Symbols, metaphors and ritual are all ways in which we humans work to organize and make sense of the mysteries of life. Religion and the task of clerics and mystics of the middle ages were consumed with this challenge to convey complex religious and spiritual concepts, such as creation, salvation, piety and eternal life. What evolved were images of the human body and the act of eating and consumption as key metaphors for understanding Christianity. In this paper, I will focus on the ways in which female mystics and religious women used food and sensory images of the body in their writing to inspire, educate, and contribute to the growing canon of ritual. We will look at how they were accessing a vernacular understanding of woman’s body being associated with food and that the metaphor or image of the body was often associated with the feminine or woman as well. In this way, the role of women in medieval religious texts will guide us to an understanding of the influence of gender in reaching a shared point of understanding between writer/clergy and reader/congregation.
The role of women in religion during the medieval period remains controversial. Although some very strong and accepted texts have survived by women such as Hadewijch, Julian of Norwhich and Margery Kempe, women of the 13th and 14th century were often not admitted or associated with any one order of the church. Being a nun was the most popular and accepted form of religious life available to women who felt a “calling” to dedicate themselves to the church.
Toward the end of this period, while men were finding more and more formal opportunities available within the church, just the opposite was happening for women. As Carol Walker Bynum points out in her book Holy Feast and Holy Fast, women’s roles contrasted the roles of men in the way in which laywomen influenced the religious vernacular, ” At least some of women’s forms of life were less institutionalized than men’s. Indeed, the tendency of later historians to identify pious women with a particular order has obscured the extent to which, especially in the thirteenth century, institutional affiliation and structure were, to women, unimportant or constantly changing.”1
It is believed that the practice or understanding of mysticism was more common among religious women than religious men. Women’s writing of the period can be read as more affective, sentimental and erotic, although these characterizations are certainly apparent in men’s writing as well. Scholars now suggest that the differences between the gender of the writer supersedes all other factors in understanding a woman’s piety. 2 In other words, women of varying classes and stations had more in common and understanding between each other than with their male counterparts.
It is important for us to consider this understanding of pious women and women living a religious life in the 13th and 14th century as we examine the use of metaphors and symbols in their writing. Women tended to live very much within the world, regardless of the role they played in religious life. Because of this fact, the way in which daily life as and of a woman seeps into the writings of women mystics becomes a strong window into understanding the texts and their purpose.
As seen in the attached images, Christ’s body is powerful and important image in medieval Christianity. Not only the body and image of Christ, but also that of Mary, the Virgin Mother are often seen emitting food and nourishment. In the instance of the body of Christ, the Eucharist is offered to the believers from his flesh. Mary is a little more complicated; she, of course, nourishes the Christ child, which is also feeding and nourishing the Church. Additionally, she offers up the Christ as food to believers and the vessel of eternal life and salvation.
The Eucharist or Sacrament appears in any texts from 1300-1500, and refers both to the Last Supper and the aforementioned, physical body of Christ. People of the middle ages understood food to be the very essence of survival, symbolized in the ritual of the Eucharist. Female mystics of the period seemed to use food metaphors and the Eucharist with confidence and regularity. As Bynum states in Holy Feast and Holy Fast, “God was known with senses that were a fusion of all the human being’s capacities to experience.”3 One such mystic was Hadewijch of Antwerp. Considered the first great poet in the Flemish language, her writings are dated between 1220 and 1240. In her poem titled “Love’s Seven Names,” Hadewijch paints a very strong sensory image
And eats his flesh and drinks his blood: the heart of each devours the other’s hart, one soul assaults the other and invades it completely, as who is Love itself showed us when he gave us himself to eat, disconcerting all the thoughts of man. By this he made known to us that Love’s most intimate union is through eating, tasting and seeing interiorly. He eats us; we think we eat him, and we do eat him, of this we can be certain. But because he remains so undevoured, and so untouched, and so undesired, each of us remains so uneaten by him and separated so far from each other. (Lines 30-45)
Here we have not only a mere consumption or sharing of the communion of god’s word, but also truly a union – a blending together of the human and holy in an intimate melding. According to Hadewijch, “Love’s most intimate union is through eating, tasting and seeing interiorily. He eats us; we think we eat him, and we do eat him, of this we can be certain.” This is very clear, strong imagery. It is without question that the Eucharist is the ritual devouring of the spirit and knowledge of God, as we see the process of the experience of eating: the act of eating; the next step in the process of tasting and savoring what has been eaten; and then the final step which is the interior sight or self awareness of the knowledge and spirit of God.
But Hadewijch also reminds us this is symbolism, metaphor and that the ritual can be repeated over and over again with the same results and power. In the final lines she draws attention to the unchanging God, “But because he remains so undevoured, and so untouched, and so undesired, each of us remains so uneaten by him and separated from each other.” Here Hadewijch extends the metaphor to show the consequences of choosing a non-pious life. This can also be read as no union. By denying the body of christ, the Eucharist, one is denying the Church and Union with God.
By using such a vivid portrayal of the Eucharist, Hadwijch creates an inspirational call to participate in the ritual, as well as an accessible understanding of the symbolism utilized for communion and straightening the Church.
The imagery of the breast, nursing and lactating are common appearances in the writings of medieval mystics. But, according to Bynum, “Male and female writers used nursing imagery in differing ways. men were more likely to use images of being nursed; women, metaphors of nursing. When male writers spoke of god’s motherhood, they focused more narrowly on the soul being suckled at Christ’s breast, whereas women were apt to associate mothering with punishing, educating, or given birth as well.”4 Due to this, it is understandable that men often identified with the suckling Christ child and women more often identified with the Virgin Mary. Julian of Norwich evokes this imagery in the following excerpt from her “Revelations” of a vision dated to occur on May 13, 1373:
The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courtiously and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life; and with all the sweet sacraments he sustains us most mercifully and graciously…(Long Text 60, 297)5
An anchoress attached to the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, in southeast England, Julian’s writings are dated approximately 1342-1413. The texts associated with her are an unveiling of her “visions.” The image of Jesus as mother is especially striking and feminine. You will notice from the attached art, that Jesus was often portrayed with the wound from which the blood of the Eucharist flowed being located approximately where a nipple would be. In this passage, the writer is drawing on that blood/milk metaphor – the food of life sustenance. This is survival and food metaphor at its most basic and life-affirming. Here we have a metaphor of the church as the full and giving mother – not a Church of exclusive nobility – as she calls her flock to her breast. The use of the four passive words “courteously, tenderly, mercifully, and graciously” further evoke an image of nurturing love and forgiveness, as well as accessibility and solace for the masses.
This use of common vernacular hearkens back to the earlier point of women writers of the time living within the world and seeing themselves more in sympathy with the feminine realm than the world of men. Upon Jesus’ death on the cross, he becomes “food” for the salvation of the world. In his sacrifice, he becomes feminine – nurturing, giving and creating. According to Bynum, “women chose certain symbols – especially eating and pain – more frequently than did men. and the medieval notion of the female as body and food seems to have suggested that the realities of suffering and service, although universal aspects of the human condition, somehow pressed more heavily on women or that women found in them more special significance.”6
Catherine of Siena, one of the greatest women writers of medieval Italy wrote and lived in the 1300’s. Food metaphors – those of eating, drinking and hungering are woven liberally throughout her work. The following calls upon the concept of Jesus as food:
[Jesus] made of his blood a drink and his flesh a food for all those who wish it. There is no other means for man to be satisfied. He can appease his hunger and thirst only in his blood…”7
According to scholars, the image of the nursing Christ is one of Catherine’s favorite metaphors. In another passage, she writes to a Florentine abbess: We cannot nourish others unless we nourish ourselves at the breasts of divine charity… Yes, mother, we must do as a little child does who wants milk. It takes the breast of its mother, applies its mouth, and by means of the flesh it draws milk. We must do the same if we would be nourished. We must attach ourselves to the breast of Christ crucified, which is the source of charity, and by means of that flesh we draw milk.8
The accessibility of the imagery and inspiration here is striking. Catherine leaves nothing to speculation as she very completely spells out the use and purpose of her metaphor. As mentioned earlier, the crucified Christ as food, the milk is the blood of the Eucharist, flowing from the wound in Jesus’ side. We must remind ourselves how medieval people took seriously the idea that the altar of God becomes food; that the Eucharist or Sacrament is a very serious ingestion of god as food. As Bynum suggests, ” In mystical ecstasy, in communion…women ate and became a God who was food and flesh. And in eating a God whose body was meat and drink, women both transfigured and became more fully the flesh and the food that their own bodies were.”9
Once again, women were not the only writers of the medieval period concerned with body and food metaphors, it is a central motif in understanding imagery of this time, “But this theme was taken up especially intensely in women’s lives and women’s writing and was expressed there especially in eucharistic devotion and in other sorts of food imagery.”10 By understanding the symbols and rituals, as well as the life and role of woman in medieval Europe, we can see how female mystics and religious women were writing very much from within the experience of woman and from within their position in the world. In each of these passaged, the use of food and body metaphors and images brings to the Eucharist ritual and the experience of religion a humanity and a sense of the physical to the sacred. Indeed, women were the very embodiment of humanity. If the Church was born of the body of Christ, flowing forth on the blood of the sacrificed Christ, then it would seem an obvious extension to use images of physicality – food, eating, drinking, hunger – to convey concepts of spirituality and living the spiritual life. While medieval mystics were challenged with making the ancient teachings of the Church accessible for the lay public, female mystics couldn’t help but express and intensified use of food and body symbolism in association with their writings. By using this imagery of food and body, they were able to encourage conviction, commitment and understanding, as well as represent their own lives and experiences.