Medieval women of the living dead

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Medieval women of the living dead

Professor Dyan Elliott on how feminine souls became sacred

by Kathryn Dickason on Thursday, April 5, 2012 - 8:20am

Professor Dyan Elliott

Feminine faiths: Women’s spirituality and the shaping of tradition

Scholars, artists, and religious practitioners led discussions at Stanford to highlight the ways in which women’s spiritual labor has expanded and revised religious practice even beyond the confines of the cloister.  This three-article series explores the proactive role of women across different traditional and temporal lines: western medieval Christianity, modern Tibetan Buddhism, and contemporary Baul (an unorthodox form of mysticism practiced in South Asia).  In these contexts female spirituality has garnered the esteem of male-dominated societies.  Rather than preserving the rigidity of doctrine, “Feminine Faiths” reveals how women empower themselves and others by diversifying the repertoire of female identity and spiritual experience.  


In the Middle Ages, religious texts dismissed women as an afterthought of creation, inferior creatures of disobedience and sin.  Recent research by medieval historian, Professor Dyan Elliott, however, uncovers women of religious renown in the role of holy zombies. 

During her talk at Stanford as part of the Religion and Gender series, Elliott investigated the way in which images of the soul that emerged in western Europe during the early thirteenth century contributed to the projection of the temporal gender hierarchy on the afterlife.  This was effected through the revelations of female saints and mystics, who “provided a permanent bridge between the living and the dead.”  By virtue with their relationship with the divine, these women were believed to travel between earth and purgatory, communicating with the souls of the deceased and interceding on their behalf.  The fact that these revelations could be construed as both spiritually empowering and inhibiting with respect to female gender roles is one of the paradoxes of late medieval mysticism.

The holy feminine?

Combing through the biographies of medieval saints (or hagiographies), mostly authored by their male confessors, Elliott examined the ways in which these gendered souls are deployed.   In contrast to the male saints of this era who engaged in meditation, almsgiving, or voluntary poverty, holy women demonstrated their piety through bodily miracles and physical contact with Christ.  In these writings, embodied experience shaped female personhood so forcefully that “the body drained into the soul.”  Departing from the early Christian idea of a disembodied, sexless self (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” Galatians 3:28), these women experienced a continuity between bodily and spiritual existence.  Since gender was central to their saintly identity, it carried over into the afterlife.  As a result, the female soul became materialized by its own matter. 

The weighing of souls, detail from a Last Judgment tympanum at Autun  Cathedral (Burgundy, France), c. 1130.  This valorization of female spirituality flourished against a backdrop of male superiority.  Medieval theologians contended that all women share a common heritage with Eve, the first woman and first sinner.  Since Eve was created from Adam’s rib, biblical interpreters often dismissed her as an afterthought of creation.  Her derivative nature, and subsequent association with sin, led a number of theologians to argue that only man was made in God’s image, while woman was merely made in God’s “likeness.” 

Biblical commentaries formed parallels with antique and medieval medical theories, which viewed women as defective men.  Even on a purely biological level, men were associated with reason, whereas women were relegated to the flesh. 

Female saints and bodily acts of devotion

Despite the negative views of women, Elliott noted a more positive change in the attitudes toward the body which encouraged, and even legitimated, female piety.  The Eucharist (or communion rite) became increasingly prominent in medieval devotion after Christian theology was further crystallized by a major ecclesiastical council in 1215.  According to the doctrine of Transubstantiation, one experienced the real presence of Christ when partaking in the Eucharist.  With this doctrinal component firmly in place, greater attention was given to the miracle of the Incarnation (the act of God assuming human flesh). 

While women could never administer the Eucharist, this valuation of the body enabled them to experiment with bodily acts of devotion (such as levitation, lactation, and mortification).  In other words, female saints began to access spirituality through physical means.  Although other medieval historians have demonstrated the effects of incarnational theology on religious women, Elliott re-articulated this issue in relation to gendered souls.  She argues that medieval men gravitated to more intellectually-based techniques of mysticism, while women relied on primarily physical means of experiencing God.       

Italian, late fourteenth century, original manuscript held in Venice,  Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, it. IX 276, folio 30 rectoThe politicization of female sainthood

At about the same time, heretical sects began to spread in remote regions of western Europe.  These alternative religious communities posed a particular threat to religious orthodoxy, as many of them denied the reality of the Incarnation and demonized embodied existence altogether.  Since these ideas countered the Church’s orthodoxy, Elliott argues that the rise of female sainthood became instrumental in quelling wayward beliefs.   

Women who engaged in bodily modes of mysticism became popularized through the writings of male clerics and local cults dedicated to a particular female saint.  Through miracles of levitation, acrobatic contortions, and ecstatic rapture with Christ the Bridegroom, their souls wandered from their bodies to heal people on earth and pray for the souls in purgatory.  As “rubber souls” these saints moved back and forth between the polarities of living/dead, worldliness/otherworldliness, and material/immaterial. 

While women’s bodies were allegedly more vulnerable to demonic possession, as one audience member pointed out, they also served as ideal subjects in demonstrating Christianity’s humility motif: the lowly shall rise and the high shall be brought down.  (Matthew: 3:5-10)  In later centuries, the Church came to doubt the validity of women’s bodily miracles, but for a brief period the continuity between self and soul enabled medieval women to enjoy religious renown in spite of, and because of, their gender.


Dyan Elliott is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Northwestern University.  She gave a guest lecture entitled “Rubber Soul: Gender, Theology, and the Hagiographical Spirit World of the High Middle Ages,” part of the Religion and Gender Series co-sponsored by Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Religious Studies, Ho Center for Buddhist Studies, and Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies.  This lecture was featured in the quarter-long symposium, Ms. at 40, and the Future of Feminism

Kathryn Dickason is a graduate student in Religious Studies focusing on western medieval Christianity. She is a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team.