Virginia Woolf claimed that medieval women did not write 'for writing's sake.'
What reasons did medieval women have for writing and what sort of texts did they produce?

Books of visions and instructional texts were usually intended for more than their immediate audiences[1], and authors often became celebrities in their own right. Julian of Norwich is mentioned in other texts, such as The Book of Margery Kempe, which suggests that she was fairly well known, and a quick comparison between the Long and Short text versions of her Revelations shows that instances of self-doubt are fewer in the later, revised manuscript. Another example of the popularity of books on the religious way of life is that, whilst books were usually translated from Latin into English, Ancrene Wisse made the inverse transition, and was set into other languages besides[2]. Though not completely accepted, 'women's religious lives' was a niche already in embryo by the time of writers such as Margery Kempe. Thus, in a medium and subject already tentatively established by previous generations of women, it is no surprise that those who followed took this route for the outlet of their creative voices. Religious writing was a path to fame, and the greatest form of renown generally acknowledged; that in the hierarchy of heaven. Consciously or not, a woman writer (as any male) must have realised this, and any form of writing in this area represented to some degree a wish to achieve a voice in the wider community; religious texts merely presented the most accessible outlet for views, whether their authors realised this or not.

Whilst the reason of writing as a model to be emulated appears obvious, the method of setting a spiritual example tended to differ much between male and female writers. Whilst male writers echoed the Grecian tenets of logic and rhetoric in spiritual matters, women, following a Galenic tradition, identified with Christ more through sublimation of thought and by concentrating on bodily empathy. This process of empathy extended in its simplest form to providing solace in solidarity for others likewise persecuted for their faith (such as is shown in the course of Christina of Margate), but went much further in seeking to imagine the suffering of God in the Incarnation through equally weak mortal vessels.

The idea of identification with the wounded, suffering Christ through (often self-inflicted) bodily hardships and the attempted visualisation and empathising with of his tortured death on the cross was a particularly prevalent one in the medieval period. Bodily identification with Christ was therefore a concept particularly close to women:

"[The] biological parity between blood, sweat, tears, milk and urine meant that a woman's contemplation of Christ's blood was contemplation of her own blood, and further that her tears were equivalent to Christ's blood. The suffering body of Christ thus allowed a woman not only to pity Christ but to identify in him her own perceived suffering"[3]

In this way, Christ's bloody death on the cross might thus be identified with a fragile body that bleeds; the menstruating female form. For women, taking upon themselves physical suffering and aspiring towards a bloody, redemptive death presents an obvious and direct association with the crucifixion, and could re-confer some of the strength of mind and faith disallowed women by nature of their inferior status. Thus Elizabeth Robertson argues that menstruation was not merely "necessary for women's physical health... [But may be] ... Presented to female readers as necessary for spiritual health as well."[4] Also, "like women who are suffused with blood, Christ was believed to have a sanguine temperament."[5] This celebration of Christ's feminine aspect would be to redeem those qualities as present in women on earth.

Although "Adam and Eve fell through pride and disobedience, not lust ... [it was] generally assumed [that both were virginal until after the Fall]"[6] Thus uncontrollable desire was seen to be a result of the Fall, and women as a gender became blamed for arousing the ardour of men. This can be seen in the warnings of Ancrene Wisse that veils or face coverings must be worn to avoid suitors; literally to avoid corrupting them. Medieval women writers to a lesser or greater extent internalised this view, and there is evidence that through martyrdom and tests of faith that an escape from the Curse of Eve was sought.

The suppression of physical desire as undesirable by the Church meant that another outlet for sexual passion had to be found for many people, and especially those closely connected to the establishment; mystics transferred this insuperable energy to their visions, which often had unmistakably base and passionate themes. This is a topic quite extensively addressed in modern readings of medieval texts ("["No one enters paradise but by this flaming sword, which was hot and red"] ... God will thus win the anchoress with his implicitly erotic flaming sword."[7]) However, it was a generally accepted part of theology at the time that whilst sexual desire was a distraction from more spiritual matters[8], it was a natural part of being human, and that Christ himself must have faced such trials in his incarnation. Therefore, Elizabeth Robertson argues, "The female reader's innate lust is ... potentially redeemable not through its transcendence, but through its redirection to a suitable object, Christ."[9] Christ was often portrayed as the idea suitor, and sexual feelings for him would, whilst not being reciprocated in the manner they were proffered, at least be accepted as sincere emotion.

In her essay "Medieval Medical Views of Women and Female Spirituality in the Ancrene Wisse and Julian of Norwich's Showings" Elizabeth Robertson asks: "[Did] women writers tend towards submission and accommodation or toward controlling and manipulating the prescription for themselves?"[10] The subject, as of many other essays on the literature of the period, is a discussion of how much women "internalize or challenge prescriptive medieval ideology"[11] Julian of Norwich's statement "Just because I am a woman, must I therefore believe that I must not tell you about the goodness of God ... ?"[12], whilst reiterating the apostolic dictate that women were prohibited from teaching, also reflects her knowledge that her work would be challenged especially because of her gender. This, then, may be read as an indication that as an author and a woman, Julian sought to resist the suppression of female voices. She repeatedly argues for an equality between male and female mystics, entreating her readers to "stop paying attention to the poor, worldly, sinful creature to whom this vision was shown"[13] This world-view of equality becomes more established in her mind by the writing of the Long Text, for in this she says that the visions are "made to whomever God may choose"[14], indicating not simply her own grown confidence, but also that her gender is irrelevant not only as a visionary, but perhaps also in her station within the Church as an anchoress.

I now wish to turn to the topic of the nature of texts produced by medieval woman's writers, looking at the factors that influenced them in particular, and discuss further motivations for producing religious texts.

The Aristotlean idea that in conception "The female always provides the material, the male that which fashions it"[15] is carried over into the creative genesis of authorship. Religious writing was effectively a means of preaching, when this was officially a profession disallowed women, based on the misogynistic writings of two apostles given great Biblical emphasis and importance: Paul & Jerome. Since women, unless possessed of wealthy and indulgent parents, were generally excluded from education, it comes as little surprise that a proportion of surviving texts show evidence of having been dictated to a male scribe. Therefore, a point which cannot be ignored or under-emphasised is that early female texts only existed within a framework of Church-connected scribes and editors, the overwhelming majority of which were undoubtedly male.

This intermediary stage (coming even before editing), gives rise to the possibility of texts being interfered with at the most basic level; since the female author could likely not decipher the squiggles on the parchment before her scribe, she would have had no way of knowing if her words were being faithfully recorded, or some incriminating or censored version thereof. There are extremely real grounds for supposing that a scribe might take it upon himself to 'assist' an author in this way; since to be involved with a work that was subsequently attacked and condemned could lead to accusations of heresy on the part of all responsible for its creation. The personal opinions of the scribe might find their way into the document; his view of women might have been that they were too feebleminded to come to terms with the theological consequences of their discourse, and have selectively added or deleted explanatory passages.

A passage in the Life and Passion of Saint Margaret serves the church's purpose to a greatly constructed extent: otherwise, it is impressively coherent for someone being brutally tortured: "Whoever writes a book on my life"[16] puts in a good word for the scribe; not at all uncommon. "[Whoever] acquires it when written, or who ever has it most often in hand, or whoever reads it aloud or with good will listens to the reader, may all have their sins forgiven at once.": this appeals to a population who were mostly illiterate. "Whoever builds a chapel or church in my name, or provides for it any light or lamp... grant him, Lord, the light of heaven" appeals to the wealthy who gave to the church. (The dove swears that all of these powers are granted.)

This connects both with the theme of women's texts being suffered to exist only so long as they helped support the church's teachings, and also that women internalised those teachings to an amazing degree; it would not have seemed so instantly suspicious to its original audience that the martyr heroine made these requests. Even as a wholly male-scripted text, the Life and Passion of Saint Margaret is important because it confines the situation in which she, as a woman, holds respect more towards death than in life on earth—she and all women, by extension, have power only in sacrifice.

This extract is used here to illustrate the innate power of saints' lives; although most would argue that this text cannot be said to the work of a medieval woman's life since its events are stretched into allegory, it may be possible to maintain that the Life and Passion of Saint Margaret has its roots in some sort of real-life event[17]. Teochinus obtains his tale from her, sets it down and "when it was faithfully committed to writing, sent it out widely"... the process of being 'faithfully committed' here may be said to apply not only to the process of recording the truth, but also the rigorous process of selection and vetting by the church; it is inconceivable that the text would have been suffered to be distributed (claiming amongst other things visitations and martyrdom) without the solicited approval of the church establishment. In the mould of (fictional) martyrs like Margaret, mystics and visionaries may have sought regard from the very way that they were persecuted, aspiring to exalted status after death. Since texts were often considered heretical until they were passed by the church many years afterwards, some female writers must have realised that it was likely that only a surge of enthusiasm for their work generated by their death would see them accepted, and planned accordingly for this eventuality.

Appending to Julian of Norwich's conviction (in the introduction, before her ideas are elaborated) that all with be saved: "But I believe everything that Holy Church believes, preaches and teaches"[18] is a plea for the reader to withhold judgement until further explanation can be given. This is made in the certain knowledge that her views (disputing the damnatory nature of Original Sin) are unorthodox, even heretical. Separating out the initial conviction and the parable of the Lord and the servant has the effect of diluting the intensity of the argument; the fluid and archetypically female conversational style of language serves to ameliorate the content.

The Augustine belief that "martyrs leave the world perfect and hence are prayed to but not for"[19] meant that this was a highly desirable way to die in the church hierarchy. It was even argued that martyrdom was "a form of baptism" in blood; this is especially relevant to women, aware of the Curse of Eve, who would especially aspire to a death in which Original Sin was absolved, and through the medium of the body, which was a concept heavily pushed to and accepted by women.

A common theme in women's writing, as in other medieval texts, is the concept that life under the Christian faith was ultimately a test. The phrase "no-one is crowned except for whoever fight truly in that fight"[20] in Hali Meidhad has its roots in the teaching of the apostle Paul:

"4:7 I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith:

4:8 Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing."[21]

The notion of trials of faith must have seemed especially valid to women, assailed by critics for myriad reasons, and one would expect the topic of virginity to have been a fertile ground for discussion in women's writing. Virginity was, after all, so much a part of the medieval social consciousness that the word 'meiden' could mean both 'girl' and 'virgin' in Early Middle English[22]. However, despite its frequently being the obsessive focus of instructional texts by male authors ("always the more precious something is, the harder it is to protect"[23] being an especially moderate example), it is largely absent from the texts that I have studied. This absence suggests one of two findings: either that women writers internalised and accepted the state of virginity as supreme, or conversely that some held strong feelings against it; in which case their silence may be read as a protest, an inacceptance or doubt marked by a refusal to acknowledge the topic in their writing. In fact, Julian of Norwich's idea of universal redemption is more sympathetic to women who were not virgins, and other 'sinners', also challenging the legacy of Eve and making sin out to be ultimately irrelevant.

There is strong evidence that the issue of virginity was a powerful force wilfully used by the church to recruit and control impressionable young girls to their cause. Hali Meidhad makes a vivid argument that marriage is slavery; and goes on to state that "a maiden in virginity is like oil in a lamp that has not been lit"[24] This last passage is interesting: it suggests that a virgin exists in a state of neutralised suspended animation, her creative spark unlit; this could well have been the conclusion of women writers and a motivation to write on other religious topics that linked the female form to Christ and to salvation, a theme that will be returned to shortly.

Certainly, if a woman remained virginal, she was expected not to marry, and therefore became reliant upon the church for succour; the other solution being to marry but remain chaste. Bearing in mind that a marriage could be annulled if not consummated (a common law arrangement still used as grounds for separation today), this left women in a precarious position. A community could not support greater than a handful of anchoresses; nuns required the backing of an even more wealthy family. It is almost as if competition for 'places' between women of a religious disposition was used to channel their energies away from the challenge they might come to pose to orthodoxy. Once in place within an anchor house, no effort is spared to control and limit this creativity: a goodly anchoress "must not send letters or receive letters or write anything without permission"[25]

Julian of Norwich is perhaps the best-known medieval woman writer who worked to emphasise the importance of the contribution of the female body and aspect in religion:

"I understood three ways of seeing motherhood in God: the first is that he is the ground of our natural creation, the second is the taking on of our nature (and there the motherhood of grace begins), the third is the motherhood of works"[26] (my emphasis)

Her choice of words serves to starkly emphasise the feminine aspect of Christ and the closeness of its association with mortal women. Nor is just the stereotypical virginal female state raised by this, but the institution of motherhood and childbirth, paralleling the nurturing love of Christ: "The mother can lay the child tenderly to her breast, but our tender mother Jesus, he can familiarly lead us into his blessed breast through his sweet open side."[27] Jesus gives us 'spiritual birth', therefore the birthing process in humans, arguably the closest we can ever come to mimicking God in his act of creation, deserves to be held in similarly high regard.

Julian's contribution as a writer and theologian is one that is still holds respect in this jaded modern era; of all medieval woman writers she has produced a text which endures to evoke sympathetic response. Her lasting impression is testament to the power of her skill in writing, her reasons for doing so none but the most positive: the sharing of an vision of equality with a cynical and hostile world.


In writing this essay I have been aware that, as Virginia Woolf also suggested, "[male] writers taking women as their objects of study ... have vested interests in distorting the terms of the differences; hence the need for 'the study of the psychology of women by a woman'."[28] Therefore I have sought to broaden my viewpoint by paying especial attention to the work of contemporary female critics analysing medieval women writers.


Bella Millet & Jocelyn Wogan (edited and translated), Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, (Oxford University Press, 1992)

C H Talbot (edited and translated), The Life of Christina of Margate (Toronto, 1998)

Elizabeth Spearing (ed.), Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love (Penguin, 1986)

Sue Roe & Susan Sellers (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf (Cambridge University Press, 2000)

The King James Bible, (Gutenberg Etext, + run a search for "kjv10.txt"; this file was accessed and stored on the 15th October 2000)

Linda Lomperis & Sarah Stanbury (ed.), Feminist Approaches To The Body In Medieval Literature, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993)—Quotes in this essay are taken from Elizabeth Robertson's essay "Medieval Medical Views of Women and Female Spirituality in the Ancrene Wisse and Julian of Norwich's Showings", although the majority of the essays in this volume were useful reading.

[1] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, introduction, (page xii)

[2] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, introduction, (page xii)

[3] Elizabeth Robertson, Feminist Approaches To The Body In Medieval Literature, p149

[4] Elizabeth Robertson, Feminist Approaches To The Body In Medieval Literature, p151

[5] Elizabeth Robertson, Feminist Approaches To The Body In Medieval Literature, p152

[6] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, textual commentary, p153,

[7] Elizabeth Robertson, Feminist Approaches To The Body In Medieval Literature, p151

[8] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, textual commentary, p153

[9] Elizabeth Robertson, Feminist Approaches To The Body In Medieval Literature, p153

[10] Elizabeth Robertson, Feminist Approaches To The Body In Medieval Literature , p143

[11] Elizabeth Robertson, Feminist Approaches To The Body In Medieval Literature , p143

[12] Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love, back cover

[13] Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love, Short Text, p9

[14] Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love, Long Text, p52

[15] Elizabeth Robertson, Feminist Approaches To The Body In Medieval Literature p144

[16] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, Saint Margaret, p79
(Subsequent quotes within this paragraph from the same.)

[17] Although the editors of Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse note in their
introduction that St Margaret and her cult were "expunged from the Roman Calendar of Saints in 1969." (page xxi)

[18] Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love, p55

[19] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, textual commentary, p155

[20] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, Hali Meidhad (translation), p42

[21] Gutenberg Etext of the King James Bible, from "The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans"

[22] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, introduction, (page xliii)

[23] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, Hali Meidhad (translation), p19

[24] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, Hali Meidhad (translation), p41

[25] Medieval English Prose For Women: selections from the "Katherine Group" and Ancrene Wisse, p141

[26] Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love, p140

[27] Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love, p141

[28] Laura Marcus, The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, p220