Three Medieval Women for Today

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library - Central Library

Three Medieval Women for Today

One of my favorite daily shows on NPR is Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. This five-minute radio program spotlights poetry and historical tidbits, usually of literary figures and historical events. Recently, he profiled Julian of Norwich (1342-1416?) and how, on that particular day in history, she had received the last of her revelations. This got me thinking about her as well as two other important women in church history: Margery of Kempe and Hildegard of Bingen.

ShowingsKnown as Dame or Mother Julian, she was a mystic and theologian who lived in England during the time of the Black Death. Little is known about her life, but we do know that she was the first woman to compose a literary work in English.

Her book Revelations [or Showings] of Divine Love was written at a time when she was near death. She recovered and received what were described as fifteen “showings of God’s love.” These were later transcribed into what we now have. The overall theme of the book is God’s love demonstrated in the process of creation and, ultimately, in the death and resurrection of Christ.

Julian, much ahead of her time, wrote extensively of Christ’s “motherhood.” At one point in her life she lived as an anchoress at the church of Saint Julian on King Street. It is thought that this is where she took her name. Her writings have influenced many, including T.S. Eliot, who alluded to her work in his poem Four Quartets.

MargeryKempeA contemporary of Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe (1373-1140) is known for "having written" what is thought to be the first autobiography in English. Unable to write, her autobiography was dictated to and transcribed by two clerks.

A daughter of a successful merchant, she married and had 14 children. Later she chose to live a life of chastity apart from her husband. A controversial figure to religious leaders at the time (she was accused of Lollardy and religious hysteria), she nonetheless led a life as a pilgrim visiting many notable sites around Europe and the Holy Land. She recounts many of these travels as well as encounters with figures such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and Julian of Norwich.

The book of Margery of Kempe
paints a fascinating picture of the day-to-day activities of Medieval life.

The woman who is probably the best known of the three today is the German Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Hildegard was a visionary, a theologian, and a musician – a true renaissance woman – before the Renaissance.

Hildegard received visions as a young woman and these continued throughout her life. Many of these were transcribed and have come to us today in her writings, including the
Book of Divine Works. She also composed more than 70 liturgical pieces of music. Hildegard, much like Julian, emphasized feminine imagery to express God’s qualities, often depicting God as a nurturing mother or as wisdom. 

In addition to founding two convents and embarking upon two preaching tours, she was sought out for counsel by Popes and Kings. On October 7, 2012 Pope Benedict XVI named her a Doctor of the Church – only the fourth woman of 35 Catholic saints to be given the title.

To learn more about these women and others, as well as the mystical traditions of both the west and the east, visit us online or at one of our 25 locations.

-- S. McDermott