Women of a Certain Age

Excuse the pun! We are both in our fifties and just publicly marked the beginning of cyfeillion-friends on a warm and windy sunny afternoon on Whitford Beach. Grateful for the company of friends and missing those who couldn’t be there it was a joy filled time of special moments and significance. For me a feeling of having taken a step into something that has been buried deep within me for decades, only now to emerge, tentatively, into a new creative space.

Following on from this, we are beginning of a series of blogs where Karen and I will focus on women mystics through the High to Late Middle Ages, some sites we have visited and some we have read about – the purse doesn’t stretch to globetrotting these days! These women had an impact in their time and still speak today, their legacy – inspiration that spans generations.

The High to Late Middle Ages (1000-1500AD) were uncertain, with socio-political and spiritual turmoil including the break-up of feudalism, the rise of capitalism, the break up of Catholicism, national disasters and a release of new religious movements.

Some felt the church’s fallen state (usury, gluttony, lust for riches and sexual excess amongst the priests) was due to acquiring property and the church had ‘unchurched’ itself, they believed, in the fourth century when Constantine gifted Western Europe to St Sylvester.’[1] This resulted in restorationist movements seeking to return to an expression of faith in line with the first century apostles’ principles. This ‘rage for apostolic poverty’ was characteristic of the Middle Ages and resulted in men and women leaving their positions and possessions so that they may more perfectly follow Christ. Some did this alone, others in small groups, others in conjunction with or in cooperation with established, cloistered religious orders, and some became the beginnings of new religious orders. The most well known is St Francis and his pursuit of the vita apostolica – The Apostolic life.

Between 1100 and 1400 women were to find new roles within the church and society. Traditionally their choice was either “man [marriage] or the wall [monastery]” and as they were not allowed a position of leadership within the church structure they took on a prophetic role – particularly the Beguines (alongside the movement amongst lay men, the Beghards).

The Beguines were the first specifically women’s movement birthed out of the revival in the thirteenth century and some say a female response to St Francis’ vita apostolica. Despite the dire state of the institutional church there were many ordinary people who had a clear and vivid faith and wanted a way of life that matched the purity of their desires. These women were not nuns, they were lay people, nor were they attached to a specific order as convents at the time were often the repository for rich families’ unwanted children or you had to come form a certain strata of society and pay a dowry to get in! Mostly prominent in Northern Europe, some lived at home some with others, some dedicated themselves to prayer, some combined prayer with acts of mercy. They were self-supporting artisans and craftspeople and thought to be forerunners of the active orders of religious women – think Mother Teresa – who lived, worked and ministered to the world and not in cloistered convents.

That’s a very broad backdrop to the lives and influences of some of the women we will look at. I feel a particular resonance with these women particularly the mix of their creativity, spirituality and community engagement. I am keen to learn more from their experiences and how they made an impact in their communities and beyond.

[1] Abraham Van Luik, Lessons from a Women’s Movement in the High Middle Ages

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