Posts Tagged ‘Medieval Christian Women Mystics’

“Hildegard: One of the Most Remarkable Women of the Middle Ages”
Distributed by: Vision Video
52 minutes.

Hildegard was an astonishing woman who left us her remarkable legacy in books, drawings, songs, and plays. Her works are beautiful and lasting. They have also stood the test of time because of the spiritual comfort that they still bring to thousands today.

The setting of the video is at the monastery of St. Disibod on the Rhine in central Germany. The events portrayed are those leading up to Hildegard’s examination and trial for heresy in 1148. Hildegard cared for people the way she believed Jesus would care for them. The abbot, concerned only with his legalistic rules, disagreed with the way Hildegard cared for these people and put her and the abbey under interdict – a punishment. They were commanded not to sing. They could not receive the sacraments. Hildegard did not back down. Eventually she lodged a protest with the superior of the Abbot. A trial was held where she was completely vindicated.

Later in a vision Hildegard realizes it is time to move. The video ends with Hildegard and the nuns and their priest making the move to Bingen where she would found a monastery. There, Hildegard continued her labors until her death in 1179 at the age of 82.

This production of Hildegard’s life includes illustrations in a beautiful and stunning fashion that portray what some of Hildegard’s visions may have looked like. They are based on Hildegard’s drawings in the Scivia. A group of nuns (female actors with beautiful voices?) perform some of Hildegard’s music. You will be uplifted as you hear the praises to God sung by these women.



Some background before you watch the video:

Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) is best known as a twelfth-century abbess with an extraordinary mind and she is known for her visions. Whatever one thinks about the subject of visions and dreams, certainly Hildegard was a wise, talented, intelligent, dedicated, and devout Christian woman who rose above her circumstances to serve God in extraordinary ways. She has been authenticated by the pope in her day (Eugene III) and recently by Pope Benedict.

Hildegard became a nun while just a young girl. We do not know much about her next few years, except that she must have been a good assistant to the mother of the abbey who was also her aunt, Jutta. When her aunt died in 1136, Hildegard was chosen to be the abbess in her place. Hildegard was thirty-eight years old.

As the mother of the abbey Hildegard sought to lead a life of holiness and to encourage the other nuns to do likewise. Of major importance to her was caring for the poor as Jesus did. Though she tried to stay within the church’s rules sometimes she went her own way out of compassion. In the video you will see two incidents that were typical of how Hildegard cared for the humans under her protection – a young persecuted girl that she rescued, and a dying soldier from the Crusades. The abbot wanted to just toss these people out as heretics, but Hildegard showed them the love of Jesus.

Later Hildegard moved to a place where she could run the abbey without interference from less than spiritual men who only loved control. She personally oversaw the construction of the new convent at Rupertsberg, near Bingen, Germany. They moved into the new convent in 1150, and she became known as Hildegard of Bingen.

One of her many talents was writing. Around 1141, she had begun to write a book, Scivias, (or Sciens Vias, “Know the Way”), which eventually took her ten years to complete. This book included 26 drawings of things that she had seen in her visions.

You will see some of these drawings and visions illustrated in the video. She claimed that these visions helped her to understand the Old and New Testaments. Men and women of her day, including the well-known Bernard of Clairvaux, endorsed her visions. Many believed that she could understand the past, present, and future. She astonished people by claiming things which later came true.

Here in her own words is a description of one of her visions:

It happened in the year 1141 of the Incarnation of God’s Son Jesus Christ, when I was forty-two years and seven months old, that the heavens were opened and a fiery light of great brilliance came and suffused my whole brain and set my whole heart and breast afire like a flame – yet not burning but warming, as the sun warms an object on which it sheds its rays. And suddenly I came to understand the meaning of the book of Psalms, the Gospel, and the other canonical books of both the Old and New Testaments — … in a marvelous way, I had sensed the power and mystery of secret, wonderful visions in myself from girlhood, from the age of five, even to the present time.”   

After Scivias, Hildegard wrote other books, including the Book of Life’s Merits, and the Book of the Divine Works. She wrote these in Latin, the language of educated men, even though she had not been formally trained in it.

Many people sought Hildegard’s wisdom. Archbishop Philip of Cologne was repeating what many Christians thought when he said that Hildegard had divine gifts including the gift of prophecy.

During her lifetime, Hildegard composed over 70 vocal works. In the 1980’s they were rediscovered and many have now been recorded. She had composed the music and the lyrics. Her works show her love and her longing for Christ.

When she was about sixty years old, retirement age for many people today, Hildegard undertook several preaching tours. As she traveled around, she even preached to men, a fact which shows how much respect she had gained by this time. Her sermons sound much like many we hear today; she taught on the corruption of the Church and how it needed cleansing. She gave a tongue lashing to those who were “lukewarm and sluggish” in living the Christian life. She berated those who were slow in justice for the poor.

Hildegard died at age eighty-two on September 17, 1179. With her lifelong learning and perseverance, she overcame many obstacles for women in her day. She had seized the opportunities placed before her and worked to her limits. She became one of the most influential women of the Middle Ages and is still loved today.


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Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaint. As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.                     (I Peter 4:8-11)

Medieval Christian women spent their lives using their gifts in service to one another as commanded by Peter in this Scripture. They believed that following Christ meant sharing the Gospel and ministering to the poor as Jesus did.

For some women during the Medieval Age this included a mystical experience. Scholars agree that both the definition and the description of mysticism are difficult to explain. It is not magic or paranormal experience. It does not consist of a preoccupation with special revelations or visions. Religious mystics simply want to be closer to Christ and to experience Him in more than just an intellectual way.

The following four books are just a few of the books that give a general picture of some of the Mystical Saints of the Thirteenth Century. Try to place yourself in their century and imagine what it would have been like to be a Christian living during the time of the Crusades, the Black Plague and a very corrupt Church. Their lives were very different from ours.

I hope you enjoy these books. These women have pretty much been forgotten. It will be fun to meet and talk with them in Heaven!

(Reviews of Medieval mystics from later centuries will follow every few weeks.)


—  Perrin, David B., Editor, Women Christian Mystics Speak to Our Times, (Sheed & Ward, Franklin, Wisconsin, 2001).

This book is a collection of essays on Women Christian Mystics written byPerrin Book - Mystics various authors who are experts in the history of women and religion.

Part One helps us understand the lives of women in the Medieval Age. There is a very good explanation of mysticism and how it fits into the religion of women in the Middle Ages. Though they lived in a different time, we share the same concerns about following God, life, and our love for the Savior.

Part Two contains brief biographies of Catherine of Siena, Marie D’Oignies, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, Therese of Lisieux, and Elizabeth Ann Seton.

The essays help us to understand the contributions the women saints of the Middle Ages made to the church. We have much to learn from them. Many of the issues they dealt with are still relevant today. We all need to know how to serve God best. Our practices today may be different, but our call to serve by loving God and others is the same.


—  Swan Laura., The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women’s Movement,  (BlueBridge, Katonah, New York, 2014).

wisdom of the beguines bookThis was one of the most interesting books I have ever read. The Beguines were groups of devout women who began forming over 800 years ago (12th Century) in the Low Countries and spread across Europe. They were not nuns but groups of women committed to living and worshipping and working together to follow Christ by deepening their own faith and serving the poor. The Beguines did not take vows but made their own rules. They were all encouraged to read and study. They were expected to support themselves. Some came with rich inheritances that they shared with everyone. Others learned trades, especially in the cloth industry.

Beguines came from every social class – nobility and aristocrats, middle class and merchants, widows, daughters of knights, urban poor and rural poor. They spanned all ages, fourteen to eighties or beyond. They were self-supporting and independent.

If I wanted to devote my life to Christ by joining a service group of women, this would have been my ideal.

The Beguines left us a great legacy. We have preserved for us beautiful art work, songs, poetry, and writing. Most of all the Beguines gave us an example of serving Christ by helping the poor and marginalized. They showed wisdom, courage, and strength as they worshiped God as they felt called. They would have been great in any century!


—  Dreyer, Elizabeth A., Accidental Theologians: Four Women Who Shaped Christianity, (Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2014).

Not all of us are called to be “theologians”, yet as Christians we all doaccidental theologians book theology. Theology is just the study of God. We learn about God every time we read our Bibles. When we try to make sense of it or summarize it, we are doing theology.

Four women have been made “Doctors of the Church” by the Roman Catholic Church because they made significant contributions to the church. They are – Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux. The church has finally recognized these women for their work by given them the accreditation they deserve.

As Protestants we may have some differences of opinion regarding ecclesiology, but let us remember that these women were products of their cultures and circumstances. In the main, we can still learn much from them. I would submit though that even Protestants can appreciate the theology of these saintly women. The women based the greater part of their theology on the Scriptures.

One of the most important things is that they lived out their beliefs. They are good examples to us of how to love and serve Jesus by loving and serving others.

As I read this book I was glad that the church has finally decided to give credit where it is due, not matter the gender, and I hope more recognition of women will follow in the years to come.


—  Foligno, Angela., The Complete Works of Angela of Foligno, (Paulist Press, New York, New York, 1993).

angela-of-folignoWe do not have very many details of Angela’s life outside of her writings. We know that she was born to a prominent family in Foligno, a few miles from Assisi. Her father died when she was young. She was rich, proud, beautiful, and educated. She lived for worldly pleasures until her conversion in 1285 when she was thirty-seven years old.

Angela decided to only work among the poor and she sought out a way to do that. In 1291 the Franciscans of San Francesco’s in Foligno permitted her to take the habit and make her profession in the Third Order of St. Francis.

After a pilgrimage to Assisi, Angela returned home to begin her spiritual journey. This was described in Angela’s book. The first part of the book is the Memorial, Angela’s inner spiritual journey. The second part of her book, Instructions, gives us glimpses of her life as a spiritual mother.

This book published by the Paulist Press was translated into English by Paul LaChance, O.F.M. It contains a background study and brief biography of Angela in the fifty-page Introduction. The text follows of the two parts of the book and is very interesting to read.

Angela cared for the poor until her death in 1309.

Like many other Christian Mystics in her day she shared the common characteristic of love for the poor. Most of these women were born into wealth but gave it all away. They were all touched by the life of St. Francis and desired to follow in the footsteps of Jesus as Francis did. Truly they obeyed Jesus’ when He said, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Matthew 19:21)

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‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘that I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on My bondslaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17,18)

Many single Christian women who lived during the Middle Ages served Christ in cloisters or other religious communities. Due to wars, crusades, or explorations to the New World there was a shortage of men. Devout women then turned to a life of service to the poor. During this summer I will tell the stories of some of these amazing women. If you are unfamiliar with Mysticism, you might enjoy the information in two posts on this blog site. I would recommend reading them first or coming back to them after you read some of the women’s biographies:

  1. July 6, 2016 – “Women Christian Mystics” – Though Medieval mystics were very different from twenty-first century Christians, we share the same goals – deeper spiritual life, closeness to God, and joyful service.
  2. July 20, 2016 – “Medieval Christian Women Mystics – Visions and Dreams” – This controversial topic was explored since so many religious men and women during the Middle Ages claimed to have supernatural dreams as part of their religious experience. There are differing opinions about the validity of supernatural dreams and visions. No matter what our view might be, it was part of Medieval Christianity and we should at least try to understand it.

Several weeks ago (July 16), we started this series of biographies of Medieval Christian women with Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Hildegard was one of the most influential women of the Medieval period. Composer, writer, artist, poet, prophet, theologian, healer, teacher, and monastery abbess, Hildegard is one of the most amazing women in church history. She was able to integrate her thinking about theology, music, and teaching in a way that gives us a holistic picture of life.

Because Hildegard has been taken so seriously by the Church we cannot just discount her visions. Her visions helped her to understand and appreciate God. Hildegard was very “low key” about her visions. Some of the other women we will look at placed a lot of importance on their visionary experiences. Many were clearly unscriptural. I think it will become apparent as you read the stories which visions may have been genuine and which were just “dreams” or “daydreams”.

That is why I took time out to write a post on visions. It gives us a place to start our thinking. The women whose stories I will present over the next few weeks will be more or less controversial depending on your opinion about dreams and visions.

In spite of the debatable experiences for these devout women, I hope that we can lay aside some of our squeamishness and learn something from their lives of service to Christ. These religious women truly loved the Lord and helped countless sick and poor people. I believe that I will get a chance to share stories with them in Heaven!

Elizabeth of Schonau (1129 –  1165)

After Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth of Schonau is our next earliest Christian mystic. img-Saint-Elizabeth-of-SchonauElizabeth was born into a very religious family, probably of the minor nobility around 1129 AD. Many other members of her family served in the Church – an uncle who was a bishop, two brothers and a nephew who were abbots or priors, and several female relatives at convents.

Elizabeth entered the Benedictine monastery at Schonau at around age 12. She took her vows at age 17. Eventually she would rise to the position of “magistra”. That is the head prioress at a combination monastery (men and women) which is ruled by an abbot. She was a zealous observer of the Rule of St. Benedict. She was known for her piety from her youth and her practice of “mortification”. During the Middle Ages it was not uncommon for religious people to do penance in the form of bodily suffering, mostly severe fasting.

In 1152 at age 23, Elizabeth began to have ecstasies and visions. This was one year after Hildegard of Bingen had published her book of visions, the Scivias. Hildegard’s work probably influenced Elizabeth. The two women exchanged letters of which we have about 15 surviving in which Elizabeth confided her visions to Hildegard. Elizabeth visited Hildegard at Rupertsberg in 1156.

Ekbert, Elizabeth’s brother joined the monastery as her secretary in 1155. Elizabeth had written down her visions on six wax tablets. Ekbert collected her visions, transcribed them into Latin and put them into six books. You can obtain a copy to read today.

At first Elizabeth was shy about relating her visions in public but, as she explained in a letter to Hildegard, an angel visited her and insisted that she reveal her visions. The angel told Elizabeth to preach about penance. This she did. Many people began to seek her out to hear her advice. She received affirmation from several important abbots at the time who confirmed that her wisdom helped them to lead a more devout life.

Elizabeth’s visions are subject to much controversy. Many of them seem genuinely concerned with repentance and piety. Other visions are full of fantastic exaggerations and things that are quite frankly not Biblical.

The Church has declined to pass official judgment on Elizabeth’s visions. She has never been canonized, however in 1584 her name was entered in the Roman Martyrology.

Elizabeth died around 1165. Her brother Ekbert became the abbot of Schonau in 1167.

What can we learn from Elizabeth? She lived during a time when emphasis was on penance and good works. Though we may have a different theology, there is no question of her love for the Lord and for the poor that she served.

Mary of Oignies (1177-1213)

Marie D’Oignies has been held in very regard by the Church and she is honored as the first Beguine. The Beguines (See post 7/27/16) were laywomen, not nuns, who lived independentlysaint_mary_of_oignies but practiced many of the same things as nuns – works of piety and charity.

Marie was born to wealthy parents in 1177 AD. She was pious at an early age, praying and fasting often. At age 14 Marie married Jean de Nivelles, the son of another wealthy family.

John and Marie moved to a religious community where they spent their time feeding and bathing lepers, and caring for other sick and destitute people. Marie studied, prayed, and gave children religious instruction. She became known as a “saint” with a reputation for efficacious prayer. People came from far and wide to meet her and speak with her. John and Marie lived as “brother and sister”. This was not an uncommon practice in the Middle Ages for couples who thought that refraining from marital relations was a more pious way of life.

Marie had many visions that she believed were from God. Her visions were focused on Christ and the cross. Marie, like some other Christian mystics had the “gift of tears”.  She would be emotionally overcome by sorrow at the thought of Christ’s suffering and dying for sins. At these times she felt compelled to preach penance to the community.

Some of Marie’s visions were about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Marie valued a gift of the Spirit called the Spirit of Wisdom because it enabled her to understand God more.

Marie continued to teach and serve among the poor until 1213. Like so many other religious during the Middle Ages, she had practiced severe fasting. She was terribly emaciated by the time she was thirty-six years old.

When it was evident that Marie was dying her companions moved her outdoors to fresh air. The theologian, Jacques de Vitry was a devoted follower of hers. While she was dying he recorded her deathbed sermon. This was commonly only done for prominent men. It was her life story. It was Jacques’ way of honoring Marie to compose a book for her, “Life of Marie d’Oignies”. In it he argued for the support of the Beguines. During his travels he had met many Beguines and regarded their way of life as the ideal example of the holy Christian life. He wanted others to be encouraged to follow their example of piety and charity.

Marie d’Oignies died in 1213. After her death many followers, friends, students, and other admirers spread the story of her holy life and teachings all over Europe. Even Francis of Assisi was one of her followers. He had reportedly hoped to travel across the Alps and meet this woman that he greatly admired, but was unable to fulfill this desire.

The story of Marie’s life, spread by word of mouth and Jacques de Vitry’s book inspired many other women to become Beguines. One generation later, in the town of Nivelles there were two thousand Beguines. Marie is still loved and honored.

Though some of the activities of the Christian women mystics seem strange to us today, we can learn from their examples of love for God and others. We must decide whether or not their visions were from God or an overactive imagination. Yet, we can certainly relate to the fact that a true life of faith involves both words and actions. Prayer, worship, giving, study of God’s Word, fellowship, and acts of charity are the elements of a godly Christian life in any century.




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