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Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Sara Ritchey

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Sara Ritchey is an Associate Professor in the History Department with an interest in female devotional communities in the late Middle Ages. She studied medieval history at the University of Chicago. Dr. Ritchey’s first book is entitled Holy Matter: Changing Perceptions of the Material World in Late Medieval Christianity (Cornell University Press). Her book reveals that a new perception of the natural world emerged in reformed communities of religious women in the twelfth-century Rhineland, a perception that would wholly reorient western Christian devotion and practice through the fifteenth century. Holy Matter examines this emergence in the construction of the doctrine of the world’s re-creation, its diffusion throughout various later medieval religious communities, and its effect on the western religious imagination. Her book, on the one hand, utilizes the doctrine of the re-creation, largely unrecognized or poorly understood by scholars, as a means both to reconsider the complex relationships between women and men in professed religious life in the later Middle Ages, and to evaluate the gendered language and imagery of spiritual instruction in later medieval Christian devotion more generally. At the same time, Holy Matter argues for the absolutely pivotal importance of the doctrine of the re-creation to the later medieval religious imagination, and demonstrates how a proper understanding of it, allows us to rethink the meaning of key terms and concepts in the scholarly literature of medieval Christianity, particularly those of “nature,” “body,” and “incarnation.”

The doctrine of the re-creation, fashioned by women and men involved in reformed monastic living experiments in twelfth-century German lands, held that the world was created a second time, as a fresh creation, in the incarnation of God in the body of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Holy Matter traces the diffusion of this new religious doctrine beyond the Rhineland, showing the profound impact it had on both women and men in professed religious life, especially Franciscans in Italy and Carthusians in England. It reveals an important transformation in late medieval devotional practice, a shift from metaphor to material, from gazing on images of a God made visible in the splendor of natural beauty to looking at the natural world itself, and discovering divine access there.

Dr. Ritchey is also currently working on research that uses demographic data and personal stories from hagiographic sources in order to demonstrate how religiously-affiliated women were key to the routine health care of marginalized persons living in the thirteenth-century southern Low Countries. In cities and towns like Huy, Ypres, Liège, and Brussels, hundreds of women living as beguines, recluses, and Cistercian nuns served the social and spiritual needs of a marginalized public by feeding, nursing and praying for the poor and sick in hospitals, leprosaria, infirmaries, private homes, and within their own communities as nurses and caretakers of the dead and dying. After their deaths, many people in their communities revered these women as “saints,” often visiting their tombs or relics. At these sites, the sick and indigent reported the occurrence of healing miracles that reversed various afflictions including fevers, ulcers, epilepsy, physical impairments, mental anguish and other ailments. As their reputation for healing spread through the oral repetition of miracle stories, greater numbers of the sick flocked to the tombs of local holy women, forming “healing communities” in which they shared stories of and sought remediation from their illnesses. The female saint thus facilitated a form of affective transformation as the poor and sick discovered in her a social network through which to express their suffering. She provided a context for sickness and a community of care in which socially marginalized individuals found relief.

Dr. Ritchey is interested not only in the various health care roles played by these women, but also in how, over time, communities came to value the bodily care they provided quite differently. Healing communities surrounding the female saint emerged in tandem with the medicalization of thirteenth-century western European society, when the practice of medicine was undergoing professionalization through the introduction of medical faculties into universities, the creation of posts for municipal physicians, and the granting of licenses to masters and practitioners of medicine. Indeed, the activity of healing communities did not go unnoticed by medical authorities. Seeking to distinguish their profession, and to bolster the rational basis for their practice of medical care, physicians and medical theorists increasingly distanced themselves from, and defined their healing process in opposition to, religious healing remedies and supernatural beliefs. Because local holy women were most closely associated with such affective healing processes, their means of providing care over the body and its passions were excluded from emerging medical knowledge and practice. Dr. Ritchey’s research therefore seeks to re-embed women's health work into the history of premodern medicine by integrating hagiographic and narrative sources with academic and biomedical ones.

Dr. Ritchey’s current research was inspired by, and in many ways returns her to, her very early interest in the distribution of health care. Growing up, both of her parents were extraordinarily involved in the foundation of public care centers-- one helped to establish a free clinic, and the other a rape crisis center. Access to health care has always been a fundamental component of her thinking about communities. After she submitted her first book to press, she found that she had spent the previous year in and out of hospitals, dealing with both joyful and grief-filled outcomes. Accessibility of health care was also at that time part of a thriving national conversation. Dr. Ritchey began thinking very seriously, and immersed herself in reading, about how communities define health. This project flows naturally out of that interest because it is dedicated to historicizing concepts of the healthy body and its modes of care.

For Dr. Ritchey’s future research plans, she has begun to generate statistics and ascertain disease patterns and social trends in her sources, including frequency of a certain illness, impairment or affliction, demographics of the persons who reported miracle cures. Dr. Ritchey’s next step is to finalize the research and begin writing her book. Her tentative book title is: The Palliative Saint: affective medicine and healing communities in the late medieval Low Countries.