Contemplative Profiles: The Female Mystics of the Middle Ages

In the past I have made the mistake of ignoring the spiritual teachings of the Middle Ages, missing out on the rich contemplative practices that were documented at great personal cost. Dr. Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff notes in an article in Christianity Today that women were often denied educations in the Middle Ages, so their religious communities took on a more contemplative, creative, and spiritual shape, while many religious men leaned toward theological reflection.

This resulted in a unique spirituality from women who experienced the love of God in rich and vibrant encounters. Perhaps the simplicity of their spirituality became their greatest strength. While some female mystics from this time were supported by the church hierarchy, many wrote down their accounts and visions despite heated opposition, risking persecution and even death at the hands of controlling church leaders.

Dr. Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff writes about female mystics for Christianity Today:


We think of the Middle Ages as the age of faith, and so it was, but it was also an age of crisis. In such a context, mysticism was not a retreat from the negative aspects of reality, but a creative marshaling of energy in order to transform reality and one’s perception of it.

Mystics were the teachers of the age, inspired leaders who synthesized Christian tradition and proposed new models for the Christian community. We know some of the men—Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas—but we are not as familiar with the women, although they were actually more numerous. Hildegard of Bingen, Clare of Assisi, Beatrijs of Nazareth, Angela of Foligno, Julian of Norwich, and other women mystics drew on their experience of the divine to provide spiritual guidance for others. Such women became highly respected leaders of the faithful. Their role as prophets and healers was the one exception to women’s presumed inferiority in medieval society.


She goes on to write:


Dame Julian of Norwich said in her Showings: “ … God forbid that you should say or assume that I am a teacher … for I am a woman, ignorant, weak and frail. But I know very well that what I am saying I have received by the revelation of him who is the sovereign teacher … because I am a woman, ought I therefore to believe that I should not tell you of the goodness of God, when I saw at that same time that it is his will that it be known?”


As we honor their legacy, learn from their wisdom, and embody their practices, may we have the courage to share with others the ways God has spoken to us.



Take 5 minutes to ask God what you need to receive today.

Remain open to sharing that with someone else if appropriate.