I was on Thought for the Day on Radio Scotland this morning, but with it being International Women’s Day part of me thought I really ought to have been a woman. Or rather, a women ought to have been doing it. But it is to all our benefit that women are treated not just with equal status but equal function in society, me included. And on a day like this I find myself looking at the history of the church and seeing just how very different and how very much more close to God the church might be had we been better at preserving the role of women in the church.
I spoke this morning about a woman in the bible called Junia. She’s mentioned by St Paul in the last Chapter of the letter to the Romans, along with a load of prominent women and men in the church. In this last chapter, Paul greets and names a lot of folk, including Phoebe, Prisca, Julia, Mary – the praise of women in St Paul comes thick and fast. More interestingly, Paul wrote this as a letter of introduction for himself to the church in Rome. Normally of course, other people wrote letters of introduction, so the fact that Paul wrote one for himself is suggestive that he was running out of friends at this point – or perhaps he just thought he’d do a better job of it. But the fact he mentions these people indicates not only that these women were known to him, but that they were important people in the life of the church – this final chapter was part greeting, part name-dropping.
The reaon that Junia is so interesting is that Paul referred to her as “notable/prominent among the Apostles” – ie he conferred a title upon her which he fought for himself. Calling someone an Apostle was as high a praise as Paul could muster.
Only you won’t find Junia in most Bibles. Because sometime in the medieval period or before, those who were copying out the Bible read that a woman had been called an Apostle, and changed her name – Junia – a female name, to Junias, a male one. The only reason we know the change is that Junias is not a name – no-one else has ever been called it, so the editorial change was obvious.
The lesson of those powerful women in the church is not that progress was rarely made – it is that progress often slips back.
In my other chosen field, music, we see the same thing. It is simply not the case that there were very few female composers, in any genre or time period of music. It is just that most of them have been lost to history, or never recorded in the first place.
In the medieval world, perhaps the most extraordinary musical compositions were from Hildegaard of Bingen – soaring, spiritual pieces from the Abbes of Bingen, which, if she were a man, would I am sure have influenced the world of music in ways which would have changed it greatly.
Have a listen…
Her music, along with her poetry and theology, didnt’ translate into Monasteries, partly I suspect because monks tended to stay within their own orders for visitations, and partly because convents and monasteries were regarded as different orders of importance.
Much monastic plainsong is anonymous, but by the time harmony was beginning to be introduced, in the 11th and 12th centuries, the composers became known. And as far as my limited research abilities tell me, there were in factpossibly as many female composers as male – many of whom like Hildegaard, lived lives of seclusion in convents and wrote for their nuns. Each monastery and convent, Priory and Nunnnery had it’s own musical tradition which woudl have required composers from each place.
For instance, the music of Herrad of Landsberg. Again, it is less plain a plainsong that most music of the time (she lived approx. 1130-1195) but although largely ignored today, was the author of “the garden of earthly delights”, a book of music, poetry and art. Like Hildegaard she spanned all disciplines, and her book is a compendium of other work as well as hers, but the music is regarded as coming from a single hand.
Despite the popularity of Herrad’s work at the time, only one manuscript of her work was extant in the 19th century, and it was destroyed in a fire. What is left of her work is due to others copying that manuscript for their own studies.
It is interesting how easily (and how continually) the process of forgetting the role of women takes place. This is perhaps because of the “equal status, different function” ideas which separated women in convents from the theological and musical, artistic confluence of ideas in Medieval times. Hildegaard was not taught nor learned from any of the men in travelling Monasteries, and although her letters to the Pope were heeded because of her wisdom, her gender prevented male institutions using her as a theological resource, as would surely have happened had she been a man.
The only female composers who have anything at all left to us are nobles such as Castelloza or Iseut de Capio – and very little of their output survives. Not becasue it was no good, but because it was disregarded. It is interesting that there is a long list of “women composers” on wikipedia – but hardly any of them make it to the comparable “list of medieval composers”. Not because of quality or output, or even surviving output – just becasue… well becasue “women” are niche.
Just imagine what a female Bach might have done, or a woman Wagner. Imagine if all of Fanny Mendelssohn’s works were attributed to her and she became more famous than her brother. Imagine if Clara Schumann was listened to and had the same opportunities as her brother.
Imagine also, those still unjustifiably fringe voices of composers and theologians in our own churches and societies – and how easy it might be in times to come for them to fade from the memory as has done their ancestors. If we think this is less possible these days, then count the number of professional Cathedral Organists, conductors, composers, compared with the male. It’s not just easy, it’s very possible that their contribution could go the way of the women of the past. In a society where sexually assaulting men become Presidents, International Woman’s day should be a warning to us all. Equality for women isn’t something which will just happen because we think the world is probably going in that direction. It will only happen if we constantly, constantly strive for it.