Jacques de Vitry on Marie d'Oignies [Latin] || Angela of Foligno ||Umilta of Faenza || Marguerite Porete ||

Birgitta of Sweden || Margery Kempe || Francesca Romana

St Birgitta giving her Revelations to Christendom.

Birgitta, Revelationes, Ghotan: Lübeck, 1492.


N international network of women through time is of interest in connection with Julian of Norwich, casting further light on the process of her composition of the Showing of Love.

Interestingly, though most of these women saints make use of angels to validate and authorize their writing, Julian goes directly to Christ and the Trinity, eschewing Pseudo-Dionysius on the Hierarchy of the Angels, eschewing Walter Hilton, 'On Angels' Song', eschewing angels themselves, centring not on Gabriel but on God as Father and Holy Spirit, bringing her the Son, the Word made flesh, dwelling within us.

Angela of Foligno (+1309)

A FRAGMENT of Angela's powerful text is found, Paul Lachance told me, in a Bodleian manuscript at Oxford with a fragment from Marguerite Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls. Her writings were still being read and copied by English Benedictine nuns in exile in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by nuns who were also reading and copying out Julian of Norwich. I sense that Angela influences Julian. Too many verbal and conceptual echoes for mere coincidence.

She married young, had several sons, then, around 1288, all in her immediate household, husband, sons and mother, died. She was worldly, wealthy, vain, beautiful, even unfaithful to her husband, according to legend. She found herself unable to confess some of her sins, and, receiving communion, thus added sacrilege to these. Praying to St Francis that she find a confessor, she came upon her relative, the Franciscan, Brother Arnaldo. He would become her confessor, spiritual director, amanuensis. In modelling her life on St Francis she found herself before a crucifix, stripping herself of her clothing, vowing poverty and chastity. In 1291 she asked the Privilege of Poverty from the apostle Peter in Rome and sold the remainder of her possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor. She became a Franciscan tertiary and journeyed to Assisi, receiving first a vision of the Trinity in a chapel dedicated to the Trinity, then another in the Basilica of Assisi, from seeing stained glass of St Francis in Christ's bosom. Like Margery Kempe she started screaming and crying when this vision left and left her desolate. Brother Arnaldo was furious.

He thought she was inspired by the devil. He made her explain herself to him. A flood of visions. He struggled to write these down, in Italian, in Latin. She speaks of Christ as the God-man, stressing the paradox of Divinity and Humanity. Brother Arnaldo describes the stages of her spiritual journey, sometimes of God's presence and joy, sometimes of the deepest desolation and temptations of the devil. This 'Memorial' is the first part of Angela's Book. Its second part are the Instructions she gives to her community of tertiaries gathered about her, especially advice to priests.

One among many of her visions shares in Mary's at the Presentation in the Temple, of February 2, with her Babe in her arms.

Tremendous dissension arose within the Franciscan Order and about it, the Spirituals who were persecuted as heretics preserving Francis' charism of poverty, the Conventuals discarding it. Angela of Foligno converted Ubertino da Casale to the Spirituals. Her own Book of Blessed Angela of Foligno is prefaced by approbation by a Cardinal, later disgraced by the Pope, and numerous Franciscans. It was, however, like Marguerite Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls, seen as dangerous.  

St Birgitta of Sweden (1303-1372)

{BIRGITTA of Sweden, like Hildegard of Bingen, began her intense political and authorial career suddenly in her forties. Birgitta was widowed in 1344 and at that point commenced her role as prophet not just to Sweden but to all of Europe. She had already had visions, and so did others concerning her. These visions she now wrote down with the help of major Swedish ecclesiasts, one of them Master Mathias, who had studied Hebrew under Nicholas Lyra in Paris, an Augustinian Canon who was associated with Dominicans, and who translated the Bible into Swedish for her. She spoke of Master Mathias and of many others in her circle as ' Friends of God '. Her first agenda was the reform of King Magnus of Sweden, who was much in need of it. But she was also deeply concerned about Europe, particularly about the Hundred Years' War being waged between England and France, and the exile of the Popes to Avignon. Master Mathias in 1347 was delegated by Bishop Hemming of Abo to take the document to the Kings of England and France and to the Pope in which Christ and the Virgin order them to cease their war and the Pope to return to Rome.

Bishop Hemming and St Birgitta, Diptych, Finland

This is what she wrote in a vision about and to King Magnus. In it she sees a lectern and a book. 'For the appearance of the lectern was as if it had been a sunbeam [of red, gold, white]. . . . And when I looked upwards, I might not comprehend the length and breadth of the lectern; and looking downward, I might not see nor comprehend the greatness nor the deepness of it . . . After this I see a Book on the same lectern, shining like most bright gold. Which Book, and its Scripture, was not written with ink, but each word in the book was alive and spoke itself, as if a man should say, do this or that, and soon it was done with speaking of the Word. No man read the Scripture of that Book, but whatever that Scripture contained, all was seen on the lectern. Before this lectern I see a king . . . The said king sat crowned as if it had been a vessel of glass closed about . . .'

She continues to describe how the king's glass globe is protected by an angel but threatened by a demon . . . 'This living king appears to you as if in as it were a vessel of glass, for his life is but as it were frail glass and suddenly to be ended'. She continues by speaking of how this king knowingly sins but that if he repents he can be saved by the angel from the fiend. Beside him is a dead king above whom is writing describing his lust, his pride, his avarice. . . but the writing is blankly gone from the part that should have proclaimed his love of God.

'Then the Word speaks from the lectern, saying "[What you see is the Godhead's self. That you cannot understand the length, breadth, depth and height of the lectern means that in God is not found either beginning or end. For God is and was without beginning, and shall be without end "]. Also the Word spoke to me and said "[The Book that you see on the lectern means that in the Godhead is endless justice and wisdom, to which nothing may be added or lessened. And this is the Book of Life, that is not written as the world's writing, that is and was not, but the scripture of this Book is forever. For in the Godhead is endless being and understanding of all things, present, past and to come, without any variation or changing. And nothing is invisible to it, for it sees all things "]. That the Word spoke itself means that God is the endless Word, from whom are all words, and in whom things have life and being. And this same Word spoke then visibly when the Word was made man and was conversant among men'. She adds to the King that she is giving him the Word's words, adding that 'few receive and believe the heavenly words given from God, which is not God's fault, but man's'.

Later, she writes 'I saw an altar and a chalice with wine and water and bread and I saw how in a church of the world a priest began the mass, arrayed in a priest's vestments. And when he had done all that belonged to the Mass, I saw as if the sun and moon and the stars with all the other planets, and all the heavens with their courses and moving spheres, sounded with the sweetest note and with sundry voices.'

St John writing the Apocalypse, Hans Memling, St John's Hospital, Bruges

In another vision, at the end of her life, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, she sees the judgement of her wicked son Charles where her prayers and her tears for Charles cause the devil to have amnesia concerning her son's sins. First the book in which the fiend has written them down suddenly has blank pages instead of writing, then the sack in which he has placed them is empty when turned inside out, then the devil himself forgets them totally from his memory and goes wailing off to Hell, cursing Birgitta.

Much of Birgitta's visionary imagery comes from law courts, for her father was the King of Sweden's law man and her husband was likewise a law man. She both prophesied and wrote following the Black Death of 1348 when Doomsday, Judgment Day, seemed particularly near. She told King Magnus that the Black Death would happen, then left for Italy, Sweden being too dangerous for her. Birgitta set up her household in Rome, living in prayer and constantly receiving visions, having male secretaries assist her, one of them a Spanish Bishop, Alfonso of Jaén. In the last year of her life she journeyed to the Holy Land, preaching on her journey in Naples and Cyprus, prophesying the 1452 Fall of Constantinople. Her massive book of the Revelationes, which is really Julian's title of 'Showings', was copied out in illuminated manuscripts, then in print, and treasured throughout Europe.

At her death Alfonso of Jaén, Queen Joanna of Naples, Queen Margaret of Sweden, the Emperor Charles of Bohemia, and Cardinal Adam Easton of England, a Benedictine from Julian's Norwich, all sought Birgitta's canonization as a saint.

St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380)

Catherine of Siena, 86K

Catherine of Siena, The Orcherd of Syon (Dialogo), London: Wynken de Worde, 1519

{OPE Gregory XI sent Alfonso of Jaén to Catherine of Siena at Birgitta of Sweden's death. At that point Catherine, who had previously been illiterate, proceeded to write important letters to Popes and Emperors, Kings and Queens and even to the condottiere Sir John Hawkwood, on the need for peace. We do not think of her as part of the Dominican-inspired Friends of God movement across Europe but this act clearly places her in that context. Pope Urban VI wanted her to have Birgitta's daughter, Catherine of Sweden, accompany her to carry out diplomacy on his behalf with Queen Joanna of Naples.

Catherine had been the twenty-fourth child of a Sienese dyer. Everyone had wanted her to marry but she refused, having made a vow of chastity, and instead sought to enter the Dominican Third Order, which only admitted women who were widows. She won. As a Dominican Tertiary she cared for the sick and dying, including criminals condemned to death in Siena. She was surrounded by disciples, one of them an English hermit, William Flete, whose work, The Remedies Against Temptations , Julian quotes and uses in the Showings, another a lawyer Cristofano Di Ganno, who later translated Birgitta's Revelations into exquisite Italian, another a painter, Andrea Vanni, whose delicate portrait of her survives. Her confessor and biographer was Raymond of Capua who became head of the Dominican Order. Pope Urban VI leaned heavily upon her for his own survival. Severely anorexic, she died at the age of thirty-three, collapsing under the weight, she said, of the Church.

Besides her Letters she had also written, or, again, rather dictated, the Dialogo, the Dialogue between God and his Daughter, Catherine's Soul, in which he tells her that his Son is the bridge between God and man, a bridge that is like a stair, beginning first with the affections, then love, then peace. He adds that his Son's 'divinity is kneaded with the clay of your humanity like one bread'. This work, likely through Cardinal Adam Easton of Norwich who knew all three women, influenced Julian's Showings, her 'Revelations'. A most beautiful manuscript of the Dialogo was translated into Middle English for the Brigittine nuns of Syon Abbey and called the Orcherd of Syon. It was printed by Wynken de Worde, Caxton's successor, again with that title, in 1519. It is illustrated above. Its exemplar may well have been a manuscript Adam gave Julian.

Julian of Norwich (1343-1414?)

{ULIAN, Anchoress of St Julian's Church in Norwich, is not normally thought to have been influenced by Birgitta of Sweden and by Catherine of Siena, yet it is clear that her Showings gets its concept and its title from Birgitta's influential work while much in its text resonates with that in Catherine of Siena's Dialogo. It is clear, too, that, just at St Birgitta spends her a lifetime writing her Revelationes, so does Julian spend a lifetime writing her Showings. It is also clear, once the life of Adam Easton, Norwich Benedictine, is known, that that influence largely came from him. He avidly defended St Birgitta's canonization, arguing for women and their theological abilities, citing among other examples the four daughters of Philip who were each prophetesses and who helped Luke write his Gospel and Book of Acts. Adam would also have exposed Julian to the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius , for he owned his complete works in a manuscript that survives today at Cambridge University, and he may indeed have written for her the Dionysian 'Cloud of Unknowing ' and its related 'Dionise Hid Diuinite' and Epistles. Julian thus may have had a spiritual director, Adam Easton, who taught Hebrew at Oxford, just as Birgitta had Master Mathias who studied Hebrew at Paris. Julian's St Julian's Church was also next door to the Austin Friary, a Friary in contact with the Austin Hermit William Flete, Catherine of Siena' s disciple and executor.

Julian's manuscripts, like those of Catherine of Siena, are copied out again and again in the context of Syon Abbey , the Abbey deliberately founded in England in accordance with St Birgitta's Rule by Henry V, in response to her desire for peace between England and the rest of the world. Interestingly, both Julian (circa 1413) and Syon Abbey (1434) were visited by an indefatigable woman pilgrim, mother of fourteen, Margery Kempe.

Margery Kempe (1373-1439)

{ARGERY Kempe was illiterate and exhibitionistic but valiantly struggled to imitate the lives of these saints and their book-writing. She did so by means of having others read to her devotional books by Walter Hilton and by Birgitta of Sweden and then travelled to the same places Birgitta had visited as a pilgrim, Compostela, Jerusalem , Rome, Trondheim, Cologne and Gdansk. Her confessor was a Dominican, the Dominicans of Lynn being in direct contact with Catherine of Siena' s Raymond of Capua. She next dictated her memoirs in order that The Book of Margery Kempe be written down. Birgitta had worked to reform the state, to reform the Kingdom of Sweden by reforming her King, then the state of Europe by reforming not only kings and queens but even Emperors and Popes. Her work with the Friends of God was not for herself but for all of Christendom. Catherine of Siena, likewise, worked for not only her city state of Siena, but for all of Tuscany, striving for peace between the ancient enemies, Siena, Pisa and Florence, then she worked for the Church and for peace in all of Christendom, begging the English mercenary, Sir John Hawkwood, to leave Tuscany and go on a bloody Crusade elsewhere, against pagans rather than Christians. Julian leaves aside issues of Church and State and works directly for the love of one's even-Christian, and she even and perhaps especially shows that charity towards Margery Kempe. Birgitta, Catherine and Julian are characterised by joy, by laughter, Birgitta's maid servant telling Margery many years later that her mistress had always a laughing cheer, Catherine of Siena being deeply loved by her disciples and joking about God playing a joke upon her, Julian bringing in laughter even at her death-bed scene. But Margery takes herself too importantly to be able to laugh at herself - and this makes it hard to take her seriously. What we find in these mystics' writings is that self-importance is a form of noughting, while the love of God and one's neighbour in God's image, is oning .
For the conversation between Pilgrim Margery and Anchoress Julian, hear soulcity.mp3

Chiara Gambacorta of Pisa (1362-1419)

{LET us turn back to Italy. Bishop Alfonso of Jaén had been spiritual director to Birgitta of Sweden , then to Catherine of Siena , being sent to her when she was in Pisa where she received the stigmata in the church of Santa Cristina. Both Alfonso and Birgitta were close friends with the powerful Gambacorta family, Pietro Gambacorta travelling with them on their pilgrimage to Bethlehem and Jerusalem in 1372. Pietro's daughter, Tora, married at 13 and was widowed at 15. She refused to marry again, Alfonso backing her against her family in her decision, and she became a Dominican, taking the name, Chiara, after Santa Chiara , in 1382, and she became Prioress in 1392. She commissioned for her convent splendid paintings about both Birgitta of Sweden and Catherine of Siena, clearly taking these two women who she had known as models for herself and her fellow nuns.

St Francesca of Rome (1384-1440)

{FRANCESCA Romana, St Frances of Rome, was married at 12 to a noble family, the Ponziani. Her grandson, Battista Ponziani, in turn married Mabilia Papazurri , whose family had revered Birgitta of Sweden for she had been their tenant. Francesca bore her husband three children, two of whom Evangelista and Agnes died in the Plague, then was under the guidance of the Olivetan Benedictines, founding a monastery, the Tor de' Specchi, which still exists. Birgitta, who had to support a large household that included three of her grown children, a prior, a master, a bishop and several maid servants, without any income, took to begging outside the Poor Clare church of St Lawrence in Rome, where she would also mend the other beggars' clothing, and dressed herself in a patched cloak made from a worn-out dress, doing all this at Christ's command. Francesca similarly cared for the poor and sick, her life being noted for many miracles. She dictated her visions including one in which the Virgin wrapped her in her own cloak, a vision Birgitta also had described in her book, and others in which she saw scenes out of Dante' s Commedia of Hell and Heaven. The account of her visions was not only written down but also beautifully frescoed on her convents' walls.

For depictions of Santa Francesca and her angel, given her by her dead son, Evangelista, see francesca.html and traumahealing.html

These women, who left all to follow Christ in their love of God and their neighbour in God's image, were linked to each other across the map of Europe and did much for the status of women and the state of the Church. When one reads their canonization documents witnessing their miracles it is to find that the miracles centre on the powerless, on women and on children, on the condemned and the oppressed, on servants and nuns, and that these may well respond with seemingly miraculous healing because their saviour is a member of their own oppressed half of society. What is also characteristic of this network is that it is as it were a 'literacy campaign', in which women, barred from universities and education, are the writers of Sybilline books of prophecy which are more powerful even than those written by men. They are writing, Cardinal Ratzinger has said, 'revealed theology'. Saint Catherine of Siena, socially the least in this group, we do not forget, has been proclaimed by the Church a 'Doctor of the Church', the equal of the learned Saints Jerome and Gregory . Let us call them very practical mystics.

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