Feminine and Divine Physicality in the Vita of Christina of Markyate

21 Jan

In the anonymous account of her life, Christina of Markyate is represented as having a direct connexion to the divine that affords her knowledge of the future and influence over events. However, despite this special relationship with Christ, the descriptions of Christina’s capabilities repeatedly focus on her feminine weakness and inability, and shift the centre of volition to others—either male contemporaries or God. For this, two explanations seem probable: the first is simply a culture which presumes an inequity in abilities between the sexes and replicates this inequity in its descriptions; and the second is an intention to give the glory for actions to God, and not to the vessel through whom the divine will is expressed.

When King Stephen prepares to send Geoffrey, Abbot of St. Albans, to meet with the pope for the intention of obtaining pontifical sanction for his coronation, both Geoffrey and Christina are filled with concern (71). Attending to the matter in her prayers, Christina sees Geoffrey encased in a wall, accompanied by a voice which promises his exclusion from the king’s mission (72). Though Christina’s prayer is what presumably sets up the following events, she must still rely upon the “divine promise” of the interpreted dream, and, significantly, the efforts of Thomas, who travels to court and argues for Geoffrey’s exemption (even though the text is careful to point out that Thomas “was well aware of [Christina’s] hidden powers,” thus calling attention to them). Yet it seems that the decision rests with the king: a fact which the text is somewhat (perhaps deliberately) unclear about: Christina seems to give the undergarments to the King as a ‘divine gift’ in thanks, despite having been commanded to give them to the poor.

When Stephen again resolves to send Geoffrey to Rome, Christina again turns to prayer, this time seeing the abbot encircled in her arms. Here, her femininity is explicitly described as rendering her incapable of acting alone: “she feared that, since a man is stronger than a woman, he would in one way or another be able to extricate himself” (76). To protect him, therefore, Christina must obtain the help of Christ (the human male embodiment of the divine), who presses his fingers, hands, and arms against her own, that he may lend his divine power in aid of her mortal power. The vision is realised when the mission is called off—again, presumably, by the king.

In both examples, Christina’s ‘power’ comes in the form of exhorting another (in this case, God) to do the act. Christina herself lacks the temporal power of her male counterparts, resulting in a separation between she who exhorts and the men who do.

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Posted by on 21 January 2014 in Essays


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