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EMBODYINTG MYSTICISM: THE UTRLIZATION OF EMBODIED EXPERIENCE INT
THE MYSTICISM OF ITALIAN WOMEN, CIRCA 1200-1400 CE
ELIZABETH A. ESPOSITO
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
I extend my gratitude and thanks to my diligent supervisory committee, Dr. Nina
Caputo and Dr. Gwynn Kessler, who encouraged and assisted me throughout this
process. I especially thank my advisor, Dr. Anna Peterson, whose support and positive
perspective have been vital to this proj ect. I would like to thank all of my friends and
family for their encouragement, but most especially my mother, my father, and my flance
for their constant nurturing and support.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENT S .............. .................... ii
AB STRAC T ................ .............. iv
1 GREETING THE AGENTS OF MYSTICISM: AN INTRODUCTION TO
CLARE OF ASSISI, ANGELA OF FOLIGNO, AND CATHERINE OF SIENA......1
The Morphing Field of Feminine Mysticism: An Introduction ................. ................5
Methodological Considerations in the Study of Embodied Mysticism ................... ...13
2 THE LITTLE PLANT BLOSSOMS OUT ON HER OWN: THE EMBODIED
MY STICISM OF CLARE OF ASSISI............... ...............16.
Spiritual Interdependence and Mutual Poverty: Revisiting Clare and Francis...........19
Mystical Marriage, Holy Food, and Embodied Piety: The Consequences and
Implications of Clare's Mysticism ................. ...............23........... ..
3 ANGELA DE FOLIGNO: UMBRIA' S PREMIERE MYSTICAL DEVOTEE........30
Eucharistic Piety and the Embodied Host: A Close Reading of Angela' s
Supplementary Steps............... ... .......... . .......3
Writing and Bodily Considerations in Angela's First Twenty Steps .........................37
Angela' s Understandings of Embodiment in the Context of Medieval
Literature ................... .. ........... .... .. ...... ........ .. ........ .......4
Presence in the Embodied World: Angela' s Sphere of Influence and
Consequences of Her Mysticism ................. ...............46................
4 AGENT OF GOD: THE MYSTIC CALL OF CATHERINE OF SIENA .................50
5 REFLECTIONS ON EMBODIED MYSTICISM: THE CONTINUED
CALL FOR MEDIEVAL GENDER STUDIES ................. ............................66
LIST OF REFERENCES ................. ...............73........... ....
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH .............. ...............76....
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
EMBODYING MYSTICISM: THE UTILIZATION OF EMBODIED EXPERIENCE
IN THE MYSTICISM OF ITALIAN WOMEN, CIRCA 1200-1400 CE
Elizabeth A. Esposito
Chair: Anna L. Peterson
Major Department: Religion
The purpose of this thesis is to examine the ways in which medieval women
mystics gained agency and authorial voice in the face of social patriarchal domination
through the practice of mysticism. I selected a cross section of women mystics over two
centuries within the area of central Italy, including St. Clare of Assisi, the beatified
Angela of Foligno, and St. Catherine of Siena. I employed a variety of methods in this
study, including literary rhetorical critique, socio-historical critique, and essentialist
feminist theory. I performed close readings of primary texts and I drew from feminist
and social commentary in secondary works. With this multifaceted literary, historical,
and feminist approach, I hope to expand the concepts of agency and mysticism in the
The common strand linking Clare, Angela, and Catherine is their insistence on
embodied mysticism, a mysticism that claims the body as a site for redemption. Despite
the marginalized status of women within medieval society, these mystics were able to
recapture a sense of holiness and wholeness as they garnered and demanded equal
authority based on their experiences of mystical union with God. Indeed, each of these
women was an author, leaving behind monastic rules, spiritual and political letters, and
rich mystical commentaries. Clare of Assisi fought throughout her life to have her rule,
the Forma Vitae, approved, and she vocally and radically declared that ascetic poverty
was a viable practice for religious women as well as men. Angela of Foligno recorded
her mystical visions through contested dictation with her confessor, and her shocking
public ecstasies defied the social norms of her era. Catherine of Siena adamantly claimed
the status of a reformer called by God, and she produced hundreds of letters, a theological
treatise, and counseled popes and ecclesiastics. All three of these women were writers,
crafting their own interpretations of God and spiritual understandings. Yet, they also
righted their marginalized status as women by claiming their bodies (rather than the
institutional church) as the locus for knowledge and right experience with the Godhead.
Through ascetic practice and embodied mysticism, Clare, Angela, and Catherine gained
the perspective and authority to write and right themselves in the face of patriarchy.
GREETING THE AGENTS OF MYSTICISM: AN INTRODUCTION TO CLARE OF
ASSISI, ANGELA OF FOLIGNO, AND CATHERINE OF SIENA
Mysticism calls us into its utterances and draws us into its web of ethereal
relationship. Our fascination with mysticism may very well rest on its paradoxical
nature, its double entendre of the wrenching inability to express the ineffable experience
and its dynamic between ecstatic union and disparate separation. The medieval period
has always held a particular fascination for me, perhaps because of its abundance of
religious figures and myriad instances of mystical interpretations. Yet, perhaps this
fascination stems from the idea that the medieval period seems so intensely and
qualitatively different from our modern world, both in its heightened sense of spirituality
and its stark treatment of women. Romana Guarnieri writes about the captivating
characteristic of medieval society that captures the feminine imagination in the preface to
Angela ofFoligno: Complete Works.
Here was a period in which for the first time in history, throughout the whole
Christian world, an incredible number of women, within a church that had imposed
on them almost total silence, now came to the fore, speaking and writing with such
authority that they could not be ignored .. what happened was irreversible, even
with all the incomprehension, misunderstanding, suffering, and persecution, which
we are only now beginning to understand. Today, as a result of incisive and deep
studies especially in the past ten [now twenty] years, we have discovered the
immense historic importance of these events.l
SPaul Lachance, trans. 4ngela ofFoligno (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), 5-6.
This renewed drive to uncover the voices on the margins of medieval society has
captured my interest and been translated into a continuous study of feminist elements in
With so many prominent and passionate voices to choose from, spanning many
centuries and ranging from the challenges of lay Beguines, to anchoress Julian of
Norwich' s Revelations of Divine Love, to the influential work of Teresa of Avila, one
may ask how I happened upon a connective study of an obscure Italian mystic and two
canonized Italian saints. Upon looking into the mysticism of St. Clare of Assisi, I
discovered several other daughters of mysticism, women born of privilege and comfort
who had renounced wealth and security to partake in poverty and ascetic practice,
trusting in the provision of God for both their spiritual and physical needs. Although
these women were separated in time, they shared in a progressive theology and a sense of
their transformative role in the social and spiritual conditions of their eras.
St. Clare of Assisi, born in 1193 and passing away in 1253, was a remarkable
Franciscan devotee, founding mother of the order of the Poor Clares, and spiritual
director.2 Born in 1248 in Foligno, a tiny Umbrian town near Assisi, Angela of Foligno
left a record of a remarkable thirty step j ourney to mystical union, devoted herself to the
poor, and garnered a number of spiritual supplicants.3 In nearby Siena, Catherine
Benincasa was born in 1347 and led a full and prolific life, becoming a Dominican
tertiary, serving as a spiritual and political mediator in the papal disputes of her day, and
SMonica Furlong, I isions and Longings (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1996), 117-119.
SFurlong, I isions and Longings, 148-149.
penning a theological treatise called the Dialogue.4 These women mystics emerged from
the two neighboring regions of Tuscany and Umbria in central Italy, and although they
were temporally separated, their close spatial proximity allowed for the transmission of
religious texts and the possibility of mutual influences.
The unitive thread in the narratives of Clare, Angela, and Catherine is one of
embodiment, of both spiritual and physical presence in the mystical union with the
Godhead. With a greater emphasis on embodied experience rather than high theology
and institutionalized ritual, these women mystics challenged the church in its own
household. Unlike the heretical independent lay groups outside of Italy, Clare, Angela,
and Catherine embraced models of orthodoxy, such as their associations with recognized
monastic orders, and as a result, they gained the space and authority to convey their
unsettling convictions and assert themes of embodiment. Thus they both appropriated
authority through their actions and challenged notions of identity through the writing of
their bodies into mystical experience.
In addition to their emphasis on experiential knowledge of God (rather than
theological or institutional), Clare, Angela, and Catherine all practiced imitatio Christi in
real, grounded ways. Clare focused especially on extreme poverty in her imitation of
Christ, and Angela and Catherine embraced the physicality of suffering through drinking
the pus of the poor and ill. Their emphasis on raw, physical experience seems to be a
particularly feminine medieval concern. Since women were largely denied access to
theological treatises and were restricted in agency regarding church doctrine, because of
their status and education, they turned to the only avenue available for them to gain
SFurlong, Visions and Longings, 157-159.
interpretive authority. In fact, medieval women used their bodies and experiential
knowledge gained through the Eucharist and mystical union to shape their own
multifaceted spiritual understandings. In the case of Clare, Angela, and Catherine, these
spiritual insights were compiled under the auspices of the Catholic Church within their
respective orders, but their liberal interpretations of relationship to God and Christ
allowed them to assert their own authority and claims to knowledge and sanctity.
I hope to illuminate yet another unitive thread that is found throughout the legacy
of embodied mysticism, that of expanded possibilities of spiritual understanding.
Although the dualisms of material/physical, body/spirit, female/male, bad/good was alive
and well in the medieval period, the embodied mysticism of Clare, Angela, and Catherine
seems to both dissolve and invert some of these dichotomies. Certainly, in their imitation
of Christ and attuned sensory descriptions and visions, these women mystics were
identifying more deeply with their socially marginalized bodies, sinking into their own
physicality and mortality rather than attempting to transcend it. For these women, their
bodies were not the restrictive prisons that medieval society deemed them to be. The
mystical understandings of Clare, Angela, and Catherine found both j oy and love in the
grotesque body narrative of the passion and declared the redemptive power of their own
bodies. The body was in fact a site of expansive opportunity to subvert and erase duality,
and to experience heightened, nuanced understandings of the sacred, the soul, and of life.
Embodied mysticism allowed these women to find several redemptive strategies,
permitting healing, realized redemption through identification with the body of Christ,
their own bodies, and the body of humanity. Furthermore, embodied mysticism allowed
Clare, Angela, and Catherine to express images of Christ in multifaceted, multigendered
ways, each of them touching on images of Christ as erotic lover, nursing mother,
innocent child, and androgynous companion. Instead of merely inverting patriarchy by
declaring Christ female, they somewhat subverted medieval patriarchy and dominant
church authority by proclaiming Christ' s accessibility to everyone. Images of Christ as
lover, mother, child, and companion combine to paint a portrait of mutuality and
cooperation, subverting the rigidity and hierarchy of medieval authority. I now turn to
discussions in the field of medieval mysticism in order to expand the concept of
The Morphing Field of Feminine Mysticism: An Introduction
In undertaking this study, I have been guided by the feminist understandings of
Bynum, Elizabeth Petroff, Laurie Finke, and E. Ann Matter, among others. The work of
Caroline Walker Bynum has been seminal in understanding issues of gender and
mysticism in the medieval period. I have been directed by her perceptions of the body
and power, and by subsequent critiques of her work. Her many notable works include
Jesus a~s Mother, Holy Fea~st and Holy Fa~st, and Fragmentation and Redemption.
Bynum's theories have been transformative in this field, yet they are also contested and
have generated a number of critical responses. Reactions of other feminists and gender
scholars have subsequently enhanced and opened medieval studies, with research
regarding the role men and lay people in the experience and transmission of mysticism.
Indeed, "the work of Caroline Walker Bynum in seeking to delineate a distinctive
feminine form of piety opened up the possibilities of exploring gendered piety."s
5 P.H. Cullum, "Gendering Charity, Gender and Holiness: Men, Women and Saints in Late Medieval
Europe (London: Routledge, 2002) 149.
Bynum's work on control, power, and ascetic practice has enhanced social and historical
perceptions of medieval women and inspired many other feminist and gender critiques.
In Holy Fea~st, Holy Fa~st, Bynum contends that although medieval asceticism that
focused around food was a prominent practice for both the male and female religious
devotees, "there is clear evidence that it was more important to women than to men."6
Bynum hopes to recover the connective rubric that considers food-related practices in
their totality, instead of handling phenomena such as eucharisticc devotion, fasting, food
multiplication miracles, and lactation visions as treated in isolation from one another."'
She first outlines the background history of medieval holy women, providing context and
contrast, and then analyzes "how women were able to use food practices to shape their
experience and their place in both family and community and, second, what food-related
behavior and symbols actually meant to medieval women."s Bynum thus provides a
historical reinterpretation of ascetic practice and a model for the study of gender in
Later critics, such as Kathleen Biddick, argue against the unity and essentialism
found in Bynum's work. Biddick claims that Bynum's Holy Fea~st, Holy Fa~st is
reductionist and structuralist, naturalizing and fixing gender boundaries in an idealized
past as well as reducing women to the maternal. She also asserts that Bynum' s
essentialist categories of culture and Christendom discourage the study of identity and
6 C8TOline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast, Holy Fast (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 74.
SBynum, Holy Feast, Holy Fast, 75.
SBynum, Holy Feast, Holy Fast, 6.
difference and prevent a fluid understanding of culture.9 Even as she argues that Bynum
presents a flat, bounded, idealized medieval culture, Biddick ignores the medieval
cultural milieu and dismisses the possibility that culture does have boundaries, although
these boundaries may be fluid and expandable, as well as contractive and collapsible. For
medieval women, there were set boundaries and rules to tow to, but that did not preclude
the possibility for myriad, multifaceted, and heterogeneous subcultures and agents to
arise and act to counter the dominant culture. Although Biddick attempts to open
interpretation in her post structuralist critique, she in fact closes the door on examining
the subversive possibilities of medieval mystics. I hope instead to uncover the ways in
which women mystics unknowingly challenged and changed dominant culture, adding
their seemingly progressive and unorthodox voices to the patriarchal cacophony of the
medieval Catholic Church.
Laurie Finke adds a crucial dimension to the study of medieval women mystics,
with her valuation of a nuanced understanding of identity and power. Finke contends that
dialogism [an ongoing conversation that was fluid and continuous] existed among
mystical religious women despite temporal difference or physical distance. Indeed, she
wants "to insist upon this dialogism this 'intense interaction of one' s own and another' s
voice'" that she perceives "as central to the visionary experience."'o Finke also
highlights a portrait of a complex and vocal woman of the Middle Ages, drawing focus
9 Kathleen Biddick, "Genders, Bodies, and Borders: Technologies of the Visible," Speculum 68, no. 2
(April 1993): 393-94.
ULaurie A. Finke, "Mystical Bodies and the Dialogics of Vision, Maps of Flesh and Light: The Religious
Experience ofi~edieval ~vstics (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1993), 29.
away from the oversimplified and polarized stereotypes of Eve and Mary."l She adopts
the idea of women speaking through their bodies, in contrast to the idea of uncovering
women's power through their silence.12 Like Finke, I hope to convey that Clare, Angela,
and Catherine were all both adamant and complex in their mystical utterances.
Elizabeth Petroff adds another insight with her exploration of the apparent
contradiction between a misogynist, repressive society and the proliferation of women
religious visionaries and authors. She quotes Ann R. Jones, noting that despite
systematic repression, '"resistance does take place in the form of jouissance, that is, in
the direct reexperience of the physical pleasures of infancy and of later sexuality,
repressed but not obliterated by the Law of the Father."'" As we will see, the images of
Christ as erotic lover and as nursing life-giver emerge upon closer examination of the
experiences and texts of these three mystics. Clare, Angela, and Catherine prominently
employ these motifs in their mystical texts and letters. These vibrant images survive in
their works despite both admonitions and attempts on the part of their confessors to
encourage more orthodox forms of expression and despite later redaction. Indeed, the
power dynamic within the confessor/penitent model was challenged as these women
mystics either defied or openly schooled and corrected their monastic mentors. As
Petroff claims, a feminist lens that focuses on the rhetoric of power and writing can help
explain why "in spite of cultural repression... some women did succeed in becoming
11 Finke, "Mystical Bodies," 31.
12 Finke utilizes Foucault's sense of the centrality of the body in gaining knowledge. Finke, "Mystical
13 Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1994), 205.
writers."14 Indeed, Clare, Angela, and Catherine did succeed in becoming writers; they
did not merely dictate or dryly report their visions, but actively shaped interpretation of
their experiences through embodied metaphors and by struggling with their confessor
scribes to push the boundaries of acceptability and orthodoxy.
Finke utilizes an important argument that bodily experience is "organized by
cultural representations" and that "two antithetical representations of the body [classical
and grotesque] str-ucture discursive norms in any culture."ls The medieval distinction
between the classical body in opposition to the grotesque body provides a useful lens
with which to understand medieval women's own perceptions. The classical body was a
medieval ideal, a spiritualized representation that never existed apart from its cultural
construction. The grotesque body was material and was most often a representation
relegated to women and other marginal social groups. The grotesque body's "discursive
norms include heterogeneity, disproportion, a focus on gaps, orifices, and symbolic
filth."16 It seems that medieval women did not strive to transcend their grotesque bodies,
but sought to validate and identify them in and with the body of Christ.
Finke' s concluding remarks offer a useful understanding of how women in the
Middle Ages shaped and wielded power. Although women could claim little institutional
authority from the church, the spiritual authority of female mystics lay in a claim to
14Petroff, Body and Soul, 205.
15 Finke borrows Mikhail Bakhtin' s distinction between the classical and grotesque body, noting that "two
antithetical representations of the body structure discursive norms in any culture." Given the limited scope
of this study, I have chosen to rely on Finke's interpretation of Bakhtin' s distinction and will hereafter
citeFinke. Finke, "Mrstical Bodies," 36-37.
16 Finke, "Mrstical Bodies," 37.
divine inspiration, as instruments of divine will.17 However, women like Angela of
Foligno were not nearly as secretive and unassuming as they had to appear "in order to
win the church's toleration and acceptance." Indeed,
Any visionary experience made public is always, ipso facto, a revisioning of that
experience, an attempt to represent the unrepresentable. These women claimed the
power to shape the meaning and form of their own experiences. Their words, and
even their bodies when necessary, became the sites of a struggle to redefine the
meaning of female silence and powerlessness.l8
Thus, even though these female mystics seemed to be in a culture that left little
space for feminine power, they gained agency by writing their bodies through mysticism.
In the history of scholarship on medieval female mystics, there has been much
speculation and contestation over the role of hysteria in religious experience. Cristina
Mazzoni takes up this issue with a lengthy examination and deconstruction of the
conflation of hysteria and women's mystical experience. She implicates the concept of
hysteria not as a "popular neurosis" (that eventually became inextricably linked with
women), but as "a way of posing the problematic of 'constructing,' even more than
'representing,' the feminine."19 Mazzoni claims to examine hysteria as "a mimetic
modality, a manipulable representational strategy, rather than a univocally referential
diagnostic term."20 Thus she seeks to recapture notions of helpless hysteria and
transform them into sites of agency. This re-structured concept of hysteria is noteworthy
17 Finke, "Mystical Bodies," 44.
1s Finke, "Mystical Bodies," 44.
19 CriStina Mazzoni, Saint Hysteria: Neurosis, Mysticiam, and Gender in European Culture (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1996), 5.
20 M8ZZOni, Saint Hysteria, 5.
for this study, as I argue that women mystics exuded agency even through the strange and
erratic behavior that came with their food and body asceticism.
In particular, Mazzoni takes issue with Simone de Beauvoir's dismissive analysis
of female mysticism as emotional and hysterical. Mazzoni claims that Beauvoir "wants
to have her (materialist) cake and eat it too; that is to say, she wants to deny the epistemic
validity of the mystical experience (because of her explicit atheism and existentialist
ethic), while appropriating great figures such as Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena
for women's history."21 Beauvoir makes qualitative distinctions between the
contemplative life and the active life, and she implies that contemplative life is only
justified by action. Mazzoni continues her analysis of Beauvoir by noting that the only
great women mystics are those who moved beyond their adherence and "allegiance to the
patriarchal order" by embracing characteristics of asexuality or masculinity. Female
mystics (such as Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila) could express themselves in a
masculine manner by being active and by focusing on theological rather than sensory
ecstatic understandings of God.22 Mazzoni disagrees with Beauvoir' s qualitative removal
of Catherine and Teresa from their socio-historical context because "her ideological
move colludes with the patriarchal order she is seeking to overthrow."23 According to
Mazzoni, Beauvoir buys into the very patriarchal dichotomy she is trying to undermine.
Beauvoir values the best mysticism as essentially intellectual and virile, while attributing
"the worst mysticism the love displayed for a God that does not exist, a God that is for
21 M8ZZOni, Saint Hysteria, 52.
22 M8ZZOni, Saint Hysteria, 52-53.
23 M8ZZOni, Saint Hysteria, 53.
Beauvoir 'an unreality' is particularly feminine." Thus, Mazzoni wishes to avoid
Beauvoir' s materialist critique where "women mystics are not only criticized for being
the mouthpieces of a patriarchal religious establishment but also, ironically, for their lack
of masculine attributes."24 Like Mazzoni, I hope to steer clear of materialist fallacies and
to uncover the instances where perceived passivity is really vocal, violent, embodied
activity. Indeed, I intend to show that even as these mystics appeared to be
nonthreatening or submissive, they were in fact challenging traditional and institutional
religion. Furthermore, I assert that these women mystics redeemed their "lacking" bodies
through mystical experience, in their imitation of Christ and, somewhat counter-
intuitively, in their body and food mysticism.
In contrast to her analysis of Beauvoir, Mazzoni embraces Luce Irigaray's
examination of mysticism and alludes to Bynum's work. Indeed, Mazzoni notes that
"through Christ's painful death, for Bynum as well as for Irigaray, the mystic' s wounds,
her spiritual or physical stigmata, gain the salvific possibility of becoming holy instead of
unspeakably abject."25 Furthermore, "the pleasure the mystic derives from her vision of
the crucified Christ is caused not by the (painful) sight of his physical torments but rather
by the redemption of the body hence, especially of woman which this sight represents
and even brings about."26 Thus, mystical identification with the crucified Christ, or with
the eucharistic host, provided medieval women with the opportunity to right and write
their bodies, that is to redeem their socially marginalized bodies and to inscribe their own
24Mazzoni, Saint A'steria, 53.
25Mazzoni, Saint A'steria, 154.
26Mazzoni, Saint A'steria, 154.
expressions and understandings of piety. This theme of righting and writing the body
became even more apparent as I studied the lives and works of Clare of Assisi, Angela de
Foligno, and Catherine of Siena.
Methodological Considerations in the Study of Embodied Mysticism
Throughout this essay, I hope to weave a multifaceted critique of women' s power,
religious conviction, and theological perceptions from socio-historical critical sources
and close readings of primary texts. Thus, I rely on both the mystical treatises of the
three figures I am studying and their genre of correspondence in order to determine their
theological attitudes and innovations. My literary analysis of these mystic texts is taken
from reliable English translations, notably those of Paul Lachance and Suzanne Noffke.27
I also employ commentary from secondary sources, such as the socio-historical and
gender critiques discussed above, to contextualize mystical experience, and to locate
women mystics in their respective milieu. Thus my methodological approach
incorporates literary rhetorical critique, socio-historical critique, and feminist theory.
While much work has been done on both the sociological and historical factors of
female mysticism, and much literary research has been conducted to probe the theology
of the extant texts of these mystics, I have not been able to locate a study that unites these
methodological approaches. Caroline Walker Bynum does an excellent job cataloging
both male and female ascetic and food practices and analyzing socio-historical factors of
mystical experience. Yet, her study lacks a thorough examination of how these bodily
practices were relayed and purposefully written into mystical treatises and texts. I try to
27Most of these mystical texts are preserved in Latin, and at times the extant texts are loaded with
fragmented linguistic phrases in dialect as well as idiomatic expressions. Due to availability and language
restrictions, as well as the scope and brevity of this thesis, I have chosen to rely on English translations of
bridge this gap, both building on and expanding upon Bynum's work with the help of
gender and body analysis.
Through this survey, I hope to convey a more holistic and complete sense of female
mysticism by focusing on its experiential relationship with the body. That is to say, I
claim that these female medieval mystics reasserted the value of their bodies through
mystical experience and the insights gained therein. Women mystics, in attempting to
unite with the divine, were not entirely denying or renouncing their bodies, but were
using them as a space to encounter God and reclaim worth. That is not to say that male
mystics did not engage in similar mystical pursuits and expressions. Indeed, many
studies have been conducted about male mystics (St. Francis in particular) and their
extreme food and body asceticism. However, medieval women had the additional
obstacle of a socially constructed grotesque female body to overcome.
Thus, it may be reiterated that female mystics right and write their bodies; their
marginalized bodies are "righted" (made whole, cleansed, renewed) by the Godhead
manifest, and are "written" by themselves, through the power of interpretation and
authority gained in unmediated mystical experience.28 By engaging elements of both an
historical and theological nature, I intend to enhance perceptions of how mysticism
worked for women. It seems that the mystical experiences of certain women
indeliberately functioned as a way out of patriarchal domination; not only could they rise
above oppressive institutional orders by claiming the authority of the unmediated
presence of God, they could also read Jesus as embodied in multiplicitous, and often
multigendered, ways (e.g., Angela ofFoligno identifies with Christ as a nursing mother, a
28 I continue to utilize Finke's idea of writing and righting the body throughout this study, but since it has
been discussed here in the introduction, I will no longer cite the terms.
young boy, and a genderless loving companion). Without explicitly declaring an
independence from patriarchal authority, women mystics seemed to be able to transcend
social marginality by claiming authority through experience and redeeming their bodies
as sites of encounter with power and holiness. I now turn to the ways in which women
mystics from central Italy right and write their bodies into mystical experience.
THE LITTLE PLANT BLOSSOMS OUT ON HER OWN: THE EMBODIED
MYSTICISM OF CLARE OF ASSISI
I, Clare, a handmaid of Christ, a little plant of our holy Father Francis, a sister and
mother of you and the other Poor Sisters, although unworthy, ask our Lord Jesus
Christ through His mercy and through the intercession of His most holy Mother
Mary .. and all His men and women saints, that the heavenly Father give you and
confirm for you this most holy blessing in heaven and on earth.l
Any number of beatific descriptions may be assigned to Clare of Assisi, but
perhaps the most prominent and powerful of those are active spiritual guide, adamant
monastic founder and reformer, and vibrant mystic visionary. Clare left behind several
texts from which scholars can reconstruct her theology and expressions of spirituality,
including her four letters to Agnes of Prague, her Forma Vitae (Form of Life, or Rule),
her Testament,~~ttt~~~~ttt~~~ and her Blessing.2 Born into a wealthy family in 1 196, Clare of Assisi
died in 1253, having finally accomplished her lifelong struggle to gain the right of
evangelical poverty for her order of Poor Clares at San Damiano.3 Indeed, "St. Clare's
success tells us she was a spirited and innovative religious leader, not merely the sweet
and pious follower of St. Francis."4
SBlessing attributed to St. Clare. Furlong, Visions and Longings, 146-147.
2 The latter of the two texts are accepted by a majority of scholars as Clare's own work. Catherine M.
Mooney, "Imitatio Christi or Imitatio Mariae? Clare of Assisi and Her Interpreters," Gendered Voices:
Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1999), 56.
3 Her death followed twenty-seven years after St. Francis of Assisi's death. Furlong, Visions and Longings,
4 Petroff, Body and Soul, 67.
Clare of Assisi's agency and adamancy emerge from the details of her life despite
her restriction within a cloister. Her written Regula is distinctive because it was the first
rule written specifically for women, in contrast to other rules for nuns that were adapted
from monastic orders.s Clare herself was uncomfortable with the unilateral term "Rule,"
and instead referred to her guidelines as Forma vitae, or "a form or pattern of life."6
Even the term "Abbess" was given a new, less hierarchical sense by Clare; the Abbess
should be elected by the sisters and "the Abbess [should] be the servant of all the
sisters."' The Forma vitae is especially significant in light of the historical obstacles and
institutional challenges Clare battled during the foundational period of her order of the
Clarisses (or Poor Clares) and during the composition of her guidelines. Clare protested
a number of imposed papal rules throughout her cloistered life.8 She clamored against
the papacy to maintain the privilegium paupertatis and thus insisted on "remaining
faithful to the absolute poverty demanded by Francis."9 Francis's poverty was already a
radical idea, and Clare pushed the notion further by demanding that women were both
strong enough and possessed the desire and conviction needed to share equally in the vow
of absolute poverty. Additionally, Clare managed to secure papal approval for her rule at
5 E. Ann Matter, "The Commentary on the Rule of Clare of Assisi by Maria Domitilla Galluzzi, Creative
Women in Medieval and Early Modern Italy: A Religious and Artistic Renaissance (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), 202.
6 Petroff, Body and Soul, 66.
SFrom Rule X: The Admonition and Correction of the Sisters. Furlong, Visions and Longings, 143.
SPetroff, Body and Soul, 66.
9 Giulia Barone, "Society and Women's Religiosity, 750-1450," Women and Faith: Catholic Religious Life
in Italy fr~om Late Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 57.
a time when there was a papal ban on the creation of any new religious ordersio (the
Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 forbade the establishment of new religious
Clare's convictive leadership style attracted immediate attention and adherents. As
early as 1217 (a few years after their founding), Clare's Poor Ladies were spreading from
Assisi and the church of San Damiano into neighboring cities; Clare named her
companion Marsebilia abbess of a convent she founded on a tract of land in Foligno that
she acquired.12 Indeed, Clare attracted many followers with her "innovative, living
model of self-abasing female piety," including her sister Agnes, who closely followed
Clare to cloister, and eventually her mother Ortolana dei Fiumi.l3 Clare's charisma and
ability to attract followers despite the hardships of radical poverty lent credibility and a
greater sense of authority to her spiritual convictions.
Clare's Forma Vitae directly challenged the structures of patriarchal society and
medieval conceptions of women in two ways. First, the rule's demand to live as
ascetically as possible, e.g., to fast continually, go barefoot, and to do manual labor,
"asserted the belief that women were as strong as men" and thus disrupted societal
notions about the weaker female sex.14 The Forma vitae also allowed Clare to declare
'o Petroff, Body and Soul, 67.
11 Grace M. Jantzen, Power, Gender, and Christian M~ysticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
12 Clara Gennaro, "Clare, Agnes, and Their Earliest Followers: From the Poor Ladies of San Damiano to
the Poor Clares," Women and Religion in M~edieval and Renaissance Italy (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1996), 42.
13 Rudolph M. Bell, Holy Anorexia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 125-126.
14 Petroff, Body and Soul, 75.
economic independence from male patrons and relatives through its call to extreme
poverty. Clare retreated from the language of hierarchy in her guidelines and
implemented models based on the mutuality of relationships, such as sister to sister,
daughter to mother, etc.ls Indeed, Elizabeth Petroff proclaims that Clare' s Forma vitae
was a utopian vision, bound by a gospel poverty that was economic, social, and spiritual
in nature.16 "Clare saw the possibility for men and women to work together toward the
same spiritual goals, each serving the other."" Her utopian ideal is evident in her desire
for a community that is horizontal, not vertical, where collaboration, not hierarchy, is
fundamental?"8 From all accounts, it seems that "Clare and her companions were not only
the most rigorous and fervent interpreters of the marrow of Francis's message, but also
reaffirmed within the thirteenth century church and society the revolutionary and highly
contested value of poverty in all its radicality."19 (Glae's desire to live on the margins of
society through poverty was both an assertion of independence and a declaration of
solidarity with the poor and Christ.
Spiritual Interdependence and Mutual Poverty: Revisiting Clare and Francis
To some extent, it is safe to postulate that Francis and Clare mutually relied on one
another. We have seen how Francis's message was taken an extra step and expanded
upon by Clare to include women in vows of extreme poverty. Institutional papal bulls
may have emphasized the treatment of Francis and Clare as exemplary religious figures,
15 Petroff Body and Soul, 69.
16 Petroff Body and Soul, 68.
17Petroff Body and Soul, 70.
18Petroff Body and Soul, 70.
19 Gennaro, "Clare, Agnes, and their Followers," 52.
but their preaching of moral values and solidarity with the poor are testaments to their
roles as "bearers of a new spirituality."20 Clare's Franciscan spiritualism, her emphasis
that "poverty was the richly meaningful symbol of the incarnation of Christ," eventually
evoked papal recognition, granting Clare's order its status and connection through the
"principle of minorita;s, which united her with Francis and made her his 'little plant.'"21
The status of minorita~s was a crucial formative step in the order of the Poor Clares; it
allowed the order to flourish under the guidance of empathetic Franciscan brethren, rather
than be hindered by institutions less sympathetic to the ideals of radical poverty.
Although Clare and the Poor Clares may have been officially recognized as offshoots of
the Franciscan tree, Clare and her order also sowed their own legacy, as the "little plant"
blossomed out to assert her own spiritual canopy.
Franciscan theology translated into both Clare's personal practices and her
established rule. She embraced the Franciscan ideals of mutuality and communality in
organizing and governing of her order. Her sisters testified at her canonization that Clare
acted "as the spiritual mother and servant to all her sisters," and that she tenderly cared
for them "in her everyday actions, which revealed her concrete and tangible love, her
personal attention to each of them, and above all, her mercy."22 Given the cloistered
social constraints of her historical era, Clare did as much as she could to effect change
within her order, replacing hierarchies with more democratic processes. When she made
20Barone, "Society and Women's Religiosity," 61.
21Gennaro, "Clare, Agnes, and their Followers," 46-47.
22Gennaro, "Clare, Agnes, and their Followers," 50.
her initial decision to follow Francis on Palm Sunday in 1212,23 Glare "managed to
renounce her noble family, shedding her j ewels and her hair," but "she was never able to
live the full mendicant life she so desired."24 Due to social inhibitions and resistance, as
well as Francis's insistence, Clare accepted enclosure.25 Despite hindrances to her radical
desire to live a life of poverty in public, Clare managed a revolution within the cloister.
She always strove to fulfill the Franciscan ideal, and finally succeed in doing so with the
recognition and ratification of her Forma Vitae right before her death.
Knowledge and interest in Francis's mystical and spiritual insights were
widespread and shared by men and women alike, yet the ideal of his radical poverty
seemed to resonate in the hearts of women. Giulia Barone explains that Francis' s
stigmata "confirmed his role as alter Christus, as the new Christ, perfect in his imitation
of Christ' s poverty, obedience and humility, and made him the particular obj ect of female
piety."26 Barone argues that the female ability to more adequately express a love of
Christ, through mystical marriage or in embodied mimesis, may have "made these
women more faithful to the message of Saint Francis than many of his friars, stuffed with
university doctrine and lacking in humility."27 However, Barone also notes that
Franciscan forms of women' s piety contain a certain ambiguity. She identifies a lack of
Francis' s "perfect idea of joy" in female Franciscans, which may be attributed to their
23Jantzen, Power, Gender, and Christian Aksticisin, 199.
24Caroline Walker Bvnum, T
25Jantzen, Power, Gender, and Christian Aksticisin, 200.
26Barone, "Society and Women's Religiosity," 61.
27Barone, "Society and Women's Religiosity," 61.
harsh ascetic practices. However, Clare hardly falls into Barone's model of ambivalence.
Despite Clare's extreme fasts and penitential asceticism, she embraces the concept of joy
full force in her mystical experiences and visions of God. One may even speculate that
Clare draws also on Francis's joy, as seen in her intimate vision of suckling Francis' s
P.H. Cullum provides an interesting interpretation of Francis and his spiritual
implications. Cullum argues that "saints had to conform to gender stereotypes in order to
be recognized for their sanctity," and he finds it surprising that Francis was so recognized
since he refused "markers of masculine authority."29 Rather, Francis adopted the central
female virtue of obedience and he avoided direct association with clerical authority
through his solidarity with the marginal and the poor. Cullum claims that Francis thus
seems to subvert patriarchal authority by culling out a model for a transgenderedd
Cullum's model may be applied to Clare's religious understandings as well. Clare
crossed gender stereotype boundaries by her vocal disobedience, e.g., by her refusal to
accept an outside Rule that did not include a model for poverty. Her disobedience and
insistence on gospel piety may be seen as a mirrored move to that of St. Francis. While
Francis moves from a male position into a more nuanced stance by renouncing authority,
Clare mirrors his move by moving from a female restrictive position into the same
nuanced stance by engaging in disobedience and claiming the higher authority of God' s
28 Barone, "Society and Women's Religiosity," 63.
29 Cullum, "Gendering Charity," 146.
30 Cullum, "Gendering Charity," 146.
gospel. In any case, the result is a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of gender
identity and mutuality. Both Francis and Clare refused to be bounded and controlled by
socially assigned gender roles, and instead insistently challenged dominant authority by
embracing qualities usually assigned to the opposite sex. Despite these heterodox moves
on the part of Clare and Francis, they were still recognized for their spiritual sanctity and
were quickly canonized following their deaths. It seems that the act of inverting some
gender roles lends credibility and authority. Indeed, Clare employed that tactic with the
sole purpose of gaining acceptance for her work, the Forma Vitae, but an unintended
consequence was empowerment through agency, an unwitting challenge to the patriarchal
establishment of her day.
Mystical Marriage, Holy Food, and Embodied Piety: The Consequences and
Implications of Clare's Mysticism
Although the idea of mystical marriage was utilized by both male and female
spirituals of the twelfth century, it was found far more commonly in women' s
communities, since women could "more readily (that is, without a change of gender)
envision themselves as the spouse of Christ" and "by such mystical marriages they also
acquired prestige, a status superior to that of ordinary women."31 Indeed, Clare of Assisi
adopted the concept of mystical marriage and conveyed it in her letters to Agnes of
Prague, urging her "to think of herself as a bride, a mother, and a sister of Jesus Christ"
and resist secular marriage.32
When you have loved [Him], You shall become chaste; when You have touched
[Him], You shall become pure; when You have accepted [Him], you shall be a
31E. Ann Matter, "Mystical Marriage," Women and Faith: Catholic Religious Life in Italy from Late
4ntiquity to the Present (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 35.
32Matter, "Mystical Marriage," 36.
virgin .. Whose power is stronger .. Whose appearance more beautiful .. In
Whose embrace you are already caught up. Who has adorned Your breast with
precious stones and has placed priceless pearls in Your ears and has surrounded
You with sparkling gems as though blossoms of springtime and placed on Your
head a golden crown as a sign [to all] of Your holiness.33
Clare's words are "explicit and strong in their immediacy: caresses, possession,
sexual union, virginity, and also the physical and material beauty of the body and its
ornaments."34 This passage emphasizes her attention to mystical marriage embodied in
both "physical beauty and the radiant pleasure this union evokes from Clare's bewildered
soul." Additionally, the roles of spouse and mother that Clare names in the letter invoke
Christ' s humanity and embodied presence. Virginity, understood in the context of the
Virgin Mary, offers another example of "a type of deep physical union" and further
solidifies the focus on Christ's embodied aspects.ss Yet, this passage offers something
even more than images of humanity, presence, and bridegroom; Clare is instructively
stating that the site of redemption is located in the body, and the process of redemption is
mystical union. The images she invokes of chastity, purification, and power reinvigorate
the cast aside, grotesque, marginalized body of woman. The purification occurs not only
spiritually, but also materially in the body of woman; it allows for the possibility of both
the suffering and glorification in the Godhead that characterizes both the harsh asceticism
and ecstatic effervescence of embodied mysticism.
Caroline Walker Bynum highlights the centrality of food in the thought and life of
Clare of Assisi. Clare's rule required that "the sisters are to fast [take only one meal a
33 Furlong, Visions and Longings, 122 (from Clare's first letter to Agnes).
34 Mariateresa Fumagalli Beonio-Brocchieri, "The Feminine Mind in Medieval Mysticism," Creative
Women in Medieval and Early Modern Italy: A Religious and Artistic Renaissance (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), 22.
35 Beonio-Brocchieri, "The Feminine Mind," 22.
day] at all times."36 Her contemporaries called attention to Clare's extreme food
asceticism; both Thomas of Celano' s hagiographic Vita of Clare and Clare's canonization
bull emphasize her thrice weekly complete fasts. The fact that Francis admonished and
forbade Clare her thrice weekly total fast "makes it clear that Clare unlike Francis, who
desired to be indifferent to food and never made a point of eating nothing found it
important to keep a 'perfect fast,' that is, to close her body entirely to food."37
Such extreme fasting may have been the result of Clare trying to control her bodily
experience and express solidarity with the poor even though she was physically
cl oistered. Or perhaps, in terms of Finke' s analysis, Clare was attempting to identify
with the grotesque body and inflict pain like that of Christ' s. Rudolph Bell applies the
term "holy anorexia" to Clare's excessive fasting, and he identifies her as the first Italian
holy anorexic.38 However, Clare's behavior cannot be reduced or explained away as
merely a psychological illness or a coping mechanism to regain some sense of control.
Bell's analysis of Clare' s practices is too simplistic, failing to take into account her
eucharistic piety and her mystical understandings of embodiment. Clare's food
asceticism was actually (and somewhat counterintuitively) a way of embracing her body
and welcoming its capacity to hold more of God in mystical union.
Other reasons for Clare's extreme food asceticism become clear in her struggle
over autonomous authority for her order. Bynum suggests that the abundant food motifs
that are found throughout Clare's hagiographic Vita highlight the theme of serving,
36 From Clare's Rule III.7 Furlong, Visions and Longings, 133.
37 Bynum, Holy Feast, 100.
38 Bell, Holy Anorexia, 123.
especially in feeding, others.39 These include Clare's iconographic motif of the
monstrance of the host, her miracle of the multiplication of bread, and her threat of a
hunger strike in opposition to a papal bull, which would have resulted in less interaction
with the Franciscans and fewer visits to her convent. Clare thus instituted an analogy
"between 'food for the soul' (i.e., preaching) and earthly bread: if the pope forbade
preachers to come, she said, the sisters would refuse to accept the mundane bread
provided by the begging brothers."40 Thus Clare issued a claim to authority over her own
body (as well as those of her sisters) in a political maneuver designed to secure the
sisterhood's respect and right to Franciscan identity.
Perhaps Clare's most powerful holy food image, which also has implications for
the concept of embodiment, comes in a vision of a lactation miracle between her and
Francis. In her vision, Clare served Francis by bringing him hot water and a towel, and
upon nearing him, "he bared his breast and gave her suck, and the substance was 'sweet
and delightful' and 'such pure shining gold that she saw her reflection in it."'"41 Bynum
concludes that "nonetheless, the appearance of such a vision to Clare rather than to
Francis' s male followers, together with other evidence of Clare' s emphasis on serving
and feeding others while herself not eating, suggests that food was to Clare what clothing
and money were to Francis: a basic symbol of both sacrifice and service."42 In
comparison to Francis's preaching and begging, "Clare, both miraculously and
39 Bynum, Holy Feast, 101.
40 Bynum, Holy Feast, 101.
41 Bynum, Holy Feast, 101.
42 Bynum, Holy Feast, 101.
prosaically, served and fed her sisters in the cloister."43 Despite her self and worldly
denial, Clare worked very much within this world, embodying the incarnate Christ
through poverty and service.
Catherine Mooney conducts an informative inquiry into Clare's mystical
understanding of imitatio Christi and subsequent interpretations of Clare's mysticism.
Mooney argues that an emphasis on Clare's supposed association with and devotion to
Mary, imitatio 2ariae, has overshadowed Clare's affiliation to and identification with
Christ in imitatio Christi. The origins of Clare's connection to Mary are difficult to trace,
but the earliest report stems from the canonization process that occurred two years after
her death, and was subsequently elaborated upon by hagiographers.44 The fact that
hagiographers chose to describe Clare as following in the footprints of Mary45 Seems
disconnected to Clare's own understanding given in her second and third letters to Agnes
of Prague of walking in the footsteps of Christ.46 Indeed, in her third letter to Agnes,
Clare encourages Agnes to follow "'the footprints of the poor and humble Jesus Christ,"
and implores her to work with God to "'transform yourself entirely through
contemplation into the image of divinity itself.'"47 For Clare, walking with Christ was an
embodied experience that entailed embracing a suffering Christ and a transformative
union. Catherine Mooney concludes that
43Bvnum, Holy Feast, 102.
44Mooney, "Clare of Assisi," 58-59.
45Mooney, "Clare of Assisi," 59.
46 MOoney, "Clare of Assisi," 60.
47Mooney, "Clare of Assisi," 62.
Clare' s understanding of herself as a follower and imitator of Christ is so consistent
throughout her writings that few medieval texts focused on her could ignore it. It is
also clear, however, that hagiographic texts and iconography tended increasingly to
portray Clare as a follower of Mary. This evolving portrayal of Clare and the
correlative depictions of her female followers as imitators of Mary and Clare served
to distance them from the centrally important Christian motif of imitatio Christi
and consequently reinforced their secondary position vis-a-vis Francis and his male
A re-examination of Clare' s own writings show an independent tendency to
radically favor imitatio Christi. Thus, upon a closer examination of Clare' s letters and
texts, the layers of hagiographic and political agenda may be peeled back to expose
Clare's raw voice, resolutely proclaiming embodied imitation of Christ.
In her fourth and final letter to Agnes of Prague, Clare reveals a powerful sensory
understanding of mystical union with Christ. She invokes rich sensory description and
encounters God in through the language of touch and contact, so that Clare communicates
her union with God as embodied and erotic love.
Draw me after You! We will run in the fragrance of Your perfumes, O heavenly
Spouse!i I will run and not tire, until You bring me into the wine-cellar, until Your
left hand is under my head and Your right hand will embrace me happily [and] You
will kiss me with the happiest kiss of Your mouth.49
Thus, Clare yearns for the physical presence of her spiritual Bridegroom. The
perfumes, bodily sensation of running, coolness of the cellar, and caressing touch are
described with such care that it seems as if Clare is in fact smelling, moving, shivering,
and responsively touching. Her vision of union with Christ is both transcendent and
terrestrial, in and out of this world in one unitive moment. Despite her sharp and
punishing asceticism, Clare does not deny her body altogether, but reserves it for union
48 MOoney, "Clare of Assisi," 76.
49 Furlong, Visions and Longings, 126.
with Christ. She thus exhibits a sense of value, mutuality, and interdependence in her
bodily, and embodied, experience of God. Clare righted and redeemed her body through
mystical union, and she wrote the female body into the mystical declarations of her
letters. Clare also wrote herself, her material, enduring legacy into her progressive Forma
Vitae, with the utmost conviction that despite the marked gender boundaries of her era,
men and women could live together in an equal, cooperative community on Earth, not
just in heaven. Like Clare, fellow Umbrian penitent Angela of Foligno declared her
mystical convictions with unwavering force and set an example for her contemporaries.
It is toward Angela's expressions of embodied mysticism that I now turn
ANGELA DE FOLIGNO: UMBRIA' S PREMIERE MYSTICAL DEVOTEE
The first sign of true love is that the lover submits his will to that of the Beloved.
And this most special and singular love works in three ways. First, if the loved one
is poor, one strives to become poor, and if scorned, to be scorned. Second, it makes
one abandon all other friendships which could be contrary to this love .. third, one
can keep nothing hidden from the other. This third action, in my opinion, is the
highest one and completes all the others. For in this mutual revelation of secrets,
hearts are opened and bound more perfectly to one another
Thus declares Angela de Foligno in her Instructions, number six, concerning the
sign of true love. Indeed, this declaration embodies Angela's paradoxical understanding
of devotion, her mysticism characterized by both transcendent and terrestrial qualities.
Angela, focused on the other world, nonetheless left a wealth of transcription behind, and
despite her desire to hold fast to her secrets, she imparts instruction and guidance through
her memoirs. Although little personal information is known about Angela, we have her
Liber de vere fidelium experientia, or Book of the Experience of the Truly Faithful, which
she dictated to her scribe, kinsmen, and confessor Brother Arnaldo.2
Angela of Foligno was perhaps one of the greatest female mystics of her era. Born
twenty-five years after the death of St. Francis,3 she did much to adopt and perpetuate the
Franciscan model of penitence and piety. The life of Angela mirrored and followed the
life of St. Francis of Assisi in many ways. These included her public stripping,4 her
SLachance, 4ngela ofFoligno, 258.
SFurlong, Visions and Longings, 148.
SLachance, 4ngela ofFoligno, 16.
SPetroff, Body and Soul, 212.
commitment to poverty, and her solidarity with the poor, the sick, and the lepers.s Her
stripping in the church at Foligno "was both an imitation of the Poverello, whom she saw
as a mentor, and a sign of throwing herself, just as she was, on God's mercy."6 Her
spiritual conversion began in 1285 after experiencing a vision of St. Francis, yet prior to
that, Angela was "a busy matron and mother, but a vain, lukewarm Christian."' Indeed,
what we do know of Angela' s early life was that she was born into a prosperous family in
Umbria. She married at age twenty and "led a life of fashion and social pleasure." Yet,
"troubled by a sin, perhaps sexual, that she felt to be mortal, she received Communion
without making a confession, knowing very well that she was not in a state of grace; as a
result, she was troubled by fears of damnation."s
Angela entered the Franciscan Third Order in 1291 following the deaths of her
husband, children, and mother. She dictated her spiritual experiences that occurred
between 1285 and 1296 in Umbrian Italian to her confessor Fra Arnaldo, who transcribed
them into Latin. Her spiritual j ourney that is recorded in the M~emoriale de fr~a Arnaldo,
or the M~emorial, was approved by a number of Franciscan theologians in 1297 and
validated by Cardinal Giacomo Colonna in 1310.9 Angela's thirty steps to perfection
were "patterned on the hidden years of Christ' s life" and were a series of visions and
SFurlong, Visions and Longings, 149.
6 Furlong, Visions and Longings, 149.
SValerie M. Lagorio, "Medieval Continental Women Mystics: An Introduction," An Introduction to the
Medieval M~ystics of Europe (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), 178.
SFurlong, Visions and Longings, 148.
9 Lagorio, "Medieval Continental Women," 179.
ecstasies that sought to console and to elucidate mystical experience.'o Angela later
dictatedll her Istruzioni Salutifere, i.e. her Instructions to fellow mystical seekers,
generated many letters of spiritual counsel, and condemned the Free Spirit heresies.12
Much consideration has been given to the determination of Angela' s authentic
voice within the M~emorial, and scholars hotly contest the extent of Fra Arnaldo' s role in
the text. The organizational structure and the extended commentary with orthodox
clarifieations of Angela' s visions indicate that "Brother A." (as he identifies himself in
the text) played a significant part in interpreting Angela's work even as he recorded and
translated it.13 Although the choice of the Latin term passes, or step, was Angela's own,
she envisioned thirty steps on her spiritual journey, which Brother Amaldo condensed
into twenty-six steps.14 The first twenty steps Angela clearly identifies, but the twentieth
step is interpreted as a significant pivot point by Fra Amaldo, because it marked the
beginning of his relationship to Angela as confessor and scribe.ls Fra Amaldo found the
remaining eleven steps Angela related to him difficult to discern, so he condensed them
into seven supplementary steps, the first one overlapping with the twentieth step,
'o Lagorio, "Medieval Continental Women," 179.
11 Some scholars speculate that late in life, Angela managed to learn how to write in Latin. This
speculation is based on the fact that there is no reference to a scribe or secretary in the correspondence of
the Instructions. Lachance, Angela ofFoligno, 16.
12 Lagorio, "Medieval Continental Women," 179.
13 Catherine M. Mooney, "The Authorial Role of Brother A. in the Composition of Angela of Foligno's
Revelations," Creative Women in Medieval and Early Modern Italy: A Religious and Artistic Renaissance
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), 36.
14 CriStina Mazzoni, Angela ofFoligno 's Memorial (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1999), 11.
's Mooney, "Authorial Role of Brother A.," 55.
Angela's "embarrassing" screaming vision in the basilica of Assisi.16 Angela, upon
pilgrimage to the Basilica of St. Francis, witnessed a vision of Christ' s eternal love for
her within the basilica, and upon leaving the church, and perceiving that her bridegroom
Christ was withdrawing from her, she erupted into a writhing shrieking fit.l7 Fra
Arnaldo, possibly convinced that Angela was possessed by demons, undertook the role of
confessor in an attempt to examine and validate her visions.
Scholars have argued for the authenticity of Angela' s voice based on the
Memorial' s strange colloquialisms and its awkward Latin. It is impossible to determine
with any certainty whether Brother Amaldo "simultaneously translated her Umbrian
vernacular into a simple and often stylistically flawed Latin"'" or if he compiled the text
in vernacular first and then transcribed it into Latin.19 Catherine Mooney argues that
Brother Arnaldo played a significant role in shaping Angela's transmission and
interpretation of her experience, with his directive questions and organizational
structure.20 She claims that medieval religious authorship "frequently lacked the
individualistic cast evident in modern writing" and "emphasized instead collective truths
shared by a community of believers."21 If the M~emorial was collaborative, then the
relationship between Angela and Fra Amaldo certainly seemed fluid and open to mutual
criticism and frustration. Though Brother Amaldo attempted to direct Angela's narrative
16 M8ZZOni, 4ngela ofFoligno, 12.
17Lachance, 4ngela ofFoligno, 60-61.
1s Mazzoni, Saint Hvsteria, 178.
19 M8ZZOni, 4ngela ofFoligno, 10.
20Mooney, "Authorial Role of Brother A.," 53.
21Mooney, "Authorial Role of Brother A.," 57.
with questions, she continued to expound upon her visions so that he found it difficult to
keep up. Indeed, Angela often complained about Fra Arnaldo's inability to express her
experiences, "saying that his rendition was 'dry and without gusto.'"22 In this
interchange of collaboration, we see the dialogic process that Laurie Finke claims is
central to understanding women's voice. Although Fra Arnaldo played an important role
in transmission of the M~emorial, Angela' s voice emerges from the conversation of "the
textual and extratextual" evidence we have for her authorship.23
Eucharistic Piety and the Embodied Host: A Close Reading of Angela's
Angela' s preoccupation with the Eucharist characterizes much of her insight in
M~emoral. In fact, the insights and revelations from each of her seven supplementary
steps in her M~emorial center around holy food, whether in the Holy Communion or in
reference to it. For example, in her first supplementary step, as she contemplates upon
the Body of Christ, she often links the image of the host with her visionary experience of
Christ on the cross. Sometimes I see the Host just as I saw His throat or neck full of
splendor and beauty which seems to come from God; and its splendor surpasses that of
the sun."24 Angela also perceives in the Host both a "vision of Christ as a young boy"
and "two very splendid eyes which are so big that only the perimeter of the Host remains
visible."25 Angela seems to rely on and communicate with the Host as inspiration for
22Bell, Holy anorexia, 104.
23Mazzoni, Saint Hvsteria, 179.
24Mazzoni, 4ngela ofFoligno, 46.
25Mazzoni, 4ngela ofFoligno, 47.
Aside from the visionary images Angela describes, she also relays her experiences
through other sensory modes, including the sensations of touch and taste, which are in
turn crucial to the concept of eating and ingesting holy food. In her third supplementary
step, Angela and her companion first feed and then wash poor people, including a leper,
at a local hospital. Angela relates the complementary bitterness and sweetness of serving
Christ through the example of this encounter with the leper.
And we drank from the water that we used for washing. And the sweetness was so
great that it lasted all the way home it felt as if we had received Holy
Communion. In fact, because of that intense sweetness it seemed to me that I really
had received communion. And when a scab from the leper's sores had become
lodged in my throat, I tried to swallow it; and my conscience kept me from spitting
it out just as if I had received Holy Communion .26
Here Angela reiterates the paradoxical character of devotion to Christ. She tastes
and feels both bitterness and sweetness, intense suffering and extreme joy. Her actions in
this example echo those of St. Francis, who also encountered a leper and imbibed his
bodily fluid.27 Angela's experience with the leper shows her reliance on embodied
mysticism as her primary mode of spiritual knowledge. Unlike the trained, male clergy
of her era, Angela does not rely on or relate to theological treatises or church doctrine,
but relates and mediates spiritual knowledge through experiences of raw physicality. She
imbibes the suffering of the leper, relates it to Christ, and recognizes her body as the
crucial site where the material world meets the ethereal Godhead. Angela points out the
confluence of the spiritual and the material, and points into the crux, the meeting of
paradoxical elements in her own body; she essentially writes and rights her body in this
26 M8ZZOni, Angela ofFoligno, 53.
27 MaZZOni, Angela ofFoligno, 53 n. 68
Other examples of Angela' s rich sensory description are found in her remaining
supplementary steps. In her fourth supplementary step, she describes the peace and
blessings of the host in terms of fullness, satiation, and ecstatical pleasure. For, upon
hearing the Host bless her with the words "indeed I am within you; and although you are
receiving me you have already received me," Angela describes an overwhelming joy that
"settled within me" and uses terms of satisfaction and fulfillment to transmit her
affectionate and moving encounter with Christ.28 Angela continues to expound upon the
sense of touch, noting instances of paralyzing ecstatic tranceS29 and describing the playful
nature of contact and encounter with God. "For example, my soul all of a sudden is lifted
up in God with such j oy that, if it were to continue, I think my body would instantly lose
all sensation and all use of its limbs. But God often plays this game in and with the soul:
He withdraws the instant the soul desires to take hold of Him."30 This passage could be
attributed to a common theme found in mystical literature, that of an erotic flirtation,
characterized by alternately hiding and being present.31 In any CaSe, Angela skillfully
utilizes the language of touch and thus concretizes her experience of the intangible and
transcendent presence of the divine.
In her fifth supplementary step, Angela' s experience of receiving the Host is
transformative and is explained in terms of taste and touch. She describes the Host as
being like "a meat that has a most flavorful taste .. it goes down sweetly in one piece,
28 Mazzoni, 4ngela ofFoligno, 55.
29 M8ZZOni, 4ngela ofFoligno, 58.
30 Mazzoni, 4ngela ofFoligno, 57.
31 Mazzoni, 4ngela ofFoligno, 57 n. 74.
not in little pieces as it used to." After ingesting the Host, "when it is down inside my
body, it gives me an extremely pleasant sensation, which, as can be observed, causes me
to tremble so violently, that I can drink from the chalice only with a great effort."32 Here,
Angela is bodily transformed by the Host, whose power and vitality resonates and
reverberates in her so that she trembles. Again, it is her body that is the locus of contact,
emphasizing an embodied mysticism that is present the experiences of other women
Another instance of powerful sensory imagery comes in Angela' s sixth step as she
describes the power of the sign of the cross upon her. When she makes the sign of the
cross quickly and is careless not to put her hand on her heart, she does not feel God's
presence. "But when I touch my forehead when I say, 'In the name of the Father,' and
then touch my heart and say, 'and of the Son,' then immediately I feel a special love and
consolation, and I seem to find the one I've named, there where I touch."33 This touching
communicates her indwelling and affmnitive presence with God. Through touch, her body
is claimed as place for the connection to a special and redemptive love.
Writing and Bodily Considerations in Angela's First Twenty Steps
Elizabeth Petroff employs the concept of "writing the body" in her analysis of
Angela of Foligno's life work. Petroff claims that "writing the body" includes "the
notion that in putting body into writing, by the use of bodily imagery along with the
rhythms and cadences of speech, a writer allows repressed contents to emerge from the
32Mazzoni, 4ngela ofFoligno, 61.
33Mazzoni, 4ngela ofFoligno, 62.
unconscious into the light of the text."34 Indeed, despite the medieval culture of
misogynistic repression, many women visionaries effectively resisted such oppression by
becoming writers, and Petroff believes that feminist theory can help uncover these
moments of resistance.35 Even though Angela' s work was dictated and somewhat
collaborative, Angela's "writing" emerges in her graphic and intimate bodily and
embodied visions. Angela's insistence on relating her visions to Fra Arnaldo without
theologically expounding upon them or correcting them displays her adamant sense that
she was writing her body and in control of her own expressions. She wanted her
experiences recorded and left open for interpretation, fresh and vibrant, not diluted and
diminished by adding the weight of explanation of orthodox doctrine.
Indeed, Petroff explores the numerous ways in which Angela "writes" her body.
During her crucial eighth step in the Franciscan church in Foligno, we witness an
"intimate transformation" as Angela "publicly bares her body and ritualistically points to
each of her 'members,' promising for them not to sin .. she writes her body by speaking
her body's gestures."36 In Angela's own words, "I promised him then to maintain
perpetual chastity and not to offend him again with any of my bodily members, accusing
each of these one by one."37 Here, Angela echoes St. Francis's dramatic public stripping
and renouncement at the beginning of his religious life.38 Angela announces her agency
both through her dramatic, graphic bodily gestures and by her adopting and mimicking
34 Petroff Body and Soul, 204.
35 Petroff Body and Soul, 205.
36 Petroff Body and Soul, 212.
r7 Lachance, 4ngela ofFoligno, 126.
38Petroff Body and Soul, 212.
the authoritative Eigure of St. Francis. Thus, in Finke's analytical terms, Angela appeals
both to the classical body of clerical authority and rewrites her own marginalized,
grotesque body, commanding its obedience to God only.
Petroff also notes the contrasting body metaphors that Angela invokes to describe
her spiritual journey. The heaviness implied by Angela's thirty penitential steps is
countered by her bodily lightness in her ninth step as she strips so that "I would be lighter
and naked I should go to the cross."39 Angela also lightens both her soul and body by
letting go of all her social and physical attachments, including possessions, such as her
"best garments, fine food, and fancy headdress,"40 that characterized her standing as a
noblewoman. Thus, Angela must first physically and socially marginalize herself to align
with the grotesque body (i.e., the poor and the female) before she can unite with the most
grotesque and marginalized body, the downtrodden crucified Christ. Pushed to the
outside of his own society, executed as a criminal, asymmetrically wounded in the side,
dissonantly flagellated, vulnerably exposed, and pockmarked with nails, Christ' s
crucified body surely takes the form of the grotesque body. Angela's need to obtain
closeness with that body leads her to strip herself of trappings that would conceal her
grotesque body, i.e. social status, wealth, and bodily health, in order to best identify with
Christ' s body and to offer her own grotesque body up for redemption.
Elizabeth Petroff notes that Angela's preoccupation with her body is paralleled by
her contemplation of Christ' s crucified body in her tenth step. As she grieves for Christ' s
suffering and wounds, Christ asks, "'what indeed can you do for me that would satisfy
39 Petroff, Body and Soul, 212.
40 Lachance, Angela ofFoligno, 126.
you?' I wept much, shedding such hot tears that they burned my flesh [and] I had to apply
water to cool it."41 Indeed, "here her bodily description tells of a real body that cried real
tears and also reveals metaphorical tears of the soul. Fire and water are not in opposition;
the flame that consumes her makes her tears like fire too."42 Upon the death of her
family and her final resolve to renounce everything but God,43 Angela enters into "a kind
of symmetry in her imitation of Christ."44 She requests that she be able to shed her
"blood for love of him just as he had done" for her, and she prays that her "body suffer a
death not like his, that is, one much more vile."45 Indeed, Angela's steps and visions are
reflexive mirrors, whereby Angela and Godhead suffer and accept each other. Petroff
.. In these passages is the writing of body and of speech, of two bodies and two
speaking voices, whose manifestations are symmetrical, mirroring each other.
Angela is seeking to imitate Christ; in her mimesis of his nakedness and his
suffering, she mimes nakedness and suffering for us as readers. For her, Christ is
not a text to be read, but a role to be acted, and so she acts out her understanding of
his experience, acts out of her understanding.46
I would like to suggest, however, that the mimesis, is twofold. Not only does
Angela mime Christ physically on her spiritual journey, but she also mimes the actions of
Francis and sets another social precedent. She follows the spiritual role model of Francis,
but in doing so, she goes against cultural norms. This is evidenced by her scribe's
41 Lachance, Angela ofFoligno, 127.
42 Petroff, Body and Soul, 213.
43 Lachance, Angela ofFoligno, 127-128.
44 Petroff, Body and Soul, 213.
45 Lachance, Angela ofFoligno, 128.
46 Petroff, Body and Soul, 214.
apologetics and his shock and dismay at Angela's vocal and dramatic display in the
basilica at Assisi.
Laurie Finke suggests an additional revolutionary and socially resistant element in
Angela's work. Here she employs the distinction between medieval literature and
medieval society's understanding of embodiment, i.e., between the homogeneous,
harmonious, and proportionate "classical body" and the heterogeneous, dissonant, and
disproportionate "grotesque body." Indeed, "this sketch [between the classical and
grotesque body] describes accurately the writings of many female mystics whose
emotionalism and intense personal involvement, polyglot mixture of genres, and open-
endedness contrasts markedly with the monumental rationalism and harmonious
proportion of classical theological writing by men."47 Finke claims that the emotional
and affective character of female devotional writing is often "expressed through violence
on the body," such as tears, injuries, screams, and howls.48 Angela's example fits this
model well; her wish to sustain a more violent and suffering death than Christ, and her
intense bouts of screaming followed by paralysis, attest to this bodily violence.49
Angela's accounts echo the identification with the grotesque body in other instances as
well. Her desire to do penance by treading naked through town with rotting fish and
meat hanging about her neck "invokes the grotesque body paradoxically to exorcise it."so
Angela, to some extent, has internalized these medieval discursive norms; however, her
47Finke, "Mrstical Bodies," 37.
48Finke, "Mrstical Bodies," 37.
49 Lachance, 4ngela ofFoligno, 131.
"0 Finke, "Mrstical Bodies," 38.
embrace of violently writing the body also defies the norm through its vocal passion and
Furthermore, Finke suggests that this form of writing the body is particularly
female; in hagiographies of female saints written by men, "the elaborate inflicting of
bodily pain often leaves the saint's body miraculously untouched."si Thus it seems that
the bodily classical/grotesque distinction may prove useful and substantiated; male
hagiographers sought to raise holy women above their female cultural bracket to make
their representations more "classical," i.e. impenetrable, unwounded, and harmonious.
Thus we have seen how essential sensory and bodily understandings are in
Angela's visionary experiences. As she demonstrates in her fourteenth step, she does not
shrink from graphic physical description when she is called to "place my mouth to the
wound in his side" and seemingly drinks the blood of Christ to be cleansed.52 In the
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, parallels between blood and milk, and suffering and
nursing, were common images that mystics related, so that "an association of Christ' s
wounds with woman' s body and of woman with the food of the eucharist" was
established.53 Likewise, "the mystic's own body becomes the site of contested discourses
about the body and about culture," as the "grotesque bodies that open up and spill forth
their contents blood, milk, excrement" are described.54 Indeed it seems that "from a
dichotomy in which human food was negative and divine food a replacement, Angela
51Finke, "Mrstical Bodies," 38.
52Lachance, 4ngela ofFoligno, 128.
53Bvnum, Holy Feast, 271.
54Finke, "Mrstical Bodies," 38.
seems to have moved to a notion that one must eat the blood of suffering, a food both
earthly and divine."55
Angela's Understandings of Embodiment in the Context of Medieval Literature
Caroline Walker Bynum reports that this focus on embodiment might well be
attributed the "humanation" of God theme found in hagiographies and devotional texts of
the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Angela's work seems a good example of such a
theme. "'Thus it [the soul] discovers both God 'humanated' and God uncreated, Christ
the creator and Christ the creature, and in that Christ it discovers soul with flesh and
blood and with all the members of his most sacred body;'" that is why "'the human soul
sees the soul of Christ, his eyes, his flesh, his body.'"56 As we have seen in her sensory
descriptions of Christ' s eyes, throat, and side, Angela' s piety and focus on all of Christ' s
members was "seen as testimony to his humanation, and the devout soul responded to
this enfleshing with all its bodily capabilities.""' For Angela, it is in the encounter with
the body of Christ that she finds her most connective, ecstatic, and ineffable union.ss "In
no way whatever can I be sad concerning the passion; on the contrary... all my joy now
is in this suffering God-man; at times it seems to my soul that it enters into Christ's side,
and this is a source of great j oy and delight... [that] in no way can I express it and put
words to it."59 Bynum claims that this type of piety, this "humanation," allows the body
to be "the instrument upon which the mystic rings changes of pain and of delight" and
55Bvnum, Holy Feast, 144.
56 Bynum, T
57Bynum, T ,
59 Lachance, 4ngela ofFoligno, 176.
provides the opportunity for (rather than hinders) the soul's mystic union with God.60
Indeed, the body may be the central focal point for spiritual experience, but the
humanation of God has greater implications for the body than just to serve as tool and
vessel. The body is itself redeemed in the humanation of God, through the recognition of
Christ' s likeness to his grotesque body, crucified and marred, to a grotesque body, e.g.,
the medieval woman, and to the grotesque body, the fallen body of humanity, poor, sick,
outcast, and stigmatized. Thus, the theological implications of embodied mysticism span
several redemptive possibilities.
Although Angela could not write (though she may have been able to read),61 she,
with other women "on the margins of the institutions of high culture, had learned a
culture of their own."62 Indeed, "this culture was replete with a language rich in emotion
and specific meanings, irreplaceable, a language that cannot, of course, be found in
contemporary magisterial and scholastic treatises."63 As Mariateresa Beonio-Brocchieri
argues, Angela is well aware that her descriptive ideas of feeling and experiencing God
are somewhat dissonant from traditional biblical and theological interpretations, as
evidenced by Fra Arnaldo's continuous objections. Angela's agency stands out in her
"singular attitude, her violent passion and strength, which leads her often to highlight the
contradictory aspects of her experience."" Her descriptions in her visions are complex
61) Bynum, T ,
61 Beonio-Brocchieri, "The Feminine Mind," 23.
62 Beonio-Brocchiere, "The Feminine Mind," 23.
63 Beonio-Brocchieri, "The Feminine Mind," 27.
64 Beonio-Brocchieri, "The Feminine Mind," 24.
and contradictory, so that Angela embraces a multidimensional experience of presence
and absence, love and emptiness. For example, Angela says that
When I am in darkness I do not remember anything about anything human, or the
God-man, or anything which has a form. Nevertheless, I see all and I see nothing.
As what I have spoken of withdraws and stays with me, I see the God-man ..
When I am in the God-man my soul is alive. And I am in the God-man much more
than in the other vision of seeing God with darkness. The vision with darkness,
however, draws me so much more that there is no comparison
Angela attempts to capture her osmotic experience of God with apparent
contradictions, including the dynamic between presence and absence, form and
formlessness. At a time when only the institution of the Catholic Church held the power
of spiritual intercession, Angela declares her agency and her unique osmotic connection
to the Godhead. For, "I am in the God-man [the humanity of Christ] almost continually.
It began in this continual fashion on a certain occasion when I was given the assurance
that there was no intermediary between God and myself."66 The fact that Angela's use of
language here parallels Beguine mystics and Miester Eckhart67 indicates its powerful
subversive possibilities. Thus Angela's mystical language was nuanced and fluid as well
as resistant and adamantly declarative.
Angela' s meditations on the image of the crucifix and her visions stemming from
viewing the depiction of St. Francis being held by Christ show "how important images
were as an aid to mystical meditation, and it is no surprise that an icon or crucifix was
65 Lachance, Angela ofFoligno, 205. Note that this revelation comes in Angela's seventh supplementary
step, the last step that Fra Arnaldo, through his inability to sort through her final eleven steps, designates as
66 Lachance, Angela ofFoligno, 205.
67 Lachance, Angela ofFoligno, 384 n. 131.
often the focal point of an episode either narrated in words or represented visually."68
Angela had many visions upon contemplation of the cross, but one of her more poignant
ones is likened to an expression of the Pieta. "I desired to see at least that small amount
of Christ' s flesh which the nails had driven into the wood .. I bent over and sat down; I
stretched out my arms on the ground and inclined my head on them. Then Christ showed
me his throat and his arms."69 Frugoni notes that "the erotic violence of this reflection ..
.was not simply the consequence of repression (even if this was particularly marked in
these women), but an aspect of that potent condensation of feelings that enabled her to ..
. reach heights of sublimity and deification."7o Angela's obsession with the image of
Christ' s body, particularly his neck and throat that she sees repeatedly in the Host, allows
for a connection between bodies and an embodiment in God.
Presence in the Embodied World: Angela's Sphere of Influence and Consequences
of Her Mysticism
Angela' s sphere of influence was not merely contained in her visionary experience.
Her acts of charity and her charismatic leadership extended well beyond her township of
Foligno. Holy women like Angela of Foligno "were often endowed with penetrating
prophetic insight the counterpart to their capacity for introspection which enabled
them to see people's hearts, inducing them to confession... these insights were supported,
guided and confirmed by their visions."" Indeed, Angela acquired quite a following, as
evidenced by her Instructions. The effects of Angela' s visions and experiences were felt
68 Chiara Frugoni, "Female Mystics, Visions, and Iconography," Women and Religion in M~edieval and
Renaissance Italy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 138.
69 Lachance, Angela ofFoligno, 146.
7o Frugoni, "Female Mystics," 138.
71 Frugoni, "Female Mystics," 152.
by fellow mystics, like Ubertino of Casale, as far away as Paris.72 Angela's work also
had affinities to, and possible influence on, a lay anchoritic movement, called the bizzochi
movement, in the late thirteenth century."
Angela's works achieved widespread popularity a century after her death. For
instance, in the fifteenth century, nuns in nearby Perugia "copied and disseminated
biographies and writings by Franciscan holy women, [most] notably Angela of
Foligno."74 Although her works were reasonably well known during her era (as
evidenced by the scrutinization of her Book by Franciscans and Cardinal Colonna),
Angela has not yet been canonized.7s P.H. Cullum notes that "despite being otherwise
obedient daughters of the Church," figures such as Angela of Foligno and Clare of
Montefalco "all failed to be canonized because of their supposed connections with the
Spiritual Franciscans and their uncompromising line on poverty."76 Once again, even in
the auspices of charity, female mystics had a delicate balance to maintain. Religious
women had to at once "demonstrate excessive levels of religiosity compared to men ..
yet if they did behave 'excessively,' whether charitably or in other respects, they risked
aligning themselves with representations of women as unbalanced or unreasoning, which
72 Mario Sensi, "Anchoresses and Penitents in Thirteenth and Fourteenth Century Umbria," Women and
Religion in M~edieval and Renaissance Italy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 65.
73 Sensi, "Anchoresses and Penitents," 65.
74 Katherine Gill, "Women and the Production of Religious Literature in the Vernacular, 1300-1500"
Creative Women in Medieval and Early M~odern Italy: A Religious and Artistic Renaissance (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), 67.
75 Barone, "Society and Women's Religiosity," 63.
76 Cullum, "Gendering Charity," 148.
might themselves bring their sanctity into question."n Cullum points out that "the
practice of charity was a gendered one in the Middle Ages," whereby men balanced their
own charitable contributions and directed the contributions of their female dependents
and relatives.'" Thus Angela' s widowhood may be identified as a position of blessing
outside of the restrictions of the traditional system, which allowed her to perform radical
works of charity.
However, Angela's charity work, like that of other late medieval women mystics,
may also be placed in connection with her feminine theological understandings of
devotion to God. As in the vitae of other Italian women mystics, women's characteristic
"abstinence from food and devotion to the eucharist are connected to the feeding and
serving of others."79 In Angela's case, this connective theology is evident from her
encounter with the leper's wash water. She "came to express this imitatio crucis by
feeding and caring for the sick" and "because she cared for their bodies as a substitute for
Jesus' own, she used metaphors of eating quite literally."so
Elizabeth Petroff claims that Angela' s Book demonstrates repeatedly that "the truly
beatific vision is expansive, not contractive."sl As we have seen, Angela's visions of the
eucharist and crucified Christ provide a number of insights on embodiment. Her
devotion to the eucharist emphasizes bodily elements and sensory experience, so that her
ecstasies seem to occur in both the physical and spiritual realms. Her identification with,
77Cullum, "Gendering Charity," 138.
78Cullum, "Gendering Charity," 148.
79 Bynum, Holy Feast, 145.
so Bynum, Holy Feast, 144.
81Petroff, Body and Soul, 34.
and her devotion to, the body of Christ in its myriad of gendered forms indicates
Angela's complex understanding of union with God. Rather than merely invert the
patriarchal paradigm by relating to God as female, Angela unknowingly seems to subvert
patriarchal theology by relating to God in multifaceted ways, as erotic lover, nursing
mother, innocent child, or androgynous companion. Indeed, "Angela of Foligno's
imitation of Christ is a self-consciously transgressive practice that defies and exceeds the
limits of human language."82 In this sense, Angela' s mystical insights and experiences
are expansive and open up endless possibilities of embodied relation to the divine.
82Mazzoni, Saint Hvsteria, 190.
AGENT OF GOD: THE MYSTIC CALL OF CATHERINE OF SIENA
The fire of holy desire was growing within me as I gazed. And I saw the people,
Christians and unbelievers, entering the side of Christ crucified. In desire and
impelled by love I walked through their midst and entered with them into Christ
gentle Jesus. And with me were my father Saint Dominic, the beloved John, and
all my children. Then he placed the cross on my shoulder and put an olive branch
in my hand, as if he wanted me (and so he told me) to carry it to the Christians and
unbelievers alike. And he said to me: "Tell them, 'I am bringing you news of great
In a letter from April 1376, Catherine of Siena declared her great commission from
God to act as his agent of reform and servant to the church in an era of political strife and
ecclesiastical turmoil. Her brief but tumultuous life was loaded with activity and
experience, and her influence was extensive. Catherine expanded the boundaries
assigned to women tertiaries, acted as a political mediator, produced a distinct theology
found in her book and letters, and developed an embodied mysticism with redemptive
Born in 1347 amid the horror and destruction of the Black Death, Catherine di
Giacomo di Benincasa was the twenty-fourth child of twenty-five children born into her
lower class family.2 Catherine of Siena was a seemingly unusual and odd child by
modern standards. Reportedly, her first vision occurred when she was a child of seven,3
SLetter T219/G87/DT65. Catherine here relays her experiences in prayer concerning the unity of the
Church to Raymond of Capua and his company, who are in Avignon, in a letter from early April 1376,
prior to Catherine's own mission to Avignon. Suzanne Noffke, ed., The Letters of Catherine of Siena
Volume II (Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000), 92.
SFurlong, Visions and Longings, 157.
SFurlong, Visions and Longings, 157.
she played at becoming a hermit and an ascetic flagellant,4 and she vowed her virginity
before she was fifteen in a vision of mystical marriage with Christ.s By the age of
fifteen, she was vehemently denying her parents' insistence that she marry, and she was
put under a type of house arrest, punished by being reduced to the status of a servant
among her family.6 Catherine resisted with the only thing that she could control: her own
body. She refused or limited intake of food, cut off her hair, and intentionally burned and
scalded herself in hot baths when taken on vacation with her family.' At the age of
seventeen, Catherine endured a bout of smallpox that left her scarred and which
diminished her prospects for marriage. Catherine seized the opportunity to convince her
mother to allow her to j oin the Dominican Sisters of the Third Order, an active group of
widows who focused on good works for the poor who were also known as the Mantellate.
Indeed, despite the Mantellate's hesitancy to accept the young and vulnerable Catherine
to a life of public ministry, she "was so disfigured by the smallpox and so sober in speech
that she became the first virgin tertiary in the Dominican order."s She joined the tertiary
group around 1364, but lived in relative isolation in her parents' home until a mystical
vision of complete espousal with Christ marked a change into public, active ministry in
4 Bell, Holy Anorexia, 36-37.
SPetroff, Body and Soul, 18.
6 Furlong, Visions and Longings, 157.
SJantzen, Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism, 217-218.
SPetroff, Body and Soul, 18.
In 1370, Catherine experienced a four-hour long, paralyzing ecstasy of mystical
death in which Jesus and Catherine exchanged hearts.9 Catherine perceived this vision as
a command from God to actively pursue souls and to expand her mission to the worldly
conflicts of the Church and papacy.'o Writing letters and visiting dignitaries, Catherine
of Siena attempted to mediate the fracturing church. In April of 1375, she received the
stigmata and prophesied the Great Schism of the church four years prior to its occurrence.
She convinced Pope Gregory XI to return from Avignon, and by 1378, she was living in
Rome, serving as Pope Urban VI's advisor and writing her book, the Dialogue.ll In a
desperate attempt to protest the politics of schism in the church and force reconciliation,
Catherine undertook an extreme fast on January 1, 1380 in which she vowed to drink no
water.12 Although she ended her hunger strike on January 29 after collapsing, she never
fully recovered.l3 On April 3, 1380, Catherine Benincasa of Siena died in Rome at the
age of thirty-three.14
Garnering the Authority of Agent and Author: Catherine's Prolific Career as a
Reformer of the Church
Catherine wrote or dictated close to four hundred letters, twenty-six Prayers, and
penned her very own Dialogue (or as she called it l1 Libro), a conversation between her
9 Furlong, Visions and Longings, 158.
'0 Petroff, Body and Soul, 18.
11 Petroff, Body and Soul, 19.
12 Bell, Holy Anorexia, 49.
13 Bell, Holy Anorexia, 50.
14 Petroff, Body and Soul, 19.
and God.ls The Dialogue, her maj or theological treatise, was created in a complex
synthesis of dictation and Catherine's writing and editing in her own hand after she
learned to write late in life.16 Catherine's letters are no less crucial to understanding her
influence as an author; over sixty of her three hundred and eighty-two letters relate to the
Schism, appealing to the protagonists of the conflict and offering mediation."
Catherine's great efforts at preventing fracture, from her visit to Avignon to convince
Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome to her 1378 exhortations to the Florentines to end
their war with the Papacy, are seen in her epistles. Her letters demonstrate her
commitment to her "apostolic endeavors, her self-image as a person called to travel and
preach 'for the honor of God and the salvation of souls,' and her dictation of letters as a
means of furthering her political and ecclesiastical causes."l8 Employing the genres of
both oral culture (through dictation) and epistolario allowed Catherine "to enter the
public sphere and to communicate with political and ecclesiastical leaders on a footing of
equality."19 Catherine was canonized in 1461, named Patroness of Italy in 1939, and was
promoted to the status of Doctor of the Church (along with Teresa of Avila) in 1970.20
In addition to the influence of Catherine's written work, she also garnered a
dedicated following of disciples known called the "bella brigata (beautiful group), or
15 Lagorio, "Medieval Continental Women," 185.
16 Suzanne Noffke, ed., Catherine ofSiena: The Dialogue (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 14.
17 Karen Scott, "'lo Catarina:' Ecclesiastical Politics and Oral Culture in the Letters of Catherine of Siena,"
Dear Sister: Medieval Women and the Epistolary Genre (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,
18Scott, ((lo Catarina," 88.
19 Scott, "lo Catarina," 106.
20 Lagorio, "Medieval Continental Women," 185-186.
Caterinati, of the dolcissima mamna [sweetest mother]."21 Members of her devoted group
included her Dominican confessors (Tommaso della Fonte, Bartolomeo di Dominici, and
Raymond of Capua), her secretaries (Barduccio Canigiani, Stefano Maconi, and Neri di
Landoccio de'Pagliaresi), and her later hagiographer Caffarini.22 Catherine's influence
and example was far reaching, stretching even into the church hierarchy. Cardinal
Giovanni Dominici and other ecclesiastics recognized her as a spiritual guide and
"adopted her as the inspirational model for their reformation of the Dominican order."23
Her own confessor Raymond credited his rise to the position of Dominican master
general to Catherine's spiritual patronage,24 thus giving credit to Catherine's influence
and authority. His acknowledgement also serves to shift the power dynamic between
confessor and penitent, admitting that Catherine guided and enhanced his spiritual
understanding. Indeed, "in this manner, from a position of structural weakness and
ideological subordination, Catherine was able to exercise a profound influence on
religious beliefs and ecclesiastical institutions."25 Thus, the extent of Catherine' s active
and inscribed influence has stretched from the political and ecclesiastical order of her
time to her adoration and admiration as saint and church doctor in modern times.
The figure of Catherine of Siena seems to be the quintessential example of a
woman mystic who asserts her spiritual creativity and her unsettling expressions of piety
21Lagorio, "Medieval Continental Women," 184.
22Lagorio, "Medieval Continental Women," 184.
23Daniel Bomnstein, "Women and Religion in Late Medieval Italv: History and Historiography, Women
and Religion in Medieval and Renaissance Italy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 6.
24Bomnstein, "Women and Religion," 6.
25Bomnstein, "Women and Religion," 6.
within a standard hagiographic model. It should be noted that though "these models were
crafted by men for women [they] should not blind us to the active role of women in
generating these models or the manifold ambiguities inherent in the process of
modeling."26 Although Catherine's work was accepted by the church and male hierarchy,
she often diverged from traditional models of spiritual understanding and action. She
actively shaped and developed her own model of piety, sometimes in contradiction to that
of her hagiographers. For example, Catherine focuses on her loving passion and hope for
the church in her Dialogue and letters. Raymond' s Legend'a on the other hand, seems to
emphasize more of her supernatural struggles, visions, and miracles, in continuity with
other male confessors and the hagiographic genre.27 Catherine's emphasis on her God-
given call, her devotion to the church, and her personal piety, in contrast to hagiographic
reports, show her wielding agency and blossoming into a writer. Through her difference
in emphasis, she declared her own authority, and she crafted her legacy of reform and
mysticism through her letters and Dialogue.
Catherine's relationship with her confessor Raymond of Capua seems unusual and
inverted from a standard penitent to confessor model. Raymond's Legend'a maior,
written after Catherine's death between 1385 and 1395, contains indications of a mutual
rather than domineering relationship between Catherine and Raymond.28 The Legenda'
cites numerous instances of role reversal, where Catherine chides Raymond for belittling
26 Bornstein, "Women and Religion," 5.
27 Karen Scott, "Mystical Death, Bodily Death: Catherine of Siena and Raymond of Capua on the Mystic's
Encounter with God," Gendered Voices: M~edieval Saints and Their Interpreters (Philadelphia: University
of Philadelphia Press, 1999), 161.
28 JOhn Coakley, "Friars as Confidants of Holy Women in Medieval Dominican Hagiography," Images of
Sainthood in M~edieval Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 234.
her sins, rebukes him for falling asleep during her explanations, instructs him on how to
retreat within his mind and to resist arguing with Satan.29 The ultimate example of the
inverted role relationship between penitent and confessor comes when Raymond doubts
Catherine's revelatory visions and asks for a sign from her. Raymond witnesses
Catherine's face transfigured into that of a bearded man, and, terrified, he asks the
question "'who is this, looking at me?'" The transfigured Catherine replies, "'He who
is."'"30 Raymond includes this story of Catherine' s transfiguration into Christ to
emphasize her unique relation ship with and commission from God, to justify her actions,
and to highlight her piety to speed the process toward canonization. However, Raymond
also could have been using a typical hagiographic model whereby male hagiographers
sought to elevate or authenticate women saints by assigning male qualities.31
However, there is something more significant underlying this vision than just an
imposed hagiographic device. Catherine could have asked for a different sign, or
Raymond could have received a more personal vision. Instead, the story underlines the
idea that God selected Catherine's body, that of a woman, to clear the doubts of her male
confessor and to display Catherine's close emotional and physical bond with God.
Catherine's transfiguration into Christ emphasizes both her intimacy with God and her
embodied experience of that intimacy. The selection of Catherine' s body as a vessel and
message for God indicates Catherine's higher spiritual understanding and receptivity to
mystical experience. Catherine assumed the role of spiritual guide as she related her
29 COakley, "Friars as Confidants," 236.
3o Coakley, "Friars as Confidants," 237.
31 Bynum, T
experiences to Raymond, and Raymond in turn accepted his role as student and
eventually extolled Catherine to prepare the way for her canonization. Thus, the
relationship between Catherine and Raymond seemed to fall outside of traditional,
institutional boundaries and may be described as a cooperative, symbiotic, and mutual
Catherine used her divinely inspired authority to work within the church,
supporting its teachings and to some extent its hierarchy. Indeed, "her enormous
charismatic power not only did not challenge but also specifically served the sacramental
ministry of the church."32 For instance, when Catherine converted sinners, she sent them
immediately to a priest for confession.33 However, she was also able to identify
Raymond's sins and turn his error to penitence, displaying a role reversal where
Catherine acts the model of the priest. Thus, there are some instances where Catherine
does challenge traditional notions of ministry. Not only does the Legenda affirm
Catherine as a locus of "supernatural favor and power" in her own right, but it also
presents the authority of the church as being "in a harmonious and momentous
partnership with the saint' s charismatic power."34 As in her relationship with Raymond,
Catherine's relationship with the church is one of mutuality. However, a role reversal
can also be seen here. Even as Catherine worked within the structure of the church,
recognized by bishops and respected by popes, she also criticized the stubborn and misled
32 COakley, "Friars as Confidants," 238.
33 JO Ann McNamara, "The Rhetoric of Orthodoxy: Clerical Authority and Female Innovation in the
Struggle with Heresy," Maps of Flesh and Light: The Religious Experience ofi~edieval Women Mystics
(Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1993), 18.
34 COakley, "Friars as Confidants," 234.
brethren who were fracturing the church, and she pushed structural boundaries by joining
a tertiary order as a virgin. By serving in additional, expanded roles of teacher,
confessor, and political mediator, she went well beyond her position as a mercy providing
tertiary to the poor and extended that mission to encompass the whole church and
unbelievers. Catherine, though seemingly and innocently submissive to the patriarchal
structure of the church, challenged and pushed her authority as a woman, and she did so
with the conviction given to her through her experiential and embodied mysticism.
Catherine's mysticism was grounded by her conviction in the importance of
working in the world. As she writes in her Dialogue with God, Catherine's duty to God
was as a humble and working servant in the world and the holy church. Indeed, she
writes that God proclaims;
.. I would satisfy your anguished longings by reforming holy Church through
good and holy shepherds. I will do this, as I told you, not through war, not with
sword and violence, but through peace and calm, through my servants' tears and
sweat. I have set you as workers in your own and neighbors' souls and in the
mystic body of the holy Church. In yourselves you must work at virtue; in your
neighbors and in the Church you must work by example and teaching.35
Thus, Catherine very much perceived her vocation and calling to be one of active
participation and proclamative teaching. Catherine considered herself to be a leader,
garnering her authority from a God-given charge. Furthermore, Catherine understood her
work as physical and embodied;
With your prayers and sweat and tears I will wash the face of my bride, holy
Church. I showed her to you earlier as a maiden whose face was all dirtied, as if
she were a leper. The clergy and the whole of Christianity are to blame for this
because of their sins, though they receive nourishment at the breast of this bride!36
35Noffke, Catherine ofSiena, 159.
36 NOffke, Catherine ofSiena, 159-160.
Thus, Catherine' s charge required working in the grime of the world, toiling with
sweat and tears and frustration against a corrupted institution. Catherine's call for reform
is metaphorically related as restoration of the female body, a removal of dirty oppression
of the bride and a restoration of the recognition of her powerful, life-giving prowess.
Catherine felt called to become immersed in the world in order to be God's instrumental
servant for reform.
Following in Catherine's footsteps, Raymond of Capua reiterated her charge from
God as a sign of her authority, and he also legitimate Catherine's unsettling apostolate
by underscoring her role in neighborhood networks. Raymond additionally emphasized
the divine sanction Catherine had received by pointing to her visions and miracles as
proof of God' s approval and presence in her life. According to his hagiographic Legenda
of Catherine, she was accused of hypocrisy and pride, and she was perceived of as social
revolutionary, a woman who resisted her "place" in either the domestic or cloistered
sphere."' Rather than remaining in the home caring for her own family, or remaining in a
nunnery nurturing her sisters and her individual soul, Catherine actively pursued public
service, tending to the sick and poor in the streets of Siena with her tertiary sisters. The
initial hostility of the Sienese people to Catherine' s assertive presence could easily be
attributed to her very public performances; the social milieu of fourteenth century central
Italy relegated women's mysticism to monastic cloisters or anchoritic cells.38 Catherine's
public ecstasies, her service of the poor within an organization usually reserved for
37 Karen Scott, "Urban Spaces, Women's Networks, and the Lay Apostolate in the Siena of Catherine
Benincasa," Creative Women in Medieval and Early Modern Italy: A Religious and Artistic Renaissance
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), 108-1 10.
38 Scott, "Urb~an Spaces," 107.
widows (rather than young virgins), and her traveling beyond her home certainly made
Catherine a target for criticism. Still, Catherine's assertion and confidence in God's call
to her to act freely in the world justified her atypical behavior for a young woman.
Encountering Food Asceticism, Suffering, and Humanity: Catherine's Embodied
Catherine's extreme food asceticism has garnered much attention and study.
Catherine began her practice of fasting and developed a dislike of meat early as a child.39
From age sixteen onward, Catherine subsisted on bread, water, and raw vegetables and
gradually reduced these items to only the eucharist, water, and bitter herbs.40 Grace
Jantzen suggests that Catherine of Siena's food asceticism was another form of control
over her body and her circumstances. In rej ecting food, she may have been well aware of
the correlation between it and her body weight and menstruation, and thus rejected her
sexuality and marriageability as well.41 Certainly, this analysis may be applied to
Catherine's initial struggles against her family for control of her future, but it does not
account for Catherine's continued extreme fasts or her attitude toward food as a whole
when juxtaposed with her interest in feeding others or imbibing their suffering. Like
Angela of Foligno, Catherine also drank pus and called it sweet, and she focused on
images of nursing and drinking Christ' s blood.42 Identification with Christ' s suffering
through bodily images and imitatio Christi were central to Catherine's spiritual and
39 Bynum, Holy Feast, 167.
40 Bynum, Holy Feast, 169.
41 Jantzen, Power, 214.
42 Bynum, Holy Feast, 172.
personal understanding, and she shaped and melded her own meaning in physical
Laura Finke argues that the harsh asceticism practiced by female mystics such as
Catherine was utilized as a body redeeming and meaning-determining tool. By
undertaking severe fasts, sleep deprivation, or flagellation, "the mystic becomes at once
both torturer and victim," so that "her body bears the marks, the 'signs,' of her own
spiritual power."43 Although the church authorities encouraged moderation in penance,
the mystics undertook extreme practices to show that "they were always special instances
of God' s grace because they chose their own suffering and thus were free to define what
it meant."44 Catherine shaped her own understanding of her food asceticism; she reasons
that since eating causes her such torture, it would be suicide to eat, since eating would be
a homicide by greed, a deadly sin.45 Catherine determined the meaning of her food
asceticism by asserting the sinfulness of eating and announcing her personal piety
Catherine also describes her ingestion problems as an infirmity from God and prays
for relief from this infirmity.46 Catherine' s practices, "from her rej section of food for
herself, to her drinking of the pus of a suffering woman, to her serving Christ through
suffering, to her attempt to control the movements of the pope by her prayers and fasting,
43 Finke, "Mystical Bodies," 42.
44 Finke, "Mystical Bodies," 42.
45 Bynum, Holy Feast, 169.
46 Bynum, Holy Feast, 169.
became in her case a constellation that pointed to holiness."47 Her practices were thus
interrelated and inseparable from her agency in creating meaning and understanding the
love and redemptive possibilities of God. Indeed, ascetic "technologies which, in the
hands of a powerful church, were meant to limit severely the autonomy and authority of
women became for the mystics a source of self-determination, virtually the only one
available to women during this period."48 Although viewed as the weaker sex, women
used ascetic practices to push their bodies, claiming piety, worth, and meaning molding
agency, as well as being vessels for God's presence and manifest love.
For many medieval women, asceticism was not merely a buying into an
internalized patriarchal gender dichotomy, as Grace Jantzen suggests.49 Rather, it was an
activity that asserted creativity and assigned meaning to the experience of women and
embodied mysticism. Ascetic practices that enhanced mystical experience cannot be
reduced to the labels of psychological neurosis, biological illness, or sociological
attention seeking. Catherine's request to receive the stigmata without scarring
emphasizes her conviction that the point of the stigmata was identification with suffering,
not the visibility of the scars as a sign of her holiness.so As Caroline Bynum notes, "the
notion of substituting one's own suffering through illness and starvation for the guilt and
destitution of others is not 'symptom' [of the psychodynamic theory of anorexia/bulimia]
47 Jantzen, Power, Gender and Mysticism, 222.
48 Finke, "Mystical Bodies," 42.
49 Jantzen, Power, Gender and Mysticism, 222.
5o Bynum, Holy Feast, 212.
- it is theology."si Indeed, fasting "was not merely a substitution of pathological and
self-defeating control of self for unattainable control of circumstance .. it was part of
suffering; and suffering was considered an effective activity, which redeemed both
individual and cosmos."52 Catherine's ascetic suffering was part of her charge from God,
an active way to realize her commission to save the church through her own suffering. In
other words, Catherine' s asceticism was the embodied theology of imitatio Christi.
Catherine's emphasis on the physicality of mystical union and the humanity of
Christ shows her understanding of embodiment and redemption. Catherine describes the
physicality of union with God' s humanity in powerful sensory terms;
Once she has gone along this way of my only-begotten Son's teaching and set her
sights firmly on me, gentle first Truth, she comes to know what she has seen, and
knowing it, she loves it. Her will, drawn along the heels of understanding, tastes
my eternal Godhead and knows and sees therein the divine nature joined with your
humanity. She takes her rest then in me, the peaceful sea. Her heart is united with
me in affectionate love .. when she feels the presence of my eternal Godhead she
begins to shed sweet tears that are truly a milk that nourishes the soul in true
patience. These tears are a fragrant ointment that sends forth a most delicate
Thus, Catherine's mystical experience is described in tangible ways; she knows,
experiences, loves through sight, taste, feeling presence or touch, and smell. Even as her
heart unites with God, Catherine describes the bodily experience of crying, and it is an
embodied experience that nurtures and protects. Through this sensory imagery,
Catherine highlights her common humanity with God and the possibility of redeeming
her body through mystical experience.
51 Bvnum, Holy Feast, 206.
52Bvnum, Holy Feast, 207.
53Noffke, Catherine ofSiena, 163.
Indeed, medieval women tended to emphasize both their humanity and God's
humanity, but this humanity was not understood in the patriarchal sense of woman as
sinful corporeality. "To medieval women humanity was, most basically, not femaleness,
but physicality, the flesh of the 'Word made flesh;' it was the ultimate negative the
otherness from God that the God-man redeemed by taking it into himself."54 Yet, when
Catherine physically "tastes my eternal Godhead and knows and sees therein the divine
nature j oined with your humanity,"ss she redeems her broken body in her mystical
unification with Christ.
Catherine' s emphasis on the experience of the holism and redeemed humanity
found through encounter with God can be seen in her discussion of eucharistic piety in
Even if the host is divided, even if you could break it into thousands and
thousands of tiny bits, in each one I would be there, wholly God and wholly
human. It is just as when a mirror is broken, and yet the image one sees reflected
in it remains unbroken. So when the host is divided, I am not divided but remain
completely in each piece, wholly God, wholly human .. Each one of you brings
your own candle, that is, the holy desire to with which you receive and eat this
sacrament. Your candle by itself is unlit, and is lighted when you receive this
sacrament .. it is I who have given you the candle with which you can receive
this light and nourish it within you. And your candle is love, because it is for love
that I created you, so without love you cannot have life.56
God, in the form of the mystical host, is wholly present and holy nourishment,
redeeming the human body through physical food and spiritual identification with
humanity. Catherine's theology thus emphasizes the physicality and the humanity of
God without gender dichotomy. Yet the site of redemption is still the individual body,
54 Bynum, T ,a-;,,,. user ? 179.
55 Noffke, Catherine ofSiena: The Dialogue, 163.
56 NOffke, Catherine ofSiena: The Dialogue, 207-208.
nurtured by the gift of the host, so that the hope of redemption lies in embodied
experience, not abstract intellectual understanding.
Thus, women mystics like Catherine redeemed the physicality of their patriarchally
identified grotesque bodies through the mystical experience of God' s humanity. There
still remains the sense that women' s mysticism was unique in that it understood God
through embodied experience, the only outlet for spirituality and the only possibility for
agency and authority for women within a structurally misogynistic world. Thus,
embodied mysticism allowed women both to redeem their marginalized bodies and to
move beyond imposed gender stereotypes by experiencing God beyond gender. Surely,
Catherine and others still employed the language of bride and bridegroom in an ineffable
attempt to describe mystical union; I do not deny the power and widespread use of the
imagery of Jesus as mother or Christ as spouse. Yet, their experience and understanding
of redemption through God was holistic and healing, unfractured by the imposed gender
models of their day. Even as women identified with the grotesque body as a site of
reception for physical and spiritual meeting with Christ, they also released gender
identification while in mystical union with God. In this sense, women mystics, like
Catherine, were able to write their bodies as receptive sites of redemption and to right
patriarchally imposed gender stereotypes through mystical union with God
REFLECTIONS ON EMBODIED MYSTICISM: THE CONTINUED CALL FOR
MEDIEVAL GENDER STUDIES
Clare of Assisi, Angela of Foligno, and Catherine of Siena are vibrant examples of
mystics empowered by their spiritual convictions and encounters. These central Italian
women mystics are not unified merely by their temporal and spatial proximity or by the
similar social and historical conditions of institutional patriarchy that they faced. Rather,
these central Italian women, two saints and one beatified, are unified across time by their
insistence on embodied and experiential mysticism, and in their sense of conviction in
being vocal agents of God. Thus we have seen how women mystics both write and right
themselves, their agency, and their bodies in the face of the restrictive conditions of
institutional hierarchy and misogyny and despite the efforts of male authority figures to
mediate their mysticism.
Clare of Assisi asserted her spiritual understanding in her Forma vitae, a monastic
rule that offered a way to live, a path to walk with God, in contrast to other rules that
imposed severe injunctions and crippled movement. She wrote the Forma vitae with the
desire for a horizontal working community, wherein men and women worked together
collaboratively, and Clare's intention to right, or correct, human relationship is evident.
Indeed, Clare wrote herself into the Forma vitae, for it was a statement of her life and the
culmination of her long struggle to right her body within the cloistered confines of the
patriarchal structure. In her correspondence, Clare seems equally insistent in writing her
body into an intimate relationship with Christ by employing sensory, physical imagery
and by invoking the motif of mystical marriage. She rights her marginalized body
through identification with Christ's humanity and redemption through imitatio Christi.
Angela of Foligno wrote her embodied mysticism in the M~emorial in a complex
synthesis of active dictation, collaboration, and redaction with the assistance of her
confessor Brother Arnaldo. Angela wrote her body into mystical experience through
sensory imagery and mystical encounter with Christ's suffering and crucified body. Her
physical descriptions seem dissonant when contrasted with orthodox rhetoric of
intellectual spirituality. This further lends the sense that Angela is locating the body as a
site for knowledge of God and the divine, and is thus righting her womanly body,
challenging the male hierarchical locus of knowledge found in the priesthood. In her
imitatio Christi, Angela embraces her marginalized body in order to enter into the most
marginalized, grotesque body of the good Christ crucified. Employing embodied
mysticism allows Angela to expand conceptions of God from God as spirit to God as
human, experiential, suffering, ecstatic, and present. Thus, Angela writes her own body
into experience and rights the flesh of humanity.
Comparatively speaking, Catherine of Siena seems to act as the most free agent of
these mystics, openly defiant, active, and confident in her role of writing and righting the
human body. Perhaps the sense of Catherine' s agency shines so because she was able to
exercise her embodied mysticism in an era of institutional chaos, where the cracks in the
structural hierarchy allowed Catherine a vocal entrance point into worldly politics.
Catherine righted and embraced her body in a number of ways, by claiming it as a
receptive vessel for God's work and by invoking her person in the authoritative role
reversals of the confessor/penitent model and the activist/tertiary model. She remained
strong in her conviction of her divine agency that only she could right a fracturing
church. Her call from God to be an agent of church reform is also a call from God to
right the female body, to "wash the face of my bride .. whose face was all dirtied" by
the corruption of the hierarchical clergy Thus, Catherine seems to surreptitiously
challenge the abuses of the patriarchal establishment. Like Clare and Angela, Catherine
also wrote her body into imitatio Christi, enduring forms of extreme food and penance
asceticism in order to understand and identify with the suffering of Christ. For Catherine,
suffering for Christ was a lived theology, and unification with the Godhead occurred in
terms of the physicality of the body. Thus, Catherine's embodied mysticism provided a
holistic emphasis on the body as a site of healing and redemption.
The significance of embodied mysticism lies in its unmediated characteristics.
These women mystics preferred to use their own bodies, rather than use the more
common patriarchal mediation of theological intellectualism. Indeed, women' s mystical
expressions were not dry, stuffy, and unidimensional in an intellectual sense, but vibrant,
enlivened, and multifaceted in an experiential sense. Female embodied mysticism was
neither a mere exercise of thought nor a reference to standard theological models, but was
a lived experience with the potential for constant flux, change, and new understandings.
Throughout this study, I have not meant to suggest that these women mystics
consciously or intentionally pushed the boundaries in the sense that they were pushing for
feminist empowerment. Certainly, it is impossible to directly graph our modern notions
of female freedom and agency onto a wholly different set of social and historical
circumstances. Such an analysis would be tenuous and anachronistic. Yet, we have seen
SNoffke, Catherine ofSiena, 159.
the ways in which the feminist lens can illuminate certain behavioral and experiential
characteristics when framed in its proper historical context. Feminist analysis can show
how marginalized women take something restricted and oppressed and make it their own.
Medieval women related in ambiguous ways to the patriarchal tradition, wholly
embracing medieval religiosity and wanting to stay orthodox to the teachings of the
church in order to attain salvation. Yet, paradoxically, in embracing mystical expressions
of religiosity, women adopted and adapted the church teachings, "pushing at the male-
defined boundaries, [and] challenging their definitions and preconceptions."2 In the case
of religious medieval women, "the source of their spirituality was experiential more than
intellectual, in a stronger sense than was true for most male mystics." Women, denied
the "usual routes of education and ecclesiastical preferment," used their experience as the
basis of their authority As we have seen, Clare relied on her visions, and Catherine and
Angela gathered authority from their tertiary service. Certainly, the experiential quality
of these events cannot be understood as merely contrived to make a feminist statement.
Far from it. These women were acting within a highly charged religious location and
time period, and they sincerely sought spiritual connection and religious fulfillment. Yet,
the outcome of wanting to make religious experience truly their own and to share it with
others was a distinct expression that redeemed not only their individual souls but also
their bodies as women in a patriarchal society. The agency of these women mystics came
in their efforts to apprehend a personal, individual relationship with God, and its
byproduct was redemption of both the soul and the body through a concretized, embodied
2 Jantzen, Power, Gender and Mysticism, 158.
3 Jantzen, Power, Gender and Mysticism, 159.
mystical experience. That is, in seeking to make religious salvation their own, they also
made it woman's. By emphasizing presence, senses, and suffering, they also placed the
body within the realm of mystical experience. The writing and righting of the body
through mystical experience was a cycle of both identifying with socially marginalized
body and redeeming the body through unitive mystical experience with God. Through
their experiential emphasis, women challenged and pushed the envelope of institutional
understandings of religion.
Still, this study begs the question of how women mystics understood the dynamic
between orality and writing, and to what extent they considered writing to be owned
expression. Scholars have offered numerous critiques about the extent to which women
participated in the writing of their mystical visions. Most often, scholars assert that
women mystics separated themselves from, or were entirely disinterested in, the written
recordings of their visions and theological understandings. Indeed, it is usually argued
"that there is an inherent opposition between a mystical experience and writing (together
with all its variants, opposition between the truth of the experience and the lie of the
word, between nature and writing, between the divine and the human)."4
However, this model of understanding the dynamic between experience and writing
does not seem to hold true in the cases of Clare, Angela or Catherine. Indeed, Clare
insisted on writing her own Rule, despite the fact that she encountered a variety of Rules
written with her convent in mind. Angela made Fra Arnaldo read his record back to her,
and she criticized his style and corrected his interpretations. Catherine chided Raymond
for falling asleep while listening to her discourses on God, and her role reversal with
SAdriano Prosperi, Spiritual Letters," Women and Faith: Catholic Religious Life in Italy from Late
4ntiquity to the Present (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 115.
Raymond allowed her greater interpretive control over how her visions were presented.
Although women's spirituality has been identified as more experiential and men's as
more rational and intellectual, these characteristics were often fluid and shifting, and
should not preclude the participation and interest of either gender in one or the other type
of expression. Indeed, we must understand these characteristics not as flat and closed,
but as open and engaging models of comprehending both male and female spirituality.
As we have seen with Clare, Angela, and Catherine, women were equally interested in
the espousal of theology, and as we have noted, their hagiographers and confessors
expressed equal interest in their experiential knowledge. Although women mystics may
have placed greater emphasis on embodied mysticism, they also desired to write and right
The extreme food and body asceticism of religious women also played a key part in
the writing of embodied mysticism. "In fact and in image, suffering (both self-inflicted
and involuntary) and food (both eucharist and fasting) were women's most characteristic
ways of attaining God."s Women identified with their grotesque bodies not by
transcending them or inverting them by taking on male characteristics, but by embracing
their bodies and expressions thereof in mystical performance. "Women reached God not
by reversing what they were but by sinking more fully into it."6 By identifying fully with
the flesh and welcoming God's presence there, women mystics not only righted their own
bodies but redeemed the whole body of humanity.
5 Bynum, F ac it.. user ?, 172.
6 Bynum, F a ,It.. userr ? 172.
Certainly, critics claim that real feminist analysis (in the modern, western sense) is
impossible to apply to the medieval period because women internalized the misogyny of
the patriarchal structure. To some extent, we can see how these women mystics
acquiesced to the institution of the church. Indeed, we have seen how Catherine died
trying to manipulate the workings of male patriarchy, and how Clare accepted retirement
to a cloister. Yet, it is instructive to remember that there was no other option or avenue
available to these women, and it would be anachronistic to think that there could be
another type of medieval feminism aside from what these mystics have showed us. I
argue that attempted agency within the confines of a social and historical location is
better than absolute silence, and any type of activity necessarily carries with it the
potential for interpretation and multivalent meaning. These mystics did challenge gender
boundaries and assumed authoritative voices. Although somewhat reactive to their social
surroundings, they acted in ways that they made their own. Clare, Angela, and Catherine
staked a claim for women's spirituality and women's voice. Indeed, when the layers of
male interpretation and mediation are peeled away, the ways in which women mystics
actively wrote and righted themselves emerge. Although Catherine's hundreds of letters
and Angela's mystical instructions are rich with expressions yet to be mined, this study
has opened avenues and provided interpretive models for future study. Hopefully, the
writing and righting of embodied mysticism can continue to be unlocked by the
interpretive key of feminism. The authentic, embodied mysticism of Clare, Angela, and
Catherine offers endless possibilities of understanding the nuanced ways medieval
mystics understood the body and redemption.
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Elizabeth A. Esposito was bomn in Gainesville, Florida, in 1979. She graduated
first in her class from Gainesville High School in 1998. Elizabeth attended Oxford
College of Emory University in Oxford, Georgia, where she earned her Associate of Arts
degree in 2000. She proceeded to Emory University and graduated summa cum laude,
receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree in religion and philosophy. She returned home to
Gainesville to complete her Master of Arts and to realize her dream of becoming an
official Florida Gator. Aside from her academic interests, Elizabeth loves to read, sing,
swim, watch football, go to films, and is an avid and accomplished equestrian. After
graduation in August 2004, she is getting married and moving to Tampa, Florida.
Elizabeth hopes to continue to work in academia as a professor, and plans to expand her
research on gender, mysticism, and the medieval period.