Insecure Borders

Symbols of Clerical Privilege and Gender Ambiguity in the Liturgy of Churching


Until recently, historians have generally understood churching as a ritual of purification and reintroduction into the parish community performed for a woman on the occasion of her return to church for the first time after the birth of a child. While this description of the rite is by no means inaccurate, it is far from adequate.1 Churching was also a rite of healing and a way of recognizing a proper wife and legitimate mother, and it had considerable social implications for women and their families. It was also a uniquely gendered ritual since it was the only medieval liturgy that involved the priest in a public interaction with a sexually active woman unaccompanied by any male guardian or relative. In light of this, I would like to propose an alternative meaning of the rite that, though perhaps foreign to medieval thought and language, nonetheless serves as a valuable avenue for our understanding of the way churching operated in medieval society and the impact it had on medieval women and men. In this paper, I define churching as a ritual performance of gender that both affirmed and challenged medieval notions of the roles and positions of men and women in medieval society. By affirming male superiority and the traditional gender hierarchy while at the same time offering women the opportunity to subvert that traditional order, churching expressed the ambiguous nature of gender in medieval society. While such ambiguity was not the intended outcome of the ritual, it was, nonetheless, real.


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© Anne L. McClanan and Karen Rosoff Encarnación 2002

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