By Danièle Cybulskie
In the Late Middle Ages, it became more and more common for Christian women to relate to their faith in physical terms, as the visions of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich bear out. Stories of mystics with outward physical signs of spiritual activity (like stigmata) were also pretty common throughout the Middle Ages, but I’ve never come across a story quite like the one of thirteenth-century Elizabeth of Spaalbeek, a twenty-year-old Belgian mystic whose faith was enacted in virtuoso dramatic performances at the regular canon hours of the day.
Elizabeth’s story is recounted by “father Philip of Clairvaux”, who visited her in order to witness her daily movements of the spirit. According to Philip, Elizabeth’s day was spent alternately in a catatonic state with “rigid limbs, a pale and bloodless face and an absence of feeling, movement or breath, like a dead body”; rigid paralysis in a devotional posture – either staring at a portrait of Jesus or holding her body in the pose of crucifixion; or in astonishingly flexible and violent performances of the Passion. Every day at the canon hours – which she intuited without external cues – Elizabeth acted out a portion of the Passion appropriate to that moment in the canonical day.
Given the story of the Passion is an inherently violent one, most of Elizabeth’s performances are likewise violent. When she arises at Matins, it is Jesus’ arrest that she performs:
it is marvelous to see how she grasps her own clothes over her breast with her right hand and drags herself to the right, and then with her left hand to the left; and sometimes she leans forward as though she were being dragged violently, as thieves and murderers are dragged and hauled violently along by other men’s hands … And immediately after that she stretches out her right arm and clenches her fist, and, looking fierce, she makes dreadful signs and gestures with her eyes and her hands, like someone who is angry and hostile. And after that she immediately strikes herself on the cheek so hard that her whole body sways down towards the ground with the force of the stroke; then she strikes herself on the back of her head – between her shoulders – on her neck – and she falls face-down, bending her body in an amazing way and dashing her head on the ground.
In addition to beating herself with her hands, Elizabeth also pulled her own hair, and stabbed her own eyes repeatedly with her finger, before “throw[ing] herself down to the ground in a very seemly and decent way” (i.e. without dislodging her clothes) and resting like the dead. In another few hours, she would perform an equally violent scene, followed by joyful gazing on the portrait of Jesus, a posture in which she would freeze for a time before resting and moving to the next phase of the Passion.
Like other mystics, Elizabeth was uninterested in food, taking only “three sips” of milk and a taste of watered wine during Philip’s visit, and only sucking out the juices of fruit and fish at other times. She did take communion, although this was one of the moments in which she was rigid with ecstasy and did not actually seem to eat the bread: “there is no sign of saliva or of swallowing, she does not disclose it in her mouth, nor does she move her teeth, her lips, or her cheeks.” Also like other mystics, in addition to her self-inflicted injuries, Elizabeth had stigmata on her hands, feet, and side, and Philip witnessed blood leaking from her eyes and fingernails.
Elizabeth stands out, though, in the sheer physical strength and flexibility shown by her ability to hold postures such as lying down with her head and shoulders elevated for an extended time (an incredible feat of core strength!), or her ability to lie down and stand up in the posture of crucifixion without stumbling or wobbling. The expressiveness of her storytelling through her body and face seem reminiscent of elite dancers and actors, although (as Elizabeth Spearing points out) without the scandal attached to such activities, at least in Philip’s mind.
Elizabeth’s holy performances had begun when she was only five years old (she was twenty at the time of Philip’s visit) and had become a family affair. Her mother and sisters supported her with their bodies and with pillows, feeding her and getting her into bed when she was rigid with ecstasy; her father fielded questions and offers of gifts (all refused); and her cousin, the abbot of Sint-Truiden, built a chapel adjoining Elizabeth’s chamber so that she could attend mass and her miraculous feats could be observed by others through a screen. Perhaps it is telling that Philip says, “This reverend abbot, our most dear friend in Christ, was with us during everything which I have described and was our informant and reliable expounder of the virgin’s words.” The abbot’s translation of Elizabeth’s movements and utterings ensured that they were understood as holy and meaningful, not madness or fakery.
Spearing, who translated and edited this version of the story, speculates that Elizabeth of Spaalbeek may have been using her performances to gain power and her control over her own life, and that she might have been using food in the same way, as an anorexic might. After all, she “is circumventing the problem of women being forbidden to take on the priestly role.” It’s equally possible, I think, that Elizabeth’s exhausting performances were being controlled by the family which had built its lives around her, making it necessary for her to continue to be a mystic for their survival. The path of a mystic would not have been easily abandoned for fear of being accused of charlatanry.
Given that Elizabeth of Spaalbeek’s emotional range during her mystical day – wild joy and desperate misery – could reveal either happiness in her role, a torturous existence, or true affective piety, we will never know what secrets lay within her singular, spiritual, and athletic life. To read Elizabeth’s fascinating story in its entirety, and to learn about other medieval mystics, check out Elizabeth Spearing’s compilation Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
“The Passion of Elizabeth”, written by Christea Parent, uses music, movement, and spoken word to recreate the miraculous life of Elizabeth of Spalbeek, a 13th-Century mystic and the first documented stigmatic. Elizabeth would nightly embody both Christ and His tormentors through various methods of self-harm as a means of worship, and in her time these acts became performative, drawing crowds from across Europe. This is a recording of the NYC premier, and features Commarrah Jewelia Bashar, Rahkua Ishakarah, Quenna Lene, and Christea Parent.