Despite the opposition of medieval theologians who insisted that women were unsuited for leadership because of Eve’s sin, women leaders, mystics, and missionaries offered strong moral, spiritual, and intellectual rescue to the church in the Middle Ages.
These women were aided in their leadership partly by the church’s call to celibacy. For women, singlehood often meant freedom from childbirth, liberating them from the cares of family and domesticity. Singlehood also meant that fewer women died in childbirth. Women were able to devote their lives to intellectual and spiritual study and the enormous responsibility of spiritual leadership.
Throughout the Middle Ages, women brought great reform to the church, particularly as mystics. Their deep spiritual lives were inseparable from the extraordinary reform they led.
These mystics were Christians whose lives were strikingly God-oriented rather than self-oriented. They were individuals who sought spiritual intimacy with God above all. Here are a few examples of female mystics who had great impact in the Middle Ages.
Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) was a Benedictine nun who served in monasteries along the Rhine River in Germany. She was an abbess over a double monastery, wielding tremendous spiritual and political influence over monks, nuns, and leaders.
Noted for her learning, visions, and unquenchable industry, Hildegard is a staggering example of female leadership in a world ill-disposed toward women leading men. A physician, composer, leader, and poet, Hildegard was also deeply involved in the politics of her day.
She labored tirelessly to revive the spiritual health of an apathetic church and was greatly troubled by the corruption of the clergy. She called people to look to Christ rather than the priests for salvation. One bishop referred to Hildegard as "a flaming torch which our Lord has lighted in His church.”
Hildegard was a mystic of the highest order. Her actions were “always dictated by inward commands, and whose source of power lay beyond the visible world.”1
Thanks to her many disciples, we know much about Hildegard. Her secretary and monk, Guibert, who eventually became her biographer, recorded her visions of God as light. Hildegard saw God, “a flaming light of marvelous brightness coming from a rift of heaven, [God] penetrated my brain, heart and breast like a flame that warms but burns not, even as the rays of the sun strike the earth.”
Her mystical writings were collected in a book called Scivia, which is Latin for "know the ways of the Lord." Hildegard's Scivia displays an intimate understanding of Paul's writings, the Old Testament prophets, and Revelation. The book also boldly exposed corruption within the church.
Catherine of Siena
Catherine of Siena (1347–1380) was an Italian nun of the Dominican order. Catherine was born into a time when corruption, violence, plague, and political and spiritual wickedness were unbridled throughout Italy.
At the age of seven, Catherine claimed to have seen Christ enthroned in a sky of radiant colors and shapes. She believed that he looked straight at her and blessed her. Again at the age of twelve, Catherine had a vision in which God led her to a cave where she was married to Christ.
Catherine spent the next three years in solitude, fasting (eating only occasional herbs, bread, and water), and sleeping only a few hours a day. Through such rigorous asceticism—self-denial—Catherine sought to free her soul from the material world and raise it into the presence of God. At sixteen, Catherine moved into a small cell or room, where she lived in solitude for three years.
During this time, she experienced numerous visions and ecstasies, but also terrible battles with evil spirits, culminating in her “spiritual marriage” to Christ.
Catherine also asked God for “perfect love of her fellow human beings.”2 In a vision, the Lord then appeared to her, removed her heart, and gave her his own heart, which, she said, beat much more vigorously.
At the age of twenty-one, God called Catherine to public service with an audible voice. Obediently, Catherine went forth to work in Siena. During the plague, she walked among the sick and dying. She visited and prayed with the imprisoned and condemned to execution.
When a young man was unjustly convicted, Catherine alone spoke out against the injustice. She ministered to the prisoner, led him to Christ, and remained with him through his execution, stirring the conscience of her town. Her wisdom and fame spread and soon, a group of disciples shadowed her ministry.
Catherine endured an onslaught of visions and ecstasies, culminating in a trance that lasted four hours. Her friends thought her dead. Once released from the trance, Catherine was convinced that she had even more work to do. Nothing except intimacy with God could have empowered her to complete her next task—Catherine demanded the spiritual rulers of her day mirror the holiness of Christ.
Competing for power, the church struggled under two popes, one in Rome and another in Avignon, France.
God used Catherine to challenge oppressive church leaders. Writing to clergy, Catherine denounced their greed and spiritual poverty. To one church official, she had the courage to write: "Those who should be the temples of God, are the stables of swine... Those who rule—must above all be able to rule themselves."
In a letter to Pope Gregory XI, Catherine called him to return to Rome, reminding him that, "Since God had given him authority and he have assumed it, he should use his virtue and powers; and if he were not willing to use them, it would be better for him to resign what he had assumed; more honor to God and health to his soul it would be.”
She then wrote to the Pope saying: “Lift up the banner of the Holy Cross. Come, that you may reform the church with good shepherds, giving back to her the colour of most ardent charity that she has lost; for so much blood has been sucked from her by wicked vultures that she is pale.”3
Catherine boldly entered the Pope's palace at Avignon to remind him of the church's highest mission of saving souls. After she had delivered a message to Pope Urban V and his cardinals, he exclaimed "Behold my brethren, how contemptible we are before God... This poor woman puts us to shame… It is she who now encourages us."
Catherine, like all great mystics, gave birth to many spiritual children. Her authority and energy were quickly recognized, as was her personal charm. Her devoted circle of disciples comprised not only other women, but priests, friars, and young nobles.
Teresa of Avila
Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) was Jewish by birth and became a Carmelite nun in Spain. Her grandparents had converted to Christianity during the Spanish inquisition. Teresa was a nun, mystic, writer, and church reformer. She is perhaps the most celebrated woman in all of church history.
She was born into a wealthy family and entered, or was forced to join, a monastery at the age of twenty following much rebellion during her teens.
As a Carmelite novice, Teresa had a vision in which God called her to a life of prayer. Teresa devoted herself to the discipline of prayer and solitude. She also experienced ecstatic visions over which she had little control.
Teresa’s classic work, The Interior Castle, offers a guide through the labyrinth and mystery of the inner life. Through analogy, Teresa illustrated the process of mental prayer that draws the soul towards oneness with God.
Teresa’s entire life brought her into conflict with the growing greed and corruption of her order—the Carmelites. She devoted her life to calling the Carmelites back to their roots of simplicity and prayer.
Teresa's words were not always welcome. And yet, despite fierce opposition, she established sixteen convents built on her reform. She is considered one of the great leaders of the counter-Reformation, working for change within the Catholic church.
Women were also prominent leaders in the monastic movement.
Elizabeth of Hungary
Elizabeth of Hungary (1207–1231) is said to have fed nine hundred starving people at her castle door. She built a hospital for lepers and was known to remove her jewels before entering the chapel, putting on the robes of the Franciscans—foreshadowing the day she would give away her vast wealth to the poor.
Elizabeth was fortunate enough to have married a man with whom she could share not only her faith, but also her commitment to good works. She focused her energies on the needs of the elderly, sick, and lepers, and eventually brought a leper home to live in the palace.
As famine ravaged her land, Elizabeth ordered the royal cooks to work through the night, preparing bread and soup. Nuns and monks worked alongside Elizabeth in distributing food to the hungry at the castle gate. Elizabeth also opened soup kitchens throughout her land and made churches available for the homeless. Slowly but surely, Elizabeth emptied her own pantry to care for the poor, selling her jewels and precious metals to meet the people’s needs.
Clare of Assisi
A young woman of great wealth, Clare of Assisi (1194–1253) left everything behind to become founder and leader of the Poor Clares—a barefooted order of women devoted to a life of simplicity, prayer, and poverty. Challenging a church troubled by greed and corruption, Clare and her followers lived in the barest of dwellings. They sought to humble themselves and imitate the life of Christ.
Francis built an adjoining house to his chapel at St. Damian for Clare who was soon joined by her sister, mother, and other wealthy women including the princess of Bohemia and the king of Hungary's niece. Clare led a ministry of prayer and care for the ill. The order is also known for defending themselves from invaders. Clare’s courage and single-minded focus on Christ continues to inspire her order to this day.
Like women continue to do today, women reformers in the Middle Ages fearlessly challenged distorted theology, personal gain, and the oppression of the innocent too common in the church. These women were a source of inspiration, vision, and much-needed reform for the church in their day, and in ours as well.
1. Underhill, p. 75.
2. Carol Lee Flinders, Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics. (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), p.114.
3. Underhill, p. 179.