The medieval mystics with a hotline to God

They ate lepers' scabs, starved themselves to the brink of death, and had themselves permanently bricked into solitary cells. Hetta Howes gives six examples of the extreme lengths to which some believers were prepared to go to get closer to Jesus in the Middle Ages...

A portrait of Catherine of Siena, who in the 1360s experienced a vision from God during which – according to her biographer, Raymond of Capua – she drank the water from the wound in Christ’s side. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Pleasures of the flesh

For many medieval mystics, the key to spiritual ecstasy lay in degrading acts such as drinking the pus from wounds

In the 1360s, a young woman called Catherine of Siena experienced a vision from God during which – according to her biographer, Raymond of Capua – she drank the water from the wound in Christ’s side.

Catherine’s vision proved a life-changing experience. From that day, she was in an almost constant state of contemplation. She no longer menstruated, or defecated. She refused food and drink, and began substituting it with other, more revolting liquids. Raymond tells us that Catherine drank the pus from the cancerous wound of a nun in her care – imagining that she was ingesting the fluids of Christ.

To the 21st-century eye, this was a bizarre – and repulsive – way of displaying your devotion to God. But it was far from unique. Catherine was one of a new breed of medieval women who rejected the everyday temptations of the material world and gave themselves over to the life of the mystic. They were determined to communicate with God more directly, and fervently believed that degrading themselves before him, and propelling themselves into a state of ecstasy, was the best way to do it.

Catherine of Siena – who died in 1380, aged 33 – certainly found fulfilment in establishing this new hotline to the divine. She told Raymond that she had never tasted any food and drink sweeter or more exquisite than the leaking emissions of this wound.

Men, too, could choose the life of the mystic. But the vast majority were women, and this emphasis on fluids – the water and blood from Christ’s side, the pus from the nun’s wound – goes some way to explaining why. While medieval Europeans thought men to be hot and dry, women were considered cold and wet. While men’s bodies were regarded as strong and intact, women’s were, it was believed, more susceptible to external influence, more likely to leak and more prone to excess.

But by ingesting liquid from wounds, women could recast this negative view of their bodies in a new light. They could use their fluidity to help them connect more closely with the divine.

Holy bathwater

Angela of Foligno ate a leper’s scab in a bid to experience the suffering of the sick and the poor

Angela of Foligno, in central Italy, was an unlikely mystic. Before dedicating herself to God, she was a wife, a mother and a social climber, pursuing wealth and status rather than mystical experience. But at the age of 40, something changed. Following the death of her husband and children towards the end of the 13th century, she dedicated her life to poverty and hardship in imitation of Christ.

We know from an account of her visions that many of Angela’s mystical experiences were a direct result of interaction with the sick and the poor. One of the most famous of these involves Angela’s care of local lepers. She would bathe their suffering bodies as part of her penitential practice – and then she would drink their bathwater. When a scab from this water got caught in her throat, she imagined that it was the Holy Communion, the body and blood of Christ. She forced herself to swallow it, and as a result experienced a moment of mystical union with Christ. By imagining that the suffering flesh was the same as Christ’s flesh, she turned her bodily revulsion into religious ecstasy.

This sensory act offers another clue as to what made mysticism attractive to women. In medieval Europe, reason and intellect were a man’s domain. Women were associated with the flesh; intellectual contemplation, it was believed, was beyond them. But, at the same time, more attention was being paid to the suffering body of Christ, as well as the physical practices that could spark a mystical state. This allowed women to use their connection with the physical to access something previously denied to them. They could now speak to God using their bodies and their senses as well as their minds.

The gift of tears

Some mystics displayed their devotion through prolonged bouts of hysterical crying

In her memoirs, Margery Kempe recalled a monk telling her that he wished she was locked up in a house of stone. Pilgrims and archbishops were also, it seems, irritated by the 15th-century English mystic, declaring their desire that she go elsewhere to practise her devotion. But why?

The answer appears to lie in the sheer fervour of that devotion. When travelling with her fellow pilgrims, Margery chastised them for talking about frivolous things instead of God. In response, they made her sit alone on a small stool at the end of the table – and later, they tried to ditch her entirely. She insisted on wearing white, a custom usually reserved for virgins, even though she had given birth to 14 children.

Above all, Margery’s visions of Christ were repeatedly punctuated by crying fits so long and loud that it’s said they were more like “roarings”. Margery tells us that often she could barely breathe for crying, and she could not control or contain them – try as she might. Any small reminder of Christ and his suffering could set off these fits, from the sight of a small boy being hit by his father, to a horse being struck when ridden.

According to the Book of Margery Kempe, many of Margery’s contemporaries doubted whether her visions were genuine. However, her tears did have a precedence that was sanctioned by the church. Male ecclesiastical authorities understood the ‘gift of tears’ to be a sign of devotion sent by God, which the recipient could neither control nor prevent, but which would help facilitate mystical experiences.

The ultimate isolation chamber

Anchoresses retired from the world in order to discover a new, mystical one

While mystics such as Angela of Foligno chose to get closer to God by becoming prominent, active members of their community, others disappeared from their communities altogether. Women who did this were called ‘anchoresses’ (after the ancient Greek verb anachoreo, which means ‘to retire’ or ‘to withdraw’), and their particularly extreme brand of mysticism saw them enter self-imposed solitary confinement for the rest of their lives.

To become an anchoress, you first had to have enough wealth and status to persuade a bishop to support you. Once you’d done this, you would enter a small cell, usually adjoining a church. As you did so, a priest would read you the death rites (after which you were considered metaphorically dead). And here you would remain, with the cell sealed up behind you, until your death. Sometimes, the anchoress’s grave would be prepared during the ceremony and kept open in the cell, a reminder of her mortality. Her life would now follow a strict religious timetable, involving cycles of prayer and penitence.

To most people today, this may sound like a vision of hell, but it had its attractions back in the 14th and 15th centuries – perhaps because it offered an alternative to the perils of marriage and childbirth.

And while anchoresses condemned themselves to extreme isolation, such enclosure could act as a gateway to another world – that of mystical experience. A number of anchoresses recorded vivid visions which came to them in their tiny cells, visions which could feel more real to them than their everyday life.

Julian of Norwich (1342–c1416), one of the most famous medieval anchoresses, spent most of her enclosed life (in a cell next to St Julian’s Church, Norwich) recording and interpreting a series of visions in which she not only saw Christ bleeding on the cross but also conversed with him about theology. In one particularly evocative moment, she records Christ opening up the wound in his side and showing her the cavernous space inside – big enough to fit all of mankind within.

Dusty feet and scarlet ribbons

The only way to feel at one with Jesus was to imagine you were present at his death

In the 12th century, the Yorkshire monk and writer St Ælred of Rievaulx chastised his readers for not being more active when visualising Christ’s suffering. He told them to imagine that they were licking the sweat from Christ’s dusty feet, and kissing his wounds one by one until their lips became stained red with blood, like a scarlet ribbon. Mystics such as Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Marie d’Oignies and Angela of Foligno followed this advice, recording visions of the crucifixion, which helped catapult them into mystical states.

St Ælred’s words capture perfectly the essence of Passion Meditation, a devotional craze that swept the Christian world in the Middle Ages. The idea was that, if you wanted to deepen your faith, you needed to do more than think about the suffering of Christ during his torture and death. You needed to imagine that you were actually there, watching events unfold, even becoming involved in the action. This was the best way, many believed, to feel closer to God.

Believers were encouraged to imagine what Christ’s fluids might taste like, what sounds they might hear as Christ was tortured, what it would feel like to have their hands and feet pierced through with nails.

For all that, of the many practices recorded here, Passion Meditation was the most accessible and the least dangerous. Ordinary people didn’t need to drink the bathwater of lepers, or be blessed with the gift of tears. They could gain a deeper connection with their God simply by imagining, and trying to identify with, his suffering on the cross.

Divine anorexics

Mystics refused food and drink in a bid to mimic Christ’s suffering

The phrase ‘holy anorexics’, coined by the historian Rudolph Bell in the 1980s, describes Christian women – including a number of mystics – who starved themselves into meditative, even ecstatic states where they might experience visions of God. This was partly a severe form of imitatio Christi, which involved imitating Christ and his suffering during the Passion in order to feel a deeper connection with him. Some understood this practice as a restitution for the sins of others: by punishing their bodies, they could do penance on the behalf of weaker sinners.

More recently, it’s been suggested that the visions starving mystics claimed to experience were caused by the physical impact of denying their bodies food for extended periods of time.

However, the visions were also seen as a sign of potential sainthood. If a mystic was apparently surviving on little, or no food at all, then their very bodies were a kind of miracle. According to legend, Catherine of Siena survived for years on nothing but the Eucharist, while Marie of Oignies and her fellow mystic Beatrice of Nazareth claimed that the smell of food repulsed them entirely.

Many of these women were celebrated, even – as in the case of Catherine of Siena – canonised. However, by the 15th century, the church had started to prescribe moderation. It feared that their practices had gone too far and were having a detrimental effect on the devoted. The medieval mystics’ extraordinary displays of self-sacrifice would soon fade into history.

Dr Hetta Howes is a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker and a lecturer in medieval literature at City, University of London.

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To listen to Hetta discuss medieval ecstasy on BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking, click here.