Category Archives: Women and Religion

Margaret Frazer, The Novice’s Tale

(2015-06-17 111)Title: The Novice’s Tale

Author: Margaret Frazer

Series: A Sister Frevisse medieval mystery

Publication Information: New York, N.Y.: Berkley Publishing Group, 1993; Berkley prime crime ed.

ISBN: 0-425-14321-X

Library of Congress Classification: PS3556.R3586

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Nuns–England–Fiction
Aristocracy (Social class)–Great Britain–Fiction
Murder–Great Britain–Fiction
Great Britain–History–Henry VI, 1422-1461–Fiction

This is a Margaret Frazer “Sister Frevisse Medieval mystery.” The good sisters, however, are called “dame” and not “sister.” It’s 1431 and Henry VI reigns as king, but he is a minor and living in France. His mother, Catherine, lives separately from the court in England.

The book centers on Thomasine, a young novice who is scheduled to take her vows in the priory in two weeks. Much to the consternation of Dame Frevisse, the hostler at the at St. Frideswide’s, who finds Thomasine too meek, mild, and desperate to escape the world. However, even Frevisse does not doubt Thomasine’s piety and dedication to God.

Thomasine is the great-niece of Lady Ermentrude, one of the well-off Fenner family, who decides to grace St. Frideswide with her presence. There are no hotels or motels at this time; priories and abbeys would, in effect, offer refuge while people traveled. It is here that the boastful, nasty woman meets her end, after returning from visiting Thomasine’s sister and her husband and raving like a lunatic, finally collapsing. Nothing she says makes sense when she returns, and she is determined to take Thomasine away from the good sisters and have her married, an anathema to Thomasine.

The servitude of women is quite evident. Even Frevisse’s uncle makes a remark that if Frevisse had only been a man she could have lead an army, much to the consternation of Domina Edith, the prioress. Women are forced to marry and have children, which is one reason why Thomasine wants to enter the priory. She thinks that being completely removed from the suffering around her is the way to holiness. Frevisse dissuades her from this notion.

The pressure to solve the mystery comes from Lady Ermentrude’s son, Sir Walter, but he is more interested in blaming someone for the murder quickly so he can get on with his affairs. He is also just as imperious and nasty as his mother. This is what Frevisse must contend with if she is to solve the mystery.

Good stuff.

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Look What’s New at the Warner Library!

Warner Library serves Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow. There’s a big browsing section of what new books the library bought.

004Title: A New New Testament: a Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts

Editor and Commentator: Hal Taussig

Publication Information: Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-547-79210-1

Library of Congress Classification: BS2361.3

Dewey Decimal Classification: 225.52

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Bible. New Testament—Criticism, interpretation, etc.
Christian literature, Early—History and criticism

Usually I pass right by religious texts, but this one gave me pause and I ended up taking it out.

A New New Testament: a Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts is the traditional New Testament supplemented with ten added works from early Christianity not included in the traditional canon.

Hal Taussig, the editor and commentator, chaired a group of scholars who sat down and decided which ancient texts to add. (Their short bios are included.) Several, like The Gospel of Mary (probably Magdalene) and The Gospel of Thomas, were “lost” until recently discovered, many coming from the Nag Hammadi Library, found outside the Egyptian village in 1945. (Appendix 2 lists the books in each codex.) Of these, several manuscripts may now exist, copied at different times with subtle changes. Other texts, such as The Acts of Paul and Thecla, were never lost, just not included in the canon.

The Acts of Paul and Thecla is surprising. The revered St. Paul does not look so good in this work. He is seen as hesitant and negligent in his dealings with Thecla, a woman who wants to be baptized. Taking matters into her own hands, Thecla BAPTIZES HERSELF then PREACHES the gospels of Jesus to anyone who will listen, becoming a disciple.

No wonder the Christian writer Tertullian attacked this book in the 2nd century. Throughout this book, Thecla is seen as a leader standing up to government authority and cultural biases, all the while maintaining her faith. Ironically, this book was popular throughout the Middle Ages and was viewed as an appropriate reading for women and missionaries.

Taussig refuses to use the term “Christianity” because no one is sure when this term came into existence. Instead, he calls the early Jesus people “Christ movements,” plural because there were many different belief systems in existence early-on. I taught a politics and religion class at Purchase College, the State University of New York, in 2001 and I used the term “Christianities,” but the meaning is the same. There were many different versions of Christianity with radically different views of Jesus and God.

What we have today is Pauline Christianity, that version of Christianity which St. Paul taught and endorsed: Jesus as God, the Trinity, etc. This version of Christianity was adopted by Emperor Constantine; henceforth, all other Christianities were now viewed as heretical. The three major branches of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant) and any splinter groups are Pauline Christianity.

There is so much here. Each book, including those in the traditional New Testament, is introduced by Taussig. He includes a short bibliography at the end of every entry. The book also has: an overall introduction; Q&A on typical things asked about the New Testament; a companion section, consisting of nearly 100 pages of research; a bibliography; and subject and scripture indices.

Peter Stanford, The Legend of Pope Joan

(2013-07-07 094)Title: The Legend of Pope Joan

Author: Peter Stanford

Publication Information: New York: Berkley Books, 2000

ISBN: 0-425-17347-X (i.e. 978-0-42-517347-3)

Library of Congress Classification: BX958.F2

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Joan (Legendary pope)
Church history—Middle Ages, 600-1500.
Popes—Legends.

First of all, I liked this book.

I wasn’t sure that I was going to when I started it. First, Peter Stanford is a journalist and not an academic. The book is his first person account of how he got interested in the Pope Joan legend while staying in Rome and what he did to investigate it. The legend goes that a woman was able to con her way into being made pope and reigned for two years or so before giving birth during a papal procession. There are various versions of the story, either Joan and the child were immediately murdered by the mob, or only Joan was murdered and the child was allowed to live.

Is the story true? Stanford believes there is something to it and he travels around Italy tracking down clues to the Pope Joan story. He recounts one of the darker histories of the papacy, when the throne of St. Peter was controlled by the House of Theophylact from 911 through 1048. Theophylact’s wife, Theodora, and his mother-in-law, Marozia, sought to re-establish the greatness of Rome and planned on using the papacy to do it. No less than ten popes were brought to power by or under the influence of this house. The corruption and misery culminated in the “election” of John XII, called the “Christian Caligula.”

For Edward Gibbon, Pope Joan was a code for the House of Theophylact and all its corruption. Stanford refutes this, however, citing that all theologians knew the stories of the house and openly recorded the transgressions without the use of any code. Nor is Pope Joan a fabrication of reformers trying to discredit and embarrass the Roman Catholic Church; information on Joan predates the Reformation. Stanford talks to those who had studied Pope Joan before him, but they shed no new light on the mystery.

One interesting aspect of Stanford’s study is that he had a psychological profile created for a woman like Joan. Joan, the daughter of Christian missionaries from England, was born and raised in Germany and would have been educated there. Taking into account the times and the limitations put upon women, what would it take for a very intelligent woman to actually rise in the Church while hiding her sexuality? This part of the book is fascinating.

But perhaps the most revealing part of the book has nothing to do with the Pope Joan legend, but with women who have already been ordained Roman Catholic priests. Stanford views them as modern-day Pope Joans. He interviews a woman in the Czech Republic who was ordained a Catholic priest during the communist era by Bishop Felix Davidek.

Stanford discusses the so-called “Mexican faculties,” the name of which comes from the anti-clerical and anti-Church behavior during the Mexican Revolution. Because of immediate threats to the Church, the “Mexican faculties” allow priests to consecrate other priests and bishops to consecrate other bishops. This is how Bishop Jan Blaha ordained Davidek in 1968. The communist regime in Czechoslovakia was extremely repressive, and there was a fear that the Roman Catholic Church would be eradicated, which led to this extraordinary situation. It was Bishop Davidek who, in 1970, believed that by ordaining married men and women they would be less likely to be suspected by the government and could operate as clerics in secret without discovery. In the case of the woman Stanford interviewed, she was able to celebrate communion, hear confessions and perform other clerical duties for those Catholics imprisoned; no one in authority suspected a woman could be a priest. This seemingly validated Davidek’s initiative.

Sadly, Davidek died in 1988, one year before Gorbachev’s perestroika began thawing East-West relations that resulted in the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Once Czechoslovakia was free, Rome refused to acknowledge Davidek’s ordination of women; the ordained men were told to join the Uniate church, those Eastern Christians who kept the Eastern Orthodox rites but acknowledged papal primacy; this church, like the Eastern Orthodox churches, have married priests. These men are betrayed, according to Stanford, since they have no connection to the Uniates but are Roman Catholics. At least they have an option in which to remain priests. The women have no recourse. Rome will not recognize the ordination of women under any circumstances. With Davidek already dead, he could not defend his actions.

As older copies of Christian scriptures are found— predating the traditional holy writings by hundreds of years—we are discovering that pronouns were changed in many works from female to male, and that there are other Christian works where women are in leadership positions; there is evidence that women also performed clerical duties. Nonetheless, Rome—and the Eastern Orthodox churches for that matter—refuse to even consider the possibility of women priests.

Was there a Pope Joan? There have been other books written about the possibility of a female pope. Many of these were written by academics. I have not read them, but I can say that I enjoyed this book. This is a very good introduction to the topic.