By Danièle Cybulskie
This week, I read the story of Christine the Astonishing for the first time (in Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality, translated by Elizabeth Spearing), and it struck me that while it’s meant to be the story of a holy woman’s life, it also gives us an intimate look at what was likely a mentally ill woman’s life in the thirteenth century. After reading a bit more about what others have said about Christine, it seems I’m not the only one who thinks so. Here’s Christine’s story, and a little bit about what it can tell us about mental illness and spirituality in the Middle Ages.
According to her biographer, Thomas of Cantimpré, Christine was a normal child, sent out into the fields to be responsible for the livestock. At some point in her youth, “she became sick in bodily strength from practicing inner contemplation, and she died” (p.75). At her funeral, Christine rose up and “soared into the rafters of the church” (p.75), only coming down when compelled to by the priest, although she gave the impression she hated the touch and smell of people. Afterwards, she related to her sisters that when she died, Jesus gave her the choice to remain in heaven or be sent back to Earth to be tormented and save souls. This being a holy woman’s story, Christine chose the latter, and returned to Earth. She still couldn’t stand people, and escaped to the treetops to avoid them, spending weeks alone, nourished by her own (virgin) breast milk. Her relatives caught her and restrained her in chains (for her own good), but Christine escaped. She frequently tortured herself in fire and water, screaming in pain but showing no evidence of harm on her body; she hanged herself; she “went into graves and grieved there for the sins of man” (p.79); she ran with dogs and cut herself on thorns; she climbed trees and curled up and stayed there. Christine’s relatives were “embarrassed” (p.79), and captured her again. They finally accepted her holiness when they saw her anointing her sores (from being restrained) with a miraculous oil from her own breasts and freed her. Still, Christine’s odd behaviour in the community was bothersome, and the townspeople prayed that God would “temper his miracles in Christine and make her more like other people” (p.81). After she immersed herself in a baptismal font, Christine did act less strangely, although she remained a beggar in motley clothes, harming herself, weeping, and wailing. Later in life, she was taken under the wing of another holy woman, Jutta, miraculously acquired Latin, and became a spiritual mother to Count Lewis of Looz, who made his deathbed confession to her. Thomas records her being wraith-like at the end of her life, eating little and spending time in the wilderness, before dying in 1224, forty-two years after her miraculous funeral as a young woman.
A lot of the miraculous details in Christine’s life can be found in other holy lives, like waking from the dead or being unharmed by torture. But Christine’s life sounds suspiciously, sadly, like a realistic portrait of illness at times. For example, something that struck me right away in this account was Christine’s stealing. She begs for her food and clothes (pretty typical in this type of story), but if the owners are not moved by the spirit to share these things, Christine takes them anyway:
when she needed a sleeve for her tunic or a hood for her cloak, she would ask for it from someone she met if the spirit told her to do so; and if they gave it to her, she thanked them; and if they refused, she took it against their will and sewed it on to her own clothes. (p.82)
In her essay “Possessed by the Spirit: Devout Women, Demoniacs, and the Apostolic Life in the 13th Century”, Barbara Newman puts the difference between conventional poverty in religious stories and Christine’s stealing very succinctly: “Hers was the mendicancy, not of a St. Francis, but of the ordinary poor, subject at whim to the pity, charity, or scornful abuse of the fortunate” (p.766). Thomas of Cantimpré tells us of Christine’s stealing because he thinks it spiritually significant that she is unashamed of her odd garb, pointing to it as part of her saintliness (Spearing, p.82). However, it seems as if he is trying to cast the undeniable fact of her stealing, like her other strange behaviours, in a holy light after the fact as a way of explaining it.
In other medieval stories of holy lives, people are not usually persistently embarrassed by holiness, either, at least until the late Middle Ages, when (as Newman says, p.764) mystics are more likely to have been recorded as weeping and wailing (like Margery Kempe). But in Christine’s story, her relatives try to restrain her as they would have a mentally ill person (restraint and confinement were typical but not necessarily meant to be cruel in the Middle Ages), and the townspeople – including “men and women in religious orders” – pray that she become less afflicted, despite the fact that Christine’s holiness is bringing pilgrims to her town (Spearing, p.81). Christine herself feels embarrassed when she wakes from an incident in which she spun “like a teetotum or top that children play with”, then lay down, unmoving, and sang unintelligibly (p.83). There are times in this story when it seems like no one – not even Christine, herself – is sure that she is holy, not ill.
Newman “suggest[s] a hypothetical reconstruction” (p.766) of Christine’s story may be possible if you cut away her biographer’s influence: a woman is born; she becomes ill but does not die (Newman suggests a coma, p.766); she behaves strangely and shuns people; her relatives try to control her but cannot; her affliction becomes directed into harmless channels; she is taken in by a religious woman who teaches her literacy; she remains an outsider whose strange behaviour is feared until she dies. Stripped of Thomas’ influence, Christine’s story doesn’t comfortably fit the expected shape of a typical holy woman’s life, but it does fit the shape of a mentally ill person’s life in the Middle Ages. Christine, Newman says, “left behind her not a cult but a flourishing set of urban legends, no doubt embroidered in the telling with hyperbole and relish” (p.767), as is so often the case with the behaviour of the mentally ill, even today.
Whatever the reason for Christine’s astonishing behaviour, it’s not surprising that she is styled as a holy woman by a clergyman such as Thomas of Cantimpré. The Middle Ages was a time in which the question “why” was continually being asked, and sometimes the only comforting answer was “God wills it”. Seen from the end of her strange but harmless life, after she had learned to read religious texts and give spiritual comfort to a count, it makes sense to explain Christine’s otherwise inexplicable legend as having a divine purpose if you are a thirteenth-century clergyman, whether for the peace of mind it brings, or, more cynically (as Spearing remarks in her notes, p.xxiii), as a way of increasing the religious reputation of the community. Either way, what has come down to us is a complex story of an unusual life, and perhaps a better look at both the nature of holiness and mental illness in the Middle Ages.
Christine’s life is one of the most fascinating holy stories I’ve read – I’d highly recommend reading it for yourself – but there are plenty more lives of holy women out there. The compilation in which you can find Elizabeth Spearing’s translation of Christine the Astounding and many more (Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality) is a handy one, as is TEAMS’ Middle English Legends of Women Saints. Barbara Newman’s excellent article “Possessed by the Spirit: Devout Women, Demoniacs, and the Apostolic Life in the 13th Century” can be found in Speculum (Vol. 73, No.3, July, 1998, pp.733-770), and for more great work on mental illness in the Middle Ages, check out any of Wendy J. Turner’s books and articles.