FEMINISTS, PROPHETESSES AND WITCHES:
LESSONS FROM A WOMEN'S MOVEMENT IN THE HIGH MIDDLE AGES
by Abraham Van Luik, firstname.lastname@example.org
PART 1: This first part of a four part article describes a bona-fide women's movement that was part of a larger restorationist movement in the High Middle Ages, and how the female contribution to this movement was controlled through close relationships between spiritual counselors and confessors and women who were leaders in this new spirituality movement.
PART 2: The close, even intimate, relations that existed between the men and women leaders of this spiritual revolution of the High Middle Ages receives closer scrutiny in Part 2: This intimacy seems to have been both a direct consequence of the advent of a time of renewed spirituality and a tool through which traditional male hegemony over female spirituality was reinforced.
PART 3: The types of love-relationships described in Part 2 partly reflected the nature of the mystic vision that could be shared between mystics and also between a religious woman mystic and a sympathetic leader or confessor. It is the nature of this mystic experience, which allows a man like Francis to see Jesus as his spouse and a woman like Clare to see herself feeding at Francis' breast, that is given attention in this part.
PART 4: Not every prophetess of the High Middle Ages has had her revelations revered by her contemporaries, as will become evident in Part 4, which begins with the burning of Margaret Porete in Paris in 1310 and ends with a discussion of the witch craze and holocaust. Part 4 is a sobering exercise that follows the potentially euphoric discussion of much that is inspiring and spiritually delightful in Parts 2 and 3. Part 4 is a warning reminding us that hatred of women's spiritual power, or any other power challenging its authority, lies as magma below the crust of Christian theology. And the magma boils on.
REFERENCES: References follow, by Part, at the end of each Part. References in a later Part may refer to references more fully cited at first use in a previous Part of the paper.
PART 1: A WOMEN'S MOVEMENT IN THE HIGH MIDDLE AGES
Europe in the high middle ages was a seedbed of socio-political and spiritual turmoil from which sprouted the institutions of modern civilization: the breakup of feudalism, the rise of capitalism, the breakup of Catholicism, the rise of the Reformed churches, and the separation of church and state. In every century from the tenth through the fifteenth, events occurred that could be cited to indicate the pending dawn of the modern age.
But some of the movements of the High Middle Ages did not presage the modern age, some flowered and died while others flowered and were transformed. These transformed movements, like Christianity itself, may have continued to flower, but whether they continued as the true incarnations of their founders' visions is debatable.
The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw the flowering of a number of movements within Europe that could be called restorationist, meaning an attempt to return to what was perceived to be the type of life intended by the original Christian message. For example, Ronald A. Knox, of Trinity College, Oxford, once characterized some of the heretical movements of the Middle Ages as putting forward "the momentous claim" (1) characteristic of restorationists:
The disciples of Amalric, in l2l0, claimed to be the church of the Holy Spirit, destined to succeed an outworn dispensation. Dolcino similarly held that the power of Christ had been made over to himself and his fellow sectaries, as the true heirs of the apostles. The Fraticelli in Sicily would have it that the Gospel of Christ had been wholly extinguished, to be revived in their own order. The Church of Rome, they added, instinctively falling back on a Montanist habit of speech, was the carnal Church, theirs the spiritual.
The Flagellant heretics at Sangerhusen, who called themselves Brethren of the Cross, asserted that the true revelation had been handed down to them, having been lost in Christendom generally since A.D. 343, the year of Constantine's Donation.
This notion that the Church had failed, and the Divine revelation had been entrusted to a faithful remnant, was fostered, beyond doubt, by the millenarian speculations of the time. (2)
The millenarian speculations were especially fed by the writings of one Abbot Joachim, who, according to Knox:
. . . seems to have been the patentee of these speculations about world-history which are for dividing it not into two periods, pre-Christian and Christian, but into three separate Dispensations, that of the Father, that of the Son, and that of the Holy Ghost. (3)
To many of these restorationists, if not most, the overwhelming evidence of the church's fallen state was its ownership of property. As Knox described the perception:
But, if the Church Christ founded had come to an end, when did it come to an end? The rage for apostolic poverty prompted the convenient answer: 'In the fourth century, when the Donation of Western Europe by Constantine to St. Sylvester made the Church a property-owning body.' The Spiritual Franciscans, and those whom their teaching influenced, fell back on the belief that the Church had unchurched herself when she turned her back on poverty, exactly as the Donatists, all those centuries earlier, believed she had unchurched herself by turning her back on martyrdom. (4)
Such were the beliefs abjured by Peter Lucensis, a Spaniard who belonged to Dolcino's Apostolic Brethren. That when poverty was changed from the Church by St. Sylvester, then sanctity of life was taken from the Church, and the Devil entered into the companions of St. Sylvester in this world.... That there is a double Church, the Spiritual and the Carnal that the Spiritual Church is in those men who live in perfect poverty ... that the Carnal Church is of those who live ... in riches and honours ... such as are the bishops and prelates of the Church of Rome.... This Church he says is that carnal Church of which John speaks in the Revelation, which he calls Babylon.
Peter Dominicus, a Beguine examined by the same tribunal, adds that "the Roman Church, which under the name of Babylon, is to be damned, rejected, and exterminated by Christ, ... and ... that the Spiritual Church is to be begun and restored by the rejection of the Carnal Church, even as the old synagogue of the Jews was rejected by Christ!" (5)
This "rage for apostolic poverty" was a characteristic of the High Middle Ages, and especially of the thirteenth century. The movements of that century deserve special study not only because of their "rage for apostolic poverty," but because this rage was accompanied by a genuine "woman's movement" that produced a significant and unique feminist spirituality in that time.
Part of the provocation for the "rage for apostolic poverty" was the political, social, and religious disorder brought about by centuries of Viking invasions, a couple of centuries of the appointment of church bishops and prelates by emperors and kings, and a number of long-standing abuses within the church. Pope Gregory VII (l073-l085) began an overdue reform within the church and a battle with secular authority over the right to appoint bishops and prelates that wasn't won by the popes until ll22. The cloisters, where monks and nuns lived lives of prayer and contemplation, were refuges for the surplus children of the well to do, and many basked in the relative affluence that feudal land control afforded. Although there were abuses within the monastic system, it is from the ranks of the monks that Gregory rose to reestablish the papacy's power and reform institutions to root out abuses. Gregory's reforms did not have either a sufficient or a lasting impact on abuses, however.
Meanwhile, among the parish priests and the laity, as well as among monks, nuns, and prelates, there were sincere and pious believers who were yearning for a return to the ways of the primitive church. Among the lower class of priest and laity especially, many yearned to live as the apostles lived, in poverty and evangelical purity. This Vita Apostolica, apostolic life, was being radically imitated by men and women discarding their positions and possessions so that they may more perfectly follow Christ. Some did this alone, others in small groups, others in conjunction with or in cooperation with established, cloistered religious orders, and some became the beginnings of new religious orders.
As an example of the interplay between the dark state of the church and the appeal of the gospel of simplicity and purity in the founding of new religious orders, it is instructive to look at Julien Green's assessment of these times and Francis of Assissi's reaction:
Any picture one draws of the Church in the year 1200 would have to be, by and large, very dark. There is no need to look for proof of this among the Church's enemies we have plenty of evidence from within Catholicism, beginning with the many papal bulls issued by Innocent III against the most scandalous abuses. But if the pope was worried about the general decay in Europe, his comminatory bulls could do little to stop the usury, the venality, the gluttony and sexual excesses of many priests, even in the monasteries. Scandal was everywhere.
There was unheard of luxury in the Church, luxury and lust. People sang songs mocking lecherous monks. Defrocked clerics gadded about and burst into song, blasting church dignitaries.... There were plenty of faithful Christians, to be sure. Francis knew some perfect priests, but was also aware that the Church was passing through a period of critical disturbances. If he hadn't noticed it himself, then the itinerant preachers from the north, from Lyon and Milan, would have enlightened him, with their constant complaints about the damage done to the episcopacy by the taste for riches, to which they opposed evangelical poverty. There was no gainsaying them on this point, but Francis held on for the same reason that the common people, for the most part, would not give in on the essential item: For all its excesses the Church still had the power of the keys, to open the gates of paradise by absolving sins. Francis remained unshakably Catholic all his life. (6)
Francis' call to action came in a sermon which had as its content the Vita Apostolica:
One time, on the feast of Saint Matthias, a priest read to him the passage from the Gospel where Jesus sends his apostles out to preach and gives them a rule of conduct. "Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff.... And preach as you go saying, 'The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.'" Those words made Francis tremble as if a voice had fallen from heaven into his ear. When mass was over, he asked the priest to explain Jesus' discourse point by point and as the meaning of those brief, peremptory phrases became clearer, he felt enfolded in joy. The message he had waited so long for had finally arrived. And he cried out, "That's what I want that's what I desire with all my soul!"
Suddenly he threw away his walking stick, his sandals, his cloak, his leather belt. The Gospel had been revealed to him in all its dazzling brightness. At once he became a disciple of Christ. (7)
Elements of a self-supporting and spiritual ministry are stressed in Adolf Holl's biography of St. Francis. Holl describes Francis' early followers in the following romanticized words.
In those days the Franciscan ideal shone with something like the splendor of the dawn, gradually scattering the darkness of the emerging sects. The brotherhood was flourishing everywhere in Umbria. In towns and villages all across the region people saw these gay companions appearing, dressed in habits of coarse homespun, singing aloud or even performing tricks to attract crowds and announce the Good News to them.
We can almost hear the Salvation Army tambourine jingling in the distance. Francis called these alert missionaries God's jugglers, as if the Lord were snapping up souls through sleight of hand. Begging their bread, but offering their work in exchange--haying, sweeping, washing, or, if they knew how, making wooden tools--they never accepted money and lodged wherever they could, sometimes with the local priest, beneath a lean-to, in a hayloft or barn. Often enough they spent the night camping outdoors.
People got used to them. However warm or chilly the reception given them, they preached with the fervor of neophytes, and their faith stirred a responsive chord deep within their listeners. They were the prophets of a new world where disgust for riches and passion for the Gospel changed lives and brought happiness. What good was it to listen to the Waldensians and those strange Perfecti, whose language was becoming incomprehensible? Franciscan simplicity was wiping out heresy. Down the roads marched the new brothers, two by two, one following the other, the very men whose steps Francis had once heard in a prophetic vision. (8)
Francis' competition with new sects is mentioned by Holl. He makes references to "emerging sects," such as the "Waldensians" and "Perfecti", which reflects the prominence and appeal of these two heresies, both of which called for radical economic and spiritual reform. It seems that among those living lifetimes in Francis' radical dependency on God there would spring up a unique spiritiuality and mysticism, producing prophets, saints and heretics. But before this unique spirituality is examined, it should be made clear that the imitation of the Vita Apostolica was not the sole domain of the Franciscans, or of the various and diverse sorts of heretics: it was a movement of immense popularity among the Christian laity, and especially among women. Indeed, it has been called, with good reason, largely a woman's movement.
Women and the Vita Apostolica
Returning to the story of St. Francis, the direct confrontation between the restorationists - who challenged the efficacy of the "fallen" church - and Francis, who was aware of the church's state, but still revered it as Christ's own, is described by Julien Green.
Of particular interest are Green's words regarding the Saints of Francis' time:
"My Church is crumbling into ruins," Christ had told Francis in the little church of San Damiano. What was true of San Damiano was far more true of the Church he had founded, which was spiritually destroying itself. The prevailing evils had been the same for generations: simomy, avarice, gross immorality, and contempt for the demands of the Gospel. It was a catalog of things that ought not to be done. Thousands of Christian souls longed for the ideal that God offered in the Scriptures and, seeing that the Church didn't give it to them, wandered off and searched elsewhere. Touched especially by the ferver of people like Pierre de Vaux or the Catharist preachers who contrasted the Gospel with the pagan luxury of clerics who had lost the sense of their vocation or were unprepared for it, these Christians now followed new shepherds. No doubt there were exceptions. Saints were not lacking sometimes they could be found in isolated places, as if they were the true Church by themselves. There were even saints of a kind never seen before, who flourished all through the twelfth century, men and women--particularly women--who rank among the great visionaries and mystics. With the energy so characteristic of women, they stood fast for the whole century, like larger-than-life statues, from Saint Lutgard to Elizabeth of Thuringia, from Mechtilde of Magdeburg to Elizabeth of Schonau, in the depths of monasteries and next to the thrones, from Saint Hildegard to Elizabeth of Hungary.
Still, the general disorder made a picture so spectacularly vivid that the Church was threatened with disaster. But it was the only Christian church in the West recognized by the majority of the people. Breaking away from it because it was no longer truly evangelical would mean swelling the ranks of the heretics who appealed to the Gospel pure and simple, but without the Church. And what else did Francis want except the Gospel, with his rule made up of three peremptory verses?
Francis could see what everybody else saw. But as degraded as the Church was, he still considered it the house of Christ.
One day a heretic pointed out to him a priest living openly with a concubine and posed the insidious question whether a mass said by that man with polluted hands could be valid. Francis' only reply was to go up to the priest, kneel down before him, and kiss the hands that held the Body of the Christ at mass. This feeling for the Church kept Francis from drifting to anything like a nascent Protestantism, as happened with the "Brothers of the Free Spirit." (9)
Although Green focuses on St. Francis, he does put Francis into the context of the times: a time when women saw visions and became advisors to abbots, bishops, princes, and popes.
Green mentioned a unique development of Francis' time "saints of a kind never seen before, who flourished all through the twelfth century, men and women--particularly women--who rank among the great visionaries and mystics." (10) Like Francis, these mystics sought spiritual power through living the Vita Apostolica. One of these women, in fact, was St. Francis' disciple, and later became his confidante, nurse, and, especially, his spiritual companion and counterpart: St. Clare of Assisi.
In Herbert Roggen's biography of St. Clare of Assisi, he describes this woman as a follower of St. Francis and as the founder of an order for women dedicated to living contemplative and active lives in holy poverty. Roggen notes that she lived in a peculiar age:
This is the age wherein women's movements spring into fashion! There are suddenly women who are seen to be important, and this because of their followers, their taking part in the revolt against authority, or ... because they left their traditional responsibilities. (11, my translation of p. 17.)
Roggen continues to observe that heretical women's movements existed which strove against existing, male, authority structures. Secular and religious authority were characteristically difficult to distinguish in the Middle Ages, and for centuries the slogan concerning the choices available to women had been "aut maritus aut murus"--either a man [marriage] or a wall [monastery]. (12)
Roggen goes to some lengths to suggest Clare must have been familiar with the women's movements of the l3th century, which included the liberationist women of the Free Spirit, the women of the Apostolici, and the Beguines. Clare, however, rejected these heretical, or at least suspect, movements, and set out to follow the Vita Apostolica taught by St. Francis. (13) Her work created the opportunity for women, as Francis had created it for the men, to live the apostolic life and remain faithful to the church. Her struggle for acceptance of her order, however, occupied all of her life. Roggen details her very real, prolonged, and ultimately successful struggle with popes and bishops over her unwelcome insistence that her order for women be allowed to live in holy poverty. (14) Roggen also details her challenging papal authority by her modifications of the rules repeatedly given her by popes, which included such onerous provisions as the one, for example, "that forbids cloistered woman's ever being outside her cloister, except in case of fire, plague, or catastrophy." (15) Roggen explains that this provision, which kept cloistered women behind bars, was right and proper from a thirteenth-century social perspective. (16) That perspective was, simply, that there was only one sin that women could commit: being untrue to the established order. That order was the order of male authority: father, husband, or cloister. (17) If she is not under the authority of one of the above, she is a public woman--a category containing every possible nuance (18) of meaning.
Thus, Clare's struggle to be able to live the Vita Apostolica as a woman, and to remain unmarried, resulted in her being cloistered, albeit by her own rule. For many women, however, cloistered life was not available or desirable. They or their families were either not able to pay the requisite dowry or they did not want to live the rigorous and restrictive lives of nuns. For these women there were few options, including heretical sects or risking suspicion by, alone or in groups, rejecting marriage and living lives of seclusion, poverty, and benevolent service.
The heretical sects asked what were revelant questions raised in many minds during this time of restorationist thought: is the current hierarchy truly representing God, and what is the place of women? Radicals had their own inspiration and hence their own answers. Among the heretical Cathars, who rejected the church and its dogma, who ranged from the Adriatic to the North Sea and became especially plentiful in the province of Albi, in France, where they were known as the Albigensians, females were among the "perfecti." The Albigensians saw life as a snare that the Devil used to capture perfect beings and force them to suffer in an imperfect world. They taught that sexual intercourse was the act that gave the Devil power to bring souls into this vail of tears and its "perfecti," mostly older persons, were militantly continent, although family life was an accepted fact among the members. The "perfecti" tried to avoid food resulting from sexual intercourse, hence were vegetarians, but did eat fish, probably because Jesus ate fish. The "perfecti" were those who had almost completely overcome the world. This group included widows and others for whom celibacy was no great burden.
A bloody crusade, followed by the preaching of Dominican friars, effectively stamped out this heresy. Among the Waldensians, a milder, scripture-oriented restorationist sect that gained a widespread following in southern Europe especially, females were ordained. The Waldensians survive to the present day.
The Apostolici represented a group radically implementing the Vita Apostolica that gradually became heretical as the church attempted to stop the hordes of unwelcome beggars that resulted when this movement became popular. The Humiliati, on the other hand, was an evangelical group temporarily encouraged by the pope to stem the tide of heresy in Milan.
Perhaps the most radical of all the heretical sects was the cult of Guglielma of Milan, described by Stephen E. Wessley. (19)
Guglielma was declared a Saint, her body was fought over by competing orders, and her final resting place became a shrine until the authorities found out that among her followers were a radically heretical group expecting her to be resurrected and preside over a new age. Her personal spirituality was, perhaps, partly a response to serious internal squabbling between the secular and ecclesiastical authority over the appointment of a bishop for Milan. This squabble saw a bishop banned from his own city, and the pope forbidding by interdict the offering of the sacraments to the people of Milan, in an effort to push for a resolution to the problem in his favor. Some Milanese, who listened to Guglielma speaking boldly from her own inspiration, saw her as the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, Love, the feminine member of the Godhead. This followed the popular dispensationalist views of Abbot Joachim, who prophesied that the next dispensation would be under the Holy Ghost. By seeing Guglielma as the incarnation of the Holy Ghost, especially in light of her official canonization, her followers saw her as the one who would reign over the last dispensation which was to rise upon the ashes of the presently disintegrating church. She would have a priesthood of men and women, but since the presiding member of the Godhead was female, prelates (the superior hierarchy) would be female. Her body was exhumed and burned, and her followers reconverted to the true faith through the offices of the Inquisition's teaching ministry.
The point is that in all these groups, at least in their formative years, women took active part, even fulfilling pastoral and teaching assignments, which was a radical innovation.
Each of these sects and groups are fascinating, and deserve study on their own merits. They point out that part of the inspiration of the times confronted the woman question, and the result was the use of women in roles not possible within orthodoxy at that time: in leadership and evangelical roles. In other words, these organizations were responding to a pressure within society to expand the role of women. Eventually, this pressure also resulted in new opportunities for women in orthodoxy, in both cloistered (as the Clares) and lay organizations (such as the Beguines). Lest one assume that the sensitivity of the new, heretical sects to the needs of women reflected a more enlightened theology, Eleanor McLaughlin's caution should be noted:
The historical evidence is overwhelming that Waldensian and Albigensian women played some leadership roles in those groups, teaching and preaching in the early years. After a century or so of the groups' existence, women disappeared almost wholly from the leadership as these "sectarian" groups developed a clerical hierarchy which mirrored the male clerical order of the Church and of feudalism. Unlike the Church, the "sects" retained no special vocation of holiness, sainthood or monastic community within their groupings to which women and men could be called equally. The perfectae disappeared as the perfecti became more like bishops than religious. Before the sixteenth century, it was in the Church, not in sects, that women found the most enduring and powerful roles. Rebellion in the context of obedience, the vocation of the saint, provided more space for women than did sectarian protest. (20)
From this overly flattering assessment of the opportunities for women in early-modern Catholicism, it is quite evident that these radical sects were responsive to the needs of women in their formative stages, but reverted to the cultural norm as they became more firmly established. "Rebellion in the context of obedience" is a powerfully compact way of describing the complex relationships between spiritually powerful women and the male leadership of Catholicism: as long as the rebellion did not undermine the fundamental authority of the established hierarchy and only challenged them to positive action in moral and administrative matters, these women prophets were revered and sainted, canonized. Those whose visions convinced them of the uselessness of the church's priestly hierarchy, or worse, however, were sternly dealt with.
A few pages above, the "Beguine"
Peter Dominicus was cited as
confessing his belief that the
church was "Babylon." In this
citation, Knox seemingly confuses
Beguines and Boghards, the
female and male parts of a large
lay movement of women and men,
respectively. Matthew Fox has
observed that Knox has "dismissed
the Beguines ... as rank kooks
or heretics," (21) as other
historians and even popes have.
Fox cites the Bull of
Condemnation of Pope Clement
V (Fox erroneously ascribes this
Bull to Pope John XXII), promulgated at the Council of Vienne in France in 1311 as including the following:
There are certain women, commonly called Beguines who, although they promise no one obedience and neither renounce property nor live in accordance with an approved rule, and consequently can in no wise be considered regulars, nevertheless wear a so-called Beguine habit, and cling to certain religious to whom they are drawn by a special preference. It has been repeatedly and reliably reported to us that some of them, as if possessed with madness, dispute and preach about the Highest Trinity and divine essence.... Therefore ... we must prohibit forever their status and abolish them completely from the church of God. We must forbid these and all other women, on pain of excommunication which we wish to impose forthwith on the recalcitrants, to retain in any way in future this status wich they have long assumed or to be allowed to accept it again in any form. Moreover, the aforesaid regulars who are said to promote these women in the status of the Beguinage or induce them to assume this status are strictly forbidden, on pain of like excommunication which they shall immediately incur if they oppose prescribed rules, to admit any women who long ago adopted the status in question or perhaps wish to adopt it. (22)
The strength of the Beguine movement, and its sound reputation in some parts of Europe, led the pope to add, however, as reported by Olyslager, that:
. . . if there are women who are faithful to the Church and who, with or without the vow of celibacy, want to continue to live in community and apply themselves to penitence and to the humble service of the Lord, let them be permitted to do so. (23)
Olyslager interprets that:
This clause was the salvation of the beguines and bogards in the Low Countries. They did not consider themselves condemned and so went on as before. But not everyone understood it so favorably. All too zealous or antagonistic authorities continued to persecute the beguines and to seize their property. Their very existence threatened, the beguines of the Low Countries again appealed to Rome.
John XXII (l3l6-l334), the immediate successor of Clement V, ordered an inquiry into the morals and orthodoxy of the beguines in the dioceses of the Southern Low Countries. This investigation gave them a clean bill of ecclesiastical health, and John XXII became a great defender of the beguines of the Low Countries . . . . In his bull, Ratio recta, of l3 August l3l8, John XXII declared that his predecessor, Clement V, had meant the German beguines when he condemned the movement: "Since in addition to the condemned beguines, there are also in some regions other beguines who, although they are called 'beghinae', still lead irreproachable lives and do not adhere to heresies, the Church authorities must restore the property of the orthodox beguines to its former state. He (John XXII) tolerated the continued existence of these orthodox beguines so long as the Holy See did not decide otherwise, but would thereby not approve of their manner of life. The bishops must exercise stringent supervision over them and punish the refactory ones with spiritual censure." (24)
Olyslager interprets these ambiguous statements:
It was not an approval, but nor was it a condemnation. The fundamental problem seems to have been that the beguines were neither 'religious' nor 'laity', and thus did not fit into the otherwise neat categories of the Middle Ages. (25)
Fox's description of the Beguines emphasizes their resemblance to the traveling preachers: the friars of the new orders of Saints Francis and Dominic. He relates, as part of his introduction of the German Dominican friar and mystic, Meister Eckhart, that Eckhart preached to Beguines and learned from them in turn. Fox's somewhat romanticized account of the Beguine movement gives a useful overview of their rise, reception, and the economic, social and spiritual factors in society to which their existence was a response. Their dedication to the "Vita Apostolica" is also to be noted in the following description:
The Beguines were one chapter in a distinguished history of women mystics in northern Europe. Eckhart is a son--not a father --of that history, as Ancelot points out: "German mysticism has earlier representatives [than Eckart], the greatest of them being women." The first mystic to write in German was the great Mechtild of Magdeburg. Magdeburg was a town only l40 miles from Eckhart's hometown and novitiate in Erfurt. For fifty-two years of her life she was a Beguine and her spiritual directors were Dominicans. Her book, 'The Flowing Light of the Godhead,' is famous for its mystical bridal poetry after the style of Song of Songs, but the language and theology of its title are particularly significant. Eckhart also made an important use of the term "Godhead" in his spiritual theology .... Mechtild employs many images in common with Eckhart. Among them are the images of sinking, of dancing, of God's delight, of growth, of awakening, of letting go, of compassion, of God as a flowing stream, of the dialectic between isness and nothingness. Her work deeply influenced German mysticism and Eckhart in particular. Eckhart and the Dominican Order were involved in counseling and preaching to many women's groups along the Rhine, both nuns and Beguines. There was a great influx of women into these alternative life-styles in the latter half of the thirteenth century, perhaps because there seems to have been a precipitous decline in the male population and perhaps, too, for economic reasons, for as the population grew and the economy declined neither marriage nor living singly was always so viable an option. In l277 there were forty convents of Dominican nuns in Germany and ten years later there were seventy. By 1303 the city of Strassburg alone had seven houses of Dominican nuns. Each of these houses might comprise eighty to a hundred women. They were often very well educated persons. By the year 1267 this new ministry of preaching to women in the convents was felt so strongly by church administrators that Clement IV officially charged the Dominicans to direct these nuns. By the time Eckhart appeared on the scene it was a foregone conclusion that interaction with religious women was an important dimension to Dominican ministry.
The Beguines were not nuns. They could not be. For to become a nun meant you had to be of noble class and pay a dowry. They were groups of women who banded together to live a life of dedication to spiritual development and to ministering to others but who were not recognized officially as "religious" or nuns. They did not take formal vows and thus were free of church authorities--a freedom that, one can imagine, was not always relished by those same authorities. They made their living by their own hands, working as artisans and craftspeople. In an important study on the "Beguines in Medieval Strassburg," Dayton Phillips concludes that while some wealthy women distributed their money and joined the Beguines, "it is obvious ... that the beguine condition found its greatest following among the lower classes." He also observes that it was these women, who might be called the forerunners of the active Orders of religious women and who lived and worked and ministered to the world and not in cloistered convents, who "seem to have been almost a sister status of the friars. Living in the midst of the world, beguines, rather than nuns, were the true feminine parallel of the friars ... The friars were the chief influence in the spread of the movement." No wonder the Dominicans like Eckhart had so much in common with them and vice versa. Their life-styles were basically the same.
The first Beguines in Cologne appeared in 1223 in the person of two sisters, Elizabeth and Sophie, who sold properties they inherited on the banks of the Rhine. In 1260 there were eight Beguine houses in the city and by 1320 there were ninety-seven. Dominicans were closely associated with the Beguines of Cologne and its environs. For example, the prior at Cologne, Henry de Sincere, visited the mystic Beguine Christine of Stommeln (l242-l312), Stommeln being a town northwest of Cologne. Her biography, drawn up by a Swedish Dominican friar, Peter of Dacia, gives evidence of how powerful the mystical current among women who were not nuns was at this time. She drew around her an entire house of Beguines at Cologne. These houses often served as something of a refuge for peasants who were moving to the city for the first time, guaranteeing them safety, companionship, shelter, and economic support. Very often, as is evident in Phillips' study, the houses the Beguines bought were leased to them at cheap rates by the Dominican or Franciscan friars. And very often they were in close physical proximity to Dominican priories. Over two-thirds of the Beguine houses in Strassburg were located within a three-block radius of Dominican or Franciscan houses. (26)
After briefly relating the papal vacillations regarding the Beguines being orthodox or heretical, Fox continues to trace the history of this group and Meister Eckhart as follows:
In 1317 Bishop Johannes Durbheim of Strassburg wrote that there were over two hundred thousand Beguines in Germany. In Strassburg, a city of twenty thousand in Eckhart's day, there were over three hundred Beguines. Phillips rightly comments that such a group would have represented a "considerable phenomenon in the spiritual life of the town." One effect of the decrees against the Beguines was to swell the ranks of Third Order Dominicans and Franciscans. By 1318 Rome made the distinction between heretical and orthodox Beguines on the basis of their being transients or being connected with a house. The transient Beguines were considered the heretical ones.
Joan Evans has observed that "the women of the Middle Ages tended to be anonymous, but they were not soft or sheltered. These strong and imaginative women known as Beguines, who sought a place in the world apart from the institution of marriage and a place in the church apart from the institution of the enclosed cloister, were a powerful force on Eckhart's own spiritual imagination. Furthermore, they and Eckhart have shared a similar fate in death as they did in life. Not only were they condemned by the same pope but the great majority of male historians--for example, Ronald Knox and Norman Cohn--have dismissed both the Beguines and Eckhart as rank kooks or heretics. In fact, they were persons seeking personal and collective renewal in a period of institutional decadence. " (27)
Two features of this woman's movement mentioned by Fox will be explored subsequently: The mysticism of the Beguines, and the relations between religious and lay women and the friars. First, however, the range of options available to women who wished to follow the Vita Apostolica, and yet remain orthodox, will be described. This range was explored by Brenda M. Bolton. Bolton uses Jacques de Vitry's "Life" of Mary of Oignies, a Beguine, as her primary source. She concludes that de Vitry's biography of Mary and other women was "propaganda to advance their interest":
In writing of the 'Life' his aim was to make the group which he had found and indeed which he himself had been eager to develop, known to a much wider audience, with the ultimate aim of establishing a tradition sufficient to allow for its possible institutionalisation and ultimate acceptance by the ecclesiastical authorities. (28)
Bolton describes de Vitry as the sympathetic biographer of all those encouraging the Vita Apostolica including the Franciscans and the Beguines:
In addition to being the most important and earliest reliable witness of the Franciscan movement, he was also the fervent supporter and sensitive biographer of any group which reflected the new religious enthusiasm of the vita apostolica.
This women's movement which had emerged from within his own diocese of Liege in Lotharingia, he considered to be no less significant than that of the early fathers in the stress which was laid upon ascetic behavior, incredible feats of physical endurance, interior silence, intense compassion and great humility. (29)
It is in the prologue to Jacques de Vitry's "Life" of Mary of Oignies that Bolton finds a description of the types of religious women de Vitry encountered in his Lotharingia, which is largely the Liege, Brabant and Flanders of today's Belgium:
The prologue to the 'Life' of Mary of Oignies indicates four main categories of religious women in the area. There were the many holy virgins who had given up all the delights of the world for Christ, who lived in poverty and humility with their heavenly spouse and by the work of their hands. They had rejected all the riches their parents had showered upon them, realising that it was only with the greatest danger to themselves that they could remain in the secular world. There were the holy matrons serving God and carefully watching over the chastity of these young girls, directing them by discreet suggestions to desire only a heavenly spouse. There were also widows, serving God in a number of ways, through fasting and prayer, through tears and manual work so that their endeavors to please Christ in the spirit might not fall short of their earlier efforts to please their former husbands but indeed might outstrip them. These widows were performing the corporeal acts of mercy, washing the feet of the poor, offering hospitality and tending lepers. The fourth category of women were those who were living in continence with their husbands' consent and bringing up their children to be as god-fearing as they themselves. (30)
Bolton gives short descriptions of the lives of five women who span the range of the forms of religious life described by de Vitry:
. . . a beguine, Mary of Oignies, a recluse, Ivetta of Huy, a Dominician tertiary Margaret of Ypres, a Cistercian nun Lutgard of Aywieres and Christina of St. Trond, called Mirabilis, [who was] claimed by Benedictines, Cistercians and Premonstratensians alike but who in reality was not attached to any religious order nor to a beguine group. (31)
Finally, Bolton discusses the Vita Apostolica as the common thread running through the lives of these women:
The very close spiritual currents which ran between Cistercians and beguines in Lotharingia and especially in the diocese of Liege have now been shown to have parallels in the almost equally close relationship between the beguines and the Dominicans in the same area. An examination of these vitae, showing that for the most part these women whether regular or extra-regular were in close relationship with each other, serves simply to underline this view.
It is in the area of personal and mendicant poverty that we can see most clearly 'la cantagion beguinale,' this infectious desire on the part of pious women to give up their riches in order to work with their hands or even to beg. Mary of Oignies's family was greatly shocked that she and her husband, of their own accord, should have given up everything for Christ's sake and they put up a violent resistance even though as Jacques de Vitry tells us, the young couple would be recompensed hundred-fold in the next world. Ivetta of Huy also came from a family possessed of considerable wealth. Her father was one of the creditors of the bishop of Liege and was appalled at her disregard of the family property which she gave away all too readily. That Margaret of Ypres's background was far from impoverished we may judge from the threat from the secular world which Siger [her confessor] recognized could corrupt her life. Lutgard too was from a sufficiently affluent background and we see the tension in her early life between her father's secular ambition and her mother's support of her vocation. Christina seems here to be the exception for her origins were far humbler than the others.
That these and many other religious women of the time were largely from the nobility or urban patricate groupings should not surprise us. These were the classes most accessible to the penetration of new ideas and we should remember that the ideals of charity, renunciation and mendicant poverty in opposition to the avidity for riches were still relatively novel at this period. (32)
Like Fox, Bolton mentions the closeness between the beguines and the Dominican friars. This closeness between men and women who had left the world to follow Christ is important because it appears to be inseparable from the unique, feminist spirituality shared by many of these dedicated imitators of the holy apostles.
It is the sharing of this peculiar spirituality between Eckhart and the German beguines that got both of them condemned by the Papal bull, and it is the sharing of the same vision of the best way to live in the imitation of Christ that caused Francis and Clara to be canonized, thus having their places in God's eternal presence made sure, according to their tradition.
It is the spirituality of these saints and heretics, their unique vision of who they were and who God is, that is potentially instructive to our day, and is examined next. As far as the survival of the Beguines of Catholic Flemish Belgium and Holland into the twentieth century, and their demise in German, French, Spanish and Italian speaking Europe are concerned, the lessons to be learned are that in only one part of Europe did the local clergy and the Dominican friars strive diligently to closely regulate and oversee these lay women. In other parts of Europe there was less control and less protection, and "heresy" and persecution took their toll. Olyslager listed the reasons why both clergy and lay people were unable to see the difference between Beguines and the overtly heretical Cathars and Apostolici. Olyslager first describes the demise of the Beguine movement in parts of Europe outside of the southern low countries where it flourished:
In other places, the struggle did not turn out so favorably. In 1318, in the Northern Low Countries, Fredrick II, Bishop of Utrecht, ordered the radical implementation of the decisions of the Council of Vienne (1311). The beguines had to disappear from his diocese. He was willing, however, to allow them to transfer to the Third Order of St. Francis after they had been thoroughly investigated.
In France, Philip the Fair enforced the Constitutions of Clement V with unremitting severity. He closed all beguine houses.... In the German countries, the beguine and bogard system was just as radically uprooted--not always without reason. Too many beguines and bogards in these countries had compromised themselves with the heretical apostolici, constructed their own theologies, and adhered to a very suspect myticism.
Pope Urbanus V (1362-1370) ordered in 1368 that the German bogards be suppressed with all rigor. He wrote: "Pestis illorum haereticorum qui Beghardi vacantur" (the plague of these heretics who are called bogards).
The Roman-German Emperor, Charles IV (l346-l378), followed the example of the Pope and issued an edict requiring the extermination of "the dangerous sects of beguines and bogards".
These drastic measures of the Pope and the Emperor still did not mean the end of the German beguines, who were particularly numerous in the Rhineland.
The Bishops of Cologne, Trier, Strasbourg, and Mainz (where there were 50 beguine convents!) applied the prohibition rather mildly and closed their eyes to the continued existence of beguines. But the vitality of the movement was broken. Many beguines sought shelter behind another religious name or transferred to the Third Order of St. Francis. At the end of the l6th century, there was no longer any trace of the beguines to be found in the German countries.
The obvious question is why the enemies of the beguines in the Low Countries continued to persecute these women so stubbornly in spite of the papal and episcopal pronouncements. There were, of course, a wide variety of reasons-- some well-founded, some dubious, and some malicious.
Though the papal pronouncements were always favorable, they were always weakened by the perennial reservation: "with this we do not wish to approve nor disapprove of your state". The popes never did want to go so far as to give official recognition of the beguine system.
The condemnation by Pope Clement V in l3ll, which was intended for the German beguines and bogards, was all too often applied to the beguines of the Low Countries, for the term 'beguine' covered several kinds of people. There were orthodox beguines and heretical beguines, with the latter particularly concentrated in German countries.
And not everyone was capable of separating the wheat from the chaff in this period of theological confusion, general ignorance (also among the clergy), and morbid fanaticism. Well meaning and generous men and women, being theologically unsophisicated or misled, were heretics without being aware of it.
Between the beguines and some heretical sects and particularly the Rhineland Apostolici, there were many, though superficial, similarities:
--Both the beguines and the Apostolici were lay people. Their movements grew spontaneously from the people like wild plants, without a particular founder or foundress and without papal or episcopal approval.
--Neither group lived in the context of a cloister. Sometimes they lived alone and sometimes in small groups or convents. They did not call their superiors 'abbot" or 'mother', but 'magister' or 'mistress', as did many heretical sects.
--The first beguines and Apostolici shared the same ideal of poverty, prized celibacy very highly, and wore the same raw wool clothing.
--They both held to daily recitation of the same prayers and to the same penitential practices. Each month they had a 'culpa' or public confession of faults.
--They both had infirmaries or hospitals for their sick and poor.
--The mystics among the beguines and the Apostolici were sometimes very close to each other in their spirit and aspirations.
--It was not a simple matter of chance that the beguines, the Apostolici, and the Cathars all had the same patroness, St. Catherine. She was the model for all pious women of the time.
Catherine--the name means 'the pure one" in Greek--was the chaste maiden who, equiped with an exceptional knowledge of the Scriptures, triumphantly debated with pagan philosophers and engaged in lay preaching, which was something that all Cathar women and sometimes the beguines were tempted to do.
--Then, too, these god-fearing women, living in penitence and poverty, were a constant reproach to those people, clergy among them, who were living too luxuriously.
There were also economic factors involved in the persecution of the beguines. In most of the begijnhofs [beguinages], the cloth and linen industry was their only source of income. The beguines worked cheaply and sometimes had the help of apprentice girls. The guilds naturally tried to suppress this competition and demanded restrictive regulations. (33)
To ensure Beguine orthodoxy in Low Country areas where the Beguines continued to flourish, the church ensured that Beguines, who were not nuns, came to live as nuns lived. In Olyslager's words, no doubt reflecting his own orthodox perspectives:
Only in the Low Countries could the beguines hold out. For this, they had to thank the wise vision of their bishops, who took the necessary measures in time to protect them from heretical aberrations, gave them stable and proper direction, and obliged them to live in a closed court, a 'hortus conclusus' or begijnhof. (Above the gate of the Diest begijnhof is inscribed: "Closed Court, Come to My Court, My Sister Bride"). Some begijnhofs were called vineyards (Bruges and Brussels), which was an allusion to the Canticle of Canticles [Song of Songs], 2:l5: "That the foxes not plunder the vineyard of the Lord". The foxes here were heretics and false dogmas....
Finally, only those who lived in such a 'closed court' were recognized as orthodox beguines. They were the 'beghinae clausae,' the 'cloistered beguines'. Only they could claim the 'privilegia beghinalia' and wear the beguine habit.
The Dominicans contributed a great deal to securing the orthodoxy of the beguines, primarily by establishing a number of begijnhofs in the Duchy of Flanders. Indeed, the Dominicans were the fiercest combatants of all heresies, and particularly the Albigensians. (34)
This returns us to the previous observation cited by Eleanor McLaughlin regarding the shorter duration of a new order for women among the heretics, as compared to orthodoxy. (35) McLaughlin is correct, of course, but her positive assertion is tainted by the recognition that the survival of this woman's movement in orthodoxy was accompanied by its stringent oversight by the priesthood and by its forced physical enclosure: "man or wall" were reinstated as the only two choices legitimately available to orthodox medieval women.
The important point of this short survey of the spiritual movements of the High Middle Ages is not, however, that it points out the way for patriarchal religion to successfully deal with the challenge of women's movements: by providing closely supervised "space for women" wherein they may practice "rebellion in the context of obedience." The important point is that there was a genuine woman's movement during the High Middle Ages, that it was part of a true "restorationist" movement, that it did foster a unique and feminist spirituality in both women and men, and that--whether condemned as heretics or declared saints--women were recognized as prophets by their heretical and even papal followers during this time. No one should doubt, for example, that Catherine of Siena was regarded as a prophet by Pope Gregory XI (36) who took her advice to return to Rome from Avignon as if it were an expression of God's will. A number of women were regarded as prophets during the High Middle Ages. There is little doubt that in the church of the Middle and later ages the published revelations of such women as the prioress Hildegard of Bingen (l098-ll79) (37), the Beguine Mechthild of Magdeburg (l2l0-l280) (38), the abbess Gertrude the Great, Mechthild's sister (l256-l302) (39), the widow and foundress Bridget of Sweden (l303?-l373) (40), and the recluse Juliana of Norwich (l342-l4l3?) (41) were revered as true messages from God.
References for PART 1
1. Knox, Ronald A., "Enthusiasm,
A Chapter in the History of
Religion with Special Reference
to the XVII and XVIII Centuries,"
(Oxford, Oxford University Press,
1950), p. 109.
2. Ibid., p. 110.
3. Ibid., p. 111.
6. Green, Julien, "God's Fool: the Life and Times of Francis of Assisi," (San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1985), p. 93.
7. Ibid., p. 92.
8. Holl, Adolf, "The Last Christian," (Garden City, New York, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980). Translated by Peter Heinegg.
9. Green, Op. cit., pp. 108-109.
10. Ibid, p. 108.
11. Roggen, Heribert, "Clara van Assisi, Zien Met Het Hart (Amsterdam, Lannoo, 1980), p. 17.
12. Ibid., p. 18.
13. Ibid., p. 31.
14. Ibid., pp. 109-158.
15. Ibid., pp. 143-144.
16. Ibid., pp. 142-143.
17. Ibid., p. 18.
19. Wessley, Stephen E., "The Thirteenth-Century Gugliemites: Salvation through Women," pp. 289-303. In Derek Baker, "Medevial Women," (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1978), 289-303.
20. McLaughlin, Eleanor, "Women, Power and the Pursuit of Holiness in Medevial Christianity," Chapter Three, In: Rosemary Ruether and Eleanor McLaughlin, "Women of Spirit, Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions," (New York, Simon and Shuster, l979), p. 124.
21. Fox, Matthew, "Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart's Creation Spirituality in New Translation," (Garden City, New York, Image Books, 1980), pp. 39-40.
22. Ibid., pp. 38-39.
23. Olyslager, W. A., "The Great Begijnhof of Leuven," (Leuven, University Press, 1983), p. 105.
24. Ibid., pp. 105-106.
26. Fox, Op. cit., pp. 36-40.
27. Ibid., pp. 39-40.
28. Bolton, Brenda M., "VITAE MATRUM: A Further Aspect of the FRAUENFRAGE," pp. 253-273, In Derek Baker, "Medieval Women," (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1978), p. 255.
29. Ibid., p. 254.
30. Ibid., p. 256.
31. Ibid., p. 260.
32. Ibid., p. 260-261.
33. Olyslager, op. cit., pp. 110-112.
34. Ibid., pp. 112-113.
35. McLaughlin, op. cit., p. 124.
36. Undset, Sigrid, "Catherine of Siena," (New York, Sheed and Ward, 1954), Translated by Kate Austin-Lund, pp. 186-188.
37. Deen, Edith, "Great Women of the Christian Faith," (New York, Harper & Row Brothers, Publishers, 1959), pp. 328-329.
38. Ibid., pp. 329-330.
39. Ibid., pp. 330-331.
40. Ibid., pp. 331-333.
41. Ibid., pp. 331-334.
PART 2: BURNING LOVE: MYSTICS, SAINTS, CELIBATES
The close, even intimate, relations that existed between the men and women leaders of the spiritual revolution of the High Middle Ages deserve close study. This intimacy seems to have been both a direct consequence of the advent of a time of renewed spirituality and a tool through which traditional male hegemony over female spirituality was reinforced.
The lesson for modern religious feminist reformers may thus be a double-edged one: on the one hand greater spirituality may result in closer emotional and spiritual relations between men and women, which may be desirable. On the other hand, such closer ties can be used, in a setting where the men are the acknowledged spiritual authorities, to guide and control the spiritual development of women. The mechanism for allowing "rebellion in the context of obedience," which McLaughlin cited (1) as the key to survival of the Middle Ages' new women's roles in orthodoxy, may well lie in the close relations that were developed between the spiritual women and their male mentors. Indeed, Olyslager asserted (2) that the Beguines survived in the southern Low Countries precisely because they were closely supervised by their bishops and required to live in closed courts.
The history of women who responded to the spiritual call of these times to renounce the world, its pleasures and riches, and to seek a new life in the spiritual realm by loving God and serving humanity in poverty has been sketched by Olyslager, when he reports the following scenario for the beginnings of the Beguine movement:
Not all those eager for reform ended up in heretical, Cathar, or anti-Church groups. Far from it. Under Greek-Byzantine influence and after the example of the Egyptian, Syrian, and Palestinian monks, there developed after the First Crusade (around 1100) a movement in the West to flee the world and, by seclusion and poverty, to sanctify it.
Women, in particular seemed to be drawn to this ideal. But instead of withdrawing into the wilderness, they retired to cells or hermitages near a church, a chapel, or a cloister, and lived alone or with a few other women. These women were called 'reclusae' (recluses) or 'mulieres religiosae' (pious women). Their number increased rapidly and their hermitages soon grew into small agglomerations in and alongside abbeys.
They were the so-called double cloisters. But however good the intention, these double cloisters were far from the ideal solution. Between 1140 and 1200, the Norbertines decided to gradually remove these recluses from their abbeys. The Cistercians, of whom St. Bernard was the principal leader, concerned themselves with the fate of these women, but they did not repeat the double cloister experiment. Instead they allowed them to affiliate with their order, but this privilege was soon also abolished. These women found themselves literally in the street. And not all pious women or girls were so lucky as to be able to find a hermitage. Even a hut next to an abbey or in a secluded place cost money. Many women made a virtue of necessity and had their room in their family home converted into a cell. Thus in the middle of cities and villages, there were many women who wanted to live like recluses. One could call them 'quasi-hermitesses'. Soon, and particularly after the elimination of the double cloisters, they began to congregate in huts around chapels, hospitals, or leprosaria without binding themselves to a monastic order.
There were other reasons, too, for these women not being able or wishing to associate themselves with a monastic order. Entrance into an order required a dowry that not everyone could pay. Then, too, many did not feel they were strong enough to endure the rigors of monastic life, so the less restricted life of a recluse was more attractive. It is from the ranks of these quasi-hermitesses and groups of pious women that the first beguines came. (3)
Olyslager then describes the gradual institutionalization of this rather spontaneous movement:
As we mentioned above, there were many 'mulieres religiosae' (pious women) who could or would not live in a hut by an abbey and who lived in the city with their family or in their own houses. They were called the 'beghinae indisciplinatae' or non-organized beguines as well as 'beghinae in saeculo manentes' or beguines residing in the world. They would gather several times a day in a church or chapel for religious exercises under the direction of a priest. The constant contact with the secular world, however, was soon perceived to be not conducive for advance in the spiritual life. The first step to improve this situation was the gathering of a number of beguines in the same house, 'in eadem domo,' under the direction of their own house rules. These houses were preferably located near a hospital or leprosarium and were called beguine convents or 'curtes beghinarum.' Thus we can speak of the 'beghinae disciplinatae' or the organized beguins.
The Beguine movement flourished in the Flemish part of what is now Belgium even though it had originated in the Walloon region of such cities as Liege, Nivelles, and Huy. After the papal approval of l2l6, the movement in the Flemish regions saw such an influx of women that soon the existing convents no longer sufficed. In the cities, there was not enough room and it was too expensive to build.
The ideal was conceived to bring all the beguines together in one place outside the gates of the city. This would eliminate the daily trek through the city to the church or chapel. Since most of the self-supporting women and girls of the l3th century earned their living in the weaving industry, the site had to be near a river and fields, which were necessary for washing wool and bleaching linen. On such a site, securely ringed by walls or canals and with gates that were closed at night, the beguines built their first small houses around their own chapel with their own pastor and cemetery. Thus we have the 'beghinae clausae' or enclosed beguines. These gatherings of beguines became the beguine parishes or 'begijnhofs.' They bring to mind the Greek-Byzantine colonies of monks.
To accelerate this grouping, the ecclesiastical authorities decided that only those beguines who lived in a begijnhof could claim the privilege of the Beguines and wear the beguine habit. The establishment of the begijnhofs for 'beghinae clausae' was the third and last phase of the organization of the beguine system. (4)
Thus, this spontaneous women's movement, which at first avoided becoming another cloistered order, finally either became cloistered, or, as seen in the previous chapter, did not survive. However, the history of the development of the Beguine movement involved some definite experimentation regarding the relationship of these women to the established male religious orders, which is of some interest. The Norbertines and Cistercians are specifically mentioned as attempting double-cloister and affiliated-order (secondaries or tertiaries) formations, respectively, both unsuccessfully. Sally Thompson (5) has developed the history of the Cistercian experience, and Jacqueline Smith (6) has shown that a number of other orders were also involved in this response to a very large and extraordinary movement.
An example of an early double-cloister experiment in England was described by Constable (7) in the course of his recounting a tale regarding the early history of the Gilbertine order. It appears that a certain young nun and monk snuck around and the nun conceived, showing the relatively relaxed state of male-female relations in this particular double-cloister. Gilbert reformed this cloister, and it is of interest how "restoration", being "self-supporting", and experiencing spiritual manifestations are all interwoven in the account by Aelred of Rievaulx cited by Constable:
In the introduction Aelred stressed the importance of making known miracles and other manifestations of Divinity and cited the evidence of his own eyes and of reliable witnesses as proof of the truth of the present story. Then in the first parenthesis he gave a brief account of the origins of the nunnery of Watton in Yorkshire and of its reform by 'the venerable man' Gilbert, who renewed 'the ancient religion' and 'the ancient miracles' in that place. The nuns were dedicated not only to manual labour and psalmody but also 'to spiritual offices and heavenly theories,' Aelred wrote, 'so that many [of them] ... are often taken in ineffable raptures and seem to participate in the heavenly choirs'.(8)
The story of the pregnant nun is then told with many deprecations heaped on the principals, and the young man left the convent to return to secular life. Constable then tells a horror story of how the young man was found, taken alone by nuns, and how the unfortunate nun was forced to castrate her lover, whom she had hoped to join. A zealous nun then stuffed the bloody body parts into the pregnant girl's mouth. Both were thus punished. The young man fades from the scene, and the young girl receives miraculous Divine forgiveness: her baby is taken away by angelic visitors and her virginity is as good as restored. As interesting as this story is, its worth in the present context lies in its description of an early double-cloister (9), wherein it seems to be relatively easy for two young people to meet, in sharp contrast with "later provisions forbidding a woman from so much as seeing a man, let alone from speaking with him or leaving the monastery to meet him." (10) Constable then goes on to a general survey of:
. . . religious houses and orders in the twelfth century, which shows that the process of development from relatively inchoate and flexible origins into highly disciplined institutions often extended over a period of years. This seems to have been particularly true of communities involving both men and women, in many of which an early attitude of freedom and trust was later replaced by a policy of strict separation. (11)
The theme of restoration is unmistakable in these early attempts to recapture the innocence of Eden in human relationships. The commingling of male and female virgins dedicated to the life of the spirit was an imitation of life in paradise, before the fall, reminiscent of the Free Spirit Adamites. Note that the populace had their suspicions:
Further research needs to be done on the persistence, or re-emergence at this time, of the practice of men and women leading a chaste religious life under the same roof or within the same community. There are at least two well-known examples of such relationships between individuals. One was between a monk of Vendome named Herveus and the English recluse Eve, to whom Goscelin of St. Bertin addressed his 'Liber confortatorius' in l082-83. Eve had been given as a girl to the abbey of Wilton and later moved to the priory of St. Eutropius near Angers, where she lived under the spiritual guidance of Herveus. 'There Eve lived for a long time with her companion Herveus,' according to a contemporary poem. 'I sense that you who hear this are disturbed at this statement. Be not suspicious, brother and banish this thought. This love was not in the world but in Christ.'
Christina of Markyate also combined an emphasis on virginity with a practice of spiritual relationships with men, especially abbot Geoffrey of St. Albans. The author of her 'Vita' admitted that they were the subject of gossip. 'Before they became spiritual friends, the abbot's well-known goodness and the maiden's holy chastity had been praised in many parts of England. But when their mutual affection in Christ had inspired them to greater good, the abbot was slandered as a seducer and the maiden as a loose woman.'
Many religious reformers in the early twelfth century attempted to provide for the religious life of both men and women. They were like Gaucherius of Aureil, who was said by his biographer to have known 'that neither sex is excluded from the kingdom of God'. Wherefore he tried to build the heavenly Jerusalem out of the double wall, that is of men and of women, and constructed the habitation of women a stone's throw from his cell, distributing what little he had to both men and women. The biographer of Gilbert of Sempringham compared his order to the chariot of God, 'which has two sides, that is one of men and the other of women four wheels, two of men, clerics and laymen, and two of women, literate and illiterate two beasts dragging the chariot, the clerical and monastic disciplines.' He then went on to praise 'this marvelous unity of persons and churches and this unheard-of community of all things, which made all things one and one thing all in the diversities of so many hearts and such great monasteries.' This ideal was one of paradisiacal harmony in which men and women lived side by side united in spiritual love. (12)
To pursue this paradisiacal ideal properly, men and women had to overcome all lustfulness. Examples of this quest and its natural conclusion for men have been given regarding Gilbert and Robert of Arbissel. Constable pieces together the following regarding Gilbert which contains an interesting if not onimous note: to be chaste gives a man greater ability or authority in the control of women:
According to his biographer, he was reputed never to have touched a woman from the beginning of his long life to the end, 'and since he overcame the more severe struggle of youth, he was all the more worthy later to assume the steadfast rule of the weaker sex.' William of Newburgh, writing shortly after Gilbert's death, described him as 'a clearly extraordinary man, and of singular grace in the care of women' and as supported in his undertaking 'by the consciousness of his own chastity and confidence in divine grace ... In my opinion, indeed,' William continued, 'he holds the palm in this region among all those whom we know to have devoted their religious labors to ordering and controlling women.' This confidence is reflected in an extraordinary story--almost as extraordinary as that of the nun of Watton--told by Gerald of Wales about Gilbert, who when an old man and, as Gerald puts it, 'most unsuited for the purposes of lust', was looked upon with lascivious eyes by one of his own nuns. Gilbert was horrified, and the following day, after preaching in chapter of the virtue of chastity, he disrobed entirely, walked around three times for all to see him, 'hairy, emaciated, scabrous and wild', and then cried, evidently pointing to the crucifix, 'Behold the man who should be duly desired by a woman consecrated to God and a bride of Christ'. He then went on, pointing to himself: 'Behold the body on account of which a miserable woman has made her body and soul worthy of being lost in Hell'. Gerald is an untrustworthy source, and the story may be apocryphal, but it illustrates the spirit of confidence, not to say bravado, that marked Gilbert's relation with his nuns. More generally, it illustrates the relative freedom between men and women that existed in many reformed religious communities, especially in the north of Europe, in the twelfth century, and it therefore helps to explain both the situation of Watton and the savage reaction of the community when the freedom was abused. (13)
Somewhat similarly, Robert of Arbrissel established a double-cloister in Fontevrault. Robert overcame his tendencies toward lustiness in a strange way, perhaps by either overstimulating himself or by undergoing some sort of aversion conditioning. Jacqueline Smith does not elaborate much when she cites the extant evidence hinting Robert's use of prostitutes in his quest to overcome his fleshly desires:
Based on the evidence of two accusatory letters, it has been claimed that Robert was seeking a form of martyrdom through his extreme and rigorous practices, in which women played an important role as the instruments of temptation of the flesh. This theory has been developed a stage further by Dominique Iogna-Prat who concludes that the 'mulierum consortia,' along with the other ascetic practices, was an essential part of the penitential design, and that it was within this framework that Robert overcame temptation and thereby proved that he was truly 'dead to his sex'. (14)
Smith does go on to indicate that being dead to one's sex does not make one dead to love, however. She tells the story of his intimate spiritual advice to a married woman, a mother and princess, who flees her home to join Robert's order, but whose divorce request has been denied. She must return to her husband. Robert advises her with loving reassurance that her life can be acceptable to the Lord, and devises a rule for her to live by that recognizes her duties in the secular world. (15)
Other examples of celibate lovers that deserve attention have been documented. Among them are Christina of Stommeln, Christina of Markyate, and Francis of Assisi.
Christina of Stommeln
In Part 1, Christina of Stommeln was introduced as a mystic Beguine from a small town of Cologne whose biography was drawn up by a Swedish monk, Peter of Dacia. It appears that Petrus von Dacien was, for a while, Christina's confessor. As such, they used to meet, often perhaps, and discuss their common faith, which brought them to such great mutual joy that they were not unaware of, nor shy about, being in love with each other. Witness these excerpts from letters exchanged between these two (my translation of excepts published by Peter Nieveler). (16) In l280 Petrus wrote to Christina:
When I either asked you or you asked me if I loved you or was loved by you, so can both of us answer with surety: "I love and I am loved." When anyone asks me, if I love Christina, I answer thus with full conviction: "I love." (17)
Christina, in turn, writes:
When I see in your letter how close you are to me, so must you know that I have for you, in turn--by God--the same feelings. (18)
A careful reader may see some restraint in the words used by Christina. By contrast Petrus, in one of his bolder letters, writes without evident restraint:
My dearest loved one, my daughter, sister and girl friend! You deserve to be most delectibly loved by yours truly, your most deeply loving friend. (19)
Christina answers in, again, a somewhat subdued tone:
Dearest, you shall know that for you I experience the deepest love. (20)
The heart-stirring love between these two dedicated religious persons is evident in the frustration Peter felt when Christina came to visit in Cologne and he reports that the devil took silverware away from eight citizens of Cologne, that had been dedicated to him, so that he had to busy himself with a search while with her. (21) Anyone in love that has experienced the vexation of day-to-day problems when precious moments alone are beckoning, can understand this type of frustration. It is only Peter that records his other frustrations, however. For example, Peter in describing a l270 parting (that may be their last) wrote:
As we were going, both deathly sad about the imminent parting, the farewell was a singular trial, as we could not think. I tried to say something: 'Live well, dearest Christina, we must now part, live well in the Lord, dearest?' You heard nothing, said nothing, only threw your cloak before your face, sat down on the ground and wept bitterly . . . . When we finally really went, tears in the eyes and in total disbelief, you sat down again, drew your cloak over your face, and wept still more. (22)
Christina later remembers that farewell in a letter:
Dearest, when we first parted I was totally disturbed, and for two days my eyes were not dry. (23)
Petrus once thereafter asked:
When you know the foundation of our love, tell me. (24)
To which Christina replied:
God is--that is my belief--the author and finisher of our love and friendship. (25)
Nieveler shows that Petrus tried to move heaven and earth to have Christina follow him to Sweden. (26) He got approval for her move from his own order, and arranged for her transfer to a Swedish Beguine order. On the surface this seems like a pretty high-handed, but perfectly understandable move by a lover to regain imminence to and thus control over a love-object. Significantly, Christina stayed in Stommeln. One can only guess that Christina doubted that all was on as high a spiritual plane between them as it should be. As we shall see a little later in the case of Christina of Markyate: even between celibate, spiritual lovers, there were always lingering doubts concerning the Godly foundation of the passions that were shared.
It is, perhaps, in reply to a hint from Christina that she's not at totally sure that God wants them together again that Petrus gets rather defensive about his desires towards her:
. . . ask your Godly friend to allow you to quickly follow me! Were it now possible, I would be nowhere long without you. This I will say before all mankind, while here on earth as your friend, I have found God in you--and hope as your friend to find you in God in the future life . . . . However, I bow to God and do not seek in you--alone in him--the joy of my heart. Yes you are, I firmly believe, a habitation of God, and as such I love you... . (27)
In a previous letter, Petrus had also defended the wholesomeness of his intentions, and one may presume that these words were directed, in part, at Christina's doubts. Note that in the first sentence Petrus refers to his role as her confessor: he directs her toward Christ, he is her spiritual director:
Never has it been my purpose to have you love me for my own desire, only and always for this, that you in your love are wholly directed toward Christ. And that appears to me the first and greatest reason for why I never sought to bring you to love me alone. (28)
Petrus fully recognizes in another letter that the pure love enjoyed between them is the butt of jokes and loose talk in the world, but he bears his testimony to its origin being the Spirit of God. (29) Nevertheless, Christina stays in Stommeln and her fame and acclaim as a woman of mystical power and authority continues, without Petrus at her side.
Christina of Markyate
Regarding Christina of Markyate, C. J. Holdsworth observed that:
The torment for Christina was a sexual one she suffered the distractions which often strike those who had decided to renounce the exercise of a very fundamental part of their existence. A vow of chastity was part of the private vow which she took as a young girl, and she stuck to it through thick and thin when all the wiles of her family who wished her to behave like a sensible girl and submit to marriage, failed.
The early part of the Life is dominated by the theme, which reaches its climax after the hermit Roger's death when archbishop Thurstan puts her in charge of a priest who then falls desperately in love with her, and she becomes evidently deeply attracted to him. The scars she suffers in this struggle are healed by a visionary experience in which the Christ child stays with her a whole day. Perhaps as long as eight years later when she was about to make her profession at St. Albans, she still had doubts as to whether her virginity 'had escaped unscathed,' and again the matter was set to rest by a vision, this time of three youths who came to crown her.
Here again in her own way Christina was working out a solution to a problem which concerned very serious minds and passionate individuals. Sex even within marriage was still, in general, considered unsuitable for a spiritually minded person, and marriage was hardly given a more positive value in her life-time. No doubt this partly reflected very crude social conventions, typified in Christina's own life by the attempt which a bishop, Ranulf Flambard, made to rape her.
It is scarcely, perhaps, surprising that St. Bernard could not imagine that a man and a woman could be left together without their engaging in sexual relations. But Christina was not troubled by the issue whether she could have given way in deed, but whether she had given way to lust in her will, although she was not aware of having erred in either respect. (30)
Christina's contemporaries were extremely jealous of her obviously intimate relationship with her abbot, Geoffrey, and are not granted visions regarding Christina's innocence. According to Holdsworth, the author of Christina's "Life" makes it quite clear that
. . . their sweet conversations and exchanges of messages, did not occur without other people being shocked, or as the author puts it being 'pierced with the lance of envy.' It must have been difficult for other religious not be have been envious as they heard of gifts and endowments being given to the priory so that they called 'the abbot . . . a seducer, and the maiden a loose woman'. The writer goes on to say that many changed their views in time, but the account gives good reason for seeing why Ailred writing to his recluse sister around 1163/4, about the time Christina died, warned her against such special relationships. (31)
The passion for virginity which led to Christina's childhood vow is one repeatedly encountered in the biographies of the woman saints. Regarding Clare of Assisi's devotion to this ideal, Adolf Holl, one of Francis of Assisi's biographers, provides some background information to aid the modern reader's understanding of this phenomenon. He observes that "in those days there were certainly a whole series of solid reasons why an intelligent young lady might view the state of holy matrimony with extreme suspicion."
Holl then tells, and expounds on, the following tragic story:
One of the few intimate accounts of the life of a medieval woman comes from a man named Guibert de Nogent. Abbot of a small provincial monastery in France, he wrote his memoirs --a great rarity in that age--around 1115, and in them his mother plays a leading role. The woman had entered into matrimony while "hardly of marriageable age." (According to canon law, girls could be married at twelve, and boys at fourteen.) From her early childhood the girl suffered from an oppressive anxiety over sin, and the fear of an early death. For a few years these prematurely wedded children were unable to consummate the marriage, which brought on continual pressure from their noble relatives. "Certain rich men" made a game of giving the girl practical lessons in sex education, and the relatives of the boyish groom continually threatened to dissolve the marriage and send the girl off to some other family members living far away.
Finally the spell was broken when efforts to initiate the boy-husband into the mysteries of intercourse finally succeeded with the help of a maid. Then a number of children came into the world, in rapid succession. In giving birth to Guibert the young mother underwent such a long and excruciating labor that his father made a pious vow before the delivery: If everything went well, he would have the child enter monastic life.
When Guibert was eight months old, he lost his father, and his mother took good care not to give in to her relatives' demands and marry a second time. As long as she remained a widow, she would have control of her late husband's property and the right to bring up the children as she saw fit. She was something like twenty years old at the time.
From his mother Guibert received a strait-laced, puritanical upbringing with regard to sex, which was no surprise, given her past experience. At the age of six Guibert had to study hard under the supervision of a cleric: "While others of my age wandered everywhere at will ... I, hedged in by constant restraints and dressed in my clerical garb, would sit and look at the troops of players like a beast awaiting sacrifice."
Needless to say, he was often beaten by the reverend teacher, who went too far, even for his mother: "[Once] she threw off my inner garment and saw my little arms blackened and the skin of my back everywhere puffed with the cuts from the twigs." Weeping hot tears, his mother voiced her horror at this kind of preparation for religious life.
Nonetheless, at thirteen, Guibert entered the monastery, and his mother, tortured by her dread of sin, chose to live as a hermit, likewise behind monastery walls. Guibert complains of her decision: "She knew that I should be utterly an orphan with no one at all on whom to depend, for . . . there was no one to give me the loving care a little child needs at such an age . . . Although she knew that I would be condemned to such neglect, yet Thy love and fear, O God, hardened her heart . . . the tenderest in all the world, that it might not be tender to her own soul's harm." With that astonishing statement an aggrieved son recalls his mother, whose only wish at age thirty was never to see a man for the rest of her days.
In the Middle Ages this was by no means an isolated attitude, at least not among upper-class women, who could manage to get into a halfway decent convent by furnishing the required dowry. One might well compare the sense of relief with which this young widow disappeared into a monastery--and thus eluded her importunate noble relatives who were greedy for her fortune and hence pressuring her to remarry--with the feelings of someone who has narrowly escaped death for every marriage meant a succession of births, and every confinement brought the very real danger of death not only for the newborn child but for the mother as well. The percentage of women who died in childbirth was extremely high then, even among the upper class. And, on the average, one out of every three newborn babies died shortly after birth.
While women found the joys of married life considerably diminished under these circumstances, they were not exactly pampered either when it came to their consorts. Naturally, they were never allowed to choose a husband for themselves, but had to take what was put in front of them. Equally common was marriage at the age of twelve or fourteen, and by no means always to someone the same age or even half as shy. Often it was an older widower, who took possession of the child on the wedding night, after hearty eating and drinking, before the eyes of witnesses. It would surely be a mistake to speak of an age of courtly romance simply because a number of contemporary artists tried to promote politer behavior toward women. In reality, Francis' period was characterized by considerable masculine brutality, in love as in other things, and we ought not assume a priori that the flight of many upper-class women into the world of divine love was due to the influence of heavenly grace. It was a question rather of simple disgust at the crude assaults of a grunting mate, who probably smelled of horse sweat. (32)
This sobering appraisal of men-women relationships in the time of St. Francis brings to the consideration of one of the most celebrated lives of these times, and one that inspired numerous biographies, that of Francis of Assisi. In many ways his attitudes toward women, his avoidance of women, and his love affairs, are archetypical embodiments of the ideals and practicalities that were in an evident state of flux at this time of spiritual fervor and ferment.
St. Francis of Assisi
Holl's biography of Francis astutely observes that one reason Francis received papal approval for his group, while the similarily motivated Waldensians were disapproved, was that there were no women in Francis' group. The Waldensians, on the other hand, were described by Burchard, in 1220, in the following words cited by Holl as an account of events that took place in Rome around 1210:
We saw at that time some of their number ... and these petitioned that their sect might be confirmed and privileged by the Holy See. In truth, by their own account, they undertook the way of life of the apostles, wishing to possess nothing and to have no settled home, traveling about through the villages and towns. But the lord Pope (Innocent III) took exception to them as there were some superstitious elements in their way of life: They cut off their shoes above their feet and walked, as if it were, barefoot also they wore a kind of hood as if they were members of a religious order, they did not shave the hair of their head other than in the way laymen do. This also seemed reprehensible to them, that men and women walked together along the road and often lodged at the same house, and it was said of them that they sometimes slept together in bed yet they asserted that all they did was derived from the apostles. (33)
In 1211, however, Francis "stood face to face with total feminine determination in the shape of a young noblewoman." (34)
Her wish was to live as Francis lived, as his "companion." (35) Holl asks:
We can't imagine Francis being so narrow-minded as to reject out of hand the idea of a woman realizing his vision. Didn't Jesus have women among his followers? (36)
In Green's estimation, the formerly promiscuous Francis' postconversion attitude toward women may be summed up as follows:
We know perfectly well what Francis thought of women after his conversion. To say he avoided looking at them is an understatement. He forbade his brothers to speak to them and, as for himself, he simply removed them from his world which, we may note, suggests how much they fascinated him. In a word, he feared their presence. (37)
Green emphasizes Clare's physical and moral beauty, Francis being twelve years older, and the inevitability of them falling in love with each other. He describes them, as Holl does, as lovers. Not lovers in the romantic sense, but lovers in the mystical sense. But Green suggests Francis struggled with every part of his physical and emotional makeup in his dealing with this woman who protested that she shared his vision. As a result, he rebuffed her claimed desire to leave the world and follow Christ with rudeness, demanding she prove herself to him. Green tells this story and its effect in these words:
He listened, and suddenly as if delivering a sword thrust at an enemy, he said, with a strange brutality, "I don't believe you." Had she heard him rightly? She didn't flinch.
Francis continued: "Still, if you want me to have faith in your words, you will do what I am going to tell you: Change your clothes, put on an old sack, and go about town begging your bread."
Did she suffer from this unexpected demand? Not the least in the world. She was delighted to offer Christ a proof of her love. It was wonderful to obey this man who spoke to her of the Lord.
Francis, rather, was the one who suffered. How could he have ordered her to do that? But he had felt inspired to do it, and little by little its meaning came to light. By telling Clare to become a beggar for the love of Christ, he had given Lady Poverty the living face of a young girl. It was the triumph of the highest kind of courtly love. There was no suspect desire to be feared any more. The chosen maiden was not inaccessible, except in the mystical sphere where souls are reunited in a foretaste of paradise. One cannot dream of a purer love. (38)
Popular stories celebrate this love, and Holl recalls one:
One day Clare and Francis walked from Spello to Assisi, with great unrest in their hearts. For on their way they had entered a house, where they had asked for and had been given a little bread and water. While they were there, they had drawn looks of malice from the people, and were forced to endure all sorts of whispering, with jokes and veiled allusions. So they went on their way in silence. It was the cold season of the year, and the land all around was covered with snow. Soon the horizon began to grow dark. Then Francis said: "Did you understand what the people were saying about us?"
Clare gave no answer. Her heart contracted as if pressed by pincers, and she felt close to tears. "It's time to part," Francis said finally. Then Clare fell on her knees in the middle of the road. After a while she got hold of herself, stood up, and went on with her head lowered, leaving Francis behind.
The road led through a forest. All at once she lost the strength to leave him like this, without hope or comfort, without a word of farewell.
"When will we see each other again?"
"In summer when the roses bloom."
Then something wonderful happened. All of a sudden it seemed to both of them as if there were countless roses all around--on the branches of the juniper bushes and on the frost-covered hedges. Recovering from her astonishment Clare rushed up, plucked a bunch of roses, and laid them in Francis' hands. From that day Clare and Francis were never separated again. (39)
The moment when Clare and Francis finally recognize that they love one another is presented with a great deal of delicacy in this popular story. The cold wintertime suggests, accurately enough, the circumstances then controlling relationships between men and women. And the roses? What they mean is something one never learns in religion class. (40)
Yet after Clare is settled into the church at San Damiano with her sister followers, Francis and Clare are seldom together physically. Thus, their inseparability is one of the spirit, the togetherness brought about by a shared vision. Francis' relationship with Clare is both confused and clarified by the following story retold by Holl:
Often, we are told Francis went to visit St. Clare and imparted pious counsel to her. But he always denied her fondest wish--to share a meal with him. His companions finally spoke to Francis about it: "It seems to us that this severity is incompatible with divine charity, not to grant a trifle such as a meal with Sister Clare, who is such a holy virgin and beloved of God. All the more so seeing as she abandoned the riches and splendor of this world upon hearing your preaching. Truly, even if she were asking a greater favor than this one, you ought not to deny it to the spiritual shoot that you yourself planted." To which Francis said, "So you think that I should grant her request?" "Yes, it would be well to give her this joy and comfort."
It continues in this vein for a while, until finally Clare is allowed to go on a little excursion from San Damiano, escorted, naturally by a companion and in broad daylight. Francis set the table on the bare earth, as was the custom.
Then they all squatted on the ground, in strict observance of their formal etiquette: "When it was time, Francis sat down with Clare, and Francis' comrade with Clare's companion. Then the other brothers modestly took their places."
Francis, the story goes on, began at once to speak of God, so lovingly, in such a lofty, wonderful way that the entire company immediately fell into ecstasy. "As they sat there in ecstasy, with their eyes and hands lifted up to heaven, the people of Assisi and the surrounding area saw the church, the monastery, and the entire Portiuncula forest burst into flame, as if a mighty fire were burning there. When they ran down to put out the fire, there were no flames at all to be seen. Only Clare and Francis sat there, in a circle with the others, carried away in the spirit. Then the people realized that the fire had been divine and not earthly, that God had caused it to appear in wondrous wise, as a visible token of the fire of heavenly love that blazed in the souls of these holy brothers and sisters." (41)
Holl adds these observations:
The prejudice here is obvious. The flames of love between Francis and Clare, clearly seen by the population, are supposed to be taken as a pure heavenly passion, and not as earthly tenderness. The split between spirit and flesh, brought on by the radical denial of the latter, was by Francis' time one of the fundamental principles of the Christian West. Francis and Clare may belong to each other exclusively "in God." (42)
Before leaving Francis and Clare, it must be reiterated that Clare nursed Francis in sickness, made items of clothing for him, and even advised him. (43) One important occasion of the advice-giving, according to Roggen, is well attested, although the date is uncertain. Francis seemed to have periods of doubt about the nature of his chosen path, and sought a definitive word from God on the specific subject of whether he should continue to have his brethren be itinerant preachers or whether he should have them become a contemplative order, as the Clares. His personal preference was for the contemplative life, and he went to Clare for the answer. She spoke plainly and firmly: "It is God's will that you travel and preach as Christ's herald." (44, my translation). Francis still had occasional doubts, however, but history reflects his life-long committment to itinerant preaching.
The closeness of Clare and Francis is particularly well reflected in a mystical dream that Clare related to her sisters, as retold by Roggen:
It seems she was bringing some warm water and a towel to Francis, and to reach him she had to climb a high ladder --although she trod so lightly it was as if she were walking on level ground.
When she arrived in Francis' presence he showed her his breast-nipple and said: Come, receive and suck. When Clare had done this, Francis asked her to do it again. What she then felt seemed to her so tender and delicious that she could in no wise relate it in words. And as soon as she held the round breast-nipple in her mouth, milk would come out of it. With her hands cupping that which was offered her, it seemed to be pure and clear gold in which she could see herself as in a mirror." (45, my translation)
This dream is, according to Roggen, heavily-laden with symbolism, and is reminiscent of some of the mystical encounters with the Divine reported during this same period. It is probable that Clare's love for Francis was thoroughly intertwined with her love for Christ. Clare's receiving Christ's divine love through Francis and seeing her reflection near his heart fittingly describes, probably, the way Clare viewed Francis and her relationship with him. Love is the subject of this dream.
Murray Bodo's treatment of Francis' life and teachings contains a quote from a letter from Clare to Agnes of Prague which may explain the symbolism behind Clare's seeing herself in Francis' breast as if in a mirror:
Because the vision of Christ is the splendor of eternal glory, the radiance of eternal light and the mirror without stain, look upon that mirror each day, O queen and spouse of Jesus Christ, and continually study your countenance within it, so that you may clothe yourself inside and out with beautiful robes and cover yourself with the flowers and garments of all the virtues, as becomes the daughter and most chaste bride of the Most High King. Indeed blessed poverty, holy humility, and ineffable charity are reflected in that mirror, ... . (46)
Clare saw Christ in Francis' breast and herself in Christ. Bodo described the Clare/Francis relationship in these words:
Her relationship with Francis was at first that of a spiritual daughter and though she continued all her life to call him 'our holy Father Francis,' she became more than a daughter. Clare emerges as his most faithful companion, the most complete embodiment of the dream and way of life that Francis received from the Lord. She became his partner, the feminine counterpart and complement to the gospel man who follows radically in the footsteps of Christ. (47)
Bodo generalizes the Clare/Francis relationship in an interesting manner which, perhaps, transports us from the sublime to the ridiculous:
Almost from its very inception the Franciscan life has been fused with both masculine and feminine elements, bringing to the fore the richness of the gospel life or any life when it refuses to be solely masculine or feminine. There is something profoundly womblike about San Damiano and the life that was lived there, as there is something phallic in the brothers' constant forays into the world to preach and witness to the Gospel. I don't think either venture would have succeeded without the other. The brothers' life on the road enriched the contemplative life of the Poor Ladies and the ladies' life in turn, made possible the effectiveness of the brothers apostolic life and preaching. (48)
The thorough mixing of male and female symbolism in Clare's dream of suckling at Francis' breast is thoroughly matched in Francis' euphoric vision of his own relationship with Christ which, according to Bodo, was a love-relationship so all-emcompassing that it contained within it every known human relationship: son-father, husband-wife, brother-brother, and mother-son. Bodo quotes Francis thus:
Oh, how glorious it is, how holy and great, to have a Father in heaven! Oh, how holy, consoling, beautiful and wondrous it is to have such a Spouse! Oh, how holy and how loving, pleasing, humble, peaceful, sweet, lovable, and desirable above all things to have such a Brother and such a Son. (49)
Yet, these popular stories do not tell the whole story about Francis' relationship to women, Clare was not so much a woman as she was the incarnation of a principle, "Lady Poverty," after all. Murray Bodo tells how Francis revered "Lady Poverty" by relating this quote, which describes the love relationship between Jesus and this selfsame lady:
Thus it was that the Son of the Most High Father became enamored of your beauty while he was in the world, he clung to you alone and proved that you were completely faithful in everything. And you, a most faithful spouse, a most tender lover, did not for one moment abandon him what is more, you clung to him even more faithfully the more you saw him despised by all others. But, of course, if you had not been with him, he could never have been so despised. In the end, when he went to heaven, he left to you the seal of the Kingdom of Heaven to use in sealing the elect. Then whoever would sigh for the eternal Kingdom would have to come to you to beg it from you and enter it through you, for no one can enter into the Kingdom unless sealed with your seal. (50)
According to Holl, Thomas of Celano--who would have nothing to do with women himself--wrote the following concerning St. Francis:
Women made him so uncomfortable that one might have thought his conduct toward them was not dictated by caution or the desire to set an example, but by horror or fright. When their immoderate loquacity gave him offense, he broke off speaking and with humbly lowered eyes called on silence for help. But sometimes he lifted his eyes to heaven, as though to find an answer there to their earthly chatter. (51)
Holl observes that, according to Celano's testimony:
Francis never even looked at a woman save in exceptional cases, and he never tired of warning his companions against the "honey-sweet" poison of familiarity with women. Even toward the poor women at San Damiano Francis exercised the very greatest restraint, was extremely reluctant to visit them, and established the rule of assigning only outspoken woman-haters to go on the many necessary errands to San Damiano. In Celano's version Francis says that whoever has regular business with the sisters should always be on his guard, "like birds drawing near to snares." (52)
Holl then observes:
Of greater weight than Celano's remarks is a passage from Francis' Rule of l223 (approved by the Pope):
I firmly command all the brothers to have no discussions with women which would arouse suspicion, nor give them counsel they shall not enter convents of nuns, save only those brothers to whom the Holy See has granted special license. Nor shall they form close relationships with men or women, so that no scandal arise between brothers or on their account for any reason. (53)
One other story must be told that, whether true or not, reflects either Francis' or Francis' followers belief that Francis was immune to the fires of human passion. As retold by Fortini, in the Egyptian city of Damietta, among the crusaders, Francis
. . . went into the house to rest one day and found a beautiful woman there, who offered herself to him. He did not rail against her or heap imprecations upon her head. Without horror or fear he looked at her from the depths of his own parched eyes and accepted her proposition. She started to lead him to her bed when he stopped her. There was already a bed prepared for pleasure, he said, a very beautiful one, the woman had only to follow him.
And he took her to a great fire burning in the house, and in great eagerness stripped naked and threw himself on an enormous incandescent brazier, telling her to undress quickly and come lie with him in that splendid and wonderful bed, already well shaken up and wonderfully made. The woman, astonished and trembling, looked at him, while Saint Francis remained happily in the great fire and neither burned nor turned brown. (54)
Fortini indicates that in the original story the woman, a crusader camp prostitute, is converted to Christ and wins many other souls to Christ in turn.
Yet the story of Francis and women doesn't end there. Fortini tells of his love-affair, in the mystical sense of course, with Giacoma dei Settisoli with the following introduction:
In his sojourns in Rome, including this last one of 1232, Francis spent a great deal of time at the Septizonium palazzo, where Giacoma dei Frangipani, who had become a Franciscan tertiary, lived with her fatherless children. (55)
Francis had created the tertiary order precisely for persons such as Giacoma, who desired to live dedicated lives but had responsibilities in the world that could not, in good conscience, be set aside.
Fortini describes Giacoma and her relationship with Francis, and a certain night when Francis had a significant experience while staying overnight in her palazzo:
The beauty and the piety of the Roman gentlewoman Giacoma dei Settesoli had brought new light into the ancient Royal Palace of the Sun. The heiress of a family of warriors and the widow of one of the most powerful of the Roman barons, she was like one of the heroic blessed saints in whom courage is the highest expression of femininity and fidelity survives the flight of the years, even death.
Giacoma and Francis were friends for more than ten years. We can say truthfully that they loved each other.
Thomas of Celano wrote: "Jacopa of Settesoli, equally renowned for her nobility and her sanctity in the city of Rome, had merited the privilege of a special love from Saint Francis." And in still another passage, which reminds us of certain verses of the Song of Songs, he writes of Francis as one "whom she loved so ardently."
The Mirror of Perfection [and also the Legend of Perugia] compares her to the woman who loved Jesus even to the cross and beyond: Mary Magdalene.
Francis gave Giacoma in this, his last stay in Rome, a gift of great significance, a white lamb. It symbolized her innocence, flourishing within these malevolent walls, where the family coat of arms showed lions on the attack, rapacious eagles, enraged vipers.
The day would come (said Francis) when cruelty would be conquered by gentleness and no heart could resist kindness. The Lamb who had come to take away the sins of the world had declared, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you bless those who curse you and pray for those who maltreat you." Human beings could come to see the folly of bloodshed, war, and revenge. Evil could be overcome by good.
Giacoma listened to Francis with a humility full of grace, pervaded by a mysterious happiness that she would remember all her life. Often, while he was speaking, tears would come to her clear, intent eyes and overflow down her cheeks. At such a time it was easy to understand why Francis's companions compared her to Mary Magdalene. Like Mary Magdalene, she was capable of great love and she was also "full of tears and devotion for the love and sweetness of Christ."
At the time of which we speak, it was early December, and rain pelted unceasingly. It washed the fields of ruins, the frowning walls, the uncultivated land. The Septizonium itself was wrapped in a dreary cloud. The great voice of water rumbling in the mill stream filled the room, darkening the first shadows of evening.
It must have been on just such a stormy evening that Francis moved to the room on top of the tower that Angelo di Tancaredi had prepared for him. He prayed, as was his habit, then lay down on a cot to await sleep. But, as he was dozing off, a long and noisy rumble jolted him awake. The old tower was shaking and shuddering mightily, as if the centuries-old fighting had begun around it again. From the farthest corner, from every opening, from every fortification, cries of terror and rage were breaking out. Pleas for help rose from those abandoned to the sack, along with the barbaric shouts of the sackers. Crossbows cracked, arrows whistled, beasts howled, and the fires roared up. Bells clamoured the tocsin over the clashing of swords. All the voices --scornful, threatening, desperate-- that had rung out there in the battles of the centuries returned on the stormy night in the sleep of the Poverello of Christ. They begged, cursed, died away, then returned with new force.
The storm grew in violence. By the light of a dying lantern, Francis saw moving shadows. Phantoms leapt to the arrow slits, ran up the stairs. All along the open galleries figures appeared and then vanished. Suddenly they joined and all together rushed Francis. They knocked him down and hit him repeatedly and savagely. He saw their flaming eyes, their contorted faces and gnashing teeth in frothing mouths.
He sprang from his bed, crying out in terror. Angelo, sleeping in another room, came running. "The devils, brother," said Francis, "have beaten me severely. I wish you would keep me company because I am afraid to stay alone."
His companion looked at him in astonishment. Francis was beside himself, every bone in his body trembling. "Why did the devils beat me? Why did they receive permission from the Lord to hurt me?" Francis went on. And he added, "the devils are our Lord's policemen. Just as the podesta sends his policemen to punish a guilty man, so too does the Lord correct and chastise those he loves through his policemen, that is, the devils whom he permits to do this work."
He seemed delerious. It had been a mistake to imagine he could have a peaceful stay here in this place, so associated with war and violence. The Friar Minor should shun such places, should shun the palaces and courts of powerful men. It would not do to yield even to a well-meant invitation when it involved something displeasing to God. (56)
Francis finally decided he was being punished for being in a state of relative luxury while his brethren were enduring all sorts of deprivations in the course of their ministerial duties. Although Fortini seems to believe this reasoning without question, it must at least be possible that the devils tormenting Francis were the very same ones that disturbed him on a previous occasion, as retold from Celano's account by Holl:
The devil also visited him with an especially strong temptation to unchastity. But, as soon as he was aware of it, the blessed Father laid aside his habit, scourged himself most severely with a rope, and said: 'There now, Brother Ass, it serves you right, you have to cringe beneath the whip!' But when despite the flogging the temptation would not go away, although all his limbs were marked with welts, he opened the door to his cell, went out into the garden, and threw himself naked into the deep snow. Then he took some snow and formed seven clumps out of it. He laid these before him and began to speak to his body in this fashion: 'See here, this large clump is your wife. Two of these four are your sons and two are your daughters. The other two are your servant and maid whom you need to work for you. And now hurry up and clothe them all, otherwise they must die of the cold. But if caring for all of them is too much of a burden for you, then bend all your zeal to serve the one Lord!' At once the devil left in shame, and the saint returned to his cell, praising God. (57)
It is curious that pain and cold could not make this devil go away, but contemplating the demands of providing for a family could. In this context it would seem strange that Francis could spend a night in a house occupied by a woman he loved without a visit from this devil, who was powerful enough to throw him out of a cell he occupied alone. After all, Francis was human.
At the time of his death, Francis' thoughts went out to his beloved Clare and Giacoma. Although Clare had nursed him through his last illness, he sent her a note promising she would see him again, which she did, but not until after his death. It was his beloved Giacoma, however, the woman, according to Fortini:
. . . for whom every rigid rule of cloister was to fall, a woman so dear and irresistible that from death's door he wanted to send her an affectionate messagae: "To Madonna Iacopa, servant of God, Brother Francis, the little poor man of Christ, sends his greetings in the Lord and fellowship in the Holy Spirit of Our Lord Jesus Christ."
This was the way he addressed her in the letter that he wished his companions to write in his name. "You know how much she has loved me since I have been an exile from the world. Tell her that I am about to die, and that if she wishes to see me again now that I am about to return to the heavenly kingdom, she must hurry without delay. And tell her to bring some cloth for a religious habit, ash-colored, and also some of that special dish that she herself made for me many times in Rome. (58)
Fortini then relates how, before messengers could depart, Giacoma was at the door with all that Francis was requesting. Fortini relates that:
She had been praying at home when a mysterious voice inside her told her to hurry to Assisi, where Francis was, and to do it soon if she wished to find him alive, and to take cloth for a habit, the sweets he liked so much, candles and incense for the funeral....
Her visit brought new life to him. Francis seemed to light up again, like a spluttering lantern that is given new fuel. But this, alas, was nothing but a miracle of his heart's having once again found joy before stopping forever, a last dramatic response of a gracious and generous knight that caused him to come back to earth from the celestial glory to which he was already rising, back where a devoted lady was weeping for him. He was able to enjoy but little of the food that Giacoma prepared for him.
In the meantime another woman whom he called Sister had arrived, the woman to whom he had addressed his last song in the bishop's house in Assisi. She came silent and alone and placed herself at his side with jealous love. Mors, janua vita. Death, the gateway of life. (59)
Thus Sister Death claimed the Saint, and his brothers carried out his last request: that he be laid naked on the earth for a time in a secluded spot as a last testimony to his faithfulness to Lady Poverty. (60)
One of the enigmas of Francis's life was that he was a man who sincerely felt that total devotion to the spiritual life required denial of any and all relations with women on the part of his followers. But, for himself, he was undeniably and deeply in love with at least two women during his lifetime. The nature of this love is generally described in terms of affirming its reality and intensity while denying its roots in the flesh. This love was a heavenly love, and --as already seen in the lives of Christina of Markyate and Christina of Stommeln-- this was not an uncommon phenomenon between deeply religious men and women of this time.
These types of love-relationships were, perhaps, the result of the naturally close relationship between a confessor or religious leader and a spiritually powerful religious woman. But they were also more than that, and reflected the nature of the mystic vision that could be shared between mystics and also between a religious woman mystic and a sympathetic leader or confessor. It is the nature of this mystic experience, which allows a man like Francis to see Jesus as his spouse and a woman like Clare to see herself feeding at Francis' breast, that deserves closer scrutiny.
References for PART 2
1. McLaughlin, op. cit., p. 124.
2. Olyslager, op. cit., p. 172.
3. Ibid., pp. 13-14.
4. Ibid., pp. 22-24.
5. Thompson, Sally, "The Problem of the Cistercian Nuns in the Twelfth and Early Thirteenth Centuries," pp. 227-252, In: Derek Baker, "Medieval Women," (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1978)
6. Smith, Jacqueline, "Robert of Arbrissel: Procurator Mulierum," pp. 175-184, In Derek Baker, "Medieval Women," (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1978)
7. Constable, Giles, "Aelred of Rievaulx and the Nun of Watton: An Episode in the Early History of the Gilbertine Order," pp. 205-226, In: Derek Baker, "Medieval Women," (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1978)
8. Ibid., p. 206.
9. Ibid., pp. 218-219.
10. Ibid., p. 219.
11. Ibid., pp. 219-220.
13. Ibid., pp. 221-222.
14. Smith, op. cit., pp. 177-178.
15. Ibid., p. 183.
16. Nieveler, Peter, "Codex Iuliancensis, Christine von Stommeln und Petrus von Dacien, ihr Leben und Nachleben in Geschichte,
Kunst und Literatur," (Monchengladbach, B. Kuhlen Verlag, 1975)
17. Ibid., p. 66.
19. Ibid., p. 67.
21. Ibid., p. 62.
22. Ibid., p. 68.
26. Ibid., p. 70.
27. Ibid., p. 74.
28. Ibid., p. 69.
30. Holdsworth, C. J., "Christina of Markyate," pp. 185-204, In: Derek Baker, "Medieval Women," (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1978)
31. Ibid., p. 197.
32. Holl, op. cit., pp. 92-93.
33. Ibid., p. 95.
35. Ibid., p. 94.
36. Ibid., p. 95.
37. Green, op. cit., p. 145.
38. Ibid., p. 146.
39. Holl, op. cit., p. 96.
41. Ibid., p. 99.
42. Ibid., p. 100.
43. Roggen, op. cit., pp. l50-l5l.
44. Ibid., p. 176.
45. Ibid., p. 152.
46. Bodo, Murray, "The Way of St. Francis, The Challenge of Franciscan Spirituality for Everyone," (Garden City, New York, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1984)
47. Ibid., p. 39.
48. Ibid., pp. 39-40.
49. Ibid., p. 76.
50. Ibid., pp. 73-74.
51. Holl, op. cit., p. l00.
52. Ibid., pp. l00-101.
53. Ibid., 101.
54. Fortini, Arnaldo, "Francis of Assisi," (New York, Crossroad, 1981) A translation by Helen Moak of "Nova Vita di San Francesco".
55. Ibid., p. 527.
56. Ibid., pp. 528-530.
57. Holl, op. cit., p. 102.
58. Fortini, op. cit., p. 609.
59. Ibid., p. 610.
PART 3: FEMINIST VISIONS OF
THE HIGH MIDDLE AGES
Francis' vision of God allowed him to exclaim that God was his Father, Spouse, and Brother. Clare's vision of God allowed her to see herself drinking of God's love from Francis' breast nipples. And there are other enigmas of this kind.
Similarly, Martin Buber reports that Heinrich Seuse, a Dominican friar and follower of Eckhart, described an encounter with a feminine aspect of Deity. (1) His first revelation was one that overtook him once when he stood alone in the choir and felt
. . . a strange oppression of heavy suffering that lay upon him. And as he stood disconsolate and no one was with him, his soul was entranced, in the body or outside the body. There he saw and heard what no tongue can express. It was formless and without mode and yet had in it the joyful pleasure of all forms and modes.
The heart was avid and yet satisfied, the mind happy and in good state all wishing was stayed and all desiring lost. He did nothing but stare into the splendid reflection in which he gained a forgetfulness of himself and of all things. He knew not whether it was day or night. It was a sweetness of eternal life that burst forth in a feeling of presence motionlessly at rest.
Afterward he said, "If this is not the kingdom of heaven, I do not know what the kingdom of heaven is for all the suffering that could be put into words cannot rightfully earn this joy for him who is to possess it eternally." This overpowering entrancement must have lasted an hour or half an hour whether the soul remained in the body or was separated from it, he did not know. When he came to himself again, he felt in every way like one who has come from another world. The body had such great pain from that brief instant that he did not believe any human could suffer so much pain in so short a time without dying. He came to himself with a sigh from the very depths, and the body sank down to the ground against his will, like one who collapses in a faint. (2)
Note the spiritual and physical aspects described in this experience, especially the spiritual joy and the physical suffering. Heinrich was strongly influenced by this experience, although this did not show outwardly. Finally, one day he heard read a passage on "Wisdom", and recognized in her the source of the experience that had affected him so profoundly:
"Truly, it must be so, she must surely be my true love, I will be her servant." And he thought, "Ah God, when shall I see my love, when shall I receive her speech? Ah, what is the sweet form of that which has hidden so many lovely things in itself? Is it God or human, woman or man, secret knowledge or magic power, or what may it be?" (3)
Lest one assume that Heinrich's "is it God or human, woman or man" can be taken as a remarkably feminist doublet, it should be noted that before he can let himself go in pursuit of this mystical lover, he must contrast her with her human imitators:
. . . all other sweethearts have sweet words and bitter wages, their hearts are the dragnets of death, their hands are fetters of iron, their speech a sweetened poison, their sport a theft of honor. (4)
Having thus separated this Lover from the devil's counterfeits: women, he begins to enjoy her frequent appearances in many mystical and symbolic forms,
. . . her crown was eternity, her garment was bliss, her word was sweetness, her embrace the fulfillment of all desire. (5)
He saw her sometimes as a "beautiful maiden" sometimes as a "splendid youth," sometimes as a "wise instructor", sometimes as a "stately sweetheart," but the experience was always ineffable:
When during this period he would sometimes approach in his thoughts the loveliest one of all, he asked himself an inward question and asked his love-seeking heart thus: "Ah, my heart, see whence flow love and all that is lovely? Whence comes all tenderness, beauty, heart's desire, and gracefulness? Does it not all come from the overflowing source of the pure Godhead? Well then, heart and mind and mettle, let us plunge into the bottomless abyss of all beautiful things! Who will hold me back now? Oh, I embrace you today according to the desire of my burning heart!" And then the original outflow of all goodness impressed itself in his soul, and in this he found in spirit all that was beautiful, lovely and desirable this was all in an ineffable manner. (6)
These experiences conditioned him so that when he heard music, even temporal love-songs, ...
his heart and mind were suddenly, with a detached inward gaze, led into his precious sweetheart, from whom all love flows. How often his heart's darling, with eyes weeping from love, with wide-open, abyss-deep heart, was embraced and pressed ardently to his loving heart, can never be told. It made him feel exactly as when a mother holds her suckling child in her arms and stands it on her lap: Just as the child leaps toward the caressing mother with its head and the movement of its little body and shows the joy of its heart with these smiling gestures, so his heart in his body was often moved, with a flowing of his inner being, toward the gladsome presence of eternal Wisdom.
He thought then, "O my God, if a queen were wed to me, my soul would enjoy it, but now you are my heart's empress and the bestower of all grace! In you I have riches enough, as much power as I could desire. Of all that the earth has, I would not have more!" (7)
Heinrich's experience of God thus, like Francis', included experiencing God as a lover or spouse. Heinrich's sensibilities and distrust of or dislike for women notwithstanding, when he heard of Wisdom, just as when Francis envisioned Lady Poverty, he seized upon the feminine aspect of Deity and let loose all his desires for and capacities for love in her presence. We do not know if, in Heinrich's case, this mystical insight of the feminine in God led him to see the divine in the human female also. As we saw in the case of Petrus of Dacien in the previous chapter, he freely admitted that he saw Christina of Stommeln as being an incarnation of God, a temple wherein God delighted to dwell, and thus his love for God was the root of his love for Christina.
We do not know if Heinrich ever made a similar discovery concerning women or a woman, it seems not. But the important point to be made here is that Heinrich's experience of God overwhelmed all of his senses, including those associated with every aspect of human love, and in order to rationalize this profound and disturbing experience, he grasped at the Bible's description of Wisdom, the feminine aspect of God, contrasted her holiness with the opposite in human females, and then was able to let himself go and enjoy this ineffable, female source of joy without setting aside his innate and thoroughgoing misogynism.
Seuse was a follower of Eckhart, and Eckhart was a follower of a number of German Beguine mystics. One among these Beguines, a sister Katrei (or Catharine), is supposed to have had the following conversations with her confessor, allegedly Eckhart himself according to Buber. (8) This spiritual daughter and her confessor talk, and the confessor is bowled over by her spiritual experiences and seems unable to understand her not being satisfied with the numerous ascents her soul has experienced. Yet she is adamant that she wants to be confirmed in eternity, not just be a visitor there:
He said, "It would content me if my soul had the constant ascent that yours has." She said, "My soul has a constant ascent without any obstacle but it does not have a constant dwelling. Know that time is not enough for me if I only knew what I must do to be confirmed in constant eternity."
He said, "Have you such great desire as this?" She said, "Yes." He said, "You must be bare of that desire, if you are ever to be confirmed." She said, "I do it gladly," and places herself in bareness. Then God draws her into a divine light, so that she imagines that she is one with God, and so she is, as long as this lasts. (9)
But she bounds back and is still dissatisfied at not having been confirmed. She relates, as best she can, some of her experiences of the divine, and this time as they part, she leaves the last word of instruction:
The daughter says, "Pray to God for me, and go back into your solitude and enjoy God." But it is not long before she again comes to the door and asks for her reverend confessor and says, "My lord, rejoice with me, I have become God." He says, "God be praised. Now go back to your solitude, away from people if you remain God, I am glad for you." (10)
What happens next is a wondrous experience, a cataleptic trance wherein all signs of life leave her body and only her confessor's adamance keeps her from being buried. And when she returns to life, she reports she has been confirmed:
She obeys her confessor and goes into a corner of the church. Then she went so far that she forgot everything that ever acquired a name and was drawn so far out of herself and all created things that she had to be carried out of the church and lay till the third day, and they thought she was certainly dead.
The confessor said: "I do not believe that she is dead." Know that, had it not been for the confessor, she would have been buried. They tried every means of determining whether the soul was still in the body, but could not find out. They said: "Certainly she is dead," The confessor said: "Certainly, she is not dead."
On the third day the daughter comes to herself again and says, "Alas, poor me, am I here again?" The confessor comes to her immediately and says to her, "Let me enjoy divine faithfulness reveal to me what you have experienced." She said: "God knows I cannot. What I have experienced, no one can put into words." He said: "Have you now all you desire?" She said: "Yes, I am confirmed." (11)
She attempts to convey her experience to her confessor, and parts of her account are:
She said: "I had concentrated all the faculties of my soul. When I looked into myself, I saw God in myself and everything God ever created in heaven and on earth . . . .
I have nothing to do with angels or saints or anything that was ever created. More: I have nothing to do with anything that has ever become word . . . . I am confirmed in naked divinity, in which never image nor form existed . . . . I am where I was before I was created where there is only bare God in God. In that place there are no angels or saints or choirs or heaven. Many people tell of eight heavens and nine choirs where I am that is not. You should know that all that is put into words and presented to people with images is nothing but a stimulus to God. Know that in God there is nothing but God. Know that no soul can enter into God unless it first becomes God just as it was before it was created.
"You should know, that whoever contents himself with what can be put into words--God is a word, the kingdom of heaven is also a word--whoever does not want to go further with the faculties of the soul, with knowledge and love, than ever became word, ought rightfully to be called an unbeliever. What can be put into words is grasped with the lower senses or faculties of the soul, but the higher faculties of the soul are not content with this they press on, further and further, until they come before the source from which the soul flowed....
"You must understand this thus: The soul is naked and bare of all things that bear names. So it stands, as one, in the One, so that it has a progression in naked divinity.... So you should know that as long as the good person lives in time, his soul has a constant progression in eternity. That is why good people cherish life. (12)
Her experience is one of unity with God, but although she is now confirmed in eternity, and sees the church, its saints and its concepts, as being less than the reality toward which it points, she affirms that life is important to the progress of the soul and that good people cherish life.
Norman Cohn has a rather negatve view of this tale. He is certain that Katrei is not confessing to Eckhart, but to a confessor who is "clearly a Brother of the Free Spirit." (13) Cohn associates the Beguines and Beghards freely with the Free Spirit heresy, and claims that "amongst the most ascetic Beguines there were some who admitted as their spiritual directors not friars but Brethren of the Free Spirit." (14) Cohn goes on to describe the conspiracy between Beghards and Beguines in Germany as if from an eyewitness account:
By 1320 persecution had driven the movement of the Free Spirit underground and thereafter the heretical Beghards seem to have done less begging and to have relied rather on a conspiratorial understanding which they were able to develop with certain of the Beguine communities. When a missionary of the Free Spirit approached such a community, he was immediately taken in and given shelter and food. Under an oath of secrecy the news was sent to other sympathetically disposed communities that the 'angel of the divine word' had arrived and was waiting in hiding. From all sides Beguines streamed to hear the holy man. The Beghard would preach his mystical doctrine, wrapped up in elaborate phrases-- 'unbelievably subtle words', says one chronicler, 'and as sublime, spiritual and metaphysical as the German tongue can manage.'
The Beguines, entranced, would declare him 'a man who had great likeness to God and great familiarity with him.' It was in this way and in this milieu that the doctrine was preserved and developed. The Millenium of the Free Spirit had become an invisible empire, held together by the emotional bonds--which of course were often erotic bonds --between men and women. (15)
Cohn's accusation of a Free Spirit conspiracy among Beghards and Beguines, especially in Germany, is perhaps accurate, and explanatory of the fierce warfare made upon these movements wherever the friars and/or local clergy did not closely supervise the Beguines. His innuendo of erotic behaviors between Beghards and Beguines, however, from the examples cited so far, would seem to apply equally well to relations between orthodox Beguines and their Dominican spiritual advisors. Cohn cites the Sister Katrei tract to show that its doctrinal bent is Free Spirit:
after Katrei has become God her confessor says to her: You shall order all created beings to serve you according to your will, for the glory of God.... You shall bear all things up to God. If you want to use all created beings, you have the right to do so for every creature that you use, you drive up into its Origin. (16)
This prescription reflects the human having become Divine, and acting on the world as if God, or as if Adam and Eve in the Garden. Cohn picks up the Free Spirit trail here, which, he alleges, made one of its interpretations of this Divine attitude toward the created world and its inhabitants: "a promiscuous and mystical coloured eroticism. According to one adept, just as cattle were created for the use of human beings, so women were created to be used by the Brethren of the Free Spirit." (17)
Evidences of this attitude are recounted by Cohn including the existence of an Adam-cult among the Free Spirits--the imitation of the life of Adam and Eve--naked and without shame in the Garden--innocently partaking of each other in "the delight of paradise." (18) If Cohn is on the right track, which he undoubtedly is, he well illustrates the problem that the churchmen of the time must have had in judging between the orthodox and heretical Beguine prophets: transparently heretical Katrei could be disguised as Eckhart's spiritual daughter, for example.
It was previously noted that some of the teachings of Eckhart, and all of the German Beguines, were condemned. Sister Katrei's revelation of becoming God and seeing that church, kingdom, heaven, and saints are not part of the reality of God are definitely and definitively heretical. They point to a God beyond God the Father or God the Son: these concepts are dismissed by Katrei as the stock phrases of the unbelieving soul, the person who worships the words that are but symbols pointing to a naked reality that is truly God and that is in each of us.
Mechtild of Magdeburg
According to Fox's foreword in Sue Woodruff's meditations on another German Beguine, Mechtild of Magdeburg, she became a third-order Dominican when the Beguine movement was condemned. (19) Mechtild wrote poems, notes, visions, prayers and thoughts--largely at the urging of her Dominican spiritual director, Heinrich of Halle. (20) He collected her works into six books. Mechtild was Eckhart's senior by 20 years, and Eckhart read Mechtild, according to Fox. (21) Some of Mechtild's insightful words, welling up out of her own revelatory experience, have been put into a highly readable verse form by Woodruff. A short sampling of these verses will show that her revelations brought her similar understandings as conveyed by Sister Katrei, but conveyed in language that pays proper respect to the "words" Katrei felt to be inadequate such as "Holy Trinity", "Son of God", "Kingdom of Heaven," etc. Her close relationship with her confessor, and his collecting and publishing her revelations, no doubt ensured her orthodoxy and the orthodoxy of her published words.
The day of my spiritual awakening
was the day I saw
and knew I saw
all things in God
in all things. (22)
What is the human soul?
The soul is a god with God.
This is why God says to the soul:
I am the God of all gods
But you are the goddess of all creatures.
Stand in fatherly fashion
by all people who bear my likeness.
For I am
your soul. (23)
Mechtild pulls her powerful insights immediately into life's arena: God is your soul, hence, love your fellow beings--for they are all tabernacles of God.
In heaven, our origin
before each soul and body
therein gleamed the reflection of the Holy
From the mirror
there shone the sublime reflection of each person
in the high majesty from which it had flowed
Each of us is a mirror
of eternal contemplation, with a
reflection that must surely be that
of the living Son of God
with all his works.(24)
Just like Katrei, Mechtild is given new insights into earth-life by her experience of the Divine. Her poem on the soul in the body, as conveyed by Woodruff, oozes with loving insight: there is no hatred of the body in these words--
Do not disdain your body.
For the soul
is just as safe in its body
as in the Kingdom of Heaven -
though not so certain.
It is just as daring -
but not so strong,
just as powerful -
but not so constant,
just as loving -
but not so joyful,
just as gentle -
but not so rich,
just as holy -
but not yet so sinless,
just as content -
but not so complete. (25)
Like Heinrich of Seuse, Mechtild hints at the dynamic love-relationships between a woman's soul and her spouse, God:
you must adorn yourself!
you ought to dance merrily
dance like my elected one!
if you meet Me with the flowering desire
of flowing love,
then must I touch you
with my Divine nature as my Queen.
you shall soar forever
and delight--soul and body--
in my Holy Trinity,
immersed like a fish in the sea.
For the fish
cannot live long
stranded on the shore. (26)
Mechtild's descriptions of the soul's (always feminine) love-experiences in the presence of God are both startling and revealing, and --if her descriptions are symbolic of every soul's experience in its encounter with God, including Heinrich Seuse's experience--they go a long way toward explaining Heinrich's need for the concept of "Wisdom" as the female God before he could be comfortable with his experiences. First on a general note, Buber records how Mechtild described the soul's presentation at the court of God:
When the poor soul comes to court she is wise and well-behaved she gazes merrily upon her Creator. O how joyfully she is received then. Then she is silent and desires his praise immeasurably. Then he shows her, with great desire, his divine heart. It is like red-gold that burns in a great fire of coals.
Then he puts the soul into his glowing heart, so that the lofty prince and the little girl embrace and are united like water and wine. Then she is annihilated and is beside herself, so that she is altogether helpless. And he is sick with love for her, as he was from the beginning, for nothing can be either added to him or taken away from him. Then she says, "Lord, you are my comfort, my desire, my flowing spring, my sun, and I am your mirror." This is the presentation at court of the loving soul, who cannot be without God. (27)
In much greater detail, she later describes the love-encounter of "the best loved she and the handsomest he" and recommends the experience to her readers:
So then the best loved she goes to the handsomest he in the secret chamber of the pure Godhead there she finds the bed of love and the alcove of love and God and man ready. Then says our God: "Remain standing, Dame Soul." The soul: "What is your command, Lord?" God: "You must get undressed." The soul: "Lord how can that be?" God: "Dame Soul, you are so natured in me, that nothing must come between us. There was never an angel, however high, to whom was given for an hour that which is given you for eternity. Therefore you must put fear and shame from you and all outward virtues. You should wish to find in eternity only the virtue that you bear within yourself by nature, that is, your noble longing and your unfathomable desire. These I will fill eternally with my infinite riches.
The soul: "Lord, now I am a naked soul, and you in yourself a glorious God. Our companionship is eternal bliss without death."
And now his will and her will are blissfully fulfilled. He gives himself to her, and she gives herself to him. What happens to her then, she knows, and I am content with that. But it cannot last long. Where two lovers are together secretly, all too often they must swiftly part.
Dear friend of God, this way of love I have described to you. May God give you this way in your heart. Amen. (28)
The mystical experience of pain is also alluded to by Mechtild and ascribed to God's doing in this exchange between the soul and God where God now answers a request for a more constant presence:
God: "Dear dove, now hear me. My divine wisdom is so mighty over you that I allot all my gifts to you in such a manner as you can bear with your poor body. Your secret searching is bound to find me your heart's misery can rightfully compel me your sweet hunting makes me so tired that I desire to cool myself in your pure soul, into which I am bound. The sighing and trembling of your sore heart has driven my judgment away from you. So it is right for you and me. I cannot be without you.
However we are dispersed, we cannot be separated. If I were to touch you ever so lightly, I would cause your body measureless pain. If I were to give myself to you at all times according to your desire, I would have to do without my sweet earthly dwelling in you for a thousand bodies could not fulfill the desire of one living soul. That is why the higher a person is, the more he is a holy martyr."
The soul: "O Lord, you spare my impure prison far too much, in which I drink the water of this world and eat the ash-baked cake of my own weakness with great sorrow of heart. And I am wounded to death by the ray of your fiery love. And now, Lord, you let me lie unanointed in great torment."
God: "Dear heart, my queen, how long will you be so unruly? When I wound you most painfully, it is then I anoint you most inwardly. The fullness of my wealth is all yours, and you shall have might even over me. For you I pine if the weights of the scale are yours, the gold is mine. All you have done, not done, and suffered for my sake, I will put that in the scale that will outweigh it, and will give myself to you for eternity, as much as you could ever want me." (29)
Buber relates accounts by many mystics, many of which could be cited here, but only a few more will suffice. Among the earlier women mystics of the high middle ages was the twelfth century's Hildegard von Bingen, who saw a continuous vision in her soul over her entire life of more than seventy, years which brought her fulfillment in her soul and allowed her to see distant lands and places. (30) Also, there was Alpais of Cudot, who had out of body experiences in which she saw the omnipresence of God and the likeness of the soul to God. (31). A male disciple of St. Francis, Aegidius of Assisi, is also cited by Buber as having left his body and having come to know God, that sure knowledge thereby destroying his faith. (32)
Towards the mid-thirteenth century, another Mechtild, of Hackborn, was falling into cataleptic trances wherein she enjoyed God's presence. The themes of joy and pain are prominent in her accounts and her descriptions of her soul's flights into God are couched in terms of the imagery of fish and birds in water and air. (33)
Mechtild of Hackborn's description of her experience of total union with God, although not couched in sexual terms as in the other Mechtild's account, is nonetheless physical and graphic. As Buber reports her account:
She once begged the Lord to give her something that would always cause her to remember him. Thereupon she received from the Lord this answer: "See, I give you my eyes, that you may see all things with them, and my ears, that you may hear all things with them my mouth I also give you, so that all you have to say, whether in speech, prayer, or song, you may say through it. I give you my heart, that through it you may think everything and may love me and all things for my sake." In these words God drew this soul entirely into him and united with it in such a way that it seemed to her that she saw with God's eyes, and heard with his ears, and spoke with his mouth, and felt that she had no other heart than the heart of God. This she was also given to feel on many later occasions. (34)
The late thirteenth century to the mid-fourteenth century was the time that two sisters, the mystical Ebners, flourished. Christina Ebner's experience of her union with God left her all the feelings of pregnancy, and her account, as given in Buber, quotes God giving the reason for her being singled out: her willing heart, which shone as the sun in a world of apostate darkness!
"When I formed your soul in my divinity, it looked toward me and gazed at all the things that I wanted to do with you. Then my loving hand drew you toward me. I, the Lord of Mercy, have worked the miracle of miracles with you."
One day she partook of our Lord. Then he said, "My nobility has elevated you. My elevation has made you great. My affection plays with you. You are one of the humans on earth whom I now most greatly favor. I am a poor pilgrim. The heathens do not know me. The Jews do not want me. There is such confusion in the Christian lands that they do not perceive me. Where I find a willing heart, I play in it like the sun in itself."
On the holy eve of Easter ... the favor of God increased in her heart with unspeakabale richness, so that grace flowed from her soul into her body and into all her limbs, so that she was possessed and burdened by grace like a woman with child, and in this fullness of grace she remained for a long time.
He said, "I dwell in you as the fragrance of the rose. I dwell in you as the radiance in the lily. Noble fruit that I am, out of you have blossomed." (35)
Somewhat similarly, Margareta Ebner's revelation of God was also cast as a mother-child experience:
I have an image of the childhood of our Lord in a cradle. When I am so powerfully compelled by my Lord with such great sweetness and with pleasure and desire and also by his kind request, and it is also said to me by my Lord, "If you do not suckle me, I will withdraw from you, just when you love me the very most," then I take the image out of the cradle and lay it upon my naked heart with great pleasure and sweetness and feel then the most powerful grace with the presence of God, that I afterwards wonder how our Lady could have borne the constant presence of God. Then answer is given me with the actual words of the angel Gabriel: "Spiritus sanctus supervenit in te." But my desire and pleasure is in the suckling, that I am cleansed by his pure humanity and inflamed from him with his ardent love, and his presence and his sweet grace pour through me, so that I am drawn thereby into the true enjoyment of his divine being with all loving souls who have lived in the truth. (36)
But not every prophetess of the High Middle Ages has had her revelations revered by her contemporaries, as will become evident in the following Part.
References for PART 3
1. Buber, Martin, "Ecstatic Confessions,"
Harper and Row Publishers, l985)
Edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr,
Translated by Esther Cameron,
2. Ibid., pp. 65-66.
3. Ibid., p. 67.
4. Ibid., pp. 66-67.
5. Ibid., p. 67.
6. Ibid., pp. 67-68.
7. Ibid., p. 68.
8. Ibid., pp. l53-l56.
9. Ibid., p. l54.
10. Ibid., pp. l54-l55.
11. Ibid., p. l55.
12. Ibid., pp. l55-l56.
13. Cohn, Norman, "The Pursuit of the Millenium." (New York, Oxford, l970) Revised and Expanded Edition, p. l75.
14. Ibid., p. l62.
16. Ibid., p. l79.
18. Ibid., pp. l79-l80.
19. Woodruff, Sue, "Meditations with Mechtild of Magdeburg," (Sante Fe, New Mexico, Bear & Company, Inc., l982), p. 10.
20. Ibid, p. 12.
21. Ibid., p. l0.
22. Ibid., p. 22.
23. Ibid., p. 33.
24. Ibid., p. 32.
25. Ibid., p. 43.
26. Ibid., p. 48.
27. Buber, op. cit., p. 51.
28. Ibid., p. 57.
29. Ibid., p. 59.
30. Ibid., pp. 43-44.
3l. Ibid., pp. 45-47.
32. Ibid., pp. 48-50.
33. Ibid., pp. 61-62.
34. Ibid., p. 63.
35. Ibid., p. 72.
36. Ibid., p. 73.
PART 4: FROM CELESTIAL COURTS
TO FIERY COURTS OF LOVE
In l3l0, on June l, Margarethe (or Marguerite) Porete (or Porethe) was burned alive in Paris. James Wiseman and Norman Cohn, respectively, call her tract, "The Mirror of Simple Souls," "one of the most important testimonies of Free Spirit thought," (1) and "the only complete work by a medieval adept known to have survived . . . a manual of instruction, to be read aloud to groups of would-be adepts of the Free Spirit ". . . . (2) So both Wiseman and Cohn consider her tract heretical.
Verdeyen on the other hand, suggests that Margarethe was a "pious, moody and apparently totally orthodox beguine." (3) Verdeyen says her death sentence rested on two declarations, one concerning the soul lost in love taking leave of the virtues, and the other that such a soul is no longer concerned with God's forgiveness or gifts, but has become focused on God alone. Cohn cites these and other declarations as indicative of the main Free Spirit teachings of self-deification and spiritual anarchy. (4)
Cohn, however, acknowledges that Margarethe nowhere suggests that the deified soul "would or should indulge in ... sins, such as theft or sexual promiscuity." (5) Cohn (6), Wiseman (7), and Verdeyen (8) cite Ruusbroec, the famed l4th century Flemish mystic, as an arch-foe of the Free Spirit movement. Only Verdeyen, however, bothers to show that the two themes branded as heretical in Margarethe's tract are clearly also present in Ruusbroec's "The Spiritual Espousals." Verdeyen alleges that Ruusbroec knew of and had read Margarethe's tract, and that it isn't at all certain that he thought it heretical. But he was aware of the uses being made of her work in Free Spirit circles, and hence wrote aggressively against some Free Spirit themes that are also found in Margarethe's tract. All of this again underscores the difficulty of judging between the orthodox and heretical mystical prophets of these times, and explains why the solution seemed to be to drive the pious Beguine women into established orders, or behind walls with gates that could be locked and guarded at night, as a condition for being allowed to exist. The final work in this overview of the mystical revelations of the High Middle Ages is suggested by Mommaers' use of Ruusbroec to interpret the seventh vision of the thirteenth century's celebrated Hadewijch of Antwerp.
Mommaers (9) shows that this vision of Hadewijch, which we shall examine momentarily, contains a number of identifiable elements, including a physical-erotic reaction to the presence of the Lord. Ruusbroec is also spelled Ruisbroek (see link for a comparison of four themes between Margarethe's work and Ruusbroec's, see this different link for a comparison of Jan's works with a heretic named Bloemardinne, and see these last two links for photos about Ruusbroec's life). Mommaers shows that Ruusbroec's writings suggest this physical-erotic reaction is perfectly natural, and reflects the oneness of the human that is assumed in the mystical outlook of that time. The duality of spirit and body, the antagonism of angelic and animalistic components at war with each other within mankind, was still a strange notion. Thus, for a spiritual experience to have physical manifestations, as in Hadewijch's vision, is to be expected.
Many of the mystics cited in this and the previous two Parts, in fact, described their experience of nearness to or oneness with the Divine in strongly physical, sensual, and even explicitly erotic terms. Ruusbroec says this is to be expected, but it is not the highest form of experiencing God's Love.
Ruusbroec took an interest in providing spiritual guidance to a community of "rich" Clares in Brussels (i.e., Clares, followers of Clare of Assisi, labeled 'rich' because they were allowed to have a community income) and especially to a sister Margriet of Meerbeke. According to Verdeyen (10), Ruusbroec was peculiarly attentive to Margriet and addressed two letters to her and wrote his most mature work "The Mirror of Eternal Blessedness," for her at her request. This work, one of two booklets written for Margriet and her sisters, contains material cited by Mommaers to show Ruusbroec was not at all upset at the idea that strong spiritual manifestations had strong physical effects. (11) Given, however, that this booklet was written with a female audience in mind, it is curious that although Ruusbroec does take the physical manifestations in stride, he also makes a big point of these particular manifestations being a lower form of spiritual communication peculiar to those weak in heart--largely women. In Ruusbroec's words:
We have now to consider the different kinds of persons who receive the blessed Sacrament, both those in the clerical state and those who are laypersons. The group with which I will begin is comprised of those who are weakhearted by nature. When such persons are touched by God's grace and respond docilely and obediently to its promptings, their affectivity and desires become so hot and so strongly moved by an affective love of our Lord's humanity that they easily scorn and renounce everything in the world so as to be able to give themselves to their Beloved in accordance with their longing for the satisfaction of their desires. Since they cannot come any nearer to our Lord than in the sacrament, they fall into a state of restlessness because of the fervent affection and insatiable desire which they have for the blessed Sacrament. At times it even seems to them that they will go mad and die if they cannot receive the Sacrament.
There are not many such persons. They are usually women or girls, seldom men, for they are of a weak temperament and are not raised up and enlightened in their spirit. For this reason their exercises are on the level of the senses and desires and are completely filled with representations of our Lord's humanity. They are unable to feel or understand how anyone could receive our Lord in spirit, apart from the Sacrament. This is the reason why they languish interiorly in their desire and longing for our Lord. No one can advise them, calm them, or bring them help or peace before they have received the Sacrament. But afterward they are all at peace and give themselves to their Beloved in rest, spiritual savor, and a superabundant sweetness of soul and body. This lasts until a new grace and exercise take possession of their nature and all of the powers of their soul. Then they fall back into a state of longing, desire and restlessness as though they had never before received the Sacrament. They seem to be out of their mind, so much does their heart open wide in yearning to receive the blessed Sacrament once more. (12)
Ruusbroec continues to describe these weakhearted but good people, largely women, and ends on this note:
Now these persons are generally of a weak temperament and are subject to natural inclinations. Therefore, when they pray or when they wish to meditate on our Lord's humanity with desire and affection, they are sometimes touched and moved, against their will and intention by their lower appetites, for their exercises are still in the realm of the senses and live in flesh and blood. The more they think of themselves and of the inordinate inclinations of their body at such times, the more do these inclinations increase and the more strongly is their nature drawn to disorder and transgression.
If they are to win the victory and keep their nature pure in the service of the Lord, they must forget themselves and turn their face entirely toward him whom they love. Then they will be filled with his image in soul and body, in heart and senses, and will thus become pure and overcome every obstacle. Such is the first group of persons who receive the blessed Sacrament worthily. (13)
Mommaers' claim that Ruusbroec did not believe in the dual nature of man, spirit warring with flesh, is belied in Ruusbroec's description of the second group, which is superior to the first group:
There follows the second group, which is more advanced than the first. It is composed of persons whose spirit is astute and understanding but whose nature is inclined toward impurity. When such persons receive God's grace and abide in it, they often have to struggle, for the flesh is opposed to the spirit. It is for this reason that they choose a way of life in which they can turn inward and practice spiritual exercises in the Lord's sight. They thereby escape all temptations, all outbursts of emotion, and the incitements of flesh and blood. If they place more faith, hope and trust in God than in their exercises and works, they can be raised up above their rational understanding to the divine light. Moreover, if they remain raised up in this divine light and set their mind and desires more on what is above reason and comprehension than on what they can discover and understand through the power of reason, then their faith reaches its perfection and their love is grounded on its true foundation. They are set free and come to the knowledge of God, of truth, and of the best of all virtues. All the same, their nature retains its life in flesh and blood, with all the appetites, torpor, sloth, and inordinate inclinations which they experienced formerly. When such persons observe and experience this within themselves, they abandon and scorn everything in themselves which is opposed to God and to their spirit and which hinders their pursuit of perfection. They let go of all sensuousness and flee inward in spirit in the sight of God with faith, devotion, and humble prayer just as St. Paul did when he was tempted in the flesh (cf. 2 Cor l2:7-9). The spirit of God then answers their humble prayer, assuring them that God's grace is strong enough to withstand every temptation, "for strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor l2:). This is true in the case of all who struggle and who turn prayerfully to God's presence. (14)
Ruusbroec concludes that these valiant strugglers against their fleshly natures are more pleasing to God than the first group:
This is the way the second group of spiritual persons lives. They are more pleasing to God than the first group, for even though they are sick and tempted in their nature and live without God's consolation and sweetness, their spirit is nevertheless full of faith, devotion, and divine love. They often have to struggle against the devil, the world, and their own flesh and therefore require a strong spiritual fare with which they can win the victory. This fare is the Lord's body in the Sacrament, which they will receive as often as accords with their rule, their office, or the good custom of other spiritual persons with whom they live. (15)
The frequency with which this second group may take the sacrament may be contrasted with the restrictions that may be placed on the first group's access to this key to victory. Clearly, the first group are women:
They [the first group] may . . . receive the Sacrament on Sundays and on such other days as they receive permission. But if this permission is not granted, that is God's will, . . . . The soul which believes, loves, and desires to receive the blessed Sacrament is full of grace it lives in God and God in it. They should console themselves with this reflection as best they can. (16)
The third group is, according to Ruusbroec, "the most advanced of all who nobly approach the Sacrament." (17) Their description indicates they have fully mastered their selves and if an excitement enters their nature they can quickly purge it:
The third group of good persons is composed of those who are still holier and much more advanced in spirit and nature. These are recollected persons who, with God's grace, walk in his presence with a spirit which is free and exalted and which draws inward their heart and senses, their soul and body, and all their corporeal powers. Such persons have mastered their spirit and nature and have thereby found true peace. Even though they might at times experience some incitement of their nature, they quickly win the victory. No inordinate movement can long continue within them, for they truly know our Lord in both his divinity and his humanity. They exercise this knowledge with a spirit which is free of images both when they turn inward with a pure love which is raised up to the nature of the Godhead and when they turn outward with a heartfelt affection which is conformed to the image of our Lord's humanity. The more they know and love, the more do they savor and experience, and the more they savor and experience, the more do they desire, long for, seek, ground, and find what they love with their heart, soul, and spirit. (18)
Being free of images reminds one of Sister Katrei's claim of having become a God who is above all words and images. Ruusbroec seems to be aware he is moving into teritory being claimed by the Free Spirits, since at the end of the description of this superior group he lashes out at that heretical group as those who turn inward but do not again turn outward in service to their fellow Christians:
Those who wish only to turn inward in contemplation and so leave their neighbor in need do not live a recollected and contemplative life but are deceived to the core of their being. Above all things, beware of such persons. (19)
The thinness of the ice on which Ruusbroec was skating becomes apparent when he elaborates on the turning inward and outward: "after one turns inward and experiences being in God, one turns outward, loathes oneself, and finds good works to be no longer of any importance." Here the Free Spirits would agree fully, but at this point Ruusbroec spends much time elaborating on how and why good works are, nevertheless, indispensible:
Their life and exercises therefore consist in turning inward to God and outward to themselves. The turn inward is characterized by their spirit's being raised freely in loving reverence to God and in God, while the turn outward to themselves means displeasure with and renunciation of themselves. All the good works which they do or are able to do, whether exteriorly or interiorly, are completely unnoticed by them and are of no importance to them, seeming to be as nothing in the sight of God. They stand in the middle of these two turnings, sometimes looking inward, sometimes outward, and are always in control of themselves and therefore able to turn either way whenever they want. Their outward vision is governed by the power of reason, rooted in charity and in the practice of good customs and holy works, ordered to every virtue, and always exercised in the sight of our Lord. They accordingly remain chaste and pure of conscience and are always growing and increasing in grace and every virtue before God and all other persons. Their inward vision is at times governed by reason and characterized by particular forms and images, while at other times it is above reason and devoid of particular forms and images. When governed by reason, it is also full of desire and wisdom, since such persons are standing in the sight of God's love and goodness, where we learn all wisdom. (20)
Admonishing the seeker after transcendence that the road is the sacraments and a holy life, Ruusbroec then flies into ecstacy over the overcoming of all forms and divisions and entering into fathomless love. For the first time Ruusbroec includes himself in the discussion and uses "we" instead of "they." The he again reemphasizes the balanced lives of those who have achieved this high state of perfection:
However, we must seek this fruit [of holiness] in particular forms, in the sacraments, and in a holy life only then will we find it in a state devoid of form and measure, in eternal and fathomless love we will eternally remain within ourselves and be blessed and well ordered to the degree of our virtue and love, and we will blissfully enjoy God above and beyond ourselves and live in him apart from particular forms and above ordered divisions, in that fathomless love which he is himself. Those who understand this and live according may receive the blessed Sacrament every day that it is given to them, for they are well ordered and full of grace and virtue in all their exercises, whether these are directed inward or outward.
These comprise the third group of persons, the most advanced of all who nobly approach the Sacrament. Their life and exercises consist of four qualities, of which the first is a conscience free from all grave sin. The second quality is their supernatural knowledge and wisdom in looking both inward and outward, that is, in contemplating and acting. The third quality is their genuine humility of heart, and will and spirit, practiced in their bearing, their words, and their deeds. The fourth quality is that they have died to all self-centeredness, that is to all self-will, for the sake of God's free will, and that they have also died to all images which occupy the understanding for the sake of that imageless truth which is God himself. This bare simplicity of mind is the dwelling place of the Godhead. (21)
Ruusbroec blasts the Free Spirits as part of a later "group" to which the Sacrament should be denied:
There are other diabolical persons who say that they themselves are Christ or God, that their hand created heaven and earth, that heaven and earth and all things depend on their hand, and that they have been raised above all the sacraments of the holy Church, so that they neither need nor desire them. They disdain and attach no importance to the rules and customs of the holy Church and to all that the saints have written, whereas they consider the lack of regulations and the beastly practices of their evil sects, which they themselves have invented, to be holy and great. They have expelled the fear and the love of God from themselves and wish to have no knowledge of good and evil. They have discovered within themselves a formless state above reason and therefore think in their folly that on the Last Day all rational creatures--both the good and the wicked, both angels and devils--will become a single formless being. That being, they claim, will be God, blessed in nature and having no knowledge or will.
Pay close attention, for this is probably the most foolish and perverse opinion that has ever been heard since the creation of the world, and yet through this and similar opinions many persons, who appear to be spiritual, but who are more wicked than the devil, have gone astray. (22)
The stake is prescribed for these heretics in this reiteration of the wilful sinfulness of the Free Spirits:
But more wicked than any devil are these hypocritical unbelievers who scorn God and his grace, the holy Church and all its sacraments, and Holy Scripture and all virtuous practices. They say that they live in a formless way above all forms, that they are as empty as if they did not exist at all, and that they have neither knowledge nor love, neither will nor desire, nor any exercise of virtue, being empty of everything. Because they want to sin and to perpetrate their impure wickedness without fear or qualms of conscience, they go on to say that at the Judgement on the Last Day both angels and devils, both good persons and wicked persons will all become a single, simple divine substance, in which they will all be one essential beatitude without any knowledge or love of God. Consequently, according to them God will neither will, know, nor love any creature.
This is the greatest error and the most perverse and foolish heresy that has ever been heard. No one should give the blessed Sacrament to such persons, neither during their lifetime nor at the time of their death, nor should they be given a Christian burial. Rather, they should rightly be burned at the stake, for in God's eyes they are damned and belong in the pit of hell, far beneath all the devils. (23)
These descriptions of the Free Spirit heresy were, no doubt, included because Ruusbroec was genuinely worried about the appeal of this heresy to the simple souls among the women he was addressing. Simple, female souls who had, perhaps, begun to experience a measure of the revelation of Divine love which the adepts of the Free Spirit purported to have fully experienced, as had Ruusbroec. The line between deserving the burning of Divine ecstacy or of the fiery stake was at best difficult to define.
Verdeyen (24) postulated that Ruusbroec suspected that some in the Beguinage of Brussels were already victims of this widespread mystical movement that we now call the Free Spirit movement because historians collectively decided to call it that (it did not organize or ever exist under such a name). Ruusbroec, according to Verdeyen, did not call in the Inquisition because he had little faith in the efficiency of external might and suppression, and followed his own path of persuasion through teaching the ways of true mysticism.
It seems, thus, that Ruusbroec was a concerned spiritual leader tending his flock according to his own best judgement. Returning to his three groups of people spiritually worthy of the Sacrament, however, it is apparent that Ruusbroec sees a war being waged between the spirit and the body, and that overcoming the body is the key to spiritual progress. Those who relax and enjoy, and do not despise but look forward to the play of the Divine in their bodies, even in their sexual parts, are "weakhearted" and spiritually unenlightened, mostly women.
Mommears uses these sentiments to show Ruusbroec was not shocked and turned off by these manifestations, they were natural. Ruusbroec, however, added that those who are spiritually enlightened controlled and overcame these physical reactions and moved quickly onto higher planes of interaction with the Divine, reflecting the same morbid dislike, fear, or even hate of bodily--especially sexual--appetites. Ruusbroec used words like "inordinate inclinations" and "disorder and transgression" (25) in his characterization of the sexual ecstatic experiences of these women, a number of whom have been quoted in this and previous Parts.
Mommears goes on to show that Hadewijch, as recounted in her seventh vision, experienced the sensual, sexual aspects of the encounter with the Divine, but also the turning inward to unity with God and the turning outward to bless humanity. (26) Thus, by Ruusbroec's orderings of mystical types--Hadewijch, his spiritual predecessor in Brussels, fits into groups one, two, and three all at the same time--thereby invalidating his groupings by counterexample, although, perhaps, validating the sequential nature of certain aspects of the mystical experience. It could very well be that by her openness to the Divine in both body and spirit, Hadewijch was in fact receiving a more complete revelation of God than was possible to a person who had essentially overcome and thereby denied an important part of his true self: his body. Mommaers would probably agree with this perspective, since he concludes similarly that Hadewijch's vision testifies to the correctness of the inner and outer being, so that an experience at one level would be expected to have an affect on the other level. (27)
It is to Hadewijch, then, that we turn for what is, in my opinion, the fullest, richest account of a revelation of God to a person such as ourselves: a person made of connected flesh and spirit which may enjoy the experience of unity with the Divine together, as one being. First her longing for God, using imagery at home in the Song of Songs, is described:
On a certain Pentecost Sunday
I had a vision at dawn.
Matins were being sung in the church, and I was present.
My heart and my veins and all my limbs trembled and quivered
with eager desire and, as often occurred with me, such
madness and fear beset my mind that it seemed to me I did
not content my Beloved, and that my Beloved did not fulfill
my desire, so that dying I must go mad, and going mad I must
die. On that day my mind was beset so fearfully and so
painfully by desirous love that all my separate limbs
threatened to break, and all my separate veins were in
Hadewijch is at a loss to put this painful, fearful longing into language that will convey its nature to those who have never experienced the Divine Love. She uses the imagery of physical love, again an imagery at home in the Song of Songs:
The longing in which I then was cannot be expressed by any language or any person I know and everything I could say about it would be unheard-of to all those who never apprehended Love as something to work for with desire, and whom Love had never acknowledged as hers. I can say this about it: I desired to have full fruition of my Beloved, and to understand and taste him to the full. (29)
Hadewijch next brings this sexual imagery into line with the mystical unity experience she is attempting to describe and attain. She believes that for her, great suffering is the key to her Divinization:
I desired that his Humanity should to the fullest extent be one in fruition with my humanity, and that mine then should hold its stand and be strong enough to enter into perfection until I content him, who is perfection itself, by purity and unity, and in all things to content him fully in every virtue. To that end I wished he might content me interiorly with his Godhead, in one spirit, that for me he should be all that he is, without withholding anything from me. For above all the gifts that I ever longed for, I chose this gift: that I should give satisfaction in all great sufferings. For that is the most perfect satisfaction: to grow up in order to be God with God. For this demands suffering, pain, and misery, and living in great new grief of soul: but to let everything come and go without grief, and in this way to experience nothing else but sweet love, embraces, and kisses. In this sense I desired that God give himself to me, so that I might content him. (30)
Beset with this great fearful desire, she now receives a visit from an angelic creature who announces the imminent visitation of God:
As my mind was thus beset with fear, I saw a great eagle flying toward me from the altar, and he said to me: "If you wish to attain oneness, make yourself ready!"
I fell on my knees and my heart beat fearfully, to worship the Beloved with oneness, according to his true dignity that indeed was impossible for me, as I know well, and as God knows, always to my woe and to my grief.
But the eagle turned back and spoke: "Just and mighty Lord, now show your great power to unite your oneness in the manner of union with full possession!"
Then the eagle turned round again and said to me: "He who has come, comes again and to whatever place he never came, he comes not. (31)
The Lord appears in the form of a child of three, and prepares the eucharist, he then takes on manly form and offers the eucharist, which to Hadewijch is the very body and blood of Christ and thus can lead symbolically to the union of the recipient of this sacrament with God. At first this union is physical, then the physical forms disappear and a formless oneness occurs:
Then he came from the altar, showing himself as a Child: and that Child was in the same form as he was in his first three years. He turned toward me, in his right had took from the ciborium his Body, and in his left hand took a chalice, which seemed to come from the altar, but I do not know where it came from.
With that he came in the form and clothing of a Man, as he was on the day when he gave us his Body for the first time looking like a Human Being and a Man, wonderful, and beautiful, and with glorious face, he came to me as humbly as anyone who wholly belongs to another. Then he gave himself to me in the shape of the Sacrament, in its outward form, as the custom is and then he gave me to drink from the chalice, in form and taste, as the custom is.
After that he came himself to me, took me entirely in his arms, and pressed me to him and all my members felt his in full felicity, in accordance with the desire of my heart and my humanity. So I was outwardly satisfied and fully transported. Also then, for a short while I had the strength to bear this but soon, after a short while, I lost that manly beauty outwardly in the sight of his form. I saw him completely come to naught and so fade and all at once dissolve that I could no longer recognize or perceive him outside me, and I could no longer distinguish him within me. Then it was to me as if we were one without difference. (32)
Hadewijch makes another attempt to explain this unity, likening it to the taking of the eucharist with its external and internal dimensions: one takes it physically and absorbs it spiritually. Just so she wholly sees and receives the other in the embrace of Divine Love, and then the two become one--each passing away into the other.
It was thus: outwardly, to see, taste, and feel, as one can outwardly taste, see, and feel in the reception of the outward Sacrament. So can the Beloved, with the loved one, each wholly receive the other in all full satisfaction of the sight, the hearing, and the passing away of the one in the other. (33)
She announces that in this state of Divine nothingness she remained and was caught up:
After that I remained in a passing away in my Beloved, so that I wholly melted away in him and nothing any longer remained of me of myself and I was changed and taken up in the spirit, and there it was shown me concerning such hours. (34)
This is the end of Vision 7, but the vision itself is just beginning--it continues in Vision 8, where she explains the enigmatic "hours" she is shown. She first meets a spiritual guide and sees a high mountain, the summit of which was approachable by five parts: it was the highest Being himself. There she saw the "Countenance of eternal fruition, in which all the ways terminate, and in which all those who have followed the ways to the end become one." (35)
Hadewijch learns that her guide will help her in four of the ways, but that the fifth is for her alone, and will be shown her by God. A Voice from the Countenance announces that she is, herself, that fifth way--and the "hours" are mentioned when God explains this way of suffering: an hour of her terrible suffering--brought on by her privation from what she most desires--brings her closer to God than a year of men's labors after other paths. Others who also suffer but to lesser degrees, gain merit at lesser rates but still outpacing those striving along other ways. But Hadewijch is unique:
And out of the flood I heard a great Voice, that said to me: "Come, and be yourself the highest way, and be one with the beings who are perfect in it, and who with short hours retrieve all long hours. Your great privation of Love has given you the highest way in the fruition of me. I have longed for this from the beginning of the world, and you have often paid for it with painful desire, and you will yet pay for it. This privation of what you desire above all, and this reaching out to me who am unreachable: This is the short hour that outvies all long hours. This is also the way that leads to my Nature, by which I came to myself and went forth. And by this way I went forth from my Father to you and those who are yours, and I came again from you and those who are yours back to my Father (cf. John l6:28). With myself I have also set you this hour, and you must, with me, pass it on to those who are yours. (36)
Thus, Hadewijch receives her commission: to return to the world and bring others to unity with God in her way--
And because you have knowledge of this in the sanctity of us both, now be holy in us and all who come to us and have knowledge of it through you shall at least be holy! Till they are so unified that they know you in this highest way above all things, trust you, and serve you because you are what this way is and that they desire me in this highest way, and speak aright in what concerns you, and give you their approval, until the day when they will lead so high a life that I and my Father and you can bear true witness that their short hour outvied so long a time. (37)
These words approach Free Spirit doctrine: after becoming God one is holy and to be revered and obeyed by all. But the all-important, according to Ruusbroec, aspect of service to one's fellow mortals is also impressed on Hadewijch, keeping her on the margins of orthodoxy. After announcing she has come to know God both outwardly and inwardly, that she has overcome all things, and--perhaps--is confirmed in her union with God as the perhaps- heretical Sister Katrei was, she is charged to lead the unled:
Now you have tasted me and received me outwardly and inwardly and you have understood that the ways of union wholly begin in me. Now, as the unconquered one who has conquered all heavenly, earthly, and hellish champions, turn to me, and be adorned as victor! Lead all the unled according to their worthiness, in which they are loved by me and with which they love and serve me according to my Nature, wherein I am everything that all creatures need and lack. (38)
As she descends from these spiritual heights, her spirit guide gives her insight into the difference between himself and her, a difference attributable to their respective attitudes toward their fellows:
"I bear witness to you concerning the four ways, and I travel them to the end in these I recognize myself, and I conquer the divisions of time. But the Beloved gave you the fifth way you have received it where I am not. For when I lived as man, I had too little love with affection, and followed the strict counsel of the intellect. For this reason I could not be set on fire with the love that creates such great oneness, for I did the noble Humanity great wrong in that I withheld from it this affection."
"Return again into your material being, and let your works blossom forth. The blows of enmity are drawing near you. But you return as victor over all, for you have conquered all." (39)
Having her fate made sure, she thus returns to a life of suffering, but knowing fully that her suffering shall have a glorious end:
Then I came back to myself as someone in new severe pain, and so I shall remain until the day when I am again recalled to the experience from which I then turned away. (40)
It is curious that revelations that came to the orthodox and heretical were so much alike: Hadewijch's Divine nothingness, after all, is the same as Katrei's God above all words, names, and concepts. The spiritual advisors of these two women may have helped color these two accounts in terms of providing names for the different manifestations of Deity--after all, Heinrich of Seuse was in love with Wisdom Francis with Lady Poverty Clare saw God in Francis Hadewijch used labels such as Voice, Countenance, Beloved, Being, Child, Man, Father, Son, and Love and Katrei said God was none of the above.
Ruusbroec gives a key to this mystery when he observes:
God knows his power, wisdom, and goodness, and this is the image through which he lives in us. From this image of God our life requires three properties, these are the properties of being, seeing, and tending toward the source of our creatureliness. There we live out of God and toward God, God in us and we in him. This is a living life, which is in all of us essentially, in our bare nature, for it is above hope and faith, above grace and all virtuous exercises. This is why its being, its life, and its works are all one. This life is hidden in God and in the substance of our soul. Because it is in all of us by nature, some persons are able to perceive it apart from grace, faith, and the practice of virtue. These are persons who have idly turned inward, above and beyond perceptible images, to the bare simplicity of their being. There they think they are holy and blessed, and some even think they are God. They consider nothing to be either good or evil, since they are able to transcend images and to possess their own being in bare emptiness. These are those false, unbelieving persons whom I described earlier as forming the seventh group, those to whom no one should give the blessed sacrament, for they are all in error and under the curse of God and of the holy Church. (41)
Thus, because of our nature, anyone who looks inward can observe God in us, and some do so idly--apart from the protections of "grace, faith, and the practice of virtue," and become misled and worse than devils. It is only the "born again of God's Spirit" that can obtain the eternal life of unity with God, according to Ruusbroec:
This union which we have with God is above reason and the senses. In it we are united with God in one spirit and one life. No one can perceive, find, or possess this life unless through love and God's grace he has died to himself in the living life, been baptized in the spring, and been born again in God's Spirit in divine freedom. He will then always remain dwelling in God, united with him in the living life and, through the richness and fullness of his love, will always be renewed and flow out with God's grace in every virtue. This is an eternal and heavenly way of life, born of the Holy Spirit and always renewed in love between God and ourselves. God's activity in the emptiness of our soul is eternal. We all have an eternal life, born of the Holy Spirit and always renewed in love between God and ourselves. God's activity in the emptiness of our soul is eternal. We all have an eternal life with the Son from the Father the same life flows forth and is begotten with the Son from the Father and the Father with the Son, has eternally known and loved this life in the Holy Spirit. We thus possess a living life, which has been in God from all eternity, before anything was created. (42)
Ruusbroec is creating a Catholic, and Christian, interpretation of the mystical insight into the relations between God and humanity, and hints at a doctrine of Divine emanation and of our having been nothing, which is God, prior to our creation, a la Sister Katrei. Just previous to this he had spoken as Margarethe Porete, who had been burned at the stake for saying that the soul lost in Divine love takes leave of all virtues--rises above them. Ruusbroec:
Now raise your eyes above reason and all virtuous exercises and with a loving spirit and fixed attention look at that living life which is the source and cause of all life and all holiness. It will be seen as a glorious abyss of God's riches and as a living spring in which we feel ourselves to be united with God and flowing out in all our powers through grace and a multiplicity of gifts, each in his own way in accordance with his needs and merits. In this living spring we are all united with God, but in the streams of his grace we are divided and receive everything in different ways, so that everyone receives what is proper to him. Even so, we always remain united with one another in charity, in our human nature, and above all in that living life in which we are all united with God. (43)
The objective of this walk through the mystical forest of the twelfth through fourteenth centuries was not to reopen the Inquisition, but to note that there is a remarkable unity in terms of the basic observations of the mystics of these centuries. Turning inward they saw God, and saw that they, themselves, were one with God. Many claimed to have experienced union with God and many described that experience at least in part as consisting of a physical experience which is conveyed in the imagery of passionate, sexual, all-consuming and confirming Love as in the Song of Songs. Many claimed their experience of unity made them free, and the nature of that perceived freedom seems to have had much to do with deciding the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of the individual mystic revelator.
Guaranteeing orthodoxy among the Beguine mystics seems to have required the physical and spiritual enclosure of the movement, changing it. But there is no reason to look to the heretical Beguines for light and truth if they became just as spiritually subjected by men as were their orthodox counterparts, as seems indicated by the accounts of the relationships between the Brethren of the Free Spirit and Beguines in Germany prior to their wholesale suppression.
Mother Columba Hart (44) observed about Hadewijch's work of love that it was directed at her young Beguines--who failed to respond. Worse, they rejected her and she was dismissed from her community and forsaken. Her works were studied by and incorporated into Ruusbroec's thought, but otherwise she was lost and forgotten for 600 years, until the mid-nineteenth century. Mother Hart suggests this find may be Providential, and that her rediscovery may be timed to rescue the spiritually hungry from drowning in the comtemporary world.
Hadewijch taught her Beguines how to grow in love, but they were, according to Hart:
. . . insufficiently anxious to free themselves from the oppression of their culture and therefore could not move to her awareness. But perhaps, . . . her awareness was not given her for them, but was prophetical perhaps it is our age that can move into it. In other words, Hadewijch's teaching may enable contemporary women to escape from their cultural oppression and may provide them with hope that they can grow in love. If women of today were to grow in love, no one could estimate the happy effects that would follow in married life, in home life, in social life, in professional life. (45)
We cannot gainsay these words, except to note that in becoming a Beguine, the improvement of marriage, home, society, and profession were probably not high priorities to Hadewijch, who left society and profession and rejected marriage and home for herself. Her priority and message was, like Christ's, to reveal God. And for her efforts she was drummed out of her Beguinage, threatened with the charge of teaching quietism, and facing the possibility of being turned over to the Inquisition as a heretic. (46) Quietism is the teaching that to achieve unity with God, a soul is to abandon all activity, mental, emotional, and physical--including the taking of the sacraments.
It was a teaching that was usually associated with Free Spirits, as we have already seen. Hadewijch, however, did not teach withdrawal from human activity as the path to oneness with God. Hart, in fact, conjectures that Hadewijch may have "offered her services to a leprosarium or hospital for the poor" after she became homeless. She bases this conjecture on "how often Hadewijch urged her Beguines to care for the sick." (47)
Compared to the usual modern vision of Godhood and Godhead, however, especially among fundamentalists, where male Gods speak through a Book to which only a male clergy has the key--or as among the Latter-day Saints where male Gods speak exclusively through male prophets--the twelfth through fourteenth centuries seem like a time of light [in the narrow human activity of seeking God, that is, I'm not endorsing the general fabric of life and culture of that time]. Both women and men saw and experienced God and themselves as being one with God, being God. Women were at times revered as prophets, and male leaders sought their advice, at times. But, as prophets of all times and places, many were denounced and brutally suppressed. Perhaps the ultimate reaction toward the spiritually independent women of these centuries, who drew their inspiration from the scriptures' celebrations of Wisdom, and Love, was the collection of all of scripture's negativity toward woman in the fifteenth century's "Malleus Maleficarum," which became the Bible of the witch hunters of the early modern period.
Mother Columba Hart observed that in Hadewijch there were "no distinctly medieval notions, no distinctly medieval crudity" and that she is "entirely free from superstition." (48) According to Hart, Hadewijch is a modern woman, with no childish medieval naivete: "Instead, we find a wholly modern subtility of feeling and psychological acumen." (49) The same cannot be said of this piece of scholarly writing produced over two hundred fifty years later, the "Malleus Maleficarum" of l487, which observes in part:
. . . there was a defect in the formation of the first woman since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib from the breast, which is bent as it were in a contradictory direction to man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives. (50)
It is of more than passing interest to note that at the very same time that the light of Divine revelation was shining into the world through the mystical prophets of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, who were mostly women, the groundwork was being laid for a holy war --largely against women-- a war that raged in local bloody skirmishes for centuries before the l484 Bull of Innocent VIII declared a full-scale assault. The threat of accusing Hadewijch before the Inquisition as a heretic was plenty scary: as reported by Robbins, (5l) by order of Pope Gregory IX in l233, the inquisition was in the hands of the very same Dominicans who oversaw many of the Beguines in Hadewijch's region. The dates for Hadewijch's life are uncertain, but she probably flourished in the middle of the thirteenth century. (52) Thus, she could have faced an Inquisition that had been directed by Pope Innocent IV in l254 to accept accusations from anonymous witnesses, and that had been instructed by the same pope, in l257, to use torture as a means to discover heresy. (53)
This machinery, created during the thirteenth century, was slowly redirected toward the "new" heresy of witchcraft, by papal bulls of the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries, according to Robbins. (54) The much celebrated "Malleus Maleficarum" of the late fifteenth century was preceded by a number of writings establishing the existence of witches from theory, corroborated by confessions, which were in turn reinterpreted to extend the theory. (55) The importance of the "Malleus" [Hammer] "Maleficarum" [Witches'] lay in its encyclopedic treatment of the subject, its advent at the time that printing allowed its ready reproduction, and--above all--the Bull of Innocent VIII that endorsed its authors. This Bull of l484 reads, in part:
It has recently come to our attention, not without bitter sorrow, that in some parts of northern Germany, as well as in the provinces, townships, territories, districts, and dioceses of Mainz, Cologne, Treves, Salzburg, and Bremen, many persons of both sexes, unmindful of their own salvation and deviating from the Catholic Faith, have abused themselves with devils, incubi and succubi, and by their incantations, spells, conjurations, and other accursed superstitions and horrid charms, enormities and offenses, destroy the offspring of women and the young of cattle, blast and eradicate the fruits of the earth, the grapes of the vine and the fruits of trees nay, men and women, beasts of burden, herd beasts, as well as animals of other kinds also vineyards, orchards, meadows, pastures, corn, wheat, and other cereals of the earth. Furthermore, these wretches afflict and torment men and women, beasts of burden, herd beasts, as well as cattle of all other kinds, with pain and disease, both internal and external they hinder men from generating and women from conceiving whence neither husbands with their wives nor wives with their husbands can perform the sexual act. Above and beyond this, they blasphemously renounce that Faith which they received by the Sacrament of Baptism, and at the instigation of the Enemy of the human race they do not shrink from committing and perpetrating the foulest abominations and excesses to the peril of their souls, whereby they offend the Divine Majesty and are a cause of scandal and dangerous example to many.
And . . . our beloved sons Heinrich Kramer [Institor] and Jakob Sprenger, Professors of Theology, of the Order of Friars Preachers, have been by Letters Apostolic delegated as inquisitors of these heretical depravities, and still are inquisitors, the former in the aforesaid parts of northern Germany, wherein are included those aforesaid provinces, townships, districts, dioceses, and other specified localities, and the latter in certain territories which border the Rhine. (56)
Although this bull says persons of both sexes are involved, with no judgment as to whether or not there are greater numbers of the one or the other. As Williams and Williams point out, Springer and Kramer knew better and wrote in their "Malleus Maleficarum": "It is indeed a fact that it were idle to contradict ... a greater number of witches is found in the feminine sex than among men." (57)
Williams and Williams culled the following tidbits from Springer and Kramer which serve well to bring us back to reality regarding how the church viewed women and their spiritual powers at the end of the middle ages:
There are more superstitious women found than men.... They are more credulous and since the chief aim of the Devil is to corrupt faith, he rather attacks them.... As regards intellect, or the understanding of spiritual things, they seem to be of different nature from men, a fact which is vouched for by the logic of the authorities, backed by various examples from the Scriptures. Women are intellectually like children....
All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.... Wherefore for the sake of fulfilling their lust they consort even with devils. (58)
Montague Summers, twentieth-century almost-apologist for Springer and Kramer, observed in l929 about this 250,000-word work:
Meagre and superficial as it [Summer's outline of the Malleus] is, yet from this baldest outline it will be seen that the Malleus Maleficarum is a document of the first importance, both from a historical and a social point of view. There are, it may be, some obvious errors, but it is a work of enormous erudition, and its influence was felt far and wide throughout Europe. It is hardly too much to say that nearly all succeeding demonologists owe a vast debt to Kramer and Sprenger. Even those to whom in a later day the pages of this encyclopaedic manual seem most fantastic, most unreal, will be bound to acknowledge the profundity of the exposition, the tireless care and exactest pains with which a subject wellnigh infinite is pursued and clearly tracked in all its ramifications and subtlest intricacies. Some may not grant the premises, some may not approve, but surely no man can scorn or condemn so zealous an earnestness, so serious and grave a labour. (59)
Concerning the Inquisition in Germany (mid-Europe), Summers approvingly cites the following: "Heresy grows alongside Witchcraft, and Witchcraft alongside heresy, wrote the learned theologian Thomas Stapleton, in a Louvain thesis of l549." (60) Summers then proceeds to detail the path of heresy-trials and executions from the mid-eleventh century to the time of the "Malleus Maleficarum," showing that Cathar, Waldensian, Beghard, and Adamite (a group among the Free Spirits who taught communism and free sex) trials were mixed with witch trials from the thirteenth-century onwards until the fifteenth, when almost all heresy-trials were witch-trials. (61) For example:
Witchcraft was, indeed so closely identified with heresy that during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Germany this crime was tried by the Papal inquisitors, of whom the zealous Conrad of Marburg is one of the earliest and most renowned. At the same time a Dominican, Conrad Dorso or Tors, with a colleague, John, made a visitation of several disturbed districts, and purged them of the more notorious criminals. After the publication of the Clementines in l3l2, new efforts were made to suppress various anarchial and nihilistic bodies, bent on disrupting human society, such as the Beghards and Bogomiles, but the good work seems to have been organized and carried on by the episcopal courts rather than by papal Inquisitors. The secular arm dealt with the few cases of Witchcraft when heresy was only a secondary or accidental charge, and fire was the penalty which had been juridically appointed for this offence by the secular codes.... It was not in truth until l367 that Blessed Urban V (Guillaume de Grimoard) stabilized the Inquisition throughout Germany by the appointment of two Dominican deligates. There was certainly need of organized repression, for the scandals of the Adamites had become very gross, a shameless communism being openly taught and naked debauchery elevated to a cult and a religion. (62)
Jeffrey Burton Russell, although recognizing Summers' failinga as a historian, agrees with his insight regarding Medieval witchcraft being largely a perversion of Christianity and closely related to heresy. (63) The antinomianism that was part of the Free Spirit movement and that crept into Waldensian, Catharist, and Beguine movements gave rise to heresies which resulted in beliefs and behaviors that were closely akin to witchcraft, according to Russell. (64)
Indeed Russell concludes his discussion by noting that
These heresies were clearly influential in the formation of the witch cult. Just as the Catharists had encouraged witchcraft by magnifying the awesome power of the Devil, the antinomians, by arguing that all action was virtuous and that Satan was God, advanced the cause of rebellion, libertinism, and Satanism. But so close to classical witchcraft did the Luciferans, the Adamites, and some of the Free Sirit heretics come that they not only influenced witchcraft but were in a sense withches themselves. (65)
Thus, a woman such as the Beguine Margarethe Porete, burned in l3l0 in Paris for teaching Free Spirit doctrine, may well be seen as an early victim, and hence warning, of the holocaust that was yet to come. And the witch-holocaust itself may profitably be studied as a forerunner of the Holocaust against the Jews in Christian Europe, which happened in our parents' or grandparents' generation. In the former time mishaps of nature were to be addressed by looking around for signs of heresy that might identify a witch. In the latter time it was economic misfortune that was laid at the feet of a race of 'unbelievers' that had to be rooted out. The witch-holocaust shows that the latter was neither an isolated event in human history nor something that may be dismissed by non-Jews as something that could only happen to Jews. As Robbins observed, some of the Inquisition's methods prior to the years when accusation meant certain death, directly presaged Nazi methods used against the Jews:
As . . . all records show, and as even inquisitors admitted, once accused, the chances of escaping death were almost nil. "There was never any case of an acquittal pure and simple," observed Henry C. Lea, still the major historian of the Inquisition. Not Proven was the alternative verdict to Guilty. At first, instead of having the convicted heretic burned, the Inquisition sometimes punished by public ignominy, anticipating the ostracising of Jews by the Nazis the Inquisitor's Manual of the celebrated Bernardus Guidonis (l26l-l33l), who himself convicted 930 heretics, described the method.
"We enjoin you for your penance the wearing of two crosses of yellow felt, one in front and one behind, on each garment except your shirt. You shall never go about, whether indoors or without, without these crosses being visible one arm of each shall be twenty inches in length and the other sixteen inches and each arm of the cross shall be twelve inches in breadth. If they become torn or worn out, you shall repair them."
But when torture would be continued until the victim confessed, lesser punishments gave way before the ultimate penalty of burning at the stake. (66)
Indeed, Russell, in the early l970's, concluded his detailed review of Medieval witchcraft with a similar, sinister warning to his own time:
The phenomenon of witchcraft, whether we are talking about the persecutors or the witches, was the result of fear, expressed in supernatural terms in a society that thought in supernatural terms and by a society that was intolerant of spiritual dissent. In most respects a variety, or at least an outgrowth, of heresy, withchcraft was one manifestation of alienation in medieval society. . . . But in a deeper sense, witchcraft springs out of hostility and violence . . . .
Now once again institutions are failing and men are being thrust back upon their own formulations of symbolic order. Once again, lacking the framework of a coherent rational system, we are increasingly subject to propaganda, nihilism, and mindless violence. Dogmatic and unreasoning ideologists are preparing for us a new witch craze, couched now in secular rather than in transcendental terms. (67)
The history of the inquisition between l450 and l750 is addressed by Williams and Williams, who catalog this insane war on women, by both Catholics and Protestants, in both the Old and the New World. The only area where Williams and Williams obviously err in this catalog of inhumanity is when they misinterpret the l534-l536 Muensterite Anabaptist experience. They correctly note the four-to-one-ratio of women to men in the city, which after its fall led to many more women than men being martyred. Having observed that Anabaptism, for the first time, caused both Catholics and Lutherans to join forces, Williams and Williams observe: "Obviously there was a lesson to be learned here about the need to keep women out of the public arena." (68)
Williams and Williams' conclusions were correct as a generalization, but their use of the radical Anabaptists' experience as an illustration could hardly have been more wrong. The Muemsterite Anabaptists were men who instituted a mandatory polygyny precisely to ensure that every woman was overseen by a man: they did not put women into the "public arena" lightly, it was a response to a state of emergency, and not without close male supervision. (For a treatment of the Muensterite Radical Anabaptists' beliefs and experience see the article "A Historical Analogue to Mormon Polygamy" on this web site).
As to Williams and Williams' correct generalization concerning the fierce reaction of the male establishment to women appearing in the public arena, Russell echoed this sentiment when be observed that ... "the activity of women disturbed, even frightened, the male establishment." (69) Russell noted that women were among the most original mystics of the Middle Ages. An exceptional number of women joined Catharism, in which religion they could become perfecti. Women joined Valdes in his movement of apostolic poverty, and the fact that his bishop forbade Valdes to allow women to preach was one of the irritants that drove the Waldensians to break with orthodoxy. Women not only played a larger part than men in the movement associated with the Beguines and Beghards but also a larger part in the subsequent movements of antinomian heresy associated with the Brethren and Sisters of the Free Spirit. If the stirrings of feminine discontent can be seen in all this, such discontent can be perceived in a more violent form in the feminine attachment to witchcraft.
The participation of women in witchcraft may have been exaggerated by antifeminist writers eager to attribute to the female sex the utmost weakness. No one who reads the ravings against women by Heinrich Institoris in the Malleus Maleficarum can regard that worthy Inquisitor as wholly sane, yet Institoris' hatred is only a grotesque exaggeration of a tradition that is as old, indeed far older, than Christianity. The fear of women lies deep in the mythic consciousness of men. (70)
In this Part we asserted that there was a direct and significant connection between the women's spirituality movement of the High Middle Ages and the witch-craze, a women's Holocaust, of Early Modern Times. Russell essentially confirms that assertion as did Williams and Williams and even Summers, as we have seen. Russell's assertion that Institoris was obviously insane and grotesquely exaggerated the tradition of Christian misogynism (71) seems somewhat disingenuous, considering the papal endorsement of both this person and his work, and its unprecedented popularity and authority over almost three centuries in both the Catholic and later the Protestant churches.
It seems more to the point to believe that this grotesque exaggeration of the ever-present undercurrent of misogynism was a general reaction to a general and all-pervasive fear resulting from a visible loss of order in society. That fear was especially strong in those convinced that their individual and collective eternal salvation was threatened by the presence of, and by their allowing the presence of, spiritual dissenters. Since there was just one true faith and one true God, dissenters included all who deviated in faith or practice or who described a different God. Allowing them to go unmolested was assenting to their sin, and calling the fates of Sodom and Gommorah down upon one's own society. The point is, that just as Russell observed, witchcraft was "unthinkable in anything like the form it took without the shaping influence of Christian myth and theology," (72) just so the reaction to witchcraft --which began as a reaction to women asserting spiritual power-- was unthinkable without the shaping influence of Christian myth and theology.
Thus, hatred of women's spiritual power, or any other power challenging its authority, lies as magma below the crust of Christian theology. And the magma boils on.
[For a radical piece of fiction about a witch burning on this web site, click here.]
References for PART 4
1. Wiseman, James A., "John Ruusbroec,
the Spiritual Espousals
and Other Works," (New York,
Paulist Press, 1985), p. 5.
2. Cohn, op. cit., pp. 183-186.
3. Verdeyen, Paul, "Ruusbroec en Zijn Mystiek," (Leuven, Davidsfonds, 1981), p. 21.
4. Cohn, op cit., pp. 185-186.
5. Ibid., p. 185.
6. Ibid., p. 168.
7. Wiseman, op. cit., pp. 3-6.
8. Verdeyen, op. cit., pp. 19-24.
9. Mommears, Paul, "Het zevende Visioen van Hadewijch," In: Mark Gyselen, Paul Mommears, and J.J.C. Marlet, "Hoe Menselijk is de Mystiek," (Baarn, Amboboeken, 1979).
10. Verdeyen, op. cit., pp. 64-70.
11. Mommears, op. cit., pp. 54-61.
12. Wiseman, op. cit., p. 219.
13. Ibid., p. 220.
14. Ibid., pp. 220-221.
15. Ibid., p. 222.
16. Ibid., p. 220.
17. Ibid., p. 225.
18. Ibid., p. 222.
19. Ibid., p. 227.
20. Ibid., p. 224.
21. Ibid., p. 225.
22. Ibid., pp. 229-230.
23. Ibid. p. 23l.
24. Verdeyen, op. cit., p. 24.
25. Wiseman, op. cit., p. 220.
26. Mommears, op. cit., pp. 61-64.
27. Ibid., p. 63.
28. Hart., Columba, "Hadewijch, The Complete Works," (New York, Paulist Press, 1980), p. 280.
30. Ibid., pp. 280-281.
31. Ibid., p. 281.
33. Ibid., pp. 281-282.
34. Ibid., p. 282.
36. Ibid., p. 283.
37. Ibid., p. 284.
41. Wiseman. op. cit., pp. 235-236.
42. Ibid., p. 236.
44. Hart, op. cit., pp. 35-36.
45. Ibid., pp. 36-37.
46. Ibid., p. 36.
47. Ibid., p. 5.
48. Ibid., p. 36.
50. Hanawalt, Barbara A., "The Female Felon in Fourteenth-Century England," pp. l25-l40. In: Susan Mosher Stuard, "Women in Medieval Society" (University of Pennsylvania Press, l976) p. l28, citing in turn p. 44 of H. Kramer and J. Sprenger, "Malleus Maleficarum," trans. Montague Summers (London, l928), p. 128.
51. Robbins, Russell H., "The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology," (New York, Bonanza Books, l981), p. 267.
52. Hart, op. cit., p. 3.
53. Robbins, op. cit., pp. 260-269.
54. Ibid., p. 143.
55. Ibid., pp. l43-l45.
56. Ibid., pp. 264-265.
57. Williams, Selma R., and Pamela J. Williams, "Riding the Nightmare, Women and Witchcraft," (NewYork, Atheneum, l978) p.38. 58. Ibid., pp. 39-39.
59. Summers, Montague, "The Geography of Witchcraft," (New York, University Books, l958), p. 479.
60. Ibid., p. 469.
61. Ibid., pp. 469-479.
62. Ibid., p. 474.
63. Russell, Jeffrey Burton, "Witchcraft in the Middle Ages," (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1972), p. 30.
64. Ibid., pp. l38-l42.
65. Ibid., P. l42.
66. Robbins, op. cit., p. 270.
67. Russell, op. cit., pp. 288-289.
68. Williams and Williams, op. cit., p. 53.
69. Russell, op. cit., pp. 282.
70. Ibid., pp. 282-283.
71. Ibid., p. 283.
72. Ibid., p. 289.
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