Flesh Made Word, by Emily A. Holmes

In Flesh Made Word, Emily Holmes endeavors, with the help of French feminist theories, to understand several of the medieval women mystics who are most alien to 21st-century religious sensibilities. She does this by creating three pairs of authors. One woman in each pair is a present-day feminist theorist, and the other is a medieval mystic. I was not sure that these pairings would be productive, but Holmes’s strategy proves illuminating, exhibiting the subtlety and sophistication of modern and medieval writers alike.

Holmes distinguishes male hagiographers’ interest in women mystics from the theological interests of the women themselves, as revealed in their writings. Fascinated by women mystics’ visions, healings, fasting, miraculous lactation, and multiplication of food for charitable purposes, male hagiographers have thought that the women’s holiness was based on miracle and suffering, though they often insisted that they were making a sincere effort to represent the mystics’ teachings.

Twenty-first-century readers, titillated and horrified by male hagiographers’ reports of medieval women’s voluntary and self-imposed suffering, have not questioned these reports of spectacular feats of asceticism. However, it would seem legitimate to question whether the requirements of the genre of hagiography inspired the more dramatic of these reports, for “in works written by their own hands, medieval women are remarkably uninterested in the bodily miracles and feats of suffering that preoccupied male hagiographers of women saints.”