Barbara Newman, God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry and Belief in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. 446 + xiii pp. ISBN 0-8122-3691-2. $42.50.

Reviewed by Claire Fanger

For the present audience, it should be noted that the subject matter of God and the Goddesses is not strictly or even primarily esoteric; however it must quickly be added that this needs to be seen as one of the book’s virtues. Newman achieves a stylistic tour de force in tracing a clear line of argument through what might at first glance appear to be a heterogenous array of medieval texts without restricting herself to any of the categories into which her materials might normally be expected to fall (including esoteric/exoteric; religious/secular; theological/literary; latin/vernacular). Indeed the querying and rearrangement of such categories is in part the point of the book.

At the same time, Newman depends on the way in which categories like “theological” and “literary” have operated in the medieval past. God and the Goddesses is a reading of several allegorical feminine figures related through the kinds of rhetoric, imagery and allusion that surround them. Her argument has two prongs: the first is that these feminine figures, even where they appear primarily to be literary devices, nevertheless deserve to be taken theologically seriously by readers as feminine aspects of the divine (hence Newman adopts the term “goddesses” to refer to them). The second is that the often unconventional theological ideas worked out through these figures were protected from censure (in a time period when censure was increasingly leveled at theological novelty) precisely because the works in which they were represented appeared “literary.” Thus, part of her argument is that literature, or perhaps more precisely the quality of “literariness,” can frame a protected space for theological speculation, allowing to certain ideas an area of free play which might sometimes be denied during the same period to the same ideas couched as more abstract theology.

It is necessary to grasp the implications of the second prong of Newman’s argument in order to feel the full value of the first. Since I have long suspected that similar arguments could be advanced with respect to literature and magic (that is, it is easy to see that literariness helps to protect a space in which magic can be thought about with impunity), I have little difficulty accepting the idea that literariness might also create a safe haven for thinking about the feminine divine. Objections might be raised (indeed have been raised) to Newman’s claims here about the deeply interpenetrative nature of the domains of literature and religion; but if the reader is prepared even speculatively to entertain the idea that the quality of “literariness” might indeed function as a kind of esoteric blind, much that is useful tumbles out from Newman’s beautifully constructed analysis.

The chapters deal in sequence with the figures of Nature, Love (under the headings Caritas and Amor, though the chapter concerns the ways in which sacred and secular love, more readily distinguishable in the early middle ages, become less distinct later), Wisdom (Sapientia), and the Virgin Mary. An introductory chapter gives a bird’s eye view of all these, starting with a slightly unexpected figure, the Lady Poverty (from a hagiographic legend The Sacred Alliance of St Francis with Lady Poverty), who turns out to be bound to the others by the allusions with which she is surrounded from the biblical books of Wisdom and the Song of Songs.

The movement from Nature to the virgin Mary has a strategic order, since of all the figures treated, Mary belongs most clearly to religion, Nature most clearly to literature. Though Nature is not infrequently called a “goddess” in the works in which she appears (her fullest depictions occur in texts written by self-conscious literary allegorists like Alan of Lille, Jean de Meun, Christine de Pizan and Chaucer), these texts for the most part do not claim to discuss theology or to represent real or epiphanic visions; yet there is some interpenetration of realms even at this level, for Nature appears in the theosophical pantheon of Hildegard of Bingen too. As the chapters progress, the goddesses gain currency increasingly in texts more readily able to be situated in the domains of visionary writing or theology; thus in the chapter on personified Love we witness the gradual conflation of divine caritas and courtly amor in an array of writers with clearly religious or theological concerns, not only Dante, but also Hugh of St Victor, Gerard of Liège, and Hadewijch of Brabant.

Wisdom is the only one of Newman’s allegorical figures with a clear biblical origin; but “perhaps surpringly,” Newman writes, “the scriptural provenance of Lady Wisdom did not foster a more univocal tradition than we have seen with the goddesses Natura and Caritas, but a more variegated one.” (192) Nevertheless the chapter on Wisdom might be seen as the keystone of the book, not only because Sapientia has the most ancient claim to divine status, but also because of the way scriptural Wisdom literature was continually plundered for the epithets that were applied to all the other feminine figures under discussion. Newman draws her examples in this chapter from texts easily classifiable as religious or esoteric, but these are nevertheless diverse, ranging from liturgical writings, through works by Henry Suso and Julian of Norwich, to the anonymous alchemical treatises Aurora Consurgens and the Book of the Holy Trinity. The culminating chapter on the virgin Mary treats an array of feminine visionaries and theologians including Margery Kempe, Mechtilde of Magdeburg, Birgitta of Sweden, and a reaction against the divinization of Mary from Jean Gerson. The book is well supplied throughout with black and white reproductions of images (including allegorical paintings, sculptures and altarpieces) whose implications enrich the textual arguments and add another dimension to the iconographic discussion.

While the texts Newman chooses to use as sources cut across various boundaries between literary, visionary, liturgical and theological texts, they do have certain things in common: they tend to operate to a greater or lesser extent within a neoplatonic metaphysical framework; manifest what she describes as an “inclusive monotheism” (that is, a monotheism which allows the divine unity to have emanations); rely on allegory; and incorporate description and dialogue. Hence, as part of her project of categorical redefinition, in her artfully wrought concluding chapter she proposes to group these works, and others showing similar features, under the heading “imaginative theology” – a term that works to isolate the way thought is costumed and performed in the text, irrespective of whether it would ordinarily be classed as “literary,” “mystical” or “visionary.” While the works she discusses share a number of preoccupations with what has lately begun to be called “vernacular theology” (a term coined by Watson and McGinn; see Newman’s discussion, 295 ff) it is evident in her study that these concerns are not really less present in Latin, and are not limited by any particular linguistic boundaries.

The idea that “literary” and “religious” texts with similar idea content need to be looked at together has a natural corollary, also articulated in Newman’s concluding chapter: she suggests that literary (heuristic) dream visions may not be so far from real (epiphanic) visions as is sometimes supposed. The point is not, of course, that epiphanic and heuristic visions were understood to be “the same thing” by their medieval Christian audience; rather that many things passed freely between these two domains: the images in which the divine was visualized, the metaphors by which it was glossed, the biblical topoi which served as touchstones to what lay beyond the secular. Newman’s discussion of these common points evokes the shared interests and shared traditions of medieval literature and religion which laced epiphanic visions no less than secular poetry.
This solid, lucid and intelligent book will be valuable to anyone interested in how divergent religious and theological traditions may be able to thrive even in environments relatively oppressive to theological novelty. It sets a useful example for esotericists, not only in the ways it shows imaginative theology to work, but in its own ways of thinking.