Paper 8: Extended Essay: Special Topics

Wordcount: 7015

"If there is something in Beauvoir's claim that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman, it follows that woman itself is a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or end." (Judith Butler)

Simone de Beauvoir's claim and Judith Butler's comment on it imply two fundamental dichotomies or fissures in 'woman': that between biological sex and socially constructed gender, and that between woman and the terminology used to describe her. There is a discrepancy between the female body and the person who inhabits it; the 'second sex' is also what Luce Irigaray famously describes as 'this sex which is not one'1. While this anxiety over the role of the body in the construction of 'woman', and over the very nature of woman, may seem to be a relatively modern phenomenon, these are issues which both Irigaray and Beauvoir recognise as manifesting themselves in a particular pre-modern category of women: the female Christian mystics of the Middle Ages.2 The process of 'becoming woman', whatever it involves, could be expected to be substantially different for medieval women, living in a world with far more prominent religious values and consequently different attitudes to women and to the body, and the question must be addressed of whether female mystics are concerned with 'becoming women' at all.

That one is, at least biologically, born a woman was of course recognised in Medieval times. A medieval translation of the writings of Trotula describes the "fyve dyversyteys betuen man and woman", the final two being the most important:

The ferthe diversite ys betuene here leggis, for ther have men a yerde with other portynauns and ther hath women an opynynge wyche ys calde in Frenche a 'bele chose', or ellys a wykket of the wombe. The fifte dyversite is that in the body of the woman betuene here navyll and here wyket, for ther hath sche a vessyl that no man hath, the wych ys callyde the maryce. And ... hit ys within the woman, that no man may se what hit ys...3

There are indisputable anatomical differences between man and woman; although even in an essentially factual definition, there is a suggestion that woman is to some extent unknowable; her defining characteristics are hidden behind euphemism, and hidden within her body. This, Elizabeth Petroff suggests, is fully consistent with medieval attitudes to woman. Petroff claims that "the only consensus about woman in the Middle Ages concerned her unknowability", and discusses the motif of 'unmasking' women in literature. This unmasking, however,

fails to address the problems of the unknowability of women in medieval literature, for the women, unmasked, turn out to be angels or whores or castrated males or demons — but not female human beings.4

There is a clear difference between 'woman' as a role, or rather a multiplicity of roles which the female can become, and 'female human beings', who are biologically determined. Biological differences, however, are not described by Trotula as being attributes with which one is born, although this is clearly understood; rather, it is asserted that "the makere of all thyngys ordende" these details of anatomy and hence the way in which humans reproduce. This highlights the more widespread, general acceptance of Christian doctrine in the Middle Ages, the relevance and influence of which for medieval mystics cannot be overestimated, and suggests that a 'third way' should be recognised in addition to being born, or becoming, a woman: being created a woman. The Bible states that "God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them"5: the two are equal, although different. However, after the Fall, their roles change and woman is subordinated to man:

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.6

This Biblical curse on womankind is at least partially responsible for much of the institutionalised misogyny in the Western Christian world, and it might seem that between biological determinacy and divine predestination there is little room for an inhabitant of the female body to 'become' anything else. However, there is evidence that mystical writers were not content to let woman's agency be removed in this way, and the suggestion is made by several writers that woman must assist in her own creation. Hadewijch of Brabant emphasises the religious woman's active role: must strive greatly to grow up, as it were out of nothing, as one who has nothing and can become nothing but who yet labours to climb out of the depths.7

Her suggestion that the young beguine must by her own efforts grow up "out of nothing" is daring in its equation of this self-creation with God's creation ex nihilo of the universe; although she does later emphasise that the act of creation belongs to God, when she says that the beguine should wish to "act according to the being in which God has created [her]..."8

The emphasis is on creation rather than birth; however, the two need not be mutually exclusive, as is shown in the figure of Jesus Christ, who is both "the only begotten of the Father" and "the Word... made flesh"9. With this precedent, the act of 'becoming woman' can be seen as a kind of reverse incarnation; woman is born or created as flesh and must become something more, making her a mirror of Christ.

Woman's role in the Christian mystery of the Incarnation is a complex one; the Virgin Mary is regarded as a 'second Eve' in the same way that Christ is a 'second Adam', and her role echoes Christ's, in that she redeems the image of woman by allowing woman to play an active role in salvation. Yet she is a virgin, and as such her body is different from the penetrable, pervious flesh of natural woman, as is suggested in Bridget of Sweden's vision of the Nativity:

I sawe the chylde in her wombe meve and styrre hymselfe and sothenly in a moment and in the twynklynge off an ey she had borne her chylde... And that maner off the byrth was so sothenly and so wysely doone that I myght not discerne nor percyve how or what membyr off her body she had borne her chylde wythall. [...] Then the wombe of the Vyrgyn that was very grete afore the byrth, yt swagyd and wythdrewe inwarde agyn to the state that yt was in afore she conceyvyd.10

The Virgin is barely a 'real' woman, lacking the "wykket of the wombe", giving birth by male agency rather than the female body: it is Christ who "meve[s] and styrre[s] hymselfe" to precipitate the birth. She is iconographic, idealised; rather than becoming woman, she becomes mother and virgin. For medieval woman, the role of virgin was often promoted, not only in religious writings but in romance literature. The romance 'lady' is always described in terms which both idealise and homogenise her; and the Virgin Mary is frequently described in similar terms by visionaries: her "whyte mantell" and "fyne kyrtell", her "clene whyte flesshe" and "most fayer and goodly here, shynyng bryght as golde", as described by Bridget of Sweden, could be taken from any of the contemporary lais. The Virgin represents perfection, and as such, is denied agency and realistic representation. Howard Bloch summarises this paradox of representation:

to love, one must love perfection, or a virgin; to love a virgin is to love an abstraction; in loving an abstraction, one loves what is by definition unembodied; and, finally, by giving expression to the love object, one destroys it. ...the object of desire is always absent in order for desire to fix upon it.11

Woman is idealised and potentially deified, but also dehumanised, disembodied. It is not the real person of Mary who is worshipped, but the Virgin, the Mother of God; woman's value is situated in her virtue and her relation to man, and it is this that is worshipped. Woman-as-virgin is reduced to a cipher, an object of male desire; she is decentralised, or if she remains at the centre of any narrative it is as a negative presence. The parts of woman which are essential to the mystery of incarnation are those which "no man may se"; they cannot be represented except as absences, interiorities, mysteries. The virgin is sealed, entombed in her own body, as the imagery used in Hali Meiðad suggests:

as þet swote smirles ant deorest of oþre þet is ecleopet basme wit þet deade licome þet is þerwið ismiret from rotunge, alswa deð meidenhad meidenes cwike flesch wiþute wemmunge.12

The author of the Ancrene Riwle writes at length on the custody of the senses, the confinement between four walls, as a similar deathlike state; the anchoress's cell is her earthly tomb, and her life's work should be to "schreapien eueriche deie ðe eorðe up of hore putte þer heo schulden rotien inne."13 The only perfect, completely sealed virgin is a dead virgin; if woman was born into the socially constructed role of virgin, rather than the physical state in which all are born, she would effectively be stillborn.

Since physical virginity cannot be represented, the role of the virgin in religious writings is essentially an outwardly constructed or written role. A woman can 'become' a virgin by the clothes she wears, as Margery Kempe does when, despite being married with children, she dons the virginal white robes, mantle and ring; or she can be written into the role by the authors who textualise her. Julia Kristeva even suggests that Mary's own 'virginity' is an accidental textual construction:

It would seem that the 'virgin' attribute for Mary is a translation error, the translator having substituted for the Semitic term that indicates the socio-legal status of a young unmarried woman the Greek word parthenos, which on the other hand specifies a physiological and psychological condition: virginity.14

It is clear that the role is constructed rather than natural; woman is rewritten so as to be sealed and perfect. Lynda L. Coon writes:

Because the ancient world associated females with bodily and spiritual sloth, the lives of holy women who could remake their bodies into immaculate vessels of faith dramatized the metamorphosis of the penetrated Eve into the impenetrable Virgin Mary.15

The transition is a dramatization, a remaking; woman is not born, but rather becomes, a virgin. However, in so doing she becomes the sealed, essentially masculine body. This opposition between penetrable and impenetrable, homogenous and heterogeneous, sealed and open-ended, is culturally constructed in the opposition between the Classical body and the grotesque body; the one is associated with high culture, abstract spirituality, and patriarchal authority, the other with materiality, gaps and orifices, real and symbolic filth. This dichotomy is also supported by the Augustinian distinction between body and soul; the soul is the abstract, the perfect, and therefore the male, while the woman is bodily, fleshly, imperfect and limitingly concrete.

In aligning herself with the grotesque, the essentially female, woman could be seen as identifying with Eve, and therefore with sin; yet many female mystics display a natural reluctance to align themselves with masculinity in order to achieve perfection. The mystic's goal is to become holy, not to cease being holey, wholly woman: she needs to find a way of (re-)creating herself in the image of God, while retaining her femaleness; and that way is often "the way, the truth and the life": the crucified Christ. While it is hardly surprising that any Christian writer should make images of the crucifixion central to their writings, what is notable is that female mystics concentrate so intensely on the phsyical aspects of the event, both explicitly and through their imagery. A few examples, from Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, and Angela of Foligno, will serve to illustrate this (cruci)fixation:

...I saw the bodyly sight lesting of the plentious bledeing of the hede. The grete dropis of blode fel downe from under the garland like pellots semand as it had cum out of the veynis; and in the comeing out it were browne rede, for the blode was full thick... 16 was grawntyd þis creatur to beholdyn so verily hys precyows tendyr body, alto-rent & toryn wyth scorgys, mor ful of wowndys þan euyr was duffehows of holys, hangyng vp-on þe cros ... hys tendyr fete nayled to þe hard tre, þe reuerys of blood flowyng owt plentevowsly of euery membre, þe gresly & grevows wownde in hys precyows syde schedyng owt blood & watyr...17
...Christ showed himself to me on the cross with such clarity...he called me and said I should put my mouth to the wound in his side. And it seemed to me that I saw and drank his blood flowing freshly from his side.18

The question of why female mystics feel so involved in the Passion of Christ has been addressed by numerous critics: Sarah Beckwith writes of a female sense of identification with the crucified Christ in his passivity, his body seen as 'feminized', a site onto which desire is projected, an object acted upon rather than a subject acting19; Elizabeth Petroff writes of Christ as the 'Other', sharing female alterity, and as a type of the "grotesque" body, also aligned with the feminine20; and Simone de Beauvoir writes of the shared sense of wounding and penetration between Christ and the female mystic, recalling particularly St Theresa's eroticised vision:

The angel held a long golden dart in his hands. From time to time he plunged it into my heart and forced it into my entrails. When he withrew the dart, it was as if her were going to tear out my entrails, and it left me all inflamed with love divine... I am certain that the pain penetrated my deepest entrails and it seemed as if they were torn when my spiritual spouse withdrew the arrow with which he had penetrated them.21

In this, and all the examples above, there is a focus on the transgression of the boundaries of the body; there is an insistence on the actual wounds, the flowing of blood from inside to outside. Christ's body, like woman's body, made a thoroughly material body, a body of wounds and orifices. Christ is not born a woman, but must become feminized, in a disruption which parallels that of the Fall. Woman is created whole; indeed, at the moment of her creation it is the man whose body is opened up, the man who effectively gives birth, so it could be argued that the very creation of woman is a moment of disruption. It is the Fall, though, which brings pain and wounding to the body of woman; this moment of rupture is described by Karma Lochrie as a "fissure", and is for her inseparably linked with woman:

woman is associated with the perviousness of the flesh, which began with a fissure as a result of the Fall and has festered in ulcers ever since.22

A similar point of rupture occurs in the Passion, linking the transgression and the redemption:

The perviousness of the flesh, which is mark of its perversion, also offers the possibility of redemption.23

The disruption of the body must be redeemed through the body. The Second Adam's body must be opened like the first's; Christ's side is pierced at the point where Adam's rib was removed, and the instructions of the author of Ancrene Wisse to the anchoress suggest that she should reverse the pattern of not only the Fall but of the very moment of her creation:

Flee to His wounds. Greatly did He love us who allowed such holes to be pierced in Himself that we might hide within them. Creep into them, in thought. Are they not wide open? And with His Precious blood cover your heart.24

This is a kind of return to the womb, the primal creationist womb of Adam's side; woman reverses her physical birth in order that her spiritual (re)birth may be effected. Her body allows her to become spiritual; she simultaneously validates and transcends it, just as Christ does with the human body through incarnation. This use of the body to achieve spiritual rebirth can be seen particularly clearly in the account of the Passion of Ss. Perpetua and Felicitas; Felicitas, as she is led to her martyr's death, is seen

rejoicing that she had brought forth in safety that so she might fight the beasts, from blood to blood, from midwife to gladiator, to find in her Second Baptism her child-birth washing.25

Images of childbirth, baptism and death are promiscuously mingled; the blood, associated with both femininity and wounding is transubstantiated into the holy water of baptism, and the imagery of blood and water symbolically links Felicitas's martyrdom to Christ's crucifixion, his spear-wound from which blood and water flowed. This journey through the body to spirituality, Simone de Beauvoir suggests, is at the heart of the female mystic's identification with Christ:

We can readily understand why women are especially concerned with the metamorphosis of the red flow into pure golden flame. They are obsessed with this blood flowing from the side of the King of men. ... That is the emblem which sums up the great feminine dream: from blood to glory through love.26

To some degree, women's identification with the crucified Christ constitutes a reclaiming of the typology which aligned woman with Eve and therefore with the birth of Sin; by speaking from the redemptive point of "fissure" woman speaks with the power of the 'abject', that which "does not respect borders, positions, rules"27; she validates the invasion and transgression of boundaries. Thus women redeem what Sarah Beckwith describes as

the specific representation of themselves as associated with the debased matter of the flesh, which they see valorized and redeemed in Christ's torture on the cross, a redemption through physicality.28

Through participation in the crucifixion, the grotesque body becomes the point of redemption; this is a specifically female way in which the mystic can attain unity with God and participate in his plan. Hadewijch of Brabant quite clearly locates the power of God in a "fissure", a point at which boundaries are transgressed and gaps are formed:

...I was taken up in the spirit. There I saw a very deep whirlpool, wide and exceedingly dark; in this abyss all beings were included, crowded together, and compressed. The darkness illuminated and penetrated everything. The unfathomable depth of the abyss was so high that no one could reach it. ... It was the entire omnipotence of our Beloved.29

The abyss is one of heterogeneity, where "all beings [are] included", category boundaries are ignored, suggesting a dangerous yet powerful heterodoxy, and opposites can be united; yet this "wide" and "dark" abyss into which darkness "penetrate[s]", with its unavoidable overtones of female sexuality and its sense of disruption, is the place in which all divine omnipotence is located. The feminine is reclaimed as simultaneously grotesque and powerful.

Female mystics, by sharing and reclaiming Christ's alterity and passivity, superimpose their own bodies on the body of the crucified Christ; this is seen particularly clearly in the Revelations of St Gertrude:

I endeavoured to apply myself in spirit to those adorable Wounds... I deposited all the ruse of my sins and my voluptuousness at the Wounds of Thy blessed Feet... I reposed my spirit in the Wound of Thy Left Hand...30

and so she continues, speaking Bible verses at each point, overlaying her body and Christ's body in an explicitly textualised union. Mystics also perceive themselves in familial relations to Christ: lovers, daughters, brides and mothers. The mystic aligns herself with Christ to achieve mystical union with him, imitating his suffering to achieve redemption and resurrection with him. This mystical union often takes the form of interior conversations; the mystic must double herself, playing all the roles in the drama of the Holy Family. Margery Kempe spends a considerable portion of her time rapt in inner conversation with the Godhead; at first she does not wish to be separated from Christ, but she allows the separation to occur so that she might be wedded to the Godhead. She wishes to still be one with Christ, but she must be separated from him in order to be in unifying relationship with him. Multiple personalities appear in her visionary world:

sche wold not answeryn þe Secunde Persone but wept wondir sor, desiryng to haue stille hym-selfe & in no wyse to be departyd fro hym. Than þe Secunde Persone in Trinite answeryd to hys Fadyr for hir... And þan þe Fadyr toke hir be þe hand in hir sowle be-for þe Sone & þe Holy Gost & þe Modyr of Ihesu and alle þe xij apostelys & Seynt Kateryn & Seynt Margarete & many oþer seyntys & holy virgynes wyth gret multitude of awngelys, seying to hir sowle, "I take þe, Margery, for my wedded wyfe..."31

Margery must effect an identification with God, but also, subsequently, a recognition of her separation from him; her experience reifies what Beckwith describes as the "mirror-image"32, an image which stresses both identity and difference as, looking in the "mirror"33, the human soul sees itself as an image of God but also becomes aware of its distance from God.

Beckwith's "mirror-image" recalls Lacan's "mirror stage", the birth of subjectivity in a child's development: the child, as yet unaware of itself as a discrete entity, "misrecognises" itself as discrete by identification with its counterpart in the mirror. The discovery of difference and separation which occurs at this stage in the child's development creates a sense of loss, which then creates a desire for unity with the image. Beckwith sees the mystic as passing through this stage, moving from a necessary identification with God to an equally necessary recognition of her distance from God, which then spurs the mystic on to attempt to achieve union with God. If the child does not become a person until it recognises its difference from other people, then the female mystic cannot become a person, a woman, until she recognises her separateness from God. Becoming a person involves recognising one's relation to others; becoming a woman even more so, since woman in medieval times finds her social definition almost entirely through her relation to the men in her life. She is the Other, defined in relation to man. Yet mystical Christianity, by emphasising the unknowability and indescribability of God, attempts to "articulate the 'Otherness' of God himself". Through mystical experience, woman sees her Otherness reflected in God; in mystical unity with God she is both the lover and the beloved, an endlessly reflecting mirror of Otherness into which man cannot intrude.

The image of the mirror seems to fascinate mystics and those who write about them; Luce Irigaray, in her discussion of La Mystérique, writes

A living mirror, thus, am I (to) your resemblance as you are mine. We are both singular and plural, one and ones, provided that nothing tarnishes the mirrors that fuse in the purity of their exchange. [...] the other [is] absorbed in the One (as) to infinity.34

This infinite unity and doubling is what is seen in Margery Kempe's writings, as Margery/God, the single Other of mystical union, plays all the male roles by which she defines herself; the imagery of the mirror expresses the simultaneous identification, and recognition of difference. The "singular and plural, one and ones" suggest, too, the great Three-in-One of the Trinity, reflecting one another even as the mystic reflects them. Both this internal reflection, and the external reflection involved in the "mirror stage", can be seen in Marguerite d'Oingt's visions:

On the inside, the book was like a lovely mirror, and there were only two pages. ... Inside this book there appeared a delightful place, so large that the whole world is only a little thing in comparison. In this place there appeared a very glorious light that was divided into three parts, as into three persons, but the mouth of a man is not capable of speaking of it.35

Marguerite sees the Trinity internally reflected in her mirror but she, or at least her scribe, also recognises her distance from this mirror-image; it is so far beyond human experience that it cannot be recounted by man. Yet Marguerite's "book" shows how she can speak the unspeakable experience:

By the grace of Our Lord, this creature had inscribed in her heart the holy life that God, Jesus Christ, led on earth, his good example and good teaching. So firmly had she placed sweet Jesus Christ in her heart that it sometimes seemed to her that he was present and that in his hand he held a closed book for teaching.36

The book is written on her heart, and while "the mouth of a man is not capable of speaking" her experience, the book of her body is. The book which Christ holds is closed, the sealed "Classical" text of orthodoxy, patriarchal doctrine, authority; but her body is an open book, a text to be interpreted, and the account of her life goes on to interpret the symbolism of the "book" within her at some length. The inscriptions within her are also explicitly associated with wounds:

...In the black letters were written the blows and slaps and filthy things that the Jews threw in his face and on his noble body, to such an extent that his body looked like a leper's. In the silver-gilt letters were written the wounds and the precious blood that was poured out for us.37

Woman becomes a book, the disrupted text of heterodoxy which allows interpretation, explicitly associated with wounding.

For Marguerite d'Oingt, it is Christ's life rather than his word which forms the basis of the inscription on her heart; one's whole life appears as something written, a text which can and must be composed. Some mystics take this living metaphor further, perhaps even too far, as they inscribe their own bodies with wounds; Marie d'Oignies

...began to loathe her body when she compared it to the sweetness of the Paschal Lamb and, with a knife, in error cut out a large piece of her flesh...38

She compares her body not to the person of Christ but to a literary symbol of Christ; when the two texts are compared and contrasted, her own flesh is found wanting, and she excises the inferior text. This rather brutal editorial practice suggests the lengths to which women were prepared to go to control the telling of their own story. Margery Kempe, less violently but no less particularly, resists being written by others:

Sum proferyd hir to wrytyn hyr felyngys wyth her owen handys, & sche wold not consentyn in no wey, for sche was comawndyd in hir sowle þat sche schuld not wrytyn so soone.39

She also manages to prevent her scribe from taking editorial control of her text, the text of herself:

Thys boke is not wretyn in ordyr, euery thyng aftyr oþer as it wer don, but lych as þe mater cam to þe creatur in mend whan it schuld be wretyn...40

The order of events in the book, for better or for worse, is Margery's own; she is composing herself, and resisting the constraints of linear narrative. What she dictates is her life, as it appears to her.

Female writers seem particularly aware of the power which the written word can confer on the writer, the authority of authorship, perhaps because historically that power was often denied to them. Text, as Christ tells Margery, brings authority and protection:

& get schal no man sle þe, ... for I may not for-getyn þe how þow art wretyn in myn handys & my fete...41

The earlier writer St Gertrude explicitly points out this power and authority, through the revealed words of God:

"If the Lord had willed to teach His doctrine only to those who were present, He would have taught by word only, not by writing. But now they are written for the salvation of many." He added further: "I desire your writings to be an indisputable evidence of My Divine goodness in these latter times, in which I purpose to do good to many."42

Women carry out the function of Divine amanuenses as the authors of the Bible are believed to have done; their lives become a part of the writings of the supreme Author, their bodies a part of that body of text. Woman's words become God's words, and thence they derive authority; yet it is not necessarily a submission to the ultimate textual and patriarchal authority, but rather a contribution to a feminine, heterogeneous corpus of text; woman cannot be a closed discourse if she is part of one eternal, timeless text. Female mystics often display a reluctance to write or finish their texts: Margery Kempe initially resists writing "so soone"; and Julian of Norwich returns to her Shewings decades after first writing them, refusing to let them be finished; she writes

This booke is begunne be Gods gift and his grace, but it is not yet performid, as to my syte.43

Not only is woman's text interminable, it is essentially inadequate to describe her experience; Angela of Foligno refuses to accept that the writing of her life is final or accurate, as her scribe writes:

[The difficulty in writing] was doubtless my inadequacy—not that I would add anything, but that I honestly could not understand everything she said; and she said that what I wrote down was true, but it was truncated and reduced.44

There is always a larger, fuller text; in the case of Marie d'Oignies, with her intensely physical identification with literary metaphor, her very body becomes the site of that wider text:

Much later, when women were washing her corpse, they were amazed when they found the places of the wounds but those to whom she had made her confession knew what they were. Why do those who marvel at the worms which swarmed from the wounds of Simon [Stylites] and are awe-struck at the fire with which Antony burst his feet not wonder at such strength in the frail sex of a woman who, wounded by charity and invigorated by the wounds of Christ, neglected the wounds of her own body?45

The textualisation of Marie's body continues beyond the boundaries of her life; and the meaning of her wounds requires recourse to other 'readers'. Furthermore, her biographer places her in the context of other religious lives, finally aligning her wounds with Christ's. Marie's corpse/corpus is invigorated by its intertextuality; death itself is deferred since the body lives on in the body of the text. It is the wounding, the ruptures in the text of the body which allow Marie to keep her text 'open'; woman, in order to speak or write as woman, must speak from a point of fissure, as is shown in a dream-vision of St Leoba:

...she saw a purple thread issuing from her mouth. It seemed to her that when she took hold of it with her hand and tried to draw it out there was no end to it, and as if it were coming from her very bowels, it extended little by little until it was of enormous length. When her hand was full of thread and it still issued from her mouth she rolled it round and round and made a ball of it.46

The nun who decodes this dream tells Leoba that the thread signifies the "wise counsels that she will speak from the heart", and that the ball which she makes of it signifies "the mystery of the divine teaching"; Leoba's words, spoken from her ruptured body, her open mouth, "from her very bowels", become part of the "divine teaching", the wider text of God's word.

If woman's writing of herself is never finished, then it follows that 'woman' itself, or even woman herself, is "a term in process", an endless "constructing"; her self-defining is never done. This sense of continuity, of the cycle of birth and death, blood and rebirth, is in itself feminine; it is also Biblical: spiritual birth is seen as a progress rather than a single point of origin. St Paul suggests that the whole of salvation history is a long process of giving birth:

the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.47

Creation's labour pains are relieved by Christ. Julian of Norwich takes this image one stage further, making Christ a mother-figure, giving birth to all mankind:

our savior is our very moder in whom we be endlesly born and never shall come out of him.48

Birth is neither a single point of beginning nor the end of labour; to give birth is to join an endless chain of descendants, as shown in the great genealogies of the Bible. Woman herself, by merit of her key role in the process of birth, has neither beginning nor end; this is manifested in the peculiar position of the Virgin Mary in Catholic doctrine. If Jesus was conceived sinless, Mary's own conception must have been "immaculate", free of original sin; it is unclear how far back this hereditary sinlessness need be traced, and the question is usually avoided. Mary also has no real end, having supposedly undergone "dormition" rather than death, being assumed bodily into heaven. Her role changes throughout her life, beginning as sinless child then assuming the role of Mother. Her Son begins similarly, and in his Passion becomes a mother, giving birth to humankind; in mystical visions he becomes husband, father, child, mother, all things to all women. The women's roles become similarly mingled: it is by no means unusual in accounts of mystics' lives for them to nourish themselves, becoming mother-figures to themselves. Marie d'Oignies describes her copious tears as her "bread", and Christina Mirabilis goes still further when she is tortured by hunger:

she saw that her dry virginal breasts were dripping sweet milk against all the laws of nature. [...] Using the dripping liquid as food, she was nourished for nine weeks with the virginal milk from her own breasts.49

Christina's life provides us with other examples of the way in which woman is presented as endless: the story of her life begins with her death and miraculous resurrection. Following this, she manifests many strange types of feminine fluidity; when in ecstasy,

all her limbs were gathered together into a ball as if they were hot wax and all that could be perceived of her was a round mass...

and on other occasions, when she is "ravished in the spirit",

her body would roll and whirl around like a hoop... with such extreme violence that the individual limbs of her body could not be distinguished. ... Then a wondrous harmony sounded between her throat and her breast which no mortal man could understand nor could it be imitated by any artificial instrument. The words... if they could be called words ...sounded incomprehensibly.50

What Christina seems to achieve, speaking from a point of circularity and continuity, is a kind of parole feminine, incomprehensible to man. The circle motif, seen in Christina's waxen ball of limbs, her hoop-like body, and elsewhere in St. Leoba's ball of purple thread, and Julian of Norwich's vision of the whole of creation as "a littil thing... as round as a balle"51, suggests the cyclical nature of woman's experience; these circles make beginnings and endings meaningless. The symbolism is made complete in St Catherine's 'wedding ring', made of the 'ring of flesh' removed in Christ's circumcision52: eternal symbol and carnal reality are combined in this endless bodily and spiritual cycle.

The mystic's experience is inseparably linked with Christ's, in alterity, passivity, and hence femininity; through sharing Christ's experience woman can become herself, in unifying relation to him. What she becomes is something without beginning or end, a woman speaking from a point of constant process, just as Christ's Passion is constantly in process: it is an eternal redeeming, giving birth to humanity. In this context it is meaningless to speak of a distinction between being born a woman and becoming a woman; the process of becoming is the process of endlessly being born. Woman must become what she is, must "work out [her] own salvation"53, becoming full of grace:

by transforming profane female flesh into a vehicle of grace, women's conversion extends the hope of universal salvation to sinful humanity.54

This transformation is effected by Christ, as he becomes man in order to redeem the body, and mirrored by woman; as Angela of Foligno says, "The Word was made flesh in order to make me God."55 Mystical woman is not just a term in process, but the Word in process, simultaneously becoming bodily and redeeming the body, mirroring Christ to infinity.


1 Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985)

2 See Simone de Beauvoir, "The Mystic", in The Second Sex (1949), trans. H.M. Parshley (London: Pan Books, 1988), pp679-687; and Luce Irigaray, "La Mystérique", in The Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp191-202

3 From The Knowing of Woman's Kind in Childing, in Alexandra Barratt, ed., Women's Writing in Middle English (London: Longman, 1992), p32

4 Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p45

5 Gen. 1:27 (All Bible quotations taken from the Authorised King James Version.)

6 Gen. 3:16

7 From Hadewijch of Brabant, Letters to a Young Beguine, in Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, ed., Medieval Women's Visionary Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p192. All further references to mystical writings in this collection will be denoted "Petroff (1986)"; full bibliographic and editorial details are included in the Bibliography.

8 Ibid.

9 Jn. 1:14

10 From Bridget of Sweden, The Revelations, in Barratt, ed., Women's Writing in Middle English (London: Longman, 1992), pp87-88

11 R. Howard Bloch, Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991), p153

12 Hali Meiðad, in Bella Millet and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, ed., Medieval English Prose for Women: Selections from the Katherine Group and Ancrene Wisse (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p10

13 Ancrene Riwle, p51

14 Julia Kristeva, Stabat Mater, in Toril Moi, ed., The Kristeva Reader (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), p163

15 Lynda L. Coon, Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), p18

16 Julian of Norwich, A Revelation of Love, ed. Marion Glasscoe (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1993), p10

17 Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Sandford Brown Meech and Hope Emily Allen, London: Oxford University Press for EETS, 1997), p70

18 Petroff (1986), p257

19 Sarah Beckwith, "A Very Material Mysticism: The Medieval Mysticism of Margery Kempe", in David Aers, ed., Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology and History (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1986), pp34-57

20 Petroff, Body and Soul, pp. 204-224 passim

21 Quoted in Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p682

22 Karma Lochrie, "The Language of Transgression: Body, Flesh and Word in Mystical Discourse", in Allen J. Frantzen, ed., Speaking Two Languages: Traditional Disciplines and Contemporary Theory in Medieval Studies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), p122

23 Ibid., p123

24 Mabel Day, ed., The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle (London: Oxford University Press, for the E.E.T.S, 1957), p131

25 From H. R. Musurillo, trans., The Passion of Ss. Perpetua and Felicitas, in Petroff, ed., Medieval Women's Visionary Literature, p75

26 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p686

27 Karma Lochrie, "The Language of Transgression", p128, quoting Kristeva in Powers of Horror

28 Beckwith (op. cit.), p47

29 From Hadewijch of Brabant, Visions, trans. Mother Columba Hart, in Petroff, ed., Medieval Women's Visionary Literature, p197

30 From St. Gertrude the Great, The Revelations of St. Gertrude, in Petroff, ed., Medieval Women's Visionary Literature, p 225

31 The Book of Margery Kempe, p 87

32 Beckwith (op. cit.), p43

33 Ibid., p35

34 Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian G. Gill (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985) p197

35 From The Mirror of St. Marguerite d'Oingt, trans. Richard J. Pioli, in Petroff, ed., Medieval Women's Visionary Literature, p292

36 Ibid., p291

37 Ibid.

38 From Jacques de Vitry, The Life of Marie d'Oignies, trans. Margot King, in Petroff, ed., Medieval Women's Visionary Literature, p180

39 The Book of Margery Kempe, p3

40 Ibid., p5

41 Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Sandford Brown Meech and Hope Emily Allen (London: Oxford University Press, 1997), p30

42 From Part II of the Revelations of St. Gertrude, in Petroff, ed., Medieval Women's Visionary Literature, p229

43 Julian of Norwich, A Revelation of Love, p134

44 From the Liber de Vere Fidelium Experientia, trans. Elizabeth Petroff, in Petroff, ed., Medieval Women's Visionary Literature, p255

45 From Jacques de Vitry, The Life of Marie d'Oignies, trans. Margot King, in Petroff, ed., Medieval Women's Visionary Literature, p180

46 From Rudolf, Monk of Fulda, The Life of St. Leoba, trans. C.H. Talbot, in Petroff, ed., Medieval Women's Visionary Literature, p108

47 Rom. 8:22

48 Julian of Norwich, A Revelation of Love, p93

49 Thomas de Cantimpré, The Life of Christina of St. Trond, Called Christina Mirabilis, trans. Margot King, in Petroff, ed., Medieval Women's Visionary Literature, p185

50 Ibid., p187

51 Julian of Norwich, A Revelation of Love, p7

52 See Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p685

53 Phil. 2:12

54 Lynda L. Coon, Sacred Fictions, p xvii

55 Quoted in Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, p191