The Role of Gender in Medieval Models of Contemplation

The Role of Gender in Medieval Models of Contemplation: Sawles Warde and The Cloud of Unknowing

Paper delivered at the 1992 CEMERS Conference at SUNY Binghamton
Written by Amy Goodloe
Copyright © 1992, 2008. All Rights Reserved
do not reproduce without permission

Recent scholars have made much of the fact that the spiritual experience of women in the late middle ages was distinctly different from that of men, and have suggested a variety of reasons to account for this difference. One such reason is that the texts provided for the spiritual instruction of women, which were usually written by men, advocated a particular type of spirituality based on the male understanding of female spiritual and mental capacities. According to this argument, the men who wrote devotional texts for women understood female nature to be incapable of pursuing the type of spirituality practised by men, and so they recast their own approach, considered to be superior, into an inferior form suited to what they perceived as the limited capacities of women.

For those of us steeped in the rhetoric of contemporary feminist theory, such an argument yields no surprises. We recognize that men have long defined themselves as supremely rational, capable of arriving at truth through the orderly ascent of the mind away from the physical world and towards the eternal. We also recognize that in order to ensure supremacy, men have defined women as irrational, willful, and emotional by nature, capable only of perceiving truth as it relates to the concrete, physical world, and specifically to the female body. Thus we expect to find the spirituality of the middle ages permeated by a “masculine” approach to God — and if that is what we expect to find, most likely that is just what we will find.

What I want to suggest, however, is that we put expectations aside for a moment and ask whether or not the differences in late medieval spirituality are the function of gender, or of different theological premises about human nature in general. Specifically, I would like to ask if perhaps what has been labelled as a “female” approach to spirituality — female meaning emotional, relational, concrete, body-oriented, inferior — is actually part of a larger model of spirituality practiced by and promoted for men as well as women. I am not, however, denying that women’s spiritual experience was often different than men’s; rather I am suggesting that the cause for the differences lies not in the models available to women but in other circumstances affecting their application, such as societal attitudes towards female nature. But what I want to focus on now is the models themselves, specifically in relation to two devotional texts recently labelled as promoting gender-specific forms of spirituality.

The two texts are Sawles Warde, an Anselmian meditation which was adapted for a 13th c. audience of English anchoresses, and The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th c. guide to contemplation written by a priest to a novice contemplative. According to a recent argument, Sawles Warde advocates a particularly feminine approach to spirituality, in contrast to the dominant masculine approach revealed in the Cloud. When the methods and aims of these two texts are put into the proper context, however, the presumably gender-related differences give way to the larger concerns of how the human soul achieves knowledge of the divine. According to the model which informs Sawles Warde, known as the positive way, the soul must subdue the desires of the will in order to allow reason to access divine knowledge, but the model which informs the Cloud, known as the negative way, holds the opposite view: that divine knowledge can only be gained by the will, because God is “unknowable” to the human intellect. Thus it would seem that the Cloud approach is actually more feminine — if, indeed, all women were thought to be intellectually deficient and inescapably willful. But it is precisely this impulse to label spiritual approaches as gender-specific that I wish to call into question. In the hopes, then, of illustrating why this impulse is ultimately futile, I will first offer a brief review of the theological assumptions underlying the positive and negative models before focusing specifically on the role of gender in Sawles Warde and The Cloud of Unknowing.

The positive way, made popular by Anselm and Bernard, begins with the assumption that the fall of humanity was brought about by the wrongful desires of the will, the faculty which governs the desires of the flesh, and which is incapable of choosing good unless it is ruled by reason. Thus, the aim of devotional texts based on this model is to capture the attention of the will on its own terms in order to compel obedience to reason. Since the will is concerned primarily with worldly pleasures, the first step is for the individual to focus on the goodness of the created world, which then inspires love in the will for the goodness of the Creator. Next, the individual is encouraged to focus on the most perfect being in the created world, the person of Jesus Christ, which causes the will to be moved by both love and remorse for the bodily suffering of Christ’s Passion.

Meditation on the Passion also inspires in the will an awareness of its own sinfulness — of the magnitude of the disobedience which caused Christ to die such a painful death. Thus the will is moved both by the fear of sin, and its bodily punishment in hell, and by the hope of forgiveness, and its reward in heaven, and consequently the will submits in obedience to reason, so that reason in free to make the choice of heaven. As long as the will remains balanced between the emotions or fear and hope, and the reason is no longer distracted by will’s earth-bound desires, the individual soul is free to pursue knowledge of the divine.

The main reason this approach is called positive is because its ultimate aim is rational contemplation of God by focusing on concepts and attributes that have a positive content, that describe what God is in terms of what he is — such as goodness, purity, perfection, etc. The underlying assumption of this approach is that while the will is corrupted by original sin, the reason remains by nature capable of attaining knowledge of the divine once the corrupt will has been “reformed.” In other words, the positive way assumes that the divine nature is ultimately “knowable” by the human intellect, by the ordinary processes of human thought and by rationally understood concepts.

It is in this assumption that the negative way most sharply disagrees with the positive way, since according to the negative model God cannot possibly be known by the intellect because he is so far above and beyond even the highest rational concept that it would be more appropriate to say that he is not that concept at all — that even the highest forms of human reason are so inadequate to describe the divine that they ultimately can only describe what the divine is not, because it is so much more. Thus, the divine cannot be known at all by reason, but rather by love, which is ultimately a function of the will.

Contrary to the positive way, the negative way begins with the assumption that the fall was brought about by the inability of reason to properly direct the will, which is by nature inclined towards good but which depends on reason to distinguish between levels of goodness. In the Edenic state, humans enjoyed continual union with the divine because the reason continually directed the will to choose the highest good of God. In the fallen state, the reason no longer properly directs the will towards the divine but rather focuses on its own ability to think about the fairs of the world. As a result, it is the processes of reason that need to be subdued in order for the will to be free once more to choose the highest good, this time aided by divine grace which compensates for the fallen reason. Thus, devotional texts based on this model emphasize methods for transcending reason rather than transcending or subduing the will, as in texts based on the model of the positive way.

Although there are some similarities in the two approaches, they occur mainly in the first steps of the models, when the soul is first learning about the claims of Scripture and the Church, and is thus first presented with the truth that will ignite a greater desire for knowledge of God. From that point onwards, however, the method for achieving knowledge, and what such knowledge consists of, depends on the school of thought which has most influenced the individual writer, which is usually the product of the texts and teachings available to the writer in his or her given situation. In order to demonstrate, then, that the differences in devotional texts can be attributed to the influence of either the positive way or the negative way, rather than to assumptions about the reader’s spiritual and mental capacities, I turn now to a closer examination of the supposedly feminine approach of Sawles Warde, followed by a similar consideration of the supposedly masculine Cloud of Unknowing.

One of the main reasons Sawles Warde has been singled out as a text advocating a “feminine” approach to spirituality is because it is associated with the group of texts known as the Katherine Group, which were originally compiled for the use of the three English anchoresses for whom the Ancrene Wisse was written. Since the audience for these texts was female, it is natural to assume that the author might have added details that related specifically to women — such as adding female characters to a plot, or by emphasizing the importance of maintaining virginity. However, even though such details relate to women in particular, and perhaps especially to those pursuing the specialized life of the anchoress, there is no reason to think that the basic approach to spirituality has been altered to accommodate perceived gender limitations.

The case of Sawles Warde provides a useful illustration because it is a translation into Middle English of a Latin meditation written by Anselm. According to at least two scholars, the original text was written for a male audience, and in translating it the English author made significant changes to the text to suit the needs of a female audience, thus producing a different approach to spirituality than in the original. However, despite the fact that the Latin original was most likely written for a mixed audience, close consideration of the aims and methods of Anselmian spirituality reveals that the changes made in translation do nothing to alter the basic approach of the original, which is that of the positive way.

The meditation is based on a passage in Matthew, and is an allegory which explains how to protect the soul, which is the treasure in the household. The purpose of the allegory is capture the attention of the will so that it can be subdued by the reason, which would then be free to pursue divine knowledge. To accomplish this aim, both the Latin and the Middle English text describe the individual as a household which is supposed to be ruled by reason, but which has gotten out of control because of the disobedience of the senses, who are governed by the will. In order for reason to regain control, God loans the household the four virtues, who then permit messengers from hell and then heaven to enter the house. The first messenger, named “Fear,” tells of the woes awaiting the disobedient in hell, and thus inspires fear, while the second messenger, “Love of Life,” tells of the joys awaiting the repentant in heaven, thus inspiring hope. As a a result of hearing these two messages, and thus being balanced between the emotions of fear and hope, the will and the senses are inspired to become obedient to reason, who can them his role as master of the house.

Some of the changes in the English version include making the four virtues specifically the four daughters of God, describing the will as the “unruly wife” of wit, of reason, and revising the description of heaven to focus more on the joys awaiting virgins. The style of the text is also considerably more lively and vivid, particularly in the descriptions of hell and heaven and their messengers, but this is most likely due to the resources of a rich vernacular language rather than to any intentional theological significance. Finally, the structure of the text seems to have been expanded to accommodate more dialogue between the four virtues, the two messengers, and the members of the household, particularly with the addition of a substantial exchange of dialogue following Love of Life’s description of heaven.

Despite arguments to the contrary, however, this change still does not alter the spiritual approach of the original, but rather reinforces what the original audience — who had the other meditations of Anselm as well as his instructions at hand — already knew. The readers of the Latin text were not being lead through a linear progression from fear to hope to mystical union; rather, the purpose of the text was to inspire the disobedient will to submit to reason so that the individual could then be free to seek knowledge of God through the exercise of reason.

Both texts are thus essentially affective, meaning that in their message as well as in their very style and structure, they were designed to capture the attention of the will, or the affectus, and to reform it The changes made in the English text do not reflect a change in this basic aim; in fact, if anything, the fact that this approach was considered suitable for a female audience reveals that the English author assumed women were equally capable of subduing the will so that their minds would be free to contemplate God with the aid of reason. Thus, what is supposedly a female approach to spirituality actually emphasizes the role of reason in achieving divine knowledge, and that despite the fact that reason was considered a “masculine” faculty.

The Cloud of Unknowing offers a particularly useful contrast to Sawles Warde because it too has been wrongly labelled as gender-specific, when in fact a close examination of its context, aims, and methods reveals that the way is actually open to any person genuinely called to the contemplative life, without regard to the person’s innate abilities or limitations. In fact, perhaps the only real prerequisite of this approach is a sense of serious calling by God, and of a profound awareness of one’s own inability to follow the approach without the aid of divine grace. Thus to describe the Cloud as masculine is to overlook the assumptions which inform both the way the text is written and the approach it describes.

To begin with, the text was written by an older priest to a young novice contemplative, who was presumably male, but the author does not in any way limit his audience to one person, or to men only. Rather, his primary concern is that only those who are truly serious about the contemplative life, and who could therefore profit from reading the text, should read it; mockers and the half-serious are warned to stay away.

Because the audience is thus limited to those truly called to the contemplative life, the author can assume that they have already been through the stages of the active and mixed lives, and that they were first called to the contemplative life as a result of the meditation characteristic of the positive way. Thus the author’s primary purpose in this text is to explain what the contemplative life is about, and the methods for pursuing it. His purpose is not to bring the reader through any kind of affective experience, because in the context of the negative way it is not the will that needs to be subdued but the reason. To explain how to subdue the reason, however, the author must rely on language, which is understood rationally. Although his style is for the most part concrete, lively, and even witty, at times his explanation borders on the abstract, since he must use the vehicle of language to describe a process which is itself beyond the processes of language and reason. Thus, the description should not be confused with the process itself — which, though it may be described as abstract, linear, or hierarchical, is actually none of these thins since these terms operate only in the very realm that the process aims to transcend, which is that of the intellect.

With the distinction between the description of the process and the process itself in mind, I now turn to the Cloud-author’s distinctive contribution to explaining the negative path to God. The first thing the novice must do is begin to place everything that is not God under what the author calls the “cloud of forgetting.” Not only must all memories, attachments, image, emotions, etc., be placed under this cloud, but all thought as well, including an awareness of self, since such an awareness only reminds the contemplative of his or her separateness from God.

Even the processes of the intellect must be forgotten, so to speak, so that nothing exists between the soul and God but the “cloud of unknowing” which is not to be understood rationally or literally, but rather as that which separates the fallen soul from the divine. Thus, with all processes of human thought beneath the cloud of forgetting, the will is free to press towards the cloud of unknowing, longing to enter into it and thus into union with the divine. The contemplative can only wait, patiently and passively, to receive divine illumination, which, if and when it comes, is the free gift of God and not the result of human effort.

Thus, if anything, the role of the contemplative seems “feminine” by worldly standards — passive, patent, receptive, willful, even irrational — but it is only the description of the role that seems this way. One might also call the description of the approach abstract, linear, hierarchical, even masculine, but it is also concrete, vivid, and spontaneous, following no systematic pattern of exposition. But the process itself — what it is that is being described — transcends the impulse to label things according to gender, because it transcends all understanding by such earth-bound concepts as masculine and feminine.

This paper was developed as part of a my master’s thesis, which focused specifically on The Cloud of Unknowing.

Copyright (c) 1992 Amy T. Goodloe. Do not reproduce without permission.