Knowledge IS Power

(#6 in a series)

An intrinsic element of a hierarchical society is knowledge—who knows it, and who controls access to it.  

Throughout the medieval period, the Catholic church controlled much of the academia of the Western World. Institutionally, she did not handle this charge well, as evidenced by her poor reaction to the Age of Reason. The Inquisition could be framed as a last ditch effort to keep access to knowledge in the hands of the Vatican.

Catholics will admit that Martin Luther and his 95 Theses were not without merit. I personally believe—and this is greatly simplified—that the mysticism of the medieval period no longer served the evolving world; but instead of seeing this as an opportunity for new evangelism, the church clung to the past in a way that left a gaping void between the altar and the pews.

And into the void stepped the Protestants.

What they offered was revolutionary—an acceptance of science; personal access to God, in words and language that every person could understand; simple, beautiful prayer and worship; no intercessors, nothing to stand between us and our Savior.

This new independence of faith dovetailed with the end of the feudal system and the growth of cities. Leaders in these cities sought to impose law and order, for which the Protestant embrace of science and philosophy was a natural fit—unfortunately for women. Barr refers to The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg written by Lyndal Roper:

According to Roper the male political and economic leaders of Augsburg found Reformation theology supportive as they worked to strengthen control over the city and make it more financially stable. These economic and religious changes hardened an “theology of gender” for women  that, far from  improving their lives, placed women more securely under the household authority of their husbands. Marriage guaranteed women stability and significance, but their increasingly subordinate role confined them to low-status domestic work, increased their dependence on their husbands for economic survival and curtailed their economic and social opportunities outside the household (104-105).

Remember my mention last week of the midwife, healer, weaver, grower, alewife, abbess? These occupations began to disappear in cities where men formed guilds that required training or education and squashed the smaller competition, mainly women. A woman need only be trained as a wife under the authority of her husband. Barr makes an interesting observation: “Before the Reformation, women could gain spiritual authority by rejecting their sexuality. Virginity empowered them. Women became nuns and took religious vows, and some…found their voices rang with the authority of men”(103).  But after the Reformation, “(i)n an eerie echo of Roman paterfamilias, the orderly household once again became the barometer for both the church and state, and the waning power of the Catholic priest was replaced by the waxing power of the Protestant husband” (117).

At the same time, the Household codes were transformed. Barr notes that these verses were rarely mentioned in medieval sermons and when they were, it was as example for all Christians. She references 1 Timothy 2:15 (“Yet she will be saved by childbearing”): “the sermon casts the woman as an example for all Christians, who must go through the pain (like childbirth) of cleansing themselves of sin before experiencing the joy of salvation (the child itself)”(119). This is a very different read than the evangelical interpretation that only through child-bearing—and the assumed role of wife and mother—can a woman be saved.

Barr’s assessment: the Reformation placed women on an impossibly narrow pedestal and “as the role of wife expanded, the opportunities for women outside of marriage shrank”(127).

This made me think of the movie Dangerous Beauty, the historical story of a young girl named Veronica Franco who lived in Venice in the 16th century. While her friends marry in “triumph” to rich old men, Veronica’s mother trains her to be a courtesan. The contrast is stark: a gilded cage of marriage and motherhood against the educated, cultured, and financial freedom of the courtesans. The wives believe themselves superior in vocation, but in one wrenching scene, are forced to call on Veronica for news of their husbands at war. Not only does she receive regular letters from their husbands, but she arrives dressed in opulent, colorful splendor, as her position affords her—while they are dressed in stark black and perched on chairs like crows.

I remember wondering “Who would EVER want to be a wife?”