The saint, the béguine and the heretic : laywomen and authority in the late medieval church, c.1200-1400 : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in History at Massey University, Manawatū, New Zealand

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Authority in the late medieval Church was usually vested in clerical men, but it could also be acquired by women, even laywomen. This thesis considers the contrasting experiences of three laywomen who attempted to gain authority: Mechthild of Magdeburg (c.1207-c.1282), Marguerite Porete (c.1250-1310), and Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). One was ostracised, one burnt at the stake, and one was canonised. This thesis examines the factors that explain these divergent fates in order to offer more general insights into the problems associated with female authority. Scholarship on women and authority currently focuses predominantly on the nobility and religious, yet these case studies reveal how non-noble laywomen could utilise certain tools to legitimise themselves and achieve recognition that their words were God’s own. This thesis shifts away from the tendency of current historiography to generalise women’s experiences as universal, as a result of their common gender, and focuses instead on the individuality of their experiences. It therefore considers the impact of different political and geographical contexts on their lives, the importance to them of male support, but also the agency each woman had in utilising clerical authority and hagiographical topoi to prove their authority to late medieval audiences.
Mechthild of Magdeburg, Porete, Marguerite, Catherine of Siena, Saint, Women in Christianity, History, Middle Ages, 600-1500, Church, Authority, History, To 1500, Church history