Christ’s Vulva: Women, Heresy, and the Myth of Male Solidarity

St Mary Magdalene obscured by lines from Cranmer's 1539 Bible. from the Rood Screen at Binham Priory, Norfolk.

St Mary Magdalene obscured by lines from Cranmer’s 1539 Bible. from the Rood Screen at Binham Priory, Norfolk.

I was thinking this morning about feminism’s political allegiances, and about how women become obscured even (or perhaps especially) within movements that claim to seek equality for all.

Most feminists I know are politically Left-leaning; I would argue feminism is necessarily a left-wing ideology. Yet a lot of us have had the same experiences with left-wing men, especially left-wing men who explain, like Dave, that we’re all ‘in this together’, we’re all fighting the same fight (oh, and can you please stop whinging about equal pay because if only you’d stayed in the kitchen we’d all be earning more). There’s a lovely take-down of this attitude here.

I was thinking about all of this because I’ve been reading about the small groups of women in medieval England who – for a heady few years in the early fifteenth century – really thought they might be able to take a position of authority within the Catholic Church: to preach, and teach, and stand alongside male clerics.

This movement – the Wycliffite or ‘Lollard’ heresy – spiralled out amongst medieval English people, bringing together blurred political, religious, and social demands. Some railed against the Church’s use of Latin, others against the lack of women priests, and others against the Church’s refusal to let male priests marry women. These strikingly modern-sounding objections – which would not begin to be recognized within the Catholic Church until Vatican II – attracted a large number of women, as well as men.

Within this movement, it’s easy to imagine that perhaps men and women had some semblance of shared goals, even of greater equality for women than they had elsewhere. But when we look at how men within this movement expressed their hopes and fears, we find a strikingly bitter tone to their references to women.

On April 18th, 1429, John Burrell of Norwich stood up in court and listed his heretical beliefs, for which he was in the process of pleading guilty.

Burrell described the usual catalogue of what we call ‘Lollard’ or Wycliffite heresies, beliefs the Catholic Church in England was keen to stamp out. Then he came to describe the famous pilgrimage shrine, the most popular in medieval England, which he declared was no place of miracles, but a fraud, a giant con perpetuated by the Church:

“Mary of Falsingham”

he called the shrine, punning on its name, Our Lady of Walsingham.

Burrell’s insult is not particularly hardcore for an accused heretic. Other more outspoken heretics would later declared that the Eucharistic bread could hardly be the Body of Christ, when:

“the priests did receive Him before noon [at Mass] and did piss and shit Him out at whores’ arses at afternoon.”

What I find interesting about Burrell’s testimony is his attitude towards women – or female figures of divinity. Burrell’s scorn of ‘Mary of Falsingham’ doesn’t just discredit what he saw as a superstitious religious practice: it focuses on female expressions of divine power.

This disgust at women runs all through the voices of men who challenged the established Church. The casually insulting reference to ‘whores’ visited by priests is part of the same scorn, and the frequent demand that priests should be able to marry – seemingly quite a woman-friendly idea – is usually couched in terms of (male) priests’ need to ‘use’ women; to behave like ‘natural’ men.

The women disciples of Lollardy and other heresies of the pre-Reformation Church had a difficult choice: the movement that might give them power and autonomy was also seamed with misogyny. Within the established Church, although there was constant misogyny and firm belief that women were not equal to men, there were also strong images of the female aspects of divinity itself.

New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MS 69.86, fol. 331r. Psalter and prayer book of Bonne of Luxembourg In the Cloisters Collection.

New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MS 69.86, fol. 331r.
Psalter and prayer book of Bonne of Luxembourg In the Cloisters Collection.

This image shows the wound in Christ’s side – bleeding, yet fertile with the promise of salvation and rebirth for the souls of humankind – which many artists pictured as if it were a woman’s vulva dilating during labour. To medieval artists, the idea was perfectly devout – the feminine significance of Christ’s wound was part of a rich tradition in which Christ was imagined as a motherly figure, ‘the mother pelican who feeds her young from the blood of her own breast’. Julian of Norwich, a famous and saintly mystic, eloquently praised God as her ‘dear mother’ as well as her spiritual father.

Finding female figures, or feminised images of God, is, of course, not automatic proof that a society’s religious culture was especially female-friendly. The misogyny of medieval Catholicism shows us how far this might be from the truth. But as the demands of heretics gained purchase and became subsumed into the later movement towards Protestantism in the sixteenth century, these expressions of female spirituality became threatened, and were not replaced with the fulfilled demands of Lollard women.

And when we look at which of the heretics’ demands actually came to pass, there’s a clear pattern. A century after John Burrell stood trial and denounced veneration of ‘Mary of Falsingham’, in 1529, Henry VIII called his Parliament together and demanded they obtain him an annullment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. This set in motion the chain of events that led to Henry’s break from Rome, and in the course of the sixteenth century, many of the hopes expressed a by medieval heretics were put into practice.

Priests were allowed to marry. Latin was abandoned, and the Bible was published in English. Statues and images of the Virgin and other saints were smashed; pilgrimage shrines were left to fall to ruins. The powerful Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mary come to be seen as superstitious in a Protestant country where representations of holiness were uncompromisingly masculine.

Women were not permitted to preach.

I chose the image at the top of this post because it offers a poignant visual parallel to the processes of erasure of older forms of female spirituality that I believe occurred during the Reformation. The image shows the Rood Screen at Binham priory in Norfolk, which was originally painted with the figures of Catholic saints, many of them female – St Mary Magdalene, St Barbara, St Zita, St Katharine, St Helena, St Apollonia. During the Reformation, the screen was whitewashed, and these women’s faces were painted over with the black lettering of Cranmer’s new translation of the Bible into English. But as the whitewash aged, the women’s faces began to show through again, so that now we see them beginning to emerge again.


3 thoughts on “Christ’s Vulva: Women, Heresy, and the Myth of Male Solidarity

  1. Pingback: Discrediting Women and Fiction: Eleanor Catton and Francesca da Rimini | Jeanne de Montbaston

  2. So basically the only apparent “misoginy” of the movement is: 1) saying the word “whore”
    2) That men need to use women to have sex
    3) That natural men want to have sex with women.

    Woah, such misoginy.

  3. Pingback: John Wycliffe, Bible Translator, Dead for 600 Years, Still a Better Feminist Ally than Ally Fogg. | Jeanne de Montbaston

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