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The Venerated and the Despised: Dualities in the Catholic Church’s Responses to Pious Women Open Access Deposited

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church remained a pervasive force in society, setting social and religious standards for the laity by canonizing spectacular examples of devoted Christians. At the same time, the Church also faced a battle against those seen as a threat to their recently stabilized authority. Receiving very different treatment for their actions, women put in both of these categories, saints and heretics, often violated the same authority and autonomy norms. These differences can be seen between the treatment of saints Christina Mirabilis, Clara of Assisi, and Catherine of Siena and women in the Cathar, Beguine, and Waldensian heresies. Sainted women took on religious authority that went against traditionally gendered roles, but instead of being punished for it as women deemed heretical were, the Church saw value in the work of these women, choosing instead to praise them. Similarly, the women viewed by the Church as heretics and saints often took poverty vows. Interestingly, only those seen as heretical were persecuted for their beliefs. Violation of social autonomy norms also led to different treatment, with women seen as heretics persecuted for taking on roles of authority without the supervision of male Church leaders while women declared saints were praised despite operating independently without male authority. Through examining these women’s stories, it can be seen that the Church’s decision to persecute or praise these women was not random, but originated in the Church’s perception of how useful the women’s narratives were to achieving the Church’s goal: maintaining authority.

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