Episode 6: Mysticism and Motherhood


From the feast of Corpus Christi to the mystical marriage between St. Catherine of Siena and Jesus Himself, Em and Jesse dive into the world of Medieval mysticism and affective piety, exploring the ways in which women were able to co-opt the stereotypes of men into positive portrayals of female piety. Brief content note–there’s nothing explicit, but we do mention circumcision in this episode.

Annotations, Notes, and Corrections

1/ Kalamazoo is of course the big Medievalist conference. [Officially it’s called the International Congress on Medieval Studies. There’s a free wine hour, and for many years there was a mead tasting (that I hope will return). When I say “mead tasting”–I mean roughly 20 different kinds of meads and ales made in traditional ways. There is also a Saturday night dance–basically a high school homecoming dance with medievalists.–JN]

Jesse: For those wondering about this Rover (weather balloon) reference from The Prisonerhere’s a clip.

2/ Another chance to look at that Hieronymous Bosch painting.

3/ Jesse: Rolle and Kirby are discussed in notes 28 and 29 from Episode 5: Hermits and Anchoresses. Bernard McGinn’s epic series A History of Western Christian Mysticism currently contains 6 volumes labeled The Presence of God vol 1–6. However, volume 6 comes in 3 parts (part  3 is being published July 2020). If you want to know something about Western mysticism, check out one of the volumes helpfully listed at the bottom of his Wikipedia page. McGinn also wrote this book on Meister Eckhart (completely separate from the series). This Amazon link should take you to a semi-complete list of the texts as well. In this episode (and the last episode), I mention: The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century, The Growth of Mysticism: Gregory the Great Through the 12 Century, The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism 1200–1350, and The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism 1350–1550.

4/Jesse: Officially, Corpus Christi is celebrated the Thursday or Sunday after the Sunday after Pentecost. (The Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday, and Corpus Christi is celebrated the following Thursday or Sunday. So, it’s roughly 11 days to two weeks after Pentecost.)

Em: [8:30] Inca Bodies and the Body of Christ: another chance to recommend my grad school reading list.

5/ [9:00] Flower mosaics.

Jesse: Origins of all kinds are tricky, but we can trace the origins of the Feast of Corpus Christi. We cannot trace the origins of theatre, as I say here very quickly. While the creation of theatre around the Festival of Dionysus in fourth/fifth century BCE Athens is extremely important to the history of theatre in what we now define as the “West,” to the extent that this early theatrical practice is “western,” it is important that “western” not be understood as a synonym for whiteness.

6/ [11:20] For those of us who didn’t ever really take a case-based language, genitive is the possessive case.

7/ Pope Urban the IV. One of only a few popes who got the job without first being a cardinal [I wasn’t aware you could do that. However, Wikipedia mentions a three-month vacancy between the previous pope dying and Urban’s election, so I guess they were a little desperate? Also, he wasn’t just Joe Shoemaker from down at the Forum, he was the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem (basically the bishop of Jerusalem I guess) and former Archdeacon of Liège, so he was pretty important.–Em]

Jesse: Fourth Lateran Council.

8/ Proto-Protestant Heresies: Martin Luther’s revolt really got off the ground, I think (I have read somewhere), because he had the backing of a lot of relatively powerful people in the region and there was a lot of general anger at the Catholic Church in the peasantry, meaning that it was impossible for the Church / the Inquisition to stamp out the fire he lit. I feel like this will have to be its own show though.–Em

9/ Wycliffites, named for John Wycliffe. [Wycliff’s followers were also–more famously–called Lollards. There were also the Hussites who followed Jan Hus. And so many more! You get the idea.–Jesse]

10/ “When you’re being tested for heresy…” i.e. by the Inquisition. Which–you could just lie to them. Although that raises its own issues. [Also, you were probably being tortured. When I say tested or “proven” from the Latin probare (verb), I mean tortured. A probatio generally wasn’t pleasant–we’ll address this in a future episode!–Jesse]

11/ Quote from Dyan Elliot.  [Huge shout out to Dyan Elliott generally and also to Proving Woman: Female Spirituality And Inquisitional Culture In The Later Middle Ages. Notice that the “proving” in Elliott’s title is taken from the inquisitorial sense discussed in the note above, from the Latin probare.–Jesse]

12/ [20:36] Actually, when you enter a convent or monastery, you would typically swear a temporary, solemn vow (solemn here refers to the Church’s recognition of the vow, rather than its content or seriousness–any other vow is called a simple vow). Later, you typically take perpetual vows. Nowadays, the differences between the types of vows are less than they used to be, and many groups can only offer simple vows to their members. Additionally, some groups (like Jesuits) take perpetual vows at the beginning, while other groups only ever take temporary vows and renew them at intervals.

Jesse: Beguines. In addition to Elliott and McGinn above, check out Walter Simons’s book Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200–1565.

13/ Liège waffles are the best type of waffle, don’t @ me. Sometimes they can take 2+ days to make (owing to allowing the batter to ferment), but this recipe is a relatively quick approximation.

14/ Jesse: Juliana of Mont Cornillon (1192–1258). For all things Feast of Corpus Christi related, including Juliana, see Miri Rubin’s book Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture. Here are the intro and some excerpts from Barbara Newman’s translation of Juliana’s Vita.

15/ Canonesses are like nuns in that they are members of a community of religious women who are dedicated to certain causes. It looks like they possibly don’t take vows of poverty (which nuns do), and that may be the primary difference. The male equivalent title is canon. [The main difference between monks/nuns and canons/canonesses is that monks/nuns follow the Rule of St Benedict. Although the Rule of St Benedict has frequently been reformed, as we’ve discussed on this podcast, the reformed Rule followed by monks like the Trappists is still, fundamentally, the Rule of St. Benedict. Canons/Canonesses follow the Rule of St. Augustine, which is more active. Monks/Nuns are (in theory) more contemplative, supporting themselves on their own land via farming and living in solitude (or formerly having lay brothers do the farming, while living in solitude). Monks do not have to be priests. Canons are priests, while canonesses are obligated to…observe the Divine Office (the liturgy) the same as canons (although obviously not the same, because they’re not priests). Canons and canonesses are also part of the active life–canons live a life of service as priests (frequently teaching, etc.), but canonesses can also nurse, teach (especially today), etc.–Jesse]

16/ Jesse: Eve of St. Martin (died after 1264, contemporary of Juliana of Mont Cornillon). For more on Eve, see Rubin’s Corpus Christi and Newman’s introduction to Juliana’s Vita (both in note 14 above) and especially see Anneke Mulder-Bakker’s Lives of the Anchoresses.

As Anneke Mulder-Bakker discusses in Lives of the Anchoresses (pp. 83–84), the Vita that Eve of St. Martin wrote in French was translated into Latin and edited and revised by an anonymous male cleric. (The anonymous cleric was commissioned by a canon of St. Martin who was a patron to both Juliana and Eve, John of Lausanne.) Just how much of the version of Juliana’s Vita that we have today is Eve’s original is unclear, but her text seems to have provided at least the foundation, so it’s nice to think of Eve as the first (if not necessarily primary) author. For more on Juliana’s Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi, see Mulder-Bakker, pp. 90–92, and for a comparison with Thomas Aquinas’s Office (as much as can be gleaned, since Juliana’s Office is no longer extant) see pp. 102–108.–Jesse

17/ Jesse: Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179). She wrote the Ordo Virtutum (a musical morality play) among many, many, many other things. Here’s a clip with pictures of the manuscript. At 3:38 you can see “Felix Anima” in red letters at the top left of the second page. This means that Anima–the everyperson character of the play, the Soul–is supposed to sing “happily.” Stage directions! Also, see note 23 below.

18/ Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (935–1001) will get her own episode.

19/ I feel I have been much misled by Shakespeare in Love. [I dunno, I think that Ben Affleck as Edward Alleyn is spot on.–Jesse]

20/ Moll Cutpurse: “She was at once an hermaphrodite, a prostitute, a bawd, a bully, a thief, a receiver of stolen goods, &c. &c.” The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, Volume the Sixth, Dublin: printed by John Exshaw, no. 98, Grafton-Street, 1794, p. 193. [The Roaring Girl is a play about Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse, written by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker c. 1607–10 and published in 1611.–Jesse]

21/ Neil Stephenson, Quicksilver, The Baroque Cycle no. 1, HarperTouch, 2006. If you are really interested in the Enlightenment and the Royal Society from approximately 1665 to 1715 (say, the time of Robert Hooke publishing Micrographia and Newton discovering the laws of motion to the death of Queen Anne, and if I tell you the series is 3×800-page books (in hardcover; I think the softcover version might be 6×400 page?) you find that exciting instead of kind of dreadful, you should definitely read it! It’s a real who’s who of great scientific, economic, and political minds in Europe during the era.

22/ Joan of Arc. Also, Pope Joan, who (according to legend anyway) reigned as pope for several years before giving birth in the middle of a procession (probably the most unlikely piece of the story in my opinion, that is definitely not how giving birth generally works). [Joan of Arc (c.1412–1431) was an amazing warrior and martyr. Pope Joan is a legend created by medieval men who were terrified of women. We’ll probably have an episode that will include this where we’ll add real footnotes about her, but she’s a legend. As is the whole ball-checking ritual that was supposedly created because of her. Legend!!!–Jesse]

Jesse: We also discussed St. Marina (Brother Marinos) last time (note 23 of Episode 5).

23/ [34:00] And now we will discuss the Ordo, after teasing references to it in at least one and probably several previous episodes. [And see the links in note 17 above!–Jesse]

Jesse: I could have gone on longer about metal, so I sound like I dismiss Em’s great comment, but really I’m just trying not to go on a tangent in the middle of my tangent!

24/ Affective Piety: Emotional devotion to Jesus, particularly in the most mortal moments of his life–the infancy and the Passion. The sorrow of Mary is also very important. Remember this term–it’ll come up again.

25/ Jean Gerson (1363–1429). He comes up again later on too.

26/ St. Brigid or Birgitta of Sweden (1303–1373).

27/ Jesse: Giant shout out to Barbara Newman. The quote can be found here, halfway down the page. The book is God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages (p. 290). Quote: “Jean Gerson appears to have been the first in a long train of clerics (including many modern scholars) to find such piety embarrassing, scandalous, or even blasphemous” (Newman, p. 290). The rest of the quote is from a paper I gave where I used this quote. Ooops!

28/ Jesse: Bynum’s Holy Feast, Holy Fast(1988). Watershed book!

29/ Jesse: The Book of Margery Kemp: TEAMS edition, ed. by Windeatt, and the Norton translation. For more on Margery Kempe (c. 1373–after 1438), here is her Wikipedia article. Hope Emily Allen identified (“discovered”) the manuscript of Kempe’s book.

30/ Jesse: Marguerite Porete (burnt as a heretic on 1 June 1310): We’ll talk more about her next time. Her book is The Mirror of Simple Souls.

31/ Jesse: Peter Dronke’s Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua to Marguerite Porete (1984). I also love his edition of Nine Medieval Latin Plays. I am specifically not mentioning names of scholars who found women’s contributions doubtful.

32/ “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” Seems to come from Mrs. Dalloway.

33/ Jesse: Reassessing the Role of Women as Makers in Medieval Art and Architecture. Also, I’m talking about Vigil Raber (d.1552), playwright, artist, and craftsman from Sterzing, whose wife (d.1563) continued to run their studio after he died. See M.A. Katritzky, “What did Vigil Raber’s stage really look like? Questions of authenticity and integrity in medieval theatre iconography.” In Vigil Raber: zur 450. Wiederkehr seines Todesjahres.  Eds. Michael Gebhardt and Max Siller. Schlern-Schriften, 326. (Innsbruck: Wagner, 2004), 85–116.

Jesse: This part of the quote from Newman is on p. 289 of Gods and the Goddesses. Gerson did not actually live to see Joan executed so…he didn’t learn his lesson? Or are we glad that he didn’t realize quite what he’d helped accomplish?

34/ [56:04] The missing word is “megillot.” A megillah (singular form) is single-handled scroll (like a Torah is a double-handled scroll). There are five of them in the Hebrew Bible–the other four are the book of Esther, the book of Ruth, Lamentations, and Kohelet (also known as Ecclisiasties). (I used a “shorten gaps” editing macro I shouldn’t have, and it deleted the end of the word. Also I don’t seem to have a backup of the original track. I regret the omission.)

If you want to read all of Song of Songs, here’s a link to Chabad’s site (https://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16445) where you can also read Rashi’s commentary on all of this. Jesse is reading book 1, verses 5 and 6.

35/ Jewish camp is a whole thing. Like I met a guy who was doing his MA in sociology studying Jewish camp-based social network (he was at Brandeis, natch). I only went that one year.

36/ Jesse: Hadewijch (flourished in the first half of the 13th century). More next time!

37/ St. Catherine of Siena: her body is in Rome in Santa Maria sopra Minerva (right behind the Pantheon) and her head is on display in Siena in the Basilica of San Domenico.

See Bynum Holy Feast, Holy Fast p. 246 for a discussion of Catherine’s ring. Bowdlerization comes from Thomas Bowdler’s censorship of Shakespeare in an 1818 edition.

Here’s the Avignon papacy.

38/ Jesse: Elisabeth of Spalbeek! Here are some articles I’ve written on Elisabeth’s history and her performance.

Marie d’Oignies (1177–1213).

39/ New Years is the feast of the circumcision. Technically, a bris is supposed to be held when the infant is eight days old, so the timing must have been messed around at some point.

40/ Hot caudle: basically like a warm eggnog, maybe also containing oatmeal but definitely alcoholic. According to Wikipedia, even as recently as Queen Victoria giving birth, caudle was so associated with the event that not only was she presumably drinking it, all her visitors were also offered caudle and cake. (Also, all the people coming to visit the queen and her new baby would have been women. So it must have been a merry old time, for real.)

41/ Susan Glaspell, Trifles: You can read the whole thing here, and you should, because it is short and very good.

42/ Jesse: The USA has a terrible maternal mortality rate that is especially horrible for women of color (and the disparities are not altered by education).

Em: I believe there’s some evidence it’s tied to both the fact that women of color are more likely to have preexisting conditions and that doctors are incredibly dismissive of women’s complaints in general. Pregnancy in general can be pretty uncomfortable, and it’s very normal for doctors to tell women they just have to deal with things and please stop whining. Which is fine sometimes, and sometimes there’s an actual issue that’s getting overlooked. Serena Williams nearly died of a blood clot after giving birth to her daughter, and I have already heard of one case of a Black woman dying in childbirth seemingly as a result of poor care/bad care transitions brought about by COVID. (Despite this, I know a bunch of people who had home births and did fine and were very happy doing that. It’s more risky, but the absolute risk is relatively low. So the podcast’s official position on giving birth is, I think, “Be careful.” And get someone to make you a hot caudle afterward!)