By Deirdre A. Riley
Master’s Thesis, Seton Hall University, 2011
Abstract: It is a timeless truism that women are expected to perform simultaneously on many levels; in the Middle Ages, performance was often requisite not only for appropriating authority, but often for having any kind of a voice at all. The roles in which women could function during this period were finite and few, and also socially — outwardly — defined: wife/mother, widow/ virgin, or nun/recluse. A certain group of women who lived in the mid-twelfth to early thirteenth centuries exploded these roles, but they did so in ways which ostensibly fit into already tried and socially acceptable prescriptions — namely, female mystics. These women, each in her own way, performed the spectacle of divine intervention, preaching the words that God imparted to them, and especially using their bodies to demonstrate their status as “chosen,” validating the authenticity of their experiences, and the permissibility of their alternate lifestyles.
Christina the Astonishing (1150-1224), Mary of Oignies (1177-1213), and Margaret of Ypres (1216-1237) are examples of such lay women who used the accepted role of Female Mystic to effect and secure alternative lifestyles, and also to gain authority that equalled, and often surpassed, the male voices that made up their communities. A fourth woman, Lutgard of Aywieres (1182-1246), performed in the same circles as these. three women, but her path to holiness was slightly different in that she did enter the consecrated life. Even though looking at a group of contemporaneous women will lend itself only to a synchronic study, by seeing them in light of the early desert fathers and “pillar saints,” differences can be seen, and statements can be made, that are profound and sensational — despite the fact that all four women shared the same two biographers: Thomas of Cantimprk and James of Vitry.