· Vatican City ·


The soul and body in the Mediterranean Middle Ages: those that defied convention

 Anima e corpo nel Medioevo mediterraneo: quelle che hanno sfidato le convezioni  DCM-010
04 November 2023

The Mediterranean is the cradle of the three great monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Abrahamic religions share not only biblical revelation, but also a cultural substrate that defines the relationships between the individual, society, and the sacred.

Building on these premises, in Anima e corpo. Donne e fedi nel mondo mediterraneo (secoli XI -XVI ) [Soul and Body. Women and Faiths in the Mediterranean World (Centuries XI- XVI )], publisher Carocci, historian Isabella Gagliardi probes Mediterranean society to analyze the role of women in relation to faith.

There is no doubt that women were commonly perceived as brides and mothers. To live religiously meant taking care of the home, husband and children, even to seal -through marriage- a project of family alliances. Nevertheless, exceptions were the rule; for example, poor orphans married through someone else’s charity, there were repudiations and divorces, concubinages and de facto couples, interfaith marriages, finally. However, in the latter example, it was women who embraced their husband’s beliefs.

The volume succeeds in its intent to sweep away stereotypes associated with an idea of subjugation and widespread marginality, belied by non-exceptional cases of women engaged in labor and intellectual practices.

In the Christian world as well as in the Islamic and Jewish communities, midwives, nannies and midwives, experts in phlebotomy and medicine are documented. Of course, they ran the risk of being accused of witchcraft or heresy, precisely because, in the case of women healers, the boundary between learned and popular medicine was as blurred as that between incantation, cure and prayer.

Excluded from reading and commenting on Scripture, so many excelled in cultural activities, in poetry as they did so in prose, in calligraphy as in miniature paintings. Of great interest is the topic of women’s education because, in the Middle Ages, opportunities for women were more limited. However, Christian women attended universities and studied, of course, though in monasteries. What was more varied and, respectively, complicated were the possibilities for Jews and Muslims. Marginality is seen, more so, in the exercise of cultic functions, as there was a tendency to emphasize the impurity and inadequacy of women. In spite of inherent limitations, what is also related are the conditions of physiological weakness, and therefore in spite of the common, even normative, tradition that would weigh until very recent times, Mediterranean women sought and found ways to claim autonomous spaces. They may not have achieved a full and equal participation; they did however gain access to the religious phenomenon.

by Giuseppe Perta
Lecturer in Medieval History, Suor Orsola Benincasa University of Naples.