University of Massachusetts
According to long–established custom in the mediaeval Church, women who felt themselves called to a religious life were severely restricted in the ways they could act on their vocation. They could not participate in the public sacramental life of the church; they were forbidden to administer the sacraments, to hear confessions or to grant absolution, and they were not allowed to preach. They could join convents (if they had the price of a dowry) where they were expected to live a contemplative life of prayer, fasting, and vigils. They were not supposed to have commerce with the secular world once they entered a convent; their role was to pray for the salvation of their own souls and for the souls of the Christian community.
Nevertheless, women did emerge as leaders in mediaeval society, and my purpose is to examine just how they managed to do this, what it meant to them to provide spiritual direction to others, and how they taught themselves and other women to grow into whole spiritual beings. If we look carefully at their lives and their writings, we will find some patterns that are still relevant to us today and we can draw inspiration to help us on our own paths to spiritual development. I will limit myself to presenting women from two and a half centuries, from the mid–twelfth to the end of the fourteenth centuries, for that is the time period in which Europe was undergoing rapid changes economically and socially and during which women were inventing new forms of individual and collective life to compensate for the traditional restrictions on female piety. I will speak specifically about eight women from four different geographical areas, all of whom left autobiographical and didactic writings: Hildegard of Bingen and Mechthild of Magdeburg (Germany), Marguerite Porete and Hadewijch from Brabant and Antwerp, Angela of Foligno and Catherine of Siena (Italy), and Christina Markyate and Julian of Norwich (England). Two of these women — Hildegard and Christina — were leaders in Benedictine houses after spending a number of years enclosed as recluses; one, Julian of Norwich, was a recluse for her whole adult life; Catherine was a Dominican tertiary while another was a married woman who became a Franciscan tertiary. Three belonged to that fluid classification known as Beguines — women who were committed to a spiritual life but who did not live enclosed lives and who did not take permanent vows.2 One of these three — Marguerite Porete — was burned at the stake as a heretic. Only three of these women were what we would term well–educated which, in the Middle Ages, meant knowing Latin and having access to a sizeable library of spiritual classics. Yet all of them were writers and some were the earliest and best writers of the vernacular languages in their own countries. All were bi–lingual and bi–cultural. All were mystics and visionaries.
The female visionary was celibate; her vocation, her commitment to virginity or to chaste widowhood exempted her from the charge of female weakness or corruption, allowing her (as St. Jerome said) to become like a man.3 Celibacy altered her status, moving her upward towards a position of potential authority. Visions set the seal upon that authority and for a number of reasons, the two most important being that visions gave an individual woman a voice, a belief in herself as chosen to speak, and gave her the experience of inner transformation on which she felt compelled to communicate to others.
Visions led women to the acquisition of power in the world while affirming their knowledge of themselves as women. Visions were a socially sanctioned activity that freed a woman from conventional roles by identifying her as a genuine religious figure. They brought her to the attention of others, giving her a public language she could use to teach and learn. Her visions gave her the strength to grown internally and to change the world, to build convents, found hospitals, preach, attack injustice and greed, even within the Church. Visions also provided her with the content for teaching, though education had been denied her. She could be an exemplar to other women and, out of her experience, could lead them to fuller self–development. Finally, visions allowed the mediaeval woman to be an artist, composing and refining her most profound experiences into a form which she could create and recreate for herself throughout her entire life.
Before developing these ideas any further, I would like to introduce to you these eight women I have chosen. All are distinct individuals, very different from each other in their backgrounds, in their conception of their contribution to salvation history, and in the difficulties they encountered and surmounted. They are representative of a much larger group of European women mystics for whom we possess biographical or autobiographical accounts.
Christina of Markyate (1096/8–1160) was born into an influential Anglo–Saxon family in Norman England. The part of her life story that we possess4 does not go beyond c1142, by which time she was a professed nun in the Benedictine community of St. Albans's. What we do have is a rich account of her childhood, the awakening of her desire for a spiritual life, the marriage forced upon her by her parents but never consummated, her flight to the cell of a nearby hermit where she lived for a number of years, and her assumption of a more regularised life in a small community after her husband Burthred publicly released her from her betrothal. We do not know who wrote down the Life but it is clear that he knew Christina (or Theodora, as she was called before her profession) well and that he often transcribed her own first person accounts of her adventures.
The seer Hildegard of Bingen, born in 1098 and living until 1179, is Christina's contemporary.5 Unlike Christina who evidently dictated her experiences to someone within the same community and who never expected her Life to be circulated, Hildegard composed her works for the world outside the walls of her convent. Her writings — letters, visions, prophecies, song sequences, a morality, even a handbook on medicine — fill an entire volume of the Patrologia Latina.6
Hildegard's religious life began at the age of seven or eight when she joined her aunt who was a recluse. Their walled–up retreat was later opened and turned into a convent and Hildegard made her profession as a nun when she was fourteen. Although she was unable to write German and diffident about the correctness of her Latin, yet her dictated writings exhibit wide learning. While she claimed that all her knowledge came from a mystical source, it is obvious that she was familiar with the Scriptures, natural science, classical Latin literature, and neo–Platonic philosophy. She was taken seriously as a prophet by everyone, from St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Pope down to the humblest labourers. Throughout her period of prolific writing, she was a forceful administrator of her convent, often travelling great distances to represent the interests of her house when they were threatened. She began the Scivias,7 her major visionary and autobiographical work, when she was forty–two. In her introduction, characterised by a mixture of self–confidence and humility, she tells us that she began having visions at the age of five, but only told a few people; except for this she “repressed ... in quiet silence” the contents of her visions. She insists she sees them in spiritual and psychological wholeness; they are not dreams, not frenzy, are not given to her physical senses, and they take place not when she is in “hidden places,” but when she is “looking carefully in an innocent mind, with the eyes and ears of the interior man, in open places.” This defence is followed by a remarkable description of the interior life of a woman mystic as seen by God:
For in the marrow of her bones and in the veins of her flesh she was aching, having her mind and judgment bound, so that no security dwelt in her and she judged herself culpable in all things.
She has been protected from pride and vainglory by these feelings of fear and grief. But she knows enough, or is pressured enough, by her visions and doubts that she consciously searches for an amanuensis who must be “like to herself in that part of his work which concerned me.” This person, the monk Volmar, yields to her authority in his humility and good will. With support from him and from a young nun, Richardis von Stade, Hildegard can write what she sees and hears.
Hadewijch of Antwerp was a Flemish beguine of the first half of the thirteenth century.8 Although she and her writings were known in the fourteenth century, she achieved no particular fame in her own life–time as far as we know. What little is known of her is the result of inference. Her familiarity with the vocabulary of chivalry and courtly love suggests that she was from the higher classes and she probably attended good convent schools for she uses the metaphors of the curriculum and school masters in the “school of love” poems.
From her extensive writings (thirty–one letters, forty–five poems in stanzas, fourteen visions, sixteen poems in couplets), a sketchy outline of Hadewijch's life can be constructed. She either founded or joined a beguine group and had become its mistress, supervising the spiritual development of a number of young beguines whom she believed were specially called to mysticism, when she ran into opposition. Her authority was called into question by members of her group and by outsiders and her closest companions were sent away from her:
The general opinion of scholars at present seems to be that Hadewijch actually was evicted from her beguine community and exiled; that she was made the talk of the town because of her doctrine that one must live Love ....9
We do not know where she went nor how she died but, considering how often she urged her sisters to care for the sick, it may be conjectured that she joined a leprosarium or hospital for the poor where she would have been able to serve others and to sleep and pray in the chapel that was always attached to such institutions.
Mechthild of Magdeburg (c1210–1282?),10 the most famous of the German beguines, was of the minor nobility and probably grew up at a small court. It was not until she was twenty–two that she decided to devote her life to God, although she had a first received a call from the Holy Spirit when she was twelve. Near the end of her life she left the beguine group with whom she had been associated and came to the convent of Helfta, perhaps advised to make such a retreat because of her outspoken criticism of corruption in the Church. It is thought that she had finished the writings included in the first three books of the Flowing Light by the time she was thirty; the fourth book was composed when she was about forty–three, and the sixth book about ten years later. The first six books were already in circulation when she retired to Helfta, where she composed the seventh book.11 To read The Flowing Light of the Godhead is to experience a woman's spiritual diary over all the stages of a lifetime, from adolescence to old age. To write it Mechthild utilised all the poetic and narrative resources of her age — lyric poetry, dialogue, courtly allegory, homely folk wisdom. She discovers, along with Hadewijch, a new subjective mode:
Hadewijch's and Mechthild's poetry is a poetry of meditation; it is their inner colloquy with divine Love .... Love (die Minne) is a womanly figure, divinely beautiful and seductive; she is both relentless tyrant and sweet enchantress. Under her spell, these women know and recreate in themselves all the heights and all the abysses, the raptures and the torments of the beloved in the Song of Songs.12
Blessed Angela of Foligno was born in 1248 and died in 1309. Foligno, only a few miles from Assisi, was a centre of Franciscan spirituality and it was not unusual for pious married women living there to become tertiaries. Angela confessed that she joined the Third Order for the prestige it would give her, for she wanted the reputation of being a virtuous married woman. But her mother, her husband, and all her children died suddenly and her attachment to St. Francis and his order became more profound. She had undergone a powerful conversion experience in 1285, and she has detailed for us the steps from that point to becoming a visionary when she was in her early forties. In 1291, when she was forty–three, she had a vision of God's love for her as she was walking on a path between Spello and Assisi on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Francis. Between 1290 and 1296 she dictated her experiences to her uncle and confessor, Fra Arnaldo, a Franciscan priest and the book, Liber de Verae Fidelium Experientia13 was read immediately and widely copied and circulated. The first of the three treatises that compose Angela's book details her inner life from the time she first became a tertiary. Angela identifies nineteen steps in her penitential period. At the eleven, she desired to commit herself fully to poverty, although she had doubts that she would be able to withstand the temptations that would come to her if she were compelled to beg for sustenance. It was only when she had decided upon full renunciation of property that she began to experience the joys as well as the difficulties of the spiritual life. Profoundly aware of her own limitations, she is still comforted by a deep and unceasing awareness of the goodness of God.
The second part of Angela's book tells of her visions during the next seven stages of her illumination, including the one best known to students of mysticism — her wooing by the Holy Spirit as she was on pilgrimage to Assisi. The third part of the book, dictated to various unidentified scribes and known as “the treatise on evangelical doctrine” is composed of letters and discourses based on further visions and addressed to her spiritual sons and daughters. Believing that the beginning and end of true wisdom is to know God and ourselves, Angela is genuinely helpful in these lectures to her students. She uses anecdotes from her own experience to show how she came to resolve conflicts and doubts and she manages to avoid both false humility and inflated self–satisfaction.
Marguerite Porete, a French beguine from Hainault, was probably a somewhat younger contemporary of Angela. She was one of the first writers to be associated with the Free Spirit movement. Sometime between 1296 and 1306 she wrote a book, The Mirror of Simple Souls which was condemned. By 1310 she had been declared heretical and was burned at the stake. Since she refused to give any testimony during a year and a half in prison, the Dominican Inquisitor extracted a list of articles from her book and submitted them, out of context, to the theological regents of the University of Paris. They declared the articles heretical and she was swiftly judged a “relapsed” heretic since she had been arrested several times before, and solemnly executed in the Place de Grève in Paris. While she was being pursued by the Inquisition, she sent her book to three noted scholars who all approved of it. The book, in spite of being condemned, circulated widely and, by the latter half of the fourteenth century, was translated into Latin, Italian, and Middle English.14 Marguerite's crime was that she insisted on speaking publicly, teaching her ideas publicly and that she did so in her own voice and that of others like her. She may have been heretical in her views — although even experts in theology cannot agree on this — but the very evolved spirituality she is presenting seems no more or less dangerous than the spiritual teachings of Hadewijch or Mechthild. She was, however, much more visible than they, for she refused to hide behind God's voice or to submit to the hierarchical Church.
Formally this long and beautiful book is a dialogue between Love and Reason and concerns the conduct of a Soul. The dialogue is often interrupted by various allegorical figures with a commentary in verse and exempla.
Julian of Norwich (1343–1413) was a recluse attached to the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England. In 1373 at the age of thirty, she experienced a series of visions or “showings” on the Passion of Christ.15 These visions became the basis for meditation over the rest of her life and may have determined her choice of the anchoress' life.16 Although she makes the usual apologies for her lack of formal education — usual, especially among women — her work indicates that she was quite well read. Her book of revelations exists in two different redactions. The short text must have been written soon after her experience. Each vision included is described in careful sensual detail and is followed by brief comments concerning its spiritual meaning. We learn from reading the long text that certain visions or narrative scenes were not included at first because she had not yet understood them. It was only in 1388 that she finally reached an understanding of some of her early experiences and then developed them further as she wrote them down in 1393. In her commentaries on the meaning of each vision, she reveals much about her own questions about Christianity and shows us the process by which she worked through to an understanding of theological questions. She “reads” each vision as a kind of allegorical drama in which every detail of the imagery and the dialogue is significant — the colour of clothing, the movements and gestures of the characters, the similes that occur to her as she observes her recollections. Her powers of observation are acute and she draws on a wide variety of experience to illustrate her perceptions — for instance, her teachings on the Motherhood of Christ.
In her method of narrating a vision, Julian is probably most similar to Hildegard of Bingen, although she surpasses the latter in providing more information concerning the process and development of her thought. She was widely sought out as a spiritual counsellor and teacher. Margery Kempe, thirty years younger, visited her in her search for validation of her own vocation and her account of their meeting, brief as it is, gives us a good idea of the kind of guidance Julian provided.17 Mary Mason observes of Julian:
Speaking in the first person, with a singleness of vision that allows for no distractions or ambivalence, Julian establishes an identification with the suffering Christ that is absolute, yet ... [she] is in no way obliterated as a person.18
Catherine Benincasa, the future St. Catherine of Siena, was born in 1347, the year the Black Death began its sweep over all Europe. Like Angela of Foligno, she was a woman of great strength and personal magnetism who attracted many followers. She discovered her visionary path when she was still a child; her first recorded vision occurred as she was walking along a lonely road near Siena with one of her brothers. Sometime after this and before she was fifteen, she had a vision of a mystical marriage with Christ in which she vowed her virginity to Him. Her visions led to the performance of many ascetic practices (fasting, prayers, hours of flagellation daily) which indicate her tremendous strength of will. In spite of the limitations of her sex and her class — her father was a dyer — she did not allow herself to be deterred from her goals. She resisted her family's pressure to marry and, when as punishment, she was reduced to a kind of servitude in her parents' home, she transformed the situation by visualising family members as the holy apostles and her parents as the Divine Family. At about seventeen, she was stricken with smallpox and she used this opportunity to force her mother to arrange an interview with the Dominican Sisters of the Third Order, called the Mantellate. Although they were usually unwilling to admit any woman who was not a mature widow — they were no cloistered and could not protect a virgin — Catherine was so disfigured by the smallpox and so sober in speech that she became the first virgin tertiary. Her new status as a tertiary was very congenial to her because she wanted to live outside a detailed fixed Rule. During her years of silence in her parents' home, she had learned to build an internal cell which she could enter in order to meditate and this was one of the teachings she passed on to her followers.
As a child, Catherine had wanted to disguise herself as a man so that she could travel about and preach. She had abandoned this dream by the time she reached adolescence and, later, when the Lord reminded her of it, she protested that no one would listen to her because she was a woman. He, however, said that since “it is as easy for me to make an angel as an ant,” she would certainly be able to preach if she so wished. And so, with the authority of her visions behind her, she did although she was not without enemies. In 1374, when she was twenty–seven and a public figure, she was called to Florence to be questioned by the provincial chapter of her Order. As a result of this interrogation, she was assigned a spiritual director, Brother Raymond of Capua, who was her companion until her death and eventually her biographer. Thereafter her career became more publicly active, reaching beyond Siena to Rome, Avignon and the whole of Italy.
Catherine had only about ten years of active ministry: she joined the Dominican tertiaries in 1363–64 and learned to read between 1364–67 when she was living in isolation under a vow of silence at home. This period ended on the last day of Carnival in 1367 on the day of her mystic marriage to Christ. From then until 1370 she gradually widened her circle of contacts and worked to help the sick and the needy. In 1370 she suffered a mystical death during which she received a command to go abroad into the world to save souls. In 1374, as we have seen, she had attracted enough attention to be called to Florence to be examined on her beliefs and activities. On April 1, 1375, she received the stigmata and prophesied the Great Schism that took place four years later. In 1376 she undertook to try to make peace between Florence and Pope Gregory IX and finally convinced the Pope to return to Rome from Avignon. In 1378, after the peace established by Gregory's successor, Pope Urban, she turned to composing the Dialogue, her major visionary work.19 At the end of 1378 she was again living in Rome and acting as Urban's trusted advisor. During these last years of her life, she offered herself as an expiatory victim for the sins of the Church. Shortly before her death, she had a vision of the weight of the ship of the Church descending on her shoulders and her physical sufferings increased. She died April 3, 1380, thirty–three years old.
All these women were leaders in their own day, and the fact that they wrote autobiographies which have survived means that they can still speak to us today if we can open ourselves to their experiences. This does not mean that we ought to imitate them as models. We need not replicate the great suffering they endured because of the times in which they lived and because of the restrictions placed on them by the mediaeval Church. I think it will be clear from each of these brief biographies that they encountered institutionalised resistance and some outright hostility. There is abundant documentary evidence of restrictions on women's spiritual leadership in Church laws and monastic regulations; furthermore, there is the indirect evidence of the hiddenness of information on the public role of women. It is not accidental that scholarly research on mediaeval women's spirituality is difficult and time–consuming because of the inaccessibility of reference material.
What I wish to explore here is how the visionary experiences of these mediaeval women enabled them to overcome the restrictions facing them. Two main points must be observed. First, visionaries were respected. To have the reputation of a visionary was useful for both men and women who wanted to be spiritual leaders and it granted essential status to women especially who had no other way, because of their gender, to achieve this status. Secondly, the conditions of female monastic life encourage the development of visionary ability by teaching methods of meditation and concentration. There are several corollaries which accompany this situation. The gradual process that led from meditation to visions was a growth process which granted the practitioner greater wisdom in dealing with others and a greater ability to help those in need more effectively. Skill in meditation led to an ability to envision conflict situations creatively in order to find solutions to them, solutions that resolved the dilemma rather than creating further problems. This was particularly helpful when women found themselves in life situations where direct action was impossible, when only time was on their side.
My second observation on the manner in which women learned to overcome restrictions concerns the extent to which these women's successes were tied to their typical life cycle. Those women who became spiritual leaders were marked as children by precocious piety — publicly and dramatically they were holy children who repudiated family values for religious reasons, refused to wear pretty clothes, gave to the poor extravagantly or practised strenuous prayer. From adolescence through their thirties they lived withdrawn or secluded lives: if they were married, they were silently absorbed in family responsibilities and child–bearing; if they were in convents, they withdrew in prayer as much as possible. All this changed, however, around their fortieth year. As older women, they were visible as active leaders and carried out helping functions and offered spiritual advice to others. Both nuns and married women acquired the ability to heal others as they performed the traditional seven corporal works of mercy enjoined on all Christians.
It was women such as these who made a number of important institutional contributions to mediaeval life. The first hospitals, leprosaria, orphanages, hospices for pilgrims, poor houses and homes for reformed prostitutes were founded by women, often by married or widowed women who acted collectively and pooled their resources. For instance, the first hospitals for veterans of the Crusades were created by a group of half a dozen women in Venice who obtained permission to build on an unoccupied island in the Venetian lagoon. In addition to developing these institutions for the entire community, women also designed new kinds of female communities based on the radical notions of female economic self–sufficiency and of temporary vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. In northern Europe, such groups of women obtained the new right to pass on their property to other women to whom they were not related by blood.
So important were these contributions that it is easy to ignore the fact that all these new institutions provided assistance in areas which hitherto had been inadequately served by other social groups: women were responding to human needs which were not being properly answered by any existing structure. If we look closely, we can see that these new institutions were all responses to changing social and economic situations. Groups of needy people existed which, as groups, had not existed prior to the twelfth century. It is not surprising that women could perceive and respond to the needs they saw around them with more flexibility and imagination than the more traditional agencies. The institutional Church, like any great bureaucracy, moved slowly and embodied points of view that were rapidly becoming outdated in terms of social structures. A number of factors can be distinguished as agents of change: the impact of the Crusades which began in 1095 and lasted through the thirteenth century; the rise of the cities with new classes outside the older feudal structure; new poverty; capitalism which replaced an economy based on the ownership of land; new industries — particularly the cloth industry — which replaced farming as the major livelihood of the population; the lingering collapse of traditional feudalism which led to a loss in prestige of the older monastic establishments which had been largely drawn from the feudal nobility. The changes taking place in all these areas — and the anxieties created by the unpredictability of such change — were exacerbated by a series of natural disasters in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: famine, a sudden and severe climatic change in the 1330's, outbreaks of the plague, and a limited food supply. The mendicant Orders — the Franciscans and Dominicans — were created at this time in answer to these social changes. That women played such an important part in the attempt to alleviate these problems can be partially explained by the fact that they outnumbered men in the population20 and those who were unmarried and lived in female communities lived longer lives than their married or secular counterparts.21
Ah, you might be thinking, what an ideal time for women! No wonder they emerged as leaders — there were more of them and they were doing things that were needed! But the reality of the situation is that all this female activity was taking place on the periphery of society, on the boundary, as it were, of the known world. Women were bringing healing to certain parts of the population — powerless groups for the most part — and, in taking up the slack like this, they were making it easier for traditional institutions such as the Church and the nobility to ignore the radical changes that were taking place. Women may have outnumbered men demographically but they had little effective power in society.
There were, to be sure, individual women, holy women who were powerful, but they were viewed with great suspicion. I stated earlier that being a visionary implied status, but the status of a visionary was emotionally charged. No society is particularly fond of its prophets and prophets who are aware of injustice, who seem to be able to read minds and to heal others — especially if they seem to have popular support — are very dangerous to those in positions of power. A woman visionary had to be very, very good, had to lead an impeccable moral life and had to be sexually pure if she wanted to live to do anyone any good. She also had to be very wise. And if she were smart as well as wise, she had better be very humble.22
Here is where we come back to the importance of the process of becoming a visionary. The eight women whom I mentioned and who emerged as powerful charismatic leaders had all been through a lengthy apprenticeship in the mystical life and they had all reached the point where they believed — and effectively taught — that to know God one must know oneself. The visionary journey is a path to self–knowledge. The training in meditation and the years of experience that go with it have taught women a number of techniques for monitoring their own growth, of evaluating their responses to situations and examining their own motivations. They undoubtedly shared this knowledge with each other and they were obliged to share their experiences with their confessors, their spiritual directors. The role of the confessional would seem to have been of enormous importance in allowing for communication between the world of female mysticism and the male hierarchy of the Church. Some of the most outspoken defenders of women were clerics who were confessors to ecstatic women, for they knew, with a depth of understanding shared by few others, how genuine and transforming women's visionary experiences were. Certainly there are negative aspects to the confessor–penitent relationship and we know that the general chapters of many monastic orders tried to refuse even papal demands that they take spiritual responsibility for holy women, but in the long run that necessity for regular communication with a confessor must have de–mystified the often strained relationships between men and women.
Nevertheless, the communication and perhaps self– expression of regular confession was not enough. Women were learning more, and struggling with larger problems, and feeling more creative energy, than was allowed for in any existing rituals. So women turned to writing and to a form of writing they made especially their own: the spiritual autobiography. In the hands of women, the spiritual autobiography became an amatory dialogue with the Beloved, a narrative which reveals the identity of the writer to herself as she writes, and in the course of which she experiments with every kind of literary form — allegory, lyric, argument, syllogism, prayer — to present and understand her deepest and most intimate experiences.
Women did not generally begin to write their autobiographies until they had felt Divine Love; then, in the light of that warmth and encouragement, the words often poured out of them. They claim to be untutored, but the skill with which they present very complex states reveals another long apprenticeship in the literary arts. Were they, in fact, as illiterate and uneducated as they professed themselves to be? Most of the autobiographies of women mystics up to the fourteenth century were dictated and written down by someone else. Sometimes they were dictated in one language and written down in another. This has led many critics to dismiss these writings as unauthentic or to ascribe the felicities in style to the scribe rather than to the composer. Hildegard experienced her visions in Latin but she dictated them in German and Latin and they were transcribed in Latin. Mechthild of Magdeburg dictated in German but the original text in her own dialect no longer exists and we have a German and a Latin translation. We have no idea in which language Christina of Markyate dictated — was it Anglo–Saxon or French or Latin? Angela of Foligno dictated in Italian and her uncle translated her words into Latin and read them back to her. She knew enough Latin to, at times, be very critical of his efforts. Catherine of Siena dictated in Italian and had a group of young male scribes whom she had trained to write in Italian as she spoke. Of these eight women, only three wrote with their own hands what they had experienced: Hadewijch, Marguerite Porete, Julian of Norwich. They are some of the most remarkable of mediaeval writers and they wrote in the vernacular so that anyone who had the opportunity to read their words could understand them.
My interest in the process of how these works were composed and transcribed is two–fold. That these works were orally composed is indisputable: they are clearly not written in the manner of those trained in a book–culture. If we are to really understand the kind of creative spiritual process going on within these women, we need to learn more about how oral works are composed, how mystical oral works are mentally connected to visual images, what the connections are between the spoken word and the seen vision. Another potential field of investigation concerns the fact that all these women were bi–lingual and bi–cultural. Recent research on the phenomenon of bilingualism suggests that a certain kind of creativity, of association–forming activity, goes on in bi–lingual brains and that the usual lateralisation (left–brain activity) that we think is the norm for mono–lingual people simply does not take place in truly bi–lingual persons. I do not have the necessary background to investigate this, but students of psycholinguistics could well find this an intriguing area for further study.
Although we do not know whether any of these women writers were aware of similar work being done by other women, there is a surprising consistency in the central metaphors employed as analogues for their experiences — more consistency than can be explained by the Christian culture they all shared. Furthermore, as a general rule, the metaphors used by women mystics are very different from those employed by male mystics writing at the same time.23 The sense of the visionary life as a process is presented by the image of the stair, the ladder, the mountain. As we might expect, the image of the mirror is often used for reflection and self–knowledge, but what is surprising is that the soul or self which is viewed is more beautiful and more pure than the woman expects. Union with Christ is presented in two ways: the mystical marriage with Christ with the same poignant erotic language of the Song of Songs and a physical and spiritual participation in the Crucifixion. This too we might have expected — but we would not expect the woman visionary to become herself a man on the Cross, nor would we imagine that Christ on the Cross would be a woman, sometimes a woman in the throes of childbirth. What I see as important here is the complete absence of gender stereotypes: the human/divine image that results from these visions of union is androgynous. Christ and the mystic are aggressive, demure, impassioned, reluctant. This freedom from the restrictions of gender is accompanied, in the real world, by leadership activity that is unrestricted by the limitations of proper female behaviour. These women did not deny their femaleness; they exalted it by seeing the femaleness of Christ on the Cross, and they exulted in it — and in masculinity — in the mystical marriage with their Beloved.
By this time I think it will be clear what themes I consider to be important for us to consider in the twentieth century. We too are living in a time of rapid and unpredictable social and economic change, and we too are living in a world that resists the idea of spiritual leadership by women. I do not know to what extent women and men today should follow the style of feminine leadership in the Middle Ages, but we can certainly take as a model the balance of isolation and community, of reflection and action, that we find in these mediaeval women. Many of the meditation techniques practised by mediaeval women can be adapted by us, and we can use the emphasis on the spiritual life as a progressive climb — sometimes a steep and arduous one — to fuller consciousness. In the writings of these women, God always teaches through love and always stresses the self–worth of the human, and we need that love badly and the need to extend it to those we teach.
Furthermore — and this is a personal opinion that may not be shared by many — I believe that we as westerners and as Christians do not know very much about ecstasy. We are afraid of such altered states of consciousness which we fear cannot be explored rationally, and we are reluctant to listen to our own visionary insights. I have found that to study these women and to learn from them I not only had to experience the central image of Christianity, the Crucifixion, but I had to step totally outside the Christian tradition and look at ecstasy as it is taught in other religions.