A few years ago Pope John Paul II, in preparation for a visit to the United States, told American bishops of his concern about "bitter, ideological" feminists, who according to the pope are involved with goddess worship and nature religions, thus threatening Christian faith itself. What is remarkable about his claims is the power of patriarchal anxiety even in the twentieth century about (female) gendered representations of divinity. Today the medieval trope of Christ as Mother seems astonishing; but as an impressive body of scholarship demonstrates, the trope was widely employed in spiritual writing of the High Middle Ages.
In this paper I will outline the pertinent sections of Julian of Norwich's A Revelation of Love where the image of Jesus as Mother is stated or implied, suggest some possible antecedents for the image of a (trans)gendered divinity, and define more clearly the shape of medieval gender construction to suggest the boundaries of gender's apparent fluidity in the Middle Ages. Although there seems to exist a considerable gender fluidity in the Christian tradition from it earliest moments, medieval discourse allowed the trope of a female gender God paradoxically a the moment when misogynist discourse and practice were becoming more severe, a repressive practice based in part on hierarchical distinctions of nature.
Although the maternal trope is found overtly only in chapters 57-62, it informs and shapes the whole of Julian's Revelations. For example, very early in the text (chapter 6) Julian offers the reassurance that God "hath us all in himselfe beclosyd" (7). Throughout, Julian presents a divinity whose chief characteristics are protecting, nurturing, and sustaining. Even in the parable of a lord and a servant, Julian describes the lord, not as a retributive judge when the servant falls into a ditch, but as a solicitous parent (chapter 51).
Julian explicitly introduces the maternal trope in chapter 52: "And thus I saw that God enioyeth that he is our fader, God enioyeth that he is our moder, and God enioyeth that he is our very spouse, and our soule is his lovid wife. And Criste enioyeth that he is our broder, and Iesus enioyeth that he is our savior" (61). Julian then refers to these roles--Father, Mother, spouse, brother, and savior--as God's "five joys," placing these five transgendered (and transgenerational) roles on equal footing with each other (McNamer 21).
Later in chapter 54, Julian reintroduces the maternal image:
And I saw no difference atwix God and our substance, but as it were al God, and yet myn understondyng toke that our substance is in God: that is to sey, that God is God, and our substance is a creture in God; for the almyty truth of the Trinite is our fader, for he made us and kepith us in him: and depe wisdam of the Trinite is our moder in whom we arn al beclosid; the hey goddnes of the Trinite is our lord and in him we aren beclosid and he in us. (65)
Once more, the characterization of this person of the Trinity includes maternal enclosing and protecting. Through chapters 55-57 Julian continues a discussion of humans' "substance" and "sensualite" through a reflection on incarnation. And she draws chapter 57 to a close by noting that "our savior is our very moder in whom we be endlesly borne and never shall come out of him" (69), again articulating the motif of enclosure in Christ's womb.
In chapters 58-62 Julian develops more fully the image of Christ as Mother. Chapter 58, for example, uses "knittyng" and "onyng" to convey the immanence of god, united with each person. Julian also asserts that the second person f the Trinity is both "moder substantial" and "moder sensual," that is mother in grace and mother in nature. She then asserts that while the "substantial" comes from Father, Christ-Mother ("God al wisdamm"), and Holy Ghost, the "sensual" comes only from the Christ-Mother. Chapter 59 makes the distinction between Christ as "moder in kynde" and as "moder in grace," preserving once more the scholastic notions of nature and grace, with their implicit hierarchy privileging grace. Chapter 60 develops the maternal image in which Christ is described as a pregnant Mother who "susteynith" us in the womb, "traveled" to give birth to us, and then died in childbirth. Julian explores the nurturing role of a mother, whom she compares to Christ feeding us not simply with milk but with himself. And just as an earthly mother adapts her parenting, but not her love, when the child grows old, so does Christ, who is responsible for both our "bodily forthbrynging" and our "gostly forthbringing" (74). Julian describes this maternal parenting and correcting when the child fails or falls as a mother touching and bringing a child to her face. A mother may even allow painful things to happen to her child so that the child might learn. And in a variation on the felix culpa motif, Julian asserts (astonishingly in light of medieval penitential practices and theology): "for it nedith us to fallen, and it nedith us to sen it: for if we felle nowte we should not knowen how febil and how wretchid we arn of ourself; ne also we shuld not fulsomely so knowen the mervelous love of our maker" (75). Julian draws this discussion of the maternal trope to a conclusion in the sixty-second chapter in which she returns to the nature/grace distinction and describes God as simultaneously "very fader and very moder of kynde," seeming to contradict the distinction made in chapter 58 about the origins of the sensual in Christ.
Recent Christian feminists have revived an interest in women mystics and feminine religious imagery. In light of what most people generalize about medieval misogyny and about the veneration of the Virgin as a surrogate for a female divinity, Julian of Norwich's trope of Christ as Mother seems even more remarkable. Even as the Roman Catholic hierarchy began to recover from the Modernist "heresy" hysteria of the first half of the twentieth century, by a scholarly reconstruction of the spiritual tradition (an ideologically safer area for the scholar than biblical studies, systematic theology, or moral theology), there was little attention paid to feminine imagery either b the scholars or by pastors for the laity (where the feminine was relegated to the cult of the Virgin during the 1950's). For example, in Leclercq, Vandenbroucke, and Bouyer's magisterial The Spirituality of the Middle Ages (originally published in 1961 as La Spiritualité du Moyen Age) Julian is characterized as a symptom of the decline from scholastic speculative mysticism (the chapter being called "Disrepute"), whose views on sin were dubious, and whose message simply is "love." Leclercq, Vandenbroucke, and Bouyer do not consider the maternal trope worth mentioning.
But as an extensive body of scholarship since then has shown, in the Middle Ages the image of Christ as Mother was by no means unique to Julian of Norwich. Valerie Lagorio, for example, has examined the extent of the Divine Motherhood similitude in Latin and vernacular works of the eleventh through fifteenth centuries, which she attributes to multiple family relationships, the iconic Motherhood of the Virgin and of the Church, and the ancient image of Wisdom as Mother. She notes that the maternal image conveys Christ's role as nurturer (in which his breasts feeding souls is prominent) and disciplinarian. The most extensive documentation of the medieval image of God as Mother comes from Caroline Walker Bynum. In "Jesus as Mother and Abbot as Mother: Some Themes in Twelfth-Century Cistercian Writing," Bynum details the biblical and patristic background for the maternal imagery, the extent of the image, the growing feminization of religious language in the twelfth century, and the specifically monastic applications of the imagery. Bynum cites analogues to Julian's use of the image, such as patristic sources (Clement, Origen, Irenaeus, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Augustine) and monastic writers (Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St. Thierry, and Guerric abbot of Igny) (113-129). In "‘ . . . And Woman His Humanity': Female Imagery in the Religious Writing of the Later Middle Ages" (the fifth chapter of Fragmentation and Redemption), Bynum explores the female images of God used by women mystics, who she contends employed such imagery less to mark gender than to represent androgyny.
Before offering a critique of medieval gender construction around Julian's text, I would like briefly to suggest other transgendered divine antecedents to the late medieval maternal image of God. The limits of this paper will not allow for a very detailed exposition of these texts, which I propose simply as antecedents, not analogues and certainly not as sources. But they will, I believe, suggest the complexity of medieval gender construction as it is reflected in a gendered Godhead. These antecedents include Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, they myth of Hermaphrodite, early gnostic communities' images of engendered divinity and initiatory practices, and the early Christian communities' (Pauline and Patristic) attempts to regulate those gnostics.
Curiously, no one I have researched has explored Boethius' omnipresent text as an important antecedent to Julian's image of Jesus as Mother. Perhaps because the Consolation of Philosophy was such a prevailing source for medieval thought, its engendering of Philosophy as female has simply been assumed as cultural background of Julian's writing. Colledge and Walsh, modern editors and translators of Julian's Showings, assert that she was well educated and possibly knew the Consolation in Chaucer's 1380 translation of Boethius (20). When Philosophy first appears to Boethius and dismisses the useless muses of poetry, she reprimands him (here in Chaucer's translation of Book I, Prose II):
‘But tyme is now,' quod she, ‘of medicine more than of compleinte.' Forsothe than she, entendinge to me-ward with alle the lookinge of hir eyen, seide:--'Art nat thou he,' quod she, ‘that whylom y-norisshed with my milk, and fostered with myne metes, were escaped and comen to corage of a parfit man?' (5)
The popularity of this image of Philosophy nursing the infant soul from her breasts would continue well into the Renaissance. Howard Patch notes an even more interesting Boethian translation into verse, the tenth-century Provençal Boece, and observes that "The moral implications are obviously developed: and the meaning of the Lady Philosophy is shifted to signify something very much like the medieval idea of Wisdom, the second person of the Trinity" (60). The Provençal text in this regard seems an analogue to Julian of Norwich's assertion in chapter 54 that "the depe wisdam of the Trinite is our moder in whom we arn al beclosid" (65).
The Ovidian Hermaphrodite, with its medieval commentators, provides another image of transgendered divinity. Ernst Curtius cited the De universitate mundi of Bernard Silvestris, in which Nature visits the sphere of Mercury (Hermes) who is forming hermaphrodites, noting that "Only a fluid boundary separates [hermaphroditism] from male homosexuality, which was also widespread in the Middle Ages" (113). In the Ovidian version, Hermaphrodite is the divine son of Hermes and Aphrodite, who flees the advances of Salmacis; she follows him into a pool where she is the residing spirit; there, by divine intervention, their two bodies are joined. The story is interesting for its traces of water-immersion rites of initiation, an important element of the gnostic and early Christian antecedents I will look at next. Moreover, Lauren Silberman allows that while medieval interpretations of the tale held it to be an allegory of vice, Bersuire's moralized Ovid (early fourteenth century) makes Hermaphrodite an allegory of the incarnation: "The Hermaphrodite is Christ, since he represents the union of the masculine nature of God and the feminine nature of humanity" (647). The Bible des Poètes likewise presents this allegorical interpretation. This binary distinction is similar to Julian's notion of the substantial and the sensual deriving from the Father and the Jesus-Mother respectively.
Even in early orthodox Christianity and in contesting gnostic communities we find transgendered images of the divine: God as female or God as androgyne. Michael Williams asserts that "most Gnostic sources that have survived represent forms of Jewish or Christian gnosticism, and their uses of female imagery are indeed often in striking contrast to what is normally encountered in more ‘orthodox' forms of Judaism or Christianity' (197). In its binary oppositions (male/female, spirit/soul) some forms of gnosticism predicted superior forms of knowledge and wisdom on a union of opposites. While in some cases the gnostic myths were an attempt to indicate the equality of male and female, material gender constructions are not apparent in all forms of the narrative because of the differences among gnostic communities and the complexity (often self-contradictions) of the myths. Rudolph Kurt, however, believes that "equal standing of women in cultic practice in the gnostic communities appears to have been relatively widespread" with women in roles of teacher, prophetess, missionary, or minister in baptism and eucharist or exorcism (211, 270). He links this gnostic egalitarian attitude toward women to polemical references in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians. Most of what the Middle Ages knew about gnosticism came from polemical texts, usually the early Church Fathers inveighing against gnostic heterodoxy, as in Irenaeus's suggestive attack on the Marcosians:
Some of them construct a bridal chamber and perform a mystical initiation with certain secret expressions for the initiates. They call this rite "spiritual marriage" in imitation of the unions above. Others lead candidates to water, and in baptizing them use this formula: Into the name of the unknown Father of all, into Truth the mother of all, into him who came down into Jesus, into Unity and Redemption and Fellowship with the powers. (Qtd. In Grant 192-93)
However, as Wayne Meeks observes, orthodox Christian communities also provided a larger role for women than their Jewish and even their Hellenistic counterparts; and like gnostic communities, they inherited a primitive myth of an originally androgynous Adam, whose split into two sexes is a prelude to the Fall. Meeks asserts that "the symbolization of a reunified mankind was not just pious talk in early Christianity, but a quite important way of conceptualizing and dramatizing the Christians' awareness of their peculiar relationship to the larger societies around them. At least some of the early Christian groups thought of themselves as a new genus of mankind, or as the restored original mankind" (166). This "ontological" change or restoration was enacted in the Christian initiatory rites, including baptism, which in Pauline communities, Meeks asserts, would have included ritual investiture (characterized as "putting on Christ" [as a garment] in Gal. 3: 27, which is comparable to Julian's comment in chapter 6, "so arn we, soule and body, cladde in the goodnes of God and inclosyd" (7)) and the baptismal formula announcing "you are neither male nor female" (Gal. 3: 28). Meeks concludes that St. Paul's notorious proscriptions against female leadership were correctives in a community where women may have been cross-dressing to assume male roles; even in an eschatological community, Paul wanted to maintain gender distinctions (210-208).
Resisting Pauline "orthodoxy" were Gnostic communities, of whom Kurt Rudolph observes in his comprehensive treatment:
The movement towards the "inwardness" of the gnostic scheme of ascent and its gradation runs from Origen to the experience of Christian monastic mysticism, as it appears first in Evagrius Ponticus (4th century), and Egyptian monk . . . . The notions, well-known from Gnosis, of the ascent of the soul with its dangers and its stages become psychic experiences. Gnosis (as cognition of God) is here transposed into ecstasy. The myth objectified in theory can now be experienced in the practice of mysticism, and intellectual mysticism which is linked to the spirit (as means of cognition of God). (369-70)
This linking of gnosticism, monasticism, and mysticism suggest possible genealogies for images of a female God, and specifically Julian of Norwich's Jesus as Mother, bringing this discussion of antecedents back to medieval mysticism and the construction of gender.
In her study of medieval gender constructions, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion, Bynum explores gender and body ideologies in response to positions taken by Victor Turner, Ernst Troeltsch, and Leo Steinberg. She discusses the cultural construction of the female body and argues that medieval spiritualism and dualism were less rigorous than they are commonly represented to be. Given the preponderance of gender-fluidity in the antecedents I have discussed here, Bynum's thesis would seem credible. Medieval medical views of sex, inherited from Aristotle and Galen, suggested that one's sex category was located along a continuum; the distinction between males and females was essentially that the genitals of the males were outside and the (identical) genitals of the female were enclosed (see Bullough); hermaphrodites were that rare instance of a place in the middle of the continuum (emblematic of the Adamic state). Moreover, the Patristic assertion, attributable as far back as Jerome and repeated in the Middle Ages, was that a woman could in some way become a man by vowing chastity and living an ascetic life. This commonplace of spirituality itself would suggest that gender was viewed in the Middle Ages at least as much as a performance, a construction, as ti was viewed as a biological given, an essential or ontological state of being. The history of medieval transvestism would also seem indicative of such a performative notion of gender (see Anson; Bullough, "Transvestites"). Bynum concludes that medieval theory acknowledged the "permeability or interchangeability of the sexes," although "the male body is paradigmatic," and even Julian of Norwich, for whom Christ was Mother, still consistently referred to him with the male pronoun (Fragmentation 220-22).
Elizabeth Robertson, however, takes exception with Bynum's essentialism and her apparent softening of the misogyny signified in medieval women's mystical experience. In observing the medieval medical characterization of the female as "excessively most," Robertson suggest that the physicality of Julian of Norwich's language presents the redemptive possibilities for femininity itself. But more significantly, Julian emphasizes the sensuality of Christ, and thus it is the "feminized body of Christ" that "redeems the sensual" (156). Finally Robertson believes that
Julian of Norwich was a subtle strategist who sought to undo assumptions about women and to provide, in an Irigarayan sense, a new celebration of femininity through contemplation of Christ's "feminine" attributes . . . . [H]er challenge to male constructs of the feminine had no revolutionary intent. That is, while . . . she recognized and, perhaps to some extent, internalized the fact that she was seen to be "other" than men, she wished to participate in the religious hegemony and had the same ultimate goals as did her contemporary male mystics. (161)
In a recent critique of "sex" and "gender" that problematizes both, Judith Butler has said of a traditional feminism founded on liberal humanism that,
. . . the ontological distinction between soul (consciousness, mind) and body invariably supports relations of political and psychic subordination and hierarchy. The mind not only subjugates the body, but occasionally entertains the fantasy of fleeing its embodiment altogether . . . . As a result, any uncritical reproduction of the mind/body distinction ought to be rethought for the implicit gender hierarchy that the distinction has conventionally produced, maintained, and rationalized. (12)
Julian's obsessive concern to distinguish kynde from grace and sensualite from substance might be read in this discursive field. Whatever she might have believed about sex or gender, Julian adhered closely to the regime of Catholic phallogocentrism at least in part for survival. As a woman mystic during the persecution of Lollard heretics she was already moving in contested territory. Playing with divine gender in a way that celebrated the feminine, even in an already established (male) literary tradition that represented Christ as Mother, moved her more closely toward the transgressive realm. By means of this hierarchy of distinctions, medievals could posit metaphors in grace or substance while they regulated more strictly other performances in kynde or sensualite. Thus while Jesus was troped as Mother, and the Virgin as priest (Bynum Fragmentation, 101, 103, 212), medievals could also maintain a tradition of misogyny and reserve and exclusively male priesthood.
That can be allegorized and applied to the blessed incarnation. Truly, that boy child of Mercury is the son of God, bridegroom above all, who from the beginning forsook his own woods, that is, paradise, came to that generation and there bathed himself in the water of mercy just before fulfilling his father's mission . . . . That leisure-loving nymph can indicate human nature, empty and degraded by rest. That fountain can indicate the glorious blessed Virgin, bright, clear, and pure . . . . Nevertheless, he did not want to agree to that bond, he wanted to delay that blessed incarnation . . . finally, however, he descended to the fountain of mercy, that is, the blessed Virgin, at the place where that nymph, that is, human nature, joined itself to him, and thus he clung to himself by the blessed incarnation, since form two substances one being emerged. (648, n.16)
8. Compare in Silberman, Hermaphrodite as an emblem of discordia concors.
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Bullough, Vern L. "Transvestites in the Middle Ages." Sex, Society, and History. New York: Science History Publications, 1976. 60-73.
---. "Medieval Medical and Scientific Views of Women." Sex, Society, and History. New York: Science History Publications, 1976, 43-59.
Bynum, Caroline Walker. Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. New York: Zone Books, 1992.
---. "Jesus as Mother and Abbot as Mother: Some Themes in Twelfth-Century Cistercian Writing." Chapter IV. Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. Berkeley: U of California P, 1982. 110-169.
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McNamer, Sarah. "The Exploratory Image: God as Mother in Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love." Mystics Quarterly 15.1 (March 1989): 21-28.
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Robertson, Elizabeth. "Medieval Medical Views of Women and Female Spirituality in the Ancrene Wisse and Julian of Norwich's Showings." Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature. Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury, eds. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1993. 142-167.
Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. Trans. By Robert McLachlan Wilson. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.
Silberman, Lauren. "Mythographic Transformations of Ovid's Hermaphrodite." The Sixteenth Century Journal. 19 (Winter 1988): 643-52.
Williams, Michael A. "Uses of Gender Imagery in Ancient Gnostic Texts." Caroline Walker Bynum, Steven Harrell, and Paula Richman, eds. Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols. Boston: Beacon P, 1986. 196-225.
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