A World without Women: the Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science

David Noble opens his account of women, Christianity and science with an image of embroidered cushions on the front row of pews in Ely Cathedral, a former abbey north of Cambridge, England. Each cushion bears the name of a head of the abbey from its beginning in the seventh century. What is immediately striking, Noble tells us, is that the earliest names are those of women. First Ethelreda, foundress of the abbey, then her daughter Sexburga, then her daughter, and so on – a succession brought to an end when the abbey was burnt down during the Viking raids of the ninth century. The abbey was rebuilt in the 10th century, after which the cushions record an unbroken sequence of abbots, with not an abbess in sight.

The 1880 ‘Misogynist Dinner’

And Noble closes his book with another, very different image of male exclusivity. The ‘Misogynist Dinner of the American Chemical Society,” as it called itself, was a gathering in Boston of the male members of the newly formed ACS in 1880. That evening’s revels were completely with a recitation about Saint Anthony’s temptation by various devils, the worst of which was, of course, the laughing woman with two bright eyes.

The connection between these images, the link between the church’s embrace and rejection of the female and science’s fashioning of itself as a masculine domain, is what “A World Without Women: The Clerical Culture of Western Science” pursues. Noble’s undertaking – not just spanning the millennium between Ely Cathedral and that Boston dinner, but taking in the whole history of Christianity’s separation of men and women and management of sex, as well as charting the rise of modern science – is ambitious. It is a tribute to his single-mindedness that he could even attempt to organize it all, as he does, into a unified, and at times utterly absorbing, narrative of some 320 pages.

We move rapidly from the relatively evenhanded treatment of men and women in early Christianity to the emergence of a very different disposition in the wake of the fourth-century transformation of Christianity from a religion of the persecuted to the official creed of the Roman Empire.

The church’s monastic movement

The monastic movement was constructed within this historical movement. Forged at a time of civil upheaval and growing military threat to the empire, monasticism unsurprisingly took on the values and defensive practices of a warrior class: harsh discipline, extreme rigor, physical and emotional deprivation and the total rejection of any “softening” effeminacy. From this “Militarization of Monasticism,” Noble takes us to what he calls the “Monasticization of the Church,” a process in which the uncompromising masculinist voice of the monks became embedded into mainstream Christianity, where it then become part of the bachelor communities of the Scholastic Cloister.

Thus, in the wake of the Gregorian reforms, the “new academic culture, like the clerical culture of which it is a part, became a world without women: celibate, homosocial, misogynous.”

In such male enclaves, Western science was born. Noble devotes the second half of his book to charting the consequences of this birth from the all-male humanist academies of the early Renaissance through the formation of the all-male Royal Society and similar institutions in Europe to the growth of scientific education and practices I 19th-century America, ending with the American Chemical Society’s gleeful, all-boys-together Boston dinner.

It would be a gross oversimplification to depict Noble’s narrative as one-dimensional and deterministic. Against the seemingly inevitable devaluing and exclusion of women within Christianity were many complexifying countermovements, the promise and actuality of change that opened up in moments of cultural and religious revival. Moments which, for example, allowed those abbesses their positions of empowerment at Ely and , very differently for example, witnessed the fact that “between 1650 and 1710 a surprisingly large number of women…worked in German astronomy.” In this sense, one has to see that Boston dinner party as a last-ditch stand, a defiantly unrepentant recognition of the end of the purely masculine community of science. For already, from the early part of the century on, both in the United States and Europe, the pressure for women’s rights, women’s education and women’s access to science had been growing. In the late 20th century, a woman scientist is no longer an unnatural monster, a “traitor to her sex.”

What about science and race?

But neither is she altogether normal. And the problem is not simply one of a Christian-based exclusion. Other efforts are in play. There is, for example, no dimension to Noble’s account that would enable one to think about the question of science and race: why the relatively large number of white women in science finds no counterpart among black women (not to mention black men). More generally, in terms of current feminism, the style, method and agenda of Noble’s book seems curiously old-fashioned and dated – no problematizing of gender, no putting into question of sexual identity, no way of thinking about science and gender or science and class. It is also astonishing that, apart from a too-brief, too-late and too-superficial mention in the epilogue, Noble makes nothing of the connection between Christianity and science in relation to the body. Are we to think it without significance that the body (nature) is figured overwhelmingly as female and, at the same time, systematically excised from the objective, “view from nowhere” account of reality and nature offered by science?

Undeniably, there is a gain from this theoretical simplicity:

It enables Noble’s book, somewhat relentlessly and at times with an over density of historical fact, to confront us with the unedifying, frequently unsavory story of Christian misogyny and its legacy for science. And we should be so confronted. But for this single-track approach, one pays a price – a too-limited range of applicability to current debates about gender and science.


TLS May 17, 1992

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