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by Elizabeth Spearing
Penguin USA, 2002
Review by Su Terry on Feb 28th 2003

Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality

Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality edited by Elizabeth Spearing is an interesting compilation of writings by and about individual medieval women and their spirituality. Written for the layperson, this collection is variable in readability.

Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality is a collection of writings by and about eleven medieval women and their spirituality. “It includes the visions of an aristocratic prophet, those of a narrow-minded and malicious nun, and a profoundly original exploration of the nature of God.” The texts used in Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality were selected based upon their availability to the editor in the English language. Further she notes that “access to the women in this volume is through men; even the texts that are certainly written by the woman herself owe their continued existence to a male scribe, and some exist because of a succession of men.” These factors while sadly true, greatly limit the selection of text in this collection. That having been stated, the texts that are included are a nice cross-section of the most famous text by women available. These are: Hildegard of Bingen (Extracts - from her Vita, from a “Letter to Guibert de Gembloux”, and from Scivias); Extracts from The Life of Christina of Markyate; Hadewijch (Extracts - from the Letters, from the Poems in Stanzas, and from the Visions); The Life of St. Christine the Astonishing; Extracts from The Life of St. Mary of Oignies; The Life of St. Elizabeth of Spaalbeek; Marguerite Porete (Extracts from The Mirror of Simple Souls); Bridgit of Sweden (Extracts from the Liber Celestis); Julian of Norwich (Extracts - from Revelations of Divine Love (Short Text) and from Revelations of Divine Love (Long Text)); Anonymous (A Revelation of Purgatory); and Margery Kempe (Extracts from Book I). Personally, I would have also included a few of the letters of Heloise to Abelard in the collection. They fit the criteria of being written by a medieval woman, about her spiritual life, are available in English, and also well-known.

The readability of the text may be “tough going” for beginners to the field of spirituality. While some of the texts of a more biographical nature are easy to read, some of the mystical writings may seem completely incomprehensible. In this regard, let me offer the following recommendations for maximizing the comprehension of the text in Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality. Before reading any selection, find and read the biographical material related to the individual woman located in the “Introduction.” For readers who would like to start out with a few of the easier texts and work up to the theological or mystical writings, let me recommend starting with the (auto-) biographical selections. These include: Christian of Markyate, Christine the Astonishing, Elizabeth of Spaalbeekm, and Bridgit of Sweden. Next try the letters of Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch and then try the visions of Margery Kempe. For those that wish to read more by or about an individual woman, the bibliography list English language works that are in-print and by easily access publishers.

Elizabeth Spearing holds a D.Phil. from the University of York. Her previous publications include articles on the Amadis cycle and “Aphra Behn: the politics of translation” in Aphra Behn Studies (1996). She edited with Janet Todd Counterfeit Ladies: The Life and Death of Mary Frith, the Case of Mary Carleton (1994) and she translated Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love (Penguin Classics, 1999). Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality is her most recent work.

Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality by Elizabeth Spearing is a wonderful introduction to the spiritual writings of medieval women. Readability levels for a novice to the field range from easy to challenging. Still it is one of the better introductions to the field for English language beginners. I recommend this book for college and public libraries.

© 2003 Su Terry

Su Terry: Education: B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling College, Long Island, NY. Interests in Mental Health: She is interested in the interplay between psychology, biology, and mysticism. Her current area of research is in the impact of hormonal fluctuation in female Christian mystics.