Religious Life 
Religious life was important during the Middle Ages.  Biblically, both men and women were charged to find spiritual salvation.  As such, both genders were accepted into monastic orders.  To be clergy, though, meant meeting a different set of moral expectations (Weisner 16).   Clergy women were often compared to Mary:   She was viewed as  a powerful sanctified figure while at the same time she was  hailed for her submissiveness to God.   She was also the counterweight to Eve, the other revered mother of the Bible.  Eve, however, was the helpmate turned traitor, the woman who could be tempted and lead astray.  Clergy women merged both worlds:  they were independent thinkers, as was Eve, yet submissively devoted to the church, as was Mary. Thus, female clergy found themselves attracting “veneration and reverence on the one hand, envy and suspicion on the other” (Leyser 217).

The Danse des Femmes lists five women in the clerical category:  the Nun, the Abbess, the Prioress, the Theologian, and the Franciscan.  For purposes of this project, I have chosen the Abbess and the Theologian as unique representatives of protofeminist standards. 

The Abbess 
Abbesses were often the most powerful and independent women in the late medieval church. They were unique as they served in a manner similar to men:  they had control over larger amounts of property and extended jurisdiction over many subjects.   Abbesses could call for reforms, which often brought greater group activity and cohesion to the nuns within their convents. Though a priest was still required for mass or to engage in penance, all of the other administrative duties, including spiritual counseling, were carried out by the women (Wiesner 215 and Leyser 47).  

The Abbess of the Danse is depicted as an aged woman.  She has earned her position and maintained it through her long life, evidenced by the deep wrinkles on her forehead.  She is dressed modestly with the exception of her staff of office.  La Mort does something interesting here:  she pulls the staff away from the Abbess while also restraining the woman's hand from taking it back.  It appears that the Abbess is not willing to give up the power to which she has become so accustomed.  As a woman in leadership, she denotes that "yesterday I performed the service of Abbess in the church...and today I must leave Abbey, cross and convent."  La Mort  echoes the woman's lament with an agreement: "You will leave the abbey you have loved so will never again be called My Lady" ( 27: 2, 4).   However, the loss of the Abbess, Death attests, will not be an issue for long as "One of your sisters now will wear [your gold cross, emblem of office]...After you she will be annointed" (27: 6 - 7).  For all of her power, the Abbess is not irreplaceable. 

The Theologian
The Theologian's entry is, perhaps, the strongest example of an intellectual protofeminist woman in this text.   She was a uniquely empowered individual, especially since women were not encouraged to preach on behalf of the Church.  Women could do charity events and support the church, attend sermonizing events, and ask questions at these presentations.  The responsibility of delivering a sermon was a male duty; for a woman to be called a theologian is unusual.
It appears that the concept was made specifically for this poem, and may have been based upon the eleventh century historical figure of Hildegard of Bingen (Harrison 538). Hildegard exhibited protofeminist behaviors during her lifetime and her well-born background allowed her to be extremely studied in books of the Bible. She wrote Biblical commentaries and helped to promote the role of Mary in the medieval church. Thomas Cahill notes that her writings are so well grounded in a variety of studies from the time that some speculate that she may have had access to a library, a rare event in the Middle Ages (71).  It is interesting to note that the Theologian carries a book with her as she dies; perhaps this alludes to Hildegard's library. Most importantly, Hildegard worked to separate herself and her nunnery from the monks -- financially, spiritually, and “juridically” [sic] (76). To do so, she had overcome cultural issues and angry detractors, though she was, ultimately, successful in creating an autonomous group. Hildegard “proved that a woman could be as profound a mystic and as orthodox a theologian as any man of her time” (153).

La Mort may offer some acknowledgement of this link when she asks "Won't you say anything new, Madame Theologian, About the Old or New Testament?" (32: 1 - 3).  This may also relate to the notion that the Theologian is part of a social order -- she is not strictly clergy.  Her outfit also reflects this since she is dressed in the wide-sleeve and lined clothing belonging to the middle class rather than the garments of a nunnery (Harrison 20).  With such a nebulous connection to religious society, the theologian's motives may be open for questioning (Harrison 438).  Yet, she defends herself by stating her role as "a woman who speaks as a member of the clergy" and has a following.  Death rebukes her by alluding to her great intellectual knowledge, but lack of self knowledge:  it is one thing to know the Bible, it is another to live by its rules.  Defeated, the Theologian loses this brief debate:  "The one who wants to know too much is a noisy calf.  Rising high often costs dearly.  We are all blind in our own deeds" (32: 13 - 16).  Though she was a woman who knew scripture through intellectual knowledge, she did not know it on a spiritual level.  The lack of self knowledge was something that she appears to regret at her passing.



                                                                                                                        ​ Works Cited

Harrison, Ann Tukey. “Fifteenth-century French Women’s Role Names”. The French Review 62.3 (1989). 436 – 444.            JSTOR. Web. 23 March 2016.

Harrison, Ann T., ed. The Danse Macabre of Women. Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1994. Print.

Leyser, Henrietta. Medieval Women:  A Social History of Women in England 450 – 1500. London:  Phoenix, 2003. Print.
 Wisner, Merry E. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, 2nd edition. New York:    Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.

                                                                                                                    Images Cited

Unknown artist. "Theologian."  Danse Macabre des Femmes. Project Gutenberg. January 15, 2008,

Unknown artist. "Theologian."  Danse Macabre des Femmes. Project Gutenberg. January 15, 2008,

LOCAL LINKS to the topic:

As a professor teaching at a local college, I always look for local connections to materials studied.  Here is one that I found while attending an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida .  This is a later work inspired by the Danse Macabre des Femmes  of a nun and death.  The image is most unique:  the woman is at an alter praying, yet she is distracted by a young man playing a lute.  The Latin writing beneath the scene talks about taking a path that seems right, but which leads to death.... an ominous passage to accompany the image.  Perhaps the young man threatens the woman's virtue with his presence -- she is tempted by him and ignores her sacred duty.  

La Mort stands behind the young woman and reaches for the altar.  She wears the burial shroud seen in the Danse Macabre texts.   

Note the placement of the skeleton underneath the floor.  Perhaps this is an allusion to the relics of the church -- parts of the sanctified dead who have obtained salvation in Heaven.  It's also a reminder that death is closer than the living realize.

This image was posted with permission of the MFA.  Please remember to support our local venues that offer such wonderful access to history! 

Image citation: 
Wenceslaus Hollar (Bohemian, 1607–1677) after Hans Holbein (German, c. 1497–1543)
Nun from The Dance of Death, 1651
Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, St Petersburg 
Gift of Sylvia and Vincent Sorrentino