So when David G. was introducing his “academic friends” (his words) to his new wife at their reception, he gave her a little summation of everybody’s research. When he got to me he simply said “I can’t really explain what he does.” I know I’ve brought this predicament on myself, so to try to remedy this little problem I have, I decided to post a little write-up I did for my medieval professor. It’s a little long for a blog post, but I hope it shows why I think the late middle ages are important. And the book I highlight the most here, Barbara Newman’s God and the Goddess, is really worth reading.
The Protestant Reformation looms large in the historiography of late medieval Europe, yet another reformation has jumped out in my reading so far, noted by Michael Bailey and Stuart Clark, a reform of “superstition” as part of a general attempt to rest religious authority in the hands of the university trained. These reforms began at the University of Paris around 1400 under the chancellor Jean Gerson, which then spread to Germany as universities expanded into that region. Both Bailey and Clark argue that these reforming efforts likely played a major role in the rise of the witchcraft trials. These “superstitions” were the various means the common people used to access supernatural power that came across as unorthodox and foolish to many clerics.
Andre Vauchez gives fuller context to these reforming efforts. Vauchez notes the rise of female prophecy and mysticism in the fourteenth century as a result of the various crises of that century: most particularly the Black Death and the Great Schism. “What kind of art can it be, Lord God,” a Franciscan lamented, “if old women are more skilled in it than wise and learned men?” These issues came to a head in the early fifteenth century: schism, the need for reform, and concern over women and unlearned playing and improper role. “Once the Schism and the councilor crisis passed” argues Vauchez, “the simple faithful would be asked to return to the ranks and leave the positions of leadership to the learned, who had yielded them only temporarily and unwillingly”. The ultimate point of conflict, argues Vauchez came in the person of Joan of Arc, the peasant woman whose visions led to military conquest. “Joan’s success was undoubtedly due to her gift of prophecy” agues Vauchez.
Considered from this perspective, the condemnation and execution of the ‘good woman from Lorraine’ take on a special meaning, one which has been obscured by an exclusively patriotic interpretation of the ‘Joan of Arc phenomenon.’ Her death at the stake was not only the result of the dynastic Anglo-French conflict, nor even of the political struggle between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians. It demonstrated, rather, the exasperation felt by the university scholars and the great clerics, masters of the Church during the years of the Council of Basel, when confronted with the religion of the simple folk and the presentations of these women who claimed the right to speak freely in the name of the Holy Spirit, which they had received through the grace of baptism.
Indeed the reformers of the early fifteenth century attacked a broad range of lay practices and called much of it witchcraft.
The trends Vauchez notes seem to suggest that the university professors wanted to regain order in the church after the disorder of the fourteenth century and the rise of lay revelation. This coupled with increased attention to and desire to reform lay practices, sparked a kind of reform by the intelligentsia that lasted into and throughout the early modern period.
Fifteenth-century England seems to differ from this model somewhat as Bailey does not list any English authors among the clerics who attacked superstition and Eamon Duffy presents fifteenth-century English religiosity as amenable to such practices (what he calls “lay Christianity”). According to Duffy, it was the heretical Lollards that attacked such practices in the fifteenth century, but these critics did not gain headway until the English Reformation. Yet while this kid of clerical reform may not have reached England, Kathryn Kirby-Fulton’s Books Under Suspicion does demonstrate the English authorities were concerned with lay revelation. Though it had been argued that England was insulated from a number of charismatic continental movements, Kirby-Fulton’s extensive research proves otherwise. Kirby-Fulton argues first that there was a remarkable degree of academic freedom on religious matters in late medieval England with highly controversial lectures given at Oxford in the 1380s. Furthermore, continental prophecy made it to England, highly interested in Marguerite of Porte. Yet these things were suspect. In fact, Kirby-Fulton’s central thesis is that what she calls “revelatory theology” or the various forms of communication with the divine were a much bigger concern than was Lollardy. Kirby-Fulton also points out that the Lollards and Wyclife went to lengths to distance themselves from the revelators whom they saw as fanatical and disreputable. To demonstrate the point, Kirby-Fulton begins her book with a fifty page timeline of instances of suppression of what she calls “non-Wycliffite heresy;” that is, revelatory theology. Kirby-Fulton’s main text then goes through the ways in which continental revelatory theology including Joachimism, Hildegard, and Franciscan spirituals, played out in England. Another approach Kirby-Fulton takes is an in-depth study of monastic manuscripts, which reveals the popularity of Marguerite of Porte’s Mirror of Simple Souls though under a different name. Indeed, Kirby-Fulton finds many instances of surreptitious revelatory writings from Julian Norwich to Piers Plowman. Thus while Bailey and Duffy make no mention of attacks on superstition in England (other than from the Lollards), Kirby-Fulton does demonstrate the concern over lay revelation. Kirby-Fulton ends her book in the early fifteenth century, after the final draft of Piers Plowman in the early fifteenth-century; refreshing in totally ignoring the Reformation, but frustrating for not tracing these trends further. 
Barbara Newman sites a similar trend in her God and the Goddesses. Newman argues that in the Middle Ages there were “three pantheons” in addition to the trinity. First there were the saints. Then, the “old pagan gods, ‘disinfected of belief’ but still immensely useful for literary and astrological purposes. Poets and intellectuals could not imagine the cosmos without them.” “Textually, however, these two pantheons never mixed: saints belong to the realm of belief, pagan gods to that of make-believe.” “But the third pantheon, the allegorical goddess, mingled freely with both of the others. The God of medieval Christendom was Father of a Son and many daughters: Sapentia, Philosophia, Ecclesia, Frau Minne, Dame Nature, Lady Reason, and the list goes on. These goddesses have been something of an embarrassment to medievalists.” “Yet the goddesses occupy a more spacious domain in medieval religious thought than scholarship has yet allowed.” “Goddesses abound not only in the creations of poets, but also in the theological writings of clerics and the revelations of holy women.” “A reader who knew of medieval religion only from Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas … would never have suspected their existence.”
Newman thus traces veneration of goddesses (Natura, Caritas, Sapientia, and Mary) in Christian Platonism: “All distinctive creations of the Christian imagination—neither ‘pagan survivals’ nor versions of ‘the Great Mother Goddess’”. These forms reached their height with Sapientia, or wisdom. Here medieval thinkers drew upon the Marian liturgy of the Assumption and of the Saturday mass for references to the deified Sapientia. Coming from biblical and apocryphal wisdom literature that personified Wisdom as a female Goddess and co-creator, a number of such passages were read at these celebrations. Thus Newman demonstrates that Wisdom as goddess was prevalent in the Middle Ages. Henry Suso drew upon these sources to create his devotional literature as courting Sapientia in order to be divinely unified with him/her. Indeed, Sapientia’s gender often changed in Suso’s writings depending on the gender and purposes of the adept and the language that Suso wrote in. In German, Wisdom was a man, and in Latin a woman.
“To Judge from the number of surviving manuscripts,” says Newman “the Horologium Sapientiae was the most widely read devotional book of the Middle Ages, with the sole exception of the Imitation of Christ—written almost a century later and heavily indebted to it.” The work was translated into several languages and found in all the major medieval orders and in most countries. Ten additions were printed between 1480 and 1540, in Paris, Venice, and Cologne. Furthermore, many other devotional works were heavily dependent on it including Ludolf of Saxony Vita Jesu Christi, Carthusian Hugh of Balmas’s Theologia mystica, the Dominican Jakob von Lilienstein’s De divinia sapientia, Nocholas of Cusa’s Idiota de sapientia, Jean Gerson’s Tresor de sapience, Nicholas Love’s Mirrour of the blessed Lyf of Jesu Christ, and the English morality play Wisdom. Greet Grote, the founder of the Modern Devotion was perhaps most influential in spreading Suso work. “This evidence should give pause to anyone who assumes such a text must have been marginal, much less heretical. Far from representing an offbeat or dissident religious option, Suso’s Horologium stood in the mainstream of late medieval devotion.”
Lastly, Newman turns to Mary, the central female divinity in the Middle Ages. Newman begins by asking “what if Freud had been a medievalist” based on the medieval Catholicism’s unusual belief that Jesus married his mother upon his ascension into heaven. Newman notes that medieval Trinitarianism essentially included Mary as she was most often depicted in scenes with the other members of the Trinity and Mary was depicted as co-mediator with Christ, offering her breast alongside Christ’s wound. Yet this aspect of Marina devotion was suppressed in the later Middle Ages primarily by the reforming efforts of Jean Gerson as part of his attempt to restrict female piety. Gerson instead promoted the image of the Holy Family and promoted the cult of Joseph. Newman argues that in so doing he placed Mary in a more traditional role.
In her conclusion, Newman notes how the various notions of the female God were suppressed in the early modern period by both Catholics and Protestants. Texts from Suso to parts of the Divine Comedy were edited and suppressed. Yet certain aspects of the goddesses survived; “Suso’s Horologium has circulated too widely to be altogether forgotten,” argues Newman. Sapientia was central in the mysticism of the influential Jacob Boehm. “With the Reformation, however, the clarion call of H. R. Niebuhr’s ‘radical monotheism’ rang out once more: ‘I and the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no God.’ Banished by the reformers and subdued by Rome—though sheltered in a secret conventicle here and a mystic brotherhood there—the goddesses dwindled until they faded from common sight; and with them, a remarkable era in the history of Christianity came to an end.”
In tracing the broader influence of the Christian Platonist Goddesses, Newman notes Conrad Grebel and the Ephrata commune in Pennsylvania, an eighteenth-century sect inspired by the German mystic Jacob Boehm. Following Boehm (who Newman sees as influenced by Henry Suso) the Ephrata cloister venerated Sophia, and John Brooke has pointed to the Ephrata cloister as a possible inspiration for the Mormons’ Heavenly-Mother belief (the Shakers of the same era also venerated Holy Mother Wisdom). Brooke argued that such beliefs were rooted in Renaissance Hermeticism, but Newman suggests that late-medieval devotionalism is a better source.
Furthermore, another late medieval theme that Newman saw persisting also links these same groups. In her essay on women and purgatory, Newman noted the tendency for female mystics to not only want to save all in purgatory but also those in hell. This desire led many to question eternal damnation; if they, as week mortals, were willing to suffer for those in hell, then certainly Christ was also. Newman notes, “with the respect to the history of Christian thought, they form the narrow end of a wedge that did not make substantial inroads until the nineteenth century.” Katheryn Kirby-Fulton notes a similar trend of liberal salvation theology in late medieval England. The Ephrata cloister, the Mormons, and the Shakers all developed rituals of either preaching to or administering sacraments on behalf of the dead, and thus were part of the reemergence that Newman notes. Including the fact that the Shakers were led by a woman, these groups represent a broader trend of the reemergence of the radical, revelatory, and feminine religiosity of the fourteenth century among radical sects in early America.
Therefore, the reforms of the late middle ages against lay revelation and superstition were taken up by the Protestant Reformers (Stuart Clark sees a long reform of lay practice, roughly 1400-1680). Yet, I would argue that these reforms were largely resisted at a popular level and thus a number of late medieval practices survived and were revived in early American popular Christianity (and beyond). For my dissertation I want to trace the rise of Mormonism, who had a number of other medieval-looking practices, to illuminate this process.
An anti-Mormon tract written in 1841 makes a point that highlights these arguments.
Another cause which has contributed to the rapid spread of this imposture, is, that it appeals strongly to the love of the marvelous,–to that thirst and anxiety, so rife with a certain class of mind, to know more than God would have us know,–to find some discovery that will carry us farther than revelation,–to get some one to come back from the grave, and tell us what is in eternity,–to see with our own eyes a miracle, and obtain some new glimpse of the invisible world. There is certainly existing in a certain order of men in every part of the world and in every period of time, a strong propensity of this sort. What but this propensity would have given such potent and almost irresistible influence to Joan d’ Arc.
The author then refers to Ann Lee, Jemima Wilkinson, and Matthias and says, “It is to this same principle, this anxious desire to look deeper into the hidden world, than any mortal has hitherto been privileged to do that the originators of this ‘cunningly devised fable’ or Mormonism have appealed.” Early Mormonism was certainly able to capitalize among a “certain class of people” by appealing to lay revelation despite the efforts of reformers over hundreds of years.
 Michael Bailey, “A Late Medieval Crisis of Superstition?” Speculum 84 (2009): 634; Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft and Early Modern Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, 456.
 Bailey, “A Late Medieval Crisis,” 634-35; Clark, Thinking with Demons, 440.
 Andre Vauchez, The Laity in the Middle Ages: Religious Beliefs and Devotional Practices (Southbend, Ind: Notre Dame 1993),226.
 Ibid., 252.
 Ibid., 263-64.
 Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Books Under Suspicion: Censorship and Tolerance of Revelatory Writing in Late Medieval England (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006).
 Barbara Newman, God and the Goddess: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), xii, 2.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 211-12.
 Ibid., 315.
 Ibid., 327.
 Ibid., 316.
 John Brooke, Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology 1644-1844 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
 Barbara Newman, From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 136.
 Kirby-Fulton, Books under Suspicion, chpts. 9 and 10.
 Clark, Thinking with Demons, 468-69.
 E. G. Lee, The Mormons, or, Knavery Exposed … (Philadelphia: George Webster, 1841), 6.