There is no “female Aquinas”- But there are Female Theologians throughout History.

“Even if one concedes that women authors are helpful, which woman are you putting on the level of Augustine or Thomas Aquinas?”

“All of the greatest works of theology have been written by men, so it makes sense that I read male authors.”

These are tweets I read last week that capture an argument often used to defend ignoring female authors. Quite simply, no woman has ever written on the same level as these great male theologians, so theology must be something men are just better at – whether this is biological or divine intention does not matter.

Now, if you’re reading this blog, I’ll assume you don’t believe that women are less able to read, understand and write theology than men. However, I think this kind of thinking exists closer to home than we care to admit. In November 2021, @DustinBenge asked Twitter: “Outside of Scripture, who are the top 3 theologians in church history you would encourage someone to study?” Here’s who made the top ten list:

  1. Augustine
  2. John Calvin
  3. Charles Spurgeon
  4. Jonathan Edwards
  5. Martin Luther
  6. R.C. Sproul
  7. John Owen
  8. Herman Bavinck
  9. John MacArthur
  10. Thomas Aquinas

Now, make of that list what you will, but right now let’s observe that not one woman made the top ten. Even when scrolling through the replies, it’s a while before any woman was even mentioned (shoat out to Julian of Norwich!).

I think this demonstrates that believing women can and should write theology, isn’t the same as reading female-authored theology. Whether purposefully or accidentally, consciously, or unconsciously, for most of us if we think ‘great theologian’ we picture a man. And that’s where the problem of the mythical ‘female Aquinas’ comes into play.

If we have another look at the top ten list above, all of these church thinkers and their works can fit into the same mould. Their works are self-proclaimed theological texts and regardless of their content, their format and style are familiar to us. When we pick up something of theirs to read, we already know how to approach the text and what methods of reading and understanding we’re going to use.

We have unconsciously formed in our minds an idea of what ‘good’ theology looks like. It is with this image in our minds that we begin looking through history for a female author who meets these criteria. We look for the female equivalent of Aquinas.

However, there is no ‘female Aquinas’. In the same way that there is no female Augustine, Calvin, or Spurgeon[i]. Because throughout history the constraints and limitations placed upon women dictated what they were permitted to do.

A failure to appreciate the historical context of female authors, has, as demonstrated above, caused some to stop their search for ‘worthy’ female authors when they fail to find the mythical ‘female Aquinas’. However, I would argue that looking closely at the reasons why there is no ‘female Aquinas’, can actually guide us to where women did write and publish theology.

The Search for a ‘Female Aquinas

Imagine with me that Thomas Aquinas was born a woman. Let’s explore what would have been possible for her and what challenges she would have to overcome to write a theological treatise.

The first obstacle our female Aquinas would face would be that of family status and subsequent access to education. Aquinas was born in Italy on the 28th of January 1225, so we are concerned here with female education in the Middle Ages.

Around 80% of the population were peasants or serfs. Broadly speaking, for a girl born into a peasant family, her education would be reliant on her parents’ inclination and limited to her parents’ ability. Girls would be taught to read and write in the local vernacular, but this was only if the parents were able to do so themselves and then chose to teach her. It is more likely that they would focus their efforts on training her to do the same physical work as her mother.

Alternatively, if she belonged to the 20% middle and upper-class population, our female Aquinas would be assured a foundation level of learning that included reading and writing, possibly even in Latin. She might also receive a more religious education including the reading of the psalter. Anything beyond this was less likely and would have varied from household to household, based on what parents thought was best for the daughter.

We can already see that it is unlikely that our female Aquinas would have received the education necessary to read, understand and write theological works.

But there was one place where a girl could receive a slightly more extensive education, and that was in the convent.  

In the Middle Ages, the majority of monks and nuns began their ecclesiastical careers as children. It was common for noble families to use the local monasteries or convents as something akin to a boarding school. Children would stay there and be educated, later returning home when it was time for them to take up their role in the family. But some children were consecrated to the church permanently.

Different orders placed different levels of emphasis on education. Nevertheless, a girl raised in a convent could expect a higher level of education than her peers, especially in biblical studies and theology. Moreover, convents had libraries which housed works on numerous subjects and disciplines, encouraging regular and extensive reading. The Benedictines in particular emphasised the role of reading and physical labour in their lives.

However, even if our female Aquinas was to reach the highest level of education available to girls, she would still be considered ‘unlearned’.

The Medieval church had three levels of training. You had to master each level before you graduated to the next. The first level was called The Trivium and consisted of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric. After this, you could move on to level two, The Quadrivium, made up of Mathematics, Music, Geometry, and Astronomy. Only after finishing these levels was a person able to begin studying Theology. Theology was such an important subject that the education system was designed specifically to ensure that only the most intelligent minds could study it.[ii]

All three levels of learning were restricted to men. Therefore, simply because of her gender, our female Aquinas would be barred from studying theology.

However, just because women weren’t allowed to study theology formally didn’t necessarily stop them from studying it informally. If a nun was inclined to do so, an informal theological education could be achieved through private study. She could make the most of the convent library and seek guidance from her male spiritual leader. This way of learning would have been very challenging for the woman in question, not to mention it was reliant on the support of men around her. Moreover, we must acknowledge that even the best education achieved in this context would not be on the same level as what was taught to men.

Now, let’s say our female Aquinas has taken it upon herself to study theology informally, overcoming the barriers and challenges she would inevitably have faced in order to do so. How would she then be able to take her theological thoughts and put them into writing for us to read today?

Production of theological works needed the permission and authorisation of a higher authority. Scholars had to be invited to write on theological matters by a church leader, such as a Bishop or Pope. The assumption that women were incapable of the level of thinking required to study theology meant that no such invitation would ever be received by a woman.

So, even if our female Aquinas was: born into a noble household; sent to be educated in a convent; received the highest level of convent education permissible for women; went on to study theology informally; was able to study it to such a degree that she felt inclined to write about it; her work would never be authorised, it would never be published and we would never get to read it.

That is why there is no ‘female Aquinas’. The historical context simply made it impossible for women to achieve the same theological renown, all because she was born a woman.

The Search for Female Theologians

But just because there is no ‘female Aquinas’, doesn’t mean there were no female theologians. Female theologians adapted to the world around them, finding other arenas outside of the traditionally male sphere of theological study in which they could write, share, and develop their ideas.

Hildegarde of Bingen is perhaps one of the best examples of how women achieved this.

Born before Aquinas in 1098, Hildegarde was part of the German lower nobility. The youngest child and slightly sickly, Hildegarde was given a basic education before being consecrated to the church when she was eight. Here Hildegarde was taught Latin and music as well as some practical skills. However, Hildegarde later stressed that she remained ‘unlearned’ meaning she received no formal education of any level. Nevertheless, probably through extensive reading and learning from visitors, Hildegarde later demonstrated in her adulthood a great knowledge of medicine, philosophy, music, and theology.

When Hildegarde was forty-two, she ran into the problem of needing formal permission and an invitation to write theology. How did she get around it? Mysticism.

Hildegarde claimed that she had always received visions from God, but now God had instructed her to “write down that which you see and hear”. Regardless of whether or not you believe Hildegarde received genuine visions from God, in one move Hildegarde was able to cut through all the red tape preventing her from writing theology as a woman.

She didn’t need the permission from a church leader to write, she had permission from God, the highest authority of all. She didn’t need an invitation to write, she had been commanded to write by God himself.

Hildegarde was thus able to write her first theological text Scivias (Know the Ways) and gain papal approval for both the text and her theological writings. After all, these words did not come from an ‘unlearned’ woman, but directly from God.

And so, Hildegarde went on to write Liber Vitae Meritorum (Book of Life’s Merits), Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of Divine Works), a morality play, and a huge collection of letters, all overflowing in theological thought.[iii] However, these works are often categorised as mystical or visionary texts, camouflaging their theological content.

The Female Visionary Theologians

The genre of mystical/visionary writings became an accepted way in which women engage with theology. These texts were written by women and then shared amongst women, eventually evolving into an entire branch of theological thought somewhat separated from the male-dominated sphere of mainstream theology. [iv] For example, in female mystical texts we see women exploring the implications of Christ’s humanity, developing a specific form of devotion to the Eucharist, questioning what it meant to be a bride of Christ, and exploring the idea of ‘Mother God’.

While all of this is theological, because these texts do not fit our prescribed idea of what theology looks like, we continue to dismiss them and the women who authored them. We do not acknowledge these authors as theologians as we should, instead, we continue to search in vain for the mythical ‘female Aquinas’.

Therefore, while I cannot offer you a ‘female Aquinas’, I can instead present you with the works of hundreds of Medieval female theologians – the female mystics.

Now, I understand why some are apprehensive about reading mystical theology. More so than other historical theology, visionary texts are wholly unfamiliar to us, containing passages we don’t understand and sometimes find uncomfortable. However, I would argue that if you’ve read any theology works from the Early Church through to the Reformation, you already have the tools needed to read the mystics. For example, the Church Fathers often adopted an allegorical framework filled with imagery in their texts – just like the mystics. Early Church and Medieval theologians can sometimes talk at length about things we find weird and unsettling[v]– just like the mystics. Finally, all of the authors in the top ten list have written things we don’t agree with – just like the mystics. With all of the male authors named above, we read their texts whilst applying our own discernment. Let’s do the same when we read the female visionary theologians! When we do so, we’ll not only discover a wealth of historic theology but more specifically, historic theology influenced by the unique experience of being a woman that exists exclusively in female-authored texts.

To finish, here’s another top ten list. This time of female visionary theologians who, like Aquinas, lived in the Middle Ages:

  • Angela of Foligno
  • Birgitta of Sweden
  • Catherine of Genoa
  • Catherine of Siena
  • Claire of Assisi
  • Elisabeth of Schönau
  • Gertrude of Helfta
  • Hadewijch
  • Hildegarde von Bingen
  • Mechthild of Magdeburg

(I have written about some women from the Middle Ages you should read, as well as some tips on how to approach their texts here)

  [i] (Mainly because female theologians are theologians in their own right and not just the female equivalent of a man.)

[ii] There are examples of women attending University, like Heloise. However, these are anomalies and not reflective of the average female experience. Moreover, even here we see that their education was restricted and did not include theology.

[iii] This is of course on top of her musical compositions and her medical textbook!

[iv] It should also be noted that the Reformation saw the closure of convents and thus female higher education in one swift move. Additionally, the Reformers were more suspicious of mysticism and so the development of female-authored theology that took place within that genre was both brought to an end by the Reformation and unacknowledged by later generations.

[v] Augustine’s description of the Sin of Adam and Eve in his The City of God should be proof enough of this.


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