Women of the Vatican
By Lynda Telford Amberley, 320pp, £20/$34.95
Lynda Telford claims to defend “the underdogs who have otherwise been vilified” by history. In her latest book these underdogs are women who influenced the Church. The villains are the men who oppressed them.
The pivotal role played by women in Christian history merits attention: from the humble shepherdesses of Fatima, whose visions have shaped our devotions to the Blessed Virgin and Holy Trinity, to St Helena, who saw the light of conversion before her son Constantine demanded tolerance for Christians across his Roman Empire.
Moreover, many stories of great women are not popularly known. Few have heard of Laura Bassi, Europe’s first female scientific professor, a woman of intellect and grit who was defended by Pope Benedict XIV when others excluded her from elite scholarly milieux. Telford narrates stories of some truly extraordinary women with an engaging enthusiasm. The fortitude of Queen Joanna of Naples and the spirited intelligence of Olimpia Pamphilj are animated in her prose. The chapter on Felice della Rovere, the illegitimate daughter of Pope Julius II, offers a lively account of a woman who acted as a shrewd yet benign papal negotiator.
Yet Telford’s narrative approach can lead her to lose focus on the links between the Vatican and the women discussed. Moreover, her use of evidence is often shaped by a tendency to pit female underdogs against weak, unjust men. While Telford laments at length Pope Urban VI’s excommunication of Joanna of Naples, she draws no conclusions about the Church’s treatment of women when discussing the popes who exonerated Joanna of murder and offered her profuse praise.
Elsewhere, Telford infers that Paul III failed because the Council of Trent did not reunite Catholics and Protestants. But later she is forced to credit its decrees for sparing Pamphilj from a forced vocation. Telford’s desire to belittle men who belittled women is evident when she cites Julius II in a list of “scandalous and largely ineffectual” popes who never achieved the “lasting fame” of women such as Caterina Sforza. This claim suits Telford’s agenda but is confounded by fact. For however you judge the Warrior Pope, evidence of his celebrity is indisputable, whether in the pages of Machiavelli’s The Prince or on the canvases of Raphael.
Telford also uses questionable sources to construct her narrative. On Sixtus IV, she references Stefano Infessura, who detested the pope for withdrawing funding from the university where he taught. Later Telford cites Johannes Burchard’s account of the Borgia orgy known as the “Banquet of Chestnuts”, calling it “a reliable source” despite the fact that it has been discredited both by modern historians and Burchard’s contemporaries. When discussing Marozia, the alleged lover of Pope Sergius III, Telford relies largely on Liutprand of Cremona, a later source who was extremely biased against the (admittedly unsaintly) pope. This sloppy selection of evidence is typified in an illustration presented as a portrait of Marozia. Though one can find this attribution in some online blogs, the painting is, almost certainly, an 18th-century image of a liberated nun.
In addition to characterising women as underdogs in the Church, Telford uses sexual scandal as a means of criticising Catholic teaching on celibacy. For Telford, celibacy is an unnatural state that leads to sexual misdemeanour and the subjugation of women. Ironically, in her enthusiasm to illustrate outrages committed by powerful men, Telford tells stories that prove depravity
and oppression were far from exclusive to Catholic culture. Moreover, while the tale of Marozia places sexual scandal at the heart of the Vatican, it undermines Telford’s ultimate aim to illuminate the lives of otherwise vilified female underdogs.
In order to paint a picture of a depraved Church, Telford characterises Marozia and her mother as manipulative “strumpets” who used sex to dominate a salacious pope. Elsewhere, Telford’s desire to denigrate the Church leads her to wander entirely from the lives of women to discuss the depravities of men. It is difficult to see what one can learn about women’s influence from reading the allegation that Pope Leo I tortured Manicheans to indulge his perverse sexual fantasies. Even when Telford focuses on women, her accounts are often shaped by this same cynicism about Catholicism. For her, Queen Christina of Sweden converted to escape the boring restrictions of life as a Lutheran woman. Never mind the queen’s studies of Christian doctrine and philosophy.
Telford might conclude that the Church has restricted the influence of women. But in her focus on oppression and scandal, she herself dampens the female voices who have influenced the Church not as concubines and victims but as scholars, rulers, seers and saints. Many of the stories in this book will entertain. Some will edify. Regrettably, Telford litters most of her tales with anecdotes that seek to scandalise more than inspire.