In which Spenser’s Holy Women are Preaching…

Benjamin West's 18th century painting, "Fidelia and Speranza"

Benjamin West’s 18th century painting, “Fidelia and Speranza”

One of my favorite episodes in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is when Una whisks Redcrosse away from Despayre and puts him under the care of the female-run House of Holiness.  There’s something a little eerie about the house full of women (all are married [one has a gaggle of children] or betrothed) with no present male counterparts.  There are male servants in HoH, but no spouses or fathers.  The women (Dame Caelia, Charissa, Fidelia, and Speranza) make the spiritual education of Redcrosse their business, just as if they were his own mother, and the canto reads with an air of peacefulness and progression that (I think) hasn’t yet appeared in the Legend of Holiness.

Fidelia (whose name means faith) is my favorite lady in the HoH.  She’s a real preacher woman, whose words have the ability to move mountains and calm raging seas.  She teaches Redcrosse with her “wordes diuine,” catechizing him and sharing with him the knowledge of her “sacred booke.”

What’s odd about Fidelia is that, even though she apparently has this mountain-moving homiletic prowess, she never delivers any directly quoted speech in the canto.  She’s a preacher, yes, but in terms of the text, she’s a rather quiet one.

I’ve just now arrived at the end of a project that addresses this issue: Why is the preacher woman silent? Why is the male spiritual guide at the end of the canto (Contemplation) such an unappealing figure?  What does Redcrosse really learn from the women in the HoH (or does he learn anything at all)?