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Elisabeth of Schönau:

A Case for a Distinctive Women’s Spirituality

Kitty Datta

It may seem unfair to choose Elisabeth of Schonau as a test-case

for the idea of a distinctive women’s spirituality, since the inter-
pretation of her writing is peculiarly complicated by men’s share
in it. As a member of a religious community of both women and
men, the Benedictine house of Schonau not far from Cologne,
she was encouraged to write down her visionary experiences by
her abbot, not by a prioress, and her writing was edited by her
brother Ekbert, whose influence on her has been regretted, even
deplored. More than that, the abbot Hildelin’s penitential
preaching in 1155 as a response to her apocalyptic visions of the
year was given a misinterpretation by some as a prophecy of the
end of the world, embroiling her in scandal over such ’women’s
fantasies’ about which she wrote to Hildegard of Bingen.’ Yet it
is precisely because of these difficulties that it may be worth
measuring her against the ideas proposed in Grace Jantzen’s
new book, Gender, Power and Women’s Mysticism (Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1995). Jantzen follows the historian

Caroline Walker Bynum in arguing for the distinctiveness of
mediaeval women’s piety, in their visionary tendencies, their

1. Kurt Fuster, Dictionnaire de spiritualité (16 vols, Paris

Beauchesne, 1937-94), IV, pp. 584-88, gives a critical view of Ekbert’s
relationship with Elisabeth The letter is in F W E Roth (ed ), Die
Visionen der hl. Elisabeth und die Schriften der Aebte Ekbert und
Emecho von Schonau (Visionen) (Brunn Verlag der Studien aus den
Benedictiner und Cistercianer Orden, 1894), p 71, and is translated in
Marcelle Thiébaux, The Writings of Medieval Women An Anthology
(New York and London Garland, 2nd edn, 1994), pp 349-84 ’Women’s
fantasies’ translates muliebra figmenta
56 Feminist Theology
devotion to the Eucharist, and, in the face of a typology of gender
which identified them with bodily life rather than the intellect,
their use of it to their own advantage in their strong erotic mysti-
cism and their interpretation of physical suffering as a means of
imitating Christ.2 She has raised the question to what extent
Christian mysticism is a ’masculine construction’, and how far
these features of women’s piety are the signs of an independent
women’s spirituality.
At this moment in the recovery of past women’s theologies it is
important to look in close detail at what they wrote, or had
written for them, since we are often dependent for our ideas of
them on translations of selected excerpts or on second-hand
accounts which, however good in their way, are sometimes
skewed to special interests. Elisabeth of Schonau has tended to
appear in tantalizing footnotes,3 passing judgments,4 or limited
selections.5 Anne L. Clark’s recent book, Elisabeth of Schonau.
A Twelfth Century Visionary (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania, 1992) is welcome for just this scholarly detail and
synoptic view. Jantzen is herself critical of a modern remaking
of the image of the mediaeval mystic, especially by philosophers
of religion, which shears away historical difference and decon-
textualizes the statements of mystical writers to suggest a com-
mon experiential foundation described as ’ineffable’. This

2. Caroline Walker Bynum, ’Women mystics and eucharistic devo-

tion in the thirteenth century’, Women’s Studies 11 (1984), reprinted in
idem, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the
Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Urzone Publishers,
3. For example, Caroline Walker Bynum, God as Mother. Studies in
the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1982), p. 140 n. 105. She makes other passing references
in her text. Peter Dronke (Women Writers of the Middle Ages
[Cambridge: Cambndge University Press, 1984], p. 316 n. 3), refers to her
’singular lack of intellectual and emotional rigour’.
4. Guy de Térvarent, La légende de Ste Ursule dans la littérature et
l’art du moyen âge (2 vols.; Paris: Les Editions G. van Oest, 1931), I,
pp. 25-27.
Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, Women’s Visionary Literature
5. Medieval
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 159-70; Thiébaux,
, pp 349-84.
Datta A Case for a Distinctive Women ’5 SpzrItualzty 57

approach, which she sees as due to the post-Kantian romantici-

sation of religion, has, she argues, done an injustice to medi-
aeval women mystics, for whom ineffability was a more strongly
theological category. Yet it may be salutary to ask whether her
own approach through sociological categories is not just such
another reconstruction that needs testing against the detailed
history of a special case like Elisabeth of Schonau.
She was a younger contemporary of Hildegard of Bingen,
exchanged letters with her, and visited her in 1156. Yet Elisabeth
lived, if anything more strictly than Hildegard, the life of an
enclosed nun, at Schonau where her parents had admitted her
at the age of twelve. In 1152, when she was twenty-three, her
first visionary experiences began and were recorded by her in a
mixture of Latin and German. They had a negative beginning in
youthful ill-health with a series of what she believed to be
demonic attacks.~ These were what she called fantasmatic
appearances-a small cowled figure, a bull, a clawed monster,
and a refined cleric who made lewd gestures in chapel. These
were so obsessional, and so conspicuously accompanied by hys-
terical symptoms that the convent said special prayers for her,
and they were succeeded by ecstatic experiences in which she
saw the Virgin Mary, alternating with her unwelcome atten-

dant, who eventually receded from view.’

Appearances of a cross or a dove became common, with visi-
tations from the Virgin and other saints on their feast-days. On
St James’s day Jacob’s ladder appeared, on another occasion a
vision of heaven in the manner of the Book of Ezekiel, with God
on his rainbow throne; and the feast of the Assumption gave her

showings of the Virgin rising to heaven surrounded by multi-

tudes of women-martyrs or by angel-hosts. She also saw the
eucharistic elements as Christ’s body and blood. On All Saints’
Day she saw a door open in heaven and was ’rapt into sub-
limity’ ; on All Souls’ Day she had a sight of purgatory. The
saints smiled consolingly at her, and on one occasion she heard a
voice of comfort; but a transition came with the appearance of
angel-messenger who talked with her, telling her that she
6. , ’Liber primus visionum’ (I), pp 1-4 The
Visionen chronology is
Anne Clark’s
7 , I, pp 5-11
58 Feminist Theology
had been tried to enable her to console others.8 It was this
angel’s command to her to reveal the message of repentance to
her society which led to her abbot Hildelin’s preaching mission.
By now she had become a kind of oracle for her monastery,
though subject to suspicions both within and beyond its walls;
and her brother Ekbert’s arrival in 1155 from his canonry in
Bonn to become a Schonau monk may have been related to this
episode. He attributed his change to a monastic vocation from
the more easeful life of a cathedral cleric to his sister’s persua-
sion, but, as even Anne Clark accepts, his loyalty to her was
accompanied by an element of stage management, for as her
editor and part-translator (from German notes), he exerted also
an influence that becomes apparent in her visions described

after his arrival.9 With a Parisian education, he was possibly

more in touch with the theological culture of his day than

Hildelin, as his questions to Elisabeth’s angel on mystical points

relating to Dionysius the Areopagite suggests It may also have
been he who encouraged her reading of Hildegard’s Scivias
which seems to have affected some of her later showings, for
example, the vision of the Trinity at Pentecost 1155 as a trian-
gular column rising from the abyss, and the walled city inter-
preted in terms of cosmic Christology.11
Her other visions of 1155 were much concerned with the
penitential process in this life and the next. When, on St John’s
Day, after a characteristic period of agony she had release in a
blissful sight of the apostle, he gave her a message of reform for
her congregation. When she saw three maidens in a green
meadow, but with soiled dresses and reddened feet, she knew
they were in purgatory, and her sisterhood said the Psalter on
their behalf, which was later followed by a vision of their

8. Visionen I, pp. 12-35

9. , I, ’Prologue’. Clark, ch. 2, ’Life’, pp. 16-19, and ch. 4,
’Ekbert and the Visonary Books’, judiciously examines evidence for the
extent of his influence, and gives a moderate estimate.
10. ’Liber tercius visionum’ (III), p 13
11 ’Liber secundusvisionum’ (II), p 4 and III, pp. 1-3 Cf Scivias (A.
Fuhrkotter and A. Carlevaris [eds.]), Corpus Christianorum Continuatio
Medievalis (Turnholt Typographi Brepolis Editores Pontifici), XLIII,
XLIII A, (1978) Plates with IV, 2 and IV, 3.
Datta A Case far a Dzstzrzctiele Women’s Spirittialitil 59

entrance into heayen.12 This may have relation to the

’Passion of Saint Perpetua’, in which is found the first Christian
mention in visionary literature of prayers for the dead. Before
her martyrdom Perpetua dreamed of her dead younger brother
trying to drink from a font but unable to reach it. Her subsequent
prayers for him led to a further dream in which he was now able
to drink and play, a sign of his salvation On another occasion
Elisabeth, in great pain, saw Peter, who asked her whether she
would like freedom from suffering, which would also bring her
visions to an end. She chose both pain and vision and, in an echo
of Acts 3, was tended by Peter and Paul, with a promise that ’the
spirit of wisdom and understanding’ (Isa. 11.1.4) would be given
to her. The vision which followed involved teaching for the
monastery. The Virgin turned away as a sign that their devotion
was inadequate; on a visit to paradise Peter gave her a message
for her abbot; she received a Trinitarian showing to strengthen
the faith of others; the state after death of relatives, clerics
known to her, and the soul of their patron Count Rupert, was
revealed as an incentive to prayers for the dead. When a priest
spilled communion wine, the cloth which soaked it in was to be
kept as a relic, and the priest forgiven. 14
Yet the most celebrated series of visions in her second Book,
sometimes transcribed separately, was the ’revelation’ made to
her between 1156 and 1159, of the Virgin’s bodily assumption.
Among theologians Rupert of Deutz (not far from Schonau) had
denied that the Virgin’s heavenly entry was physical, though his
early twelfth-century contemporary Honorius Augustodunensis
had asserted it was. However, it was Elisabeth’s vision which,
in a form appealing to people at large, affirmed belief for the
Latin West. Its text was brought to England by Roger of Ford
very soon after its composition (two twelfth-century

scripts in an English hand have survived, one a beautiful

example in the Bodleian Library).1’ It also affected the portrayal

12. Visionen
, II, pp 7, 14.
13. ’The Passion of SS. Perpetua and Felicitas’, in Petroff, Visionary
, pp 70-77, where the general likeness to Perpetua is noticed,
but not this specific resemblance.
14. Visionen
, II, pp. 9, 15, 16-20, 30, 31
15 Visionen
, II, p. 31 Ruth J Deane, ’Manuscripts ot St Elisabeth of
60 Feminist Theology
of the Assumption in the famous twelfth-century York Psalter.16
The Virgin had been a constant source of consolation and
strength in Elisabeth’s visions. Her first ecstatic sight of her had
been in sacerdotal robes before the altar, wearing a diadem of
gems inscribed with the Ave, and her presence kept obsessional
images of the demonic world at bay.17 Yet the idea of bodily
assumption, with its strong assertion of the divinization of
fleshly life and the power to transcend the natural through the
life of obedience was also important to male ascetics up to this
century, when it became official papal dogma in 1950-though it
is interesting that the New Catholic Encyclopaedia (1967)
claimed that ’most theologians in our day are mortalists’.18
Elisabeth’s oracular role for her community is as clearly dis-
played in her other well-known work, ’Revelation of the Sacred
Band of Virgins in Cologne’, her response to a request by Abbot
Gerlach of Deutz. In this she recounted how, following the dis-
covery of ancient remains beside the walls of Cologne, believed
to be those of some of St Ursula’s eleven thousand martyred
maidens, some bones were brought to her convent and in a
trance she spoke to St Verena, Ursula’s companion, and dis-
covered that the man whose relics accompanied hers was a
martyred soldier. This ’explained’ the presence of so many male
bones among those supposed to belong to Ursula’s maidens;
and further men were identified and named by her as clergy who
had accompanied them. As Marcelle Thiebaux and Pamela
Sheingorn have suggested, the virgins and their male relatives
became, in her visionary view, an example of the German con-
cept of kinship. ’Sisterhood now draws male relatives into its
fold, with the sisters, leading nephews, brothers, sons, and at
least one fiance, as well as soldiers, laymen, prelates, and a

Schonau in England’, Modern Language Review 32 (1937); ’Elisabeth,

Abbess of Schonau and Roger of Ford’, Modern Philology 41 (1944).
16. T.R.S. Boase, The York Psalter in the Library of the Hunterian
Museum, Glasgow (London: Faber, 1962), pp. 8-14.
, I, p. 6.
17. Visionen
18. New Catholic Encyclopedia (18 vols.; Washington: The Catholic
University of America, 1967-89), I, pp. 971-75, ’Assumption of Mary’.
C.W Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Society, 200-
1330 (New York. Columbia University Press, 1995) is an important study
of the glorified body and its theological bases.
Datta A Case for a Distinctive Women’s Spirituality 61

pope’.19 Men were obviously dependent on Elisabeth’s medium-

isticcapacities for answers to their own intellectual questions
when they had arrived at an impasse. If she was ’used’, and her
imagination produced romance as history to explain an archaeo-
logical puzzle, the situation seems to have been one where
monastic sceptics who disliked or even demonized her visions
were withstood by other male believers, often in positions of

authority, who trusted her prophetic powers, valuable to their

own interests-in this case involving Cologne as a centre for the

supply of numerous relics.

In his prologue to the second book of Elisabeth’s Visions,
Ekbert had compared her to Old Testament prophetesses; but
there was a contemporary tendency to conflate two interpreta-
tions of ’prophecy’, which St Gregory the Great in his com-
mentary on Ezekiel had kept separate-the solution of historical
problems either past or future, and revelations of God’s
nature .20 The mixture of levels of concern is evident in the third
book of Elisabeth’s Visions. In her vision of the walled city there
is more detailed allegorizing with Biblical apocalyptic sources.
This is true of her next vision also, of the crowned Virgin
enthroned in the Sun (comparable to the rnuller amicta sole of
Revelation 12.1), interpreted for her by her Angel as Christ’s
humanity, and subsequently linked by St John with Mary’s
humanity. Other visions were about temptation (the maiden
whose arrows shot at her victim rebound on herself), and
holiness (a white bird) flying upwards against the movement of
the world-wheel, aided by the Trinity, symbolized in triangular
form but also in the lignum vztae (eternal life) and a rainbow-
coloured wheel (God’s temporal Word) .21 These have a vivid-
ness and complexity learned possibly from Sennas, with some-

thing of its sustained analogical richness. There is also in this

book a series of oracular answers to theological questions posed
by Ekbert: will heretics like Origen be saved at the last? What did
St Paul mean by justification by faith? What was the ’heaven of
heavens’ to which Paul ascended in spirit? Do the dead profit
from our prayers and pray for us? Did angels know about

19. , pp 355, 383

Thiébaux, Writings
20. Clark, Elisabeth of Schonau
, pp 71-2
21. , III, 1-3, 4, 6
62 Feminist Theology
Christ’s incarnation beforehand, and which angels fell? If angels
are invisible presences, how did the women at the tomb see

them ?22
Records of women’s visions of the world beyond were rare
before the twelfth century. In his 1950 study of literary records of
’the other world’, H.W. Patch recorded, among twenty-nine
visionary works from the Shepherd of Hermas till 1200, only
three women (Perpetua, Hildegard and Elisabeth), and Eileen
Gardiner in 1993 managed to add records of only St Sadalberga,
the Empress Theophana, Christina Mirabilis, Guibert of
Nogent’s mother, and a nameless ’poor woman’.23 For Elisabeth
both Perpetua and Hildegard were important predecessors,
suggesting that the springs of her religious imagination lay in
identification with other powerful holy women, whatever the
immediate encouragement of men. It is instructive to set along-
side Elisabeth’s visions those of Rupert of Deutz, colleague of
her maternal great-uncle, Bishop Ekbert of Munster, whom she
saw in a vision of heaven.24 Rupert, the most prolific Biblical

commentator in twelfth-century Germany and like her a

Benedictine, recorded his conversion through a series of vision-
ary experiences around the year 1108 in the twelfth book of his
commentary on St Matthew’s Gospel.25 Once, in a trance-like
state while alone and depressed, kissing a crucifix in chapel, and
on several occasions asleep in his cell, Christ protected him from
demonic torment and communicated with him through kisses
which Rupert interpreted as the call to teach and write on the

, III, pp. 5, 10, 8, 11-12, 15-18. Dronke (Medieval Women

22 Visionen
Writers pp. 192-93), discusses similar oracular requests made to
Hildegard of Bmgen.
23. Howard Rollin Patch, The Other World According to Descriptions
in Medieval Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,

1950); Eileen Gardiner, Medieval Visions of Heaven and Hell, A Source

Book (New York and London: Garland, 1993). Clark, Elisabeth of
, p 93, refers to observation of the shift from men to women by
Bynum and Peter Dinzelbacher.
, II, p. 19; Clark, Elisabeth of Schonau, ch. 2.
24. Visionen
, De Gloria et Honore Filii Hominis super
25. Ruperti Tuitiensis
Mattheum (ed. Hrabanus Haacke; Turnholt: Typographi Brepols
Editores Pontifici, 1979), pp 366-86; John H. Van Engen, Rupert of Deutz
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 50-58.
Datta A Case for a Distinctive Women’s Spirituality 63

meaning of scripture. Overflowed by the inspiration of the Holy

Spirit, whom he interpreted in the feminine language of
Proverbs 5.15-19 and 7.4, he began to compose a hymn. Worried
at the prospect of ordination by a corrupt bishop, he read
dream-experiences of divine absorption in terms of Song of
Songs 8.1-2 or 5.6, as ’visitations from on high’, in confirmation
of his vocation to teach spiritual truth from experience. The
difference-in-likeness from Elisabeth’s earlier experiences is
clear: her most common mode of vision was waking trance, not
dream, and he had no doubt that his visions referred to his
public office as theological teacher. This resembles more closely
Elisabeth’s later vision described in her didactic Book of the
Ways of God, addressed to both clerical and lay readers. In sleep
she saw a tent filled with books, and her angel picked one up,
telling her that its contents would be revealed to her after a visit
to Hildegard. 26 There is also a more explicit erotic element in
Rupert’s more mystical statements which links him to thirteenth-
century women if not to her.27 Even so, both he and Elisabeth
felt called to deliver messages to a corrupt church, and like hers
his imagination was moved by the divine visions in Ezekiel and
Revelation, and by the sense of Christ’s sacred humanity.
German manuscript-illumination of the eleventh and twelfth
centuries includes magnificent illustrations of prophetic scrip-
ture, especially those books, and Rupert as commentator has
been seen to make an influential contribution to the literature of
divine glory. 28

26. ,Visionen pp. 88-122: Liber Viarum Dei , cap. 6 In one vision
Rupert felt himself being raised on a huge open book by the Trinity
(Corpus Christianorum XXIX, p. 372)
27. Rupert, like Hildegard, and Gertrude and Mechtild of Helfta, used
the unitive language of being overflowed and overcome ( Corpus
, XXIX, pp. 378-80). Compare Dronke on Hildegard’s
inspiration, pp. 162, 236
28. On Rupert’s influence see Wilhelm Neuss, Das Buch Ezechiel in
Theologie und Kunst bis zum Ende des XII Jahrhunderts (2 vols.,
Munster: Beitrage zur Geschichte des alten Monchtums und des
Benediktinerordens, 1912), pp. 114-31, C.R. Dodwell, The Pictorial Arts of
the West, 800-1200 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), pp. 273,
277-78. Rupert’s abbot in his youth at Saint-Laurent, Liège, acquired fine
illuminated manuscripts for his house.
64 Feminist Theology
Unless the elements shared by men and women are taken into
account, and the situations where different kinds of male power
opposed one another, an over-simplified picture may emerge of
complexities which are not only those of gender but of wider
cultural difference and local nuclei of interest. So, for example,
while it is true, as Jantzen argues, that women did not write
extended Biblical commentaries, her claim that they were
deprived of the study of scripture overlooks the importance of
oral transmission and memorization of both scripture and
liturgy in a conventual setting, the extent to which women in
religious orders both read and transcribed sacred texts, and the
Biblical commentary embedded in women’s visionary writing.29
The most notable examples are in Hildegard of Bingen, for
instance her commentary on John 1 in the fourth vision of her
Book of Divine Works; but she was not alone. When Abbess
Herrad of the Augustinian house of Hohenbourg made Hortus
Deliciarum for her nuns, probably around 1175, she turned to
Rupert of Deutz’s Canticles commentary along with Bernard’s
and Honorius’s for excerpts to include in her illuminated
anthology.30 And only slightly later, Julia of Cornillon, whose
vision in 1208 led to the founding of the Corpus Christi feast,
with teenage precocity was reading for herself both Augustine’s
Confessions and Bernard’s Canticles sermons. 31
If we examine Elisabeth of Schonau ’s spirituality according to
the Bynum model, it is clear that it was not at all erotic or
prominently eucharistic (in spite of a few showings of the Real
Presence), nor, though she did feel Christ’s pains at Easter, did
she conceive of her physical and mental suffering as mainly an
imitation of Christ.32 Rather it was a necessary prelude to her
ecstatic loss of ordinary consciousness. If Hildegard’s most

29. Jantzen, Gender, pp. 83, 158-59.

30. Herrad of Hohenbourg, Hortus Deliciarum (ed. Rosalie Green
et al.; 2 vols., London: Warburg Institute; Leiden: Brill, 1979), II, pp. 337-
40, 346, 367-71 and Plates
31. Acta Sanctorum Aprilis (Antwerp: Michael Gnober, 1675), cols.
32. Bvnum, The Resurrection of the Body, p. 330 n 45, points out that
her ’model’ of embodiment does not apply to all women mystics. She is
usually cautious in her applications.
Datta A Case for a Distinctive Women’s Spirituality 65

famous letter to her referred to her ill-health through excessive

fasting, she interpreted this as essentially self-willed over-
observance of this aspect of conventual life which ran against
the Benedictine spirit of moderation.33 Knowing that Elisabeth’s
advisers in the convent would ask her to lessen her mortifica-
tion, Hildegard placed obedience to their advice above devout
excess. In other words, in the mid-twelfth century Hildegard

already interpreted this female tendency as a malformation of

women’s power over their bodies and certainly not as an
imitatio Christi.
Before her brother’s interventions, the aspect of vision which,
as far as one can tell, is Elisabeth’s own is her sense of the pro-
tection of the blessed Virgin, who as her appearances unfolded
became ever more elevated-from female priest at the chapel
altar to heavenly queen in sublimest company, which she was
permitted to share. Her brother’s interest in heavenly ecstasy,
however, paralleled her own, if Dom Wilmart’s attribution to
him of the thirteenth pseudo-Anselmian meditation is correct.3’~
What is just as interesting is the ninth ’Anselmian’ meditation
(also a Wilmart attribution), for it clearly enunciated the idea of
identification with the crucified Christ, the imitatio Christi, of
detailed physical suffering which is almost absent from his
sister’s writing. Grace Jantzen has claimed that this was not a
male theme, but here and elsewhere the facts of the literary
history of spirituality contradict her view.35 Yet if Elisabeth’s

33. The letter is translated in Matthew Fox (ed.), Hildegard of

Bingen’s Book of Divine Works, with Letters and Songs (Santa Fé,
Mexico, 1987), pp. 340-42.
34. A. Wilmart, Auteurs spirituels et textes dévotes du moyen âge
latin (Paris: Librairie Bloud et Gay, 1932), pp. 194-95, 421-22. But compare
Scivias I, 2: 13, 24, with their imitatio element for priests and virgins See
also P.E. O’Connell, ’Eckbert of Schonau and the Lignum Vitae of St
Bonaventure’, Revue Bénédictine 101 (1991).
35. Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), pp. 25-28, refers to other influential
male texts, by Peter Damian, Jean de Fécamp, and Goscelin, on the five
wounds and seven stages of the Passion. Jean de Fécamp’s ’Candet nuda-
tum pectus’ was especially influential, as the supposed sixth Meditation
of St Augustine. Jantzen, Gender, p 239. claims that ’no male medieval
writer’ focused on Christ’s dymg body so lovingly as Julian ot Norwich
66 Feminist Theology
imagination was not attracted there, she did find the femaleness
of Christ’s humanity, through his clothing in the flesh given by
Mary, appealing.
An aspect of Elisabeth’s approach to her visions which
resembles the writing of conventual women in the following
century was her connection of them with liturgical high points,
the sabbaths, feasts and saints’ days of the church. When
Gertrude and Mechtild of Helfta similarly related their
showings to the church calendar and if anything intensified
liturgical meaning, this is an important link. Another is concern
with the afterlife and the future of the dead. Prayer for the dead
looms even larger among the Helfta nuns, and makes some
sense of their suffering, seen now as a sharing of Christ’s

redemptive power. Modern suppression of this aspect of

mediaeval women’s spirituality-it is now as unattractive to
women as to men, hardly mentioned by Bynum and not at all in
Miri Rubin’s fine study of eucharistic devotion, or in Jantzen-is
an indication of how the difference of religious sensibility then

and now is underplayed even in careful historical study.36 For

the recent translation of Gertrude of Helfta in the ’Classics of
Christian Spirituality’ series, the decision was made to omit the
fourth and fifth books of The Herald of Divine Love, largely
concerned with saints’ days and life after death. Yet one could
argue that there is an essential link with the mysticism of the
earlier books, which loses its focus, especially in the under-
standing of the connection of the nuns’ pains and prayers, both
liturgical and extra-liturgical, with their belief in their share in
Christ’s atoning sacrifice. The dead as well as the living bene-
fitted, and monasteries were supported by a laity who expected
this ’work’ of them.
Jantzen’s chapter on visionary women, including the Helfta
nuns, concludes with a section entitled ’Backlash’, which dis-
cusses St Bernard’s theory of vision in his thirty-first sermon on

the Song of Songs. To the uninformed this might suggest that

36. Bynum, ’Women mystics’, Women’s Studies 11 (1984), p. 196,

refers to’vicarious communion’. Clark, Elisabeth of Schonau
, p 3, notices
this lacuna in contemporary interest. Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi, The
Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1991) is sceptical of a ’separate’ women’s spirituality
Datta A Case for a Distinctive Women’s Spzrztllality 67

women’s visionary writing had no connection with Bernard’s

teaching; but Gertrude quoted verbatim from that sermon,
drawing on his account of the highest ’intellectual’ vision: ’I felt
as though an ineffable light from your divine eyes were entering

through my eyes, softly penetrating, passing through all my

interior being, in a way beyond measure wonderful... ’~&dquo;
There is nothing quite like that in Elisabeth of Schonau,
writing close enough to Bernard’s time to have no access to his
writing (though both Rupert of Deutz and Hildegard have
comparable passages).38
The morals that might be drawn from this tale are several.
The first is that men and women religious were interdependent,
both in their zeal for church reform and in their promotion of
kinds of practice that would themselves be swept away by the
Reformation churches. Secondly, generalizations about differ-
ences between men’s and women’s spiritual writing are difficult
to make with foolproof soundness. Yet thirdly, each holy woman
who wrote did have as distinctive a point of view as each holy
man; and Elisabeth of Schonau, with her priestly Virgin Mother
and her interpretation of the Woman in the Sun as Christ’s
humanity, is no exception. Yet even here it may be as appro-
priate to talk about shared sensibility as about difference.
Rupert of Deutz, in interpreting the Woman in the Sun, saw her
more traditionally as the Church, but compared her pain in
childbearing to the suffering of the Servant in Isaiah 53,
prophetic of Christ. Elisabeth’s Woman may represent Christ’s
majestic humanity, yet she weeps, and this is interpreted as
Christ’s mourning over his Church.39 Whether Elisabeth knew

37. Gertrude of Helfta: The Herald of Divine Love (trans Margaret

Winkworth; New York: Paulist Press, 1993), p. 126, pp 152-3 n 108,
notices the resemblance to St Bernard, Sermones in Canticis Canticorum,
38. See above, n. 27.
39. Elisabeth’s vision is translated in Thiébaux, Writings
, pp 361-64.
Rupert’s commentary is in In , Patrologia Latina (Migne
Apocalypsin in

[ed.] 221 vols.; Paris: J P. Migne, 1844-64), CLXIX, pp 1040-42 His first
vision in De Gloria et Honore Filii Hominis super Mattheum combines
the language of Ezekiel I and his sight of Christ, whom he kissed while
holding and meditating on a wooden cross. He experienced ’in his mind’s
mouth’ ’the ineffable taste of sweetness’ which he later interpreted as the
68 Feminist Theology
Rupert’s reading directly or not (and this is not beyond the
bounds of possibility), they both blurred distinctions of gender in
thinking about the mystery of divine power and weakness. More
thought should probably be given to how the great visionary
passages of scripture were used and interpreted in the twelfth
century by both men and women. This would ground our sense
of distinctiveness within the sense of a shared religious life
whose scriptural and liturgical dimensions need to be further

consolation of the Holy Spirit, referring to Isaiah 66.13 and 49.22. In both
passages the focal theme is divine motherliness, on which he comments,
’a mother, though she loves all her sons, will turn to console the small
one who is weeping with greater haste and inclination, will carry him
on her shoulder or in her arms and comfort him in her lap’ (Corpus

, XXIX, p 370) The model he refers to, in justifying his

’personal note’, are Augustine’s Confessions and Jerome’s Epistle 22 to
Datta A Case for a Distinctive Women’s Spirituality 69

A Note on the Illustration

It is from Herrad of Hohenbourg, Hortus Delzczarzl11z, Plate 151, v ol II,

p. 453.
The unusual feature of this picture is its compression of features from
Revelations 12 and 13. The woman stands in the sun, has the moon
under her feet, and wears a crown of twelve stars (Rev 12.1); her child is
snatched to heaven by an angel (12.5), and she has wings like an eagle
(12.14). The dragon sweeps the stars with his tail (12.3-4) and casts a flood
out of his mouth (12.15-16). A beast rises from the sea to the left, and is
worshipped (13.1-4). Other striking Apocalypse manuscripts have succes-
sive scenes. The closest to Hortus Deliciarum is from Bamberg (Ernst

Harnischfeger, DIe Bamberger Apokalypse [Stuttgart: Urachhaus, 1983],

Plate 28). Montague Rhodes James, The Apocalypse in Latzn, Manuscrzpt
10 in the Collection of Dyson Perrins, FSA (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1927), lists German types similar to the Bamberg example. In an
English type there are four illustrations, and the commentary is from
Berengaudus (approximately as in Patrologza Lahna 17). See Apokalypse
Oxford Douce 180: Codices Selectr PhOtOtyplcI Impressr Facslmzle LXXII
(Graz: Akademische Druck und Verlagsanstalt, 1983), plates 86-93; Nigel
Morgan, The Lambeth Apocalypse. Manuscript 209 in Lambeth Palace
Library : A Crztlcal Study (2 vols.; London: Harvey Miller, 1990), pp. 174-
80 and miniatures, fols. 15r-16v.