Trusting Temptation: Interpreting Women's Visionary Writing in Late-Medieval England
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CitationKelner, Anna. 2021. Trusting Temptation: Interpreting Women's Visionary Writing in Late-Medieval England. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
AbstractAt the end of the European Middle Ages, Christian women increasingly attested to visions from God, composing one of the most important and distinctive bodies of early women’s writing. Meanwhile, male churchmen refined their techniques for testing visions, which, in principle, might have come from either God or the devil. The possibility of diabolical influence posed particular dangers for female visionaries, since it was widely and misogynistically assumed that women were more susceptible to it than men. Yet female visionaries also intervened in this juridical environment, unsettling the distinction between divine and diabolical asserted by male theologians.
Trusting Temptation: Interpreting Women's Visionary Writing in Late-Medieval England focuses on the hermeneutic strategies that female visionaries developed to validate the overlap between the divine and diabolical sources of visions, and their implications for constructions of gender identity. Setting works from late-medieval England by both male theologians and female visionaries against a wider European backdrop, the dissertation reexamines "the discernment of spirits," or discretio spirituum, a key heuristic used to distinguish between divine and diabolical sources of visionary experience. Scholars since the 1990s have traced the development of a juridical form of discernment discourse from the early fourteenth century on. My research has uncovered a second, equally influential model of discernment, rooted in an ancient and culturally prestigious tradition of contemplative writing that was still available in the late Middle Ages. Female visionaries drew on this contemplative tradition to assign new meaning to the devil, shaping representations of gender in visionary and mystical writing.
This contemplative form of discernment offered women visionaries in late-medieval England a set of interpretive tools to challenge the binaries between divine and diabolical causes often reinforced in legal settings. Works in the contemplative tradition represent diabolical influence as a temptation: in Christian thought, a spiritual danger, but also a precondition for inner growth. While juridical discernment methods often furnished male clerics with suspicious hermeneutics in examining female visionaries, the contemplative discernment tradition offered female visionaries more reparative methods to analyze their own visions. Women drew on contemplative discernment techniques to explore the potentially positive valences of diabolical influence, often a source of stigma in Judeo-Christian understandings of femininity. As this study argues, female visionaries drew on the contemplative discernment tradition to complicate male, clerical efforts to situate them as objects of suspicion, in turn recuperating a stigmatized aspect of their gender identity.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37370218
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