St. Birgitta: The Disjunction Between Women and Ecclesiastical Power
Equally in God’s Image: Women in the Middle Ages, Edited, Julia Bolton Holloway, Joan Bechtold, Constance S. Wright (Peter Lang, 1990)
The life of St. Birgitta of Sweden (1303-1373) can be re-examined within the context of sexual politics, because Birgitta became a powerful woman through her allegiance to contemporary masculine ideology. Her background indicates that her power emerged both in accordance with traditional masculine stratifications of class and education, and through her loyalty to the Papacy, the literal symbol of masculine secular and religious, temporal and spiritual authority in the Middle Ages. Certainly she questioned the right of certain ecclesiastics to wield authority; she even went so far as to sentence several popes to Hell in her visions for failing to return permanently to Rome. However, she never doubted the legitimacy of that authority itself. Beyond the imperfections of its human agents, Birgitta still believed the Papacy proper to be an institution worthy of
unwavering respect. Her accomplishments, therefore, were not really feminist victories, as she rose to power by defending a system created by men more fervently than did her male counterparts.
Because she supported this system, Birgitta also accepted traditional ecclesiastical doctrines which required the subordination, or the subalternization as Gayatri Spivak explains, of women. In the Middle Ages, women were excluded from powerful positions within the Church hierarchy, and were perceived as the “Second Sex,” to use Simone de Beauvoir’s term, both temporally and physiologically. Birgitta only furthered those beliefs in the inferiority of her sex when she denounced clerical corruption for transforming the purity of the male sacraments into a woman’s menstrual blood–an issue to be discussed later in this essay.