Religious Women in Medieval East Anglia: Not isolated, but marginalized

Religious Women in Medieval East Anglia: Not isolated, but marginalized

By Sono Morishita

Deviations and Alienations of Marginalized People in Medieval European Communities: The Seventh Korean-Japanese Symposium on Medieval History of Europe (2010)

Introduction: People use the word ‘gender’ to refers to cultural and/or social differences between male and female. Since mid-20th century, much ink has been spent on gender in history. My title of this paper includes the words ‘religious women’, a very popular topic among medievalists. The term ‘religious women’ includes ‘nuns’, ‘recluses’ and ‘vowesses’ in medieval society; all types has been objects of historical studies. Cultural and social differences between nuns and monks and between male and female recluses have been the subject of agreement, and through a comparison of male and female religious activities, or focusing on female part, a relatively new field of medieval ‘religious women’ studies has been formed. To rescue women who were historically ignored is one main purpose of building up the women’s history, and scholars thus turn the spotlight on women in church history.

The words ‘religious women’ in medieval England may sound good, but how about the expression ‘religious men’? There is something wrong. As Joan Wallach Scott pointed out, following an “equality-versus-difference” debate does not solve gender-biased situations, and on the contrary, it makes the situation much worse. Pursuing the cultural and social differences between men and women leads us to a conclusion that since there have been differences, it is impossible to give women a equal status in history. Judith Butler says, “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.”

My question is who or what makes religious women marginalized. The purpose of this paper is two-fold: first, I shall examine historical resources and archaeological evidences which show us various activities of ‘religious women’ in medieval East Anglia from pre-Conquest times to the later middle ages; and second, I shall examine how scholars have dealt with ‘religious women’ in their studies. I chose East Anglia because there are two famous religious women who have provoked a great deal of controversy; an anchoress Julian of Norwich and a vowess Margery Kempe of Lynn.

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