Women and Spirituality in the Middle Ages


Frauenmystic: "Female mysticism" of the Middle Ages. It is not clear whether this really represents a tradition, or set of concerns, or is just organized by an arbitrary connection. Some have seen that the great male mystics of the Middle Ages tended to be Dominican theologians, while the great female mystics tended to be Benedictine, Cistercian, Franciscan or Beguine. So, the implication is that the male mystics tend to be concerned about cosmogeny speculative mysticism and the female tend to be concerned with union love mysticism. This would be a convenient division, except that there are plenty of exceptions in both directions.


We can organize female mystics into several major figures or currents:

1. Hildegard and her younger contemporary, Elisabeth of Schönau.

2. 13th century: a new type of mysticism arose in northern Europe in the lay piety of the Beguines, who embodied the mysticism of love. Mechthild of Madgeburg is the best representative.

3. Mechthild's followers in the convent at Helfta, Mechthild of Hackeborn and Gertrude of Helfta. These were Cistercian nuns, who developed Mechthild's individualist mysticism into a convent mysticism.

4. 14th century: This is a full blown convent mysticism. There was a convent chronicle literature, which was the collection of the spiritual experiences of nuns, both living and dead. Sometimes this literature involved extreme asceticism.


Now, it should be noted that this does not exhaust female mysticism. It only describes German female mysticism. As we will see later in the term, women have figured prominently in mysticism in every country and movement. In English mysticism, there is Julian of Norwich. In Spanish, there are few greater than Theresa of Avila. In Sweden, there is Birgitte. French mysticism also has many women represented.

The place of women in mysticism is an ambiguous one. On the positive side, many will point out that it was the voice of an otherwise oppressed gender. It was one of the few ways that women could voice opposition to patriarchy and misogyny.

On the other hand, some will also point out that legitimating the "superstars" did little to emancipate the common woman. Visions are great, but what if you don't get visions? So, women are made into the traditional role of seer, wise but untouchable.

As well, many of the mystical experiences of women involve visions. In fact, people like Hildegard show every evidence of having had hallucinations brought on by severe migraines. So, what do we make of this?

On the last point, I would say that mystical experience cannot be undermined so easily. While it may be true that there are physical and psychological explanations for visions, it does not take the mystical or religious significance away from them. It is analogous to the discussions of miracles, in which people point out that some miracles are really natural events. That may be true, but the point still is that God's hand is revealed in these cases.

As far as the place of women in medieval mysticism is concerned, I think that it was largely a more emancipatory role than a negative one.