June 1993By Laura Garcia
Laura Garcia is a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University.
The Oldest Vocation: Christian Motherhood in the Middle Ages. By Clarissa W. Atkinson. Cornell University Press. 274 pages. $24.95.
Clarissa Atkinson opens her book on medieval views of motherhood with the fictitious story recounted in the 13th century by Boccaccio concerning a woman named Joan who conceals her identity and manages to become pope. Her identity is discovered when, pregnant, she gives birth in the middle of a solemn public procession -- to the shock and scandal of those who witness the event. Atkinson comments: "The woman whose learning and virtue carried her to the heights was destroyed by motherhood. Joan was not betrayed by a lover or discovered by an enemy; she was brought down by her own body, which was inherently and catastrophically unfit for ecclesiastical dignity." Atkinson sees this story as an opportunity for Boccaccio to castigate "bold women," which oddly overlooks the fact that Joan was not only bold and bright but deceitful and sinful. There is also no mention of any justification for the view that a woman as pope is inappropriate other than because of women's physiology. Even those favoring the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood rarely resort to this extreme a caricature of their opposition.
Atkinson's book is devoted to a close examination of the available medieval sources that can shed light on ideas about motherhood among the literate. Atkinson teaches the history of Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, and she is at her best when assembling and explicating the historical texts, which include spiritual guides, saints' tales, theological treatises, and handbooks for midwives. The book is not light reading (a typical chapter has well over a hundred footnotes), but it is well written and often engrossing. The time period covered is so vast (first-century Christianity through the Reformation) that some theses in the book receive little or no documentation while others are almost over-documented. In the latter case it is often difficult to tell what the author's real purpose is in putting certain materials before us. Strangely, there is little attempt in the book to differentiate between what various Christians have said and what might plausibly be called the official Christian view; all sources are presented as having more or less equal weight in defining the Christian perspective. Atkinson sees the influence of Christianity on past and present perceptions of motherhood as largely lamentable, with the possible exception of Jesus' own teachings and the very early Christian community (prior to the letters of Paul). Since even expectant women and women with children (such as Perpetua and Felicitas) were praised for their willingness to die as martyrs, Atkinson concludes that for early Christian women "motherhood was not especially relevant to holiness." Since Rome was an equal opportunity executioner of Christians, women were enabled to transcend their traditional roles as mothers in order to participate (quite literally) in the public arena. (Actually, however, their motherhood only made their sacrifice more valuable, increasing respect for these martyrs.) Atkinson contrasts this treatment with that of "Pope Joan," whose motherhood was an occasion of "caricature and cruelty." But to explain this contrast as owing mainly to different values regarding the relationship of motherhood to holiness is bizarre, to say the least.
When Christianity became an established religion in the fourth century and martyrdom (the pinnacle of sanctity) ceased, a new model of holiness, monasticism, developed. For Atkinson, whereas previously mothers could hope to attain the pinnacle of sanctity (by dying for their faith), now this appeared closed to them.
The Church's teaching that a celibate life is in some ways superior to married life continued in the later middle ages, but at this time, says Atkinson, it was considered possible for mothers (and fathers) to become saints. Asceticism and poverty remained central to the ideal of Christian holiness, but the rigors of monastic life were seen as mirrored in the suffering and tears of mothers, in childbirth, and in the extended labor of bringing children to maturity. The mother's role in nurturing the souls of her children was acknowledged, and allowed for a combining of her physical motherhood with a sort of spiritual motherhood. Mary came to be seen not only as the somewhat remote Queen of Heaven but also as the perfect mother, a model of unconditional love. Many married women of this era were canonized as saints, and the salutary effect of their example and prayers on the lives of their children was often presented as evidence of their holiness.
Many readers would find this development encouraging, an indication of growth in the Church's appreciation of the value of married life. But for Atkinson, it seems mainly to serve as an ominous precursor of the view that women can only achieve sanctity through their motherhood. She associates this view primarily with Reformation thinkers such as Luther and Calvin, owing to their rejection of the notion of consecrated virginity, but Atkinson argues that, for all women or at least women outside the convent, a good woman was a good mother. She sees this view as an extremely pernicious one which persisted into the 20th century (or at least into the 1950s) and is preserved today by people like Jerry Falwell. But it is hard to know what would have been put forward as a plausible alternative to this view at the time. Even in early Christianity or in the later middle ages, a good woman was either a good mother or a good religious; few envisioned the possibility of economic independence for single women. Atkinson claims that during the early modern period, "religious sanctions indoctrinated women into motherhood; poverty, criminalization, and hellfire threatened those who strayed." However, she does admit that the fact that there were limited options for single women in the 16th and 17th centuries was due to political and economic factors as well. So one can hardly lay this at the feet of religion alone.
Further, Atkinson's complaint that Christian women of the early modern period became confined to domestic responsibilities runs at an angle to her concerns in earlier chapters, so that toward the end the book loses focus. Atkinson has argued that, within primitive Christianity, motherhood was irrelevant to holiness and that this was a brief golden era in the Church. For a thousand darker years, motherhood was seen as an obstacle to holiness, but this was moderated in time by the view that both motherhood and religious vows could be means to holiness and union with God. Even if this had resulted in a new golden era in which motherhood was "irrelevant" to holiness (though this is an odd way, to put it), it hardly follows that motherhood would have been irrelevant within society, economically or politically. It is a further question as how desirable it is that motherhood should be considered irrelevant in these areas, but in any case it is a question far removed from what Atkinson has been discussing throughout the central chapters of her book.
Wandering even further afield, she closes with support for abortion-on-demand. Apparently Atkinson blames Christianity for fostering the view (deriving from the fear of witches) that women outside the role of mother are dangerous and highly suspect, that motherhood should be not just the oldest vocation but the only vocation of women. That the preceding chapters of the book do little to substantiate this claim goes without saying. The sadder fact is that Atkinson has missed an opportunity to bring the medieval concept of spiritual motherhood into the contemporary sphere and to present it as opening up possibilities for defining women's unique contribution to society (outside as well as inside the home). Further, in her haste to make motherhood irrelevant to the definition of a good woman, Atkinson fails to connect the Christian tradition regarding motherhood to the concerns of today's women who are mothers (still the vast majority of women) and who see their motherhood neither as an obstacle nor as irrelevant, but as a privilege and a gift -- in short, as a vocation.