Barbara Newman

Photo by John Sundlof

Only hours after arriving on her first trip to West Germany, Barbara Newman was under arrest. While visiting the town of Wiesbaden in the mid-1980s to do research on a historical manuscript, Newman had unwittingly breached local custom by stopping in a restaurant to use the washroom — even though she hadn’t been a customer.

Unaware that this was strictly forbidden, and hampered by the language barrier, she was having trouble explaining herself to the three police officers who were summoned by the restaurant manager and now had her in custody. "I’d read German for years, but I’d never developed any conversational fluency," Newman recalls. "I didn’t know German for jet-lagged and upset stomach. Heaven knows what gibberish I spoke."

After finding an officer who knew English, she was able to explain her way out of the situation.

Freed from captivity, Newman, now a professor of English and religion at Northwestern, continued on the task that had brought her to Germany. She was there to study the manuscript, housed in the local library, of the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German nun. "That was my first adventure with the manuscript," she says. "After that I did my business as quickly as possible and went to a more hospitable country!"

In her book Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World (University of California Press, 1998), Newman details the nun’s extraordinary achievements. Hildegard was the first woman to receive the pope’s permission to write theological books, the only woman of her day who was accepted as an authority on Christian doctrine and the only medieval woman given permission to preach openly before mixed audiences of clergy and laity. She authored the first morality play and was a prolific composer of chants. And in the secular realm she was the first female to write extensively on science and medicine.

Of her, Newman wrote: "She would have been extraordinary in any age. But for a woman of the 12th century, hedged by the constraints of a misogynist world, her achievements baffle thought, marking her as a figure so exceptional that posterity has found it hard to take her measure."

But for 15 years Newman did just that and became one of the world’s foremost scholars on this remarkable woman.

"I wouldn’t say there was anything in my background that prepared me for this," Newman says, recalling her young days as the middle of three children in the blue-collar suburb of Elmwood Park, Ill. Her father was a high school librarian, and her mother was a part-time reporter for the local newspaper.

"I was raised in a totally secular environment," says Newman of her religious background. "My father was an atheist, my mother is a very assimilated Jew. I had no religious training as a child.

"I was a voracious reader from the day I learned to read. I was the kind of kid who always preferred being around adults instead of other kids. It’s fair to say I was much more interested in literary culture, or high culture, than in popular culture.

"I went to public schools where an intellectual would come through the system about once every decade or so," she says, laughing. "They didn’t know what to do when one showed up."

The progressive tradition of Oberlin College drew Newman there in 1971. "One of the reasons I went there was that it was the first coeducational college and one of the first integrated colleges in the country. For the first time in my life I was surrounded by people other than my parents who cared about books, people who cared about ideas, people who passionately discussed and argued about ideas.

"When I got there, I said, ‘These are my people, this is my world.’ Oberlin was where I belonged."

Regretting her lack of a religious upbringing, Newman decided to major in religion and English. She studied medieval literary and religious texts "and fell in love with them," she recalls. "By the time I was a sophomore in college, I decided I wanted to be a medievalist."

She also embarked on a spiritual journey that year that eventually led to her baptism in the Episcopal Church. "Certainly becoming a believer deepened my interest in the history of Christianity," she says. After seven years she joined the Russian Orthodox Church but years later returned to the Anglicans, along with her Roman Catholic husband. She is now a vestry member at St. Luke’s Church in Evanston.

After graduating from college in 1975, Newman went directly to graduate school and earned a master’s degree in divinity from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in medieval studies from Yale University. It was at Chicago that she came across a brief passage in a book that would set her on a course for the next 15 years. The reference was to a little-known German nun from the Middle Ages who would later become the subject of Newman’s doctoral dissertation. The 20th-century feminist had found a 12th-century role model.

"I discovered that Hildegard was a hugely prolific writer, a figure who had an enormous reputation in her own lifetime, about whom practically nothing had been written in English," Newman says. "I thought, this seems to be a field that’s wide open, why don’t I work on her?"

Caroline Bynum, a professor of history at Columbia University, was one of the outside readers of Newman’s dissertation. Bynum was so impressed with the work that she brought it to the attention of her publisher, and the work became Newman’s first book, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (University of California Press, 1987).

"Barbara is truly the major scholar, in English, on Hildegard," Bynum says. "She is a model of an interdisciplinary scholar and writes beautiful, lucid, strong prose. The Middle Ages have to be dealt with from several disciplines. Because we have so little evidence to work with, so little resource material, you have to be able to move about all the disciplines — music, art, politics, religion. It’s hard to do, but Barbara does it.

"She is a model for younger students. Barbara didn’t start with these skills. She has shown profound growth as a scholar."

Newman joined Northwestern’s Department of English in 1981 and was given a joint appointment in the Department of Religion. She has chaired the English department and has been undergraduate and graduate director. In 1986 she married colleague Richard Kieckhefer, who is a professor of religion and history.

Newman is quick to point out that although Hildegard was a major focus of her work for a decade and a half, she has moved on. "I’ve worked on her for many years. But now, it’s finito," she says. "There are plenty of other people out there in the field now."

She teaches a range of graduate and undergraduate courses in medieval literature, including Chaucer, Arthurian romance, the Bible as literature, women in religion, the cult of the Virgin Mary and literary criticism from Plato to the Renaissance.

"We were enraptured by the talks she gave," recalls graduate student Eric LeMay, who took a course with Newman and served as her teaching assistant. "Attendance is one way to gauge students’ interest. There was always 100 percent attendance in her classes.

"She orchestrates her lectures like a work of art. Her greatest strength is a combination of the love she has for what she’s teaching, the concern she has for her students and the uncompromising expectations she has for both. Her classes are very rigorous, very demanding. She will never let the students perform below their best."

Glenn Sucich, another teaching assistant, agrees. "Some professors just mail the lecture in but not Barbara," he says. "It’s always fresh, very animated. She dramatizes the readings and keeps people on the edge of their seats. She has an uncommon passion for the material and for the students. Consistently, the feedback I got from students was ‘This was the best course I’ve ever taken.’ "

Nicholas Watson, an English professor at Harvard University, has known Newman for years and calls her "one of the foremost intellectual historians in the medieval field of my generation. And she is one of the best public speakers I’ve seen. There are always surprises when she delivers a paper. I’m always swept off my feet. She is shockingly good."

One of the consistent themes in Newman’s course work is the role of women and feminist issues in religion. She finds that the rhetoric may have changed over time, but the realities have not. "In the Middle Ages the inferiority of women was just something that all men and many women took for granted," she says. "And if you look at world cultures in a comparative way, just about all of them are patriarchal. With maybe a few minor exceptions, a small tribe here or there, all of them have structures of female subordination and some kind of ideology to rationalize that.

"When medieval writers write about why women can’t be ordained, the reasons they give are pretty frankly misogynist reasons. They talk about the inferiority of women’s minds; women don’t have the authority or stability needed to be preachers; women’s bodies would arouse lust; their voices would awaken salacious thoughts in their hearers.

"They never say maybe men’s bodies will awaken lust in women! Women are meant to be subordinate to men. A priest must have authority, but a woman could never have authority because of her subordinate female nature.

"When you read the documents of the Vatican today, they don’t teach the inferiority of women anymore. They teach the equality and human dignity of women, and they make like they’re deeply repentant for all those centuries of oppressing women. The church has quietly backpedaled on all of the classic misogynist doctrine, but it still wants to preserve the power structure as all-male. The end result is the same, but the logic behind it looks different now."

Newman is tackling another feminist topic in her latest book, her sixth, due out later this year, God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages (University of Pennsylvania Press). About the book she wrote for the publisher: "Contrary to popular belief, the medieval religious imagination did not restrict itself to masculine images of God but envisaged the divine in multiple forms. In fact, the God of medieval Christendom was the Father of one Son but many daughters — Lady Philosophy, Lady Love, Dame Nature, Mater Ecclesia. God and the Goddesses is a study in medieval imaginative theology, examining the numerous ‘daughters of God’ who appear in allegorical poems, theological fictions and the visions of holy women."

Newman’s love of literature and its relevance is evident. "Literature teaches us about human possibility," she says. "It stretches the imagination and teaches us to imagine people who are different from us and yet are human like us. And so we can empathize with them, and we can stretch our understanding of what it is to be human and to deal with perennial human problems: love, death, sex, the individual in society, making your way in the world, loss, transience."

Newman cautions that taking a myopic view of the world inevitably limits understanding and stifles the range of human possibility. "One way to experience the adventure of humanity is to travel, to meet people who are not like us, who speak other languages, who make their living in different ways, whose cities look different from ours, whose farms grow different crops. And you say, ‘Wow, the world is so much richer a place than I thought it was.’ I think reading literature from other cultures, reading literature in translation, better yet, reading literature in other languages if we can, are other ways to do that. So the past is another country, too.

"Someone in Chaucer’s England would not have thought about gender or religion or money or politics or anything else the same way we do. And yet, since we are all, after all, one species, if we do a lot of research, it is possible for us to attain never a full understanding, but some degree of empathetic understanding of what it was like, what their problems were, what light they shed on our problems, and vice versa. I passionately believe this."

Newman also believes literature, regardless of its period or place of origin, is profoundly important to human understanding. "I really think that literature, the arts, all the products of culture are the commonwealth of humanity. And I really do believe that the only way that human beings will ever make any progress toward getting along peaceably is to learn to understand and appreciate one another’s culture."

Now that her book is finished, Newman plans to focus on some smaller projects. "I’m working on an art history article on Christ as Cupid, and I’m doing a literary translation of an elaborate work by a 14th-century German poet," she says. "I love literary translating because it’s a way of writing poetry without actually having anything to say!"

And she is back in the classroom after taking a quarter off. "Teaching is an intellectual conversation," she says. "It’s a chance to share your passions for books and ideas with others. For me, it’s a great joy to watch people’s minds expand and mature. We have great students here, and it’s a joy to watch them grow."

Terry Stephan (GJ78) is a freelance writer based in Chicago.