There exists a peaceful contradiction in Christian thought over the interaction of religious devotees (monks and nuns) with the opposing gender. The clear judgment expressed by both sides was that interactions should be as minimal as possible because of potential temptation and distraction away from their eschatological goals. As a result, vows of celibacy and intentional segregation of the sexes became commonplace and the expected norm. Any arrangement in which men and women devoted to monastic life interacted had the potential to bring the virtue of both sides into question. However, this divisional decision was not maintained strictly, if at all, for interactions between individuals who were both blood related and devoted to a spiritual lifestyle. Instead, it was encouraged and adapted into the life stories of saints as an acceptable and beneficial interaction. Fiona Griffiths, in her article for the Journal of Church History, “Siblings and the Sexes Within the Medieval Religious Life”, hones in on this anomaly of “acceptable” and encouraged inter-sex relationships.
Griffiths sets up her article with Elisabeth of Schönau[i] as a guiding example of the Christian stance that interactions between the sexes was questionable only when the two people involved are not united both by blood and spiritual interests. Elisabeth was Griffith’s choice example because of the former’s series of visions in 1156 that concerned Saint Ursula and her cousin Saint Caesarius.[ii] In these visions, Elisabeth learned from Saint Ursula that it was common for blood-related (to the virgins) men to accompany the British virgins of Cologne cemetery on their pilgrimages. This act of chaperoning was acceptable because those men “had done so licitly, primarily as members of the women’s families.”[iii] Elisabeth readily accepted this explanation and did not consider any sort of scandal between the virgins and their male escorts because of the basis of blood relation. Her acceptance, as Fiona Griffiths suggested in the article, is a clear confirmation of the peaceful contradiction over inter-sex relations in religious life during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.[iv] Through the background of Elisabeth’s visions, conclusions, and the rhetoric of that time, Griffiths lays out her premise for the rest of the article: “As Elisabeth’s visions demonstrate, alongside the drive toward sexual segregation within the religious life there was an alternate spiritual possibility, one in which contact between the sexes was not only acceptable, but could even be mutually advantageous.”[v]
After her introduction with Elisabeth Schönau, Griffiths breaks her article into four sections and a conclusion. The first section highlights the understandings of spiritual and biological family in early Christian thought. She discusses the fact that “according to early Christians, believers were united by ties of spiritual kinship which superseded the bonds of biological kinship.”[vi] The biological family was supposed to be left behind in favor of a spiritual connection to god and fellow believers. The biological family was an obstacle that had to be overcome instead of embraced. This was interesting because even in spiritual language, believers would refer to each other as “brother” or “sister” but their connection in that name was mostly superficial as a “spiritual family.” On the other side of the scale, the conduct of spiritual family members could be called into question if “spiritual brothers and sisters might overstep the limits of acceptable affection” causing “shameful suspicions and slanders.”[vii] Griffiths points out that, in response to the possibility of slander, the anomaly of blood-related male to female interaction became acceptable and even promoted by medieval Christian writers and church leaders “as an alternate, and legitimate, context for relations.” Relations between blood-related aesthetics was easier to shield from accusations and therefore were encouraged because interaction between males and females were beneficial only when they were without pressure or filled in any way with flesh-based temptation.
The second segment of the article is titled “Brothers and Sisters in Late Antique Monastic Practice.” Here Fiona Griffiths provides the reader example after example of church fathers and female saints who honored close ties to their siblings and held a specific interest in their spiritual development. Among those named include: Antony, Pachomius, Macrina, Cassian, Caesarius, Gregory of Nyssa, and the bishop brothers Leander & Isidore. In each case, the saint named, according to hagiographies about them, took measures in order to guide and/or keep with their siblings in religious life. The men in particular were cited as taking care to see that the future of their sisters were ensured by placing them in pre-exiting religious communities or founding new ones (“paired” or “doubled” with their own). The examples began with Antony because he was said to have placed his own sister with a group of religious women before entering the religious life himself. John Cassian was another primary example for Griffiths to use because not only did he found communities for both men and women, he also placed his sister Caesaria “as abbess over the female house” and “penned a rule for women”.[viii] Griffiths does something interesting in this section because, with each example (starting from Antony and working up chronologically), she sets up a traditional basis for blood-related sibling interaction similar to the instructional texts created by those same church fathers. For example, Cassian uses a similar style of chronological example development to support his own theories on the monastic lifestyle—he simply used first biblical figures and then moved on to discussing Antony.
Griffiths’ third section, titled “Benedict and Scholastica”, explores the existence of a sister in a majority of the hagiographies of saints by using Benedict and his alleged sister as her primary example. She points out that the existence of a sister persistently shows up in the recorded lives of holy men far to often to only be a coincidence and therefore raises a few questions.[ix] These questions included a wish to discern why the possession and concern for the spiritual welfare of a sister appears to have become a standard element in the hagiographies of so many male saints. To summarize Griffith’s pursuit of answers on that subject: The addition of a sister in many of the accounts, especially that of Scholastica in the hagiography of Benedict by Gregory, was very formulaic. There is the possibly that she did not exist at all and mention of her in the hagiography was possibly to broaden his appeal to a larger audience or to protect the saint’s name if he had a spiritual friendship with a non-related female. The plugging of a “sister” into the hagiographies of saints was a way to set precedence and “served to perpetuate the brother-sister bond, mediating the late antique paradigm to sibling intimacy.”[x] Religious sibling interactions were cast as pious and proper inter-gender relationships to be cultivated thanks to their appearance in the lives of saints—essentially, the saints had such relationships therefore it was okay for later religious persons to do the same.
Section number four (“Brothers & Sisters in the 12th Century”) reflects on how relationships between siblings were beneficial to both sides in their spiritual development. Initially, the most logical benefit of interaction between pious siblings was that brother (or other male relatives) could provide their female relations with the means needed to survive and the chance to receive the care of a priest. Only blood-related men were seen during the time as properly qualified to provide pastoral support to religiously devoted women without risk of corrupting the interaction. On the opposite side of the gender divide, the men benefited from supporting their female relatives in religious life because it gave them spiritual protection through biological association. Griffiths supports this point when she discusses Leander’s clear “expectation that he would receive an eternal reward through” his sister’s piety. The quote from Leander was: “You are my shelter in Christ; you, dearest sister, are my security… Christ will not allow ‘to perish a brother whose sister He has espoused.’”[xi] A second way in which the males benefited from supporting their female relations was spiritual inspiration and sometimes guidance. The example used by Griffiths for this benefit is from Gregory of Nyssa’s account of his sister Macrina and her role as a spiritual “teacher.” “Women had the potential to suppress men in their piety and intimacy of their relationship to Christ” but, required the aid of men to receive certain rites.[xii] The men needed the women in order to glimpse deeper levels of spiritual compassion and the women required the protection and spiritual support of their male relatives in order to practice and survive during a time when female devotion to religious life was easily questioned.
The fifth section provides for the reader an overview of the persistence of family bonds within medieval monastic life, despite traditional calls to leave biological family behind in favor of spiritual unity.[xiii] Griffiths supports her statements on the family with more examples of familial relations within monastic communities. Biological commitment to family became an important metaphor and motif for prescribing relations between the sexes. The idea was to piously treat all of the opposite sex as if they were biological family as that type of affectionate but platonic relationship was and remains the hardest to suspect of or degrade into corruption.
Finally, Griffiths brings together the ideas of her past five sections with a two-page conclusion. In it she reiterates that antique and medieval Christians encouraged connections between blood-related persons in spiritual life because that kinship was a part of a tradition-based model for proper interaction between the sexes. That type of relationship was as close as devoted religious persons could come to relations without immediate risk of corruption of their eschatological goals.
[i] A German Benedictine visionary who, although not canonized, has been referred to as a “saint” for her work and spiritual visions.
[ii] The bodies of the two Saints had been found together in a grave with a number of other male and female bodies. The Saints had been brought to reside in Elisabeth’s convent and so triggered visions. These visions resulted in her most popular and controversial work Liber Revelationum.
[xiii] “Far from renouncing family and the associated danger of the flesh, these examples demonstrate that medieval monastic men and women maintained close ties with their blood kin, despite their entrance into the new spiritualized ‘family’ of the monastery.” Griffiths, 10 paragraph 2
Griffiths, Fiona. “Siblings and the Sexes Within the Medieval Religious Life,” Journal of Church History 77, no. 1 (March 2008): 26-53.