catherine of Siena collaborates with her scribes on the text of The Dialogue, only Catherine hears God’s judgments concerning corrupt clergy, so she must report the information to Neri, Stefano, and Barduccio before they can help record the holy message. Thus the success of the writing project depends mainly upon the visionary partner, who (within the parameters of this study) is usually a woman.3 Her position of privilege is noteworthy in its own right, but seems positively remarkable when one recalls the more modest positions held by her predecessors. Compared to early examples of collaboration, where women and men are said to exercise similar degrees of authority, women in the later partnerships appear to enjoy extraordinary prestige and power. Thus historical precedents again prove useful as gauges of change, bearing witness to developments in collaborative narratives and, perhaps, actual collaborative practices as well. The comparisons and contrasts cited above raise an important question. While modern scholars may find it useful to posit connections between early and late partnerships, did late medieval writers themselves perceive such connections? In other words, to what extent did the early partnerships effectually serve as precedents? In some cases, there is direct evidence that later writers knew of and were influenced by their predecessors. Partners who were well versed in church history and theology, such as Hildegard of Bingen and Guibert of Gembloux, occasionally made references to the religious writing activities of earlier generations. Guibert, for example, cited Jerome’s partnerships with Roman women as justification for his own interactions with the nuns in Hildegard’s convent (Ferrante 28). In other cases, the evidence is less direct but still persuasive. For instance, in most of the later writing teams, one of the partners was a religious official, and thus was likely to have known enough about early Christian writers to relate their narratives to the lay partner. This appears to have been the case for Margery Kempe and her third scribe. The scribe, who was a priest, read aloud to Margery from a book produced collaboratively by Birgitta of Sweden and her advisors; he also may have told Margery about the literary partnership between Marie d’Oignies and Jacques de Vitry (Kempe 143, 152–53). In rare instances where the writing team consisted entirely of laypersons—as was the case with Catherine of Siena and her male colleagues—who did not have access to ecclesiastical records, knowledge of early partnerships could have been obtained through sermons or conversations with confessors and priests. And even writing teams who had no explicit information about historic partnerships may have been affected nevertheless by the literary, theological, and cultural expectations that their predecessors helped establish. SCRIPTURAL PRECEDENTS Turning from historical to scriptural sources, one finds precedents for collaboration that would have been familiar to all teams engaged in religious writing during the high and late Middle Ages. One such precedent is the Bible itself, which purports to be authored by God but recorded by human writers. Particularly in Old Testament prophetic books, writers highlight the collaborative nature of their work, insisting that they are writing under God’s direction, and even quoting God’s instructions concerning the writing project (Isaiah 8: 1, Jeremiah 30:2). Other precedents for collaborative writing can be found within Biblical narratives, such as the account of Moses preparing stone tablets on which God subsequently writes the commandments (Exodus 34:1), or Jeremiah enlisting Baruch’s help to record and publish an unpopular message from the Lord (Jeremiah 36:1–32). Such examples would have provided later medieval writers with assurance that they were participating in a longstanding Christian tradition, namely, a tradition of working with God and his servants to record and disseminate divine truths.



For medieval writing teams whose members included women, however, the most powerful Biblical example of collaboration may have been that of the Virgin Mary and God.4 Not only is this partnership one of the most revered in Christian tradition, but it is virtually the only one in which a woman plays a significant role. According to Biblical accounts, Mary and the Lord worked together to produce an extraordinary “text,” namely, the incarnate Christ. Their collaboration is described in the gospel of John through an extended literary metaphor: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 1:14). Such imagery captured the imaginations of many medieval scholars, who incorporated literary metaphors into their discussions of the Annunciation and Incarnation. For example, they called God the “author” of salvation, and honored Mary with names such as mater summi Verbi, or “mother of the highest word,” evoking images of texts and writing (McDevitt 97). Though highly figurative, Mary’s and God’s “authorial” activities served as an ideal for medieval writers engaged in the production of religious texts. Viewing Mary as “the exemplar of the person who uses language in cooperation with God for the good,” many writers sought to imitate her example as a “communicator of the Logos” (McDevitt 98, 78). Besides having general appeal for individual writers, Mary’s partnership with God may have been especially meaningful to writers who worked collaboratively, particularly in cases where one partner claimed to receive messages directly from God. Just as God sent his Word to Mary, an event subsequently proclaimed by the gospel writers, so God might see fit to send his word to medieval visionaries, to be published thereafter by their scribes. This parallel was recognized and appreciated by some of the women who are the main subjects of this study; their responses to Mary’s example are examined in more detail later in this chapter. While medieval scholars usually discussed Mary’s collaboration with God in metaphorical terms, sticking closely to the Biblical narrative, medieval artists tended to take a more literal view. Playing on the idea that Mary and God had brought forth “the Word,” many artists depicted the Annunciation and Incarnation as events involving actual writing.5 Such depictions, discussed below in more detail, deserve ex amination because of the importance of iconography in medieval religious culture. For cloistered believers and laypersons alike, paintings and sculptures played as significant a role in communicating theology as did books and sermons. Although it is impossible to know whether the writers who are the main subjects of this study encountered artwork that depicted Mary and God as collaborative authors, we do know that they regularly incorporated religious iconography into their experiences of worship, and were often profoundly influenced by the images they beheld. Angela of Foligno, for example, received intimate assurances of God’s love when she meditated on a stained-glass window image of St. Francis and Christ (Angela, Works 141). Similarly, Margery Kempe experienced overwhelming grief when she viewed an image of Mary holding the crucified Christ (Kempe 148). The frequency of these writers’ encounters with religious art, combined with the popularity of Marian imagery, makes it possible that the writers may have seen and been influenced by “literary” depictions of Mary’s interactions with God. One way that medieval artists made Mary’s relationship with God seem like a textual one was to represent the Annunciation as an occasion of writing. Although both Mary and God are involved in producing the incarnate Word, God is not directly pictured in such scenes, in keeping with Christian prohibitions against portraying the Lord through images. As the more visible partner, then, Mary is the one portrayed alongside writing materials. This arrangement is symbolically appropriate, for while God engenders the divine Word, Mary gives it physical form, much as scribes give physical form to ordinary language through use of ink, stylus and parchment. However, Mary is rarely seen putting pen to paper in scenes of the Annunciation. Instead, she appears to wait humbly either for inspiration or permission to proceed, subtly acknowledging God’s presence and calling attention to his role in the writing process. In a painting by Domenico Panetti,



Plate 1 The Magnificat. By Sandro Botticelli (15th c.). Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi.

for instance, Mary kneels at a desk furnished with an open book, two inkwells, and two writing instruments that lie side by side (Vloberg, La Vierge Notre Médiatrice 154). In a similar portrait by Niccolò da Foligno, Mary bows before a desk furnished with four books, one inkwell, and one quill pen (Prampolini 105). In this picture, the pen is propped in the inkwell, ready to use; viewers have the tantalizing sense that writing will take place. This hope is realized in some cases. In the border of an Annunciation scene in a French book of hours, for example, Mary sits at a desk and writes with a feather pen (Smith 40, n. 12). While the paintings cited above highlight the textual overtones of Mary’s relationship with God, they do a less effective job of emphasizing the relationship’s collaborative qualities. Given artists’ constraints in depicting God the Father, scenes of the Annunciation necessarily focus more on Mary, making her appear at times like an autonomous producer of texts. Since this interpretation is theologically erroneous, medieval audiences almost certainly would not have viewed Mary as a solitary author. Being steeped in Biblical narratives, they would have had an easier time than would modern audiences in remembering that God was supposedly present in the scenes, though not visible to human eyes. Nevertheless, teams of religious authors seeking inspiration may have been grateful for other Biblical episodes that lent themselves more readily to scenes of collaborative writing. Such events included the composing of the Magnificat, and the mystery of the Incarnation. Because God was present in these events as the Christ child rather than as the Father, artists could legitimately include him in pictures alongside Mary, leaving no doubt as to the collaborative nature of their relationship.



Plate 2 Detail of Mary and the Christ child with writing materials. Anon. (15th c.). Maastricht, Onze Lieve Vrouwebasiliek.

In a painting by Sandro Botticelli, for example, Mary composes the Magnificat while holding the Christ child in her arms (See Plate 1). A close examination of the picture shows that she has gotten as far as the first word of the line, “For he that is mighty hath magnified me” (Bernard 234). Botticelli has taken some liberties with the Biblical narrative, setting the event after Christ is born instead of while he is in Mary’s womb. But the picture remains true to the Biblical account insofar as Christ is alive and present in the scene, is intimately connected to Mary, and helps occasion her poem of praise. The painting goes further than most in stressing both the textual and collaborative nature of their relationship. Although Mary wields



Plate 3 The Christ child suckling and writing. Anon. (14th c.). Les Belles Heures du Due de Berry, MS.11.060. Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale.

the pen, Christ holds her arm as she writes, appearing to direct her in the composition process. Mary



apparently accepts his guidance, signaling her willingness to cooperate with God in the production of holy words. While medieval artists sometimes teased out the textual significance of the Magnificat, they more commonly stressed the textual significance of the Incarnation. As with other Biblical episodes involving cooperation between Mary and God, this event was represented as an occasion of collaborative writing. Unlike scenes of the Annunciation, however, in this case artists assigned writing materials not only to Mary, but also to the Christ child: usually Mary was shown holding an inkwell, while Christ was shown holding a pen (See Plate 2). The distribution of materials reflects each partner’s role in the Incarnation. At the simplest level, the ink container reminds viewers that during the Nativity, Mary served as the “container” for Christ. More subtly, it recalls Anselm’s metaphorical description of Mary as the Scrinium Spiritus Sancti, insofar as the virgin is “the conduit, the aqueduct, for the Word” (McDevitt 51). The pen, on the other hand, reminds viewers that Christ is both the incarnate Word of God and the “author” of the Christian faith (Hebrews 12:2). Together, the two writing tools highlight the collaborative nature of the Incarnation, for both are needed to bring a text into being: “the inkpot held by Mary represents the flesh she provides for the Word: the writing Christ Child is the Word enfleshed, ‘writing’ himself into the ‘text’ of human history” (McDevitt 87). The collaborative nature of the Incarnation is even more evident in artwork that shows Mary suckling the Christ child as they write together (See Plate 3). Compared to images cited above in which both partners strike relatively formal poses, here the writing process becomes a profoundly intimate activity. Moreover, the nursing scenario grants Mary a more active role than before, a role for which she is uniquely qualified because of her sex. Her milk accomplishes on one level what the ink accomplishes on another level: it contributes to the development of the Word, and prepares the Word to go out into the world. The fact that nursing and writing occur simultaneously in the picture makes it tempting to conflate the two liquids; one might say figuratively that Mary’s milk fills the inkwell, or that it flows through the child writer into his pen and onto the page. For medieval writing teams whose members included women, such an image could have been encouraging, insofar as it seems to authorize and even require female participation in the production of religious texts. MARY’S SIGNIFICANCE FOR BIRGITTA OF SWEDEN Several female collaborative writers found Mary an intriguing figure, and identifled closely with her role in conveying God’s word to the world. For example, in one of her visions, Hildegard makes a veiled comparison between herself and Mary, implying that they both “receive the word of God and manifest it to mankind” (Ferrante 157). The same point is made more elaborately by Elisabeth of Schönau, who de scribes her visionary experience in terms that recall Mary’s experience of conception and labor (143). During her Christmas Eve meditations, Elisabeth is racked by a “powerful and bitter suffering” until an angel appears to her and speaks words of encouragement. Shortly thereafter, her pain gives way to ecstasy, and she issues forth poems of praise for the Incarnate Christ: “Sent from the exalted dignity of the Father, He descended from the heavens, entered our realm through the ear of the Virgin, clothed in a purple stole, and through the golden gate He went forth, the light and glory of all creation” (Elisabeth 80). Both the form and content of Elisabeth’s experience recall Mary’s role in the Incarnation and Nativity: as the medieval woman ponders these monumental events, she herself receives a visit from an angel and subsequently produces a divinely inspired text. The reference to conception through the ear creates an especially powerful connection between Mary and Elisabeth, since hearing plays an important part in Elisabeth’s visionary experiences. Unlike some visionaries whose revelations come in the form of silent pictures, Elisabeth’s revelations



resonate with heavenly voices that instruct her in a variety of spiritual matters, including the writing of her book (99, 120, 165, 170, 203). The most striking example of a collaborative writer who identified with Mary, however, is Birgitta of Sweden. Like most religious women of the late Middle Ages, Birgitta demonstrated devotion to Christ, but she also exhibited an unusually strong attachment to Mary. She was most interested in Mary’s role in the conception and birth of Christ, although she also gave attention to other roles such as mourning mother and queen of heaven. Birgitta’s identification with the holy mother was so intense that it led to an experience of “mystical pregnancy” early in her religious career. On Christmas Eve of 1345, as Birgitta was praying, she was suddenly filled with great joy, and at the same time felt movement within her “as if a living child were in her heart turning itself around and around” (Sahlin 108). She feared that the sensation was a trick of the devil, but shortly thereafter Mary appeared to her and reassured her that the experience was a gift from God: Daughter, you are amazed about the movement that you feel in your heart. Know that it is not an illusion, but a certain manifestation of resemblance to my sweetness and the mercy granted to me. For just as you do not know how the exultation and the motion of your heart came to you so suddenly, so the arrival of my son into me was wonderful and swift. For when I assented to the angel who announced the conception of the son of God to me, immediately I felt a certain marvelous and living thing in me. And when he was born from me, he came forth from my closed virginal womb with unspeakable exultation and marvelous haste. Therefore, daughter, do not be afraid of an illusion, but rejoice because that movement which you feel is a sign of the arrival of my son into your heart. (108) The passage establishes an explicit connection between Birgitta and Mary: Birgitta’s experience bears “resemblance” to the holy mother’s insofar as she has been literally filled with Christ’s presence. There are implicit parallels too, such as the sudden appearance of a divine messenger who speaks words of comfort to the holy woman. Some scholars have interpreted this remarkable scene as one mother’s affinity for another: since Birgitta gave birth to eight children of her own, they suggest, it is only natural that she should identify with Christianity’s most important maternal figure (109). But Claire Sahlin has shown that Birgitta’s attachment to Mary was not primarily based on matters of motherhood. On the contrary, Birgitta’s “mystical pregnancy” marked the beginning of a shift away from the duties of home and family, toward the duties of religious instruction and ecclesiastical reform (115). Thus she identified with Mary not simply as a mother, but as a believer whose calling it was to “make the invisible God visible to the world” (118). Though Sahlin does not draw more specific conclusions than this, one of the implications of her argument is that Birgitta looked to Mary as a role model in all her religious activities, including the work of producing texts in collaboration with God and his servants. This claim finds support in the work that Birgitta did following her experience of “mystical pregnancy.” While she participated in a wide variety of ministries, she devoted much of her time to writing, diligently recording the numerous revelations she received from heaven. By the end of her lifetime, she had written down nearly six hundred visionary episodes that were compiled in eight volumes (Nyberg 32), a statistic that makes her one of the most prolific visionary writers in this study.6 In repeatedly accepting God’s invitations to help convey holy messages, Birgitta effectively reenacted Mary’s role in the Annunciation and Nativity. Within the revelations themselves, Mary appears frequently as a speaker as well as a subject for meditation. The most striking vision of all is a Nativity scene that provides elaborate descriptions of Mary’s demeanor and behavior, paying just as much attention to her as to the Christ child, if not more. By depicting Mary in a posture of prayer during her labor and delivery, the vision highlights the collaborative nature of



her effort to bring forth God’s word. The revelation has been described by modern scholars as “the most famous chapter that Birgitta ever wrote and the most important for its lasting influence on the iconography of Christ’s nativity” (305, n. 770). Even more significant than writing the revelations, however, was Birgitta’s establishment of a new religious order complete with its own rule. The order was dedicated to Mary, a focus that set it apart from other religious communities. The order’s rule was composed through an unusual process of collaborative writing. According to hagiographic sources, Christ sent an angelic messenger to instruct Birgitta in writing the rule, and they worked together in the following manner: The blessed Birgitta had a room with a window overlooking the high altar where daily she could see the body of Christ. Each day, after she had read her hours and prayers, she arranged that she would write, having tablets and ink and pen in her hand. Thus prepared, she waited for the angel of the Lord. When he came, he positioned himself close at her side. He stood erect and respectful, his face always looking with reverent mien to the altar where the body of Christ was hidden. Thus standing, he dictated the lectionary consisting of the following lessons to be read at Matins in this monastery. They treat of the superlative excellence of the ever-blessed Virgin Mary…. When the angel finished dictating these words, he said to the spouse who had been writing, ‘Lo, now I have completed the tunic of the Queen of Heaven, the Mother of God; therefore, as you are able, you must sew it together.’ (Birgitta, Word 13–14) For a medieval audience, the passage described above would have resonated with references to the Annunciation. Just as Birgitta withdraws to a private room and engages in reading and prayer before the angel’s arrival, medieval paintings of the Annunciation usually showed Mary in a secluded chamber, kneeling in prayer or reading a book of hours at the time of the angel’s visit. The image of Birgitta waiting with “tablets and pen and ink” recalls depictions of the Annunciation, too; as discussed earlier, some artists equipped Mary with writing materials, alluding to her role in bringing forth the divine word. Other similarities include the significance of the angel’s speech: in Birgitta’s narrative, the angel delivers a message that lays the groundwork for a new religious order, recalling on a small scale how the angel in the Biblical narrative spoke words that ushered in a new era in salvation history. And both holy women are active participants in the divine plan: as Birgitta is free to arrange or “sew together” the material presented by the angel, so Mary is free to respond to the angel’s announcement however she wishes, a fact that makes her gracious answer meaningful. These similarities give the impression that Birgitta looked to Mary as a role model, and that this perspective shaped the way she represented her own calling to collaborate with God in the production of spiritual texts. In making the foregoing claims about Birgitta’s identification with Mary, it is important to add certain qualifications. While accounts of Birgitta’s “mystical pregnancy” and visitation from the angel make her seem deeply attached to Mary, there may have been multiple forces at work in shaping those accounts, forces that preclude a simple reading of the texts as direct reflections of Birgitta’s feelings. At the same time that she was sincerely devoted to Mary, Birgitta may have had additional reasons for positing connections between herself and the Blessed Virgin; for example, she may have believed that such an emphasis would appeal to potential members of her new order. Moreover, the narratives may have been shaped by other persons besides Birgitta. For instance, the priests who helped write the texts may have encouraged comparisons between Mary and Birgitta in order to strengthen the latter’s spiritual credibility. Later on,



biographers may have emphasized the connection in order to help Birgitta’s life conform to conventions of hagiography. The point of such ac knowledgements is not to cast doubt on Birgitta’s devotion to Mary. Rather, it is to say that although it is ultimately impossible to know the exact nature and extent of Birgitta’s identification with Mary, it is clear that someone—very likely Birgitta herself, but perhaps her assistants and biographers as well—wanted to establish parallels between the two women, and that they believed the parallels to be valid and useful. While the points of comparison between Mary and Birgitta offer important insights into medieval women’s collaborative writing, the points of contrast are equally telling. When Mary’s partnership with God is juxtaposed with Birgitta’s partnership with Prior Peter and Master Peter—or, for that matter, with other medieval writing teams such as Elisabeth and Ekbert of Schönau, or Catherine of Siena and Neri di Landoccio—an intriguing difference in women’s roles emerges. In the Biblical account of the Incarnation, collaboration is instigated and directed by the Lord, making Mary’s role one of reaction and response. Although theologians have sometimes attributed more power to her than this—for example, elevating her to the status of the mediatrix who collaborates with God in human salvation—she is still ultimately subject to her heavenly partner, according to the Christian understanding of the relationship between created beings and their Creator. In the medieval partnerships that are the main focus of this study, however, collaboration is often initiated and supervised by the female partner—albeit under God’s guidance—leaving the male partner to play the more passive role. Thus the Biblical ideal, when put into practice, gets expanded in a way that is beneficial to women. Rather than working in a dyad (God and Mary), religious writers work within triads (God, female mystic, male scribe) that give women more space to exercise agency and authority. This dramatic shift in gender relations points to the radical potential of medieval women’s writing partnerships. The purpose of this chapter has been to identify precedents for collaboration between religious women and scribes in the high and late Middle Ages. In some cases, it is possible to “connect the dots” —that is, to trace definitively the influence of an early partnership on a later one. A more important project, however, is to examine how widespread cultural ideals and trends in the early Middle Ages influenced subsequent developments in women’s writing. Such contextualization is valuable for several reasons. At the most basic level, historical analysis provides a broad perspective on medieval collaboration. By examining an entire tradition of collaborative writing, stronger conclusions can be drawn about the significance of late medieval partnerships per se. At the same time, historical contextualization complicates received notions of medieval collaboration. Upon close examination, features assumed to be definitive of medieval partnerships in the high and late Middle Ages turn out to be common across many centuries, while conversely, characteristics that seem ubiquitous prove to be unique to the later Middle Ages. Most importantly, historical context provides a background against which to evaluate contemporary theory. In the chapters that follow, current literary and composition theories are applied to various aspects of medieval women’s writing partnerships, ranging from genre, to textual mediation, to sexuality, to revisionary histories. Because these issues are so controversial and even fashionable in present day academic circles, it is all the more critical to examine them in historical context, to ensure that the conclusions drawn are not only intellectually exciting but also historically credible. Whereas this chapter has looked at medieval writing partnerships from a distance, as it were, the next chapter takes a closer look, focusing on the provocative question of how and why the partnerships are represented in dissimilar and sometimes contradictory ways across different literary genres.

Chapter Two Genre

In studying the ways that women and scribes are represented in medieval texts, it is essential to consider the nature of the texts themselves. How do the texts’ generic properties determine what gets said, or doesn’t get said, about women and their writing companions? In other words, how does the medium affect the message? As recent scholarship has shown, this question ought to be asked just as often in studies of spiritual writing as it is in studies of secular writing (Hollywood 29; Greenspan 217–21). To conflate broad categories of religious literature—for example, hagiographic and hortatory texts—is to blur distinctions of purpose, place, and style, leading to simplistic conclusions about spirituality and textuality in the Middle Ages. This chapter seeks to develop a more nuanced perspective by distinguishing between the types of texts used most often in this study: treatises, memoirs, and letters. By examining how and why representations of women and scribes vary across genres, the chapter not only offers critical insights into the issue at hand, but also establishes a rhetorical context for subsequent chapters. It is important to note at the outset that the generic types discussed in this chapter are more convenient labels than hard-and-fast categories. Medieval women’s religious writing is remarkably heterogeneous, borrowing from and bringing together multiple written and oral traditions. Many of the letters cited in this chapter, for example, blend epistolary conventions with the rhetoric of prophecies and spoken sermons. Likewise, many memoirs combine traditional hagiographic tropes with innovative visionary imagery. Such syntheses arise from a number of factors, including religious women’s complicated relationship with ecclesiastical authority, their limited access to formal education in theology and literature, and their desire to legitimate spiritual experiences and arguments that could be construed as unorthodox. Insofar as the women’s writings resist formal categorization, it is helpful to adopt alternate strategies for conceptualizing genre. The main strategy used in this study is based on social constructivist theories which define genre not primarily in terms of formal characteristics, but in terms of rhetorical purpose and social context (Miller, “Genre as Social Action” and “Rhetorical Community”). This approach is well suited for studying collaborative writing by religious women and scribes, because such writing involves the negotiation of powerful cultural forces such as faith, gender, and technology. Moreover, the writers’ texts are simultaneously shaped by and intended for multiple discourse communities, ranging from local parishes to foreign courts to heavenly kingdoms. By focusing on these social factors, it is possible to conduct meaningful discussions of treatises, memoirs, and letters, even though the texts within each category do not always employ identical forms. In comparing and contrasting the three genres cited above, it is tempting to try to discern which one offers the “best” perspective on medieval writing partnerships. Several contemporary studies of medieval women’s writing, for instance, valorize the epistolary genre as a mode of composition that allows for unusually authentic representations of women’s voices (Cherewatuk and Wiethaus 15; Ferrante 3–4, 10–35). Such judgments, however, assume that texts are reflections of human experience, an assumption that does



not take into account the extent to which texts are constructed for specific rhetorical purposes. A more useful approach is to focus on writers’ deliberate use of genre, examining how and why they choose to represent their partnerships according to certain generic conventions. The main line of inquiry in this chapter, then, is not whether a genre provides “genuine” insights into writing partnerships, but whether the genre has been used effectively, and to what ends. Particular attention is given to the theological significance of each genre, and the response it is intended to effect among Christian readers. Using this approach, it can be argued that each of the three genres in question—treatises, memoirs, and letters—represents writing partnerships in ways that are ultimately positive for religious women writers.7 What constitutes a positive representation, however, differs in each case because of each genre’s distinct theological aims. While many texts could serve as case material for this discussion, the chapter focuses mainly on the writings of Hildegard of Bingen. Since Hildegard made use of all the genres cited above, her writings provide a rare opportunity to compare and contrast representations of the same collaborative partnership(s) across different modes of composition. Taken as a whole, her treatises, memoirs, and letters serve as useful reference points from which to consider other writers’ work. TREATISES Within this study, treatises are defined as texts that aim to instruct readers about abstract theological truths. In religious women’s writing, such truths are generally presented in the form of prophecies, revelations, or visions. To facilitate authoritative teaching, treatises tend to employ a formal tone and an objective point of view. To promote clear instruction, the texts often follow sequential patterns of organization. The writings of Hildegard that fall in this category are the Scivias, The Book of the Rewards of Life, and The Book of Divine Works. Examples of treatises by other religiouswomen include Elisabeth’s Book of the Ways of God and Book of Revelations, Catherine’s Dialogue, and Birgitta’s Revelations. Although treatises are the most commontype of text produced by the collaborative teams in this study, such texts paradoxicallyoffer less information than any other genre about collaborative writing processes. Elisabeth’s treatises, for example, refer only a few times to her assistant Ekbert, and noneof those references constitute a substantive description of the partners’ collaborativeactivities. Other treatises do not say even that much. For instance, Birgitta’s fifthbook of revelations contains only one reference to the partnership between the holywoman and her writing assistant. Likewise, each of Hildegard’s treatises alludes onlyonce to the abbess’ work with scribes. Catherine’s Dialogue makes no mention ofpartnerships whatsoever, despite the fact that (according to secondary sources) thetext required extensive collaboration between the saint and at least three assistants. Treatises’ frequent silence on the subject of collaborative writing may be understood as a strategy for constructing spiritual authority. By downplaying concrete matters of textual production, treatises encourage readers to focus on abstract questions of textual meaning. In the case of religious treatises, readers come away thinking more about the message God has conveyed than about the medium through which he has spoken. Moreover, reticence about collaborative writing processes serves to construct spiritual authority in yet another way. By minimizing the activities of human writers, treatises grant maximum status to God, representing him as the primary author of all truths. In most treatises, then, lacunae about religious women’s partnerships with scribes should be seen not as accidental slips, but as deliberate omissions intended to make the text more spiritually authoritative. As noted earlier, however, treatises are not totally silent on the subject of collaboration; some texts make brief mention of women’s partnerships with scribes. In such cases, how are the partnerships represented, and why? Taking Hildegard’s treatises as case material, it is possible to formulate answers based on close



examination of relevant textual evidence. In chronological order, below, are excerpts from Hildegard’s treatises that refer to her activities with her assistants: Hence in My [God’s] love, she [Hildegard] searched in her mind as to where she could find someone who would run in the path of salvation. And she found such a one [Volmar] and loved him, knowing that he was a faithful man, working like herself on another part of the work that leads to Me. And, holding fast to him, she worked with him in great zeal so that My hidden miracles might be revealed. And she did not seek to exalt herself above herself, but with many sighs bowed to him whom she found in the ascent of humility and the intention of a good will. (Hildegard, Scivias 60) And I [Hildegard] set my hand to writing down the testimony of8 that person whom, as I have said in earlier visions, I had privately sought and found [Volmar]. I also had a young maiden [Richardis] assisting me in writing down this testimony. And again I heard a voice from heaven speaking to me and teaching me in this way. (Hildegard, Rewards of Life 10) I—wretched and fragile creature that I am—began then to write with a trembling hand, even though I was shaken by countless illnesses. In this connection I had confidence in the testimony of that man [Volmar] whom—as I mentioned in my earlier visions—I had sought out and visited in secret. And I also had confidence in that girl [Richardis] whom I have already named in my earlier visions. (Hildegard, Divine Works 6) All three passages come from the beginning of the treatises from which they are excerpted. As introductory statements, they let readers know right away that the treatises are produced collaboratively, and shape readers’ expectations about how collaborative processes work. The passages derive additional power from their uniqueness: as the texts’ sole references to writing partnerships, they alone determine how such partnerships are defined and understood throughout the treatises. First and foremost, the passages represent writing partnerships in harmonious terms. Hildegard is said to get along famously with her assistants; not only does she express confidence in Richardis and Volmar, but she also “loves” the latter and “holds fast to him.” One passage acknowledges the possibility of conflict—what if Hildegard had defied Volmar’s authority as her confessor, and sought to “exalt herself above herself?” —but that hypothetical problem is nipped in the bud as the holy woman submits humbly to her spiritual advisor. These idealized characterizations enhance the writers’ spiritual credibility, implying that they possess the “fruits of the Spirit” indicative of a holy life—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22–23). Interestingly, in the passages cited above, all enthusiastic claims about collaboration are attributed to Hildegard. While it may be inferred that Volmar and Richardis find similar satisfaction in collaborative work, the texts do not actually set forth the assistants’ opinions. Hildegard’s purported enjoyment of collaboration makes the treatises all the more authoritative by defusing possible concerns about whether the holy woman was coerced into relating her visions to scribes, a situation that could give readers reason to doubt the texts’ integrity. At the same time that the focus on Hildegard’s happiness serves a theological purpose, it also invites a feminist reading, insofar as it makes the female visionary—not the male official— the sole judge of the partnerships’ merits. In addition to representing partnerships as positive interactions, Hildegard’s treatises depict partnerships as productive endeavors, calling attention to partners’ material accomplishments. For example, the first treatise notes approvingly that when Hildegard begins collaborating with Volmar, she “work[s] with him in



great zeal,” presumably getting more writing done than she would have alone. The second treatise credits Volmar and Richardis for helping the abbess turn her “testimony” into an actual text. And the third treatise applauds the assistants for providing the technical and emotional support Hildegard needs to keep writing through bouts of illness. This emphasis on literary output heightens the treatises’ spiritual authority in several respects. To begin with, the focus on written products—as opposed to writing processes—encourages readers to view treatises as finalized documents whose divine messages are fully articulated, and therefore fully authoritative. This strategy of representation supports the treatises’ pedagogical aim, which is to instruct readers in abstract theological truths that are presumed to be unchanging and eternal. More importantly, the treatises’ emphasis on productivity provides moral justification for Hildegard’s partnerships, which would have been viewed warily by some medieval readers insofar as the relationships afforded opportunities for idleness, gossip, and lust. As prescriptive literature from the period shows, religious women were generally discouraged from cultivating “particular” friendships with women and men alike, for fear that such relationships would become sources of spiritual distraction and temptation (Schulenburg 307–63). In Hildegard’s treatises, such concerns are anticipated and resolved through prolific writing: far from being a spiritual stumbling block, close collaboration enables Hildegard to use her time and talent more effectively in God’s service. While this narrative strategy heightens the texts’ spiritual credibility, it also supports feminist values insofar as it grants the holy woman unusual freedom concerning her interactions with others. Perhaps because Hildegard’s treatises emphasize productivity, they also assign distinct roles to each member of the writing team. Hildegard functions as the primary author: she sets the writing process in motion by listening for a “voice from heaven” and recording what she hears. Richardis plays a secondary role, assisting with composing and editing tasks. Volmar’s duties are less explicitly defined, but he too plays a secondary role in the composition process, supporting Hildegard’s writing rather than claiming authorial rights for himself. A similar situation can be found in the fifth revelation of Birgitta, where the holy woman does the preliminary composing, leaving her confessor to work on later phases of the writing process: “She [Birgitta] wrote it [the revelation] out in her own language, and her confessor translated it into the literary tongue” (Birgitta, Life 102). As the text’s sole reference to collaboration, the passage makes hierarchical divisions of labor seem virtually definitive of literary partnerships. Such emphasis on separate and unequal roles is consistent with the emphasis on productivity discussed earlier, insofar as hierarchical partnerships enable God’s message to be transmitted efficiently from the top down. Moreover, such partnerships give readers reason to believe that God’s message has been conveyed accurately, since the most important parts of the composition process are carried out by a single writer who is divinely appointed, an arrangement that (in theory, at least) minimizes possibilities for substantive mistakes and misunderstandings. At the same time that collaborative hierarchies send readers a conservative message concerning the reliability of religious texts, they quietly convey a more liberal message concerning gender, insofar as they reconfigure the roles traditionally assigned to men and women in the medieval church. Historically, ordained men had primary access to God’s word and sacraments, whereas holy women could only encounter those gifts indirectly through priests’ sacerdotal acts. In the treatises discussed above, however, this gendered hierarchy is inverted. Hildegard and Birgitta have direct access to divine revelations, while their male partners must wait for secondhand reports, a reversal made all the more striking by the fact that the men are ecclesiastical officials. The subversive potential of this arrangement, and the concern it might have occasioned among medieval readers, may be part of the reason why readers are given assurance in Hildegard’s first treatise that the abbess still observes traditional social codes despite her unusual power. Rather than “exalting herself,” she purportedly places herself under Volmar’s authority, “bowing to him”



with “humility” and “good will.” The concession serves to downplay, but not eliminate, the treatise’s subtle challenge to conventional gender roles within the church. Last but not least, treatises generally examine collaboration from a single point of view. In the first treatise, information about Hildegard’s partnerships comes from God, who speaks as an omniscient narrator. In the second and third treatises, information about the partnerships comes from Hildegard herself, who narrates her collaborative experiences using a first-person point of view. Although there are some differences between God’s account and Hildegard’s account(s) of the partnerships, they are more circumstantial than substantial, reflecting the fact that the first treatise was written early in Hildegard’s career.9More striking than these minor differences is the treatises’ common tendency, when discussing collaborative writing, to privilege the narrator’s voice while excluding virtually all others. In the texts cited above, Volmar and Richardis are represented as mute participants in the collaborative process; they have no speaking parts within God’s and Hildegard’s narratives, nor do they have narrative privileges of their own. A similar situation can be found in Elisabeth’s treatises, which are narrated almost entirely by Elisabeth. While she makes several references in the treatises to her assistant Ekbert, he speaks for himself on just one occasion, and his “speech” is simply a letter he wrote that was appended by later editors to Elisabeth’s work (Elisabeth 229). As a literary afterthought, the speech has little impact on the narrative that precedes it, leaving Elisabeth’s narrative intact. Scribes’ silence, as described above, heightens treatises’ theological authority in several respects. To begin with, it gives the impression that the scribes support and submit to their superiors—namely, the Primary Author of creation, and the primary author in the partnerships—thereby reinforcing the idealized and hierarchical representations of collaboration discussed earlier. Moreover, the scribes’ silence is a necessary condition for “epic discourse,” a term coined by Mikhail Bakhtin. Epic discourse is an authoritative mode of communication whose power resides in its monologic narrative style; it is characterized by “a commonly held evaluation and point of view—which excludes any possibility of another approach” (Bakhtin 16). In Hildegard and Elisabeth’s treatises, the power of epic discourse is harnessed through scribes’ reticence, rendering the narrators’ pronouncements definitive insofar as they are not subject to interruption or contradiction. And those pronouncements are not limited to issues of composition. More often, the narrator has the first and last word on the spiritual matters that are the treatises’ main concern. The result is a religious message that is internally consistent and forceful, a result that supports the treatises’ didactic aims. While the monologic quality of the treatises serves an important theological purpose, it also has social significance insofar as it grants an authoritative voice to holy women. In contrast to traditional critiques of and prohibitions against women speaking out—especially on theological issues— the treatises give Hildegard and Elisabeth exclusive narrative privileges, an honor they share only with God. In the final analysis, Hildegard’s treatises represent partnerships in static terms. Sticking with a single point of view, the treatises portray collaboration as a highly structured endeavor, the main purpose of which is prolific writing. As partners work toward this goal, they consistently interact in an amicable manner. The flxed nature of these representations is evident in Hildegard’s recurring phrase, “as I have said earlier.” Rather than offering new perspectives on collaboration each time she writes, she repeatedly refers back to earlier discussions, implying that her partnerships have stayed much the same from one period to the next. On the one hand, this sense of stability supports the treatises’ claims to timeless truths about an unchanging God. On the other hand, it confers a sense of permanence upon the positive representations of women discussed above. Historically, holy women’s access to cultural and ecclesiastical power was generally limited, contingent, and tenuous. Within the context of the treatises, however, such women are granted extraordinary privileges and powers for the duration. In this respect, the treatises may be indicative of the



desires of the female visionaries who wrote them, positing a world where they could have enduring authority. MEMOIRS In this study, the term “memoirs” refers to biographical and autobiographical accounts of holy women’s lives. The main purpose of such accounts is to provide readers with edifying examples of Christian living drawn from the women’s experiences. The way this purpose is accomplished, however, depends on the nature of the memoir. Biographical memoirs generally offer readers idealized representations of holy women, focusing exclusively on the women’s spiritual successes. In this respect, biographical memoirs have much in common with hagiographic texts, and indeed are sometimes written with the expectation that their female subjects will eventually be canonized, a process that requires written proof of the women’s qualifications for sainthood. Within these memoirs, women’s stories are usually presented by a narrator who employs the third-person point of view, a rhetorical strategy that is more consistent with the goal of demonstrating the woman’s piety than if she sang her own praises. Examples of biographical memoirs include The Life of the Saintly Hildegard, compiled by several monks but based largely on a memoir authored by Hildegard herself; The Life of Saint Catherine of Siena, written by Catherine’s confessor Raymond of Capua; and The Life of Blessed Birgitta, composed by two of Birgitta’s secretaries. Autobiographical memoirs, on the other hand, represent holy women more variously, discussing their spiritual defeats as well as triumphs in order to trace their spiritual development. As part of this project, the memoirs often focus on the divine visions that the women receive over time, emphasizing subjective aspects of visionary experience such as the women’s ideas and feelings about what they see. Such memoirs are usually narrated by the women themselves from the first-person point of view, a strategy that enhances the texts’ confessional tone and invites readers’ sympathy concerning the women’s struggles.10 Examples of autobiographical memoirs include The Book of Margery Kempe, produced collaboratively by Kempe and two scribes; Elisabeth’s three Book[s] of Visions, composed by the holy woman with help from Ekbert and several anonymous nuns; and Angela’s Memorial, written by Angela and Brother A. In contrast to treatises, which present religious doctrine in a relatively systematic manner, memoirs derive religious truths from women’s lives, and thus make associative connections between various personal experiences. One experience that is commonly discussed is the process by which the holy women write down their spiritual insights for posterity. The subject is often revisited several times in a memoir, providing multiple opportunities for talking about collaborative writing. For example, Hildegard’s Life contains five references to her relationships with scribes. The references are not concentrated at the beginning of the book, as they were in Hildegard’s treatises, but instead are scattered throughout the text. Thus their narrative power is cumulative rather than immediate: they introduce readers gradually to Hildegard’s collaborative activities, painting a more detailed picture with each subsequent discussion. Moreover, each passage focuses on a different aspect of Hildegard’s partnerships, making collaboration out to be a complex endeavor that is not easily summed up in one sentence. Such complexity is most evident in the quality of Hildegard’s relationships. Unlike the treatises, which depict her partnerships in wholly positive terms, the memoir paints a more varied picture. While Volmar wins high marks in the memoir for his “faithfulness,” “sincere intention,” attentiveness, and discretion (Gottfried 45), Richardis meets with harsh criticism. Although the memoir acknowledges her contributions to the writing process, it focuses on her perceived shortcomings:



In this life he [God] has sent me [Hildegard] no secure joy which might make me haughty in mind. For while I was writing the book Scivias, I held in deep affection (as Paul did Timothy) a certain noble nun, the daughter of the marchioness mentioned above. She collaborated in all these things with me as a diligent friend, and she consoled me in my sufferings until I finished the book. After that, because of her high-born station she felt inclined toward a dignity of greater repute, so she was named the mother of a certain celebrated church which, however, she sought not according to God, but according to the honour of this world. She moved to another region far from us. After she left me she quickly lost both her life and the dignity of her title. (51) Two factors heighten the severity of the criticism: the passage is narrated by Hildegard herself, and it is the only passage in the memoir that refers to Richardis. As such, it functions as an authoritative judgment against the young woman, a judgment far less flattering than the complimentary reports contained in the treatises. Such censure is not unique to Hildegard’s memoir. Scribes meet with similar criticism in the memoir of Margery Kempe, where their purported weaknesses include inconstancy, gullibility, and cynicism (Kempe 4, 55–58). In addition to being morally deficient, they are technically inept, struggling with tasks as basic as reading accurately, writing legibly, and composing coherently (4–5). Technical problems likewise plague the scribe in Angela’s Memorial, who is castigated for producing an inaccurate transcription that is “bland, inferior, and amounts to nothing” (Angela, Works 137–38). And his difficulties are ongoing, for he never writes correctly or quickly enough, unlike Margery’s main scribe whose incompetence is eventually remedied through divine intervention (Kempe 5). These negative representations of scribes are significant insofar as they are consistently juxtaposed, in the memoirs, with positive representations of holy women. Whereas the scribes are often spiritually immature, the women are devout; whereas the scribes frequently lack the necessary skills for producing religious texts, the women are capable of communicating God’s words truthfully and eloquently. Flawed scribes thus function as literary foils, giving readers all the more reason to admire the holy women whom the memoirs honor. In the passage cited above from Hildegard’s memoir, for example, Richardis’ worldly ambition brings Hildegard’s humility into greater relief (“[God] has sent me no secure joy that might make me haughty in mind”). While imperfect partnerships serve a hagiographic purpose in holy women’s memoirs, they also open up possibilities for feminist readings in cases of opposite-sex collaboration, insofar as they consistently grant women the moral high ground over their male assistants. This is significant because opposite-sex collaboration is by far the most common kind of partnership depicted in memoirs as well as in other genres, a phenomenon discussed in more detail in chapter four of this study. Compared to treatises, not only do memoirs offer a different view of writing partnerships, but they also emphasize a different aspect of partners’ work, focusing not so much on written products as on writing processes. Such processes include how and why partners begin working together, how they determine the scope of the writing project, and how they evaluate their work at various stages. These interactions afford multiple opportunities for proving religious women’s piety, more so than if discussion were limited to what the women and their assistants finally produced. For instance, Hildegard’s memoir offers a detailed account of how she and Volmar became writing partners, an account that makes her out to be spiritually mature even at the very beginning of her visionary career: …I [Hildegard] was driven by the great burden of my sorrows to manifest openly what I had seen and heard. But I was very afraid and embarrassed to make known what I had hidden for so long…. I intimated these [mysteries] to a certain monk [Volmar] who was my teacher. He was a person of good



observance and sincere intention and averse to prying into others’ conduct the way many do. Hence, he listened willingly to these miraculous happenings. He was astounded, and he enjoined me to write them down secretly until he could ascertain what and whence they were. Once he understood they were from God, he informed his abbot and with great desire he worked on these things with me (Gottfried 45). From the interactions described above, Hildegard emerges as a humble saint who is reluctant to call attention to her visionary gift. When she finally decides to share her secret, she acts prudently, choosing a single confidant whose spiritual commitment is strong (“monk”) and whose counsel is wise (“teacher”). She also behaves patiently, cooperating with Volmar’s efforts to verify the visions even though she knows they come from God. The remarkable nature of her spiritual insights can be gauged by the reactions they elicit from Volmar: they “astound” him and fill him with “great desire” to collaborate with Hildegard in writing them down. The same strategic focus on writing processes can be found in other religious women’s memoirs, occasioning discussion of the women’s exemplary behavior. The Memorial of Angela of Foligno, for instance, recounts how Angela and Brother A. determine the scope of their writing project. Brother A. thinks skeptically that there will be “little to write,” so he begins his transcription on a small sheet of paper, but then Angela receives a revelation instructing the partners to write in a “large copy book” instead (Angela, Works 136). Brother A. remains doubtful—“I only half believed her,” he admits—so he continues to write on small sheets until the text becomes so voluminous that he is forced to follow Angela’s advice. The series of events described above works to Angela’s credit, for not only is she privileged to receive divine directions, but she is also proved correct on the question of text size, and her vindication comes through God’s workings rather than her own efforts. The Memorial also examines the process by which Angela and Brother A. evaluate their drafts. They carry out this task so often and so consistently that their interactions constitute a routine: Brother A. reads his transcription aloud, and Angela responds by pointing out its flaws, sometimes softening her critique with an acknowledgement of the text’s merits or an admission of her own inability to communicate God’s words perfectly (129, 137–39, 154, 156, 179). Such interactions show Angela in a favorable light by emphasizing her commitment to conveying God’s truths accurately, while also granting her the virtues of fairness and humility. Memoirs’ interest in writing processes goes hand in hand with another characteristic, namely, interest in how and why partners assume certain roles in the composition process. In contrast to treatises, which assign partners fixed roles, memoirs show partners shifting from one role to another. The shifts follow a fairly predictable pattern. Early in the writing process, scribes often wield authority over the women they assist, but the tables are gradually turned so that the women exercise considerable influence over the scribes’ textual and spiritual decisions. Such transformations support the memoirs’ goal of showing how holy women mature in their faith and grow into the leadership roles God has prepared for them. For example, Hildegard’s memoir initially portrays Volmar as an authority figure, referring to him as Hildegard’s “teacher” and characterizing him as an ecclesiastical mediator through whom she conveys messages to her abbot (Gottfried 28). Given this characterization, Volmar could be construed as the dominant partner at the start of the writing process. But subsequent descriptions of the partnership ascribe less power to Volmar while giving Hildegard more. For example, toward the middle of the memoir, Volmar is referred to simply as a “faithful man” who assists Hildegard in the following manner: “He arranged her words according to the rules of the grammatical art—cases, cases, tenses, kinds—which she did not know. But he did not presume to add anything to their meaning or understanding nor to take anything away” (42). By casting Volmar in a supporting role and limiting his responsibilities, the passage shifts the balance of power toward Hildegard. A



similar shift occurs shortly thereafter, when the memoir briefly acknowledges Volmar’s formal status as “teacher” but spends more time discussing his capacity for meeting Hildegard’s emotional and technical needs (45). Whereas role-changes in Hildegard’s memoir are gradual, other women’s memoirs sometimes contain dramatic role reversals. In the opening chapters of the Memorial, for instance, Brother A. exercises strict control over the composition process, bullying Angela into dictating her testimony and treating her claims with condescension: Amazed as I was and suspicious that it [Angela’s testimony] might come from some evil spirit, I made a strong effort to arouse her suspicions because I myself had so many. I advised her and compelled her to tell me everything. I wished to write absolutely everything so that I could consult with some wise man who would have never heard of her. I told her that I wished to do this so that she could in no way be deceived by an evil spirit. I strove to inspire fear in her by showing her by examples how many persons had been deceived, and consequently how she could be similarly deceived. Because she did not yet have the degree of clarity and perfect certitude which she had later —as will be found in the writings which follow—she began to reveal the divine secrets to me and I wrote these down. (Angela, Works 137) Even as the passage shows Brother A. overpowering Angela, however, it foreshadows a significant change in the partners’ relations: in subsequent chapters of the memoir, the holy woman acquires the “clarity and perfect certitude” she needs to play a more assertive part in the writing process. Once her testimony has been proved genuine, she stops taking orders from Brother A. and starts giving directions instead as to what and how he should write. Her authority is most evident when she evaluates the scribe’s work, for she critiques his efforts boldly, judging his transcriptions to be “dry,” “bland,” “obscure,” “weak,” and “defective” (156, 137, 154). As Angela becomes a more authoritative writer, Brother A. becomes a more apologetic one, acknowledging his shortcomings with unusual frequency (125, 132–33, 137–39, 154, 156, 160, 165, 196, 207, 218). On the few occasions when he questions Angela’s authority, she responds with eloquent answers that reinforce her position of power (144–45, 162, 191–92, 203, 207). The role changes described above are summed up in the Memorial’s closing paragraph, where Brother A. says he has recorded Angela’s words “with great reverence and fear” (218), a stance that both recalls and reverses his earlier desire to “inspire fear in her” (137). As in Hildegard’s memoir, this role reversal furthers the Memorial’s theological aim of showing how the female visionary matures in her faith. At the same time, the change conveys a less conventional social message about women’s ability to advise and supervise men. A final defining characteristic of memoirs is that they grant scribes a voice in the composition process, giving them opportunities to talk to and about their female partners. This capacity for speech serves a strategic purpose in the memoirs, much as scribes’ silence serves a strategic purpose in treatises. By extending narrative privileges to scribes, memoirs broaden the cast of characters who can testify concerning holy women’s conduct. The memoirs are thereby able to make a more convincing case for viewing the women as spiritual role models, a rhetorical feat that is one of the genre’s primary aims. In some memoirs, moreover, scribes are particularly important witnesses insofar as they are said to have intimate relationships with the women in question. In the Memorial, for instance, Brother A. and Angela work together so closely and so often that the scribe’s superiors eventually insist the writing sessions be curtailed (Angela, Works 138, 179, 218). An even stronger bond between partners can be found in the visionary books of Elisabeth. In these texts, Ekbert is both brother and scribe to Elisabeth, a fact that makes her willing to confide all her



spiritual secrets to him (Elis-abeth 43). The positing of such close ties affords multiple opportunities, within the narratives cited above, for scribes to talk with and about the holy women they serve. While scribes have extensive speaking parts in some memoirs, in others they make only brief statements, and in each case the context and content of their utterances varies. But scribes’ speeches are predictable in at least one respect: they consistently enhance the credibility of the holy women with whom the scribes collaborate. This rhetorical effect is accomplished in a variety of ways. In some instances, scribes speak about their companions in terms that are wholly favorable, as when Brother A. extols Angela’s spiritual insights as being “good,” “wonderful,” “beautiful,” “useful” and “noteworthy” (Angela, Works 218, 132, 154, 165, 196). A similarly positive note is sounded by Birgitta’s assistants, who offer assurances that the saint’s visions are divinely inspired and that she has personally overseen the most critical part of the writing process: “When she [Birgitta] was well, she wrote down with her own hand and in her mother tongue the words divinely given to her; and she had them most faithfully translated into the Latin tongue by us, her confessors” (Birgitta, Life 81). When such lines are delivered using the first person voice, as in the examples cited above, they are all the more effective, persuading readers of the women’s spiritual gifts through the power of personal testimony. On other occasions, memoirs employ a much different strategy for making scribes’ speeches beneficial for holy women. Instead of offering eloquent praises to their female partners, the scribes utter rash retorts. Having made such blunders, they are invariably forced to offer apologies and retractions, giving the women the last word and granting them the moral high ground in the partnership. For instance, when Brother A. beholds Angela screaming and shouting at a church in Assisi, he mistakenly assumes she is demonpossessed and rebukes her accordingly: “I could hardly speak to her calmly. I told her that, henceforth, she should never again dare come to Assisi, since this was the place where this evil had seized her” (Angela, Works 136). Upon hearing Angela describe the profound vision of God that prompted her outburst, however, Brother A. becomes so intrigued that he stops criticizing and starts asking earnest questions instead (142). While he does not actually retract his earlier allegation, he withdraws it implicitly insofar as he refers to Angela thereafter as “Christ’s faithful one,” and devotes extensive time and energy to recording her spiritual experiences. A similar verbal turnaround is made by Margery’s third assistant, who is initially so reluctant to work with her that he would “speke wyth her but seldom” (Kempe 4). When after several years they finally have a substantive conversation, he offers weak excuses for having failed to carry out his duties, “sey[ng] on-to hir at he cowd not redyn” the materials she gave him to transcribe. In the same breath, he announces that he is quitting her service. Later, however, he has a change of heart that is evidenced in his manner of communicating with Margery. After asking to have his job back, he works diligently on the transcription and recites “euery word” aloud to Margery, allowing her to interject helpful hints “where ony difficulte was.” In permitting scribes to speak and granting them a variety of utterances, as outlined above, holy women’s memoirs make use of what Bakhtin calls “novelistic discourse.” Such discourse is typically polyglossic and dialogic. Insofar as it extends speaking privileges to diverse characters and encourages them to converse with one another on a wide variety of issues, it opens up possibilities within a narrative for disruptive features such as laughter, parody, and dissent (Bakhtin 3–40). Such features are subtly but distinctly apparent in the memoirs described above. When scribes make foolish remarks about their female partners’ piety, they are laughable. When scribes speak admiringly of the women’s theological insights, they diverge from traditional scripts about spirituality and gender, for as ordained men they have more theological training and privileges than the women they praise. While these potentially subversive exchanges are carefully controlled and directed toward a conservative end—namely, the honoring of a woman who



respects and abides by the church’s teachings—their very presence makes the memoirs more complicated and arguably more interesting than treatises, whose use of epic discourse precludes such exchanges. As the preceding paragraphs have shown, memoirs represent collaboration in more dynamic terms than do treatises. Rather than making only one or two references to collaborative writing, memoirs revisit the subject frequently, each time addressing different issues. While acknowledging the finished products created by writing teams, memoirs spend more time examining writing processes, a focus that makes it possible to show how holy women interact with their assistants in exemplary ways. Memoirs also make partners’ roles changeable, allowing female partners to move out of subservient positions and into positions of power. Finally, memoirs disperse narrative privileges among multiple members of the writing team, a strategy that gives rise to complex and compelling testimonies concerning holy women’s virtues. Such dynamic representations are consistent with the memoirs’ goal of demonstrating spiritual development. Moreover, such dynamism makes it possible to read the memoirs as feminist narratives, insofar as the texts’ energies are all directed toward the goal of glorifying women’s lives. LETTERS Whereas medieval treatises and memoirs are meant to be public documents, medieval letters are intended to address both private and public concerns. This is especially true for letters written by and about holy women, since their spiritual insights were much sought after in their day by individuals, but were also thought to have edificatory value for the Christian community at large. Even when such letters were addressed to specific persons, it was assumed they would reach broader audiences insofar as they would be read aloud to, or circulated among, the recipients’ friends and colleagues. Accordingly, the letters had to accommodate diverse rhetorical needs, being personal and immediate enough to satisfy the designated recipient, yet general and timeless enough to be relevant to readers who would encounter the text later. More strikingly than treatises and memoirs, then, religious women’s correspondence bears out Carolyn Miller’s claim that “a genre is a rhetorical means for mediating private intentions and social exigence; it motivates by connecting the private with the public, the singular with the recurrent” (“Genre as Social Action” 37). This delicate balancing act makes it difficult to generalize about letters’ representations of collaborative writing, for while the letters share a common goal of making holy women seem spiritually insightful, they are also composed for specific rhetorical situations that differ from one letter to the next. Their particularities, however, are worth examining because they offer some of the most memorable and provocative representations of women’s writing partnerships to be found in any genre. As was the case when examining treatises and memoirs, the primary material cited in this discussion is that written by Hildegard. For scholars interested in medieval women’s correspondence, the letters of Hildegard offer an embarrassment of riches. Nearly 400 of Hildegard’s epistles remain intact, and many are accompanied by responses from recipients. Written in Latin, the letters bear witness to the abbess’ partnerships with scribes. The form of the letters—their structure, grammar, and vocabulary—points to joint efforts by Hildegard and Volmar, and much later, Hildegard and Guibert. Likewise, the content of the letters provides information about Hildegard’s relationships with her writing assistants. I have chosen not to examine form in this study, because I wish to move away from studies that quantify individual contributions to the writing process and thereby valorize solitary authorship. Instead, I focus on the content of the letters, examining how they characterize Hildegard’s relationships with her scribes. Attention is also given to representations of women’s writing partnerships in the letters of Elisabeth, Angela, and Catherine. One of the most striking things about collaboration, as characterized in letters, is that it sometimes entails conflict whose outcome is not entirely favorable for holy women. Such characterizations arise in part from



the nature of letter writing. Whereas treatises and memoirs are written with the benefit of hindsight, allowing authors to omit problematic material and focus solely on propitious topics, letters are composed in medias res, and as such may take up matters that subsequently take a turn for the worse. This is not to say, however, that such problems are presented naÏvely. While the conflicts reported in letters do not always have happy endings, they are nevertheless represented so as to support the letters’ primary rhetorical purpose, showing holy women confronting specific historical situations with spiritual wisdom. Viewed through the lens of feminist theory, such scenarios are also significant insofar as they offer an alternative to masculinist narratives of domination and conquest, functioning instead as narratives of negotiation and adaptability. This view of conflict can be seen in letters concerning Hildegard’s relationship with Guibert. Guibert worked with the abbess toward the end of her writing career, and in fact was her last assistant. Unlike previous scribes who had transcribed Hildegard’s unconventional Latin without comment, Guibert sought to make her writings conform more closely to standard rhetoric. This led to a “heated argument” that was recounted later in a letter (Newman, Sister 23). While the letter shows Hildegard losing the debate—she eventually grants the scribe the editorial powers he seeks—it represents her as a gracious loser who sets aside personal preferences for the sake of a greater good. That is, she consents to extensive editing so that her writing will be more spiritually efficacious, according to the following logic: “Even as foods nourishing in themselves do not appeal to the appetite unless they are seasoned somehow, so writings, though full of salutary advice, displease ears accustomed to an urbane style if they are not recommended by some color of eloquence.” Since the letter recounting the argument was penned by Guibert himself, modern readers “may suspect that the eager monk exaggerated his own victory” (24). But the letter’s apparent bias makes its depiction of Hildegard all the more significant, for while Guibert may have been determined to have the upper hand, he nevertheless emphasized the abbess’ spiritual perceptiveness and commitment to accomplishing God’s work. Interestingly, the argument is not mentioned in Hildegard’s memoir, even though Guibert helped compose the memoir and as such could have incorporated the conflict into the text. While there are many possible explanations for why he did not do so, one plausible reason is that the episode did not support the memoir’s rhetorical purpose as readily as it did the epistle’s, insofar as the memoir required that the holy woman be portrayed not only as prudent but also triumphant. Conflict between collaborators is handled with similar deftness in letters concerning Hildegard’s relationship with Richardis. Whereas Richardis’ disputed appointment at Bassum is mentioned only once in Hildegard’s memoir, the issue arises several times in Hildegard’s correspondence, for the elder woman wrote several letters of protest. At the time of writing, Hildegard was losing ground in the debate, for Richardis had already departed and her appointment was all but final. While the letters characterize Hildegard as being personally disappointed, they also characterize her as spiritually perceptive, insofar as she views the problem through the eyes of faith and responds in ways she believes are spiritually justified. When writing to Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen and brother to Richardis, for instance, Hildegard expresses concern that the appointment has been made for reasons more secular than sacred. She would not, she assures Hartwig, “oppose any selection God has made,” but since Richardis’ appointment seems to have been motivated by desire for power and money, overturning it would be “consonant with the will of God and the salvation of your sister’s soul” (Hildegard, Letters 1:49). When writing to Richardis, Hildegard demonstrates not only spiritual acuity but also humility, blaming herself for having become too attached to the younger woman, and viewing the dissolution of their partnership as a divine lesson intended to teach her to trust in God alone (143–44). The most daring depiction of Hildegard’s response to loss appears in a letter to Heinrich, Archbishop of Mainz, who had warned Hildegard to stop interfering with Richardis’ appointment. Hildegard sends him an indignant reply that is purportedly a message from God rather than an expression of the abbess’ personal views, a distinction that protects her (at least in theory) from charges of



disobedience, and in fact honors her as one who is privy to God’s secrets (70). Using this narrative strategy, the letter is able to convey accusations of simony against Richardis and conclude that the Archbishop’s commands “are not to be obeyed,” while still maintaining Hildegard’s reputation as an insightful woman of God. Taken together, the letters cited above offer a unique perspective on the dispute that becomes especially apparent when compared to the perspective offered in Hildegard’s memoir. In the memoir, Hildegard recollects the conflict from a victor’s point of view, summing up the struggle by remarking coolly that “after she [Richardis] left me, she quickly lost both her life and the dignity of her title” (Gottfried 51). The triumphant tone is consistent with the memoir’s aim of valorizing the holy woman retrospectively. In the letters, however, Hildegard speaks as one who is both wise and wounded, a characterization befitting the letters’ aim of showing forth her spiritual life as it unfolds through periods of joy and pain. In addition to offering nuanced views of conflict, letters’ perspectives on partnerships are further distinguished by a focus on the partners themselves. This focus differs from treatises’ emphasis on written products, and memoirs’ interest in writing processes. While such matters are sometimes mentioned in letters, they are incidental to discussions about the writers behind the texts. This subjective slant is consistent with letters’ social underpinnings; more than other genres, letters are predicated on possibilities for conversations between people, and as such are inherently interpersonal. This is not to suggest that medieval women’s letters offer extensive insights into collaborators’ private lives. On the contrary, readers who “bring to these letters the usual modern expectations of intimacy [and] self-revelation…are likely to be disappointed if not utterly mystified” (Baird and Ehrman 9). Rather, the letters hold up partnerships for public view, characterizing ties between partners as both personal and professional. Such characterization is rhetorically appropriate, given letters’ dual private and public purposes. For modern scholars of feminist theory, such characterization also offers an intriguing alternative to simplistic associations between women and personal writing. A memorable example of this complex perspective appears in an epistle that Angela wrote shortly before she died. In the letter, a scribe who worked with Angela at that time11 appears to be bound to her both by love and responsibility. Their relationship is discussed in the letter’s opening paragraph, in which Angela foresees her impending death and shares her insight with her assistant. Whereas the holy woman is eager to enter heaven, the assistant is saddened by the thought of losing an earthly mentor, so much so that Angela “almost had to force her disheartened scribe to write what she said” (Angela, Works 308). On the one hand, the anecdote posits an emotional bond between Angela and her scribe, portraying the latter as a devoted follower and friend. At the same time, the vignette underscores the partners’ work relationship, characterizing the scribe as a demotivated laborer. This dual perspective is well suited to the letter’s need to communicate with both specific and general audiences. For readers in Angela’s immediate circle of friends, the personal view of the partnership would have been particularly poignant, recalling their own relationships with the holy woman. For subsequent generations of readers, the professional aspect of the partnership would have become increasingly significant, insofar as it highlights Angela’s authority as a spiritual leader and teacher. A similar perspective on partnerships can be found in a letter that Hildegard wrote in 1173, shortly after Volmar’s death. The letter is addressed to Abbot Ludwig of Echternach, who had asked Hildegard for spiritual guidance. After discussing Ludwig’s needs, Hildegard mentions her own concerns, which have to do primarily with Volmar’s passing. She alludes to her emotional attachment to Volmar, insofar as she thanks Ludwig for his sympathy during this period of “infirmity and pain” (Letters 2:196). But she also stresses her professional connection with Volmar, lamenting that she must now “toil alone to do God’s work, because my helper has been taken away from me, as it pleased God.” This multifaceted view of Volmar



makes the letter potentially meaningful to diverse audiences, as was the case in Angela’s deathbed letter. But whereas we can only speculate about the intended signiflcance of the scribe in Angela’s letter, since little is known about the audiences for whom she was writing, we have more specific insights into Hildegard’s reasons for portraying Volmar variously, based on extant information about Abbot Ludwig. According to historical records, Ludwig acted as a temporary advisor to Hildegard after Volmar’s death (2: 197, n. 2). Based on this fact, the letter cited above may be read as a business document meant to facilitate the transition between assistants, a reading supported by the letter’s concluding sentence, in which Hildegard promises to send Ludwig a finished copy of her book for correction. From this point of view, Hildegard’s characterization of her relationship with Volmar is not only appropriate, but also tactful. While allowing that she misses her old friend, she makes her new assistant feel welcome by emphasizing how much she needs his technical expertise. Thus at the same time that Volmar the companion has been quietly memorialized, Volmar the secretary has been promptly replaced. Another defining characteristic of the way collaboration is represented in letters is that partners’ roles vary. Whereas treatises assign partners fixed roles, and memoirs subject them to predictable role reversals, letters let partners vacillate between roles in response to changing circumstances. This is not to say that their roles are wholly indeterminate; certain features are constant, such as partners’ shared commitment to the Christian faith. Within this framework, however, partners are continually adjusting the terms on which they relate to each other. Such variability supports the letters’ main rhetorical aim, which is to demonstrate holy women’s wisdom across a wide range of historical situations. At the same time, such variability is socially signiflcant insofar as it allows for unusually nuanced representations of religious women. Instead of being essentialized in terms of faith and gender, such women are depicted as complex persons motivated by multiple interests and ideals, and possessed of diverse talents. The correspondence of Hildegard, for example, shows the abbess playing a number of different roles with respect to her writing partners. When writing to Bernard of Clairvaux in hopes of obtaining ecclesiastical approval for her visions, Hildegard represents herself as a timid individual who looks to Volmar for spiritual guidance: “I have, in fact, revealed all my secrets to this man, and he has given me consolation, for these are great and fearsome matters” (Hildegard, Letters 1:28). Such claims help Hildegard’s case insofar as they imply that she respects ecclesiastical authority, and that her visions have already been deemed acceptable by at least one church official. When petitioning her superiors at Mount St. Disibod for the right to manage her own convent, however, Hildegard is represented as the more authoritative partner, a representation fashioned by Volmar himself. Writing to the abbess while she is away negotiating the matter, Volmar praises her spiritual strengths, characterizing her as an expert counselor, exegete, musician, preacher, and seer whose gifts enrich her religious community (2:168). At the same time, he refers to himself disparagingly as her unworthy son, claiming to regard her with “due subjection, due obedience, and due filial affection.” The partners’ purported roles strengthen Hildegard’s suit, making her out to be a highly capable leader who has won the respect and deference of no less an important figure than the convent provost. Sometimes Hildegard even assumes multiple roles within a single letter, as when she writes a farewell message to Richardis (1:143–44). At the letter’s climax, Hildegard plays the part of an abandoned child, crying out to Richardis, “Why have you forsaken me like an orphan?” At the letter’s end, however, Hildegard switches to a parental role, urging the younger woman to “be mindful of your poor desolate mother, Hildegard, so that your happiness may not fade.” The shift makes the message rhetorically powerful insofar as the letter builds up to an emotional outburst, and then moves toward a more controlled and authoritative conclusion. While the role changes cited above and in the preceding paragraph provide important insights into communicative strategies used by Hildegard and her scribes, the changes



incidentally offer an intriguing perspective on Hildegard’s emotional life, making her out to be more vulnerable and affectionate than she is in her memoir and treatises. Partners’ roles are also variable in letters by and about Elisabeth. Writing to an abbess at Dietkirchen, Elisabeth represents herself as an insightful visionary who nevertheless accepts practical and spiritual guidance from Ekbert. She characterizes him as an influential counselor, noting occasions of influence such as when he reminds her to carry out a promise, or urges her to clarify an ambiguous revelation (Elisabeth 245–46). This view of the partnership tempers the self-assured tone of Elisabeth’s visionary remarks, heightening her credibility by making her appear not only gifted but also humble. In a letter written by Ekbert on the occasion of Elisabeth’s death, however, the partners’ roles are markedly different. Ekbert claims to be Elisabeth’s spiritual protégé, crediting her with inspiring him to join the priesthood and nurturing his soul thereafter: “She brought me forth into the light of untried newness; she led me to the intimate ministry of Jesus my Lord; with her honeyed mouth she used to offer me divine consolation and instruction from heaven and made my heart taste the first fruits of the sweetness hidden from the saints in heaven” (255). By elevating Elisabeth to the status of mentor and spiritual superior, the letter makes a persuasive case for viewing her as a religious role model, a view fitting for an elegy and also conducive to discussions of canonization. At the same time that the roles cited above are rhetorically significant, they are also socially significant insofar as they call attention to Elisabeth’s interpersonal style, characterizing her as a more collegial and charismatic figure than she is in her treatises and autobiographical writings. Perhaps the most interesting features of collaborative partnerships, as represented in letters, are the ways in which partners speak. In contrast to treatises and memoirs, which withhold speaking privileges from scribes or limit them to carefully scripted remarks that honor their partners, letters grant scribes diverse speaking parts. In some cases, scribes correspond with the holy women they serve, engaging in extensive written conversations about topics of their choice. In other cases, the women and their assistants compose letters together, taking turns speaking and selecting their subject matter. In all cases, however, partners’ discourse is decidedly dialogic, involving multiple voices that describe collaborative relationships in different terms. While such dialogism makes letters dynamic, it also makes them potentially subversive. According to Bakhtin, dialogism disrupts mainstream cultural monologues so that less powerful voices may be heard, and less popular stories may be told. It may be no coincidence, then, that the epistolary genre is a medium where scribes speak frequently, including female scribes who are rarely mentioned in more formal records. And when these marginalized characters speak out, they sometimes make remarks that are irreverent or self-indulgent, unsettling conventional notions about holy women and the company they keep. Such disruptions are ultimately positive for saintly women insofar as they make it difficult for the women to be stereotyped, requiring instead that the women be viewed as complex persons involved in complicated relationships. A prominent example of an outspoken scribe is Hildegard’s assistant Guibert, who corresponded extensively with the abbess from 1175–1177. Although most of their correspondence took place before Guibert offlcially began working as her secretary, the letters paved the way for the partnership, and as such are relevant to studies of the partners’ interactions. In some instances, Guibert speaks of Hildegard favorably, as when he hails her as the most spiritually gifted and influential woman in the world after the Virgin Mary (Hildegard, Letters 2:27). But other times, he hints at her shortcomings, as when he urges her to be a more faithful correspondent (20, 42, 45), warns her not to be overly proud of her abilities and accomplishments (17–18), and speculates about circumstances that might cause her to lose her temper (33). While such criticisms are muted, they nevertheless imply that Hildegard is less than perfect in her final years, a period idealized in her memoir as a time of spiritual maturity. Paradoxically, however, Guibert’s



reproofs make Hildegard a more colorful character than she is in the memoir, balancing her enduring strengths with weaknesses that have yet to be overcome. A different but equally provocative kind of dialogism occurs in Catherine’s earliest letters, which she dictated to various female scribes. After transcribing the holy woman’s messages, the assistants would conclude with brief remarks of their own. Whereas Catherine’s comments generally consist of pious instructions and exhortations, however, the scribes’ messages tend to be humorous, shifting the letters’ focus from the sacred to the absurd. For example, the scribes identify themselves using unflattering nicknames such as “fat Alessa,” “crazy Giovanna,” and “Cecca the time-waster” (Catherine 47, 49). While the names are inherently silly, they are also satirical insofar as they give an impertinent twist to the humility tropes typically used by medieval religious writers. Such wordplay supports Bakhtin’s claim that dialogue often occasions laughter and parody, modes of communication that disrupt authoritative discourse (Bakhtin 7, 23). This subversive potential may be one reason why the female scribes are present only in Catherine’s early epistles. In her later correspondence, female assistants are supplanted by male scribes who speak infrequently, and then only in terms that are conventionally devout. Such substitutions may have been deemed necessary during the medieval period to ensure that Catherine’s letters would be authoritative. Modern readers who are sympathetic to feminist values, however, will hardly be scandalized by purported ties between Catherine and a high-spirited group of women, and in fact may celebrate such connections. In showing how treatises, memoirs, and letters represent collaborative partnerships according to socially driven strategies, the groundwork has been laid for broad discussions that draw on all three genres, since no single genre must be privileged as a definitive report of partners’ actual experiences. This chapter thus provides an argumentative framework for subsequent chapters, shaping the choice and use of textual evidence therein. Having here examined ways in which a message may be shaped by a generic medium, the next chapter considers how messages are shaped by human mediators. And whereas this chapter has looked generally at writing partnerships’ benefits for religious women, the next chapter shows how the women benefit from a specific aspect of collaboration, namely, the process by which divine messages are recorded and distributed to believers on earth.

Chapter Three Mediation

The collaboratively written texts examined in this study are created through processes of mediation. That is, between the time the texts are first conceived of as an idea, and the time they are presented to readers in final manuscript form, they are handled by several persons who function as literary intermediaries. Originating with God, the texts’ truths are revealed to holy women through specific visions or general inspiration. The women, in turn, share their insights with scribes who help transcribe and edit the texts. Thereafter, the scribes often convey the texts to authoritative audiences for approval. Such exchanges are captured neatly in a fifteenth-century illustration of Birgitta’s revelations (See Plate 4). In the picture, Christ gives Birgitta a piece of parchment that represents a divine vision. Even as Birgitta receives the parchment in one hand, she gives it away with the other, passing the document on to a church official who is most likely her confessor and scribe. He hands the text to a messenger boy, who travels to a royal palace and delivers the parchment to three kings (Nordenfalk 1:375). By having the text literally pass through many hands, the picture offers a vivid image of the mediated nature of religious women’s collaborative writing. Despite the number of persons involved in the scene described above, textual mediation takes place successfully: the text travels straightforwardly from one writer to another, and arrives at its final destination intact. This characterization is representative of conventional medieval beliefs about the transmission of religious truths. As Alastair Minnis has shown, theorists of religious writing in the early Middle Ages viewed God as the author of all texts. Borrowing their terminology from Aristotle, the theorists designated God as the texts’ efficient cause, crediting him with having actively created and composed the works. Human writers were viewed merely as the texts’ instrumental cause, having recorded God’s messages verbatim. Gradually, these theories were refined in ways that purportedly allowed human beings more agency. Whereas God was seen as the primary efficient cause of a text, the human writer was considered a secondary efficient cause. The increase in agency, however, was minimal. Ideas still originated with God, while human beings continued to function as “scribes of the Lord,” relaying sacred truths with limited autonomy. Such hierarchicalviews of collaboration provided assurance, to medieval scholars at least, that religioustexts were reliable insofar as they had been transmitted but not tampered with byimperfect human beings. The conservative theories described above are borne out in some, but not all, accounts of holy women’s collaborative writing processes. Whereas several women’s narratives make textual mediation out to be a simple matter, others represent it as an undertaking fraught with difficulties. While these competing perspectives are expressed in various ways, they are manifested most dramatically in the persons of scribes, quintessential textual mediators who emblematize narrative attitudes toward such. In some cases, scribes perform their duties perfectly, writing down their partners’ words accurately and turning the transcriptions



Plate 4 The transmission of Birgitta of Sweden’s revelations. Anon. (15th c.). Liber Celestis, Ericsberg MS fol. 85v. Katrineholm, Ericsberg Castle.

into a polished text. In other cases, however, amanuenses write illegibly or incompletely, distorting the words they have received from their female partners and, by extension, from God. Through their skills or lack thereof, scribes convey messages about mediation’s efficacy. Such messages are obviously concerned with matters of writing, but they also encompass matters of theology, insofar as most scribes in holy women’s narratives are religious officials. Their dual roles call attention to parallels between textual and ecclesiastical mediation as defined in conventional medieval scholarship. According to a tenet of orthodox theology known as ex opere operato, God can work through even the most inept priest to convey sacraments and doctrine to believers, because the power of such holy mysteries resides in God and his word. In other words, a priest is God’s instrument in much the same way that a human writer is. This parallel is explored in women’s narratives to a variety of ends. Some narratives treat the matter optimistically and conservatively, making ordained scribes out to be adept mediators both of manuscripts and holy mysteries. Other narratives take a more skeptical and radical view, constructing scribes whose incompetence raises doubts about the value of ecclesiastical mediation. These rhetorical strategies are discussed in more detail below, along with their implications for female characters and feminist readers. COMPETENT SCRIBES Narratives that characterize scribes as competent mediators do so according to predictable formulae. The most common strategy is to represent scribes as writers more interested in accuracy than originality—that



is, to credit them with being willing and able to transcribe texts without making changes. This characteristic is mentioned so frequently that I call it the trope of textual fidelity. Generally, the trope consists of assurances that the scribe has neither added to nor subtracted from the message dictated by the female saint. For example, Birgitta’s scribes are said to have read their work aloud to her, a practice that ensured “that there might be not one word more added there or missing but only what she herself had divinely heard and seen in the vision” (Birgitta, Life 81–82). The trope becomes slightly more complicated in the case of Hildegard’s scribe Volmar, who is said to have corrected the abbess’s grammatical errors. The narrative insists, however, that such changes were not substantial, and that “he did not…take it upon himself to add or subtract anything whatsoever from the sense or meaning” (Hildegard, Vita II. 1.14, quoted in Hildegard, Letters 1:6). Indeed, Volmar’s faithfulness becomes almost legendary after his death, so that when his successor Guibert pushes for permission to refine Hildegard’s writing style, Hildegard invokes Volmar as an exemplary textual mediator. She commends her current female scribes and her “‘only beloved son of pious memory, Volmar,’ for contenting themselves with her ipsissima verba in all simplicity” (Newman, Sister 23). The fidelity trope plays an important part in the construction of capable scribes’ identities. To begin with, it strengthens the scribes’ credibility through its specificity. Not content to simply say that Volmar is “faithful” (Hildegard, Letters 1:6) or that Birgitta’s scribes carry out their duties “faithfully” (Birgitta, Life 81), the narratives spell out the meaning of textual fldelity— “adding and subtracting nothing” —and demonstrate that the scribes have carried out their responsibilities precisely. While such specificity may seem unnecessary or clichéd, its importance will be apparent later in this chapter when discussing Angela’s scribe, Brother A., whose failure to employ fully the language of the fidelity trope is telling. While Brother A. truthfully declares that he has “added nothing” to Angela’s visions, he tells only half the story, for he abbreviates the visions substantially. Moreover, the fidelity trope increases scribes’ credibility through Biblical allusion. Its language echoes the Biblical book of Revelation, whose narrator warns would-be mediators to practice textual fidelity: “I give this warning to everyone who is listening to the words of prophecy in this book: should anyone add to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book; should anyone take away from the words in this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and the Holy City, described in this book” (Revelation 22:18–19). The Biblical precedent for faithful transmission of sacred texts makes medieval scribes’ conduct all the more commendable. Insofar as they show the same reverence for holy women’s visions that classical scribes were supposed to show for John’s revelation, medieval scribes participate in an honorable tradition of devout mediation. Of course, given medieval authors’ expectation that their audiences would recognize allusions to important texts without the aid of citations, modern readers have no definitive proof that writers who employed the fidelity trope were alluding to the Bible. But medieval readers likely would have perceived a connection, given the similarities between Revelation and holy women’s visionary writings. Not only do the texts belong to the same genre, but they also focus on many of the same issues: political, ecclesiastical, and eschatological events. One of Hildegard’s works even ends with a warning that sounds much like that in Revelation: “Let no one be so rash as to alter in any way the content of this book—either by adding to it or diminishing it by omissions—lest such a person be blotted out of the book of life and out of all good fortune under the sun” (Hildegard, Divine Works 266). Interestingly, the narrative adds a qualification that does not appear in Revelation: “There is but one exception to this rule—the editing of words or sentences that have been put down too simply under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But anyone who presumes to make changes for other reasons will sin against the Holy Spirit and will not be forgiven in this world or the next.” In light



of extant information about Volmar’s editing activities, this addendum might be read as a “Volmar clause,” meant to protect his reputation as a faithful mediator while still allowing him to fix Hildegard’s grammar. While scribes who profess to be scrupulous are ubiquitous in medieval literature, they take on unusual theological significance in religious women’s narratives, embodying positive messages about the church’s ability to mediate God’s truths. As noted earlier, many such narratives assign scribes dual roles as writers and priests. The roles sometimes appear distinct, as in Birgitta’s Life, where Master Matthias is alternately characterized as a writer in one scene, and as a confessor in another (Birgitta, Life 75, 78, 81–82). More often, however, the roles overlap. Nearly all ordained scribes serve as spiritual advisers and confessors to the women for whom they write, an arrangement that blurs the lines between their activities as textual mediators, and their activities as ecclesiastical mediators. For example, at the end of Birgitta’s life, she asks a former bishop Alphonsus to take responsibility for the “final editing” of her works, “with special emphasis on polishing the Latin style and guaranteeing the theological orthodoxy of her expressions” (Kezel 60). In this scene, Alphonsus wears two hats at once: that of a grammarian, and that of a guardian of religious truth. Because religious scribes’ responsibilities are often conflated, their abilities tend to get conflated too. Many narratives make the scribe-priest a thoroughly competent character, capable both of transcribing visions accurately and conveying holy mysteries in full. For example, the aforementioned Master Matthias is not only a “faithful translator” of Birgitta’s texts, but is also a “very expert and devout master of theology” (Birgitta, Life 81, 75). His theological expertise is confirmed by God himself, who appears to Birgitta as a spirit. When Birgitta worries that perhaps the spirit is evil, God advises her to talk with Matthias, who “has experience in discerning the two types of spirit [good and evil]" and will be able to put her fears to rest (78). Similarly, ordained scribes Peter of Alvastra and Peter of Skanninge minister on several levels to Birgitta as she is dying. Having tended to her writings by promising to deliver her texts to Alphonsus for final editing, they also tend to her soul, saying Mass for her and giving her the sacraments (98). In these and other cases where scribal and ecclesiastical mediation are interrelated, competent scribes simultaneously create and fulfill narrative expectations for competent priests. Through this device, a narrative may express faith in the priesthood without actually making its position explicit. While an adept scribe may embody positive attitudes toward the church, he generally does not function as a narrative’s sole expression of such attitudes. Rather, he reinforces a message that resonates throughout the narrative. For example, Birgitta’s capable confessors enact on a small scale what is writ large in her Life and Revelations: an orthodox belief in the authority and efficacy of the priesthood. This belief is spelled out in book seven of the revelations, where the Virgin Mary assures Birgitta that “no matter how sinful the pope or the priests might be—provided that they are not heretics—the pope has the keys of the Church and the true power of binding and loosing, and that at the altar the priests fully confect and handle the Blessed Sacrament of the Body of Christ even though they are unworthy of heavenly glory” (Birgitta, Life 168). This is not to say that the narrative takes a naïve view of ecclesiastical mediators. The statement cited above assumes that priests are “sinful” and “unworthy,” and books three and four of the revelations call for reform among religious officials. But having conceded that church authorities may be less than perfect, the narrative nevertheless upholds them as effective mediators of God’s truths, a conviction evident in Birgitta’s close relationships with her confessors, and her ongoing efforts to restore the papacy in Rome. Likewise, competent scribes in Hildegard’s narratives express, through the workings of plot, an optimism about religious mediation that extends to the narratives’ themes and arguments. For instance, bishops and priests receive reverential treatment in book two, vision five of the Scivias, which paints a glorious picture of the church and its religious orders. Having established priests’ credibility by identifying them as direct descendents of Christ’s apostles, God commends priests for their effective mediation of divine sacraments



and doctrine. They are said to “faithfully traverse streets and farms and cities and other places, regions and lands, carrying the health-giving chrisms and announcing the divine law to the people” (Hildegard, Scivias 203). As in the earlier quotation from Birgitta’s revelations, where priests gain a powerful spokesperson in the Virgin Mary, here the claim about priests’ competence is authoritative because it is spoken by God. As was also the case in Birgitta’s text, Hildegard’s narrative acknowledges that competent priests are not necessarily perfect. After praising church officials, God warns them that “they must show themselves such in their lives that My sheep will not be offended by their works, but walk uprightly after them,” an admonition predicated on the possibility of sin. In Hildegard’s letters, that possibility becomes a reality, as church officials are repeatedly criticized for their apathy and corruption. Such criticism, however, is not meant to undermine their authority as mediators of God’s truths. Rather, the criticisms aim to promote reform, an aim that assumes the priesthood is worth preserving. This candid yet positive assessment of the priesthood finds its most striking expression in Hildegard’s debate with the prelates at Mainz. Believing that Hildegard has allowed an excommunicated man to receive Christian burial, the prelates place her and her community under interdict, forbidding them to sing the liturgy or partake of the Eucharist. Hildegard denies the charges against her, and insists that the prelates are in the wrong. In an eloquent letter, she argues that to restrict worship—especially musical worship—of the Lord is to err gravely (Hildegard, Letters 1:76–79). Even as she criticizes the church officials, however, she submits to their authority, and desists from singing or receiving communion. Eventually, the interdict is lifted. Through this sequence of events—test, obedience, reward—the narrative gives the impression that believers would do well to honor priests as mediators of God’s judgments, even when those judgments are unappealing, and the mediators themselves are less than sympathetic. The priests’ sensitivity may be called in question, but their competence remains certain. Such affirmations of ecclesiastical authority have important implications not only for discussions of theology, but also for discussions of gender. In supporting ordained scribes and stressing their mediatory successes, a narrative space is created where women may act as effective religious intermediaries too. This is achieved through an implied parallel between scribes and the women they serve. What the scribes aspire to accomplish on one level, the women aim to accomplish on another level, namely, conscientious transmission of truths entrusted to them by a spiritual superior. The parallel is strikingly apparent in the manuscript illustration discussed at the beginning of this chapter, insofar as the textual transaction between the confessor and Birgitta looks almost identical to the transaction between Birgitta and Christ. Such symmetry leads readers to anticipate similarities not only between what scribes and visionaries do, but also how well they do it; that is, having comparable roles, the partners are expected to carry out those roles with comparable skill. That expectation is grounded in a commonsense understanding of the partners’ writing process, which is contingent and sequential. If scribes have written coherent transcriptions, they must first have received coherent instructions from the women whom they assist. Thus a narrative imperative is at work in discussions of proficient priest-scribes, necessitating that female visionaries be represented as equally competent mediators of God’s truths. Such representations are achieved through varied rhetorical strategies. One is personal testimony. In the same narratives where scribes insist they have transcribed their partners’ words accurately, female mystics almost always claim to have reported God’s words precisely. For example, before describing her visions, Hildegard says, “I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, ‘Cry out therefore, and write thus!,’” giving the impression that the statements that follow are direct quotations from God (Hildegard, Scivias 61). The significance of such assurances will be apparent later in this chapter, when they are contrasted with Angela’s confessions of inaccuracy. Much as her scribe struggles to record her comments, Angela struggles



to articulate divine mysteries and belittles her own efforts as “blasphemous,” a self-accusation rarely voiced by women involved in productive partnerships. A subtler strategy for representing women as reliable intermediaries involves the use of tropes. In the same narratives where scribes are represented favorably through the trope of textual fidelity, female visionaries are often honored through the trope of the divine instrument. This figure of speech characterizes the holy woman as a mediator who conveys God’s message without interference or distortion. For example, Birgitta is described metaphorically as a “channel” and “vessel” for God’s words (Birgitta, Life 71, 78; Revelations 105). Likewise, Hildegard is described on one occasion as God’s trumpet, and on another occasion as God’s lyre (Kerby-Fulton and Elliott 545; Hildegard, Rewards of Life 290). In both a figurative and literal sense, the musical metaphors recall early medieval theories of religious authorship, which posited the human writer as the instrumental cause of a text. The implied parallel between scribes and visionaries is valuable insofar as it allows the former to function constructively in medieval women’s narratives, paving the way for positive representations of women as religious intermediaries. However, a caution is in order. The parallel is an interpretive construct that may be applied productively to many narratives, but not all. And where it does apply, it has limitations. In the cases described above, for example, there are subtle differences between the mediating activities of scribes and holy women. Whereas competent scribes are characterized as mediators who will not change the material with which they are entrusted, competent visionaries are characterized as mediators who cannot change their material. As channels through which God speaks, the latter supposedly exercise little or no personal agency. The distinction opens up intriguing possibilities for future research, possibilities that would not be readily apparent if one insisted on reading scribes and female visionaries as exact analogues. INCOMPETENT SCRIBES In contrast to the narratives described above, which emphasize scribes’ strengths, other narratives show scribes as having weaknesses that affect the quality of their work. The gentlest critique appears in Francesco Maltavolti’s Life of Catherine, where the holy woman is said to simultaneously dictate three different letters to three different scribes. “Suddenly,” the narrative tells us, “all three stop writing, look puzzled, and appeal to her for aid. They have all taken down the same sentence but for which of them was it meant?” (Menzies 133–34). Catherine assures them that the Holy Spirit must have allowed this mistake, and that they will be able to set things right at the end of the composing session. Since the narrative does not actually show the promised resolution, however, the image that remains foremost in readers’ minds is an image of confusion: three scribes stopping their work, looking up with bewildered expressions, calling out in dismay. Were the scene to be illustrated, it would contrast markedly with the illustration of Birgitta discussed at the beginning of this chapter, where a divine message is transmitted effortlessly from one mediator to the next. More dramatic contrasts would appear if one illustrated the scribes who work for Margery or Angela. Whereas Catherine’s scribes experience momentary confusion, Margery and Angela’s scribes are plagued by chronic incompetence. A portrait of them would show writers squinting at their manuscripts, scribbling incomplete notes, or quitting their work altogether. Their extreme incompetence is strange, considering that the authors of Margery’s and Angela’s texts did not have to portray scribes unfavorably. Even if the scribes were reputed to have performed poorly in real life, their faults could have been minimized or suppressed completely in historical narratives according to the narrators’ wishes. The scribes’ ineptness is even more surprising in light of their status as priests, since medieval Christianity placed great faith in the church’s ability to mediate holy mysteries. One way to make sense of such anomalies is to view the scribes as sites of criticism. From that perspective, the scribes seem to embody doubts about religious mediation, doubts that



echo historical challenges to the church’s mediative authority. While such critiques are significant theologically, they are also significant socially insofar as they are closely aligned with women’s needs and interests. A persuasive and provocative case can be made for these claims through close readings of Margery’s and Angela’s texts. MARGERY KEMPE’S INCOMPETENT SCRIBES The Book of Margery Kempe asks whether mediators can convey truth coherently, and dramatizes this question through Margery’s succession of inept scribes. Her first scribe willingly transcribes everything she says about her spiritual experiences, but his transcription is unintelligible; he mixes German and English grammar so extensively that no one else can understand his text. The narrative grants him a measure of forgiveness for his incompetence, suggesting that “ ow he wrot not clerly ne opynly to owr maner of spekyng, he in hys maner of wrytng & spellyng mad trewe sentens” (Kempe 220). At the same time, however, the narrative demonstrates that private intelligibility is not enough when one’s job is to communicate publicly. Instead of making Margery’s testimony available to a broad audience, the scribe renders it inaccessible, composing a mysterious text that is not “opyn” to other readers. His failure as a mediator is epitomized by his unexpected death: not only does he confine Margery’s story within a private language, but he also takes his exclusive knowledge of that language and text with him to the grave. Having done away with one textual mediator, the narrative introduces a second who happens to be a priest. Upon examining Margery’s manuscript, he declares that “ er schyld neuyr man redyn it, but it were special grace” (4). Nevertheless, he offers to try to “copyn it owt & wrytn it betyr,” a generous offer that has the potential to restore readers’ faith in textual intermediaries. Immediately afterwards, however, the narrative undermines the credibility of the second assistant even more dramatically than the first. The public’s “euel spekyng” about Margery lowers the priest’s opinion of her, and he defers the task of revision for more than four years even though she entreats him about it. Finally, he tells her that he will not carry out the project because “he cowd not redyn it, where-for he wold not do it. He wold not, he seyd, put hym in perel therof’ (4). The first sentence recalls the aforementioned need for grace in reading the text, and ironically implies that the priest does not possess such grace (“cowd not redyn it”). The second sentence reveals a fault that makes the second scribe more culpable than the first: his unwillingness (“wold not”) to carry out the responsibilities of a mediator. While the priest may be worried about spiritual “perel,” fearing for his soul should Margery turn out to be the heretic that some of her detractors say she is, it seems more likely that he dreads social and professional “perel,” and is overly concerned about preserving good standing with other parishioners. His broken promise and skewed priorities, combined with the fact that Margery’s project has religious merit, makes the priest look like a mediator who is not only unable to convey spiritual truths, but who is unworthy of the task. After portraying the second scribe unfavorably, the narrative turns to yet another mediator. The priest, having excused himself from the project, directs Margery to a scribe who knew the first writer and was familiar with his writing style. The third scribe has no explicit affiliation with the church, which helps explain why the priest considers it appropriate for him to finish the translation; presumably, his involvement with Margery would not signify ecclesiastical approval of her experiences. Margery asks the new writer “neuyr to be-wreyn it [the book] as long as sche leued” and grants him “a grett summe of good for hys labowr.” Despite Margery’s investment of trust and money, the third scribe fails just as miserably as his predecessors did. He quits after revising a page or so, because he finds it impossible to interpret a book “so euel sett & so vnresonably wretyn.” His complaint implies that he lacks the grace needed to read the book correctly, a deficiency which, though not as damning as in the case of the priest, nevertheless serves as a



strike against him. Interestingly, the narrative does not say whether Margery loses money when the third scribe defaults on his part of the bargain. Whatever financial losses she may have incurred are apparently less important than her loss of a textual mediator, a problem that is documented in detail. Whereas the Book is usually quick to pursue questions of economics, this exceptional passage highlights the value of mediators insofar as it measures their worth in intangible terms of hope and disappointment. Having dismissed the secular scribe as unsuited to the task of mediating Marg-ery’s record of religious experience, the narrative reinstates the priest as mediator of her book, but brings him back humbled and less authoritative. Given time to think things over, he becomes “vexyd in his consciens” because he “dede not hys part as wel as he mygth a do” when he read the manuscript the first time (5). Compelled by his conscience to try again, he asks Margery to “getyn a-geyn booke yf sche myth goodly.” She retrieves the book “wyth rygth glad cher,” apparently holding no grudge against the religious official who let her down for so long. However, she urges him to work with a “good wyl,” possibly alluding to one reason for his earlier failure. She also prays that God may grant him grace to read the book, effectively reversing their roles as priest and parishioner. The reversal is accentuated by the next sentence in the narrative: “ preste, trustyng in hire prayers, began to redyn Pis booke, & it was mych more esy, as hym thowt, Pan it was beforn-tym” (emphasis added). Although Margery’s prayers and God’s grace make it possible for the priest to read the manuscript, he remains an imperfect mediator for other reasons. For example, his eyes begin to “myss” so that he cannot perform tasks such as shaping his letters and mending his pen, although “alle o er thyng he mygth se wel anow.” When he tries to solve the problem by “sett[yng] a peyr of spectacles on hys nose,” the predicament becomes “wel wers an it was be-for.” Puzzled by his deficiencies, he complains about his “dyses” to Margery, who proves to be more spiritually discerning; she recognizes the problem as an affliction sent by the devil to hinder the writing process. In a role reversal much like the one noted above, Margery offers the priest spiritual advice, urging him to “do as wel as God wold geue hym grace & not levyn.” After listening to her counsel, the priest resumes his work and can miraculously “se as wel, hym thowt, as euyr he ded befor be day-lyth & be candel-lygth bo e.” With his eyesight restored, he successfully transforms Margery’s enigmatic manuscript into an accessible text. Despite this happy ending, the narrative’s overall treatment of scribes is derogatory. For one thing, the narrative emphasizes scribes’ inability to make sense of a text either for themselves or for others. Such faults are described in detail, while little is said about virtues for which they might deserve commendation, such as the first scribe’s loyalty or the third scribe’s candor. The narrative also discredits scribes by attributing low rates of success to them. Of the three assistants who attempt the writing project, just one is able to make the text coherent and complete, and he requires considerable encouragement and assistance. Finally, the narrative calls attention to scribes’ unreliability. Only the first assistant has a legitimate reason for abandoning the project—death—and even that most valid of excuses leaves Margery in the lurch. Such censure is focused ostensibly on matters of composition, but its scope is expanded through pointed rhetorical choices to include matters of theology. To begin with, the narrative reserves its strongest criticism for the scribe who ought to be the best mediator of religious texts: the priest. Whereas other scribes are simply incapable of making Margery’s manuscript coherent, the priest-scribe is alternately incapable and unwilling. Like the Pharisees in the New Testament, he possesses ecclesiastical authority but fails to perceive spiritual truths, a weakness symbolized by his bout with literal blindness. Not only is the analysis of the priest severe, but it is extensive too; the narrative devotes more time and space to him than to the other scribes. Such unique treatment, along with the fact that he is given final responsibility for translating Margery’s book, suggests that the narrative is most interested in—and critical of—ecclesiastical mediators.



This argument finds support in the narrative’s plot, where church officials are frequently portrayed in unflattering terms. Lynn Staley has shown in detail how the Book “hints at the untrustworthy character of certain churchmen,” and “presents many ecclesiastical figures as lacking the devotion that ought to undergird authority” (Staley 107). Interestingly, their shortcomings often follow patterns set by the priestscribe. For example, just as he has difficulty deciphering Margery’s manuscript, many officials have trouble reading Margery’s actions. Those who are poor interpreters conclude that she is crazy, heretical, or at the very least, overzealous. And like the priest-scribe, some religious authorities withdraw their support from her out of immoderate desire for public approval. For instance, a popular friar forbids her to attend his sermons because “sche noyith pepil” who constitute his adulatory audience (149), and the Bishop of Lincoln declines to approve her white clothes because he “dredyth mor schamys of world an parfyt lofe of God” (Kempe 35). The implied parallel between the priest-scribe and other religious officials is all the more significant when the former’s shortcomings are analyzed closely. Two faults are particularly telling, offering insights into how and why the narrative might chastise the clergy at large. First, the scribe is reproved for refusing to demystify a spiritual text written in a cryptic language. Lay scribes in the Book do not come under the same kind of censure, for they are simply incapable of performing the task. More is expected of the ordained scribe, who seems to have the ability to make the text “cler and opyn” to everyone, but will not go out of his way to do so. Analogically speaking, his stance resembles that taken by many clerics in late medieval debates about Biblical translation. Although the clergy had the ability to translate Latin scriptures into the vernacular, they often argued that the scriptures ought to remain shrouded in mystery, an argument that provoked resentment among the laity. Second, the ordained scribe in Margery’s narrative is criticized for practicing a kind of ecclesiastical isolationism. He initially tackles the writing project alone, relying solely on his own insight and ability. These attempts are characterized as not only useless, but also potentially destructive: working alone, the priest makes the manuscript’s problems worse than they were before. As an alternative to isolationism, the narrative proposes a radical solution: collaboration with a laywoman. When the priest looks to Margery for advice and trusts in her prayers, he is empowered by God to carry out his duties more effectively than before. Eventually, the narrative has the priest working side by side with Margery and relying on her expertise; he “red it [the book] ouyr be-forn Ms creatur euery word, sche sum-tym helpyng where ony difficulte was” (5). In reconfiguring the traditional hierarchical relationship between priest and parishioner, the narrative recalls late medieval debates about the laity’s role in the church, siding with laypersons who sought to divest the clergy of its exclusive control over ministry and worship. As these brief analogies indicate, the figure of the incompetent scribe is subversive when viewed in historical context. This is especially true given the specific context of The Book of Margery Kempe. During the time the text was written, questions about the adequacy of mediated spiritual truth were brewing in England. Lay people had become more interested in accessing religious truths directly, as evidenced by their increased use of devotional manuals. Initially, the church supported the trend by teaching the creed in English, and permitting the production of vernacular Psalters and meditations on Christ’s Passion. Even so, the church still had reservations about vernacular religious instruction (Aston 196), and these reservations grew with the advent of movements inspired by John Wyclif. Wyclif believed that the Bible stood as the supreme authority for all Christians, that those whom God enlightened could understand its mysteries, and that everyone should have access to the sacred book (Aston 196–97; Kenny 59). Lollards used these beliefs as the basis for their efforts to translate the Bible into English, challenging the church’s exclusive possession of Latin scripture.



In addition to stirring up controversy about language, Wyclif laid the groundwork for controversy about ministry when he spoke about the priesthood of all believers, because in doing so he seemed to “elevate the virtuous layman over the constituted ministers of the Church” (Aston 68–69). Although he phrased his ideas about priesthood so as to remain within the limits of orthodoxy, less cautious followers carried the ideas to heretical extremes. They argued that laypersons, including women, had the right to act as religious teachers and preachers. Aware of the threat that Wyclif s ideas posed to ecclesiastical authority and privilege, the church persecuted the Lollards and forbade the production of vernacular Bibles, threatening burning at the stake for those who disobeyed. Such pressure gradually reduced the Lollards’ public power and presence, but their ideas continued to circulate up through the early fifteenth century (Hudson 8), coinciding with the composition of Margery’s book. Viewed within this historical context, the hapless priest-scribe appears less like a narrative aberration, and more like an emblem of deliberate cultural critique. In his deficiencies, he embodies doubts about ecclesiastical mediation that find broad expression outside the text. While such doubts have radical theological implications, they are also significant socially insofar as they are aligned with women’s interests. For example, the Lollard movement appealed to many women in the late Middle Ages because of its relatively egalitarian views on gender roles in the Christian church. Defying traditional prohibitions, Lollards permitted women to exercise spiritual gifts of teaching and preaching. Drawn to such opportunities for leadership, women joined the sect in large numbers, and Margery herself was accused of being a member (Kempe 28, 124). Thus her book’s critique of religious mediators has a gendered dimension, entailing not only power struggles between laity and clergy, but also feminist challenges to patriarchal authority. ANGELA OF FOLIGNO’S INCOMPETENT SCRIBES Incompetent scribes play a limited role in The Book of Margery Kempe, appearing only in the proem. In The Memorial of Angela of Foligno, however, the incompetent scribe is a major character who speaks and acts throughout the book. In addition to having increased presence, he has heightened significance. Whereas the Book uses scribes to ask how one may best mediate spiritual truth, the Memorial asks a more difficult question: whether one can mediate spiritual truth without unduly diminishing its grandeur and mystery. It frames the question in the character of Brother A., a priest who writes too slowly to record Angela’s visions verbatim, and who only partially understands the material he transcribes. He consequently faces a dilemma of whether to leave gaps in the narrative when he translates his notes into Latin afterwards, or to fill in the gaps by paraphrasing the material according to his recollections. He decides that the first misrepresentation offers a more acceptable version of truth than the latter. According to his logic, an abbreviated transcription will merely alter the length of Angela’s visions, whereas a paraphrased transcription would corrupt them by commingling them with inferior material (Angela, Works 9). The narrative quickly makes the distinction out to be absurd, diminishing Brother A.’s credibility as a textual mediator. He undermines his claims about the inconsequentiality of omissions, for even as he omits portions of Angela’s visions, he apologetically calls attention to their absence. For example, he says ruefully, “Out of haste, and because it was very long, I cut short this beautiful and divine doctrine” (160). On another occasion, he remarks, “This was a beautiful, useful, and long instruction but I, brother scribe, could not write it because it was time to leave the church” (165). Still another time, he confesses, “At this point, I brother scribe, because I had to hurry, omitted much and summarized what she was saying. Concerning her beautiful explanations about the world I only snatched some of her words, abbreviating what she was saying, that is, writing only some and not all of what she told me” (154). Disclaimers of this sort punctuate the narrative so frequently that it becomes difficult to believe that the original visions remain intact. If so



much deleted material is “divine” or “beautiful and useful,” surely important truths have disappeared, and Brother A. implies as much when he laments the loss of so many “worthy” words (138). The narrative further discredits Brother A. by attributing his omissions not just to lack of skill, but to lack of comprehension. It seems that the more complex and profound the visions become, the less Brother A. grasps them, so that his patchwork transcription contains only the simplest and most commonplace information. He admits as much when he says of Angela’s divine secrets, “I had so little grasp of their meaning that I thought of myself as a sieve or sifter which does not retain the precious and refined flour but only the most coarse” (137). Thus one hears little about Angela’s spiritual afflictions because the scribe “could not understand them sufficiently to write a more complete account” (196). Likewise, one learns nothing about her insights concerning the justice of God’s judgment because the scribe cannot “grasp what she meant well enough to put it into writing” (207). The preceding examples demonstrate that the transcription is marred by Brother A.’s ignorance, but the narrative goes so far as to highlight the point in a memorable vignette. On one occasion, Brother A. sends a young boy to take notes in his place. The youth apparently possesses fewer scribal skills than the friar, for after Brother A. reads the boy’s transcription to Angela, she urges him to destroy it because of its deficiencies (179). Brother A., however, claims that he does not have time to revise it, and translates it with all its shortcomings into Latin. Rather than apologizing for this decision, he points out that to his credit, he has not added anything to the text in the translation process, as if that were the worst of all possible offenses in mediation. Only after emphasizing his merit as a mediator does he acknowledge a less impressive fact, namely that the reason he did not add anything to the boy’s transcription was that he did not understand it. In light of this admission, the fact that he does not add anything to the text indicates incompetence more than conscientiousness, and brings him disrepute where he intended to elicit praise. The most telling criticism of Brother A.’s work appears at the end of the narrative, when the scribe seeks divine affirmation for his work. Although Brother A.’s efforts are approved by God, the heavenly message is relayed by the more skeptical Angela, so what begins as straightforward praise turns into an ambiguous judgment that is less reassuring: After I, brother scribe, had written almost everything which can be found in this small book, I asked and requested Christ’s faithful one to beseech God and pray that if I had written anything false or superfluous he would, in his mercy, reveal it and show it to her, so that we would both know the truth from God himself. Christ’s faithful one responded by saying: Before you made this request, I myself often asked God to make known to me if in what I said or what you wrote there was any word of untruth or anything superfluous, so that I could at least confess myself of it. God answered me that everything I had said and you had written was completely true and contained nothing false or superfluous. She12 also told me that I had tempered what God had told her, for there was much that he had told her which I could have put into writing but did not. God, she said, even told me:13 ‘Everything which has been written is in conformity with my will and comes from me, that is, issues forth from me.’ Then he added: ‘I will put my seal to it.’ (217–18) The passage is the textual equivalent of a third-hand report: Brother A. recounts what Angela told him about her conversation with God. The resulting discussion is so dialogic as to be almost confusing, with the anxious voice of Brother A. mixing with the charitable voice of God and the captious voice of Angela. The unstable quality of this mediated discourse leads to an unstable assessment of the scribe’s mediatory activities. God commends the book as being “completely true,” but as Angela relays this divine message,



she points out the many things that the scribe “could have put in writing but did not,” undermining what otherwise would have been an authoritative blessing. While the interpretation outlined above is supported by characters’ behavior and speech in other parts of the text, a provocative alternative reading is also possible, based on an ambiguity occasioned by the multiple voices in the passage. Perhaps the conversation reported in the passage is not one in which God and Angela express differing opinions about Brother A.’s work, but instead is one in which God communicates a mixed message to Angela, who in turn conveys it to the scribe. This interpretation is intriguing because it discredits, through mimesis, Brother A.’s approach to mediation. On the one hand, just as the scribe insists that he has produced an adequate transcription, God affirms the scribe’s editorial practices by calling the transcription “completely true.” On the other hand, just as Brother A. undercuts his own claims by calling attention to the data he failed to record, God notes supposedly unimportant omissions in the book, a gesture that serves as a subtle judgment against the scribe after all. Regardless of whether the criticism comes from God or Angela, however, the passage raises doubts about the possibility of perfect mediation, and ends the narrative on a note of subtle skepticism. If failed mediation in the Memorial could be attributed simply to lack of skill and knowledge, readers might be tempted to blame the mediator. Reading literally, one might condemn Brother A. as an exceptionally inept character. Reading analogically, one might extend the criticism to other mediators like him, censuring small-minded religious officials who reduce divine truths to clichés and platitudes. But unlike The Book of Margery Kempe, which criticizes certain types of mediators, the Memorial pushes the issue further, problematizing the very activity of mediation. In some instances, Brother A.’s mishaps seem attributable not so much to personal shortcomings, but to universal limitations of language and subjectivity. For example, when he reads his transcription out loud to Angela, she expresses disappointment, not because the written record is quantitatively shorter than her original statements—Brother A.’s biggest concern—but because it is qualitatively different from what she meant to convey. The entire scene is quoted below in order to set forth Angela’s criticisms precisely: One day after I [Brother A.] had written as best I could what I had been able to grasp of her discourse, I read to her what I had written in order to have her dictate more to me, and she told me with amazement that she did not recognize it. On another occasion when I was rereading to her what I had written so that she could see if I had correctly recorded what she had said, she answered that my words were dry and without any savor, and this also amazed her. And another time she remarked to me: ‘Your words recall to me what I told you, but they are very obscure. The words you read to me do not convey the meaning I intended to convey, and as a result your writing is obscure.’ And another time she said: ‘You have written what is bland, inferior, and amounts to nothing; but concerning what is precious in what my soul feels you have written nothing.’ (137–38). The problems reported in the passage could have to do with language preference and facility. The narrative does not specify whether Brother A. reads from the Italian notes that he took during the dictation sessions, or from the Latin translations that he made afterwards. If he is reading Latin, that might explain why the language seems “dry” and “obscure” to Angela; Italian probably would have sounded more melodic, and would certainly have been more familiar to her.14 But language differences do not explain fully why the visions are so altered that Angela scarcely recognizes them. The problem has more to do with expression, that is, the process of putting experiences into words. The limitations of this process are evident in Angela’s final assessment: Brother A.’s written record fails to convey her soul’s most precious feelings. Here, the narrative appeals to readers’ common sense, implying that the task in question is impossible. Even the best



scribe in the world would be hard pressed to discern someone else’s emotions and intentions, and to communicate “the meaning” that person wished to convey (137, emphasis added). Since Brother A. is far from being the best scribe in the world, it seems unlikely that the narrative faults him for failing to achieve the impossible. Instead, through Angela’s surprise and dismay, the narrative problematizes mediation itself, suggesting that even the most careful renderings (“as best I could”) of an utterance fall short of the original. Elsewhere, the narrative uses God’s voice to confirm that the problem of imperfect mediation has less to do with Brother A. than with mediation in general. For example, when assessing the Memorial, God declares that “All the things which are written here are true and there is nothing whatsoever that is said falsely, but what was said was much more complete or had much more meaning. What she [Angela] said is defective, and the scribe’s version of it is also weak and defective” (154). Most striking here is the implied parallel between Angela and Brother A. Whereas other parts of the narrative make the scribe out to be a singularly incompetent mediator, here the narrative broadens its critique, subjecting Angela’s ecstatic reports to the same scrutiny as Brother A.’s halting transcription. In doing so, the narrative forces readers to reassess the problem of imperfect mediation. If even the heroine of the narrative cannot adequately put her experience into words, then perhaps the problem resides not in an individual mediator, but in the act of mediation itself. This argument finds support in the wording of the aforementioned passage. The word “defective,”15 used to describe both Angela’s dictation and Brother A.’s transcription, connotes an inherent weakness, making the projects’ flaws seem not so much constructed as intrinsic. While the wording of the passage does not deny agency to Angela and Brother A., it shifts the narrative focus away from individual mediators, toward processes and products of mediation. If the implied parallel between Angela and Brother A. appeared in only one passage of the Memorial, it could be dismissed as insignificant. But the parallel finds expression in other passages where Angela questions her ability to mediate spiritual experience. Just as Brother A. acknowledges his technical limitations, Angela emphasizes the limits of human language, trailing off in many of her statements because her visions go “beyond description” and “cannot be put into words” (178, 184). Although she still chooses to speak, she criticizes her efforts to recast mystical experience into the confines of language, arguing that the omissions that necessarily take place during the translation “reduce the experience to a mere trifle” (148– 49). In her most extreme moments, Angela reviles her representations of spiritual truth as being “blasphemous” because they “ruin the reality they represent” and “make hash of what they should express” (135, 211, 213–14). She even claims that it makes her physically ill to speak thus about heavenly mysteries, and prays that she does not sin in speaking so “badly and defectively” about them (205, 150). By calling attention to weaknesses professed by Angela—a woman considered so holy that she was later beatified— the text intensifies its critique of religious mediation, implying that even the most devout and seemingly capable persons cannot help but diminish spiritual truth. Not content to make its case through the examples of the scribe and the visionary, the narrative exposes the shortcomings of nearly all mediators. For example, the narrative shifts Angela’s criticisms of language away from herself and makes them applicable to everyone. Speaking in the third person, she declares that “the more one feels God, the less is one able to say anything about him, for the very fact of feeling something of this infinite and unutterable Good renders one incapable of speaking about it” (191). Likewise, the narrative casts a shadow over a number of mediatory activities, making it clear that Brother A.’s transcription and Angela’s dictation are not the only problematic modes of mediation. For instance, Angela rejects paintings of the crucifixion because they fail to move her as powerfully as her direct visions of Christ’s suffering. Moreover, she prefers not to hear God’s name mentioned while in ecstasy because the empty signifier gets in the way of direct encounter with God (162, 184).



The narrative even critiques one of the most cherished forms of mediated truth: scripture. Speaking of her encounters with God, Angela declares that “all those things which have been said in the Scriptures, or for that matter by everyone from the beginning of the world until now, do not seem to me to express anything of its [divine union’s] innermost meaning, not even to the extent of a grain of sand compared to the whole world” (192). This is not to say that Angela treats scripture irreverently; on the contrary, she holds it in high esteem. Nevertheless, she reserves her highest praises for direct knowledge of God. The distinction is best seen in her declaration that “Holy Scripture is so sublime that there is no one in the world wise enough, not even anyone with learning and spirit, who could not find it totally beyond their capacity to understand Scripture fully; still, they babble something about it. But of these ineffable workings which are produced in the soul when God discloses himself to it, nothing at all can be said or babbled” (213–14). Although both forms of revelation are valuable, scripture lends itself to further mediation and interpretation, much of which is unproductive (“babbled”). God’s presence, however, resists such mediation, thereby retaining its power and purity. The narrative’s criticisms of mediated truth culminate in scenes when Angela bypasses mediators altogether. After she asks St. Francis to intercede with Christ on her behalf, Christ responds to her directly, saying, “You prayed to my servant Francis but I did not want to send you any other messenger than myself,” rendering the saint’s mediation unnecessary and hinting at its inferiority (139). Another time, Christ visits her internally, filling her spirit during mass before she tastes or even sees the host. He tells her, “Behold, the divine power is now present on the altar. I am within you. You can now receive me because you have already done so,” diminishing the status of the Eucharist from a spiritual necessity to a ritual formality (170). Angela’s communion with God becomes increasingly intimate, so that by the time she goes through the dark night of the soul that marks the maturation of most mystics, she declares, “I am in the Godman almost continually. It began in this continual fashion on a certain occasion when I was given the assurance that there was no intermediary between God and myself’ (205). The remark epitomizes the spiritual consummation that Angela seeks, and explains why she doubts that mediating figures or forms can fully convey religious experience: they are inadequate in the same way that a picture of one’s lover falls short of sexual union with the beloved. Compared to The Book of Margery Kempe, the Memorial is deeply pessimistic about mediation of religious truths. Whereas the main scribe in Margery’s narrative is eventually enabled to do his work successfully, the main scribe in Angela’s narrative never improves. By subjecting him to continual failure, the narrative invites readers to look deeper into the reasons for and meaning of his failure. Furthermore, whereas problems of mediation in Margery’s narrative are confined to the figure of the scribe, in Angela’s narrative the problems extend to nearly all characters and activities. Although many factors may account for these differences, the factor most relevant to this study is that of social context, which offers insights into theology and gender, and also helps fill out the historical picture drawn earlier in this chapter. Margery’s narrative arrived late on the scene of medieval debates about ecclesiastical mediation, when dissenting opinions were often silenced through threats of persecution and burning at the stake. Angela’s narrative, however, appeared earlier, a fact that may have made it easier for the narrative to embody and express criticism. The Memorial was written in Foligno, Italy between 1292–1296, a tempestuous place and time for discussions of mediation. A wave of religious energy had swept the continent earlier in the century and produced numerous lay movements, some of which adopted heretical views, and others of which stayed within the bounds of orthodoxy. One of the most powerful heretical groups was the sect of the Free Spirit, which taught that one could attain a state in which sin would no longer be possible, and that one could have access to God without the mediation of the church or the sacraments (Lachance 342). More orthodox groups included the Beguines and penitential orders or “third orders” that flourished in northern and southern



Europe, respectively. Beguines and penitents committed themselves to poverty and chastity, practiced forms of affective piety, and aspired to mystical union with Christ (37). They often supported and supervised themselves, rather than submitting to financial and administrative oversight by the church. Though not as radical as the Free Spirit sect, such groups still aroused the church’s suspicion, because their desire for divine union and earthly autonomy seemed to render most forms of ecclesiastical mediation unnecessary. Like the Lollards in Margery’s time, many of the aforementioned sects held special appeal for women, offering them uncommon opportunities for leadership and worship. At least eight penitential communities existed in the Foligno area during the time that Angela’s narrative was written, and Angela herself belonged for eighteen years to a lay order associated with the Franciscans. Given this religious milieu, it is hardly surprising that Angela’s text often echoes the rhetoric of controversial groups that sought to minimize or eliminate the church’s mediatory role. To make such a comparison is not to brand Angela and her work as heretical, for she spoke out in her Instructions against the Free Spirit sect, condemning its belief in earthly perfection and its members’ resulting licentiousness. But Angela’s active opposition to the sect may have been motivated in part by the need to differentiate herself from them. As Paul Lachance has pointed out, “her terminology and practices are on occasion not that different from theirs and other quietistic currents that, during this period, skirted or crossed the borders of orthodoxy” (Lachance 98). The similarities were noticed by many medieval readers. In some cases, Angela’s potentially controversial work was suppressed. In the early fourteenth century, for example, Franciscan friars at Assisi kept their copy of the Memorial locked away in a restricted library (112). In other cases, controversial aspects of Angela’s work were highlighted, as when a late fourteenth-century editor combined the Memorial with Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls, apparently unaware that the church had condemned Marguerite as a heretic and had her burned at the stake. The Memorial was made even more unorthodox by the fact that the cardinal who approved Angela’s book was later excommunicated. His approbation thus became a liability, prompting several readers to scrape off his message from Angela’s manuscripts (111–12). Despite such obstacles, Angela’s book continued to circulate on the continent in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and translators rewrote the Latin text in Italian, but at least one translator eliminated all of Brother A.’s comments, literally erasing him from the narrative. While perhaps the translator did so in order to focus attention on Angela, it is also possible that the translator felt uncomfortable with the figure of the incompetent scribe, and with the challenges to the church’s mediatory role embodied in that character. The foregoing analyses of Angela and Margery’s inept assistants have important implications for female characters and feminist readers. One such implication has to do with the influence of gender on representations of scribes. Upon surveying medieval accounts of writing partnerships, it seems that hapless assistants appear most often in narratives written by women. With the exception of Chaucer’s famous diatribe against “Adam Scriveyn,” unflattering portraits of scribes are rarely penned by male authors, and Chaucer’s poem hardly counts as a religious narrative in the same way that The Book of Margery Kempe and The Memorial of Angela of Foligno do. While the uneven distribution of good and bad scribes may reflect historical inequalities, such as women’s limited acquaintance with and access to professional writers, the imbalance could also be the result of deliberate rhetorical strategies. If, as suggested in this chapter, incompetent scribes embody challenges to the medieval church, then their absence from men’s narratives and presence in women’s narratives is highly appropriate. By and large, men’s religious narratives are centered in ecclesiastical tradition. They cross-reference patristic works, often imitating the form and style of authoritative texts; they use Latin, the official language of the church; and their protagonists usually exercise the powers of the priesthood. In contrast, many women’s religious narratives exist on the margins of ecclesiastical tradition. They rarely cite patristic authorities, or appropriate scholastic styles; they are



often written in a vernacular; and while their protagonists may have taken religious vows, they are excluded from the priesthood. Of the two genres, then, women’s narratives seem more likely to contain veiled criticisms of institutional mediation. Another gendered implication is that incompetent scribes are generally said to be male. They are almost never female, despite the fact that such characterization would be historically plausible in light of women’s limited opportunities for training in literacy and composition. One compelling explanation for this imbalance is that the persons writing about problematic partnerships were sensitive to women’s interests, and were aware that an inept female scribe might discourage readers from taking women seriously as mediators of holy mysteries. A case in point is Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, whose exegetical efforts are relevant to this discussion even though she is a speaker rather than a writer of religious truths. She preaches so erratically that she has little credibility as an interpreter of Scripture. Perhaps the authors of holy women’s narratives were aware that such a character would be seen not simply as a poor mediator, but as a poor female mediator, and consequently constructed mediators whose weaknesses would be less attributable to gender than to ecclesiastical privilege. At the same time that many medieval women weave critiques of religious conventions into their writing, they also evince awareness of areas in which they might be subject to criticism themselves. The issue that looms largest is that of sexual propriety, since collaborative writing entails frequent and intimate interactions between writing partners. The rhetorical strategies used to defuse such concerns are even more sophisticated and diverse than those used to communicate concerns about mediation. Whereas this chapter has focused on textual interactions between partners, then, the next chapter studies sexual interactions, assessing how representations of writing partnerships are shaped by putative desires.

Chapter Four Sexuality

Partnerships between holy women and scribes tend to be characterized as intimate. In describing how she began working with Volmar, for instance, Hildegard says that she “found him and loved him” (Hildegard, Scivias 60). She refers to him elsewhere as her symmysta, meaning “sharer in the mysteries” (Lachman 132). Margery and her scribe share profound experiences too, weeping together during the writing process because they find her visions so moving (Kempe 219). Likewise, Brother A. cries openly when, near the end of his life, Angela gives him a special message from God (Angela, Works 284). The most dramatic depiction of intimacy appears in the biography of Dorothea of Montau, a Prussian mystic who writes collaboratively with the priest Johannes of Marienwerder. Their partnership is characterized as a textual marriage arranged by God, complete with sacred vows and instructions. After Dorothea promises to remain with the scribe “for the rest of her life, never to abandon him,” God encourages the couple to maintain a steadfast and supportive relationship: “You both shall often take to heart how I have brought you together. I have united you just as two people are bound to one another in marriage, and for this reason each of you shall take on the burdens of the other and one help the other so that you both may come to eternal life….” (Marienwerder 128) The intimate quality of the aforesaid partnerships is especially evident when contrasted with partnerships between scribes and religious men. In the latter, partners are often represented as unsupportive and emotionally distant. For example, when John of Salisbury makes a mistake in grammar, his scribe mocks him (John 183). And when Thomas Aquinas feels deeply moved during the writing process, he sends his scribes out of the room so that he can pray and weep alone (Carruthers 202). Such impersonal interactions occur only rarely in women’s narratives, apart from the notable exception of Margery’s dealings with her second scribe, with whom she has a strictly business relationship. Their relationship is the only one I know of in which the woman’s assistant works for pay (Kempe 4); it is also the only woman’s partnership I know of that is represented as an utter failure. The implied message seems to be that religious women and their assistants should work not for the sake of remuneration, but for love of God and each other. While such emphasis on intimacy makes women’s narratives poignant, it also makes them potentially problematic, raising questions about the purity of partners’ feelings toward one another. As history and literature show, textuality and sexuality often go hand in hand (Masten). The story of Abelard and Heloise is one example of a relationship that moved from studiousness to sensuality; the story of Paolo and Francesca is another. The same possibilities for physical intimacy are inherent in relationships between religious women writers and scribes, insofar as the partners spend private time together and share intense experiences. Those possibilities, however, are never realized or even articulated in texts that recount the partners’ collaborative work. The goal of this chapter is to assess the significance of such silences. That goal requires some clarification, given the broad range of contemporary critical approaches to studying sexuality in literature. In focusing on the aforementioned silences in religious women’s narratives,



my purpose is not to read between the lines for evidence of erotic activity that was subsequently suppressed, either by the partners themselves or by editors of their writings. Not only would such a reading be difficult to verify, given the scarcity of evidence about medieval nuns and monks’ personal lives, but I believe such a reading also would have limited validity, applying only to exceptional individuals who took their commitments to chastity less seriously than most. Rather than trying to determine what sexual practices might be hidden behind narratives of collaboration, then, this chapter focuses on rhetorical treatment of sexuality within the narratives. Specifically, the chapter examines how rhetorical devices are deployed throughout the narratives so as to make sexual liaisons between holy women and scribes seem unlikely. The use of such devices attests to the narrators’ awareness of rhetorical context, writing as they are about spiritual role models to audiences who generally affirm the Christian church’s moral teachings. That context entails certain rhetorical constraints, for collaboration between a holy woman and her scribe must be seen as absolutely pure in order for their work to be spiritually legitimate and beneficial to others. Consequently, narrators go to great lengths to demonstrate that sexuality does not and cannot figure into the partnerships, using strategies discussed in more detail below. COLLABORATION BETWEEN WOMEN AND MEN Many medieval monastic rules prohibited members from meeting regularly with persons of the opposite sex. Observed strictly, such prohibitions “would leave written communication as the only available channel for mixed-sex relationships” (Bartlett 134). Even in situations where the rules were more relaxed, writing would have afforded women and men unusual opportunities for private communication. In this context, literate practices could play a key part in the development of inappropriate relationships, a possibility noted by several religious writers. For example, the author of the Ancrene Riwle orders anchoresses not to “senden leattres ne underuon leattres ne writen bute leaue”; they presumably must get permission from their spiritual supervisors first (Millett and Wogan-Browne 140). Clare of Assisi establishes a similar rule, forbidding sisters to send letters unless they have permission from the abbess (Francis and Clare 220). The Beguines, who had fewer rules and less supervision, were criticized by William of St. Amour for receiving letters from Dominican friars (Babinsky 9). Whereas writing to a person of the opposite sex was considered by many religious authorities to be imprudent, writing with a person of the opposite sex was seen as flirtation with disaster, given the partners’ need to spend time together alone. Reasons for concern varied depending on writers’ backgrounds. In partnerships where both individuals had joined religious orders at a young age and were presumably virgins, concern centered on the possibility that the partners’ shared inexperience might make them vulnerable to unexpected desires. Female collaborators who could be classified in this category include Hildegard and Elisabeth, who had entered convents during childhood and whose scribes had likewise made lifelong commitments to chastity. A slightly different example is Catherine, who had taken religious vows as a teenager, but whose male assistants often had not made formal pledges of purity. In partnerships where one individual was sexually experienced, on the other hand, concern centered on the possibility that he or she might initiate improper activities. This was particularly true in cases where the female partner was a widow, since such women were not only experienced but ostensibly available, qualities that led them to be stereotyped in medieval lore as being sexually aggressive. Several female collaborators qualify for inclusion in this category. For example, Birgitta was married for approximately twenty-eight years until her husband died, after which time she began dictating her visions to her confessors (Nyberg 2). Margery had an even longer sexual history, having been married to John Kempe for nearly forty years until his death, after which time she began to seek out writing assistants (Windeatt 10, 29–30). In



contrast to Birgitta and her husband, who reportedly practiced abstinence during their first year together in order to purify their hearts and intentions (Birgitta, Life 74), Margery and her husband had passionate relations in the early days of their marriage, so much so that she eventually felt compelled to curtail their “inordynat lofe & e gret delectacyon at ei haddyn ey Pyr of hem in vsyng of o Per” (Kempe 12). Margery also experienced erotic impulses toward other men (14), impulses that were generally sublimated as sexual fantasies (145), but that were expressed openly on one occasion as a willingness to commit adultery (14–15). A similar history is attributed to Angela, who was married for almost twenty years until her husband passed away, after which time she collaborated with Brother A. (Lachance 16). According to one local legend, Angela indulged in extramarital affairs (17). Although no evidence exists to prove this claim, her writings give the impression that she struggled at least for a time with sensual desires, which might help explain why she was viewed suspiciously by Brother A.’s monastic brethren (Angela, Works 138). While concerns about sexuality were based primarily on writing partners’ backgrounds, such concerns would have been heightened in cases where writers’ work included erotic imagery and language. For example, as Angela tells Brother A. how she repented of sexual sin, she paints a vivid picture of her own body: “Standing near the cross, I stripped myself of all my clothing and offered my whole self to him [Christ]. Although very fearful, I promised him then to maintain perpetual chastity and not to offend him again with any of my bodily members, accusing each of these one by one” (Angela, Works 126). Similarly, Margery tells her third scribe how Christ speaks to her like a lover: “I nedys be homly wyth Þe & lyn in bed with Þe… Þu mayst boldly take me in Þe armys of Þi sowle & kyssen my mowth, myn hed, & my fete as swetly as thow wylt” (Kempe 90). Even Hildegard, who uses less sensual language than most visionaries, tells Volmar about a revelation in which the Antichrist’s head appears in place of the female Church’s genitals (Hildegard, Scivias 497–98). For a woman to relate these stories in detail to a man, and for the man to reinscribe them, opens up possibilities for voyeurism and titillation, possibilities that were incompatible with medieval Christian culture and that needed to be circumscribed in order for the texts to be spiritually sound. Such circumscription is effected in religious women’s narratives through numerous rhetorical strategies. The most common tactic is to downplay writers’ sexuality through the trope of kinship, positing familial relationships between female visionaries and male scribes. In some cases, the partners are so closely related that their partnership is assumed to be nonsexual because of incest taboos. The sibling relationship between Elisabeth and Ekbert, for example, helps “remove potential obstacles to their meetings, meetings that may otherwise have been suspicious and difficult to arrange in the life of a cloistered nun” (Clark, Elisabeth 54). Similarly, when forced to find a secretary on short notice after Volmar’s death, Hildegard enlists her brother Hugo to serve as her secretary for a year (Flanagan 11), a sensible choice insofar as it enables her to enter immediately into a new partnership without being subject to intense scrutiny. Where incest taboos are weaker, however, familial relationships can still generate suspicion. For example, Brother A. is identified simply as Angela’s “blood-relative” (Angela, Works 136). Some scholars have speculated that he was her uncle (Petroff, Medieval 237). Despite the family ties which should legitimate the relationship, other priests grumble about the amount of time that the writers spend together, and even restrict Brother A. from attending writing sessions for a while (Angela, Works 179). Interestingly, the substitute scribe whom Brother A. sends in his place is a young boy, whose age makes him an unlikely suitor or sexual partner for the forty-six year old Angela. Even in situations where a holy woman is not actually related to her male assistant, their partnership is often rendered familial through figures of speech. The rhetoric employed most frequently is that of parent and child. In the case of Hildegard and Guibert, for example, the scribe refers to the visionary as “mother.”



The characterization is not far-fetched, because Hildegard is old enough to be Guibert’s parent. In other cases, however, domestic language radically reconstructs characters’ relationships with one another. For example, Hildegard is just a few years younger than Volmar (Flanagan 39). After his death, however, she characterizes their twenty-five year relationship as a bond between parent and child, despite the fact that it had been more like a marriage in terms of its longevity and intimacy. In one instance, she assumes the child’s role, saying she feels like an “orphan” now that the scribe is gone (Hildegard, Letters 2:196). In another instance, she puts Volmar in the child’s place, describing him fondly as her “only beloved son of pious memory” (Newman, Sister 23). Domestic language functions in such cases as a “terministic screen,” to use Kenneth Burke’s term: as filial relationships are foregrounded, amorous relationships are relegated to the background of the narrative, minimizing possibilities for thinking and talking about the partnerships in sensual terms. While the trope of kinship is the most common rhetorical device used to desexualize partnerships between women and men, another device used frequently is the trope of aversion. A defining feature of this trope is that the male scribe is said to be reluctant to work with the female saint, an attitude that sets their relationship apart from romances where an impassioned man pursues a desirable woman. For example, God tells Birgitta to seek out Prior Peter and obtain his help, but Peter refuses to transcribe Birgitta’s visions, arguing that he is inadequate for the task. He relents only after God strikes him with fear of death (Birgitta, Life 88). Likewise, Brother A. initially wants nothing to do with Angela because he is appalled by her spiritual outbursts; she arouses in him feelings not of desire but of “shame,” “embarrassment,” and “indignation” (Angela, Works 136). When he finally decides to work with the holy woman, he treats her with “suspicion” until his doubts are dispelled by God, who grants him a”special grace” that he has “never experienced before” and prompts him to write “with great reverence and fear” (137). Whereas the aforementioned scribes’ resistance lasts several days, Margery’s third scribe avoids his duties for several years, hoping to disassociate himself from the woman who has made herself unpopular throughout the region (Kempe 4). He changes his mind only because God makes him so “vexyd in his consciens” that he feels compelled to help Margery after all (5). The primary purpose of such conversion stories is to honor holy women by juxtaposing their steadfastness with scribes’ instability and lack of insight. A secondary effect, however, is that the narratives are differentiated from romances insofar as the partners come to gether solely through God’s intervention, a fact that safeguards their relationship against charges of impropriety. A possible exception is the case of Hildegard and Guibert, for the latter is eager to communicate with the abbess, and initiates a correspondence that leads to their partnership. The way one modern scholar describes it, the process by which the writers come together resembles a courtship: “After two such letters [sent by Guibert], Hildegard wrote a long answer, one that so overwhelmed Guibert that he moved heaven and earth —or better, bent every conventual regulation—to be able to emigrate to the Rupertsberg and spend the rest of his days in Hildegard’s company” (Dronke 167). Another scholar, however, has described the partnership differently, characterizing Guibert’s behavior as more measured. Purportedly “fired by enthusiasm” for Hildegard’s work, the monk pays a short visit to the convent in 1175, but then keeps his distance until 1177, when Hildegard invites him to visit again. During the second visit, Hildegard’s secretaries die unexpectedly, so Guibert agrees to stay on and take their place (Flanagan 11). Thus the partnership comes into being not through human design, but through circumstances which could be said to be divinely ordained. This same scholar also claims that Guibert has “misgivings” about working at the convent with Hildegard (11), a claim that recalls the reluctant scribes in other narratives of collaboration. The competing accounts cited above of Guibert’s interactions with Hildegard attest to the fact that narratives concerning holy women and scribes are deliberate rhetorical constructions, and as such can be slanted in multiple



directions by both medieval and modern narrators. Moreover, the modern scholar who describes writing partnerships using the rhetoric of desire calls attention, by contrasting example, to medieval narrators’ careful use of the rhetoric of aversion. While the trope of aversion is usually enacted through the figure of the reluctant male scribe, it also may be enacted through a cruder caricature, namely, the unattractive female visionary. Although the latter is less common than the former, it is nevertheless an equally effective device for downplaying partners’ sexuality. In accounts of the life of Catherine, for example, the saint is stricken with smallpox at age seventeen. The disease mars her appearance so terribly that shortly thereafter, she is accepted into a Dominican community that usually refuses to house young women for fear that the girls’ sexual appeal will be a liability both to themselves and the group. Catherine’s exceptional admission into the community confirms that she is “no longer an object of desire” (Petroff, Medieval 11). Physical flaws are likewise attributed to Dorothea of Montau. Whereas Catherine’s disfigurement is the result of misfortune, however, Dorothea brings disfigurement on herself. As a child, she burns and cuts her skin so extensively that “all these individual wounds looked like one single big wound and her body resembled a plowed field” (Marienwerder 46). She continues to practice self-mutilation well into adulthood. While such afflictions do not explicitly affect the women’s interactions with male scribes, they implicitly close off possibilities for erotic partnerships by making the women less physically desirable. A powerful rhetorical device, the figure of the uncomely woman nevertheless appears only rarely in narratives of holy women’s writing partnerships. Such infrequency might be read as an indicator of the narrators’ values, signaling their unwillingness to make regular use of a rhetorical strategy so unfavorable for women. In the preceding discussions of potential desire between writing partners, desire has been defined as consensual intimacy. A candid assessment of possible interactions between partners, however, reveals more problematic forms of desire that should be acknowledged as well. Specifically, some narratives of collaboration between female visionaries and male scribes contain undertones of sexual aggression. These undertones are strongest in scenes where one partner seizes control of the writing process against the other’s will. In one of Brother A.'s first meetings with Angela, for example, he makes her talk about spiritual experiences that she would rather keep to herself. His efforts to make her yield are forceful and persistent, as evident in his subsequent description of the encounter: “I began to press her in every way that I could…. I advised her and compelled her to tell me everything” (Angela, Works 137). He even tries to “inspire fear in her” in order to intimidate her into submission. And by his own admission, he takes advantage of Angela at her weakest moment: “Because she did not yet have the degree of clarity and perfect certitude which she had later—as will be found in the writings which follow—she began to reveal the divine secrets to me and I wrote these down.” Margery’s third scribe uses an opposite tack, but exercises comparable force. He refuses to write unless Margery will predict future events, something she is “loth & not wylly to do” (Kempe 55). Margery, feeling “compellyd,” reluctantly submits to his “demawndys” out of “drede Þat he wold ellys not a folwyd hir entent for to wryten Þis boke.” In the scenes described above, collaborative writing is not an ecstatic union, but rather one partner’s overpowering of another. The male partner in each case initiates what could be called textual violence. In such scenarios, the rhetoric used to describe the writing process—fear, loathing, compulsion—is more commonly associated with sexual violence. Whereas this parallel between bookish and bodily assaults appears only once in Angela’s Memorial, the parallel appears in several places in The Book of Margery Kempe, a recurrence that suggests that connections between textuality and sexuality in Margery’s narrative may be deliberate. In an early chapter of the Book, for example, Margery is taunted by a man who demands to have intercourse with her, but then retracts his offer after she has become aroused (Kempe 15). The scene foreshadows on a physical level what happens later on a textual level, when the scribe threatens to withdraw



from the writing process. On another occasion, Margery is assailed by a man who feels empowered both by literacy and lust: “Her [Margery’s] fears of rape prove to be justified when she is taken aside by the Steward of Leicester after one of her arrests. After attempting to intimidate her with Latin, he resorts to ‘lewd suggestions,’ translating his discursive threats into sexual ones” (Lochrie 161). The scene is a vivid example of how textual and sexual violence may be juxtaposed in religious women’s narratives, a connection expressed more subtly in the aforementioned scenes with scribes. In fairness to Angela and Margery’s amanuenses, they eventually regret their actions, and establish harmonious working relationships with their female colleagues. The scribes’ tendencies toward textual aggression, however, are curbed through an ironic twist. Once the scribes become willing to collaborate in a more considerate manner, they find themselves unable to carry out their duties, hindered by incompetence as discussed in the previous chapter. Such textual impotence effects a kind of emasculation. Insofar as the male scribes continually disappoint their female partners with their written performances, they become so subdued and contrite that they seem unlikely to attempt, let alone succeed in, sexual performances with those same women. Through this reversal of fortune—which modern readers with feminist sensibilities might find particularly fitting—erotic possibilities are foreclosed yet again in stories of opposite-sex collaboration, ensuring that such stories follow the plot lines laid down by the medieval church concerning believers’ moral conduct. COLLABORATION BETWEEN WOMEN Much as medieval narrators downplay intimacy between holy women and male scribes, they also minimize intimacy in narratives where both writing partners are women. Such wariness bears witness to the church’s opposition to homoeroticism and homosexuality, a stance articulated in much prescriptive literature for religious women. Ecclesiastical officials discouraged nuns from cultivating “particular friendships” with one another, for fear that such friendships would be at the very least a distraction from community life, and more probably a hindrance to chaste living (Schulenburg 349). As part of the general rule against close relationships, restrictions were placed on specific activities that were thought to foster intimacy. Suspect activities included literate practices such as letter writing, and social practices such as spending time alone with another woman (350–51). Insofar as those activities had much in common with collaborative writing as practiced by female visionaries and scribes, such authorial alliances were suspect as well. Fear that women’s textual ties might become sexual ties had some grounding in reality, according to historical reports. In seventeenth-century Italy, for example, an abbess named Benedetta confessed to having performed homosexual acts with a nun named Bartholomea (J. Brown 121). The women used literacy as an excuse for their trysts: Benedetta would take Bartholomea into her study on the pretense of teaching her to write, since the study afforded more privacy than a cell. Once inside the study, the women would engage in erotic activities. Although their story does not parallel narratives about female scribes in all respects—far from being skilled in taking dic tation, Bartholomea was illiterate—it nevertheless shows how writing and desire could merge in the lives of pious women. Because the story of Benedetta and Bartholomea was recorded by an ecclesiastical court intent on exposing and punishing sin, the narrative focuses almost exclusively on the nuns’ sexual behavior. Many discussions of religious women’s partnerships, however, appear in texts meant to prove the women’s virtues, and thus downplay partners’ sexuality as much as possible. Sometimes the strategies used to do so are the same as those employed in discussions of male scribes. The rhetoric of kinship, for instance, is used to define and delimit Hildegard’s affection for Richardis, affection that sometimes has erotic undertones. When Richardis leaves the convent, Hildegard writes her a passionate letter of lament. In the letter, the



abbess confesses to having loved the younger nun so much that she now considers that love to have been a “transgression” and a “sin.” She admits that others also deemed her feelings inappropriate: “I so loved the nobility of your character, your wisdom, your chastity, your spirit, and indeed every aspect of your life that many people have said to me: What are you doing?” Set against these impassioned statements, however, are statements that emphasize the domestic nature of the women’s fondness for one another. In the opening line of the letter, Hildegard represents their relationship as a filial one: “Daughter, listen to me, your mother, speaking to you in the spirit” (Hildegard, Letters 1:143–44). Later in the same letter, Hildegard inverts their roles, characterizing herself as a child who feels “orphaned” now that Richardis has left the convent. At the end of the letter, Hildegard employs the language of the home again, describing herself as a “poor desolate mother.” Thus the letter is bounded literally by references to mothers and daughters, references that constrain interpretation of the word “love” and eliminate the possibility of sexual meaning. Similar constraints are at work in a letter that Hildegard writes after Richardis’ death. Referring to her assistant, Hildegard declares that “Full divine love (plena caritas) was in my soul towards her, for in the mightiest vision the living light taught me to love her (ipsam amare)” (Dronke 159). Having identified God as her teacher in love, she goes on to describe how God himself loved Richardis: “God kept her so jealously that worldly delight could not embrace her The world loved her beautiful looks and her prudence, while she lived in the body. But God loved her more. Thus God did not wish to give his beloved to a rival lover, that is, to the world.” While the narrative’s primary meaning is spiritual, its rhetoric is sensual: beautiful looks, lovers, bodies, and embraces. But this rhetoric is defused by repeated use of familial language. In the opening lines of the letter, Hildegard speaks of “my daughter Richardis, whom I call both daughter and mother” (Hildegard, Letters 1:51). She uses the word “daughter” just before discussing Richardis’ beauty, and repeats the word at the end of the letter, concluding the epistle on a homey note. This rhetoric of kinship gives the impression that Hildegard and Richardis’ love, while similar in intensity to that of Benedetta and Bartholomea, was different in kind. While some of the strategies used to minimize sexuality between women are the same as those applied to women and men, other strategies are unique. One such tactic is the expansion of intimate partnerships into larger and more diverse writing teams. Hildegard and Richardis, for example, work not so much in tandem as in a triad, for they are accountable to and often accompanied by Volmar. As a senior scribe who has been Hildegard’s first and most faithful assistant, he remains active in the writing process even after Richardis gets involved, maintaining his role as grammatical editor while the younger woman handles matters of transcription and organization. When Hildegard recounts how she composed the Scivias, she claims to have been helped by both assistants: “By the witness of a certain noble maiden of good conduct [Richardis] and of that man [Volmar] whom I had secretly sought and found, as mentioned above, I set my hand to the writing” (Hildegard, Scivias 60). Likewise, when Hilde-gard explains how she wrote The Book of the Rewards of Life, the writing community she describes is a heterogeneous one: “And I set my hand to writing down the testimony of 16 that person [Volmar] whom, as I have said in earlier visions, I had privately sought and found. I also had a young maiden [Richardis] assisting me in writing down this testimony” (Hildegard, Rewards of Life 10). By joining the women in their endeavors, the monk serves as a safeguard against homoerotic impulses, making it unlikely that Hildegard’s study could become a trysting-spot as Benedetta’s study was. In a rare illustration made during Hildegard’s lifetime, Hildegard and Richardis work together while Volmar occupies an adjacent room, close enough to literally keep an eye on things (See Plate 5). Whereas increased supervision is one way to preclude intimacy between women writers, decreased visibility is an even more powerful safeguard, insofar as a female scribe who is out of sight may also be out of mind—that is, out of her partner’s thoughts and affections. Following a policy best described as a



Plate 5 Detail of Hildegard writing with Volmar and Richardis. Anon. (13th c.) Liber Divinorum Operum, Lucca MS fol. Iv. Lucca, Biblioteca Statale

strategy of erasure, most medieval narrators end up writing female scribes out of collaborative narratives, using tactics described in more detail below. Invariably, the female assistants are replaced by male scribes. Although the reasons for such substitutions are rarely articulated, they can be inferred from the narratives’ theological and social contexts. One of the most obvious reasons for switching scribes is to make the holy woman’s writings as authoritative as possible. If the scribe who writes down the visions is a priest, then the visions can be presumed to be theologically sound, given the priest’s training and authority to discern true doctrine. Barred from holding ecclesiastical offices, female scribes cannot bestow such credibility on the texts they transcribe, and thus need to be replaced by ordained men who can. A secondary explanation for the shift from female to male scribes, however, is that the change makes writing partnerships heterosexual, ensuring that if sensual desires were to develop between partners, at least those desires would occasion sins less serious (as measured by the medieval church’sstandards) than homosexuality. Of the many tactics used to erase female scribes from narratives of collaboration, the most dramatic is the plot device of death. This strategy is also one of the most straightforward, since a deceased scribe is permanently unavailable either for textual or sexual dalliances. In narratives of Hildegard’s life, for example, Richardis dies unexpectedly after leaving the convent, leaving no chance for reunion and further collaboration. Her death marks a turning point in Hildegard’s collaborative experiences, insofar as the abbess’s subsequent partnerships are wholly heterosexual. For the next twenty-seven years, Hildegard works with a succession of male scribes: Volmar (whose scribal career started before Richardis’ and ended later), Godfrey, Hubert, and Guibert (Flanagan 10–11). Although texts composed after Richardis’ death



make reference to an anonymous female assistant (Hildegard, Rewards of Life 10; Divine Works 6), modern scholars have assumed that the statements refer to Richardis’ earlier activities, not to the work of a new female secretary. This assumption needs to be examined and verified. As it stands now, however, the prevailing view is that Hildegard did not work with a woman again after Richardis died, a cessation that would have eased medieval readers’ concerns about the moral risks inherent in same-sex relationships. Death is an exceptional form of erasure; in most cases, the strategies used to efface female scribes from narratives of collaboration are less extreme. One such strategy is displacement. In accounts of Elisabeth’s composition process, for example, nuns of the Schönau convent serve as the holy woman’s first secretaries, transcribing several of her visionary books. Later, however, the nuns are supplanted by Ekbert, who moves to Schönau and takes over as primary assistant to his sister. Although the nuns continue to record some of Elisabeth’s visions (Clark, Elisabeth 51), they receive little mention in the narratives thereafter. Ekbert, on the other hand, is characterized as Elisabeth’s closest companion and aide, even though he admits on one occasion that he has had to work through intermediaries rather than working with Elisabeth face-to-face (54). Interestingly, the justification given in Elisabeth’s narratives for the female scribes’ marginalization is that Elisabeth lost confidence in the women after they inadvertently allowed her writings to circulate among hostile audiences (17). This unfavorable characterization acts as a further safeguard against sexuality. Were the scribes depicted as cherished companions, their separation from the abbess could be viewed as a romantic tragedy, but insofar as they are represented as untrustworthy workers, their fate seems more like a case of poetic justice. Where female scribes are not subjected to death or displacement, they tend to be treated with disregard, going unnamed and unacknowledged in discussions of collaborative writing processes. This is perhaps the most powerful form of erasure because it is so subtle. Gertrude of Helfta, for example, produced major works such as The Herald of Divine Love in collaboration with sisters in her convent, yet the assistants’ names are unknown today, and their collaborative practices are poorly documented. Such lacunae might reflect the scribes’ social status: whereas Gertrude was a distinguished visionary, most of her amanuenses were ordinary nuns who probably seemed to medieval narrators to be less worthy of mention. But the same disregard is shown for Gertrude herself when she acts as a scribe for Mechthild of Hackeborn, a close friend and colleague at Helfta who was also a renowned visionary. The women are believed by modern scholars to have collaboratively written The Book of Special Grace in the following manner: Mechthild would discuss her divine visions with Gertrude, who would then write down the visions using her own style and emphasizing those ideas that resonated with her own thoughts (Marnau 11). Despite Gertrude’s reputation as a celebrated mystic, she receives no direct recognition in the text for her contributions to the writing process. While her invisibility has important theological implications—making the Book out to be an unaltered missive from heaven conveyed by a single messenger, for instance—her invisibility is also significant socially, insofar as it reduces women’s textual teamwork to an apparent case of solitary authorship, with no female companions present to incite inappropriate desires. A similar strategy of disregard is used to dissociate Umiltà of Faenza from her female scribe. Umiltà collaborated regularly with a woman in her convent named Donnina, yet little is known about the latter other than her name (Petroff, “Analects” 33), and even that most basic of information goes unmentioned in many discussions of Umiltà’s writing practices. In the saint’s biography, for instance, readers are told merely that Umiltà worked “with a nun who was writing down in short form what she was dictating to her” (Petroff, Consolation 135), a reductive description that makes Donnina interchangeable with any other sister capable of rudimentary transcription. Likewise, in a collection of Umiltà’s hymns, readers are told that “a certain woman dictated them [the hymns], and another woman wrote them down” (147). Whereas the anonymous reference to Umiltà would likely have been understood by many medieval readers, given her reputation as a



spiritual leader and teacher, the anonymous reference to Donnina would probably have been less widely recognized, making her part in the writing process eminently forgettable. Donnina’s near invisibility is intriguing when contrasted with the high profile given to Margarita, another nun with whom Umiltà spends much time. The relationship between the latter two is intimate enough that it could occasion concern about sexual temptation. For one thing, the women are characterized as “sole companions” (152), a designation that recalls religious officials’ warnings against “particular friendships.” Moreover, Umiltà is described as strikingly beautiful (122, 125). And Margarita is characterized as a sensual woman who “pants” for her bridegroom Christ, longs for his embrace, and thrills when he touches her tongue with the kiss of peace (157, 162). Such undertones of eroticism would seem to require that Margarita be mentioned as little as possible in narratives of Umiltà’s life, so as to allay possible concerns about improper desires. Instead, however, Umiltà’s relationship with Margarita is discussed extensively, raising the question of why Umiltà’s relationship with Donnina is treated with more reticence. One plausible answer to that question is that whereas Umiltà’s relationship with Donnina is defined in terms of writing and literacy, Umiltà’s relationship with Margarita is explicitly nontextual. Granted, at one point in the latter partnership, Umiltà pressures Margarita to learn to read. Rather than acting as the teacher herself, however, she appoints another woman to serve as Margarita’s tutor (160). Margarita, for her part, resists Umiltà’s literacy campaign, saying that she will simply wait for God to make her literate through a miracle. Thus even though the women are “sole companions” in spiritual matters, they are not so united in matters of literacy, and that distance is represented favorably in the narrative. After Margarita says no to Umiltà’s urgings, God does indeed reward her with the gift of divine literacy, freeing her from the need to read or write with other women (160–61). From a modern reader’s point of view, this miraculous resolution could be read as evidence of medieval narrators’ discomfort with women’s textual intimacy, and their uncertainty about how to keep such intimacy in check through ordinary means. Such unease might help explain why so little gets said about Donnina, the woman with whom Umiltà does write. The subject of women loving one another in Christ, living together, and writing together may have proved too difficult for medieval narrators to render in conventional terms. CATHERINE OF SIENA’S MALE AND FEMALE SCRIBES Of the various strategies used to ensure purity in holy women’s partnerships with male and female scribes, many converge in narratives concerning Catherine, for she collaborated with scribes of both sexes. At the beginning of her literary career, she worked frequently with female assistants (Noffke 9). Of the first thirty letters in a chronologically arranged edition of her correspondence, for instance, ten are transcribed by women.17 Those women have been identified by modern scholars as Alessa Saracini, Francesca Gori, and Giovanna Pazza; their first names are given in the letters they transcribe, and their last names have been determined through study of related historical and biographical documents. Alessa, Francesca (or “Cecca”), and Giovanna were members of the Mantellate in Siena, the same Dominican lay community to which Catherine belonged. As such, the women not only wrote together but also lived together, developing close emotional ties. Their closeness is evident in the lighthearted tone of their collaborative writings, which contain affectionate messages and playful asides. While visiting a convent in Montepulciano, for example, Catherine and Cecca write a letter to their friends in the Mantellate that concludes on a witty note. Alluding to the captivating beauty of the divine office as well as to her own lay status, Cecca exclaims, “I Cecca am almost a nun, because I’m beginning to chant the Office with all my might along with these servants of Jesus Christ!” (Catherine 43). Whimsical remarks likewise conclude a letter written by Catherine and Alessa to



the Dominican brothers Bartolomeo Dominici and Tommaso d’Antonio. Using hyperbole and metaphor, Alessa offers a fanciful farewell, commending herself to the brothers “a hundred thousand times” and saying she “would like to tuck herself into this letter” so that she could greet them in person (81–82).18 And in a series of collaboratively written missives to Dominici, Catherine’s female scribes identify themselves using the humorous nicknames mentioned earlier in this study. Giovanna favors the title of “crazy Giovanna” (45, 50, 119); Alessa alternates between “fat Alessa” and “careless Alessa” (49, 82); and Cecca invents multiple names such as “poor Cecca,” “crazy Cecca,” “foolish Cecca,” and “Cecca the time-waster” (99, 105, 119, 47, 49). Such statements show the scribes writing with creativity and confidence, a stance supported by and grounded in their intimate ties to Catherine. The women’s enjoyment of one another is kept in check, however, through several of the rhetorical strategies discussed earlier. On a few occasions, the rhetoric of kinship is used to characterize the women’s relationships as familial. Writing to Alessa while away on ecclesiastical business, for example, Catherine addresses her as a “very loved daughter” (179). More often, the strategy of expansion is used to situate the female partners within a larger community. In each of Catherine’s early letters, although only one female scribe is credited with the work of transcription, she is usually acknowledged alongside other female scribes who are credited with contributing to the letter’s content. Whether the acknowledgements are brief (“Alessa and I poor Cecca greet you a hundred thousand times”) or more elaborate (“Fat Alessa says that you are praying for her and asks you please to keep praying for her. Pray for me too, Cecca the time-waster”), they characterize Catherine’s collaboration with women as a group activity that precludes private interactions (99, 49). Even as this strategy of inclusion is employed, however, the process of displacement is set in motion, so that as Catherine’s literary career progresses, her works contain fewer references to female scribes, and more references to male assistants. For instance, whereas Catherine’s early letters are transcribed and signed by Alessa, Cecca, and Giovanna, later epistles bear the names of Neri, Stefano, and Barduccio. By the time Catherine composes her major treatise, The Dialogue, she is shown as working exclusively with male secretaries. Since no explanation is given in Catherine’s writings for the change, modern scholars are left to speculate about its causes and implications. One critic has attributed the female scribes’ displacement to literacy skills, suggesting that the men could write more quickly and accurately (Curtayne 50). This theory— which is unsupported by concrete evidence—assumes that the scribes’ historical lives and narrative lives are one and the same, an assumption that is problematic. Regardless of whether the female scribes really were discharged from their duties, however, or whether they were merely effaced from reports of Catherine’s collaborative endeavors, their disappearance would have allayed medieval readers’ fears of female intimacy, thereby protecting the credibility of Catherine’s texts. The preferment of male scribes in Catherine’s works, though, raises other concerns that require alleviation too. Not only do the men embody possibilities for heterosexual passion, but those possibilities are intensified by the fact that many of the male assistants are approximately the same age as Catherine, and thus could have been suitable paramours had the partnerships developed in a secular context instead of a sacred one. Such compatibility is not so characteristic of Catherine’s partnerships with female scribes; at the time that Catherine works with Cecca, for example, the former is only in her twenties, while the latter is a widow with four children, three of whom are old enough to have taken religious vows (Noffke 275, n. 15). The age factor may be one reason why, in Catherine’s writings, the rhetoric of kinship is applied far more frequently to male scribes than to females. Given the men’s closeness to Catherine in age, there is greater need to guard against physical closeness. Thus the men are consistently shown addressing Catherine as “mama,” and she in turn addresses them as “sons” and “brothers” (Catherine 10, 51–53, 262–63). Her biographer even makes a point of characterizing her attachment to the young men as “motherly affection”



(Raymond 236). Such rhetorical strategies make it difficult to think of the collaborators as peers who, in other circumstances, might have been lovers. The foregoing analysis of Catherine’s scribes raises a compelling question that applies to other holy women’s partnerships as well. Why, after being characterized as chaste companions, do male scribes continue to play significant roles in narratives of religious collaboration while female scribes are invariably erased from the same? The disparity is especially striking insofar as male and female scribes are subjected to many of the same desexualizing strategies. While the issue is a complex one, the scribes’ different narrative fates are best explained in terms of theological views on heterosexuality and homosexuality in the Middle Ages. Both modes of sexuality were considered inappropriate for holy women such as Catherine, Elizabeth, and Hildegard, given the women’s professed commitments to chastity. One form of transgression, however, was held to be more spiritually destructive than the other. According to this double standard, sexual sin between the women writers and their male assistants would be truly unfortunate, but sexual sin between the women and their female aides would be terribly unnatural. Such unnatural acts were so “detestable and horrible,” according to the fifteenth-century religious authority Jean Gerson, that they “should not be named or written.” A similar policy of silence was advocated by the sixteenth-century jurist Germain Colladon, who advised political authorities to censor public discussion of physical intimacy between women. He recommended that in sentencing lesbians to death, “the death sentence should be read publicly, as it normally was in the case of male homosexuality, but that the customary description of the crime committed should be left out,” to defuse the power of suggestion (J.Brown 19–20). The anecdote serves as a useful analogy for medieval narrators’ treatment of writing partnerships between women. No matter how many rhetorical strategies are used to downplay female scribes’ sexuality, the scribes still embody possibilities for deviant desires, possibilities that can be closed off only by leaving the scribes out of the narratives altogether. Such censorship facilitates “proper” readings of holy women’s experiences, ensuring that readers cannot be misled by the suggestive power of women’s textual intimacy. By refusing to spin out stories of same-sex collaboration, then, medieval narrators further their purpose of portraying holy women as believers whose lives are above reproach. What medieval readers might have considered an asset, however, many modern readers might view as a loss, insofar as the erasure of female scribes cuts short narratives of potential relevance to feminist studies. Continued accounts of collaboration between Elisabeth and the Schönau nuns, for example, or between Catherine and the women of the Sienese Mantellate, could have enriched and complicated current conceptions of female authorship in the Middle Ages. Although additional fragments of information about women’s partnerships might be obtained through archival research, for the most part feminist scholars are left to consider the deliberate erasure of female scribes from narratives at hand. The issue of scribes’ invisibility, however, takes on broader significance in narratives constructed after the Middle Ages. Whereas medieval narrators apply the strategy of erasure exclusively to female scribes, narrators writing in subsequent centuries extend the strategy to male scribes as well. And whereas scribes are effaced from medieval narratives for reasons centering on morality, scribes are erased from later narratives for reasons having more to do with changing conceptions of authorship and authorial identity. The shifts described above and the ways they are affected form the focus of the following chapter.

Chapter Five Revisionary Histories

The preceding chapters have focused on how medieval women’s partnerships with scribes are represented in primary sources written during the partners’ lifetimes. This chapter, by contrast, looks at how those same partnerships are represented in secondary sources authored by modern scholars, raising questions about the writing and revising of literary history. As stories of the partnerships get retold over time, what happens to the women and their scribes? How is their collaboration represented by later narrators whose perspectives and purposes differ from those of the medieval writers who first put the partners’ experiences into narrative form? Such questions are relevant to this study for several reasons. At the most basic level, surveying modern scholarship on medieval women’s writing partnerships helps contextualize this study, showing how it both builds on and challenges recent research in the field. More importantly, examining modern accounts of medieval collaboration provides critical insights into medieval accounts themselves. For most modern readers, elements of subjectivity and strategy are easily discernible in twentieth-century scholarly narratives, familiar as we are with how our contemporaries’ cultural, political, racial, sexual, and religious perspectives shape their interpretations of research material. In looking closely at the constructed nature of twentieth-century reports on medieval writing partnerships, modern readers may perceive more clearly the constructed nature of medieval reports on the same. Rather than viewing early narratives as objective sources that become skewed by later generations, then, readers may develop a fuller appreciation for how both primary and secondary sources are carefully constructed narratives that reveal as much about their narrators’ historical perspectives as they do about the subject of medieval women’s writing partnerships. Comparisons of modern and medieval accounts of holy women’s partnerships reveal significant differences between the two types of narratives. In a few cases, the differences are obvious. Some modern scholars focus on partners’ emotional attachments to one another, departing dramatically from medieval authors’ emphasis on partners’ professional ties. Other modern scholars make much of scribes’ contribu tions to the writing process, in contrast to medieval writers’ tendency to downplay scribes’ work. In most cases, however, the differences between modern and medieval representations of writing partnerships are more subtle and complex. For example, many twentieth-century critics highlight the authorial activities of holy women while minimizing the work performed by scribes, an approach that recalls narrative strategies of the Middle Ages but tends to be driven by different rhetorical aims. Whereas medieval narrators’ professed reasons for valorizing holy women were primarily religious, modern narrators’ avowed interests often have more to do with issues of authorship and gender. The rhetorical choices made by modern scholars in representing medieval women and their scribes, and the implications of those choices, are discussed in more detail below. Particular attention is paid to feminist critics’ perspectives on the partnerships, in keeping with this study’s emphasis on whether and how the partnerships may be said to be favorable for women.



Before proceeding further, a brief explanation is in order about the sources selected for inclusion in this chapter. Since studies of medieval women have proliferated over the past twenty years, much material is available that is potentially relevant to the following discussion. As this chapter is meant to provide an overview of general trends in twentieth-century scholarship, constraints have had to be established as to what material would be used. Generally speaking, those constraints are as follows. Studies that focus exclusively on medieval women’s writing partnerships have been included in the overview, for obvious reasons. Because such studies are scarce, however, studies that speak briefly to the topic of collaboration have been included as well. In the latter category are key studies that are cited widely in general scholarship on medieval women, and whose pronouncements on writing partnerships thus merit consideration despite their brevity. Finally, nearly all sources included in the overview are written for English-speaking audiences, a constraint in keeping with the goal of showing the immediate intellectual context for this study, and one necessitated by the broad spectrum of languages used in contemporary studies of medieval women writers, a spectrum that ranges from conventional academic languages such as German, Italian, and French to less commonly used languages such as Swedish. EMOTIONAL PERSPECTIVES One modern response to holy women’s partnerships has been to focus on the partnerships’ affective dimensions. This approach is usually limited to cases where the holy woman has a large and loyal public following whose constituents are inclined to identify with the woman and imaginatively enter into her experiences. In the first half of the twentieth century, the main candidate for such empathetic treatment was Catherine, who had long been a popular figure in Catholic circles. Her popularity inspired the writing of several biographies that purported to be scholarly studies, but in fact combined historical research with creative speculation. Such speculation was particularly evident in discussions of Catherine’s collaborative writing practices. Writing in 1914, for example, Augusta Theodora Drane offered readers the following description of Stefano’s response to an invitation to serve as Catherine’s secretary: “He gladly complied with her request, and whilst writing from her dictation felt a singular change working in his heart, as though called to be a new man” (Drane 341). In 1946, Alice Curtayne offered readers similarly intimate insights into Neri’s feelings towards his secretarial work: “He thought it a supreme privilege. Her dictation was more interesting than anything he had ever read: than even Dante, whom he knew by heart. All the poet in him rejoiced in her colourful language…” (Curtayne 50). A contemporary of Curtayne’s, Johannes Jorgensen also explored affective dimensions of the composition process, constructing the following account of what happened when Catherine and the scribes finished the Dialogue. Catherine ceased speaking, and there was dead silence in the hermitage of Fra Santi. The quill no longer twittered over the parchment, on which it had at last scarce been able to follow the ecstatic words of the seeress. She was on her knees, her countenance radiant. They approached her, sprinkled holy water on her face, and with a great sigh she came to herself, softly breathing a ‘Thanks be to God!’ Deo gratias! Amen, answered the disciples, and the writer concluded the book: Deo gratias! Amen. Qorgensen 322) Such interest in affective aspects of collaboration is still evident in some late twentieth-century studies, but its scope and expression have changed. Whereas speculation about partners’ attitudes and experiences used to focus on Catherine and her scribes, now it is applied to Hildegard’s partnerships as well. In the 1980s, Hildegard became popular with a variety of readers, ranging from academics who highlighted her literary,



ecclesiastical and political achievements in their teaching and research, to practitioners of New Age spirituality who were drawn to her visionary insights. This surge of interest generated numerous studies of Hildegard, a few of which focused on the emotional significance of her literary partnerships. In a groundbreaking study of medieval women writers that helped introduce Hildegard to Englishspeaking audiences in 1984, for example, Peter Dronke made mention of Volmar and Guibert, but focused on the abbess’s relationship with Richardis, arguably the most emotionally charged of Hildegard’s partnerships. Saying nothing about the women’s writing practices, Dronke focused instead on the affective dimensions of their relationship. Unlike the biographers of Catherine cited above, however, Dronke offered textual evidence for his conjectures about collaborators’ feelings for one other. When he claimed, for instance, that “for Hildegard, losing Richardis meant losing her close collaborator and losing the disciple whom she admired most and to whom she was most deeply attached,” he contextualized and supported the claim through close readings of Hildegard’s letters concerning Richardis’ disputed appointment (Dronke 154). When making more tentative claims for which no textual evidence existed, Dronke acknowledged the speculative nature of his remarks, as when he hypothesized about Richardis’ reasons for leaving Hildegard’s convent: “Possibly the primitive conditions on the Rupertsberg, in the first year after the move, irked her, possibly she came to feel oppressed by Hildegard’s dominance—many contributing elements can be surmised, though none proved” (155). Whereas Dronke’s work represented a more scholarly approach than that used by earlier writers to discuss medieval collaborators’ personal experiences, a more creative approach also emerged at the end of the twentieth century, as epitomized by the work of Barbara Lachman. In her 1997 work of historical fiction entitled Hildegard, The Last Year, Lachman offered readers an imaginative account of how Hildegard dealt with Volmar’s death, coming as it did after decades of close collaboration. By patterning the book after a diary and making Hildegard speak in the first person about her feelings for her scribe, Lachman prompted readers to think more about the personal dimensions of the partnership than about its professional and technical significance.19 Such interest in medieval collaborators’ feelings for one another— whether expressed in creative writing or academic research—has the valuable effect of focusing attention on both partners, highlighting the dynamic between them and characterizing collaborative writing as a fundamentally social activity. This show of interest in both partners and in shared aspects of collaboration has been surprisingly rare, as the following sections demonstrate. FORMALIST PERSPECTIVES Rather than speculating about medieval collaborators’ personal histories, most modern scholars have focused on textual histories, asking how scribes influenced the production and dissemination of holy women’s works. In answering such questions, many critics have conceptualized authorship in ways that are influenced by Romantic ideals of literary individuality and the solitary author, ideals that held sway both in literary studies and popular culture from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, and that continue to be prevalent despite recent interest in more socialized concepts of authorship (McGann; Lunsford and Ede 76–102). Based on such ideals, critics have often sought to isolate and quantify medieval writers’ contributions to collaboratively written texts. Such assessments of partners’ accomplishments generally go hand in hand with judgments about the relative importance of each partner’s work, judgments that frequently lead to the privileging of one partner over the other. The aforementioned approach to studying medieval collaboration was practiced throughout the twentieth century by several groups of scholars whose interests and values varied widely. One such group consisted of scholars concerned with issues of textual bibliography and formal textual analysis. In scrutinizing



technical and formal aspects of collaborators’ writing processes, these scholars tended to pay extra attention to scribes. Acknowledging religious women as contributors to texts’ content, the scholars nevertheless credited scribes with having handled matters such as grammar, style, and allusions to scriptural and patristic writings. Sometimes these attributions were based on evidence drawn from stylistic, linguistic, and orthographic analysis. More often, the attributions were based on literal readings of medieval accounts of holy women’s partnerships, which characterized the women as unlearned while ascribing literary and theological training to their assistants. In a few cases, the attributions were based on modern stereotypes about medieval women’s composition skills or lack thereof. In nearly all cases, however, the aforesaid distinctions between writing partners worked in scribes’ favor, making the assistants out to be invaluable editors and co-authors. Formalist perspectives and the positive treatment of scribes they occasioned were most evident in early studies of Margery. After the only extant manuscript of her Book was discovered in the 1930s, the first scholar to discuss Margery’s partnerships was Sanford Brown Meech, one of the manuscript’s editors. In his 1940 introduction to the edited text, he undertook a detailed examination of each scribe’s formal contributions to the Book. While admitting that “it is impossible to determine with certainty the contributions which any one of them [the scribes] made to the language and spelling,” he nevertheless set forth “some rather cogent arguments which may be adduced for the opinion that the linguistic and orthographic patterns of the Book are mainly those of the priest” (Meech viii). As part of this argument, Meech distinguished between the transcriptions of the first and second scribes, even claiming to be able to identify who recorded which lines in certain chapters. More importantly, Meech distinguished between the editorial activities of the second scribe and Margery, suggesting that the latter “saw to it that the result of this revision as read to her was satisfactory, as far as content was concerned,” but “could not have criticized the spelling, as she was apparently illiterate” (ix). Based on these supposed divisions of labor, as well as the text’s uniform phonology, morphology and spelling, the critic concluded, “I think it probable: that Margery Kempe had no influence on the orthography of her Book that the flrst amanuensis’s spelling, inflections, and style were freely changed by the second to make them conform to his own standards; and that Salthows20 and any intermediate scribes made few changes” (ix). According to Meech’s assessments of everyone’s formal contributions to the text, then, the scales were tipped in favor of Margery’s second assistant. In the process of crediting the second scribe, however, Meech discredited Margery in some respects, representing her as lacking editorial ability (“illiterate”) and authority (“no influence”). The subtle inequities in Meech’s analysis foreshadowed what would become more evident in other critics’ formal studies: that scholars’ respect for scribes often went hand in hand with less deferential views of the women with whom the scribes worked. Scholarly interest in scribes became more pronounced in formal studies of the 1970s. In 1975, John Hirsh devoted an entire article to the subject of the Book’s joint authorship. He rehearsed the claims of critics who had characterized the scribes as mere copyists, but argued that on the contrary, “evidence suggests that the second scribe did more than transcribe the earlier text, rather he rewrote it, from start to finish” (Hirsh 147). The statement epitomizes Hirsh’s interest in writers’ individual achievements, an interest that served as the guiding principle for his study. For example, when he examined chapter 28 of the Book, “part of which is clearly Margery’s, part the second scribe’s,” he distinguished confidently between the two: Margery may be said to be responsible for the details concerning the way she was turned away from the table by the other pilgrims, the way she changed ships, the way the priest stole a sheet from her, while the second scribe, the priest who rewrote the Book, is just as clearly responsible for the description of the contemplation on Mount Calvary, and the remarks immediately following. (149)



Hirsh justified his claims through reasoned guesswork. For example, he argued that allusions to popular devotional handbooks must have been penned by the scribe, since the latter would have undoubtedly encountered such books in his devotional reading. In making such claims, Hirsh speculated more broadly than Meech had done, following a trend in formal textual studies away from detailed linguistic analysis toward broader rhetorical analysis. As did his predecessor, however, Hirsh emphasized individual writing over collaborative authorship. His conclusion that “the second scribe, no less than Margery, should be regarded as the author of The Book of Margery Kempe” (150) encouraged readers to envision the partners not as teammates, but rather as two writers with competing claims to authorial status. Preferential treatment of scribes went hand in hand with more discriminatory treatment of Margery in a 1978 essay by Anthony Goodman. One of the first studies of Margery to be included in a general anthology on medieval women, Goodman’s essay was an overview of Margery’s life and work that included a substantive discussion of her writing partnerships. Goodman began the discussion with the weighted question, “To what extent is the Book likely to have been the illiterate Margery’s composition, rather than that of her amanuenses?” (Goodman 347). Although he acknowledged the difficulties of answering such a question definitively—noting, for example, that Margery’s strong religious convictions made it “unsafe to attribute passages to the priest simply on the grounds that they are priestly in manner and matter” (347)—he nevertheless distinguished between partners’ work in ways that were bold and often obviously biased. For instance, Goodman ascribed to Margery certain features in the Book which are more readily attributable to an illiterate laywoman. It lacks chronological order—a defect likely to have jarred on a cleric, and for which an explanation is given. It is frequently abrupt in expression, awkward in sequence and homely in imagery. Mention is made in it, in different contexts, of recurrent anxieties which ring true as the obsessions of a habitual penitent. (348) Margery’s main scribe, by contrast, was deemed by Goodman to be the creator of the Book’s “content and argument,” and was characterized as an author savvy enough to have “slanted [the content] to what he considered appropriate to it, acceptable to the devout, and necessary to convince his sceptical or hostile colleagues in Lynn and elsewhere” (348). The foregoing quotations show that unlike Hirsh, whose judgments were based on historical probabilities, Goodman judged between the work of Marg-ery and her scribe mainly on the basis of modern stereotypes. In doing so, he not only showed the partners as having performed separate tasks, but also represented them as possessing disparate abilities, making the scribe out to be the more capable and authoritative writer. Formal analysis and its accompanying emphasis on scribes was more prevalent in studies of Margery than in studies of other religious women, perhaps because Mar-gery was never canonized, and thus never attained the kind of legendary status that might have deterred scholars from granting her less than the highest authorial honors.21 In a few cases, however, formal analysis was also applied to partnerships in which the female visionary had been offlcially recognized by the church. In 1994, for example, Catherine Mooney published a groundbreaking analysis of the partnership between Brother A. and Angela. What set the analysis apart from most studies of An-gela’s writings was its emphasis on authorial activities of the scribe, as opposed to those of the beatified woman. Mooney acknowledged the unconventional nature of her project, saying, “In assessing the relative contributions of Angela of Foligno and Brother A. to the creation of the Memorial the weight of scholarly opinion has consistently tipped the scales heavily toward Angela as virtually the sole author of the Memorial, even while recognizing that she dictated her spiritual experiences to the Franciscan scribe, Brother A. This essay attempts to tip the scales away from Angela and toward her collaborator, Brother A.” (Mooney, “Authorial Role” 57). In effecting such a shift, Mooney ascribed formal



features of the text such as organization, diction, and point of view to the scribe, offering extensive textual evidence for her claims. While highlighting Brother A.’s part in the writing process, however, Mooney expressed respect for Angela’s part as well, assuring readers that “if the fascinating tale of her spiritual revelations and teachings has been somewhat neglected in the process, it is by no means to obscure or undervalue her inestimable contribution to the creation of the Memorial’ (57). On the contrary, Mooney argued that isolating the scribe’s contributions to the text made the holy woman’s contributions all the more apparent: “If scholars are to say anything definitive about women’s lives and spiritu ality—if they are, in short, to give them a “voice” —then an attempt must be made to disentangle their voices from those of their male scribes and editors” (34). In introducing elements of feminism into a formalist study, Mooney created an alternative to analyses like the aforementioned studies of Margery, which had promoted scribes at the holy woman’s expense. RELIGIOUS PERSPECTIVES Whereas some twentieth-century studies of medieval collaboration focused on scribes, the majority leaned in the opposite direction, focusing on the female visionaries with whom the scribes worked. Far from being a homogenous movement, however, the trend toward valorizing visionaries was driven by a number of different critical methods and motives. One longstanding reason for focusing on holy women had to do with matters of theology. Many modern scholars studied medieval women’s visionary writings for the sake of the religious insights therein, treating the texts as transparent spiritual messages that were historically shaped but were also potentially relevant to later generations of readers. In considering how the messages came to be written down, such scholars often took their cues from the texts themselves, taking medieval narrators’ claims about writing partners’ activities to be transparent too. Echoing their medieval sources, the critics characterized holy women as having gained divine insights through supernatural revelations, and thus credited the women with having firsthand knowledge of the spiritual truths of which they wrote. By contrast, the critics characterized scribes as auditors and sometime observers of the women’s ecstasies, and thus attributed to the scribes secondhand knowledge of the sacred teachings they recorded. Such disparate depictions of partners’ relationships to their subject matter usually went hand in hand with disparate representations of partners’ roles in the composition process. Thus in many modern studies focusing on medieval spirituality, holy women were portrayed as insightful authors, while scribes were characterized as accurate copyists and conservative editors. Such representations had important theological implications, insofar as they made spiritual truth out to be received knowledge given to holy women by God, as opposed to constructed knowledge produced collectively by the women and their assistants. Given the radical and potentially unorthodox nature of the latter view, conservative scholars of theology steered clear of it by representing medieval collaboration as a mode of writing that was more individualistic than interactive. In an authoritative translation of Catherine’s letters published in 1988, for example, translator Suzanne Noffke carefully delimited the authorial activities of Catherine’s scribes.22 On the one hand, Noffke suggested that the scribes had done more than transcribe the holy woman’s statements word for word. As evidence for this claim, Noffke cited “minor differences” between letters which bore witness to the scribes’ “linguistic, cultural, and professional diversity” (Noffke 10). On the other hand, Noffke dismissed the possibility that Catherine’s scribes might have played a substantive role in composing the letters. As support for her position, Noffke pointed to features of form and content, asserting that “the general consistency in style and above all in conceptual development makes it highly unlikely that in substance the



wording comes from anyone but Catherine herself.” In keeping with her study’s emphasis on spirituality, Noffke also supported her claims with reasons having to do with Catherine’s religious status and the scribes’ reverence for such: “Besides, her secretaries’ veneration for this woman they called Mamma would hardly have been compatible with their doing any conscious violence to her thought. So there is little likelihood of any truly major alterations entering the text at the level of the original dictation.” Noffke’s use of charged language to describe collaboration (“violence”) epitomized many modern scholars’ concerns about multiple authorship of religious texts: if a sacred message is presumed to be given by God exclusively to a holy woman, then the message should be protected from secondary authors and editors who might compromise its spiritual integrity. Such concerns were addressed more extensively in Albert Ryle Kezel’s 1990 anthology of Birgitta’s biography and major visionary books, the first English rendering of these works in their entirety. In his foreword to the text, Kezel anticipated and addressed the following questions about the nature of Birgitta’s collaboration with her assistants: “Are we really reading Birgitta at all? Can we really believe that these priests and scholars scrupulously transmitted her exact words? Can we really listen to the claim that these words were in some way revealed by God? Is it not possible that this wealthy and pious woman was somehow being used by a group of reform-minded priests who thus gained greater attention for their message?” (Kezel 62). Kezel deemed these questions “very serious and reasonable,” and drew on a broad range of textual and historical evidence in responding to them. Like Noffke, who granted Catherine’s scribes limited agency, Kezel credited Birgitta’s scribes with having some influence on the texts they transcribed, noting that in primary sources, “we are several times plainly told that they [the scribes] polished Birgitta’s words and brought them into line with correct theological terminology. We are told that they discussed the Latin translation with Birgitta, which means that she was willing to listen to their ideas about her words and perhaps accepted from them suggestions of biblical and patristic allusions in support of her insights” (63). Kezel said he saw no reason to doubt such accounts of the scribes’ editorial activities. Much as Noffke had done in her discussion of Catherine, however, Kezel reserved authorial honors for Birgitta, and in so doing characterized collaborative authorship as a mode of writing in which partners played separate and unequal roles. Refuting the possibility that the scribes might have acted not just as editors, but also as co-authors who conceptualized and composed the texts’ main ideas, Kezel declared that My own impression—after working so long and so closely with the text—is of a single, distinctively recognizable human personality at the bottom of all this writing: a person who prayed and read and thought and asked questions with a vigorous concern for the things of God. In the notes I have often pointed out exegetical or theological questions that would most naturally arise in an attentive mind as it prayed the yearly cycle of the Roman liturgy. In my opinion, the rhythm and flow of the Birgittine writings springs not from the calculated design of a committee, but from an individual life vigorously lived. I see no reason to doubt that we are reading the experiences of the woman Birgitta. (62) Through his choice of language and imagery, Kezel characterized singular authorship as a mode of writing more appropriate than collaborative authorship for composing religious texts. Ascribing the Birgittine writings to a single author, he characterized that individual as a deeply devout person, one who “prayed and read and thought and asked questions with a vigorous concern for the things of God.” At the same time, Kezel argued against the notion that the writings were composed collaboratively, characterizing such work as less sincere and less personal (“the calculated design of a committee”). In focusing on such extremes and setting them in opposition to one another—a pious individual writing from her heart, versus a pragmatic group writing for gain—Kezel left little room for discussion of a middle ground, such as the possibility that



spiritually meaningful texts could be penned by writing partners who shared a passionate “concern for the things of God.” Whereas Kezel devoted only part of his study to discussing the religious significance of authorial activities performed by Birgitta and her assistants, Roger Ellis published an essay in 1993 that focused exclusively on the topic. Like many scholars who studied religious aspects of medieval women’s writing partnerships, Ellis portrayed Birgitta’s part in the writing process as more spiritually important than the part played by her scribes. Whereas many scholars distinguished between partners’ work on the basis of textual content and form, however, Ellis set out to distinguish between partners’ work through an analysis of voice. His avowed purpose was not only to highlight insightful remarks attributable to Birgitta, but also to discern divine utterances that had been spoken to the holy woman by God. As Ellis put it, “In order to pronounce upon the divine message which the saint claims to have received and be transmitting, we have to read backwards through the different voices which, so to speak, are filtering the message to us. This investigation is therefore shot through with paradox: in order to prove the divine voice, we must first gain a sense of the partial and limited human voices which sought to give it utterance” (Ellis 210–11). Ellis had only limited success, however, in identifying individual voices within the collabora tively written texts. He consistently found the texts to be monologic, a quality he deemed variously as “problematic,” “disconcerting,” “depressing,” and a “matter for profound regret,” insofar as the absence of distinct human voices seemed to him to “prevent us from either affirming or denying the revelation-experiences of which the Liber is made up” (222, 230, 233). Like most scholars interested in religious authorship, then, Ellis privileged individual testimony as the most appropriate mode for communicating spiritual truths, concluding that such truths were apt to be obscured when communicated through the medium of collaborative writing. FEMINIST PERSPECTIVES Just as holy women received more recognition than did their scribes from modern scholars of religion, the women were also privileged by critics interested in feminism. In the later decades of the twentieth century, scholars increasingly drew on feminist theories in examining various aspects of medieval women’s lives and writings, including the women’s literary partnerships. Since the ascendance of women’s studies coincided with the emergence of postmodern challenges to traditional ideas of authorship, the time could have been ripe for feminist scholars to take special interest in collaborative writing, a mode of authorship which, for material and rhetorical reasons, had often been used by women throughout history. Understandably, however, “many feminist scholars wanted to keep the idea of the individual author intact at the very moment they were demanding recognition for women’s authorial achievements” (London 2). Thus in assessing medieval women’s literary partnerships, most feminist scholars privileged the female visionary over her assistants, seeking to isolate and celebrate her contributions to the writing process. In this context, scribes’ contributions were often characterized as extraneous material that hindered readers’ access to the women’s original and personal ideas. Such criticisms were invariably directed toward male scribes, whose gender was noted by feminist scholars for the cultural and ecclesiastical privileges it entailed. Female scribes were not subjected to such negative treatment, but neither did they receive the kind of positive attention that might have been expected, given the potential importance of female partnerships for feminist literary history. Instead, holy women’s partnerships with other women received surprisingly little attention from feminist scholars, and remain a rich and untapped area for research today. When discussing medieval women’s partnerships, feminist scholars writing in the 1980s offered nuanced analyses, focusing on holy women’s roles in the composing process but acknowledging scribes’ roles as well, and offering both positive assessments and restrained criticisms of the latter. Writing one of the first



book-length studies of Margery in 1983, for example, Clarissa Atkinson represented Margery’s first scribe in a positive light, arguing that “he played a significant part in the making of the book… He probably was an encouraging listener, a source of support and confidence, and his enthusiasm may have nourished the full and lively character of Book I” (Atkinson 30). Atkinson painted a less flattering picture of the second scribe, suggesting that Margery might “have been inhibited (as she was not with the first scribe) by the priest’s authority, or by his anxiety.” Rather than maintaining this focus on interpersonal dynamics, however, Atkinson concluded her discussion by emphasizing individual accomplishments, declaring that although “the relation of author and scribe in this work is complicated and uncertain,” the text “remains Margery’s book, even if the shadowy scribal presence clouds the image in the mirror” (36). An equally varied perspective was set forth in the first English book on Hildegard, published by Barbara Newman in 1987. In discussing Hildegard’s writing practices, Newman contrasted the editorial activities of Volmar with those of Guibert. Quoting from letters written by the partners themselves concerning their duties,23 Newman characterized Volmar as a conservative editor whose activities were limited to correcting grammatical errors. She described this editorial approach in positive terms, noting that Hildegard had “commended” the elder scribe for his faithful transcriptions. Newman characterized Guibert, on the other hand, as a liberal editor who modified the style of Hildegard’s writings as he saw fit. In making this characterization, the critic spoke of Guibert’s work disapprovingly, remarking that “the Life of St. Martin as ‘corrected’ by his eloquence can scarcely be recognized as Hildegard’s. Purists can at least rejoice that their collaboration began only after the seer’s major works were completed” (Newman, Sister 24). While treating some aspects of collaboration positively, then, both Atkinson and Newman ultimately favored individualistic paradigms of authorship, insofar as they honored holy women as primary authors, and criticized certain scribes for diminishing the original quality of the women’s writings. Such emphasis on religious women’s individual literary work, and the deprecatory treatment of scribes it sometimes entailed, became more pronounced in feminist scholarship of the 1990s. In 1994, Lynn Staley published a groundbreaking book on Margery, in which she argued that the female visionary was a shrewder and more skillful author than most modern scholars had given her credit for. As part of this argument, Staley engaged in extensive analysis of Margery’s partnerships with scribes. In the analysis, Staley distinguished between “Kempe” the historical person and “Margery” the literary character. She did not apply the same distinction to Margery’s amanuenses, however, but focused solely on their literary signiflcance, explaining how the trope of the scribe helped make the Book authoritative. Thus while Staley characterized the female visionary as a writing subject, she represented scribes as textual objects, a critical strategy that figured the partners’ relationship as that of an author to literary characters, and shifted the terms of discussion from collaborative writing to individual authorship. This view was reinforced by Staley’s references to the assistants as “ghostly scribes,” a term that highlighted their pervasive and often imperceptible influence as literary tropes, but downplayed their identities as historical persons capable of exercising agency in the writing process alongside “Kempe” (Staley 12, 37). The disparity was deepened by Staley’s suggestion that perhaps the scribes were not historical figures at all. Describing the role played by “Kempe” in the composition process, the critic postulated that “it is likely she exerted a good deal of control over the text itself: either she wrote it herself and created a fictional scribe, or she had it marizing how scribal figures heightened the Book’s authority, Staley remarked, “I read back to her and was aware of exactly what was in the text” (33). And when sumwould like to be able to say that the scribe never existed, that Kempe created him,” making explicit both her interest in the individual woman writer, and her desire to downplay the woman’s collaborative practices (36). Whereas Staley discussed scribes as part of a broad study that addressed other aspects of Margery’s life as well, other feminist scholars focused exclusively on religious women’s relationships with scribes. In



1991 and 1995, Ute Stargardt published analyses of Dorothea of Montau’s collaboration with Johannes of Marienwerder. In the first study, Stargardt argued that collaboration with male clerics was disadvantageous for female visionaries in several respects. Such partnerships constrained women from the very beginning of the composing process, said Stargardt, insofar as the women were “at the mercy of ‘logocentric logic’” and were “subjugated” to patriarchal language (“Male Clerical Authority” 213). Even when women found ways to express their ideas adequately, they could not be certain the ideas would be transcribed as they intended, for in letting scribes write the texts, the women “compromised their authority over what was being recorded” (211). This lack of control was most evident when scribes edited texts after their female partners’ deaths, in which case the assistants were “free to manipulate material at will” (212). Having made these claims, Stargardt supported them with evidence drawn from Dorothea’s partnership with Johannes. In using the rhetoric of helplessness to describe women’s roles in the writing process (“at the mercy of,” “subjugated,” “compromised their authority”) while using language of domination to discuss male scribes (“free to manipulate”), the critic characterized collaboration as being disempowering for female partners. Stargardt made the same point more emphatically in her second study, claiming that Dorothea was “reduced to playing a decidedly inferior part” in her own biography, and that the visionary’s voice was “drowned out” by the voice of the scribe and the literary characters he incorporated into the narrative (“Whose Life” 41). At the same time, Stargardt charged Johannes with having “manipulated” the female visionary’s writings and sometimes “extinguishing what little voice he allots her in the first place” (45, 51). The critic’s view of collaboration as a struggle for authorial control was epitomized by the title she gave the article: “Whose Life History Is This Anyway? Johannes von Marienwerder’s Narrative Strategies in the German Vita of Dorothea von Montau.” An equally provocative title was chosen by Anne Clark for her 1996 essay on the collaborative writing practices of Elisabeth: “Repression or Collaboration? The Case of Elisabeth and Ekbert of Schönau.” Unlike Stargardt, however, Clark characterized collaboration as a mode of writing that was positive for women in some respects. While acknowledging the potential for misogyny and repression in medieval partnerships between women and men, Clark argued that “an attempt to understand repression must involve an examination of how the ‘repressed’ group actually related to the dominant group; for example, in the case of women, how particular women absorbed, resisted, ignored, or transmuted the dominant ideology and how this very behavior on the part of women was itself part of medieval culture” (“Repression” 152). Using this theory as the guiding principle of her analysis, Clark characterized Elisabeth’s partnership with Ekbert as one in which both partners exercised agency, albeit in different capacities. After examining the partners’ interactions in detail, Clark determined that The dynamics of power were certainly in Ekbert’s favor. Yet it is clear that his authority to investigate Elisabeth’s pronouncements had another side to it. Ekbert’s ‘use’ of Elisabeth must not obscure Elisabeth’s ‘use’ of Ekbert. His authority to investigate became her opportunity to teach, to expound, to clarify her visions for the edification of the faithful, which is what she understood her divinely appointed commission to be. (165) While Clark treated collaboration more favorably than did many feminist critics, in the final analysis she represented writing as an individualistic activity, making emphatic distinctions between partners’ activities (“his authority to investigate,” “her opportunity to teach”). This perspective was particularly evident in her conclusion that “Elisabeth and Ekbert had a complex relationship that resulted in the creation of texts that echo Elisabeth’s voice, even if that voice is muffled at times” (164–65). In idealizing the female visionary’s



voice while characterizing the scribe’s voice as a form of interference (“muffled”), Clark ended her study on a note consonant with most feminist analyses of medieval women’s textual teamwork. While feminist perspectives on medieval women’s writing partnerships were most pronounced in secondary studies, they sometimes were apparent in modern versions of primary texts as well. Such expressions of feminism were significant insofar as they had the potential to shape scholars’ readings of the primary sources. In a 1986 anthology that was one of the first collections of medieval women’s writing to draw on feminist theory, editor and translator Elizabeth Petroff excerpted several passages from Hildegard’s Scivias, including the introductory passage that recounts why and how the abbess began working with Volmar. As the only reference in the Scivias to collaborative writing, the passage is key to modern readers’ understanding of the writing practices used to produce the treatise. The passage’s meaning, however, is less than straightforward because of Hildegard’s idiosyncratic Latin.24 Petroff translated the passage in a way that was consistent with the feminist interests of her anthology, taking the passage to mean that Volmar submitted to Hildegard during the writing process: “And this man did not exalt himself above her, but yielded to her with many sighs in the height of that humility which he obtained, and in the intention of a good will” (Petroff, Medieval 152). In 1990, however, the same passage was rendered much differently by Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop, who translated the entire Scivias for a book series focusing on classic Christian spirituality. Their translation was consistent with the traditional religious scope of their project, insofar as they interpreted the passage as evidence of Hildegard’s submission to Volmar: “And she did not seek to exalt herself above herself but with many sighs bowed to him whom she found in the ascent of humility and the intention of good will” (Hildegard, Scivias 60). Although Hart and Bishop’s translation conformed more closely to the overall style and thought of Hildegard’s treatise, Petroff s translation was a valuable example of how feminist perspectives could call attention to gendered aspects of medieval women’s partnerships, and foster productive discussion about such issues. VISUAL PERSPECTIVES Just as holy women’s partnerships were represented strategically within twentieth-century scholarly publications, they sometimes were portrayed strategically on the covers of those same texts. In producing books by and about medieval women writers, many modern publishers designed book jackets that featured medieval illustrations of the women composing their works. The publishers’ selection and treatment of such images constituted visual narratives of the women’s writing practices, narratives that were as carefully constructed as the verbal narratives within the books themselves. Such visual representations merit close analysis because they influenced the way many twentieth-century readers “saw” the partnerships. In some respects, the images were more powerful than the critical arguments they accompanied, insofar as the pictures’ messages were conveyed immediately and repeatedly each time readers glanced at the books. For the most part, such external messages echoed the texts’ internal claims. As was the case with many scholars who wrote about holy women’s partnerships, most publishers who illustrated the partnerships privileged the women over their scribes. Whereas critics’ reasons for doing so usually centered on religion and gender, however, publishers’ reasons had more to do with marketing. By portraying medieval women as authors who wrote alone, publishers could appeal to widespread public interest in the mystique of solitary authorship and literary inspiration, qualities that were heightened by the women’s claims to having been guided by the invisible and all-knowing God. Some of the most striking examples of such capitalization appeared in books by and about Hildegard. Since several extant medieval manuscripts of her writings contained illustrations, publishers had substantial material from which to draw in designing modern



publications of her work. And such publications were many, due to the surge of scholarly and popular interest in Hildegard in the 1980s and 1990s. Given these factors, Hildegard’s partnerships offer rich case material for analysis of how medieval images of women’s partnerships compare to modern images of the same. During her lifetime, Hildegard was depicted frequently as a collaborative writer. The artists who illustrated her Scivias manuscript shortly after its completion in 1151 included a picture of her writing process, which showed her working with Volmar (See Plate 6). In this whimsical picture, the abbess writes down her visions on wax tablets while Volmar watches and listens through a small window. The scribe leans through the window and puts his head through the tiny opening, a posture indicating he is an active participant in the writing process and is well aware of what Hildegard is composing. Although the scribe himself is not writing, he has parchment in hand, ready to assist with writing tasks when needed. The picture appears in the Scivias preface, where Hildegard describes the origin and nature of her relationship with Volmar. Although she mentions the partnership only briefly within a longer discussion about how her writing was divinely commissioned and inspired, the aforesaid illustration highlights the partnership’s importance, and focuses readers’ attention on material conditions of writing. At the same time that the picture of Hildegard and Volmar serves an important purpose in the preface, it has a significant place in the book as a whole, insofar as it is the flrst of thirty-five illustrations, and is the only picture in the manuscript that depicts Hildegard’s composing process. Some modern scholars believe that the artists who illustrated the manuscript were nuns in Hildegard’s convent, and that they worked under Hildegard’s direct supervision (Newman, Sister 17–18). If that theory is true, Hildegard may have seen and approved the picture that showed her writing process as collaborative. Approximately fifty years after Hildegard’s death, however, artists who illustrated her Book of Divine Works represented her as an author who generally worked alone. Of the nine scenes of writing shown in the manuscript, only the first shows Hildegard writing collaboratively (See Plate 7). The illustration is a rarity insofar as it shows the abbess working with both Volmar and Richardis.25 On several levels, the picture calls attention to social dimensions of authorship. Hildegard receives a revelation from God, an interaction represented by a scroll tossed down from heaven, as well as by fiery red waves flowing out of a heavenly window and down onto the abbess’s head. As Hildegard records the vision on wax tablets, Richardis stands behind her and watches, a stance showing her as an attentive assistant. And in an adjacent room, Volmar writes on parchment, presumably transferring the abbess’s temporary notes to a permanent medium. In representing textual transmission and production as the work of many hands, the picture comprises a rich scene of collaborative authorship. By contrast, the eight remaining illustrations in the Divine Works manuscript show authorship as a more individualistic activity (See Plate 8).26 In each of these scenes, Hildegard has less interaction with the Divine Author than she did in the first picture; God still hands out scrolls symbolizing holy mysteries for her perusal, but he no longer infuses spiritual insights directly into her mind. A more striking difference, however, is that in the later pictures Hildegard has no interactions with human colleagues. She records her visions in a small workspace that is a veritable room of one’s own, with hardly enough space to accommodate her writing desk, let alone one or two scribes. The recurrence of this scenario in all eight illustrations has a cumulative effect, so that by the time readers get to the end of the Divine Works manuscript, the initial scene of collaborative writing has lost much of its power, having been outnumbered by scenes of solitary authorship. Many of the medieval images described above were used by twentieth- century publishers as cover art for books by and about Hildegard. Of those images, the ones used most frequently were those showing the holy woman as an individual author. For example, a Divine Works picture of Hildegard writing alone appeared



Plate 6 Hildegard writing with Volmar. Anon. (12th c.). Scivias, Eibingen MS fol. 1r. Eibingen, Abtei St. Hildegard.

on the cover of the first English version of her Book of the Rewards of Life, translated by Bruce Hozeski and published by Oxford University Press in 1994. In showing Hildegard writing by herself, the cover illustration supported Hozeski’s characterization of the abbess’s writing practices. In his introduction to the



Plate 7 Hildegard working with Volmar and Richardis to record a vision of Divine Love. Anon. (13th c.). Liber Divinorum Operum, Lucca MS fol. Iv. Lucca, Biblioteca Statale.

translation, the scholar made no mention of Hildegard’s partnerships with scribes, an unusual omission in an otherwise thorough overview of her life and literary achievements, and one made all the more surprising by



Plate 8 Hildegard recording a vision of humankind and the universe. Anon. (13th c.). Liber Divinorum Operum, Lucca MS fol. 9r. Lucca, Biblioteca Statale.

the fact that the translation itself contained a reference to Hildegard’s collaboration with Volmar and Richardis (Hildegard, Rewards of Life 10). This emphasis on Hildegard’s individuality was strengthened by



the layout of the book cover. By printing Hildegard’s name in large letters at the top while printing the book’s title in smaller letters at the bottom, the publisher privileged the author over her work, reducing the text itself to a matter of secondary importance. Such a perspective afforded few insights into matters of multiple authorship and processes of textual production. In another case, a publisher not only chose a picture of Hildegard writing alone, but also altered the picture in ways that emphasized singular authorship. In 1989, Routledge used the Divine Works picture of God embracing the universe and humankind as cover artwork for Sabina Flanagan’s biography of Hildegard (See Plate 9). As one of the first studies of Hildegard’s life, Flanagan’s book was read and reviewed widely, both in academic journals and in prominent literary magazines. While the biography made brief mention of the abbess’s collaborative writing practices, the cover characterized her as a solitary author. Most strikingly, the picture showed her writing without scribes. More subtly, it downplayed her literary collaboration with God. In formatting the original picture to fit the modern cover, the publisher cropped the picture’s right border, and in so doing effaced most of the scroll that signified God’s inspiration and guidance of Hildegard’s writing process. The significance of such editing was made more striking by the publisher’s decision to extend the picture’s top border in order to preserve the original detail of Christ’s head. The result was an illustration that offered readers a full view of Hildegard’s vision, but only a partial view of the processes by which the vision came to be written down. The picture was cropped more dramatically for the second edition of Flanagan’s book, which was published in 1998. On the cover of that edition, the divine scroll was cut out completely, a change that effectively severed the authorial connection between Hildegard and God. In contrast to the books cited above, which privileged images of Hildegard writing alone, a later publication featured the Divine Works manuscript’s sole image of collaborative writing (See Plate 10). That book was Barbara Lachman’s work of fiction about Hildegard’s final days, a work that was praised by reviewers for its historical integrity, and had a wide popular readership. The book was issued in 1997 by Shambhala Publications. In adapting the original illustration of Hildegard working alongside Volmar and Richardis, however, the publisher made choices that had significant implications for how readers viewed the abbess’s authorial activities. To begin with, the publisher formatted the picture to provide a detailed view of Hildegard receiving inspiration from heaven. In the process, Volmar was cropped out of the picture almost entirely, while Richardis was moved to the periphery but remained highly visible. The resulting image offered a limited view of Hildegard’s writing partnerships, associating her exclusively with a female scribe. Such an image was incongruous with the content of Lachman’s book in several respects. The narrative was set in 1178, a time when Hildegard was assisted not by Richardis, but by Guibert. Within the narrative, Hildegard spoke only rarely about her female assistant, who had died in 1152. By contrast, the abbess reminisced often about Volmar, who had passed away more recently in 1173. She also made frequent mention of her daily interactions with Guibert. Whereas the cover of Lachman’s book celebrated collaboration among women, then, the text within explored the significance of collaboration between women and men, a difference that may well have surprised readers whose expectations had been shaped by the visual narrative. Whereas Lachman’s book cover offered a partial view of Hildegard’s collaborative activities, a more complete picture appeared on the front of Catherine Mooney’s landmark collection of academic essays on medieval women’s writing partnerships (See Plate 11). The collection, titled Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters, was published in 1999 by the University of Pennsylvania Press, and was the first scholarly study of its kind. On the book’s cover was a precise reproduction of the Scivias picture of Hildegard working with Volmar. In its focus and figuration, the visual narrative was consistent with the verbal narratives within the text. To begin with, the artwork’s focus on both partners in their entirety paralleled the book’s thematic focus on collaboration between holy women and scribes. Although



Plate 9 Cover of Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life.

Hildegard’s partnerships were not the only ones discussed in the anthology, they received frequent mention and served as the subject of one essay. Moreover, the artwork’s juxtaposition of the female abbess and male



Plate 10 Cover of Hildegard, The Last Year.

scribe mirrored the anthology’s emphasis on collaboration between women and men. All the essays in the anthology focused on opposite-sex partnerships, examining gendered aspects of collaboration and the



Plate 11 Cover of Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters.

implications of such for modern readers’ understanding of medieval women. On both a visual and verbal level, then, the anthology offered readers an unusually direct and detailed view of collaborative writing as



practiced not only by Hildegard, but by other medieval women writers as well. While Mooney’s anthology is noteworthy for its visual treatment of Hildegard’s writing partnerships, its relevance to this study is much broader. Given its subject matter and date of publication, it serves as a fitting focal point and endpoint for this chapter’s survey of critical perspectives on collaboration between medieval women and scribes. With the exception of scholars interested in the partnerships’ emotional significance, most twentieth-century critics tended to privilege one partner and marginalize the other, rather than treating the writers as teammates whose work was a unified whole. Thus even though the critics occupied very different scholarly niches from one another, expressing interest in issues as varied as literary form, religion, and feminism, they shared a common conception of authorship as an individualistic activity, even in cases when two or more authors worked together. Given this critical history, the appearance of Gendered Voices was an important development, signifying a potential turning point in studies of medieval collaboration. As the first book devoted mainly to the topic of collaboration between holy women and scribes27, it held great promise for opening up new perspectives on and approaches to studying the subject. In many respects, the collection lived up to this promise, asking innovative questions about issues of voice, gender, and portrayals of sanctity. But in its theoretical conceptions of authorship, the anthology followed precedents set by prior studies more often than it departed from them. Using techniques that recalled those used in earlier formalist studies, some contributors set out to quantify and compare writing partners’ accomplishments. Borrowing from the rhetoric of religious studies, other contributors characterized scribes’ influence on visionaries’ writings as a kind of corruption. And as previous feminist critics had done, the majority of contributors sought to distinguish between the voices of female visionaries and male assistants in order to highlight the women’s authorial achievements. These approaches to studying collaboration often led to paradoxical emphases on individuality, such as Dyan Elliot’s claim that “the clerical quest for self-authori zation in the writing of a mystic’s vita and revelations virtually obscures the independent contours of a mystic’s spirituality, and ultimately of her (or his) life” (169), or Mooney’s claim that comparison of holy women’s own writings with male-authored writings about them “provides critical clues as to how male representations of female sanctity plausibly altered and misrepresented the self-understandings of the many women whose voices are lost to us” (77). In thus representing medieval collaboration as a mode of writing more individualistic than interactive, the anthology played out a detail of its cover illustration with uncanny exactitude: the wall separating Hildegard from Volmar in the picture extended figuratively into the text, occasioning characterizations of partners as persons with distinct preoccupations and purposes. In a few places in the anthology, however, critical boundaries contained small but significant openings that recalled another detail of the picture, namely, the window through which Volmar and Hildegard communicated with one another. Such critical windows afforded alternate perspectives on holy women’s partnerships with scribes, perspectives that showed the writers as interactive and interdependent, and in so doing opened up broader visions for future scholarship. For instance, finding quantitative analysis an unhelpful method for analyzing a narrative in which one writing partner had passed away, Frank Tobin turned to consideration of the deceased partner’s “centrality in so many ways to the whole undertaking of the Vita (135). And John Coakley noted that within a certain narrative, a holy woman and scribe who were assigned separate and unequal roles were nevertheless connected through rhetoric: “Within the world of these texts, they [the partners] are not similar, but, by definition, opposites, standing on either side of that fixed boundary between saint and venerator which also defines each in terms of the other and so makes them inseparable” (117). In employing imagery of coherence and connection (“centrality,” “whole,”



“inseparable”), these critics departed radically from previous analyses of partnerships between visionaries and scribes, and introduced possible approaches to further research in the fleld. The challenge in future studies of medieval women’s partnerships will be to develop more fully theorized conceptions of collaborative authorship. While this will almost certainly require new research, the process might well begin with taking account of existing resources whose value for studying holy women’s partnerships has not yet been capitalized upon. In the discipline of literary studies, such resources include critiques of the author figure, theories of social construction, and studies of the history of intellectual property and its implications for texts by multiple authors. In the discipline of composition, relevant research ranges from theories of collaborative writing, to studies of classical rhetoric that characterize composition as a complex process involving multiple stages and activities. And in the field of feminist studies, important resources include debates about whether and how various modes of writing are gendered, and histories of women’s involvement in writing partnerships and groups. Giv en the availability of these and other resources, scholars in the twenty-first centuiy are well equipped to develop new ways of conceptualizing collaborative authorship, ways that recognize the social qualities and feminist dimensions of such work.


NOTES FORINTRODUCTION NOTES FOR CHAPTER ONE 1. The scribe’s abbreviated name is the subject of some debate. Some scholars have conjectured that the “A” stands for “Arnaldo,” and thus refer to the scribe as Brother Arnaldo in their work. In a definitive study of the scribe, however, Catherine Mooney argues that “there is no meaningful evidence to support this claim” (Mooney, “Authorial Role” 36). I have followed Mooney’s lead throughout this study, referring to the scribe simply as “Brother A.” 2. For a quantitative study of women’s literacy, see McKitterick. 3. The study focuses on the production of religious texts by writing teams, at least one member of which is a woman. This set of criteria excludes most male visionaries for two reasons: they usually wrote alone, and on the rare occasions when they did write collaboratively, they tended to work with other men. An important exception is Heinrich Suso, a fourteenth-century German priest whose spiritual insights were recorded in part by the nun Elsbeth Stagel. For an overview of Suso’s partnership with Stagel, see Tobin. 4. In her book Jesus as Mother, Caroline Bynum makes an argument that seems to contradict my claim: she says that medieval women writers had relatively little interest in or attachment to Mary (173). However, Bynum’s study focuses on women writers who wrote alone, and who looked to divine beings for emotional guidance. By contrast, I am interested in women writers who wrote collaboratively, and who may have looked to divine beings for professional guidance. For that particular group of women, I would argue, Mary was indeed an important figure. 5. In making this claim, I disagree with Lesley Smith’s and Michael Clanchy’s assertions that medieval artists virtually never depict Mary as a writer (Smith 23; Clanchy, Memory 193). Although artists more commonly represent Mary as a reader, they also associate her with writing processes, portraying her variously as a muse, scribe, and collaborative author. For a study that focuses specifically on Mary’s role as muse, see McDevitt. 6. The visionary quality of the writing is important, insofar as it is the mode of composition that most closely resembles Mary’s reception and production of the divine Word. The only other person in this study who wrote so extensively in the visionary mode was Hildegard, who produced three volumes of revelations and two volumes of letters that were largely visionary in nature.

NOTES FOR CHAPTER TWO 7. Throughout this chapter, I treat genres as grammatical subjects, e.g. “Each of the three genres represents writing partnerships in ways that are ultimately positive for religious women writers.” In ascribing agency to genres, I am not implying that the texts write themselves. Rather, I am using “genre” as shorthand for a complicated set of factors that exercise influence over the texts. Those factors are generic conventions that set precedents for the







texts; medieval readers whose values and expectations shape the texts; holy women and scribes who compose the texts; and copyists and editors who have revised the texts over time. Given these complex factors, and especially given this study’s emphasis on collaborative writing processes, it seems to me more appropriate to acknowledge all the factors through a shorthand term than to ascribe agency simply to one, e.g. “Hildegard represents writing partnerships in ways that are ultimately positive.” The translation quoted above uses the word “of,” but the word “with” would make more sense, given extant information about Hildegard’s writing process. The word “of’ gives the impression that Hildegard is serving as Volmar’s scribe, whereas the word “with” implies that Hildegard is collaborating with Volmar to put her visions into writing. For example, the first treatise does not mention Richardis because she did not work with Hildegard until several years later, after the second and third treatises were composed. Likewise, the first treatise highlights Hildegard’s deference to Volmar partly to establish her credentials as a “proper” holy woman, a formality that was no longer necessary by the time the later treatises were written. An exception is The Book of Margery Kempe, which is authored by Margery, but narrated by an omniscient speaker using the third-person point of view. The result is that Margery’s numerous difficulties are presented in a matter-of-fact manner, which may help explain why many modern readers respond to her character unsympathetically. For a more detailed analysis of how this rhetorical effect is achieved, see Glenn 59–60; for summaries of modern readers’ negative responses to the Book, see Glenn 57 and Fries 227–29. The scribe’s name is unknown, but historical evidence indicates that he is a different person than the “Brother A.” who helped Angela write her Memorial. Reliable sources give Brother A.’s death date as 1300, whereas the letter cited above was written in 1308 (Lachance 50).

NOTES FOR CHAPTER THREE 12. The speaking subject shifts abruptly to Brother A., so the word “she” refers to Angela, not to God. 13. The speaking subject shifts back to Angela, so the word “me” refers to Angela, not to the scribe. 14. The narrative does not discuss Angela’s knowledge of Latin. It says that she can read her missal (Angela, Works 130), which one critic assumes is written in Latin (Stafford 181). However, familiarity with Latin scripture and liturgy would not necessarily mean that Angela could understand other Latin texts. 15. Lachance’s careful translation justifies a close reading of the English words. The Latin version uses the term “defectu,” and the Italian version uses “difecto” (Angela, Il Libro 218–19).

NOTES FOR CHAPTER FOUR 16. See chapter 2, note 2 for clarification of this passage. 17. The edition referred to here is Suzanne Noffke’s collection of Catherine’s letters; see bibliography for complete citation. 18. Of the two statements I have attributed to Alessa, the first is disputable. As Suzanne Noffke has pointed out, the letter’s wording gives the impression that two Alessas are speaking: the hyperbolic remark is made by “Alexa,” and the metaphorical remark is made by “Alessa” (Noffke 295). Noffke also notes, however, that “we know specifically of only Alessa de’ Saracini among Catherine’s companions,” a fact that leaves open the possibility that the homonymous speakers are one and the same.

NOTES FOR CHAPTER FIVE 19. Lachman briefly described how Hildegard benefited professionally and technically from the partnerships (12–13), but did so in the context of discussing Hildegard’s feelings of gratitude for Volmar’s support and grief at his passing.



20. Salthows is the scribe who copied the Book into the Butler-Bowdon manuscript, which Meech used as the basis for his study. 21. Of the religious women on whom this study focuses, Margery may be the only one who has not been formally honored by the church. Hildegard was canonized in 1324; Birgitta was canonized in 1391; Catherine was canonized in 1461; and Angela was beatified in 1701. Sources differ as to Elisabeth’s status: she is identified as “Saint Elisabeth” in the Library of Congress catalogue data given in the Classics of Western Spirituality edition of her works, but according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, her cult has never been officially approved. 22. The volume that Noffke translated was meant to be “the first of four which will eventually comprise the only complete English translation to date of the Letters of Catherine of Siena” (Noffke iii). Although the remaining three volumes have not yet been published, the first volume remains an important source because of its comprehensive translation of and commentary on Catherine’s early letters. One such letter was written by Hildegard to Guibert; in the letter, Hildegard recounted the editorial practices of Volmar as well as the nuns who sometimes took her dictation, speaking approvingly of the assistants’ editorial restraint. Another such letter was written by Guibert in Hildegard’s persona; in this epistle, “Hildegard” gave permission to Guibert to alter the style of her writings. The Latin passage reads: “Ed idem homo super semetipsum se non posuit, sed ad illum in ascensione humilitatis et in intentione bonae uoluntatis, quem inuenit, se in multis suspiriis inclinauit” (Hildegard, Scivias, ed. Führkötter and Carlevaris, p. 5) 25. For a more detailed view of the writing partners, see plate 5. 26. Due to limitations of space, I have not reproduced all eight pictures; the image included here is the one most relevant to my analysis. For color reproductions of all illustrations in the Divine Works manuscript, see Hildegard, Liber Divinorum Operum, ed. Derolez and Dronke. 27. Of the eight partnerships examined in the anthology, seven are partnerships between female saints and male scribes; the remaining one is a reverse arrangement involving a male saint and a female scribe. While the latter partnership is represented as important in its own right, it is primarily used as a point of comparison and contrast for the former partnerships, which are treated as a norm within the anthology.

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establishing precedents for collaborative writing, xxvii, 1, 11–12, 14, 17, 21 serving as subject matter for collaborative writing, 3–7 Birgitta of Sweden assistants’ dual roles as scribes and priests, 48–49 biographical information, xxiii creation of religious order, xxiii, 19–20 divine direction of writing process, 71 identification with Virgin Mary, 17–21 illustration of the transmission of her revelations, 45– 46, 51–52 sexuality, 69 significance of competent scribes in her writings, 47– 52 works about Birgitta The Life of Blessed Birgitta, 30, 48–49 works by Birgitta, 11 Heavenly Book of Revelations, xxiii, 25, 49, 95 Rule of the Holy Savior, xxiii Sermon of the Angel, xxiii Bishop, Jane, 99 Blanche, Countess, 7 Blesilla, 4 Brother A., xxiii criticized for collaborating with Angela, 69–71 intimacy with Angela, 67 relative of Angela, 70 shortcomings as a scribe, 31, 34, 48, 57–61, 63 treatment of Angela, 33–35, 73–74 Burke, Kenneth, 71

A Abelard, 2, 5, 7–10, 68 Adelaide, Countess, 7 Agnes, Empress, 7 Alcuin, xxv, 5–7, 8 Algasia, 5 Ancrene Riwle, 69 Angela of Foligno biographical information, xxiii intimacy with scribes, 40, 67 response to religious art, 13 sexuality, 69–70 ,71 significance of incompetent scribe in her writings, 52– 53, 57–65 works by Angela Instructions xxiii, 37, 40, 64 Memorial, xxiii, 30–34, 57, 60–61, 63, 65 73, 91 Angels, 18–20 Anselm, 17 d’Antonio, Tommaso, 80 Aquinas, Thomas, 67 Aristotle, 45 Art, 12–17, 45–46, 76–77, 99–109 Atkinson, Clarissa, 95–96 Augustine of Hippo, xxv, 3, 8 B Bakhtin, Mikhail, 29, 36, 42–43 Bartholomea, 74–76 Baruch, 12 Bede, 6 Beguines, 63–64, 69 Benedetta, 74–76 Bernard of Clairvaux, 41 Bible, xx, 26, 62, 65 allusions, 48, 93 debates about vernacular translations, 56–57

C Canigiani, Barduccio, xxiv, 11, 81 Catherine of Siena authorial power, 21 biographical information, xxiii–xxiv




comparison of her female scribes and male scribes, 43, 80–83 emotional aspects of partnerships, 86–87 sexuality, 69, 72 works about Catherine Francesco Maltavolti’s Life of Saint Catherine of Siena, 52 Raymond of Capua’s Life of Saint Catherine of Siena, 30 works by Catherine Dialogue, 10, 25, 81, 87 Letters, 37, 43, 80–81 Cecca: see Gori, Francesca Charlemagne, 6 Chaucer, 65 Childbearing, 18–19 Christ, 42, 50, 56, 59, 79–80 establishing precedents for collaborative writing, xxv, 12–17 guiding writing processes, 19, 45, 51 serving as subject matter for collaborative writing, 4 speaking to writers, 62–63, 70 Christianity ecclesiastical authority, xx, 2, 23, 28, 49–50, 52, 55– 57, 64–65, 76 heresy, xx, xxiv, 3, 23, 49, 53, 55, 57, 63–64, 92 medieval church’s views on gender roles, xxi, 2, 28 medieval church’s views on sexuality, 68–70, 74–77, 82 orthodoxy, xxii, 3, 49, 57, 63–64 Clare of Assisi, 69 Clark, Anne, 98 Coakley, John, 110 Collaborative writing conflict between partners, 26–31, 30, 35–36, 37–39, 53–55, 73 harmony between partners, 26 intimacy between partners, xxvii, 34–35, 40–41, 67– 68, 71, 75, 81–82 partnerships in early Christian history, xxv, 1–11 partnerships in the Bible, xxv, 11–21 productivity, 26–27, 32 proximity of partners, xxii, 2–3, 10, 68–69, 74, 78 reasons for collaboration, xix–xxi, 2 religious status of partners, xxii–xxiv, 5–6, 11, 48–49, 52–56, 91 three-person partnerships, xxvii, 76 Colladon, Germain, 82 Commentaries, 2–6

Composition studies, xvii–xviii, xxviii, 110 Confessors, 11 Birgitta of Sweden’s confessors, xxiii, 35, 48–49, 51, 69 Catherine of Siena’s confessor, 30 Convents, 80 affording opportunities for writing, xxi Elisabeth’s community, 69, 78 Heloise’s community, 2 Hildegard’s community during childhood, xxii, 69 Hildegard’s communities during adulthood, xxii, 11, 77, 88, 100 Umiltà's community, xxiv Curtayne, Alice, 87 D Damian, Peter, 7 Dominici, Bartolomeo, 80 Donnina, 79–80 Dorothea of Montau, xxvi, 67, 72, 97 Drane, Augusta Theodora, 87 Dronke, Peter, 87–88 E Ekbert of Schönau assumption of scribal duties, 78 authorial credit, 25 authorial power, 21, 98 authorial voice, 28, 42 biographical information, xxiv brother of Elisabeth, 35, 70 Elisabeth of Schönau authorial voice, 28–29, 42, 98 biographical information, xxiv identification with Virgin Mary, 17–18 partnership with Ekbert, xxiv, 21, 25, 35, 42, 70 partnerships with female scribes, 78 sexuality, 69, 82 works by Elisabeth Book of Revelations, 25 Book of Visions, 30 Book of the Ways of God, 25 letters, 37 Elliot, Dyan, 109–110 Ellis, Roger, 94–95 Eustochium, 4–5 F Fabiola, 5


Feminist perspectives on collaboration, xvii–xviii, xxviii, 24, 91–92, 110–111 women challenging religious authority, 52–53, 56–57, 64–65 women displaying strengths, 31, 41 women exercising power, 11, 21, 28–29, 36 women mediating religious truths, 50–52 women negotiating conflicts, 38–39 women privileged over scribes, 95–99, 109–110 women resisting stereotypes, 39–40, 43 women triumphing over male aggression, 74 women working together, 82–83 Flanagan, Sabina, 104–105 Francesca, 68 Francis of Assisi, 13, 62–63 Free Spirit sect, 63–64 G Gender all-female partnerships, xxiv, 43, 74–83 all-male partnerships, 67 female scribes employing comic language, 43, 80–81 female scribes rendered familial, 75–76, 80–81 female scribes rendered invisible, 43, 76–83 female scribes rendered unattractive, 72–73 female scribes situated within an expanded writing group, 76, 81 male scribes characterized as reluctant to collaborate, 35–36, 53, 71–72 male scribes employing aggression, 33–34, 73–74 male scribes rendered familial, 70–71 Genre, xxv–xxvi, 2, 6, 7, 9, 23–44 Gerson, Jean, 82 Gertrude of Helfta, 78 Gisla, 5–6 God author of Bible and truth, xxvi, 2–3, 11, 25, 27–29 creating writing partnerships, 67, 71, 72 critiquing collaboratively written texts, 59–61 dissolving writing partnerships, 75 granting literacy, xxiii, 54–56, 79 granting visions, xvii–xviii, xx, 10, 18, 31–33, 35, 39, 45–52, 62, 92–94, 100, 104–105 setting precedents for collaborative writing, xxv, 11– 14 Godfrey, 77 Goodman, Anthony, 90–91 Gori, Francesca, xxiii, 80–81


Greek, 5 Guibert of Gembloux, xxii, 77, 87, 105 age, 71 assumption of scribal duties, 72

correspondence with Hildegard, 43, 72 editing of Hildegard’s writings, 38, 47, 96 interactions with nuns in Hildegard’s convent, 11 Gundrada, xxv, 6, 9 H Hagiography, xxiii, 19–20, 30 Hart, Columba, 99 Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen, 38–39 Hebrew, 3, 5 Hedybia, 5 Heinrich, Archbishop of Mainz, 39 Heloise, 2, 5, 7–10, 68 Hermesinde, Countess, 7 Hildegard of Bingen biographical information, xxii education, 11 identification with Virgin Mary, 17 illustrations of her writing process, 77, 99–109 intimacy with scribes, 67, 71, 75–76, 87–88 partnerships as portrayed in letters, 37–43 partnerships as portrayed in memoirs, 30–34 partnerships as portrayed in treatises, 25–29, 99 sexuality, 69, 70, 82 significance of competent scribes in her writings, 47– 52 works about Hildegard The Life of the Saintly Hildegard, 30 works by Hildegard The Book of Divine Works, xxii, 25, 100, 102–105 The Book of the Rewards of Life, xxii, 25, 76, 104 The Life of St. Martin, 96 Scivias, xxii, 25, 31, 50, 76, 98–101, 105 Hirsh, John, 90 Holy Spirit, 3, 26, 48, 52 Hozeski, Bruce, 104 Hugo, 70 Hymns, 2, 7, 79 I Italica, xxv, 3, 8 J Jacques de Vitry, 11 Jeremiah, 12



Jerome, xxv, 2–5, 6, 8, 10–11 Johannes of Marienwerder, xxiv, 67, 97 John of Salisbury, 67 Jorgensen, Johannes, 87 Juliana, 3 K Kempe, Margery awareness of precedents for collaborative writing, 11 biographical information, xxiv debates about authorship of her book, 89–91, 95–97 encounters with textual and sexual violence, 73–74 response to religious art, 13 sexuality, 69, 70 significance of incompetent scribes in her writings, 31, 52–57, 64–65, 67–68 works by Margery The Book of Margery Kempe, xxiv, 30, 53–57, 60, 63, 65, 73, 89–91, 95–97 Kezel, Albert Ryle, 93 L Lachance, Paul, 64 Lachman, Barbara, 88, 105 di Landoccio, Neri, xxiv, 11, 21, 81, 87 Latin, xix–xxi, 5, 56–57, 64, 65, 73 Angela’s writings, xxiii, 58–61 Birgitta’s writings, xxiii, 35, 49, 93 Hildegard’s writings, xxii, 37–38, 98–99 Lay communities, xxiii, 63–64, 80, 82 Letters, xxvi, 2 associated with women, 24 employing diverse narrative voices and points of view, 42–43 focusing on writers, 39–41 offering varied views of conflict, 37–39 prohibited for some religious women, 68–69, 74 showing writing partners’ roles as variable, 41–42 used to facilitate collaboration, 4–5, 7–8 Literacy abuses, 73–74 gender, xvii, xix–xxi, 1, 81 miracles, xxiii, 79 stereotypes, 89–91 Literaiy criticism, xxvii–xxviii, 109–111 emotional perspectives, 86–88 feminist perspectives, 95–99

formalist perspectives, 88–92 religious perspectives, 92–95 Lollards, 57, 64 Ludwig of Enternach, 40 M Maconi, Stefano, xxiv, 11, 81, 87 Maltavolti, Francesco, 52 Mantellate, 80, 82 Marcella, 3–5, 8, 10 Margarita, 79 Marie d’Oignies, 11 Marriage, xxiii, xxiv, 67, 69, 71 Mary, Mother of Christ: see Virgin Mary Matthias, xxiii, 48–49 Maxima, 3 Mechthild of Hackeborn, 78 Mediation, xxvi–xxvii, 45–65 doctrine of ex opere operato, 47 relationship between textual mediation and religious mediation, 47–53 scribes’ claims of textual fidelity, 47–50 women as religious intermediaries, 50–52 Meech, Sanford Brown, 89 Memoirs, xxvi contrasting scribes’ weaknesses with women’s strengths, 30–31 emphasizing writing processes, 32–33 extending narrative privileges to scribes, 34–36 subjecting partners to predictable role reversals, 33–34 Miller, Carolyn, 37 Minnis, Alastair, 45 Mooney, Catherine, 91–92, 105, 109–110 Moses, 12 Motherhood, xxiii, xxiv, 18–19, 81 N Newman, Barbara, 96 Noffke, Suzanne, 92–93 O Olavsson, Master Peter of Skanninge, xxiii, 21, 49 Olavsson, Prior Peter of Alvastra, xxiii, 1, 21, 49, 71 Origen, 4 P Paolo, 68 Papacy, xxiii, 49 Paul, 31 Paula, xxv, 4–5


Paulina, 3 Pazza, Giovanna, xxiii, 80–81 Pecha, Alphonsus, xxiii, 49 Penitential communities: see Lay communities Petroff, Elizabeth, 98–99 Pilgrimage, xxiv Politics, xxiii, 6, 48, 82, 87 Popes, xx, 49 Porete, Marguerite, 64 Principia, 5 Prophecies, 23, 48 Prophets, xxii R Raymond of Capua, 30 Religious orders, xx–xxi, xxiii–xxiv, xxvi, 5–6, 7, 19–20 Revelations, xxiii, 19, 45, 48, 49, 62, 70; see also Visions Rhetoric classical rhetoric, 9, 110 rhetoric in medieval texts, 51, 55, 65, 68, 70–73, 75, 80–82 rhetoric in modern texts, 86, 90, 109 Richardis of Stade, xxii death, 31, 39, 75, 77 departure from Hildegard’s convent, 30–31, 38–39, 41, 75, 77, 87–88 illustrations of her scribal activities, 100, 102, 105, 107 Rotrud, 5–6, 8 S Sahlin, Claire, 19 Saracini, Alessa, xxiii, 80–81 Scribes age, xxii, xxiii–xxiv, 70–71, 81–82 competent scribes, xxvi, 26–27, 47–52 death, 31, 39–41, 53, 55, 70, 71, 75, 77–78, 88 family ties, xxiv, 35, 70 incompetent scribes in writings by men, 64–65 incompetent scribes in writings by women, xxvi– xxvii, 31–32, 52–65 invisibility, 25, 76–81 silence, 28–29 speech, 34–36, 42–43, 80 training, xix–xx wages, 54, 67–68 women writers’ reasons for employing scribes, xix–xxi


Scriptoria, xxi Seleuciana, 3 Sermons, xxiv, 2, 7, 11, 13, 23, 55–56 Sexuality erotic imagery in religious women’s writing, xxvii, 70, 79 parallels between textual and sexual aggression, 73–74 strategies used to downplay sexuality of female scribes, xxvii, 75–83 strategies used to downplay sexuality of male scribes, xxvii, 70–74, 81–82 suspicion of sexual activity between writing partners, 5, 70 women writers who were virgins, 69 women writers who were sexually experienced, 69–70 Spectacles, 54 Staley, Lynn, 55, 96–97 Stargardt, Ute, 97 T Timothy, 31 Tobin, Frank, 110 Treatises, xxvi, 6 assigning writing partners fixed roles, 27–28 describing partnerships from omniscient point of view, 28–29 offering limited information about partnerships, 25 portraying partnerships as harmonious and productive, 26–27 Trope of textual fidelity, 47–48 U Umiltà of Faenza, xxiv, 79–80 V Virgin Mary, 43 Annunciation, 12–14 collaborator with God, xxv, 12–17 communicator of divine truths, 49–50 in medieval art, 12–17 in medieval literature, 12 Magnificat, 14–15, 17 mediatrix, 21 significance to Birgitta, 17–21 significance to Elisabeth, 17–18 significance to Hildegard, 17 Visions, xxii–xxiv, 30, 32, 45, 61–62, 71, 78, 105; see also Revelations Volmar, xxii



authority, 26, 28, 33, 41 character, 30, 32 death, 40–41, 70, 71, 88 duration of partnership with Hildegard, 77 editing of Hildegard’s writings, 33, 37, 47–48, 96 illustrations of his scribal activities, 100–102, 104– 105, 110 intimacy with Hildegard, 67, 71 W Widows, xxiii, 3, 4, 69, 81 William of St. Amour, 69 Writing materials ink, xix, 13, 17, 19–20 inkwell, 13, 17 paper, 32 parchment, xix, xxii, 13, 45, 87, 100 pen, xix, 13, 17, 19–20, 54, 87 stylus, 13 wax tablet, xix, xxii, 19–20, 100 Writing processes dictation, xxiii, xxiv by an angel, 20 by Angela, 10, 60, 62, 91 by Catherine, 52, 87, 93 by Umiltà, 79 disposition, 2 of Angela’s writings, 91 of Hildegard’s writings, 33 of Margery’s writings, 90–91 of Mechthild’s writings, 78 invention, xviii, 9 of Angela’s writings, 33–34, 91 of Birgitta’s writings, 45, 93–94 of Catherine’s writings, 10–11, 92–93 of early Christian writings, 1–9 of Hildegard’s writings, 27 of Margery’s writings, 90–91 revision, xviii of Angela’s writings, 33, 59–60 of Birgitta’s writings, 47, 93 of early Christian writings, xxv, 3, 5, 6 of Hildegard’s writings, 27, 38, 40, 96 of Margery’s writings, 53–55, 89 seen as a form of manipulation, 97 transcription, 9, 45, 47, 97 by Birgitta’s scribes, 93 byBrotherA., 32–34, 58–62 by Catherine’s female scribes, 80–81

by Donnina, 79 by Elisabeth’s female scribes, 78 by Hildegard’s scribes, xxii by Jerome, 4 by Margery’s scribes, xxiv, 53 by Richardis, 76 by Volmar, 96 women’s loss of control over transcribed texts, 97 translation by Birgitta’s scribes, 10, 27, 35, 49, 93 by Brother A., xxiii, 58–60, 61–62 by jerome, 3, 5 by Margery’s scribes, 54–55 by modern scholars, 98–99, 104 means of eliminating scribal presence, 64 of the Bible, 56–57 Wyclif, John, 56–57