Performance and female preaching in late medieval and early modern Europe
Lecture by Carolyn Muessig
Given at the University of Oxford on June 12, 2018
Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) once preached to nuns about penance by sitting down on the floor, pouring ashes on his head, then suddenly leaving with barely saying a word. This exceptional example of male preaching proves the rule for female preaching — action over words sometimes created the most powerful sermon. This paper will argue that the key to recognizing female participation in late medieval and early modern preaching is to understand the diverse methods of communication that women used to ‘preach’ sermons. Like Francis they employed gestures and mime to convey theological ideas.
In particular, they relied on key New Testament narratives to articulate through movement some of the most fundamental Christian beliefs such as the incarnation, resurrection and redemption. Examples of women who preached in performative ways will include the Dominican observant nun Tommasina Fieschi (1448-1534) and the Dominican tertiary Stefana Quinzani (1457-1530).