Thomas L. Long (English Department, Thomas Nelson Community College)
Presented at the Madison Conference on English Studies, James Madison University, March 18, (1995)
A few years ago Pope John Paul II, in preparation for a visit to the United States, told American bishops of his concern about “bitter, ideological” feminists, who according to the pope are involved with goddess worship and nature religions, thus threatening Christian faith itself. What is remarkable about his claims is the power of patriarchal anxiety even in the twentieth century about (female) gendered representations of divinity. Today the medieval trope of Christ as Mother seems astonishing; but as an impressive body of scholarship demonstrates, the trope was widely employed in spiritual writing of the High Middle Ages. In this paper I will outline the pertinent sections of Julian of Norwich’s A Revelation of Love where the image of Jesus as Mother is stated or implied, suggest some possible antecedents for the image of a (trans)gendered divinity, and define more clearly the shape of medieval gender construction to suggest the boundaries of gender’s apparent fluidity in the Middle Ages.
Although there seems to exist a considerable gender fluidity in the Christian tradition from it earliest moments, medieval discourse allowed the trope of a female gender God paradoxically a the moment when misogynist discourse and practice were becoming more severe, a repressive practice based in part on hierarchical distinctions of nature. Although the maternal trope is found overtly only in chapters 57-62, it informs and shapes the whole of Julian’s Revelations. For example, very early in the text (chapter 6) Julian offers the reassurance that God “hath us all in himselfe beclosyd” (7). Throughout, Julian presents a divinity whose chief characteristics are protecting, nurturing, and sustaining. Even in the parable of a lord and a servant, Julian describes the lord, not as a retributive judge when the servant falls into a ditch, but as a solicitous parent (chapter 51).