Holy Matter

Holy Matter: Changing Perceptions of the Material World in Late Medieval Christianity

Sara Ritchey
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Cornell University Press
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Holy Matter
    Book Description:

    A magnificent proliferation of new Christ-centered devotional practices-including affective meditation, imitative suffering, crusade, Eucharistic cults and miracles, passion drama, and liturgical performance-reveals profound changes in the Western Christian temperament of the twelfth century and beyond. This change has often been attributed by scholars to an increasing emphasis on God's embodiment in the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ. In Holy Matter, Sara Ritchey offers a fresh narrative explaining theological and devotional change by journeying beyond the human body to ask how religious men and women understood the effects of God's incarnation on the natural, material world. She finds a remarkable willingness on the part of medieval Christians to embrace the material world-its trees, flowers, vines, its worms and wolves-as a locus for divine encounter.

    Early signs that perceptions of the material world were shifting can be seen in reformed communities of religious women in the twelfth-century Rhineland. Here Ritchey finds that, in response to the constraints of gendered regulations and spiritual ideals, women created new identities as virgins who, like the mother of Christ, impelled the world's re-creation-their notion of the world's re-creation held that God created the world a second time when Christ was born. In this second act of creation God was seen to be present in the physical world, thus making matter holy. Ritchey then traces the diffusion of this new religious doctrine beyond the Rhineland, showing the profound impact it had on both women and men in professed religious life, especially Franciscans in Italy and Carthusians in England. Drawing on a wide range of sources including art, liturgy, prayer, poetry, meditative guides, and treatises of spiritual instruction, Holy Matter reveals an important transformation in late medieval devotional practice, a shift from metaphor to material, from gazing on images of a God made visible in the splendor of natural beauty to looking at the natural world itself, and finding there God's presence and promise of salvation.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7095-0
    Subjects: History, Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-23)

    “The world and humankind became wild—another world,” beamed the voice of God to his eager pupil, Catherine of Siena, offering her a brief symposium on the rationale and processes of the creation and re-creation of the world.¹ In the first creation, he explained, God fathered the heavens and the earth, ornamenting them with essential light, water, and populace and balancing them in a harmonious providential system. But, he continued, the sin of the first humans introduced disorder to the whole of creation, a rebellion that passed from humans to plants and animals. The created world, then, was in need...

  5. Chapter 1 The Mirror of Holy Virginity
    (pp. 24-54)

    TheSpeculum virginumis one of the most important documents we have for understanding the lives of religious women in the twelfth century. Written around the year 1140, most likely in the Rhineland region of what is today Germany, this text can be seen as part of a long and rich tradition of medievalspeculumtexts. The wordspeculummeans “mirror” or “reflection,” and aspeculumtext was intended to encourage readers to engage in self-reflection for the purpose of edification.¹ TheSpeculum virginum(Mirror of Virgins) was aimed at the growing number of women in the twelfth century who...

  6. Chapter 2 Viriditas and Virginitas
    (pp. 55-90)

    The image of Hildegard of Bingen’s merry band of virgins, attired in silken garments and embroidered crowns during tony feast day celebrations, has captured the imagination of scholars, film-makers, and medieval enthusiasts alike.¹ These “blithe noble virgins” donned gold jewelry and allowed their hair to flow freely beneath floor-length veils to receive communion as true brides of Christ, free from the subjugation of an earthly marriage.² Hildegard’s insistence on such fanfare was the source of tension between her and Tenxwind, themagistraof the reformed Augustinian house at Andernach, who criticized her luxury and her practice of admitting only the...

  7. Chapter 3 Clare of Assisi and the Tree of Crucifixion
    (pp. 91-126)

    Leaving behind the twelfth century and the female communities affiliated with German reformed monasticism, we move forward to thirteenth-century Italy, where a very different kind of female community struggled to identify with the memory of its charismatic founder, Francis of Assisi (d. 1226). Specifically, Clare of Assisi, the devoted follower of Francis and the founding abbess of the community of poor virgins at San Damiano in Assisi, survived Francis by more than a quarter century and spent the rest of her life seeking papal approval for the right of her flock to maintain its commitment to the “privilege of poverty.”...

  8. Chapter 4 The Franciscan Bough
    (pp. 127-158)

    Trees abound in Franciscan devotional expressions of the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They appear as the singular subject of frescoes in monumental and private settings, in the illumination of liturgical and devotional manuscripts, and in Franciscan legends, poetry, prayers, and meditations. The popularity of Bonaventure’s marvelousLignum vitae(Tree of Life), which I examined briefly in chapter 3, was an early indication of the profound impact that arboreal imagery would have on Franciscan spirituality. Perhaps not surprisingly, later followers of Francis would adapt this contemplative process to the memory of their founder, imagining Francis’s life story unfurling according to...

  9. Chapter 5 An Estranged Wilderness
    (pp. 159-195)

    “My sweet father,” begins a letter composed by Marguerite d’Oingt (d. 1310), fourth prioress of the Carthusian monastery of Poleteins, “you should know that I heard this preached by a superior of the Franciscans, in the middle of a sermon.”¹ Questioned about a writing, now lost, in which she had described the passion of Christ in a manner that did not correspond to Scripture, Marguerite deferred first to the authority of a learned male Franciscan from whom she had learned to meditate on Christ’s passion and crucifixion with apparently striking imagery. We cannot know the specific terms through which she...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 196-204)

    I have sought to illuminate the devotional origins and development of the medieval doctrine of the world’s re-creation. To posit that the material world was re-created by the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ was to insist on a new manner of perception. It was to regard the whole world as capable of manifesting divine presence, in bodies, in earth, in things. Both the learned and the less so shared a regard for matter as capable of such presence, of such transformation. This comprehension of matter as potentially holy emerged in religious communities that were undergoing rigorous self-evaluation, thinking deeply about...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 205-226)
  12. Index
    (pp. 227-236)