The Privileging of Visio over Vox in the Mystical Experiences of Hildegard of Bingen and Joan of Arc
By Anita Obermeier and Rebecca Kennison
Mystics Quarterly , Vol. 23 (1997)
Introduction: Even though medieval women mystics have enjoyed increased attention in recent scholarly discussion, a topic that still has not been tackled is the possible difference between seeing a vision and hearing a voice during a mystical experience and the ramifications of this difference in the context of medieval text production and in the status of mystics as authors. When a mystic relates a mystical experience, she inevitably creates a text and becomes an author . In the Christian Middle Ages, medieval text creation hinged on authority and authorization, as an imitation of the creative power of God, the Master Author and the Logos (Word) itself, and thus has religious consequences for an aspiring author . Bernard McGinn points to this logo centrality of medieval writing: “Jesus the preacher of the message became Jesus the preached message and soon Jesus the written message, as elements of his preaching and the stories about him, especially the account of his sacrificial death and rising, were fixed in written form”.
Mystics, however, not only imitate the creative power of God, but also claim to deliver His messages. Their stake in authorship is thus doubled, and for female medieval mystics, text production proved to be an especially ambivalent endeavor. On the one hand, as Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff notes, the “women writers of mystical literature . . . lacked the authority, and the authoritative language, to communicate spiritual truths”. Because of rampant medieval misogyny, female claims to authorship were especially suspect, as women were often associated with evil. This association carried over from antiquity and found fertile ground in the minds of the church fathers who villainized Eve’s role in the fall .
Thus, backed by the Pauline rule on women’s ecclesiastical silence, Jean Gerson’s pronouncement on Bridget of Sweden at the Council of Constance echoes the accepted medieval norm: “All words and works of women must be held suspect” . On the other hand, Petroff claims, “[v]isions led women to the acquisition of power in the world while affirming their knowledge of themselves as women. Visions were a socially sanctioned activity that freed a woman from conventional female roles by identifying her as a religious figure . . . [and] an artist ”. But as the experiences of the twelfth‐century visionary Hildegard of Bingen and the fifteenth‐ century heroine Joan of Arc illustrate, not all women’s visions, words, and works were created equally suspect or equally acceptable.