Medieval Women Religious:
Some Sketches 

Paper initially written for Medieval Christian Thought Seminary Course – Prof. John S. Oyer – Dec. 1979

Chapter appears in Decades of Feminist Writing, DYN self-published, 2020

As is true with interpretation of scripture, all recording of history includes bias. A historian’s orientation enters through the material selected to report on, how it in turn is valued or judged, and ways in which the historian’s own time period values given ideas or phenomena. My intent, itself biased, does not intend to exaggerate the involvements or contributions of women through time, but to credit rather than ignore them.

No doubt a commendable aura surrounds people designated as saint, due in part to the process required for achieving that designation. Different world religions name certain members as saints. Some, not all, of the women introduced in this paper will be known as saints. Harm results too from disregard or neglect in recording a woman’s experience. Joseph Dahmus’ comments inform readers: “Only disparaging statements described Theodora . . . Brunhild received bad press . . . So much said about Eleanor of Aquitaine is not true.”1 Dahmus credits critics of Margaret, Queen of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, for acknowledging her skills in diplomacy, administration, and for extending good will.

Writer Dom David Knowles states the following about early 16th century nun Elizabeth Barton.

The nun’s pronouncements . . . were not as rash or dangerous . . . as they seemed to unsympathetic historians. . . . During this long period of eight years nothing in her conduct invited criticism; the innuendoes in subsequent government documents are common form and are patently unjustified. . . . We are in the realm of uncertainty and conjecture, with fragments of information that are at best unreliable and for the most part either biased or patently tendentious.2

How do such statements guide the researcher into Medieval women religious? Just brazen enough to proceed? Or intrigued enough to explore in some depth? Admittedly, prior to this study I had given little time to learn about the Medieval centuries other than through an occasional novel. Protestants too often, after exploring early Church years, turn to the years when Lutherans, Presbyterians or Mennonites shaped decades of the Reformation. We may fail to get a clear picture of Roman Catholic, let alone Orthodox Christian, flourishing.

My approach with this paper centers in gathering information about key women religious during Medieval centuries. By the time of actual writing from notes gathered, time remaining was too limited to analysis or synthesize. Nor had depth of study enabled insight into what content most mattered or why. The reader therefore can expect to be exposed to general research with disciplined follow-up needed to assess the learning. Here too bias reveals itself through value for the Beguines, brief attention to Julian’s Motherhood of Jesus compassion, or limited noting of intellectual pursuits by women religious.

Questions that prompted study found answers or lingered. What dynamics “produce” a mystic, or prod a Clare into poverty? What factors of choice become stifled or brought to blossom through marriage or convent life? Why do movements of vitality, decay, and reform evolve when they do? Who, by name have become key religious models through the past ten centuries? What was the impact on women religious of looking to male priests for confession, for blessing the bread and wine? What attracts me to Roman Catholic or Episcopal women friends?

Before presenting specific insight into distinct women, read several background quotes.

Even if the equivalence of women and men in the vocation to saintliness as pursued especially within the monastic life is granted, there is suspicion among twentieth-century Christians that the female holy ones were not quite as equal as their brothers.3

It is impossible to deny that throughout their career, even in the period of decline, nunneries were a boon for women of the Middle Ages. To unmarried gentlewomen they gave scope to abilities which might otherwise have been wasted, assuring them both self-respect and the respect of society.4

Beneath its theological surface the medieval Church’s misogyny reveals a cynical political strategy intended to undermine women’s growing influence. Indeed, the frequency and the violence of these attacks attest to the importance of women in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.5

Moreover, whereas papal legislation accepted resignedly the habitual breach of St. Benedict’s rule of claustration by his male devotees, Boniface VIII insisted upon the strictest and most harem-like seclusion for the nuns. . . . For here again, Canon Law drew a clear line between the sexes; the nun is a Spouse of Christ; therefore, unchastity on her part involves three crimes: incest, sacrilege, and adultery.6

Is it possible that the recognition of the feminine element in God and the recognition of mankind as a male and female entity bore within it the explosive social possibility of women acting on an equal basis with men in positions of authority and leadership?7

In comparison with the monasteries, the nunneries of England had little importance in the religious life of the country at the epoch of the Conquest and during the period of reorganization.8


As with any historic period, medieval women and men oriented toward religion had precedents. Patterns followed may have varied but intentional pursuit of religious experience and expression can be found. Such is the case with Macrina, older sister of Gregory of Nyssa. Patricia Wilson-Kastner’s research9 discusses Gregory’s portrayal of this late fourth century Christian teacher and philosopher.

Macrina’s decision to lead the virginal life and her leadership in the women’s community at Annisa are briefly addressed, plus her holiness and the miracles connected with her life. Gregory’s works, Life of Macrina and The Dialogue on the Soul and Resurrection, stress Macrina compared to Thecla, supposed disciple of the apostle Paul and to the ancient Socrates. With the former, Macrina’s experience as teacher, evangelist, and leader finds focus. With the latter appears her philosophical stance, particularly in relation to death and therefore life.

As virgin Thecla received the same commission to preach that Paul exercised, so Gregory credits Macrina as patterning Thecla in her mastery of scripture (“her exemplary teaching of the Word”), and her knowledge of philosophy. Attempting to affirm a central theological truth, she searches for reunion with God. This stance she accomplished through her Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body, refuting skillfully the arguments of pagan opponents. And in the process, she validates that “male and female are equal in striving for virtue and a relationship with God.”10

Macrina taught and led others in their search. This paper expects to credit women—those generally “overlooked”—as leaders, as those intentionally involved in reform, in the contemplative life, in modeling discipline. Yet, it also acknowledges that many entered the nunneries and became women religious through motivation quite different from Macrina’s.


Leoba (died 799)11 illustrates an early medieval religious woman associated with monastic life in England and Germany. One of numerous double monasteries, one for men and one for women, was located at Winbourne, England. Strict rules prohibited entering the monastery of the other sex, except for the priests who celebrated mass for the women. Yet, abbess Tetta ruled most efficiently both monasteries. She maintained strict discipline, to which Leoba responded with zeal. But when a designated mistress, Leoba, of noble family, proved to be too cautious in enforcing discipline.

Based on a dream when pregnant, her mother consecrated Leoba to God, to holy virginity, “to live for God alone.” (McLauglin notes this life as freedom by contrast to bondage for women in ordinary family life then.12) She therefore grew up and was taught sacred knowledge by Mother Tetta and the nuns. Committed study affected all other activities: moderate habits, work when not at prayer, practice of charity. Her holiness, wisdom, teaching, and example led others to call her “the beloved chosen by God.” When archbishop Boniface discovered the readiness of German peoples’ belief, he established monasteries, requesting that Leoba become abbess over the nuns at Bischofsheim. Her blameless reputation for learning and holiness in turn resulted in many other convents finding their abbesses from among her disciples.

Eventually Boniface’s request that Leoba be buried next to him was granted. Later, her remains were transferred to a place near St. Ignatius’ shrine from which miracles or divine favors have come. McLaughlin suggests that this burial detail symbolizes the equality that existed between women and men saints because they together “belonged to God.”

Leoba committed much of her study to memory. She “read all the books of the Old and New Testaments, writings of the Church Fathers, decrees of the councils, and the whole of ecclesiastical law.” Convinced of the necessity for concentration in prayer and study, she also insisted on adequate rest and sleep. Though appointed to govern others, she maintained humility. Known for miracles God performed through her, she saved buildings from engulfing fire, calmed people during a wild storm, prayed for and blessed those with serious illnesses.

Even kings venerated her, including Frankish Pippin and Charles, who often brought her to court. Because of her wide knowledge of the scriptures and her prudence in counsel, “princes, nobles, and bishops often discussed spiritual matters and ecclesiastical disciplines with her.”13 Only to her was given permission to say prayers at the Fulda Monastery, otherwise forbidden to women. Because of her reputation, many nobles and influential families gave their daughters, and widows left their homes “to live in the monastery in perpetual chastity.” As mentioned before, McLaughlin contends that “cloister in the eighth century context meant freedom, not constraint. . . . Leoba’s ability to create ordered, disciplined communities was perceived as the very core of her sanctity and as guarantee of the powerfulness of her prayers.”14

Roswitha the Nun and Dramatist

Although numerous sources refer to Roswitha (One of her plays Paphnutius appears in Charles W. Jones Medieval Literature in Translation.), data here comes from Alice Kemp-Welch’s 1913 source Of Six Medieval Women.15 Presumed to have lived between 935 and 973, Roswitha distinguished herself among medieval women religious by writing dramas. A Benedictine nun exposed to a library well-furnished with classical and Christian manuscripts, Roswitha was encouraged by influential abbesses in contact with Germany’s politics and the court. Often her plays connected with educated emperors’ audiences. Historic incidents and people figured in her writing, writing that attempted to edify. “Her goal is moral truth, and to this all else must yield.”16

Conflict between Christianity and Paganism surfaces alongside conflict between chastity and passion. Christianity triumphs “through the virtue of woman.” Paphnutius introduces readers to 10th century convent intellectual experience for women. It begins with a “truly medieval scene—disputation between a hermit and his disciples on the question of harmony between soul and body.”17 This is one of Roswitha’s three important dramas, the other two being Abraham and Callimachus. Her plays may be considered “the last ray of classical antiquity” or the important link that continued the tradition of drama. Roswitha presents a view important to remember about medieval convent life—intellectual stimulation and opportunity. Marriage would not likely have as efficiently provided that feature.

The Beguines

Sources for this women’s religious movement vary a lot. Reading scattered chapters by Ernest McDonnell confused the picture for me. His book needs to be read more completely to observe the Beguine/Beghard development. I draw from the Clark and Bolton articles, concluding with details about a particular mystic and Beguine Mechthild of Magdeburg.18

Bolton provides a broad description of the Beguines as found prominently in Belgium but also in France and Germany:

Their movement was essentially urban in character. They followed no definite rule of life; they had no real founder. At their inception they sought no authority from the hierarchy and imposed no irreversible vows upon adherents. Their objectives were twofold: chastity or continence and the renunciation of worldly goods. They did not protest the wealth of others but gave up property and possessions to fulfill their evangelical ideal. They lived by the labor of their hands; the injunction to work was essential to such semireligious associations in their pursuit of a penitential life. It also enabled them to meet in some measure the religious needs of the new urban populations.19

Did this urban focus result from women’s majority or due to the desolate number of women left alone during the Crusades? As might be expected, such semi-organized groups threatened organized religion. Control being too undefined, commitment without rule was suspect. The church also knew confusion from such a large number of diverse women wishing to participate in religious change. To illustrate their impact, within a short time, two thousand adherents located in and near Cologne. Prof. Dayton Philips suggests that 10-25 percent of Strasbourg belonged to this community.

Writers conjecture that women’s position of disadvantage within feudal society may have stimulated such mushrooming. Looking for anything available to improve their status, they turned to religion.20 Gracia Clark stresses the strength of Beguine group independence which grew from the need to work together or interdependently. Aspects of that independence include:

Similarities appear between Beguine and current Christian feminist motivations and goals.

Mechthild of Magdeburg reflects a type of Beguine. Born in 1212, she turned to the spiritual life when 12, to the semi-monastic Beguines when 23. Noted for her contemplative and prophetic writings, she struggled with the conflict between church tradition and self-expression. Visionary powers, poetic feelings, deep questions and mysteries of belief all found expression in her. So too did fearless warnings and denunciations of those in high places in the church. When attacked by that weak clergy with threats to burn her writing, she claimed consolation in God’s telling her “not to mistrust her powers. . . . No one can burn the Truth.”22

Also prominent was her thought about God and the soul. To her, “Prayer was naught else but yearning of the soul.” Love and knowledge remained keynotes in the soul’s craving for God, as surely as God craves for our soul. For “when two burning desires come together, then is love perfected.”23 Such was Beguine Mechthild’s holy passion—yet she threatened others.

St. Clare and the Poor Ladies/Clarisses/Second Order

Some orders for women religious can be examined from a chronological perspective. That pattern will be followed with the Clares/Clarisses, thanks to informative chapters of John Moorman’s writing.24 St. Clare’s life, generally identified from 1194-1253, was as deeply committed as St. Francis’ to renunciation, poverty, and service to the poor. What difference might have resulted had Christians since the 13th century credited them comparably, valued their interdependence, fully expected women and men to be utterly religious together!

Teenage Clare listened to Francis’ sermons, after which they repeatedly met to discuss “poverty and humility, renunciation and service, whole-hearted acceptance of Christ’s teaching, the call to risk all for him.” Together they planned for her to join the Order of Friars Minor. She fled home to take her vows. “Francis cut off her hair and vested her in the rough clothes of poverty.” Initially the only place for her was with the Benedictine nuns. Soon after, Clare’s sister Agnes joined her and the two formed the monastic life at San Damiano, founded for women by Francis. By 1215 Clare took office as abbess, and Francis drew up a temporary Rule with features similar to the friars: perpetual, severe fasting; intensely spiritual way of life—individual and corporate poverty – an essential austere life; no property or settled income; active, adventurous life, living by their own work or alms collected by friars. While Clare promised obedience to Francis, he promised to take care of her and the Christian women who joined her.25

The frequent, early communication between friars and Poor Ladies lessened “for prudence sake,” but Francis occasionally sought Clare’s advice and she once ate with him and the friars. Without consulting Francis or Clare, Cardinal Ugolino in 1219 established a formal First Rule of the Order of S. Clare for the four then recognized houses. That action most distressed Clare. Practically a Benedictine nun Rule, it failed to mention poverty and stressed strict claustration which made ministering to the poor impossible. Clare refused to accept this Rule and was granted the right to a more strict, Franciscan oriented Rule for her San Damiano house.

When Francis died in 1226, “Clare became the most conspicuous champion of the ideal of total abnegation and complete dependence on God.”26 Well-instructed in their ideal and trained to be determined, she insisted, with Innocent III, on guarding her one and only possession—the “Privilege of Poverty.” At the same time, while the first Order was “relieving” itself of some individual and corporate poverty, the Second was compelled to greater self-support, partly through acquiring property. For the friars, responsibility for the Poor Clares became more difficult and unwanted. Adding to the burden was the growth of “Damianite” houses all over Italy, as Benedictine nunneries changed over to the stricter Poor Clares. Following the first non-Italian house at Reims (1220), Second Order houses were founded in France (one by royal Isabelle who herself was dedicated to poverty and virginity); Spain (47 during the 13th century); Germany; Bohemia (Prague, particularly for noble ladies, funded by abbess Agnes, daughter of King Ottocar I); Moravia; Poland; Hungary (founded by a Third Order, royal Elizabeth); Belgium; England (not securely established until 1293); and Eastern Europe and the Holy Land.

These Clarisses continued to be bound by Ugolino’s Rule, but alterations occurred as in replacing any reference to St. Benedict with increased dependence on the Order of Friars Minor. Grateful for the closer link between friars and Clarisses, Clare still disliked the continued ease of holding property or possessions. Only shortly before her death (1253), which followed nearly 30 years of illness, Clare submitted her own Rule to Pope Innocent IV, who, out of reverence to her, approved it.

Clare’s Rule (forbidding possessions and binding closely the First and Second Orders) applied only to the community of San Damiano and houses that chose and were granted permission to adopt it. Others continued with Ugolino’s 1219 or its revised 1247 Rule until French Isabelle’s Rule was approved by Urban IV in 1263. Hoping to succeed as the Order of Preachers had in getting rid of its responsibilities for the women Dominicans, the friars could not. Francis and Clare had always wished for the strong bond between them; the Isabelline Rule stressed the same. But confusion persisted: the friars asked to be released while the sisters did all they could to retain connection. A compromise resulted: some duties were transferred from the friars to the cardinal protector, and the Clarisses managed more of their affairs. But a spiritual link continued, partly through appointing friars as spiritual directors for the sisters.

Statistics for 1400 identify just over 400 houses of Poor Clares, 250 of these in Italy. Most beyond Italy were in Spain and France. Monastery membership varied considerably; the smallest had only 2 or 3; larger houses had 50-80; while exceptional houses at Cracow and Naples housed 250 each. An estimate for the close of the 14th century suggests about 15,000 Poor Clares altogether.27 Such a populace had to affect marriage expectations, societal attitudes toward women, and options for them. Problems encountered by the Clarisses during the 14th century included taking in more women than a house could support; pressure from influential families eager to provide for their women members; Black Death; and war that caused destruction and dereliction.28

Organizationally, about half of the households held professed nuns, directed by the abbess who controlled each house. “Serving sisters” did much of the household work; non-cloistered women did business beyond the house for them. Abbesses, generally elected for three-year periods, were often women of considerable stature. They worked hard to carry great administrative duties. Some carried a pastoral staff and granted dispensation. At Fucecchio, she acted as “bishopess”; from Bordeaux she traveled extensively to obtain gifts and support. Yet abbesses did not decide policy or legislation; that task, the friars did.

Originally founded as a Mendicant Order (to live by begging), the Clarisses could not go out or beg when ruled by strict claustration. Nor could they eventually get permission to found a house unless land, houses, tithes, appropriated churches, or endowment of some sort was assured. Property (often supplied by relatives) came to have papal support rather than poverty. This aspect called for capable administration. Houses varied in dependence on the abbess or friars. They varied considerably in discipline and life-style—from gracious, retreat-like living expected by noble women to the more austere, strict, less privileged households.

For the task of reforming the Orders of Francis and Clare, St. Collette, born at Corbie in 1381, became prepared through experiences as a Beguine, Poor Clare, and recluse. Supported and assisted throughout her endeavors by friar Henry de Baume and invested an abbess by Avignon Pope Benedict, her life passion became to reinstate Clare’s goals, the 15th century reform of the Second Order. In this task she had to counter relaxed discipline, provide well-endowed houses with a rising standard of living, better prepare a number of women for cloistered vocations, correct women in positions of power due to nobility rather than disciplined devotion, and attend to disasters from the plague, pestilence, war, and persecution.

As friars practices more intentional spiritual life and discipline, observant preaching came to inspire women to return to a more Primitive Rule. St. Bernardino claimed reform of two hundred houses of Clarisses in Italy; St. John of Capistrano similarly brought houses under the control of reformed friars.29 Benedictine and Augustinian nunneries and Third Order houses “began to adopt one or other of the Franciscan Rules.” Two new women’s orders—the Conceptionists and Order of the Annunciation—came into existence.

As reformist, Colette appears to me to be perhaps as significant a woman leader as the original Clare. Within forty years she founded fifteen monasteries committed to a strict rule of life; gained the support of popes, ministers general, distinguished laity; carefully selected and attracted responsible friars of the Conventual party—with four to serve each community of women; “held the love and loyalty of those over whom she ruled by her austere life, obvious piety, and administrative ability.” “She was in fact, a leader—a woman of great force of character, determined, competent, autocratic and self-confident.”30 For students of medieval history to know of Colette, of her qualities and accomplishments, matters as much, I think, as awareness of some popes.

Other able women became prominent during the revival of Clarisses: Felicia Meda, artist and writer St. Catherine of Bologna, mystic Eustochia of Messina, Tertiary Antonia of Florence, Seraphina, and the well-educated Camilla Verani, known for mystical experiences. The literary activity of these women included autobiography, revelations, letters, prayers, ascetic and moral poems many of which focused on the sufferings of Christ.31 Our task continues to uncover these intelligent, zealous women religious, each with a valuable “her-story.”

Sisters of the Common Life

Sources for this group of women religious are R. W Southern and R. R. Post.32 Prior to 1380 Gerhard Groote of Deventer, dissatisfied with his experience with the Carthusians and religious orders, determined to “concentrate on books of devotion, regular religious observances, and frugal living.”33 He insisted on freedom from organized orders. His first followers, those for whom he gave his parental home in 1374, were religious women. Striking in his statutes for their life together were expressions of freedom. Women were to take no binding vows; wear no distinctive habit (as nuns or Beguines); be lay people subject to secular courts; belong to no religious order; serve God and work for their living.34 Entrants ranged in age between nine and twenty.

Because of anti-Beguine sentiments and papal actions, he made clear that “his” women were not members of the “Free Spirit” or Beguines. Yet, like them and in contrast to religious orders, he insisted on not having a binding vow. This threatened traditional Roman order for Christian society, based on authoritative law. It led in part to the Inquisition and eventually the Reformation. For:

if people could form associations without authorization, choose a superior in some unknown manner, adopt a monastic type of life without the sanction of a monastic Rule, read the Scriptures together in the common tongue, confess their sins to one another and receive counsel and correction from no one knew whom, there would be an end to all order in the church.35

Attempting not to be hostile toward religious Orders, Groote and his followers nevertheless chose “to experiment. . .to discover” what was personally satisfying rather than be disillusioned by a system. Indicative of this open attempt is their name—the “Common Life.” Their immediate or inner purpose centered on being devout.

R. R. Post’s book offers only two chapters to the Sisters of the Common Life. Contrasting the Brothers, those who actively spread abroad Groote’s spirit and intent through sermons and public speech, he credits the Sisters as passive, or active only in their example or personal conversations. Initially known as almshouse-dwellers, the women annually elected a “mistress” to be confirmed by the magistrates. She administered the communal property (house), assigned work to the participants, and supervised their behavior to foster peace. For activities like helping women in childbirth, or taking a journey, permission was needed. Only the houses functioned communally; women earned their own money, particularly through spinning and weaving, and did their own cooking. Not until 1398 or 99 did these almshouses become more communal, become Sisters of the Common Life.

But the number of houses or congregations of women “sprang up from the ground like mushrooms” in Holland, due likely to Groote’s direct preaching until his death in 1384. The year before his death Groote wrote to the bishop: “On the Lord’s ground grew many virginal flowers, fields of chaste widows and voluntary poor, all renunciations of the world.”36 At the time of his death, one calculation identifies 34 communities of Brothers in Holland and 11 in the Rhineland and Westphalia. The same source suggests that perhaps three times as many women’s as men’s communities existed.37 (If women outnumbered men, why was much more worthy to be written about men?)

At first one male confessor served a number of Sister houses. That pattern changed to each house having a priest/Brother who “considered the pastoral care of the Sisters and the direction of their convents as an extremely important task.”38 However, some proved unable to “bear the luxury and proximity of women.” When the position of rector to Sisters was sought after, the place was never granted. Around the turn of the century, several Sister and Brother groups accepted the Third Order of St. Francis or Tertiaries. Others were transformed into monastics by adopting the Rule of St. Augustine, “motivated by the desire for a stricter life.” Maintaining their Modern Devotion identity, they continued to expand, with 40-50 houses in 1424, 70 in 1439 (a total of 3,000 monastics), and 82 by 1470.39

Post quotes these statistics from John Busch’s Chronicon of 1464: by the peak of 1460-80 reformed monasteries numbered more than 50 congregations of Brothers and Sisters, over 100 foundations of the Third Order. Of the houses, Post says 18 were of the Brothers, 34 of the Sisters with Sisterhouses containing more members per house than the Brothers.40 However, the significance of the movement lay not in its numbers, but in its power of survival outside the ranks of the formal religious Orders—without scandal, suppression, or radical change.41 But Post continues to identify the Sisters as “passive members” because they did not preach, because their religious influence was only by example (implying that example matters little!).

Sisters did not write (or failed to be recognized for?) religious treatises but they clearly practiced what Groote and his disciples taught. “They were the inner devout, who filled their day in humility, obedience, and zeal with prayer, work, and meditation.”42 Life for them often proved to be hard and humiliating. Important aspects of their devotion include: venerating Christ—Sisters could call themselves “God’s bride” with Christ the bridegroom; practicing intense meditation on Jesus’ life, especially his Passion (with decreasing glorification of Mary); feeling devoutly fearful of God the Father; believing strongly in Divine providence; practicing stern asceticism (though mysticism was not frequent): self-immolation, humility, obedience.43

Post concludes with a brief description of Ysentrude of Mekeren, Sister of Master Groote’s house (d. 1452). Whenever allowed, she received and was influenced by communion. Afterward “she seemed to rejoice in the Lord as with fresh joy, to be inflamed by a new fire of love.”

She never fell asleep during Hours, teaching, or mass; seldom assisted at mass without shedding tears; fell to her knees to pray whenever the fire bell rang; was most conscious of the “preciousness” of time; meditated devoutly on the life and passion of the Lord; was most attracted to Mary, Mother of God; piously requested help from angels and saints; devoutly venerated relics of saints.44

Julian of Norwich, Anchoress

From the late 14th century to the early 15th, Julian is noted for her classic Christian spirituality as revealed in The Revelations of Divine Love of Julian of Norwich.45 “This revelation is high divinity and high wisdom.” A typical mystic, Julian “balances on a razor’s edge between incomprehensibility and unorthodoxy.”46 Sixteen revelations of what God had “shewed” are distinctly detailed, often through detached observation. She speaks not for theologians, but for the fervent, less learned. Through concepts as these she resonates:

What most intrigues me, and that for which Julian is widely known, is her teaching on the Motherhood of Christ. For her, properties in the Trinity are Fatherhood, Motherhood, and Lordship. A few quotes reveal her thoughts:

And the second Person of the Trinity is our Mother, . . . he is our Mother of mercy. p. 159

Thus, in our Father, God Almighty, we have our being

and in our Mother of mercy we have our reforming and our restoring. 160

Thus Jesus Christ . . . is our very Mother. . . . As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother

Jesus feeds us with himself full courteously and tenderly, with the Blessed Sacrament that is the

precious food of true life. 164

And then shall the bliss of our Motherhood in Christ be begun anew in the joys of our Father God. 171

Without elaborating, I suggest that here is something of balance, something of worth that appeals at a deep level. An all-masculine description of God or Divinity will never meet my needs. Two articles that address this thought of Julian’s are written by Sister Ritamary Bradley and Caroline Walker Bynum.48 Bradley’s tracing of the analogy through Christian tradition is useful, particularly interesting among medievalists. Bynum’s profound data, like observations about authority and abbot ambivalence as rulers, causes a reader to ponder. Another article includes Julian of Norwich’s idea of “Motherhood of God” in the history of doctrine.

Margery Kempe, of Lynn

Resources to consider for this weeping, English mystic named Margery (1373-1438) include those by Knowles and Colledge.49 Kempe was repeatedly confronted with hostility by those who met her. She faced trials, countered accusers, and found supportive confessors/directors, both Dominican and Carmelite. An outspoken woman though not malicious, Margery had contact with some of the most “eminent prelates, theologians, preachers, and holy persons of her day.” With monks she had less contact because they were not preachers or confessors. One unnamed preacher became so distressed with her weeping during his sermons that he denounced her.

He ‘seyd ful holily & ful devoutly & spak meche of owr Lordys Passyon that the seyd creatur myth no longer beryn it. Sche kept hir from crying as long as sche myth, and then at the last sche brast owte with a gret cry & cryid wonder sore’.50

Colledge’s excerpts from The Book of Margery Kempe tell of her varied visits to religious figures or places. Always commanded by her Lord to make these trips, she established quite a reputation. The first account of her visit to anchoress Julian in Norwich appears to have been for her own encouragement.

I pray God to grant you perseverance. Put all your trust in God, and do not fear the language of the world, for the more scorn and shame and reproof which you receive in the world, the greater is your merit in the sight of God. What you need is patience, for in patience you shall preserve your soul.51

After bearing one of her fourteen children, Margery was commanded by her Lord Jesus Christ to go to the Vicar of St. Stephens in Norwich. Initially surprised to hear of her interest in talking for a couple hours of the love of God, he supported her in spite of her intense weeping responses. Weeping was notably “triggered” by thoughts of the passion of Jesus. “His death is as new to me as if He died this very day,” she explained.

On going to Rome, Margery encountered great poverty. She also gained considerable personal popularity among the common people for her compassion, her perception of meaning in events, and her capacity to calm others in storms through her communion in prayer. But the experience that most ignited her sensitivity was being in Jerusalem. While conversing with God, this mystic was so overwhelmed by joy and sweetness, “she nearly fell off the ass she was riding.” Two men, one a priest, assisted her and continued with other pilgrims through the stations of the cross. At times the contemplative creature became so compassionately engulfed in her Lord’s suffering, that she “sobbed plenteously” and fell down repeatedly and rolled, crying and roaring.

“. . . in the city of her soul, she saw verily and clearly how our Lord was crucified. Before her face, she heard and saw, in her ghostly sight, the mourning of our Lady, of Saint John, and Mary Magdalene. . . .”52 The pattern of crying with a loud voice during contemplation first began in Jerusalem but continued for years, especially on hearing of the Lord’s passion. Never knowing when or where God would send these experiences of intense devotion, she became physically weakened with their occurring as often as seven to fourteen times a day. For these incidents she was blamed and endured malice.

Unable to read, Margery “hungered greatly for the Word of God.” No preacher filled her soul to capacity. To meet her need, “the Lord sent a new priest to Lynn,” she said. That man, who came to have great faith in her, read many books of contemplation to her and suffered abuse for supporting her weeping and shouting. Eventually, she was arraigned as a heretic at Leicester. Clerics like the Archbishop of York were no less successful in faulting or stopping her from teaching or talking about God, even reproving clerics who blasphemed.53 Here was an earnest soul, a medieval woman religious not to be scorned, at least not without consequence.


From Mantua, Osanna the mystic was born in January 1449 and died in 1505. Her parents—perplexed by her repeated trances and contemplative experience begun at age six—felt disgraced, considered her to be epileptic, and tormented her painfully. When fourteen, she donned the cloth of a Dominican tertiary. But, convinced that the Lord wanted her to remain in the world to assist others, she, like St. Catherine of Siena, delayed the tertiary vow. Nor would she have been welcomed by the Preacher Dominicans. The friars distrusted those known for visions, detested devotion that attracted public attention writes Edward Watkin in Neglected Saints.54

However, one Benedictine monk Girolamo, when 15, was so impressed by Osanna’s pattern of prayer that he persuaded her to accept him as her “spiritual son,” disciple, and intimate friend. Their relationship became one linked in God. Mutually complementary, this holy man and woman developed an enduring bond. Without biological attraction or desire, they came to know human affection “ordered and established by God” surpassing the merely natural. They loved each other’s soul as their own. From him came information about her interior experience of prayer.

God infused into my soul a knowledge and light—such that whatever I saw or heard presented God to my mind with such knowledge and sensible taste of the divine sweetness that my spirit was very often rapt in Christ.55

Two devotions recurred for the ecstatic saint Osanna: devotion to the Divine Infant and devotion to the Passion. Vision of the crucified child combined these two. She experienced visions of Our Lord in her room, of Paradise, of St. Peter singing High Mass for her accompanied by angels. Yet, “like all mystics, Osanna knew that the highest and truest experience of God is beyond images.” Often without any image, she beheld God with intense delight, often through light unbounded. But to describe what she saw was impossible. “. . . the soul rapt away and united to God sees and understands things so great and sublime that no human language can express them.”56

Individuals frequently asked Osanna to pray for them. Such intercession provided information, protection, and promise. Thoroughly self-disciplined, she participated in mass and confession as often as possible, through as few words as possible. She experienced charity through intercession for and comfort or advice given to many visitors. She would gladly have avoided those contacts, having preferred a nun’s contemplative solitude, but her clear vocation to help people meant staying in the world.

Though not supported by her father, Osanna was well-educated. She read widely, even difficult Latin, and wrote. Twelve miracles are credited to her: varied healing miracles like being supported above the water when a boat capsized, or causing milk to come from a goat that had not given birth. Marks resembling the wounds of Christ crucified (stigmata) barely visible before her death became clear in her corpse. Medieval women religious, not to be identified only as those who lived in seclusion, or those who lived in groups with stipulated rules, include saints like Osanna whose feast is kept on June 20.

Concluding Statement

Admittedly incomplete, this project achieved my intent—exposure to medieval women religious, both individuals and in collective orders. I am convinced that, though often noted less than deserved, women have been influential in every age. “May their tribe increase!” May their commitment to religion live on.


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