Social progress doesn’t fix every problem. Healthy doctrinal shifts don’t always fix cultural biases. Even the Reformation that so many Protestants cling to as the greatest spiritual salve of all time didn’t begin to mend many deep-seated sins. Unfortunately, this is evident in the sordid history of violence against women in the church, by the church, and for the church.
A Corrupting Force
The serpent chose Eve because she was weaker and could become the vehicle to corrupt her husband—or so the Fall of Man was often interpreted by medieval Christians. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Waldensian and Cathar movements began to flourish in southern France. These new adaptations of Christian faith varied greatly even among their own followers, but all challenged the authority and official doctrines of the Roman Church. Over time, many people blamed the spread of Catharism among nobles on the involvement of large numbers of women in the new faith as it became fashionable. They, in turn, allegedly led their husbands into this new version of understanding God outside the established church just as King Solomon’s wives had done so many years before. Historians Marty Williams and Anne Echols write that the “most frequently expressed sentiment [of clerics] was that all females were weak and particularly apt to lapse into sin.”Williams and Echols also note that, “reformists and heretical movements sometimes appeared to offer more support, self-esteem, freedom and power than did orthodox Catholicism.”
Armed with this view, the Church targeted women as corrupting forces in their fight against these movements they deemed heretical. In one story occurring during the Albigensian Crusade to eradicate the Cathars, the mother of two Cathar knights is driven out of a city since Church leaders believed she was on a mission to spread her beliefs. In another example of the general distrust towards women during this same conflict, the lady of the castle is the specific target of violence. After crusaders finally broke through the walls during the siege at Lavaur in 1211, the attackers threw Lady Giralda de Laurac into a well and stoned her to death.This action echoed the biblical account of the famously wicked Queen Jezebel who led her husband and subjects astray with her foreign gods only to be thrown out a window and devoured by dogs when the righteous man of God arrived on the scene. Yet another example comes from one of the earliest arrests in most Inquisition records. This arrest happens to be the widow of a deceased Cathar preacher who investigators assume will know names and dates of other Cathar sympathizers and members.
In these and many other examples, the women seem to be technically guilty of alternative beliefs yet are targeted with greater fervor and a greater level of assumed guilt. Further, their stories are highlighted by the histories written by the Church signifying an intentional emphasis on successful efforts to root out evil perpetrated by women. The Church was proud of its actions and assumed their readers would agree that these women were the villains of the story.
One of the most complex theological elements of the medieval period is what God desires for sexual relationships among faithful Christians. While many modern theologians and pastors have since redefined sex as a beautiful gift from God, many medieval Christians were conflicted. Historically, this was not a chaste society. In fact, the intrigues and liaisons are almost modern in drama and lasciviousness. Yet, it is vital to note that these actions were understood to be happening despite God’s desire not within the bounds of accepted behavior. If they were wrong according to God, many didn’t want to be right with Him (in this area at least). But not everyone was so whimsical with their sexuality.
Entire monastic traditions arose partially out of a desire to repress the passions of the flesh and instead be one with God. Bernard of Clairvaux and others interpreted the racy Old Testament Song of Songs as an allegory of divine love, and the enemies of God were accused of all sorts of sexual improprieties in an effort to justify military or court action against them.
Through all of this, women were often described as temptresses who would lead faithful man astray. This continued the still active belief that the sexually sinful man was not as guilty as the women he was involved with. This is not a uniquely medieval concept as we read in the John 8 story of “the woman (not “the couple”) caught in adultery.” Worse, the “temptress” trope has also led to victim blaming through the ages as a man’s crimes are often justified as being provoked with immodest attire or flirtatious actions.
“Thank you God that I am not like them:” Separating Truth from Myth
Myth 1: The Inquisition overwhelmingly tried women, but we don’t do that anymore.
The Spanish Inquisition’s famous witchcraft accusations did statistically favor women. However, almost all other categories prosecuted by the Spanish Inquisition were overwhelmingly dominated by men. So, while it may be safe to say that many believed women to be a corrupting force, men were still seen as the patriarchal leaders ultimately responsible for the actions of themselves and their families.
A better way to reinterpret the truth behind this myth is to acknowledge the completely ungrounded and unfair accusations made against women—particularly regarding witchcraft. While hosts of men were unjustly accused for other crimes, many of their actions were at least grounded in physical reality. Women accused of being agents of Satan could hardly defend themselves in an evidence-based court of law.
The modern Christian might pat themselves on the collective back, proud that we no longer have an institutionalized Inquisition. However, a far more damaging unofficial inquisition is alive and well in many Christian groups that vilifies rather than lifts up. Recent exposés of abuse in ministry prove that many victims still suffer the same injustices we claim to have overcome centuries ago.
Myth 2: The subservient condition of many medieval women was purely based on religious convictions, and we’ve fixed that.
More often than not, general prejudices about women were a product of no official doctrine or statement and seem to be tied more closely to cultural norms. This is seen in the evolution from the early church under Roman Imperial rule which placed a higher value on the role of women in worship to the Roman Catholic Church of the High Middle Ages that embraced the local role of women already present in western Europe. This is not to say that certain biblical interpretations were not used to maintain the disagreeable status quo in many situations, but it is too simplistic to place all the blame on religion without also including culture as a co-conspirator. With a renewed effort among many groups to buttress the biblical foundations of their faith, today’s Christians need to be aware that doctrinal integrity does not always fix cultural prejudices.
The modern Christian often takes unearned solace in these and other myths by making the classic pharisaical comparison: “We are not like them!” After all, we don’t have an inquisition, nor do we believe in many of the same silly superstitions. Our culture has advanced beyond these patriarchal ideas. Hasn’t it? As the Scripture says: take heed, lest we fall to our own adapted versions of the same old sins.
The Way Forward
Whether modern Christians like it or not, we are still being influenced by centuries of beliefs and practices. There is an undeniable history of God’s people failing to treat women as fellow Image bearers. Unfortunately, there are those who would rather deny this reality than learn from it. The healthiest way forward is for the solution to come from within the church by people who love the church as God desires it to be. Daily, we repeat the sins of Church-past, but they have found us out. The suspect status of women in portions of modern Christianity is the ugly gargoyle adorning the beautiful Bride of Christ—blatantly grotesque to all on the outside but invisible to the worshipers inside.
Want to learn more about women in the Middle Ages? Check out this related article: Ursula de la Cruz: The Story of a Catholic Nun’s Unlikely Trial for Reformation Crimes by the Spanish Inquisition
Marty Williams and Anne Echols, Between Pit and Pedestal: Women in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1994), 106.
Ibid., 137. Lady Giralda de Laurac probably was a practicing member of Catharism when she was killed in the attack. The crusaders also burned some 400 other followers as well as 80 knights previously in defense of the city.