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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 4 - Medieval Narrative  


Medieval Women, the Mother of God, and God the Mother

A number of aristocratic women exercised secular power in twelfth-century Europe, none more widely than Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), heiress to the rich provinces of Aquitaine and Poitou in southwestern France. Married successively to two kings, Louis VII of France and Henry II of England, Eleanor eventually pursued an independent life, for a time reigning over her own court in the city of Poitiers. Here, around 1170, she brought together a brilliant group of poets and intellectuals. With her daughters and nieces, tradition has it, Eleanor sat in judgment on lovelorn knights and suitors, exemplifying the rule of women celebrated in the idealization of courtly love during the Twelfth-Century Renaissance.(1)

This cult of courtly love intertwined with and perhaps caused the complementary worship of the Virgin Mary. As a result, at least theoretically, and certainly temporarily, women played a sovereign role in both society and religion. The elevation of Mary partly redressed the masculine bias shown by the early Church Fathers, most especially St. Jerome, who composed litanies attacking women which characterized the sex with titles like "the slippery path" and the "throat of the devil." Not surprisingly, in an intellectual climate influenced by attitudes like Jerome's, texts that stressed the contributions of women to the early church were suppressed, resulting in the lasting consequence of women's exclusion from the priesthood.

However, the church could not afford totally to ignore women's usefulness. For instance, among the so-called barbarian settlers in Northern and Western Europe, often the first to convert to Christianity were the women, who then persuaded their husbands and families to accept the new religion. Moreover, numbers of women with a religious vocation, or literally call, answered that call by devoting themselves to the service of the church and to spiritual contemplation.

Between the twelfth and the fourteenth centuries, the mood in Europe changed. Faced with the suffering caused by the Hundred Years War(2) and the Black Death, Christians seeking refuge with a God who had also known suffering created a new literature of mystic longing that eclipsed the literature of romantic longing produced in the twelfth. More and more medieval Christians renounced the world and retired into hermitages or cells where they meditated in isolation. Among these was an Englishwoman known as Julian of Norwich (1342-1416?).

Julian became a recluse in a cell attached to the Church of St. Julian and St. Edward at Conisford, in the city of Norwich, sometime after the day in May 1373 when she was cured of a severe illness that seemed about to end her life. Instead, a sequence of mystical visions came to her. Lying on what appeared to be her deathbed, she fixed her gaze on a crucifix. Expecting death, she experienced sixteen different revelations, including visions of the bleeding head of Jesus and the image of the Virgin Mary. She entered her retreat to subject this experience to the intense private contemplation that religious mystics practice in an effort to unite themselves with the divine.

Julian is probably the first woman to have composed documents in Middle English. The excerpts below, translated from Middle English by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, are from the second version of her book of Showings, or visions, written after years of private meditation on the original experience. Exactly who recorded these thoughts is not clear; Julian speaks of her own lack of letters, but most modern critics dismiss her self-deprecation. Whether she dictated to a scribe or wrote her thoughts in her own hand, however, Julian left a body of work attractive to theologians today because of the way she formulated the idea that the Christian God encompassed the feminine as well as the masculine sphere, a concept not often heard after the second century. Sadly, Julian enjoyed a short period of local celebrity and then was largely forgotten..

From A Book Of Showings

From the Fifty-Ninth Chapter:

As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother, and he revealed that in everything, and especially in these sweet words where he says, I am he; that is to say: I am he, the power and goodness of fatherhood; I am he, the wisdom and the lovingness of motherhood; I am he, the light and the grace which is all blessed love; I am he, the Trinity; I am he, the unity; I am he, the great supreme goodness of every kind of thing; I am he who makes you to love; I am he who makes you to long; I am he, the endless fulfilling of all true desires. For where the soul is highest, noblest, most honourable, still it is lowest, meekest and mildest.

And from this foundation on substance we have all the powers of our sensuality by the gift of nature, and by the help and the furthering of mercy and grace, without which we cannot profit. Our great Father, almighty God, who is being, knows us and loved us before time began. Out of this knowledge, in his most wonderful deep love, by the prescient eternal counsel of all the blessed Trinity he wanted the second person to become our Mother, our brother and our saviour. From this it follows that as truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother. Our Father wills, our Mother works, our good Lord the Holy Spirit confirms. And therefore it is our part to love our God in whom we have our being, reverently thanking and praising him for our creation, mightily praying to our Mother for mercy and pity, and to our Lord the Holy Spirit for help and grace. For in these three is all our life: nature, mercy and grace, of which we have mildness, patience and pity, and hatred of sin and wickedness; for the virtues must of themselves hate sin and wickedness.

And so Jesus is our true Mother in nature by our first creation, and he is our true Mother in grace by his taking our created nature. All the lovely works and all the sweet loving offices of beloved motherhood are appropriated to the second person, for in him we have this godly will, whole and safe forever, both in nature and in grace, from his own goodness proper to him.

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From the Sixtieth Chapter:

The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courteously and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life; and with all the sweet sacraments he sustains us most mercifully and graciously, and so he meant in these blessed words, where he said: I am he whom Holy Church preaches and teaches to you. That is to say: All the health and life of the sacraments, all the power and the grace of my word, all the goodness which is ordained in Holy Church for you, I am he.

The mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side, and show us there a part of the godhead and of the joys of heaven, with inner certainty of endless bliss.

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From the Sixty-First Chapter:

The mother may sometimes suffer the child to fall and to be distressed in various ways, for its own benefit, but she can never suffer any kind of peril to come to her child, because of her love. And though our earthly mother may suffer her child to perish, our heavenly Mother Jesus may never suffer us who are his children to perish, for he is almighty, all wisdom and all love, and so is none but he, blessed may he be.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How does Julian redefine the Trinity?
  2. How may Julian's choice of words like "courteously" and "tenderly" and her emphasis on love and sensuality reflect the influence of the intellectual and cultural changes that began in the twelfth century?
  3. Julian's contemplation of the wounds of the crucifixion typifies the way mystical thinkers focus on specific physical details to stimulate their own spiritual invention. How does she interpret their significance?
  4. Explain the various maternal qualities Julian finds in the relationship between Jesus and those who believe in him.


1. Whether this ever happened, it should be noted, is in dispute; no historical evidence has been found to support the version of events made popular by Aaandreas Capellanus in his influential book, The Art of Courtly Love.

2. Between the French and the English, 1337-1453.