Handmaidens and Icons: Interpreting Women’s History

The Annunciation: Misogynistic Imposition or the Beginning of a Feminist Iconography?

The Annunciation: Misogynistic Imposition or the Beginning of a Feminist Iconography?

I planned to write this post about Mary Magdalene, the woman who is both reviled as a prostitute in medieval stories and honoured as a preacher in the early Church by some modern feminist theologians. I wanted to think about how Christian culture constructs icons of strong women that are both inspirational, and undercut with profound misogyny. But as I was thinking about this, I realized that even the most holy female figure in the Christian Church is subjected to this kind of treatment.

The Virgin Mary is one of the most powerful female symbols in the Western world, and was arguably the most powerful image of womanhood in medieval Europe.

For some modern feminists, Mary is a example of how appallingly misogynistic Christianity can be – a young woman, likely well below the modern age of consent, who was married off to an old man, disbelieved by him, and impregnated by the command of a God who knew her son would suffer and die.The term ‘handmaiden’ used in some circles to mean a woman who promotes the patriarchy, is the exact term Mary uses when she meekly agrees to bear Christ: ‘Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord’. One of the most disturbing elements of the Biblical narrative – which I still can’t get over –is that the gospel writer says explicitly that Mary was apprehensive and afraid when the angel Gabriel told her she was to be the mother of Christ.

The story of Mary’s pregnancy also plays into the hands of cynics and misogynists. It’s not uncommon for people nowadays to look at the story of Mary’s pregnancy and claim it must have been an exercise in wool-pulling. Tt’s a variation on the tedious Daily Mail “OMG, woman traps man into pregnancy with her wily exploitation of his failure to, erm, use condoms”. “Oh, you got pregnant by an angel promising you the Son of God, why didn’t you say so?!”

But the medieval cult of the Virgin is not just a misogynistic story. It’s been suggested that medieval images drew on ancient pagan cults, about which we know little. The cult of the ‘Black Madonna’ celebrates a dark-skinned Virgin, and is one of the most enigmatic sources of imagery, suggestive and compelling, inviting us to wonder whether the craftsmen who created these images had real women in mind, or some half-forgotten pagan tradition. Perhaps the best-known image from that tradition is this one, from what is modern-day Poland.

Black Madonna of Czestochowa, from the Jasna Gora monastery.

Black Madonna of Czestochowa, from the Jasna Gora monastery.

I’ve just come across this beautiful post exploring that tradition and its possible roots.

In medieval England, another tradition is common: the cult of St. Anne, mother of the Virgin, whose story medieval authors expanded hugely from its slim Biblical origins. Pictures of the Virgin from the English late Middle Ages  show the human side of the saint, picturing her as a teenage girl with her mother, or a young parent with her baby son. These images are often found in women’s prayerbooks, and they’re incredibly moving when we realize that many medieval women had a deep understanding of the Virgin’s pain at the loss of her child.

St Anne teaching the Virgin to Read. Stained Glass Window at All Saints Church, North Street, York

St Anne teaching the Virgin to Read. Stained Glass Window at All Saints Church, North Street, York

It’s impossible to see these images and not begin to relate to their subject as a woman, as well as a religious icon.  It’s easy to look at an arrestingly powerful Madonna or a tenderly maternal St Anne (or a statue of a goddess-like woman) and to hope that perhaps these icons reflect the hidden power of the feminine, surviving through the harsh realities of medieval women’s lives.

But in reacting in any of these ways, we over-simplify. If we look at the Bible story of the pregnant Virgin solely as a tool of the patriarchy, we are erasing the emotions and the voices of women in the past who drew strength from this story, despite its unsettling aspects. If we see the Virgin purely as an icon of feminine strength, we forget that the medieval narrative valorizes her fear of the pregnancy imposed upon her.

We need to remember that medieval people had as much capacity for subtle, intelligent though as we do; as much ability to see layers of conflicting meaning in the stories they told and the images they looked at. We can tell this from a medieval story that explores the subtext of the Annunciation, with startling implications.

There’s a medieval romance that tells a sort of anti-Virgin story. The wife of the Duke of Austria was childless; for ten years she and her husband struggled to conceive an heir. Eventually, desperate, the wife prays for a child by any means. Promptly, the devil turns up as she’s sitting in her orchard, disguised as her husband. They sleep together, then the devil reveals his true identity and the duchess is terrified (this a pretty horrible example of rape as a plot device in romance, and it crops up again and again, the story of a woman raped by a man in disguise as her husband). Knowing herself to be pregnant, the duchess claims to her husband that she was impregnated by an angel.

A devil seduces the mother of Merlin. Paris, Biblotheque National de France, MS Arsenal 3842, p. 1

A devil seduces the mother of Merlin. Paris, Biblotheque National de France, MS Arsenal 3842, p. 1

This story plainly parallels the story of the Virgin Mary’s conception. It offers an imaginative exploration of how the fear and apprenhension of a woman in this situation might well be entirely merited. It shows that, even in a culture we associate with devout religious acceptance of the Bible stories, people were well aware of the more unsettling implications.

I think it’s important to realize that, even in hugely misogynistic past cultures, there will always be some reflections of femininity that are positive and celebratory. These will be tangled up with images of the female that are oppressive and harmful and belittling, and it’s hard to separate the two. But we need to recognise that medieval people (all people in the past) were able to recognise these ambiguities.

We don’t have to decide that icons of the Virgin, of female goddesses or male devils were simply ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ feminist or misogynistic, with no possibility of complexity. These images are part of a cultural conversation about womanhood, which is ongoing. By acknowledging the complexities and the ambiguities of historical images of womanhood, we add our own voices to this cultural conversation, instead of speaking over the voices of the past.


I wrote this post, as I write all of the posts here, in order to sort out my own responses to the questions I’m discussing. I don’t feel I have all the answers, so please, if you think there is something I’ve missed or not quite nailed, let me know!

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