Recently, the BBC has come out with a three-episode series about the role of women in the world’s religions, titled Divine Women and presented by Bettany Hughes. As you might imagine, the scope of this topics is so great that one might struggle to cover it adequately with ten episodes, let alone with three, but the show manages to highlight some of the most fascinating characters in the history of religion’s women. They range in date from early female devotional statues over 12,000 years old to the ongoing worship of female goddesses in modern Hinduism, and many places in between.
As interesting as the series was, however, there were a few nagging issues with the presentation of the subject matter which became more and more difficult to ignore as the show turned to the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, the early part of the mediaeval period with which I am particularly familiar. In this episode, number 3: War of the Words, Hughes relates the stories of remarkable women who had a profound effect on the practice of religion in their community.
First was the Byzantine Empress Theodora, under whose patronage the idea of the Virgin Mary as theotokos, or the Mother of God, became overtly recognised as orthodox. Then she looks at Khadija and Aisha, both wives of the Prophet Muhammad who influenced the reception of his prophetic message and the perpetuation of traditions about his life. Wu Zetien, who ruled China as a powerful female monarch, features next because of her sponsorship of Buddhism as a means of consolidating her authority. Finally, the show travels back to Europe, where St. Hilda influenced the growth of monastic education in what is now northern England and brokered consensus over the celebration over the Easter festival–a contentious topic at the time.
Through this collective biography, Hughes hoped to demonstrate that women could and did define their religious atmosphere in what is usually considered one of the grimmest, most violent, and regressive eras in documented history. The net result of focusing on a few, extraordinary individuals, however, tended to obscure, rather than highlight, the widespread nature of female involvement in religious life at this time.
Both St Hilda and Wu Zetien, for example, participated to some extent in an specialist religious lifestyle. In the case of the former, her life as a nun was shared by hundreds of women throughout the mediaeval period who took holy orders for one reason or another. Most lived in dedicated female houses under the control of powerful abbesses, whether in western Ireland or eastern Germany. St Hilda might be a particularly prominent exemplar, but the programme erroneously implies that she is far more unique than is actually the case.
In China, too, many women entered Buddhist nunneries, whether willingly or not. To focus on Wu Zetien (forced into retirement in a nunnery after a regime change at court) ignores the widespread and socially influential institution of nunneries as a whole in favour of a single exceptional case. The result is a programme that falls into the same trap that traditional histories of ‘Great Men’ have been criticised for–privileging the case of high politics rather than the lived experience and social dimensions of history.
Another glaring omission in this episode was the lack of consideration of the very widespread phenomenon of female sanctity in mediaeval Europe. Earlier in the programme, Hughes argued that the worship of female divinities became less common first in Greece and then in Rome, in favour of more masculine figures. The veneration of female saints (most notably the Virgin Mary) in mediaeval Christianity, however, argues against such a simple portrayal of female virtue and potential for divinity. These female saints, like nuns, demonstrate that the intersection between femininity and the holy did not end with paganism, and that their influence was far more pervasive in society than the biographical approach taken by Hughes can illustrate.
The real question, of course, is not ‘What did the show do wrong’ but rather ‘Could it have been done better?’ After all, women in religion is a monstrously large topic to tackle in an hour, even given a relatively small timeframe of several centuries. I certainly feel like Hughes and the programme would have achieved their stated aim–of demonstrating the ubiquity and influence of women in the history of religion–better by focusing on the typical rather than the extraordinary.
After all, Theodora wasn’t the only royal woman to benefit from the elevation of Mary in Christian theology, and Hilda wasn’t the only woman to lead her own religious community in a highly politicised environment. This case is more difficult to make for Islam (since women become much less influential after the first century or so), and I am too unfamiliar with the Chinese context to do more than point the way, but surely history should be written with the devotions of ordinary women, as well as the extraordinary, firmly within view?