Gender and Text in the Later Middle Ages

By Jane Chance | Go to book overview

12

The Discourse of Ecstasy: Late Medieval Spanish Women and Their Texts

Mary E. Giles

Although St. Teresa of Avila is Spain's most celebrated ecstatic woman, she is by no means without companions and predecessors on the inner way. At the time of her birth in 1515, charismatic women already had emerged as prominent leaders among both religious and lay people, teaching mental prayer and, by their ecstatic discourse and rigorous asceticism, inspiring men and women to greater piety and virtue. Fortunately, texts by these women are becoming available, thus making possible the hope that Iberian women will receive the comprehensive scholarly treatment that Caroline Walker Bynum, Elizabeth Petroff, and others have brought to the study of continental and English women.1 Some Spanish texts reveal that late medieval women claimed authority for themselves on the basis of the prophetic powers that for them were divine in origin. Furthermore, the texts demonstrate that both the content of the prophecies and the ecstatic-oral mode of transmitting them created a vision of the female as being sanctified in and through her body.

Women were able to function as teachers and oracles in Spain in part because the religious climate was more tolerant of innovation and reform than it would be in the second half of the century when even Teresa had reason to fear the scrutiny of the Inquisition. A major reason for the relative tolerance that allowed women an arena for spiritual leadership was Spain's powerful prelate, Cardinal Francisco Ximénez de Cisneros. Dedicated to the principle of open inquiry, Cisneros encouraged the translation into Spanish of patristic and classical texts as well as popular renderings of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, notably the Vita Christi by Ludolph

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