Europe's prevailing religion during the Middle Ages was Roman Catholicism. While it continues to be the primary religion in Europe as well as all over the world, it is now considered conservative and no longer taken as seriously. During the Middle Ages Catholic practices served as common rituals and very important guides in people's lives. Catholicism (especially during this time) tended to be a male oriented institution, but some women reached greatness within the church as well. The most established maternal figure in Catholicism is the Virgin Mary, but many other women were also recognized by being canonized as saints. Women who were made saints have distinct characteristics that set them aside as strong and benevolent maternal figures. Undeniably, a mother is an important element of the Catholic Church. Whether she is the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, or a devout nun, there is a special status granted to these women for they give life and/or provide the necessary guidance for it. Hildegard von Bingen, St Bridget of Sweden and Julian of Norwich are strong examples of motherly women who greatly contributed to the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages.
Revelations were visions thought to be given by God, in which some holy entity (such as God, Jesus, Mary, saints or angels, etc.) appeared to the person having the revelation. People who had revelations were often spoken to by whoever appeared to them. They would sometimes also see something that happened in the life of Jesus as if it was live in front of them. During the Middle Ages, divine revelations were highly regarded as a form of God's word. Revelations had a strong spiritual effect on the person having them as well as on the people who heard of them. One medieval saint who experienced many revelations was St. Bridget of Sweden. She was a mother and a saint. She founded her own order of nuns. Bridget also played a primary role in spreading the catholic faith through her religious work including her Revelations. Julian of Norwich and Hildegard von Bingen, however, were not declared saints, although their revelations were read and praised by many. With the rising popularity of revelations, women were able to take a strong position in the Roman Catholic Church and in society as promoters of the church, advisors to the troubled and mothers to everyone.
Hildegard von Bingen was a female pioneer in the fields of poetry, theology, and medicine during the Middle Ages. She was born in 1098 as a tenth child in a noble family. Like any other non-Jewish medieval family they were devout Catholics and she was raised Catholic. Hildegard's dedication to the church began at an early age. Early on in her life, she possessed extraordinary powers that helped her grow spiritually and intellectually, and which were later recognized and respected by bishops, popes, and kings.9 Hildegard was also popular for her music. She wrote songs that were inspired by God. In the poetic lyric and harmonious melody of her songs, she revealed the full authority, intelligence and striking originality of her genius. She wrote profusely as no woman had before her.10 Although she was not professionally trained in music, her songs were inspirational and profound. Besides music and poetry, Hildegard wrote about philosophy and medicine with a spiritual aspect. She tried to understand and explain the human connection to God through her writings on God's reflection in the human. She contemplated the place of humans in the world and spirituality. Her major works were on the subjects of morality, medicine, and spirituality were: Liber divinorum operum (Book of the divine work), on the relationship of humans to God and to each other; Liber vitae meritorum (Book of life's merits), a work of moral instruction; a medical encyclopedia, Liber simplicis medicinae; and notes for a medical handbook, Liber compositae medicinae. 11 Her book of visions, Scivias is divided into three books of six, seven, and thirteen visions. In each writing Hildegard describes the vision and then explains its meaning. She also published her collection of songs, hymns, and a moral play, which were performed at her church. All of her writings were based on her visions, which she called the gifts of god. Besides writing, Hildegard established her own order of nuns at Disibodenberg in Germany. Eventually she founded her first monastery above the tomb of St. Rupertus. Although Hildegard's visions played a major role in her writings, they could have simply been a result of her migraines, which Hildegard herself recognized. Hildegard was a sickly woman. Yet she worked through her sickness to write books and contemplate on human existence. She was a true visionary and a genius, establishing herself and women as important assets to the Roman Catholic Church and the rest of the world.
St. Bridget of Sweden was born in about 1303 and became the most celebrated saint of the Northern Kingdoms.1 She greatly distinguished herself after her marriage to a man who was as equally pious as herself. Even before her visions were published, she held a position of great power and influence due to her union with noted theologians and King Magus Eriksson.2 It was not until after a pilgrimage following her husband's death that she became known for her visions of the Crucifixion and the Eucharist. The prophetic visions she experienced since early in her life became more frequent and vivid subsequent to her husband's passing. As the visions gradually inspired her already devout life she founded a religious order. It was called the Order of St. Saviour, and was also known as the Bridgetines. The order included not only nuns but monks as well. Her cause was aided by her connection with King Magnus and his court. They generously contributed to the order. Throughout the remainder of her life, his donations helped make it possible for her to make several more pilgrimages. These pilgrimages included a trip to The Holy Land, Israel. The donations also provided funding for her permanent residence in Rome. Bridget devoutly served the church as a nun. She established herself mainly through her revelations, which were focused mainly on the Crucifixion. Pope Boniface IX honored the end of her benevolent life when he canonized her on October 7, 1391. This had little effect however, due to the fact that Bridget was already regarded a saint while she was still alive. During her life she was well known politically. In addition, her teachings on western Christianity had a major impact most of fourteenth and fifteenth century Europe. She was particularly outspoken on the subject of the corruption of Roman Catholic priests. Her life was noteworthy in its generosity and respect, and St. Bridget truly deserved the status she held in medieval Europe.
Julian of Norwich was another eminent Roman Catholic woman of medieval Europe. Julian was born around 1342, during the height of the Black Death. After having visions of Jesus' crucifixion at age thirty, she became an anchoress. She lived a quiet and secluded life, although not a completely solitary one. People often came to the window at her cell seeking her guidance. She resided in a cell attached to the Church of Saint Julian in Norwich (which was how she got her name). Her accounts of her revelations were later published. It was the first book ever written in the English language by a woman. At the time she had prayed for a stigmata-like experience.7 Her wish was granted. When suffering an illness that brought her to her deathbed, she was given last rites. Then, miraculously, her pain faded, and she experienced a series of visions. These visions left her exhausted but cured. Aside from her approximate year of birth, nothing is known of her life prior to the revelations. They were what motivated her to become the anchoress and author who so greatly influenced medieval Europe. Through her cell window, she advised hundreds of confused churchgoers as well as a few notable personalities. Julian herself also became highly educated during her time as an anchoress. Julian not only owes her fame but her entire life to her revelations. They pulled her back from the brink of death to be elevated to the status of a prophet. Julian was also known for her description of the Trinity as being part female, and saying that the loving, forgiving aspect of Jesus was female.
All three of these women devoted their time to serve the Roman Catholic Church as nuns, mothers of humanity, and teachers. Their motherly guidance to those seeking answers, together with their experiences, served to reinforce the Christian faith at a time when religion was the only thing holding a feudalistic social order together. The Black Death caused many to search for answers about the devastation and reconcile their feelings of betrayal. Salvation through their faith was the only thing these people had to hope for. These women gave those answers and reassured everyone around them that their faith would save them. Their exemplary lives are what made the memory of Hildegard von Bingen, Bridget of Sweden and Julian of Norwich be remembered and honored.