The Female Body and Christian Mysticism in the Late Medieval Era
by Charlotte Sanders
The Late Middle Ages was largely characterized by a growing influence of women’s voices on spirituality despite the misogynistic belief that the female body was less divine than the male body and therefore less able to connect with God. Academic research provided by historians such as Caroline Walker Bynum and Ulrike Wiethaus would argue that women had incredibly strong and validating experiences with God despite popular theology. So, can it be safely assumed that medieval women took this view to heart? Through an analysis of female mystics and Beguines, their lives and the work they produced, evidence points towards women harnessing their relationship with their body and femininity in order to create a framework of spiritual emancipation. Whether it was realigning themselves with the physicality of Christ and viewing him as mother, lover and bridegroom or reimagining female spirituality with an egalitarian interpretation of Song of Songs, religious women found that their gender was not a hinderance in their experience of the Divine. The lives of women such as Julian of Norwich, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Hadewijch, Beatrijs van Nazareth, Hildegard of Bingen, and Joan of Arc are just some examples of women who wrote of occurrences with God with the same conviction as their male counterparts. While women were willing to accept that their female bodies made their connection with God different, it was equal in faith and should not be seen as less significant than the male bodily experience with God. Thus, the widespread theology concerning medieval, female spirituality was not an accurate portrayal of how these women felt about their religious capabilities.
Keywords: mysticism, Beguines, medieval, gender, femininity, physicality
Yet I, least of all souls,
Take Him in my hand,
Eat Him and drink Him,
And do with Him what I will!
Why then should I trouble myself
As to what the angels experience?
– Mechtild of Magdeburg, 1207-1282
The theology of the Late Middle Ages was categorized, largely, into dualities for which both male and female would fall, “intellect/body, active/passive, rational/irrational, reason/emotion, self-control/lust, judgment/mercy and order/disorder.” Gender and spirituality clashed over general beliefs about the role religious women had in experiencing God and their right to proselytization. The common conviction of the medieval clergy was in a higher, spiritual connection between man with God and a lesser, bodily connection between woman with man through which the Divine could be reached. However, a brief look at mystical sources from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries highlight an abundance of female mystical experiences and teachings compared to that of the Early Middle Ages. Positive religious female imagery took its place among misogynistic female imagery. The traditional acceptance of women as unable to access and interpret the mystery of God is not reflected in the women who chose to write about their visions or the undeniable exchanges they had with the Trinity. Many female mystics and Beguines found recognition and even sainthood through their writings and continue to make a large impact in the study of medieval women today. The rise of popular focus on Christ’s suffering and physicality, emphasis on food and the eucharist, prioritization of chasteness and virginity, and female imagery of redemption all make up parts of the uniqueness of later medieval mysticism and the women who shaped its theology. Therefore, despite the negative connotations between spirit and femininity, many female mystics and Beguines argued with and around the misogynistic belief of lesser, bodily female spirituality to build a larger framework of female spiritual emancipation.
In 1986, medievalist Caroline Walker Bynum published an essay entitled “‘… And Woman His Humanity’: Female Imagery in the Religious Writings of the Later Middle Ages.” In it, she discussed the concept that through women, and their link to physicality verses men’s spirituality, God was given humanity and physical representation. Instead of viewing their assigned bodily state as a reason to alienate their gifts and visions from God, medieval women took this label and used it to draw a connection between women and Christ. If Christ was to the Divine what physicality was to spirituality and, further, what women were to men, then Christ was the shining reason why women deserved to be in positions of spiritual authority. Christ became a central focus to women’s theology, even eclipsing Marian devotion, in which Christ took on many roles such as mother, lover, and bridegroom. All these metaphors worked to add positive female imagery and purpose to religious debate. If femininity was equal to humanity, which mystics were likely to emphasize, the humanity of Christ became the female tie to equal God-talk with men. It is this distinction that helps to explain why female mystics, while still seeing Mary as an important figure, were more likely to tie themselves to the shared bodily experience with Christ than the gendered experience with the Virgin Mary.
The bodily connection with Christ was emphasized due to the significance bodies already played in female mystic theology. Body abnormalities and manipulations as a form of spiritual connection with God was not exclusively a female experience but definitely female-led. “Traces, levitations, catatonic seizures or other forms of bodily rigidity…and ecstatic nosebleeds,” Bynum writes, “are seldom if at all reported of male saints, but are quite common in the vitae of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century women.” Some religious women found it impossible to eat anything other than the eucharist. The idea of transubstantiation held weight in the significance women felt in the physical Christ, developing a term described by historian Rudolph Bell as “holy anorexia.” The idea that one “becomes” Christ when they are “eating” Christ as the eucharist played into this desire to align the physical female and the physical Savior. Purposeful starvation could lead to further bodily manipulations in women, such as lack of menstruation. Religious significance was ascribed to these bodily alterations when, “they seemed to parallel either events in Christ’s life or in the mass.” Female mystics often felt the need to blur the line between their physical and spiritual manifestations. Along with this, the maintenance of virginity and chasteness was a way to keep ‘pure’ the most important thing many mystics felt they had. The body and its relation to the news of Christ was of the utmost significance.
Perhaps one of the most interesting ways Christ was used to explore positive female physicality was Christ as mother. Christ’s sacrificial death and crucifixion “generated redemption” and was described as a mother giving birth. His love for the souls of creation was seen as the “unquestioning pity and tenderness of a mother for her child,” and, finally, transubstantiation in wine and the eucharist was seen as Christ feeding the soul, “like a mother nursing her baby.” Julian of Norwich, an anchoress in St. Julian’s Church during the late 14th century to the early 15th century, best known for her work Revelations of Divine Love, wrote of Christ as our “Heavenly Mother” in which the earthly mother, “can lay her child tenderly to breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side.” While no mystic was claiming that Jesus was of the female sex, there was indication that the mystics who used the imagery of Christ as mother felt a validation in the purely female and very physical act of childbirth and breastfeeding reflected in the life and legacy of Christ.
While images of Jesus as lover or bridegroom are not inherently gender-bending images, they both emphasized positive roles within which women could fill. Ulrike Wiethaus responds to Bynum by adding an area of medieval women not included in her work: Beguines. Unlike some of the women Bynum touches on, Wiethaus brings to light the stories of women like Mechtild of Magdeburg, Hadewijch, and Beatrijs van Nazareth, who were not upper-class women of high education. Instead, the Beguines were lay women with lesser education, and some had a distinctly different interpretation of the physical body and femininity. Within the Beguine movement was an emphasis on the Biblical book Song of Songs, an oddity among the patriarchal texts in that it treated the subject of femininity kindly which, in turn, “gave women writers the opportunity to map femininity and masculinity from a gynocentric perspective.” Unlike the mystics within Bynum’s research, who stressed humanity over femininity, in which women were privy to the experiences of Christ, the egalitarian nature of Song of Songs led the Beguines within Wiethaus’ study to hold on to their feminine identity so long as it correlated to their preferred image of Christ as lover or bridegroom.
Mechtild of Magdeburg, Hadewijch, and Beatrijs van Nazareth all reported ecstatic visionary experiences which, “closely resembled human heterosexual encounters.” Christ as lover or bridegroom, and sufferer for love, was a route of self-assertion and self-determinization for women regarding the positive portrayal of their sexuality, especially in a society that was quick to limit female creativity and autonomy. In this metaphor, Christ, as Wiethaus later argues, “enters the imaginary drama of transformation as a sensual lover, receptive and eager for intimacy. His masculinity is diffuse and supplemented by nongendered imagery… who leads the soul, via sexuality, to death and rebirth.” Hildegard of Bingen was even recorded as dressing her nuns up as brides to receive communion. This imagery continues to be a positive addition to female identity because it gave women a role and purpose outside the stereotypical language of female nurturing and motherhood.
The same year Bynum published her essay, J. Giles Milhaven wrote his article, “A Medieval Lesson on Bodily Knowing: Women’s Experience and Men’s Thought.” Milhaven highlighted that when it came to female mystics and Beguines accepting and using their physicality to their benefit, along with their visions, religious men of authority tended to treat their experiences as “subjective,” often complaining that their visions were “too bodily.” Some men, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, and Henry Suso, actually used female imagery to describe themselves. But these men often spent their time advising nunneries and took influence from their mothers, where, more typically, widespread reaction was to belittle the emotional/experiential visions of women to that of textual/thought-based work of men. While the visions and experiences of female mystics and Beguines may have been accepted if they simply added to already conventional knowledge, they claimed more than that. The devotional women, “believed that they were being privileged to know in an intrinsically valuable way, independently of any further knowledge that might result.” In other words, women were actively challenging what was believed to be set truths in Christian theology by reinterpreting the body and femininity from one of lesser status, to one of equal importance.
Historians have argued that it is important to recognize how certain factors affected the livelihood and freedom of some mystics to spread their message and historians’ limited access to how women felt about their bodies, their mission, and their spirituality. These factors include the women’s class, wealth, and location which impact the preservation of texts and the ability for these women to record their life. In Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s article, the issues of circumstance and legacy come to a clash. Barstow argues that, “mysticism was both an integrative and an activating force in the lives of some late medieval women, enabling them to forge a new awareness of themselves as individuals in a man’s world…” She focuses her research on women such as Joan of Arc, who provides the rare and unique account of a woman’s mystical experience developing away from male influence.
Joan began receiving her visions and messages from God four years before she began telling people, and even during her time aiding the king of France in the Hundred Years War, she never took counsel about her visions against her will. Due to Joan’s notoriety, her visions and mystical experiences were often written down. She is recorded after the victory at Orléans to have persuaded the king of her authority to speak by replying, “When I am vexed that faith is not readily placed in what I wish to say in God’s Name, I retire alone, and pray to God… I hear a Voice which says to me: ‘Daughter of God! Go on! God on! Go on!” When Joan was eventually burned at the stake for heresy, these accounts of her visions and the validity of her actions allowed for her postmortem acquittal. She now remains a saint in the Catholic Church. Joan clearly felt she had a connection to the messages of God despite her sex.
When it comes to women and their view of their femininity along with their physicality and spirituality, historians recognize the limitations in the type and amount of information available. Of the evidence discussed, some women found Christ to be the divine reason their flesh should be venerated, and some found comfort in egalitarian Biblical accounts. Often those were made by women fortunate enough to have had their mystical experiences written down by others and held in esteem after their deaths. There is also more to be said on the difference of location, class, and background concerning what women said about their holy lives and their flesh. But women were, at least, defining their own right to be mouthpieces for their faith despite widespread androcentric theology. While some women wrote directly about their rationale behind femininity and spirituality, even those who had other testimonies to give, such as Joan of Arc, remind researchers that the powerful act of speaking out is enough to provide evidence that women saw themselves as vessels of God. Thus, these select mystics and Beguines, while only a minor part of the larger reality of the Late Middle Ages, provide that small window into an attempt at female spiritual emancipation.
In closing, the eve before the Protestant Reformation was perhaps a time where women had some of the most self-actualization about their status with religion before a more stringent gender hierarchy and church order was implemented across Europe. Along with Barstow’s reminder of the limited and complicated history of information recorded about female mystical experience, there are nonetheless indications that medieval women were wrestling with the question of how to reconcile their body with their spirituality. The mystics explored by Bynum utilized a bodily status by emphasizing their humanity over their femininity to align themselves with Christ and align themselves with the roles of men. The Beguines in Wiethaus’ study utilized Song of Songs and imagery that paired women with an egalitarian Christ in order to arrive at the same conclusion. While both groups went about their work in different ways, both came to the same conclusion that despite a closer tie to the feminine body verses masculine spirituality, women deserved equal recognition and voice to communicate their messages about the mysteries of God. The physical body was not a trap, weighing women down from reaching spiritual heights, but instead an emancipatory reason to see themselves as the intercessors between heaven and earth.
Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. “Joan of Arc and Female Mysticism.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 1, no. 2 (1985): 29-42.
Bynum, Caroline Walker. “‘… And Women His Humanity’: Female Imagery in the Religious Writings of the Later Middle Ages.” in Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. New York: Zone Books, 1991.
“The Female Body and Religious Practice,” in Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. New York: Zone Books, 1991.
“Women Mystics and Eucharist Devotion in the Thirteenth Century,” in Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. New York: Zone Books, 1991.
Milhaven, J. Giles. “A Medieval Lesson on Bodily Knowing: Women’s Experience and Men’s Thought.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 57, no. 2 (1989): 341-72.
Wiethaus, Ulrike. “Sexuality, Gender, and the Body in Late Medieval Women’s Spirituality: Cases from Germany and the Netherlands.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 7, no. 1 (1991): 35-52.