Finding Their Voices: Women in Medieval Byzantine and Latin Christian Philosophy

In 1767 in my hometown of Boston, a poet named Phillis Wheatley published a volume of her verses. For a woman to publish anything at this time was unusual: Wheatley was only the fifth to do so in the American colonies. But for someone like Wheatley to appear in print was unheard of. She was an enslaved African, kidnapped as a child and transported to America only six years previously, in 1761. Readers would have been incredulous that a young, female slave could produce competent poetry whose style was close to that of Alexander Pope. So the volume was prefaced by a testimony from a number of worthies, including John Hancock, reassuring the reader that these works were indeed written by her. This highlights the unprecedented set of social disadvantages Wheatley faced as an author, being not only female and black but also considered the legal property of her masters.

She dealt with this threefold obstacle with a twofold strategy. Sometimes she accepted her supposed inferior status, only to exploit it by speaking truths to her supposed betters. A good example is an address she wrote to graduates of what was then the University of Cambridge, later Harvard University. Of course, the audience would have been made up of privileged white men. After reminding them of her less advantaged origins—“’Twas not long since I left my native shore, the land of errors, and Egyptian gloom”—she exhorted them to the avoidance of sin, adding “an Ethiop’ tells you ’tis your greatest foe.” But in her poems she often adopted the opposite tactic of speaking from an elevated position, above that of her readers and, in a sense, above her own self. She presented herself as a mouthpiece of divine inspiration, invoking the angels as the source of her poetry, as when she prayed, “raise my mind to a seraphic strain” or exalted poetry in general as a celestial language. Often she invoked the Muses, a classicizing element typical of her work. On occasion Wheatley combined the two strategies, as with this appeal to the Muses: “Inspire, ye sacred nine, your vent’rous Afric’ in her great design.” Unable to occupy the authorial position that would have been easily available to a free, male, white author, Wheatley adopted variously a voice of humility—I, a mere girl from Africa, dare to say these things—and a voice of transcendence, drawing from a source above the merely human.

It is appropriate that Wheatley used classical tropes in pursuing her twofold strategy, because these are themselves tropes that had been used by women centuries before. The two voices of humility and transcendence, respectively “lower” and “higher” than the discourse routinely employed by male authors, were characteristic of female medieval authors. One might even venture to say that these were the only two strategies open to such authors, excluded as they were from contributing to the literature being produced by schoolmen, churchmen, and men in general. It is a plausible hypothesis that female intellectuals in antiquity might have turned to the same strategies. But that’s hard to prove, simply because of the lack of ancient texts written by women. As far as I know, there is not a single classical or late ancient text on an even remotely philosophical topic that can be securely ascribed to a female author. This is not to say that the historian of ancient philosophy will never encounter women. The most famous case is probably Diotima from Plato’s Symposium; much later, Monica, the mother of Augustine, appeared prominently in her son’s own dialogues and his Confessions. Augustine depicted Monica as a wise and holy figure who pushed him to accept Christianity and was even present during his decisive vision at Ostia, triggering his final conversion.

This literary representation of Monica prefigures the use of what I have called the “voice of transcendence” in the medieval period. As does another figure who appears at the beginning of the Byzantine philo­sophical tradition and tellingly is another family member of a male Christian theologian: Gregory of Nyssa’s sister Macrina (d. 379). In a work that deserves to be much better known than it is, titled On Soul and Resurrection, Gregory cast himself and his sister as the main characters in a restaging of Plato’s Phaedo. As Socrates was there depicted discussing the immortality of the soul just prior to his execution, so Macrina here lies on her deathbed in physical agony, yet still able to hold forth with Christian versions of the Platonist arguments for immortality.

As we know from a second work by Gregory, a hagiography of Macrina, he saw her as having effectively transcended her gender along with all other concerns of the body. He comments there that he is not even sure whether it is appropriate to call Macrina a woman, since she has passed beyond female nature. In keeping with this, in the dialogue On Soul and Resurrection Macrina argues that the true self is the rational soul, which can survive bodily death because of its kinship to God. As she puts it:

Anyone who says that the soul is a likeness of God should declare that all that is foreign to God falls outside the definition of the soul. For the similar is not preserved through deviations. Since, then, such things are not ascribed to the divine nature, one could reasonably suppose that they are not substantial for the soul either.

The immediate topic here is emotion, which Macrina thinks is extraneous to the soul’s nature. This is already relevant to questions of gender, since in antiquity women were commonly thought to be highly emotional. That’s something we can see, in fact, in the Phaedo, both at the beginning when Socrates sends away his lamenting wife and at the end when he tells his companions to stop weeping over him like women. Gregory of Nyssa subverts that dynamic at the start of his own dialogue by contrasting his own distraught state to Macrina’s calm confidence in the face of death. As the dialogue goes on, he subverts it in an even deeper way by making Macrina, a saintly woman, argue that the true self lacks all features associated with embodiment. This applies not only to emotion, but even to gender itself, since the soul is like God and God is neither male nor female.

As interesting as this dialogue is, it still hasn’t provided us with an example of a woman writing in her own voice. We can find that later in the Byzantine tradition, though. Not that Byzantium was a particularly feminist culture. Far from it. Ancient Greek assumptions about women were still very much in force, and, as our look at Gregory already suggests, the highest achievement that could be fulfilled by women was to transcend the boundaries of their gender. Christian holiness provided the chief means of doing so. One hagiographical work about saintly women argued that such figures are even more admirable than holy men, because “they have a weaker nature and yet were not hindered by this from climbing up to the summit of virtue, but they made the female [element] male through a virile mind and accomplished the same and even more than the men.”

Yet some Byzantine texts suggest that women might excel through their intellectual capacities and not only through their piety. A kind of compromise, or perhaps conflict, between these two ideas about excellent women can be found in the encomium that the eleventh-century philosopher and scholar Michael Psellos composed for his mother, Theodote (d. 1054). On the one hand, Psellos presents her as a holy figure devoted to God and committed to ascetic chastisement of the body. He talks about how her fasting made her seem almost dead, “like a shadow on a wooden board.” Yet he also praises Theodote’s rational perfection and mentions her view that men and women “possess reason equally.” With the example of Macrina probably at the back of his mind, Psellos describes how his mother instructed his father on the afterlife following the death of their daughter, that is, Psellos’s sister. This is the side of Theodote that Psellos relates to, since by his own admission he was never able to embrace the ascetic life himself. In this he fell short of her example, leading him ruefully to remark, “My devotion to philosophy is limited to its cloak.”

All this provides us with a context to understand the most remarkable woman of Byzantine literature, Anna Komnene. She played an important role in the history of philosophy by gathering a circle of scholars to write commentaries on previously uncommented works by Aristotle. A funeral oration for Anna by George Tornikes informs us, “The works which philosophers of our time addressed to her bear witness to her love of learning, works concerning those writings of Aristotle on which commentaries had not been written until her time.” George also explains how Anna came to be so learned, even, as he puts it, “wiser than men.” Despite the wariness of her parents, who feared exposing her to pagan literature, he says that “just as wise mothers of children often distrust match-makers, lest they inspire in maidens dishonorable passions,” Anna “braced the weakness of [her] soul.” “Like a maiden who takes a furtive glance at her bridegroom through some chink,” she undertook independent study of the liberal arts.

The fruit of this assignation was not only the flowering of commentary on Aristotle, but Anna’s own Alexiad, an epic historical work devoted to the exploits of her father, Alexios Komnene. Anna Komnene was no Phillis Wheatley. As a royal princess she wielded obvious socioeconomic advantages that put her in the rare position to undertake such an ambitious literary project. Yet even she adopted the voice of humility, describing herself modestly in the preface to the Alexiad as one who is “not without some acquaintance with literature, having devoted the most earnest study to the Greek language, and being not un-practiced in rhetoric and having read thoroughly the treatises of Aristotle and the dialogues of Plato.” Today, we would call this “humble-bragging.” Leonora Neville has written about Anna’s carefully crafted literary persona, which she calls “an exaggeratedly feminine persona of extreme emotionalism.” Yet Anna also emphasizes her own reliability as a historian and her ability to, for example, overcome grief over her father’s death in order to tell her story. As Neville later adds:

Anna’s repeated practice of breaking out of the proper boundaries of history, breaking out of a masculinized historian’s voice, to speak and participate in the discourses her culture marked as feminized, only to point out and apologize for her transgression, focuses attention both on her essentially female nature, and her ability to transcend that nature.

Here we have, even in this most powerful and privileged of female authors, the dual strategy I’ve been describing. Since she could not just write as a woman and be taken seriously, she alternately abased herself by humbly calling attention to her limitations as a “mere woman” and suggested that she had somehow risen above her status as a woman altogether. This second aspect of her authorial persona recalls something Psellos says in the encomium for his mother: she “knew nothing feminine, except what was decreed by nature, but was in all other respects strong and manly in soul.”

Turning now to Latin Christendom, I might be expected to go through a series of authors who adopt the “voice of transcendence,” given the fame of female mystics in the medieval West, figures like Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich. But that is only part of the story, and in terms of the broader culture, a pretty small part. Those mystical authors were obviously exceptional, not just in the sense that they were rare, but in the sense that they had removed themselves from the standard expectations and duties of the medieval woman. A case that is more representative, though still of course exceptional (given that mere literacy was exceptional, never mind actually writing works that survive to the present day), is that of the Carolingian author Dhuoda. Around 841, she wrote a letter to her son William, offering him practical and moral advice in a work that combined poetic and prose elements. This is a widespread feature of medieval writings, inspired by Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, only one sign of Dhuoda’s learning. Yet the fundamentally domestic occasion of the text reminds us of the role standardly played by medieval women, whose sphere of competence was restricted to overseeing her household and family. In this sense Dhuoda is the medieval heir of the anonymous, possibly female authors of antiquity who wrote letters on such domestic matters as raising children and coping with a husband’s adultery, which have come down to us spuriously ascribed to female figures from the Pythagorean tradition.

As for the aforementioned famous names from the mystical tradition, we find them combining the two strategies I have been describing, sometimes even in the same passage. Take Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179). More obvious in her writings is the voice of transcendence, as she reports on visions she received from God, whom she calls the “living light,” and implicitly claims special authority to interpret those visions. In a work like her Scivias, she not only relates the vision—as when she saw an iron mountain used as a seat by a luminous winged giant—but also explains the symbolic meaning of each of its details. This looks like a bold assertion of theological authority. Yet the very explanation of her authoritative position is given in the voice of humility. These things have been possible for Hildegard as a mere woman, because despite “remaining in the fragility of the weaker rib,” that is, despite the fact that woman was formed from Adam’s side and is thus inferior to man, “she is filled with mystical inspiration.”

A model for this nuanced self-presentation—weaker than men, yet given insight beyond the ken of humans—would have been the Virgin Mary. The point is well made by a poem that Hildegard herself devoted to Mary.

O great the wonder that in a female body a king entered. God did this as humility rises above all. And O great the happiness in that woman, because the evil that came from woman [Eve], this one [Mary] then swept away.

Hildegard, like Mary, was a humble woman exalted above the rest of humankind after being chosen by God. She took advantage of this status in her dealings with men, as when she presumed to pronounce on a piece of technical scholastic philosophy put forth by Gilbert of Poitiers, despite being, in her own words, not “imbued with human doctrine.” Her general verdict on the scholastics was severe, as she wrote in a letter, “The teachers and the masters (doctores et magistri) do not wish to sing with the trumpet of the justice of God.” On another occasion she was annoyed by the archbishop of Mainz and did not hesitate to tell him so. The voice of transcendence rang out as she effectively claimed identity with God. With pointed use of the first person, she intimidated the archbishop with the words, “I am the height and the depth, the circle and the descending light.”

Few medieval women asserted the right to speak like this, even among those who claimed to have enjoyed mystical experiences. Beginning in the thirteenth century, we see such authors instead employing the tropes of courtly romance literature. In a kind of gender swap, the role of the pining male lover was played by the female mystic, while God or Christ was the remote and mostly unattainable love object. One central author in this literature of minne, meaning “love,” was Mechthild of Magdeburg (d. 1282), whose German vernacular writings figure her intermittent union with God as an exquisitely agonizing erotic relationship. This was daring stuff and provoked criticism, as we can see from a passage in Mechthild’s Flowing Light of Divinity (Das fließende Licht der Gottheit), where she responds to a threat to burn her book. Sounding not unlike Hildegard, she admits that she is no “spiritually learned man (geleret geistliche man),” but precisely because of her humble status, she claims to be an ideal vessel for God’s grace. Sure enough, a vision comes from God to reassure her: “no one can burn the truth.” Again recalling Hildegard and her bold critique of the schoolmen from a position of self-conscious modesty, Mechthild reflected on this episode by saying that “learned tongues are taught by the unlearned mouth.”

One of the rules for this dialectic between humility and transcendence is that the female author should at least pose as a passive recipient of God’s illumination. Thus Mechthild, looking back on the time before “God’s word came into her soul,” says that she never sought to receive this revelatory gift. And this is another reason why Mechthild and comparable authors like Hadewijch (early to mid-thirteenth century) described their relation to God by using the language of courtly love poetry. The lover, here the female mystic, never knows when the beloved, here God, will appear, so that desperate longing may be satisfied with a union that outstrips the power of human thought and language. Hadewijch daringly evoked the doctrine of the Trinity to describe this encounter with the divine.

The Father took the Son to himself with me and took me to himself with the Son. And in this unity into which I was taken and where I was enlightened, I understood this essence and knew it more clearly than, by speech, reason, or sight, one can know anything that is knowable on earth.

In a more frankly erotic application of the same idea, Mechthild spoke of her soul as “naked,” with nothing between it and God.

One author who followed the logic of humility and transcendence to its logical conclusion was Marguerite Porete (d. 1310), burned to death by the Parisian authorities after she refused to disavow her supposedly heretical book, The Mirror of Simple Souls. It is another dialogue, in which characters representing the author’s soul and abstract notions like Love and Reason discuss the possibility and meaning of union with God. Marguerite’s doctrine is put especially in the mouth of the character Love, who explains that the soul reaches God by achieving a state of maximal humility, which can also be called “annihilation.” This happens when the soul’s will is extinguished to the point of wanting nothing at all, not even union with God. Annihilation is a form of self-knowledge in which the soul, as a created entity, comes to see herself as being nothing at all in comparison to the infinity of God. Here the voice of humility has become the voice of outright self-abnegation. Marguerite says that the soul “does not seek for knowledge of God among the teachers of this world, but by truly despising this world and herself.”

That sounds like a rationale for punishing asceticism, as pursued by Psellos’s mother, Theodote, and any number of saintly Christian women going back to late antiquity. But actually Marguerite Porete was rather unimpressed by asceticism and indeed by all attempts to exercise “virtue” in this world. She thought that the annihilated soul can transcend virtue, one of the teachings that appalled the church and was quoted in the documents of the trial leading to her execution. Of course, her point is not that one should live hedonistically, or engage in worldly vice. Rather, the mystic “takes leave” of the whole arena of practical morality. She does not virtuously resist desire but ceases to have desire at all. She does not tame her will but aligns her will entirely with that of God, to the point that there is no difference between them. Marguerite’s rather abstract approach to the humility of the mystic puts her close to a figure like Meister Eckhart, who also emphasized the “nothingness” of created things and proposed that we should learn to subsume our will entirely within the divine will. He may even have been influenced by Marguerite, though this remains a matter of scholarly debate.

By contrast, prominent women thinkers of the later fourteenth century, like Catherine of Siena (d. 1380) and Julian of Norwich (d. after 1416), pursued union with God using the tools of what has been called “affective mysticism.” This style of mysticism is anything but abstract. It can involve spectacular forms of self-chastisement. Famously, Catherine starved to death after nourishing herself on nothing but the eucharistic host. Other affective mystics went in for such practices as eating the scabs and drinking the pus of lepers. This should provoke more than lurid curiosity. What was the intellectual or spiritual rationale behind such behavior? An answer has been provided by Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast, one of the more influential books in medieval studies from the past several decades. Bynum set out to explain why medieval women authors, and medieval male authors writing about holy women, so frequently referred to food and used other images having to do with the body, as when they had visions of themselves nursing Christ or saw him before them on the wall, drenched in blood.

At the risk of oversimplifying, Bynum’s answer was that medieval women embraced the close association of women with embodiment, sexual reproduction, food production, and bodily fluids like blood and breast milk. Taking their cue from the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Eucharist, where the divine literally manifests in physical form, they located spirituality and even sacredness in such physical phenomena. Bynum says, “In a religiosity where wounds are the source of a mother’s milk, fatal disease is a bridal chamber, pain or insanity clings to the breast like perfume, physicality is hardly rejected or transcended. Rather, it is explored and embraced.” This is a plausible and fruitful proposal that has been carried forward in significant ways by other scholars like Amy Hollywood and Christina Van Dyke. I don’t want to attempt anything that ambitious here but only to tease out an implication already present in Bynum’s original study, namely, that the phenomenon she identified represents a perfect synthesis of the dialectic of humility and transcendence that I have been discussing.

In fact, affective mysticism and the more abstract doctrine of annihilation found in Marguerite Porete represent two alternative ways to speak simultaneously with the voices of humility and transcendence. If, as Marguerite argues, the mystic is nothing at all apart from God, then self-knowledge is becoming simultaneously aware of her infinite humility and her infinite transcendence. And if, as the affective mystics seem to be suggesting, the divine is immanent in the most despised and lowly aspects of our physical experience, then the supposedly humble roles allowed to women in medieval culture, like the preparation of food or the birthing and nursing of children, can be reconceived as exalted activities that bring women into contact with God.

It makes perfect sense that the most ambitious, and most philosophically challenging, achievements of medieval women authors would take this form. Excluded from the philosophical discourse of scholastic thinkers, they could speak from a position of inferiority to those thinkers, emphasizing their weak femininity. Or they could speak from a position of superiority, not thanks to any personal achievement, of course, but thanks to the passive reception of a divine gift. This rhetorical posture went together with admissions of inability to do “rational” philosophy in the fashion of an Aristotelian scholastic, or a refusal to do so.  

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is excerpted from the chapter “Finding Their Voices: Women in Byzantine and Latin Christian Philosophy” in Don’t Think for Yourself: Authority and Belief in Medieval Philosophy. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.

Featured Image: Richard of Verdun, Marie de France, c. 13th c.; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Peter Adamson

Peter Adamson is professor of philosophy at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and the host of the podcast A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps.

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