Wednesday book: She was the winner by a nose

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
BASIC HUMANITY may be unchanging, but alien codes of morality or custom can make the behaviour of our ancestors seem incomprehensible. Why, for instance, did St Ebba of Coldingham cut off her nose? To find out is to roll back the stones of history, and discover the hidden lives of women swarming underneath. Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg finds an amazing richness of female history in the recorded lives of saints.

Taking the biographies of more than 2,000 saints, mostly female, Schulenburg reconstructs the female experience of society, from the 6th to the 12th centuries. In those dark times, a woman with attitude could have what amounted to a successful career in the religious life.

Virginity, in a woman, was more than a useful qualification. It was a positive asset that put her on a far higher spiritual level than her breeding sisters. St Ebba cut off her nose, in 807, to discourage invading Danes from raping her. Loss of honour was a fate far worse than death. It meant the ruination of a woman's soul, and if she could persuade marauding Danes or Saracens to kill her instead, the final victory was hers. The tragedy of St Maria Goretti, a child who was canonised after she died fighting off a rapist at the beginning of this century, can be explained as a horrid endpiece to a thousand years of Catholic tradition.

Schulenburg shows that we have to turn our own attitudes upside down to understand what drove these female saints. She quotes St Jerome (from whom her title is taken) writing with admiration of a woman who had abandoned her children for God: "She knew herself no more as a mother, that she might approve herself a handmaid of Christ."

Childbirth was considered shameful and degrading. "Fear of female pollution associated with motherhood," writes Schulenburg. "was also reflected in the burial policies of the period. It was apparently common practice not to allow the bodies of women who had died in childbirth... entry into the church." It was the growing cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary that led to the idealisation of motherhood.

Giving birth meant dicing with death. Being married meant becoming someone's virtual slave. It is not surprising that so many women took their dowries off to the nearest convent. Schulenburg carefully deconstructs the official church histories, to reveal the political and economic side of sainthood.

To set up a thriving religious community, you needed a saint with a strong local following. Failing that, you needed a good, crowd-pulling relic. The account of the relic market is bizarre, and hugely entertaining. St Radegund, for example, nabbed a fragment of the Holy Cross, and ensured the economic security of her order after her death. Imgardis, countess of Zutphen (late 11th century) was asked by the Pope for relics of the 11,000 Virgins of Cologne. In return, she was given part of the head of St Silvester.

In desperation, nuns were even driven to steal relics. In 970, the nuns of Maubeuge stole the body of St Gislenus from a nearby monastery. In the 8th century, the nuns of Hanbury kidnapped the corpse of St Werburga, after rival nuns at Threckingham put it under armed guard. Sometimes, the Holy Spirit needed a little assistance.

Several orders of nuns found that a timely miracle could sidestep planning laws. St Eanswith's monastery, on a cliff at Folkestone, had trouble with its water-supply. So the saint "dug a canal with the tip of her crozier... and made the water run uphill."

Later in the book, Schulenburg addresses the tradition of fasting and self-denial - as widespread then as now, but for different reasons, on the surface at least. The flesh had to be worn down into submission to the spirit. St Berlinde of Meerbecke ate only twice a week, and then mostly dry bread. Modern anorexics could identify with this craving for control of the self and its appetites.

"In all the vitae that I have surveyed," notes the author, "there are very few reference to overweight or obese women" (though St Bruno's mother was reportedly so enormous she had to be dragged about in a little cart).

This book is full of such delicious snippets, proof of the thoroughness of Schulenberg's research. She is especially illuminating about what a capable woman could achieve through the religious life. She could publish, make money, run a business, even adopt a child. In the days before women were marginalised and enclosed, the life of a saint could be surprisingly fulfilling. This fascinating book reaches far beyond the history of Christianity to recreate the "herstory" of a whole gender.