Posts Tagged ‘14th Century Christian Women Mystics’

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (Galatians 2:20)

We can’t leave the discussion of fourteenth century Christian women mystics without talking about Dorothy of Montau. Truly, Dorothy identified with the crucified Christ all of her life. She knew that He loved her first and she returned the love.

It is interesting that the Christian women mystics of the Middle Ages lived in many areas of Europe – England (Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe), France (Jeanne Guyon), Italy (Catherine of Siena, St. Clare of Assisi, Angela of Foligno), Spain (Teresa of Avila), Sweden (Bridget), Hungary (Elizabeth of Hungary), Holland (Hadewijch) and Germany (Hildegard, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Mechthild of Hackeborn, Gertrude the Great). Spread out far and wide these women shared the same message of love for the Savior. They all had the same Holy Spirit. Their lives influenced thousands of people. God was definitely at work in the lives of Christian Medieval women.

Many of these amazing women were “firsts” — Julian of Norwich has the honor of being the first published author in all of English literature. Catherine of Siena who was the first woman to be published in the Italian dialect. Birgitta of Sweden is also an acclaimed author of many books. Margery Kempe is the earliest known English autobiographer.

Dorothy of Montau was also a first – she was the first anchoress of the Prussian dorothy-of-montaufrontier. (Today that area is called Poland.)

Dorothy was born in Montau, Prussia on February 6, 1347 to a wealthy father and mother who were originally from Holland. She was the seventh of nine children, the youngest of five sisters. Even from a very early age Dorothy practiced a religious lifestyle of asceticism and extreme discipline.

At the age of sixteen Dorothy married a swordsmith named Albrecht of Danzig. He was over twice her age and was a very overbearing man. Dorothy began to have her spiritual visions almost immediately after her marriage. Albrecht had little patience with her spiritual experiences and began to abuse her.

Dorothy and Albrecht settled in Danzig and had nine children. Sadly, four of the children did not survive infancy. Four others died during the plague. Only one child, a daughter Gertrude, survived Dorothy. Gertrude joined the Benedictines at around age 10.

Dorothy continued to have visions and engage in the practice of extreme self-mortification. This distracted her to the point of neglecting her housework. Albrecht would beat her, but Dorothy thought of it as a part of her spiritual formation. According to her biographer, John of Marienwerder, Dorothy “would receive hard knocks while serving his [the husband’s] needs, for well-observed obedience is ‘more pleasing to God than sacrifices’. Thus when Albrecht punches her on the mouth for failing to prepare his fish supper she smiles at him with her fat lip. When she forgets to buy straw he beats her chest so hard that blood mingles with her saliva; she bears these blows joyfully.”

Today we would definitely call this domestic violence and Albrecht would be looking at square sunshine. However, during the Middle Ages penance and self-mortification were seen as being extremely spiritual. Recall that a group called the “flagellants” would go around at this time beating themselves on their backs until they bled. Why would they do this? The plague had claimed the lives of many thousands during the fourteenth century. Christians believed that God sent the plague to punish them. In line with the Roman Catholic teaching on penance, Christians believed that they could inflict punishment on themselves to pay for their sins and appease God. So, before we criticize Dorothy too much, let us remember the culture in which she found herself. In order to understand her actions we must understand her times and the teaching she received from her church.

When Dorothy was thirty-eight she and Albrecht went on a pilgrimage to Aachen. When returning home, she had what she considered her greatest visionary experience. Dorothy felt that her heart was physically ripped out and a new one put in its place. It’s hard to know exactly what happened to her; it’s hard to believe that it really physically happened. But this dream helps us to understand the depth to which the mystics’ experiences were felt by them; to them it was very real. Certainly there is at least a Biblical precedent for the changing of her heart. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). The extent to which Dorothy felt this explains how emotional the mystics could be. We are not that way in our culture today; we tend to be more rational. The mystics always believed that there was a purpose to their suffering.

In 1387 Albrecht sold their possessions and they tried to move to Aachen. The journey by ship was full of hazards. The winter was extremely cold and Albrecht became ill. Because their attempt at moving did not work out they went back to Danzig.

Albrecht’s health began to worsen. Dorothy ministered to him unselfishly and compassionately even though Albrecht complained and continued to abuse her. They were so poor that Dorothy took to the streets to humbly beg for alms.

Albrecht actually got better and on a more loving impulse he told Dorothy that she could make a pilgrimage to Rome for the Jubilee year.

Jubilees were declared at momentous times during the history of the Church. In 1390 the Jubilee was going to be celebrated by the new pope, Boniface IX, who would open the door to the cathedral on Christmas Eve.

So in 1389, Dorothy traveled with a group of pilgrims to Rome for the 1390 Jubilee. By the time she returned home after the following Easter, her elderly husband was dead.

marienwerder_schloss5In 1393, with no one left for her to care for (Gertrude was at the convent in Kulm) Dorothy moved to Marienwerder. Here she became Prussia’s first anchoress. She was walled into a room attached to the Marienwerder cathedral. Her confessor, John of Marienwerder interrogated her intensively. He was convinced that she was truly a holy woman, declaring that her mystical experiences were of God not the devil.

Dorothy spent the last year of her life in her cell. During that time many people visited her cell seeking spiritual advice. She died on June 25, 1394. On her deathbed she told one visitor that she was dying for the love of Jesus. At the age of 47, Dorothy went to be with her crucified and risen Savior.




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That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His suffering, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10,11)

st-julian-of-norwich-churchJulian of Norwich (1342-1416) is the fourth in our series on 14th Century Christian Women Mystics. We do not know much about Julian’s early life. In fact, we are not even sure of her name. She is called Julian because she was attached to St. Julian’s Church. Our knowledge of her comes mainly through her writings. It’s possible that she was born to a wealthy family near Norwich. She may have received her education from the Benedictine nuns in the area. Her writings reflect a knowledge of theology, rhetoric, Latin, and the Classics.

Since there were plague epidemics in the 14th century, Julian may have lost her family in the plagues and/or become a widow. As a young woman, Julian became an anchorite (sometimes called anchoress) at St. Julian’s church. When she was 30 years old she experienced a series of visions that she wrote down in a book called, Revelations of Divine Love.

We can deduce more about how Julian lived her life from a study of religious life during the Middle Ages, especially that of those who devoted their lives to God. While there may have been fewer women than men who dedicated themselves to God during the Medieval Age, they were not less influential.

The women lived in two kinds of communities – as part of a convent (nuns) or in a private community (anchorites). Some women lived alone in hermitages. There were over 130 communities in the 14th and 15th centuries in England with over half of them having fewer than 10 members.

There were seven to eight hundred anchorites in England. These women lived in a room attached to a church. The room was not more than 12 x 12 and contained sparse furniture. There were often only two or three small windows and a door. One window was in the wall that was shared with the church. This way the anchorite could participate in religious services and receive communion. There was at least one window through which she could communicate with the outside and receive sustenance. The door was usually closed and locked after the priest said a prayer of dedication for the woman’s life of contemplation. Many anchorites remained in that room for the rest of their lives.

No matter which type of community the women lived in, convent, anchorhold, or hermitage, they were chiefly characterized by their desire to be alone with God. Yet, even the women who lived alone had an impact on the neighboring community because they began to be known for their piety and love. They not only spent time in contemplation but served others who came to visit them through prayer, counseling, reconciling, settling political conflicts, and teaching. Like Julian, Catherine, Birgitta, and Margery the anchorites were asked to share their spiritual insights and wisdom orally and in writing.

Many of the Medieval church men spent their time in scholarly works. Their disputations are largely forgotten today, read only by a few students in seminaries. But the works of the Medieval female mystics continue to be transcribed, translated, and published in many languages throughout the world. Many of their works are considered masterpieces.

Julian has the honor of being the first published author in all of English literature.st-julian-statue She follows Catherine of Siena (1347-1380, blog post 10-20-16). Catherine was the first woman to be published in the Italian dialect. Birgitta of Sweden (1303 -1373, blog post 9-12-16) is also an acclaimed author of many books. Margery Kempe (1373-1440, blog post 10-10-16) is the earliest known English autobiographer. All of these women were influential in their day.

What all of these women had in common was a spiritual experience that led to a strong devotional life. Their contemplations had strong theological and practical outcomes. They all had “revelations” or “dreams” or “visions” which did not add to official doctrine, but worked alongside the teachings of the church or the Bible to explain to the people in lay terms how to live a life of prayer and service. Because these teachers were women they were able to fill an emotional void left by the dry teaching of the men. They were able to help the everyday person approach God.

Julian became famous for her mystical visions. A mystical experience is a very real experience. We have all had spiritual experiences that we know are real, but cannot prove. We have all felt the special nearness of God during stressful times. Many of us have heard “that still small voice” on occasion during life-changing situations. We cannot discount the work of the Holy Spirit. The result of a genuine experience is peace.

(For more insight into mysticism see my post on July 20, 2016. There you will find examples from the Bible and history, and guidelines on how to judge whether or not a dream or vision is genuine.)

While at the anchorage Julian became deathly ill. When she was receiving the last rites an amazing thing happened – she received fifteen “showings” or revelations. She saw Jesus in heaven. She was also comforted with the words of Jesus, “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” At this time Julian received compassion, joy, a sense of the awfulness of sin, and the comfort of the grace of God. The following night she received her sixteenth and vision.

Julian’s sixteen visions were written down in a book, Revelations of Divine Love, the first book in English written by a woman. Julian referred to her book as “Showings”.  In it she talks about God the Father, Jesus Christ’s love for the world and the Holy Spirit.

An example of her writing is in the following passage that explains how Jesus Christ the Son of God became a man like us in order to save us.

For the same virtues which we have received from our substance, given to us in nature by the goodness of God, the same virtues by the operation of mercy are given to us in grace, renewed through the Holy Spirit; and these virtues and gifts are treasured for us in Jesus Christ…. In this union he was perfect man, for Christ, having joined in himself every man who will be saved, is perfect man. (p. 292)

Though Julian lived in an anchorhold her influence spread far and wide. Even Margery Kempe sought Julian out for her blessing. People were able to visit Julian and talk to her through her window receiving counsel and wisdom. All of the time the Julian had alone allowed her to write her book. She wrote a shorter version at first. Then after years of prayer and contemplation she wrote a longer version including the many teachings that God had given her.

Julian lived for thirty-three years after her recovery from her illness. She often wrestled with the meaning of her visions. She wrote her “Showings” in an attempt to share God’s message to her with her fellow Christians. Her writings show the depth and breadth of God’s love and are still powerful and gripping reading today. On the last page of her writing is this prayer:

Thanks be to God. Here ends the book of Julian the anchorite of Norwich, on whose soul may God have mercy. May Jesus grant us this. Amen. So ends the revelation of love of the Blessed Trinity, shown by our savior Jesus Christ for our endless comfort and solace, and also that we may rejoice in him in the passing journey of this life. Amen. Jesus. Amen. (p. 343)


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