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Colloquium with Fiona Griffiths: Nuns’ Priests


May 5, 2016
12:00 pm - 1:30 pm
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Colloquium with Fiona Griffiths (Stanford University, Department of History). For Religious Studies faculty, graduate students, and Stanford-affiliated guests. To RSVP and receive a copy of the reading, contact Emily Atkinson.

The focus of discussion is a chapter from Fiona Griffiths’s book, Nuns’ Priests’ Tales: Men, Women, and Salvation in the Monastic Life, 300-1200, which explores a little known and little discussed group within the medieval religious life: nuns’ priests.  Rarely mentioned in studies of male religious life (whether monastic or secular), the nuns’ priest has also been oddly absent from histories of female monasticism, which tend to cast the female monastery as a space for women’s governance and autonomy.  The absence of the nuns’ priest from scholarly studies of the middle ages is not merely a function of modern politics: medieval sources, too, tend to treat the nuns’ priest as fundamentally problematic.  As a chaste man whose spiritual role required regular access to the privileged environment of the female cloister, and as a priest who often vowed obedience to the abbess, the nuns’ priest routinely transgressed boundaries of gender and authority.  For medieval and modern observers, the nuns’ priest has posed a series of puzzles and contradictions, rendering him an awkward, odd, and even threatening figure.

Fiona Griffiths (PhD, Cantab 1998) is a historian of medieval Western Europe, focusing on intellectual and religious life from the ninth to the thirteenth century.  Her work explores the possibilities for social experimentation and cultural production inherent in medieval religious reform movements, addressing questions of gender, spirituality, and authority, particularly as they pertain to the experiences and interactions of religious men (priests or monks) with women (nuns and clerical wives).  Griffiths is the author of The Garden of Delights: Reform and Renaissance for Women in the Twelfth Century, The Middle Ages Series (The University of Pennsylvania Press: 2007); and co-editor of Partners in Spirit: Men, Women, and Religious Life in Germany, 1100-1500, (with Julie Hotchin) (Turnhout: Brepols, 2014).  Her essays have appeared in Speculum, Church History, the Journal of Medieval History, and Viator.  She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities; the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation; the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study; and the Institute of Historical Research (University of London).