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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Medieval mystics

Medieval mystics - History Extra

"In the Anglo-Saxon period your images of god, tend to be quite fearsome and stern. With some exceptions, but overall, quite a strong figure. The emphasis being on his achievements, and his sort of strength in the face of adversity. Whereas in the late Middle Ages, it becomes more about the suffering of Christ and emphasis on what he went through on behalf of mankind. So the art from the Late Middle Ages is much more evocative and emotive. The stories, the narratives you get about Christ become more about the things that he went through. And I think in tandem with that, women start to see, well men and women, but women particularly start to see a way of identifying more with Christ. Just on a very basic level, a sort of slightly frightening, stern, Old Testament God is slightly less relatable than a sort of human and emphasis on the human element of the trinity, someone that the people could imagine themselves talking to or having a conversation with or watching in a certain experience...

Women were often spoken about in the Middle Ages as being more emotional, being more visual. So men are associated with reason and intellect, and women are associated with emotion, feeling and the flesh and the body. And if the shift into talking and thinking about Christianity is towards a more human, bodily Christ, then that opens up an avenue for women to connect a little bit more... the sort of stern, strong Old Testament is much more to do with intellect and reason...

Angela of Foligno... she's most famous for caring for local lepers... one of the horrible things that she ended up doing is drinking the bath water of one of the lepers in her care... she felt one of the scabs lodge in her throat and that catapulted her into a sort of ecstatic vision of God...

Catherine of Sienna... she's caring for a nun who has some quite bad wounds and is dying, and she's getting quite irritated by this nun and having to look after her and the smell of the nun's wounds revolts her. And she thinks that's a sign from the devil... she shouldn't be disgusted by the smell of the putrefying flesh... to try and counteract that she decides to drink some of the pus from the wound and again she has an ecstatic vision as a consequence, and she says to her biographer that she'd never tasted anything sweeter or more exquisite than the pus from that wound...

The way that these experiences are often described is in sensual language... people imagining kissing Christ's wound in his side, of drinking that blood and it being very pleasurable. And I think part of this is a redirection of impulses. If you're living a holy life, you're not having sex, you're not kind of engaging in worldly pleasures. And those impulses still are existing, of course cause you're still human, but it's much better to direct them in a spiritual direction. So you get quite a lot of spiritual instructors, encouraging that kind of language and thinking, because it's better to be thinking that way in terms of religious experience...

So I got really interested initially in water because I kept noticing it kept popping up in these books, written for women, whether that's by men or by women, for other women on these sorts of topics. So guidebooks, passion meditation, that water seemed to be really significant. And then as I was reading more, I noticed that often there were images of transformation within that. So water that turns into wine. Blood that turns into water. Honey, oil, milk, various different fluids used to describe crucially usually the moment that Christ is dying on the cross. So you find that the references to liquids seem to intensify when religious authors are talking about that moment... or when women are having visions describe seeing Christ's body...

Angela of Foligno says that if you can imagine yourself immersed in the wound in Christ's side, the further in you get, the more your spiritual knowledge will increase. So that's a direct correlation between being sort of surrounded by Christ's bodily fluids and having spiritual knowledge. And my theory is that this is particularly attractive to women because women's bodies in the Middle Ages are conceptualized as much more liquid... the four humours... women are supposed to be more imbalanced and more liquid according to Medieval medicine... according to Aristotle the female baby is a sort of deficient half formed version of the male baby. It's kind of too weak to kind of create itself as a man and so it's born as a woman and then spends always this sort of idea that women spend the rest of their lives trying to cope with that disability almost. So the fact that that women bleed once a month is a sort of attempt on the body's attempt to purge excess fluid that shouldn't really be in the body...

They're sort of more sexually promiscuous cause they can't contain selves and they're looking to get what they lack in men, there's almost something in women's bodies, because they're sort of deficient hope that by uniting with men, having sex with men, they'll leach away some of their strength and their heat. So sort of vampire women trying to make up for her body deficiencies...

By thinking about their body as more liquid women could identify more with the bleeding sort of sweating body of Christ as he suffers in the Passion and the Crucifixion... If you google medieval images of the wound in Christ's side, it looks very much like a vagina. That's what the images look like often, the sense that Christ's body is quite feminine. Breast milk is referred to a lot in descriptions of Christ in visions that he's sort of leaking milk from his breast that the devoted can ingest."
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