Women in Medieval Mysticism: Some Common Themes

Is there a distinctive female spirituality/mysticism in the Middle Ages?

This is a very difficult question to answer. As we begin the mediaeval section of this course with two women mystics, we see them writing very differently from the ancient mystics, all men. Is this a function of time? Of theology? Of gender? It is hard to say.
Caroline Walker Bynum identifies three main elements in mediaeval women's experience that, in her opinion, typify female spirituality:

1. There is a tendency for women to regard institutional structures as secondary and to place less emphasis on the formal organizational side of religious life. The Beguines were not an "order", as much as some male biographers wanted to make them that. They travelled between beguinages, nunneries, and family life.

2. The women saints and mystics' lives seem to be less marked by sudden dramatic conversions and reversals than the male mystics. Many female mystics decided on a religious life in childhood. Bynum says that this is evidence that mediaeval men had a greater ability to control their own lives. As well, women used the ordinary symbols of powerlessness, service, and suffering as symbols which took on ever more complex and paradoxical meaning.

3. Female mystics are inclined toward mystical or para-mystical phenomena - trances, stigmata, levitations.

Male

Female

  • Agency (Active)
  • Strength
  • Mind
  • Contemplation
  • Reason
  • Receptivity (Passive)
  • Weakness
  • Body
  • Action
  • Emotion

Themes:

Questions