picture of study book cover, click to go to Bible homeWomen Interpreting Scripture in the Middle Ages*

   The social standing and role of women in this historical period were heavily determined by the influential, powerful male theologians and church leaders. Their understanding grew out of the patriarchal interpretations of the Old and New Testament writings, Greco-Roman culture, and the thinking of the Church Fathers. Augustine and Jerome extended the dualism of flesh and spirit, body and intellect to the sexes. Women were viewed as highly sexual beings, who were physically, morally, and intellectually inferior to men by nature.

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   In this seemingly rationally defined natural order, it followed that the man, as the superior being, was head of the household. The woman fulfilled her primary role in marriage--an institution that gained a measure of respectability under the reforms of Pope Innocent III [left]--through the procreation and nurture of children. The education of children, an intellectual activity, was the man’s responsibility.

    The complex theology of Thomas Aquinas, with its skillful blend of Aristotelian and Augustinian thought, reinforced the traditional negative view of woman as an inferior and seductive being, whose carnal nature caused men to sin. This view was taken for granted--and so was its effect: severe limits on female participation in church and society.

   Certainly in this period, as in so many, women were actively present in the churches. Records indicate that entire households attended daily church services. Disaster, disease, and war increased devotion as frightened people sought solace in their faith, striving to appease God’s anger or appealing to God for their own health and safety. Yet we have the writings of only a few women, which usually tell us little of their reflection on or interpretation of the Bible.

   For many women, convent life offered the only opportunity to gain some control over their lives. Women who sought education found refuge in the growing number of convents that were affiliated with the established male monasteries, thereby avoiding numerous pregnancies in marriages arranged for economic or political purposes. Convents were also the only option available to women who wished to focus on the spiritual life, and to discuss and interpret the Scriptures. Abbesses in charge of major convents exercised more political power than any other women, except those who served as regent ruling in place of absent or incompetent husbands or sons. More often, however, convent life reinforced the subordinate place of women to men in the roles assigned to them in relation to the monasteries.

Béguines

   Béguines were an informal sisterhood of laywomen who did not have the means to or interest in entering a convent or were refused by religious orders but desired to live a life of service to God. (Their male counterparts were Beghards.) The community required celibacy although Béguines could later marry. Even though a vow of poverty was required to fulfill a life of charity and prayer, women of some wealth could keep their homes and land. So on one end of the economic spectrum were women of modest means, and on the other were women who owned property and often created small, free communities of Béguines.

   Begun in present-day Holland, the movement also flourished in England, Germany, France, and the Low Countries in the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. Béguines created hospitals, homes for the aged, and orphanages. Somewhat like the Franciscans, Béguines took the biblical mandate of poverty and charity seriously for daily living. Their work with the sick and dying was gratefully accepted and badly needed during the Black Death that swept Europe in the 1300s.

   Because they operated independently of formal church structures, they were barely recognized, yet watched closely by the church hierarchy. Béguines were alternately praised for their reforms and charitable works, and condemned as heretics because of their criticism of the religious establishment and their example of simple living that often contrasted dramatically with church practice. They were severely persecuted in the fourteenth century. A small number of Béguine communities exist today in Belgium.

Hildegard of Bingen

   Although we know little of the women in this period, several women monastics are recognized today as important figures in the European Middle Ages. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) has become perhaps the most well-known in recent years.

   Well-educated in German Benedictine convents, Hildegard blended a keen intellect with great creative powers, visionary experiences, and gifts in the tradition of Old Testament prophets. The youngest of ten children, she was offered by her parents as a gift to God and placed in a hermitage where she was tutored in the Latin Bible and the rituals of the church. Unique for her time, she rose to the position of the first Abbess of the Benedictine community at Bingen, and then guided and administered two convents that she founded. Hildegard dared to undertake public preaching to clergy and laity alike on the need for monastic and clergy reform, an act of particular courage for a woman.

   Credited with the gift of miraculous healing, she also practiced medicine. Many sought her counsel and healing powers. Beginning to compile her knowledge and experiences at age 43, Hildegarde authored numerous works, including collections of her visions; a book on medicinal practices called Causes and Cures; a massive work that combined Christian doctrine, ethics and cosmology, with illustrations; letters; numerous liturgical songs, and a music drama called Plays of Virtues; an encyclopedia of medicine and natural science; poetry; and later in her life, works on theology.

   Hildegard had a holistic and healing view of all creation, perceiving the natural world as a source of God’s revelation. Her writings reveal a merging of the spiritual and allegorical with God’s sacred creation. Thus God’s mysteries are revealed in Scripture and in creation.

   Without the WORD of God no creature has being. God’s Word is in all creation, visible and invisible. The WORD is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity. All creation is awakened, called, by the resounding melody, God’s invocation of the WORD. This WORD manifests in every creature. Now this is how the spirit is in the flesh--the WORD is indivisible from God.

    

   Because of the force of her personality and the scope, depth, and brilliance of her work, Hildegard undoubtedly exerted influence over the thinking and practices of many women and men all over Europe.

Julian of Norwich

   Julian of Norwich (1343-1417) lived in England during years of wars with France and Scotland. Surrounded by the suffering caused by famine, social upheaval, and extreme poverty of the middle and lower classes, she was also deeply affected by the violent and sudden deaths caused by bubonic plague. Of humble birth, Julian was probably educated at a Benedictine convent. It is clear from her writings that she had thorough knowledge of Scripture and the teachings of the church. Julian shared John Wycliffe’s determination to expose all people to religion and Christian teaching through the use of vernacular English, so she wrote in English. Her agreement with Wycliffe’s criticism of lifestyles of bishops and the church’s worldliness undoubtedly influenced her own sense of spiritual calling.

   Julian was deeply devout and became an anchoress, a lifetime commitment to a solitary religious life spent in a room (or rooms to allow for a servant or two) called an anchorhold. The word "anchorite" (for a male) derives from the Greek verb "to retire" or to withdraw. In a solemn and dramatic rite of enclosure performed by a bishop and punctuated by the bolting of the outside door, the anchoress was declared "dead to the world"--that is, she remained in it, but not of it, never to leave the one-room cell. The strict simplicity of living was to focus on development of the interior life. A book of rules guided daily living and cautioned against worldly temptations. The anchorhold was built alongside one wall of a church and had one small window into the sanctuary to allow the anchoress to follow the daily service, and another window to a small parlor with a door for people to enter from outside. People would line up, coming in one by one to ask for prayers, spiritual advice, and insight into Scripture. A church with an anchorhold installed by its sanctuary gained prestige and sometimes wealth as funds were often left by grateful supplicants.

   At about 30 years of age, Julian fell seriously ill and experienced great physical suffering. She experienced miraculous healing and visions of Jesus, which she wrote about in her book Revelations of Divine Love. Her writings reflect twenty years of meditation on her experience and wisdom gained from sixteen "Shewings" (showings) granted her by God.

   Julian drew upon Scripture and the writings of St. Francis of Assisi to emphasize the feminine side of God. She used the womb as a metaphor for understanding the unity of the Trinity, of being all enclosed in oneness. Even Jesus is described as "our true Mother in whom we are endlessly carried and out of whom we will never come." When describing God, she used poetry in the first person:

   God said: "This I am--the capability and goodness of the Fatherhood. This I am--the wisdom of the Motherhood. This I am--the light and the grace that is all love. This I am--the Trinity. This I am--the Unity. I am the sovereign goodness of all things. I am what makes you love. I am what makes you long and desire. This I am--the endless fulfilling of all desires.

    

   As a mystic and theologian, Julian interwove the authority of Scripture with creeds and experience in the natural world. All were received as mysteries to be revealed by God. She used the devices of metaphor and allegory to communicate the deep, sometimes inexpressible meanings that are experienced in a life devoted to an intensely focused and personal relationship with God.

Persecution of Women

   The same era that produced great women mystics also saw the beginning of a massive persecution of women expressed in witch-hunting. Over several centuries, thousands of women accused of witchcraft were tortured and killed by church and state authorities. Exodus 22: 18 says "you shall not permit a female sorcerer to live," but all the causes for such slaughter are not clear. Certainly popular medieval theological and social tradition was dominated by beliefs that held women responsible for sin.

   In general, women took responsibility for their families’ healthcare, and many were highly skilled in effective, natural remedies. Some, called "wise women" by those who trusted them, served as nurses, midwives, herbalists, and counselors to the women, children, and poverty-stricken of their communities. They made home visits and traveled from village to village, sharing their expertise with neighbors and succeeding generations. Healing arts were thought to be influenced by magic and astrology, and working with herbs and potions often fell under official suspicion in times of plague and disorder.

   Some scholars conclude that women who lived alone, were old, ugly, vocal, or who owned property independently, were especially vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft. An herbalist in a monastery usually passed muster as a Christian, but a wise woman in a village who drew customers away from the monastery might be condemned as a "witch," in league with the Devil, and strangled or burned by church and state authorities looking for a scapegoat.

   Another factor was that these authorities realized that the women posed a threat to the budding medical profession and to some Christian beliefs, as they gained economic power. At this time physicians received university training under the control of the church, and only males--as the superior, rational sex--were admitted to study. Their training included the rite of exorcism, the use of holy water, and blessings. Many wise women’s remedies were more effective--proof enough, for most authorities, that the women consorted with the Devil.

   Witch-hunts followed well-organized, legally-based procedures. In 1484 a book called Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches [lit., Evildoers] was written by two German clerics with the blessing of Pope Innocent VIII. It became the authoritative guidebook for three centuries, followed by judges and church authorities alike. The charge of witchcraft could be applied to a range of offenses, from

   political subversion and religious heresy to lewdness and blasphemy. But three central accusations emerge repeatedly in the history of witchcraft throughout northern Europe: First, witches are accused of every conceivable sexual crime against men. Quite simply, they are "accused" of female sexuality. Second, they are accused of being organized. Third, they are accused of having magical powers affecting health--of harming, but also of healing. They were often charged specifically with possessing medical and obstetrical skills.

   Bolstered by the church’s characterization of women as feeling rather than rational beings, inferior, subordinate, and dangerously seductive to men, witch-hunts were associated with periods of great social and political upheaval. They continued into the 1600s, supported by the new Protestant authorities as vigorously as by the Catholics. Reformers like Martin Luther did not speak out against these offenses. According to public trial and death records, at least 100,000 women of all ages died in these ruthless campaigns--usually by burning, preceded by torture. Twice that number were tried as witches.

   *An excerpt from The Bible the Book the Bridges the Millennia by Maxine Clarke Beach Copyright © 1998 Maxine Clarke Beach.

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