During the Middle Ages, Christianity was a fundamental and central influence on society. Through the church, many people were educated and came to hold positions of power. Among these people were women who through their faith became accomplished and well-known members of society, such as Hildegard von Bingen (1098 - 1152), St. Bridget of Sweden (1303 - 1373), and Julian of Norwich (1343 - 1416). Although the only one of these women who was actually a mother is St. Bridget, all three are maternal figures in their own way. They each advised lost souls who came to them for guidance in the same manner that a mother would advise her child. In addition each of them were leaders and role models within their religious communities similar to the way a mother leads and is a role model within her household. Another maternal figure very important during the Middle Ages was the Virgin Mary, who served as a role model for all of these women as well as more generally for both religious and Lay people in Western Europe. Hildegard von Bingen, St. Bridget of Sweden and Julian of Norwich all were extremely dedicated not only to the church but to Jesus and Mary in particular. Each of them strove to model their lives after Mary's and attain her spiritual perfection.
European admiration of the Virgin Mary grew dramatically from the twelfth century on. Christ's role as the absolute judge was particularly stressed in the artwork of the time. As a result Mary began to represent an mediator for sinners. Due to increasing worry over the Apocalypse and the Last Judgement subsequent to the Black Death of the fourteenth century, Mary was increasingly shown in popular reverence as an appeaser and consult for the mercy of Christ. Mary was now seen as the Mother of Mercy, among her many other titles, and the artwork of the time reflected this. In figure 1, angels and people pray to Mary as she holds her arms out covering and protecting them. At the same time she is looking up as if she is praying. This is a good representation of the medieval belief that Mary was a mediator between Christians and her son, Jesus. People began using biblical titles when referring to Mary such as "Refuge of Sinners." This was also the time when people began to pray the rosary and litanies came into existence. Figure 2 depicts Mary as Our Lady of the Rosary. In figures 3 and 4 Mary is shown with the baby Jesus. These works are a good example of the typical medieval representation of the two.
Hildegard von Bingen was a very accomplished German nun of the twelfth century. She wrote poetry, music and a play, and invented medicines while acting as a midwife, healer and mystic. She was also considered a genius. Hildegard claimed fame in her own time for her medical books, visionary writings, and musical compositions. She made a remedy for diseases out of olive oil, billy goat tallow, and violet juice, that is still sold in Germany today as a cosmetic juice (similar to mothers inventing their own home remedies for illnesses out of common items). She also made a yarrow tea that prevented diseases from spreading. Hildegard's remedies are a good example of her maternal nature. Her compassion for the ill, together with her determination to cure them, mirrors a mother nursing her child.
For the people of Hildegard's time, music was the highest form of praise to God, and she viewed music no differently. There are several instances where she uses music to adorn religious writings. She compiled all of her music into what she called "The Symphony of the Harmony of the Heavenly Revelations." The monastery proved to be the perfect environment for the composer inside of Hildegard. It provided experienced copyists to pen her music, skilled performers to sing it, and the liturgy as the occasion for her music to be performed. The following is a sample of one of her poems:
O most noble greening power, rooted in the sun,
who shine in dazzling serenity, in a sphere
that no earthly excellence can comprehend.
You are enclosed in the embrace of divine mysteries.
You blush like the dawn, and burn like the flame of the sun.
The liturgy of Hildegard's time used four types of music: the antiphon, responsories, sequences, and hymns. Hildegard composed antiphons the most and these are usually just one liners. Responsories were next in line of what she composed most of. Sequences are dramatic pieces with a lot of imagery and Hildegard's usually did not rhyme. Her music is said to have usually consisted of five main characteristics. These include soaring, leaps, contour, dramatic flourishes, and instruments. The very wide range in her music is what we call "soaring," and it is one of the main points that makes her music so different from that of her time. Nor did music of that time leap from one end of the octave to the other the way that Hildegard's did. While other music in twelfth century Germany seemed to have easy flowing melodies the contour of her music had just the opposite; the melody often got very high or low very quickly.
Hildegard viewed instruments as tools that direct the heart to God even though during her time they were not used in church. She believed each instrument served a special function. Discipline was inspired by the tambourine. According to her we are reminded of the breath of the spirit by the flute. The trumpet was clear and strong similar to the voice of the prophets. Emotion is stirred up in our hearts by the sound of the strings, and we are lead to repentance. Finally she said the organ helps create community because it can play harmonies.
To Hildegard, her music and instruments were her children. She shaped her music and did everything she could for it to be extraordinary, just like a good mother does for her child. She knew her music was special and believed it made a difference by having a positive impact on its listeners, not unlike a mother's unwavering belief in her child's capability to be special and have a positive impact on the world. In Hildegard's mind, instruments did more than produce harmonious sounds. She saw instruments as the bridge that connected people's hearts to God's love, similar to how a good mother sees her child as genuinely virtuous while seeing her child's many capabilities.
St. Bridget of Sweden was an extraordinary fourteenth-century woman who was married, had eight children and founded a very powerful order of nuns. Yet she is most famous for her revelations. Usually in Bridget's visions, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or an angel would appear and talk to her. At age 43 she had a vision that told her to go to Rome. On the way there she began to learn Latin, yet she still wrote her revelations down in Swedish (they were later translated into Latin). At this time Bridget's main wish was to have her order of nuns officially approved. She unyieldingly believed that she gathered and wrote down the rules of the Order exactly as she had received them from the Virgin Mary. Bridget received another vision telling her to go to Jerusalem in 1372. She had many visions through which she saw many occurrences in the lives of Jesus and his mother, Mary, while there, a form of Affective Piety. Bridget wrote down her various revelations and compiled them into a book. Immediately after her death many of Bridget's writings were edited into two books, the Liber celestis and the Liber celestis imperatoris ad reges. (finished in about 1375). The books were later translated into Latin and vernacular languages. By the fifteenth century, Bridget's pious writings were well known in England.
The depiction of the Nativity in fifteenth-century paintings was profoundly influenced by Bridget's writings about her vision of the Nativity. It is seen in Gentile de Fabriano's 'Adoration of the Magi'(painted in 1423, located now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy). This vision is also illustrated in Hugo van der Goes's 'Portinari Alterpiece' (a three-part masterpiece completed in 1479 also located currently in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy). Her vision was particularly popular among Italian artists. This can probably be attributed to Bridget having spent many years in Italy. Below is part of Bridget's writings on the Nativity:
Her back was turned against the manger. Verily though all of a sudden, I saw the glorious Infant lying on the ground naked and shining ... Then I heard also the singing of the angels, which was of miraculous sweetness and great beauty ... Then therefore the Virgin felt that she had already born her Child, she immediately worshipped him, her head bent down and her hands clasped, with great honor and reverence and said to him: Be welcome my God, my Lord, and my Son.The usual interpretation of Bridget's writings on her vision of the Nativity is that when Bridget sees Mary giving birth, it looks like light passes through her body. In her vision she sees that Joseph has brought Mary a candle because it is night. She also states that at his birth the baby Jesus is covered with a divine light that outshines the material light of the candle. He is then lying on Mary's mantle on the ground, and Mary is kneeling adoring the child.
Just as famous as this revelation is Bridget's vision of the Crucifixion. This vision is a good example of the affective piety often seen in medieval revelations. Bridget tells the story as if she was a part of it and had actually been there. She describes the Crucifixion this way:
Finally they extended his body on the cross beyond all measure; ... And as I, filled with sorrow, gazed at their cruelty, I then saw his most mournful Mother lying on the earth, as if trembling and half dead. ... Then the new sorrow of the compassion of that most holy Mother so transfixed me that I felt, as it were, that a sharp sword of unbearable bitterness was piercing my heart.
St. Bridget of Sweden also has a vision of the transformation of the eucharistic bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. How the transformation of the host occurred is illustrated in Figure 10 at the end of the paper. It is an Italian miniature painted in about 1400 in a manuscript now located in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. The illustration shows Bridget seated at her writing desk. The eucharist is being celebrated. Her head is lit by a holy ray that comes down from heaven where the saints and angels are gathered. Jesus and the Virgin Mary send down the rays that give Bridget her vision of the miracle. She is the only one who can see Jesus rising from the Eucharist, held by a priest celebrating mass at left.
In many of St. Bridget's revelations, God, Christ or Mary appear angry with the state of the Catholic Church in general and also angry with the many abuses of the clergy and bad practices of the Popes. Bridget's book the Liber Celestis contained some revelations in which the popes are referred to. Other revelations about the popes weren't published until years later in a collection of her work entitled the Tractatus de summis pontificibus.
Julian of Norwich was an English nun who lived during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. In 1373 she suffered a serious illness and had religious revelations. She first wrote a considerably short assessment of the revelations and what she thought they signified. Twenty years later, in 1393 she completed the full book about her revelations.
Julian was also known for her advising of people who came to her cell window with their problems. In 1413 Julian was visited by and advised a famous writer, Margery Kempe (the same woman whose writings were influenced by St. Bridget of Sweden). Scholars now doubt if Julian of Norwich wrote the book out herself. The book in question has through the years been altered and reprinted and is now called either "Showings" or "Revelations of Divine Love." There are eight manuscripts extant of Julian's text which include the Amherst manuscript, the Westminster manuscript, the Paris manuscript, Norwich Castle & Lambeth Palace manuscripts, the Syon manuscripts, the Benedictine manuscripts, the Sloane manuscripts, and the Stowe manuscripts.
Julian is also famous for her very controversial view of Jesus as a mother. It is in the newer longer version where this view of Jesus is clearly implied. Even though her view of him as a mother is only openly seen in chapters 57-62, it is said to define the Revelations. In chapter 57 of the book she states that, "our savior is our very moder in whom we be endlesly borne and never shall come out of him." She claims the Trinity is part female, because while being the son Jesus is also a mother, nurturing, feeding, and looking after us during our lives. She also depicts Mary as a priest, and even the church itself as a 'mother whose breasts believers go to for sustenance.'
Many people believe that viewing God in a traditionally female role qualifies Julian as a feminist. I actually think it does just the opposite. Why does a male who is sacrificial, tender, nurturing and loving have to be called a woman? It reinforces the traditional stereotypes of women and how they should behave, while also reminding men that if they act this way it means they're a girl so they should continue to be selfish and rude. On the other hand, Julian's being described as an optimist is one observation that I can not argue with. Her two most famous quotations are: "But all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well" and "For in mankind which will be saved is comprehended all." Julian viewed all of mankind as her children. Both these quotes are good examples of this. She is hopeful and believes that mankind will be saved and everything will 'be well', similar to how a mother hopes for and believes that her child will 'be well'.
Lastly, while looking back at the Middle Ages, one thing is clear: from Hildegard's music and Bridget's order of nuns to Julian's writings, they each accomplished greatness. These women can even serve as role models for the women of our own time. If each of them can accomplish greatness during the misogynistic Middle Ages, there is no reason why women today can not do the same. All of these woman were extraordinary, but one common trait among all of them is their maternal instinct. They followed the example of Mary, whose spiritual perfection can be attributed to her love, sensitivity, kindness and warmth all of which are the typical characteristics of a good mother. While these women modeled themselves after Mary to attain spiritual perfection, they were simultaneously reaching maternal perfection. Hildegard von Bingen, Bridget of Sweden and Julian of Norwich all aspired to spiritual union with God and modeled Mary.