‘If I were to say that God sent me, I shall be condemned, but God really did send me.’ - Joan of Arc
From Joan of Arc to Julian of Norwich, there were a select group of women in medieval Europe who inspired awe and admiration among the population. They seemed to be much closer to God than most people, such was their level of holiness and divine power.
Here we look at six of the most famous medieval female mystics.
1. Hildegard of Bingen (Germany, c.1098 - 1179)
Born near Worms, Saint Hildegard was a great intellectual, prophetess, visionary, and abbess (boss of a convent).
Throughout her long life, she wrote plays and poems, as well as books on medicine and natural history. She corresponded with kings and popes, and as if that wasn’t enough, she was also a gifted musician and artist.
A nun from the age of 15, Hildegard had visions since she was three. It wasn’t until later in life that she began to share her experiences publicly, writing down her visions in a famous manuscript called Scivias, completed in either 1151 or 1152. In this work, she recorded 26 of her prophetic visions.
In one vision from the book, entitled ‘The Last Days and the Fall of the Antichrist’, she describes seeing five mysterious animals, including a ‘pale horse’ and a ‘grey wolf’, the wolf representing those who will be cunning in future conflicts and not on one side or the other.
2. Marguerite Porete (France, c.1250 - 1310)
On 1st June 1310, in the Place de Grève in Paris, a middle-aged woman was bound to a stake and burned to death. She was Marguerite Porete, author of The Mirror of Simple Souls, one of the most important early works of Christian mysticism.
According to a contemporary chronicle, the large crowd who had gathered to watch Marguerite’s execution were moved to tears by her incredible calmness as the flames engulfed her.
Unlike many other female mystics at the time, Marguerite preferred to shout about her visions and beliefs from the rooftops. She travelled around publicly sharing her divine wisdom, unbound by the vows of a religious order and without male representation (uncommon for the time). Her book and her refusal to stop sermonising drew the ire of the Inquisition in Paris, who convicted her of heresy and condemned her.
3. Margery Kempe (England, c.1373 – After 1438)
Born in Bishop’s Lynn (now King’s Lynn) in Norfolk, Margery at one time owned a brewery and a mill. After the birth of her first child, Margery suffered a spiritual crisis and was saved, according to her, by a vision of Christ.
Deeply religious in later life, she made several pilgrimages to religious sites in Europe and the Holy Land. She is famous for her imaginatively titled book, The Book of Margery Kempe. In this autobiography, Margery recounts her visions and her life, including her pilgrimages to places such as Rome and Jerusalem.
In a later vision, she saw herself present at the birth of Christ. In a conversation with God after her husband fell down the stairs, God apparently told Margery he had allowed her husband to survive on the condition that she looked after him.
She was also famous for her loud and passionate ‘wailing’, which was so excessive that at one time she was imprisoned for it and labelled a heretic with ‘the devil inside her’.
Margery personally knew Julian of Norwich, and her frank and detailed descriptions of her mystical experiences and suffering continue to fascinate the world.
4. Julian of Norwich (England, 1343 – After 1416)
In medieval Europe, many churches had small cells attached to them. In these cells, a male or female recluse would live a life of permanent seclusion and strict religious adherence. Female recluses were known as anchoresses. For many years, the cell at the parish church of St Julian in Norwich was home to one of the most famous medieval mystics. Julian of Norwich was enclosed in the cell for at least 20 years, perhaps a lot longer.
At the age of 30, Julian underwent an intense mystical ordeal when she nearly died at home from an illness. This experience was a series of 16 visions that she saw over two nights. She called these visions ‘Shewings’, and she later recorded them in a 1395 book. She claimed to see revelations of Christ, including conversations with and witnessing his crucifixion. She also recounted seeing the devil.
Virtually nothing else is known about Julian’s life, but she continues to be admired and widely studied as an important mystic and Christian writer.
5. Joan of Arc (France, c. 1412 – 1431)
The amazing story of how an illiterate French peasant girl changed the course of European history is well known. A battlefield commander and a national heroine of France, Joan of Arc is also spoken of as a mystic by academics. It was her visions that led her to pick up a lance and mount a horse.
As a child, the Hundred Years' War was raging all around Joan and her farming community. At one point the village church was burnt down by marauding English soldiers.
She had her first vision on a warm summer’s day when she was 13. A bright light shone in front of Joan and a voice spoke to her. The voice told her to live a life of virtue.
Over time the visions and voices continued, eventually giving Joan orders. They told her that God had chosen her to save France. She was to go to the dauphin (the French term for the heir apparent to the Kingdom of France) and help him drive the English out of the country.
Joan had no military training or experience, but she believed God was on her side and continued to listen to the visions and voices guiding her. Joan duly left her village and went to seek out the dauphin, Charles.
In their famous first meeting, the dauphin disguised himself as a courtier and hid among dozens of men in his packed throne room. Joan entered the room, went directly to Charles and identified him as the dauphin.
After leading a successful military campaign against the English and their allies, Joan stood by Charles as he was crowned king in Rheims.
In May 1430, Joan was captured by the Burgundians and later sold to the English, who decided to ask the church authorities in Rouen to try her. Joan was burnt at the stake in Rouen on 30th May 1431. She was made a saint in 1920.
6. Teresa of Avila (Spain, 1515 - 1582)
Early modern rather than medieval, we must nevertheless include Spanish mystic Saint Teresa of Ávila, one of the most famous and influential of all mystics. Though a Papal Nuncio during her lifetime criticised her, calling her a ‘restless disobedient gadabout’, she is now venerated as a saint.
Teresa was born in the great walled city of Ávila, in the heart of Spain, in 1515.
While still a young woman, Teresa fell gravely ill with malaria. The agony and struggle of this time only made her feel closer to God. Around this time, she began to have visions, but at first, she was dissuaded from talking about them so much, as she didn’t want to incur the wrath of the dreaded Spanish Inquisition.
As her religious zeal deepened over time, her divine power grew. She was said at times to spontaneously float up into the air, but she wasn’t overly keen on this and asked other nuns to sit on her when she felt herself levitating.
In her memoirs, finished in 1562, she related her visions in great detail. In one account she describes how, while praying, she suddenly found herself plunged into Hell. She described the entrance to Hell as like a ‘furnace’ and she wrote that the ground ‘seemed to be full of water which looked like filthy, evil-smelling mud, and in it were many wicked-looking reptiles’.
She claimed to have spoken to God and recorded some of their apparent dialogue.