Women Mystics in Medieval Christianity


I.                    Medieval context

A.     St. Thomas of Aquinas (1255) Philosophy:

1.      Hierarchy of the self

a.       The lowest is the body

b.      Above it is the soul, which in turn is divided into three properties: nutritive, sensitive (which has to do with the 5 senses), rational (which has to do with thinking and conceptualization)

c.       Highest in the hierarchy is one’s ability to reason. Morality stems from reason.

d.      Men connect to God through reason, reason=faith


2.      Women are half-formed men

a.       Women=Body Men=Reason

b.      Men control sin through the application of reason—but because women are so grounded in the body, they are less able to do so and are therefore spiritually inferior.

B.     Aquinas’ ideas reflect much of the sentiment towards women at the time (12-13-14th century)


II.                 The Medieval Woman’s Answer

`                               A. Completely different approach to God—women mystics equated       

        faith to the body, not reason. 

1. This was a phenomenon that lasted only 200-300 years; Luther made sure this absurdity was dealt with.

        B. If they “couldn’t” approach God through reason because they were 

        governed by their bodies, they would reinterpret their femininity into

        something that brings them closer to God.

        C. Famous examples

1. Hadewijch (early 13th century, Flemish)-Wanted to fuse with the humanity of Christ before attempting to “become God with God”. Spoke often of “eating” God”: the soul is fed by Christ in the eucharist or in ecstasy. Desired to be one with God was a frenzied one, and she compared it to an insatiable hunger, but nevertheless, God was the only food.

2. Beatrice of Nazareth (early 13th century, Flemish)- Extreme asceticism—flagellating herself, sleeping on stones, walking on ice, binding thorns between her breasts and loins, ate only dry bread. Desire for Christ centered around the eucharist (devouring of God), plagued by a feeling of unworthiness to receive it, causing her to suffer greatly.

3. Catherine of Siena/Catherine of Genoa (late 14th century, late 15th century, respectively)- Embodied metaphors of God being the only food, as they would fast for years at a time. Both ate the filth of the sick. Catherine of Siena subsisted on nothing but water, the eucharist, and bitter herbs for much of her life, saying that she could not bear to have food in her stomach. Her emaciated body would deteriorate, but at the chance to do works of charity would restore all her forces. She would die of starvation. Eucharist replacement for “heavy physical bread,” which excited gluttony and lust. Catherine of Genoa was also plagued with an inability to eat, though this didn’t stop her from eating filth and the body of God. She rubbed her nose in festering wounds and ate scabs and lice in order to overcome her nausea at illness. Suffered from invisible stigmata, burning or extreme cold, heaviness, convulsions

III. Why?

A.     Important to note that all these women regarded their behavior as a service to humanity, not as prideful feats of asceticism. The purpose of caring for the sick and fasting and causing themselves pain was to suffer for others on earth so that their suffering might be alleviated in purgatory (refer to reading)

B.     Suffering governed by insatiable craving for union with God, one that could never be alleviated. God (eucharist) and neighbor (reflected in their eating of filth) are the only nourishment.

C.     Their frenzied, embodied suffering was their way of suffering like Christ did on the cross, or imitatio Christi. Because Christ’s suffering body is what has delivered humankind from sin, and women have a propensity to be governed by the body, women mystics regarded Christ’s humanity as feminine, so in being women, they could make themselves like Christ (refer to reading)

D.     By defining their own way of connecting with God, women mystics were asserting power over male authority, rejecting their understanding that women were spiritually inferior to men. In fact, these women often influenced church politics and leaders, and their spiritual advice was valued. Women mystics would often be able to detect an unconsecrated wafer or one consecrated in sin, and would admonish priests for it. Catherine of Siena corresponded with the Pope. When her acts of asceticism shocked a priest in Florence (letter), she tells him not to judge her, because it is God’s will this happen to her and when it comes down to it, the man has no true understanding of her situation, and therefore, what it means to be so close to God.



Imitatio christi

Aquinas’ hierarchy of the self

Catherine of Siena