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A woman with Saint Peter's Keys?: Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum and the priestly gifts of women

by Micheline White

PART OF THE COMPLEX ecclesiastical and social restructuring that took place in England following the Reformation involved the articulation of new religious roles for women. As the Protestant church dissolved female Catholic communities and adopted Luther's doctrine of the "spiritual priesthood" of all believers, it exhorted women to embrace new religious activities and ideals. A wide range of genres contributed to the emergence of normative values associated with the ideal Protestant woman, genres including funeral sermons, exemplary biographies, conduct manuals, fictional texts, and panegyric poetry. A survey of works written between 1560 and 1625 reveals that educated, wealthy women were typically praised for dispensing charity, reading the Bible and devotional works at home, attending public religious exercises, providing religious instruction to their households, displaying exemplary piety in their communities, and remaining humble and obedient to their husbands.

In the past decade, Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611) has been recognized as an important Jacobean text because it challenges these normative ideals and reimagines women's relationship to the sacred in provocative ways. This essay will examine two interrelated features of the volume that warrant more thorough investigation. First, while Lanyer draws on a wide range of orthodox religious imagery in praising her female dedicatees, she also appropriates clerical language and suggests that they wield certain priestly powers. Notably, she asserts that the Countess of Cumberland exercises the healing power of St. Peter's keys, that the Countess of Cumberland and her daughter are "shepherdesses" who heal and feed Christ's "flock," and that virtuous women are authorized to anoint themselves with "Aaron's oil" and feed each other with the Word. A careful examination of Lanyer's Passion poem reveals that these unusual claims about her contemporaries are thoroughly consistent with her understanding of the role that women played in the drama of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. Specifically, she depicts women as the true disciples and founders of Christ's healing Church, and she positions Jacobean women as the spiritual heirs of these female disciples. (1)

These unorthodox claims warrant careful consideration, not only because they enrich our understanding of the radical nature of Lanyer's work, but also because they contribute to a newly uncovered tradition of dissent regarding women's supposed inability to access the gifts associated with the Christian priesthood. Recent feminist scholarship has argued that women played important leadership roles in the Jesus movement and early Christianity, and that it was not until the third or fourth centuries that male leaders began attacking female leaders and developing arguments to disqualify them from religious offices. (2) A thousand years later, when Reformation leaders drastically revised their understanding of the essence and function of the clergy, they did not significantly revise their views regarding women and the priesthood. Rather, they reaffirmed the now "orthodox" arguments that women could not fill such offices because Christ had chosen men, not women, to be his disciples; because Paul had forbidden women to teach in public religious assemblies; because only men could persuasively serve as "images" of Christ; and because the church had always forbidden women from being priests. (3)

However, as feminist historians are now demonstrating, there were individuals and communities that challenged women's exclusion from the powers associated with the priesthood throughout the medieval and early modern periods, doing so from a variety of theological, social, and political perspectives. (4) Lanyer's representation of women's hieratic gifts contributes to this tradition of dissent, and her work is all the more remarkable since there was no significant discussion about women and the priesthood in mainstream Elizabethan or Jacobean discourse. It should be stated from the outset that Lanyer does not explicitly argue for institutional changes that would allow women to serve as priests within the existing ecclesiastical hierarchy. Rather, woven throughout her expansive celebration of female piety are passages that matter-of-factly assert that women served as founders of Christ's healing church and that Jacobean women continue to wield hieratic healing power by fighting sin, feeding the poor, praying, reading and teaching the Bible, and writing religious verse. As we shall see, through her adroit handling of clerical symbols, theological terms, and Biblical exegesis, Lanyer offers a profoundly challenging account of the history and essence of priestly healing, one that calmly imagines pious women as the true inheritors of Christ's healing ministry. This remarkable treatment of women's spiritual gifts is not without problems, though, for while Lanyer "recovers" female disciples, she also invokes the symbols of the priesthood that began with men and that she cannot completely erase. Her attempt to describe women's hieratic powers within a tradition that recognizes only male priests anticipates the difficulties experienced by subsequent generations of Christian thinkers, including Quaker writers and contemporary Catholics.


Throughout the volume, Lanyer lauds her primary dedicatee Margaret Clifford, the Countess of Cumberland, for her charity, piety, chastity, learning, and nobility. Early in the Passion poem, "Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum," Lanyer explains that the Countess has withdrawn to the country in order to "serve" God (170), and she later elaborates on this "service" in the ten stanzas that follow the description of the resurrected Christ (1329-1408). (5) At first glance, these ten stanzas appear to be offering a thoroughly orthodox description of the Countess performing the corporal and spiritual "workes of mercy" (1361) required of all Christians: the Countess performs corporal works by caring for the "imprison'd, naked, poore, and bare" (1353), and she performs spiritual works by upholding "Virtues rules," covering the "staines" of sin, and helping to "recover" sinners (1387, 1395-96). (6) Lanyer's praise, however, suddenly veers into the highly unorthodox as she draws on the vocabulary associated with male, priestly inheritance and describes the Countess undertaking the priestly task of spiritual healing associated with St. Peter's keys:

   These are those Keyes Saint Peter did possesse,
   Which with a Spirituall powre are giv'n to thee
   To heale the soules of those that doe trangresse,
   By thy faire virtues; which, if once they see,
   Unto the like they doe their minds addresse,
   Such as thou art, such they desire to be:
   If they be blind, thou giv'st to them their sight;
   If deafe or lame, they heare, and goe upright.

   Yea, if possest with any evill spirits,
   Such powre thy faire examples have obtain'd
   To cast them out, applying Christs pure merits,
   By which they are bound, and of all hurt restrain'd:
   If strangely taken, wanting sence or wits,
   Thy faith appli'd unto their soules so pain'd,
   Healeth all griefes, and makes them grow so strong,
   As no defects can hang upon them long.


This reference to a woman wielding the spiritual power of St. Peter's keys must surely have startled Lanyer's readers, for Peter's keys represented the gifts that Christ had granted to his male disciples and they were not used to describe the activities of lay women. (7) Christ's ministry was focused on spiritual healing, and he prepared the male disciples to continue this work after his resurrection: in Matthew 16:18-19, he promised Peter the "keyes of the kingdome of heaven" and the power to "binde" and "loose" sins; in Mark 3:14-15, he instructed the disciples to preach and cast out devils; and in John 20: 22-23, he sent the Holy Spirit and instructed the disciples to continue his ministry of remitting and retaining sins. (8) Priests alone were regarded as the inheritors of these spiritual gifts, and they alone were authorized to undertake the ministry of spiritual healing. The fact that Christ had entrusted his keys to the male disciple Peter was, in fact, frequently used as evidence that women were not entitled to serve as priestly mediators. (9)

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