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Archetypes of Medieval Women's Friendships

Monday, August 6, 2018 - 09:30

The dividing line between women's same-sex friendships and romantic relationshps can be fuzzy--and distinguishing them on the basis of often scanty documentary evidence is difficult indeed. This article looks at the structure and rhetoric of female friendship in the middle ages and how some specific friendships are reflected in the correspondence of Saint Hildegard of Bingen.

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WIethaus, Ulrike. 1993. “In Search of Medieval Women’s Friendships: Hildegard of Bingen’s Letters to her Female Contemporaries” in Wiethaus, Ulrike (ed) Maps of Flesh and Light: The Religious Experience of Medieval Women Mystics. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse. ISBN 0-8156-2560-X

Wiethaus addresses the problem of finding and identifying women’s same-sex relationships in history by looking at the general context of women’s same-sex friendships and especially features of those friendships that are specific to women’s experiences.

Medieval commentary on women’s friendships is scanty by not entirely absent. Christine de Pizan (in her Book of the City of Ladies) wrote about relations between women at court and developed a theory of how female solidarity enabled women to survive in such a misogynistic environment. But in contrast, medieval literature on same-sex friendships between men is plentiful, especially in religious contexts. Within Cistercian culture contemporary with the life of Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century, male authors such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Aelred of Rievaulx celebrated bonds between men and used such friendships as a model for making connections between the secular and sacred.

Wiethaus offers an explanation suggested by several other authors regarding the medieval monastic context. The lack of a parallel use of female friendships in philosophical or theological contexts may derive from the different theories of the nature of masculinity and femininity prevalent at the time. Masculinity was seen as a state that must be achieved and maintained while femininity was seen as an inherent condition that connected women primarily to male family members, not to each other. Male friendships among monks were valorized as a path to spiritual perfection and a public performance of masculine values, while women’s status was more limited in the contributions of performance.

Thus, while male monastic friendships were seen as a transferral of a relationship structure from the secular to the sacred like, there was no similar tradition of valorizing secular female friendships that could be used as a basis for establishing and valorizing female monastic friendships. Women in the convent, instead, had a unique opportunity to establish same-sex social bonds that were not constrained by their familial relationships and status within patriarchal structures.

If this is the case, can the categories and dynamics of male monastic friendships be used to analyze women’s friendships, even if medieval writers did not view them as similar? One obvious difference is in men’s and women’s different experiences of the overall patriarchal structures of society. Another is that women’s friendships often used the symbolism and language of mother-daughter relationships, which invoke a different set of familial dynamics than those experienced by men. In addition, there was a long existing tradition regarding male friendships that could be built on, whereas women would need to “translate” that tradition across the gender divide in order to appropriate it as a model. Women writing about cross-sex friendships sometimes employed rhetorical formulas taken from classical literature on male friendships, but there seem to be no examples applying them to women’s same-sex friendships. Like other female authors, Hildegard does not appear to invoke the tradition of male writing on friendship when discussing her relationships with other women.

A third consideration is that men’s monastic friendships could be modeled on or even directly reflect existing feudal kinship ties. While women in the cloister might enter with similar pre-existing familial ties, they did not necessarily translate into friendships. In the case of Hildegard’s relationship with Richardis of Stade, their personal bond found itself in conflict with Richardis’s family connections at the latter won out.

Cistercian philosophy recognized the significance of personal experience for spiritual growth, but gender affected how friendships were seen to contribute. Gendered stereotypes for behavior and connection lost their power within women’s communities in the absence of men as a constant referent. Authenticity and self-expression were easier for women within single-sex communitites.

Half a century ago, psychologist M. Esther Harding suggested that female friendships pose a challenge to male-centered cultural norms and proposed the following five categories of women’s friendships in 19th century literature (which Wiethaus labels “without doubt idealistic” and which I label in my working notes as “problematic”). Her categories are: sentimental, erotic, manipulative, poitical, and social, with only political and social friendships (per Harding) offering an explicit critique of patriarchy. Under this classification, sentimental friendships are “effusive...revelling in rapture and rhetoric...providing close emotional support” and may serve as a substitute or replacement for unhappy heterosexual love. Erotic friendships are what it says on the label. Maniuplative friendships involve a power-over relationship that provides benefit or satisfaction to the one in power. Political friendships “require some action against the social system, its institutions, or conventions.” While social friendships offer support and nurturance to help sooth women’s passage through society.

[Note: I find these classifications and definitions significantly lacking as they either leave out significant swathes of literary friendships or require one to force them into ill-fitting pigeonholes.]

Can these categories based on 19th century literature translate to the medieval experience? The author notes Elzabeth’s Petroff’s study of 13th century Italian female saints and notes the prominance of at least one significant female friendship with the majority of them. Medieval female friendships had their own language of visual iogonography and one spiritual model for them were female saints explicitly turned to for women’s protection. Another source of information for women’s relationships are social rituals that were traditionally restricted to women, such as attendance on childbirth and preparation of the dead for burial.

The article now turns to Hildegard of Bingen’s correspondence to look for the specific friendships recorded in them. Hildegard’s fame and prominence in her own lifetime included a number of gender-specific hurdles, such as the establishment of an independent convent and the struggle to have her prophecies and visions taken seriously. Her corresponence survives in part because of that fame and includes a number of female correspondants showing a diveristy of relationships, though due to the context, Hildegard is typically positioned as an older counsellor to younger women of leser experience and status. Despite this, her letters to women reflect an open, honest and often emotional content that contrasts with her correspondence with men.

Gertrud of Stahleck fits into the category of “social friendship”. She was of noble status and acted as a financial patron to Hildegard before eventually taking the veil as a widow and later founding her own establishment with Hildegard’s assistance. Their friendship was relatively balanced and mutual in benefit, with each providing advice and material or social support at different stages in their lives, but the more personal interactions faded once Gertrud was established in her own convent.

Elisabeth of Schönau is identified as a “professional and political” friendship. Wiethaus notes that their correspondence often centered on spiritual experiences. (A number of other examples of pairs of women interacting around their mystical experiences are offered.) Elisabeth and Hildegard discussed the “work” of sharing their divine mission and the pressures and difficulties of being a public mystic.

Richardis of Stade is classified as a “sentimental” friendship (but with a question mark). The intense and sometimes conflicy-ridden nature of the women’s relationship has been explored in other publications. Familial bonds developed into a close semi-romantic relationship between the two women, though with Hildegard assumig a position as mentor. Their bond is expressed specifically in the language of love and the sort of praise one would expect between a romantic couple. But when Richardis begins to establish an independent career and separate herself from Hildegard’s supervision, Hildegard moves into framing herself as an abandoned daughter. Hildegard tried to use her political influence to prevent Richardis from leaving, while Richardis’s immediate family, in turn, more successfully opposed her and supported Richardis in taking charge of her own institution.

Wiethaus suggests that the relationship between Hildegard and Richardis does not fit easily (or perhaps at all) into Todd’s five categories of friendship, and suggests that at the very least, a sixth category of friendships modeled after a mother-daughter bond might be useful. [Note: Or, I would suggest, a recognition that human relationships are often complex and multi-layered and shouldn’t be subjected to simplistic categorization.]

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