In medieval Europe the institutional Church was the principal agent of social control by means of the clergy’s monopoly, patronage and censorship of knowledge, education, culture and the dissemination of news. Needless to say, the Church was extremely prosperous, some wealth coming from the work of the Church, some from property ownership and some from the bequests of priests and bishops after their death. Although celibacy was encouraged it was not universally embraced. Hence, it was not uncommon for priests to have wives and/or mistresses and children to inherit their wealth. After the 15th century however celibacy was finally enforced for the priesthood and became known by some as a money-spinner, being a principal means of protecting church wealth and property from inheritance by the children of priests.

As part of that diverse and complex control, the art of the Church was not created solely for veneration. Its purpose was to educate a largely illiterate audience by using easily recognisable images, symbols and dramatic incidents. Such religious artefacts exemplify the cult of the Virgin and other female saints. The laity understood the symbols, for example of the Mother and Child, but also that a young woman portrayed with a tower was to be identified as St. Barbara, or that a palm frond indicated martyrdom. This recognition triggered familiarity with stories which conveyed moral or spiritual lessons.

Alongside the dogmatic teaching of the Church, imaginatively embellished stories of the apocryphal acts of the Virgin and others
were related in The Golden Legend by Jocupus de Varagine (13 th Century archbishop of Genoa) which, apart from the Bible, was one of the most frequently transcribed books of the Middle Ages. Even the central theme of lyric poetry, human love, was usurped by the church, substituted by the immaculate ideal of Mary. Her veneration was not only legitimised by the church but also took on various guises in romantic literature that furthered the Institutions influence over society’s perception of male and female roles. The picture we have of the Virgin is one of perfection in terms of feminine and Christian virtues. She is conveyed as more perfect, or rather, less human than Christ himself who was said to have been subjected to temptation.

How can any woman aspire to such perfection? She can’t, without denying her very humanity and sexuality. How can we remain virgins yet bare children? How can there be joy in conception if women despise their bodies and consider the sexual act dirty or ‘sinful’? How do we love and nurture ourselves and others if we cannot be ‘fully human’? And what of women who seek a career outside ‘the home’ or those who may not want children – even now they are often deemed unnatural and unfeminine. This ideological and unreal view of human existence can only lead to self-sacrifice and ultimately the destruction of self.

While the lives of the saints as told in The Golden Legend and other anthologies down to the present day bestow credibility, esteem and even glamour on self-sacrifice, the emphasis generally is on martyrdom and death. In the case of female martyrs this often meant sexual violence perpetrated against them because they ‘refused’ men – surrender or die. But in suffering and dying they served as projections of ‘masculine’ sexual fantasies, avidly persued by devout men and women.

If the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century held any possibility of improving the status of women, it was not realised. Having swept away the cults of Mary and the Saints as superstitious idolatry, then trying to destroy their artefacts, the position of women actually worsened. Protestantism, generally, had an exclusively masculine emphasis of God, the Father and son. It had diminished religious vocations for women even as nuns, and stressed the precept that woman as the daughter of Eve was the weaker vessel. She could only aspire to being a dutiful, obedient and humble wife or servant. Deprived of any positive religious significance and subsumed by men who were husbands or masters, women ceased to be the subject of serious analysis.