Carol Hill, Women and Religion in Late Medieval Norwich, Boydell

Carol Hill, Women and Religion in Late Medieval Norwich, Boydell Press,
Woodbridge and Rochester, New York, 2010, £50.00. ISBN 978-0-86193304-4 (hardback), pp xiii + 204
Reviewed by: Margaret Jackson-Roberts, independent researcher, January
This book, based on the author’s PhD thesis, takes as its main theme a late medieval
incarnational piety, focused on ‘the blessed manhede (sc. Manhood) of Criste’ (p. 1),
and the maternal investment made by the Blessed Virgin Mary, that found its full
expression among the women, and particularly the widows, of Norwich. The
significance of this location is shown to stem in large part from the city’s major
trading links with the near continent, particularly the Low Countries and Germany,
where devotion to intercessory female saints such as St Anne, St Mary Magdalene,
St Bridget of Sweden and St Margaret of Antioch was already well-developed in the
context of the devotio moderna. The author makes considerable use of surviving
wills and pictorial representations as source material, and she acknowledges her
debt to Norman Tanner’s ground-breaking work and that of other historiographers.
She raises the interesting question of whether the women of Norwich ‘were the
fulcrum of a highly innovative lay piety’ (p. 16). The book would therefore be of
particular interest to local historians of religion and those seeking further evidence of
the female contribution to devotional advancement in the later middle ages.
The book concentrates upon the feminisation of later medieval religious sensibility,
wherein a focus upon the physicality of Christ, as represented by the Incarnation
and the Passion, was paramount. A regular cultus of saints underpinned female
piety, in contrast to the social and legal constraints operating upon women at this
time, when the negative views expressed by Tertullian, for example, still held
considerable authority. Not for the first time in human history, a degree of ambiguity
may have played its part, and the success of the cult of St Anne (mother of the
Blessed Virgin Mary) in particular may have rested ‘on the multiple, indeed
interleaved, layers of interpretation to which it was open’ (p. 58). Given the very real
and sometimes mortal dangers attendant upon childbirth, to seek help and support
from a favourite saint, whether herself a mother (St Anne, the Blessed Virgin Mary,
St Bridget of Sweden) or not (St Margaret of Antioch, St Mary Magdalene) seemed
entirely natural to women undergoing this experience. Even a virginal saint like
Magdalene had value. In the case of St Margaret of Antioch, her importance lay in
‘her ability to transcend female flesh’ and ‘her offer of personal empowerment to
women in the time of their greatest physical and spiritual vulnerability: childbirth’ (p.
Hill places her study within the wider contextual setting of an increasing feminine
sensitivisation of some members of the (male) clergy, particularly the Franciscan
friars but also to a lesser extent Cistercian monks, whose monasteries were all
dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Carmelites like Alan of Lynn, who was
responsible for disseminating St Bridget’s teaching in Norfolk. This gave the
invaluable active or passive support of men to an assertion of female piety,
especially where this last was associated with economic and social independence,
and Hill notes the importance of aristocratic women, such as Cecily Neville, Duchess
of York, or Margaret Purdans, who chose chaste widowhood or licensed vowess
status, in preference to remarriage, particularly for advancing the cause of St Mary
Magdalene, who was supposedly of aristocratic lineage. This support from socially
prominent individuals provided a unique opportunity for ‘subtle codes of selfexpression’ (p. 86). The author also points to the political significance of female
saints in bolstering the Yorkist cause, which claimed descent through the female
line. The cult of the Magdalene in particular was especially valuable in demonstrating
how women could overcome their fleshly inclinations and become a highly regarded,
if legendary, teacher and preacher; an example closely but covertly followed by
Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich. The suspicion of heresy could easily fall upon
any individual who transgressed acceptable boundaries by, for example, seeming to
exercise quasi-priestly functions. Spiritual strivings were often, however,
underpinned by performance of the seven corporal works of mercy (feeding the
hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick, clothing the naked, relieving
prisoners, sheltering the homeless, burying the dead) which were traditionally seen
as women’s work, and this helped to secure the acceptance of an active female
dimension to religious expression. Hill notes that a ‘reluctance to divide the material
from the spiritual [is] a dominant and recurring characteristic of late female medieval
religion’ (p. 169) and states that Margery Kempe ‘would remain an essentially
truthful (if subjective) expression of a spectrum of female spiritual aspirations that
often called down the opprobrium of men’ (pp. 119-120).
The intention of this book is to demonstrate the significance of Norwich as a wellconnected mercantile community for the development of an organised cult of those
saints with a particular resonance for women. In this it succeeds admirably. This
reviewer found the numerous quotations and citations from original sources, many
of them in contemporary language (with modern equivalents where necessary),
interesting and helpful though sometimes the linkages between the saintly chapter
subject and local women, e.g. Margery Kempe and Margaret Paston, could be a little
abrupt, thus making the connection and argument less easy to follow other than by
a direct recourse to the saint’s writings. It would have been useful to have a little
more on the contribution made, for good or ill, by the parish clergy of the city. A
short outline of the contributory importance of the devotio moderna would also have
been enlightening.
Hill raises the question of whether there was ‘a distinctive female piety’ (p. 7) in
evidence amongst the women of Norwich and its environs. This book sheds some
light on the issue without providing a definitive answer, but the quoted sources do
seem to demonstrate ‘a hitherto unrecognised seam of female investment and
activity’ (p. 11).