Historiographic Sophistications: The Eclipse of Medieval Women Mystics

An adequate historiography of Christian thought, practice, and form of life can just as easily fail from having a surfeit of theory as operating under the illusion that historical reality simply reveals itself without the aid of filters and interpretive schemes. Simply put, there can be too much as well as too little theory. If in my first historiographical piece I dealt with the denial of the reality of “Gnosticism” as a category as an example of the latter, here I would like to give an example of the former. My example of over-saturation by theory concerns the medieval sub-field of the study of women mystics and more particularly the extraordinarily interesting work of Amy Hollywood who, by any accounting, is a major luminary in this subfield. Yet this example functions as a synecdoche for an inflation of theory that goes well beyond this particularly medieval subfield and is illustrated far more broadly in the historiography of Christian thought, practice, and forms of life in both the first centuries of the common era and in the medieval period.

Discovering and Recovering Medieval Women Mystics

It is difficult to locate precisely the moment when scholarly reflection on medieval Christian women mystics went from by-the-way comment to being an established area of study within medieval studies, but perhaps also in religious and theological studies more broadly. In any event, it is of fairly recent vintage. While there were laborers in the vineyard before the 1980s, perhaps two happenings more than anything else have served to bring to light the enormous contributions that medieval women made to fashioning and refashioning Christian spirituality. The first of these is the publication in the Classics of Western Spirituality series of the works of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), Hadewijch (1200-1248), Mechthild of Magdeburg (1208-1282/1294), Angela of Foligno (1248-1309), and Marguerite Porete (d. 1310).

The second is the ground-clearing work of such pioneering scholars as Caroline Walker Bynum, Barbara Newman, and the redoubtable Bernie McGinn who in his history of mysticism lavishes as much attention on these relative unknown women as he does on Bernard of Clairvaux, the Victorines, Jan Ruusbroeck, and even his favorite mystic, Meister Eckhart. Of course, none of this recovery would have yielded fruit were there no real hunger to retrieve. If there was no latent sense that these fascinating women had been seriously neglected and needed to be read and heard, and that their study would illuminate the broader vocabulary of option in spirituality in the medieval period, and reveal how women who did not have a voice in the Church, nonetheless, found one in Flemish, German, French, and Italian vernaculars.

Going hand in hand with this historical rectification, and energizing it, was the exciting sense in which discourses and the lives that made them possible, but also the radical Christian lives that they call for, represent a challenge not only to our Christian theological and discursive conventions, but also to our modes of self-understanding. In short, whether one is explicitly a feminist or not, the patterns of thinking, feeling, and speaking disclosed by these medieval women mystics have come to be thought of as exemplary, as suggesting unimagined possibilities for ways of articulating Christian faith and of being Christian in the world.

Over the past three decades there are any number of fine studies on both individual medieval women mystics and groupings of these medieval women mystics on particular themes and topics. Perhaps Hildegard of Bingen has to be set off from these other women mystics by her earlier date, her general acceptance by the Church, and by her relative command of the theological tradition. But perhaps even more by the fact that she is not only original but originary in that her monumental Scivias. It is nothing less than a brief summa of the entirety of the Christian faith. Scivias established a pattern of writing in which there was significant appeal to personal vision and experience not only as proper modes of religious discourse, but as the favored means to uncover and recover radical forms of Christian life buried by the conventions of Christian discourse, repressed in the liturgical practices of the Church, and not sufficiently exhibited even in monastic forms of life. Hildegard, however, is an absolute singularity.

None of the other four women mystics mentioned above was the polyglot that the aristocratic Hildegard was, who made contributions to music as well as the visual arts, as she appealed to vision as an independent source of authority and availed of whatever literary forms were congruent with her desire to influence a Christian community that was lukewarm at best and in any event saddled with the illusion that true holiness and perfection was the prerogative of priests and monks. Which is not to say that the contribution of each of these women mystics is not significant and taken as a group not inestimable. As they wrote in the vernacular, a number of these women were able to exploit the genre of courtly romance to write of their unrestricted desire and fevered longing for Christ, the triune God, and the Godhead.

Although none of the texts of these religious women are autobiographical in the strict sense,  nonetheless, in each one finds accounts of visions and of ecstasies of illumination or union with a divine who is the focal object of desire, whether that object is more nearly to be identified with Christ, Trinity, or the pure Godhead or all of such. In line with most mystical texts of the Christian tradition, the fundamental goal of their texts is instructional. These intrepid women are teachers of Christian perfection. They show us would-be pilgrims the way not only to allay the passions and selfishness that express themselves in vice and alienation from God, but to draw a path to the literally pathless God through a critical vetting of the virtues which, as a group or singly, may in fact sabotage the union so passionately sought. Yet, if the link between instruction and vision and personal confession is a common feature of their writings, their mode of expression is not. It is highly varied, with each having a unique literary style.

One finds in Hadewijch a mystical poetry focused on the longing of the lover for union with the Beloved or Love, yet whose dominant theme is frustration personally endured and which for readers and hearers who have similar hopes should become ingredient in their expectation. To a lesser extent this is also the case in Mechthild’s diffuse Flowing Light of the Godhead in which instructional content regularly turns to poetic effusion. Such is also the case in Angela, but not in Marguerite, whose Mirror of the Simple Souls was burned in her lifetime. The text, which led to Marguerite being burned at the stake in 1310, is an instructional text that also prosecutes a definite argument about the scale of religious perfection and the condition of its realization. It is a text of radical exposure which, in the nakedness of its writing about the simple or annihilated soul, is itself similarly exposed.

In her extraordinarily severe text there is no poetical afflatus that could be adduced as defense were there a charge of theological impropriety. Nor is there any attempt to diminish the authority of the claims of experience by suggesting that their value is to be assigned by the institutional Church as happens later in Julian of Norwich’s Showings. Finally, there is a refusal to equivocate when it comes to the issue of whether the virtues are transcended, whether the Godhead rather than the Trinity or Christ is the ultimate object of Christian desire, and whether in consummated union the soul’s very createdness is annulled.

While one of the main beauties of this cache of Christian literature is the sheer variety in performance, it would only make sense that with scholars having provided a good deal of historical context and with a good amount of close reading serving as a baseline, interpretation would necessarily turn to broader questions such as whether there are any underlying elements in the texts of these women mystics outside the highly personal and self-referential nature of their discourse.

What are the ways in which these texts invest themselves with authority? What do the operative hyperboles of humility and union tell us about the group as a whole? What does their supercharged eroticism show us? What sense can we make of the seeming paradox in their work of the experience of almost domestic familiarity with a divine spouse and the recognition that this spouse is essentially unfathomable. And finally, and perhaps most revealingly, for those of us familiar with mystical life as a movement from purgation, through illumination to union, what sense can we make of the paradox of a call for union that indicates that the highest state of all is one of being absolutely abandoned by God?

Now with regard to the scholars already named, but also a host of others, it would not be unfair to say that, although animated by deep commitments to the plurality of expression in the Christian tradition, the literature that has been produced show very recognizable feminist concerns. It could hardly be otherwise, since with the exception perhaps of Hildegard these are voices that until recently were either forgotten, repressed or censured. As I indicated in my first historiographical essay, concern is not the same as theory. A concern may or may not be accompanied by theory and admits different levels of theory when it is so accompanied. A very telescopic view of the literature on medieval women mystics would, I believe, reveal a wide variety of theoretical aptitude and commitment to theory which gets expressed in a scholarship that runs the gamut from almost no application of theory to an application in which theory takes over and swamps the phenomena that provoked one’s historical, religious, and human interest. My interest here is in the latter.

Hollywood and the Spectacular Self

By any estimation Amy Hollywood has been a particularly distinguished contributor to this particular subfield in the history of Christianity. She has deeply pondered the fact of these medieval women’s writing, and has displayed an extraordinary depth of knowledge when it comes to understanding the genres, common tropes, rhetorical performance, and the techniques of self-legitimation enacted in their texts. With respect to Mechthild, Angela, and Marguerite in particular, she has increased our understanding of how they are of their time while transcending it, and how they challenge theological convention and shape a Christian discourse that is earthy, labile, highly metaphorical, while resisting being reduced to rule. Moreover, within the field of the study of medieval women mystics Hollywood is in a class of her own when it comes to the application of theory, having at her disposal the feminist theories of Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray, the deconstruction of Derrida, the semiotic psychoanalytic theory of Lacan, Foucault’s reflections on the formation of a subjectivity beyond the trappings of a substantive self, and the a/theology of Georges Bataille—as this form of theology is imbricated in a theory of sacrifice that requires the loss of the substantive self as the true signature of a subjectivity that has moved definitively beyond both premodern and modern notions of selfhood.

That the application of theory in the study of Christian women mystics can be richly illuminating is evinced by Hollywood’s first book on Mechthild, Marguerite, and Eckhart (The Soul as Virgin Wife, 1996). Here she shows how each of these three mystics strained accepted religious understanding and theological conventions, although obviously in different registers and availing of very different discursive tactics. In her application of theory Hollywood is both interpretively deft and measured. She is deft in bringing out in these mystics the originality of the language of Godhead or desert, the postulate of a divine spark in the soul, and the capacity in religious believers to give birth like Mary to the one who is divine as well as human. In addition, she is convincing in showing how their language breaks with, or at the very least strains, the standard protocols of the tradition of mystical theology. She is measured in that her analyses of these women mystics often persuades the reader independently of the reader accepting one or more varieties of postmodern theory, feminist or otherwise.

This first book, which flows from her dissertation, shows that she has learned a great deal from the previous generation of scholars, who if they had feminist concerns, largely operated with conventional historical tools. In addition, at this early point in her scholarly career Hollywood is clearly in line with the magisterial work on Christian mysticism of her teacher and mentor, Bernie McGinn, whose commitment to historical context and close textual analysis goes hand in hand with the assumption of the polyphonic or symphonic nature of Christian mysticism whose unities are established and preserved in and through a great variety of literary forms, emotional and intellectual inflection, and degrees of personality and impersonality.

Nonetheless, it is evident that even at this early stage Hollywood is no longer simply a student of McGinn. If, at the time of publication of her first book, McGinn already has demonstrated a real grasp of the importance of these women mystics, nonetheless, at the very least the line of influence flows both ways. McGinn’s treatment of these medieval women mystics in volume 3 of his history of Christian mysticism owes a real debt to Hollywood’s work. Still, even if in her first book Hollywood does not fully exhaust the modern and postmodern theories she calls on, such theories are never adduced in McGinn’s magisterial history of Christian mysticism. Moreover, it is no accident that they are not; their use would sit uneasily with the historical methodology McGinn outlines in volume 1 of his magisterial history. Nonetheless, depending on the particular mystic under analysis, given the interpretive deftness and measure of Hollywood’s work spoken about above, it is perhaps best to speak of her work at this stage as a complement or supplement to that of McGinn. In any event, in her first book Hollywood does not seem to fundamentally break with McGinn’s methodological paradigm.

While the presence of theory in her first book is powerful, it is not overwhelming. She demonstrates the ability to historically contextualize her subjects. Nor does she fail to draw attention to the Christian constraints on women’s mystical experience and its expression in discourse, practices and forms of life. More specifically, Hollywood’s analyses, which are feminist in overall orientation, acknowledge the Christian conventions of creatureliness, the exemplarity of Christ, and the otherness of God that are put under pressure by these radical medieval discourses. Hollywood is comfortable in attending to the ways in which the destabilizing of doctrine, practices such as prayer, and ethos or form of life occurs in Mechthild and Marguerite precisely because they are prosecuted against the backdrop of the assumptions that were common in mysticism and mystical theology about the hyperbolic nature of claim to union in which createdness is transcended and creatureliness undone, the rhetorical nature of the claims to have transcended prayer and the reading of scripture, and the justification of asceticism, even if in the case of these medieval women mystics asceticism is invested with a quite different meaning.

Postmodern Theory and the Return of Feuerbach

A shift in the theoretical ratio of Hollywood’s work, however, is noticeable in her Sensible Ecstasys: Mysticism, Sexual Difference and the Demands of Theory (2002). Here she stages a conversation between medieval women mystics and modern feminist theorists (de Beauvoir) and non-feminist theorists (Lacan, Bataille) who have engaged these medieval women mystics and been influenced by them. Noticeably, Hollywood attempts to equalize and make contemporary both sides of the conversation across vast historical, cultural, and religious differences. Indeed, in important respects, Hollywood shows a real willingness to subvert the line of appropriation, which advantages the modern and postmodern theorists, by allowing the medieval women mystics to question both feminist and non-feminist theory alike. Though the staging is laudable, regrettably it proves impossible to sustain.

Not only is it difficult to maintain equality between the two discourses that are being mapped, given Hollywood’s own historical embedding and her very contemporary ideological set, such an equivalence in due course reveals itself to be artificial. It is no surprise then that inevitably (albeit gradually) Hollywood gives the advantage to modern and contemporary theoretical discourses to interpret (if not explain) both the what and how of the discourses of these medieval women mystics. Hollywood makes it clear that de Beauvoir and her more postmodern feminist counterpart, Luce Irigaray, are superior lenses in and through which to unveil the meaning of mystical discourses and outline their meaningfulness.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Hollywood issues a blank check to any of them. For her, Lacan’s focus on castration, lack, and fetishization does not always illuminate; Irigaray’s reflections on sexual difference are not always sufficiently nuanced and developed; and Bataille’s tendency towards sensationalist voyeurism and his propensity to connect mystical ecstasy with sadism and masochism are regarded as problematic.

Expressed reservations notwithstanding, however, Hollywood relentlessly advances the theoretical apparatuses of all three. In particular, she advances the analyses of Georges Bataille, pornographer, aficionado of Sade and Nietzsche, sometime theorist of sacrifice, and producer of theological summas that are not theological summas. More specifically, she puts into interpretive play his notion of “inner experience” as a mode of ecstasy, transgression, transcendence, sacrifice, and apotheosis. If Sade provides the subtext of Bataille’s religious but atheistic meditations and Nietzsche the aesthetic profile, Bataille limes the Christian mystical tradition for illustrations and harbingers of inner experience as an experience that is precisely non-experience. In his work as a whole, but especially in his A/Theological Summa, he articulates something like a canon within a canon of Christian mystics, isolating out those who are truly radical and thus on whom can be conferred the status of precursors of his threshold discovery which at the same time the discovery of a threshold. On the male side, unsurprisingly, Meister Eckhart is listed, presumably on account of his subversion of safe theological regulators in mystical theology such as the createdness of the mystical subject and the Christological and/or Trinitarian identity of ultimate reality.

A little more surprising element in the writing of this once devout Catholic is the selection of Saint John of the Cross, whose heterodoxy is usually less questioned. Still, given his profound interest in experience, Bataille’s selection makes considerable sense. Were one to think of a figure who most stood in the historiography of mysticism as the point of the experiential turn, it would be Juan de la Cruz. Moreover, in the decades during which Bataille was writing there was a lively discussion in Catholic thought about the value of mysticism, with Marechal and Garrigou-Lagrange staking different sides of the issue. But women mystics also anticipate Bataille’s articulation of “inner experience”: both Mechthild and Angela transcend the conditions of their era by offering anticipations of the experience of the absolute or “sovereign experience,” and their texts represent sketches of his unstable and destabilizing discursivity. While de Beauvoir and Irigaray also present genealogies in which mysticism anticipates theoretical discourses, which by the nature of the case are secular, Hollywood seems to grant to Bataille particular privileges, and foregrounds his choices within the canon of Christian mysticism.

Hollywood realizes to some extent that she is keeping dangerous company. Nonetheless, she tarries with Bataille and essentially adopts his interpretive lens of “inner experience” not despite but because of its self-referentiality, its reduction of the transcendent into the immanent sphere of the sacred, which, in turn, either relativizes or reinterprets theological terms such as “Godhead,” “Trinity,” “Christ.” Furthermore, she seems comfortable eliding the boundaries between the moral and the immoral, precisely because of the association between morality and convention. Hollywood does not make the mistake of completely identifying mysticism with peak experience: “inner experience” is not simply the flight of the alone to the alone; it is both literally and figuratively embodied.

Whatever the temptation of medieval women mystics to speak dualistically in the language of the body and the soul, the body as well as the soul is the site of ecstasy, and the practices of fasting, praying, and receiving Eucharist, as well as commitment to a radical form of existence, are all inherently bodily. For this insight Hollywood can depend on trailblazers in her field such as Carolyn Walker Bynum and Barbara Newman, but also on the French feminist establishment, particularly Irigaray. At the same time, in her interpretation of medieval women mystics Hollywood cuts the Gordian knot between moral and spiritual formation and experience by making the entire network of “inner experience” unconditional. “Inner experience” is not only non-conceptual or trans-conceptual, it is essentially self-justifying and does not submit itself to moral analysis.

It is her view that “Inner experience” offered in one form in medieval women mystics is offered another more transparent form in Bataille. One can even say that the value of the discourses, practices, and forms of life of an Angela or Mechthild lies in their anticipations of their fulfillment in Bataille. The methodological problem is obvious. The proverbial interpretive shoe is now on the other foot. If the impression is given that the purpose of her book is to show that Bataille is a crucial lens in and through which to see and valorize these extraordinary medieval mystics, given the unfolding teleological script, the real purpose for the study of figures such as Mechthild, Angela, and Marguerite is that they show us the way to Bataille who will deliver us from the illusions of the modern autonomous and closed self.

The least that can be said by way of criticism here is that Hollywood leaves us hovering on the brink of a kind of Feuerbachian reduction of religion. The truth that these medieval women mystics intend is obscured by the Christian symbols and specifically Christian horizon of desire and expectation. Hollywood is following Bataille, who is following the Rilke of the Fourth Duino Elegy, when she interprets Angela to mean more and less than what she intends. Angela is fated to work with the Christian symbols at her disposal, but the desire for union with the divine, which is passionately sought, gained and lost, is in the end desire for its own sake, a desire for desire and its continual excitation and elevation. Hollywood, through Bataille, knows more than Angela knows, just as she knows more than Mechthild and Marguerite know. Illumination and union (whatever they are) are not activities that involve divine realities or persons; they are purely immanent human, or better, trans-human processes which, in turn, are essentially objectless. There is no other with whom one is communing, that is, if there is a whom in the first instance. In any event, most certainly there is no wholly Other who fulfills the utmost desire of these women for the utmost, indeed, does so beyond expectation in the here and now rather than the deferred eschatological state.  

I do not think it unfair to accuse Hollywood of a reduction of the type we first see clearly in Feuerbach, and will see continually throughout the nineteenth century in Marx, Comte, Nietzsche, and later in Freud. There is the same wish to replant religion in our bodies, senses, and desires. Here Bataille helps her enormously in his conception of the body as the site of transcendence rather than its inhibitor. In an important way, however, Hollywood goes beyond Feuerbach, precisely because of her commitments to Bataille. Feuerbach thought that our relation to a transcendent God was merely a symptom of our bad relation with each other that can and should be repaired. In Feuerbach’s translation of historical Christianity, Christianity was a necessary pedagogical means in and through which we discovered ourselves and have come to acquire the ability to distinguish between relations that were toxic and relations that were healthy and life enhancing.

Call Feuerbach a Romantic; call him sentimental. Yet his translation of Christianity concerned a radical fraternity that was the analogue of the community that is the Church. It is not clear that Hollywood ever has community in mind. To the degree to which she does, it seems to be a community of subjectivities that have transgressed the barriers of self-identity and become ecstatic subjectivities for whom no rules or norms of behavior hold.

One Irony and More

The irony of all of Hollywood’s expertise should not be lost: the primary motivation in interpreting the texts and lives of these extraordinary medieval women is to rectify a historical wrong by rescuing medieval women mystics from an oblivion that she and other feminists and even non-feminists deem to be unjust. They need to be remembered for their own sake as well as ours. As she enacts her retrieval, however, Hollywood’s teleological model manages to marginalize them all over again. One would have thought that the logic of excavation was to protect (and not merely insist upon) the intrinsic value of the multiverse contributions of these women mystics. Instead, once again as before the recent surge of interest leaves these women instrumentalized.

This time, however, the reduction is not to being a shadow of the mysticism of Bernard of Clairvaux, Eckhart, or Ruysbroeck. These medieval women mystics are now shadows of a postmodern elite who are geniuses of theory, which if it includes women, seems to have Georges Bataille as its presiding spirit. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that because of her commitment to a postmodern theory of the death of the subject, common to Bataille and Foucault who both have deep philosophical roots in Nietzsche, Hollywood commends medieval women mystics to our attention and lavishes praise on them only to return to the scene of the crime and erase them. She enacts their erasure when she does precisely the opposite of what feminists are supposed to do: she makes these women ghastly, constructs them as ghosts.

Spending considerable time suggesting that as it circulates in the texts and lives of these medieval women mystics, the duality of soul and body is simply a concession to a common Christian code that implicitly and sometimes explicitly is subverted, Hollywood fundamentally reinscribes this duality at the level of her writing by making them sketches of the real thing. We believe her when she indicates that in these medieval women mystics the literary form of dialogue of soul and body, and the feverish complaints against sense and the body intimate their deep union and thus the intrinsic corporeality of experience. Which makes it all the more depressing to see that their bodies have been troped, as they are put through the ringer of concepts of transgression, sacrifice, and experience that entailed other assumptions about exceptionality, its nature, and its signatures than were their own.

Hollywood surely is right to think of these medieval women mystics as not being reducible to their individual histories or the history of their communities and their times. That is, she insists that they are classics, indeed, classics precisely of the integration of life and discourse that can and should have meaning for us today. At her best she convinces us of that, and throws a bright light on variegated ways of being radically Christian that as women and men we might not have thought of. Yet, in the end, she bleeds them of their strangeness and inalienable otherness, and of their historical distance from us. She bleeds them precisely of what her teacher and mentor, Bernie McGinn, fought hard to protect. To the extent to which Hollywood does so, she effectively disembodies them. She takes away the pathos of their lives and their texts, both of which have the characteristic of being unrepeatable; she takes away their symbols that engage the core of their subjectivity; and she removes the corporeal environment of the Church as the site of prayer, Eucharist, and ascetic discipline.

As she does so, she forces us to ask the question: who are receivers of these women, now refracted through multiple theories, but especially through that of Bataille? If we allow David Tracy’s view of the three publics of the Church, the academy, and the public square to provide us with us with our more basic options, it seems evident that the main audience to be served is the academy, with perhaps a hope of gaining a hearing in the public square. Yet hardly the Church, with regard to which these medieval women mystics were critical but loyal daughters, which they hoped to reform by speaking to and performing a mode of radical Christianity.

Feminism Compromised

While it is hardly obvious that commitment to Bataille and commitment to feminism are compatible, Hollywood is convinced that they are so. This despite Bataille’s pornographic excesses and despite his dependence on Sade, Nietzsche, and 19th century French Romanticism of a decidedly misogynist stripe. As already stated, Hollywood does speak against Bataille, but the outrage against his excesses come to seem procedural at best when she goes on to offer a cleaned-up version of Bataille as her master theoretical discourse. As she makes her main point about a mode of subjectivity beyond premodern notions of a substantive self and modern notions of the self defined by consciousness and autonomy, she acts as if her reproofs of Bataille are sufficient to filter a usable Bataille. She naively supposes that they can serve as a screen against anything noxious and inhuman in the subjectivity that is being held up as the way out from illusion and unfreedom. She wants to disconnect Bataille’s notion of sovereignty from its association with a regime of violations of other selves, but seems to think that her say-so is sufficient.

Yet, there is little in Bataille’s novels, his theological summas, or the haunting image of the Chinese prisoner being flayed alive, that would support this supposition. His more or less exclusive interest is in the exceptional states of those who would prove exceptional by flouting convention and setting morality aside and risk everything they have been given and apparently are. For Bataille even the ecstatic forms of Christianity prove to be the mere chrysalis for these exceptional post-Nietzschean multi-colored butterflies whom we should admire and emulate should we find the strength. We are talking about secular male and female doublets of these medieval ecstatic women mystics.

This makes it all the more strange that at no time does Hollywood ask who is ultimately favored by Bataille’s conjugation of postmodern subjectivity. Is it men or women? Indeed, given his own literary and ideological ancestry, in the last instance predation is the genius of men. Of course, Hollywood can claim that Bataille can be disciplined by French feminism and, therefore, saved from his excesses. Yet, why, one wonders, does she put herself in this highly awkward and ultimately untenable interpretive situation? The most plausible answer is she is under the spell of Bataille’s rhetoric and aesthetic, that anesthetizes Hollywood to the violence in his language of transgression, and which is at least a little more muted in Foucault, who overall has been the theorist of choice when theory is called on in current historiography. When it comes to excess it seems that for Hollywood Foucault is not excessive enough.

In Sensible Ecstasy Hollywood is brilliant when she describes in Angela of Foligno the coincidence of absolute humiliation and absolute specialness of being a spouse in the embrace of Christ, pays attention to her being on the razor’s edge of undergoing apotheosis in the Trinity, but even beyond that annihilated in the Godhead. Of course, if annihilation is intimated in Angela, it is full-blown in Marguerite’s Mirror of Simple Souls. Hollywood exposes the veins of a dialectical and hyperbolic logic in her women mystics with whom she so obviously identifies.

What is worrisome, however, is that in the process she absolutizes humiliation and loss and makes them, as Bataille does, ends rather than means in the mystical economy. Albeit against her intention, Hollywood pathologizes and pornographizes the experiences and the lives of medieval Christian women mystics. In aligning herself so much with Bataille and depending so much on his conceptuality of inner experience, transgression, and sacrifice, Hollywood thwarts the honorable intentions of her interpretive program and begins to conceal much of what is central to these women mystics. Suffering and humiliation may be paradoxical in that they open up transcendence. Yet, they are still means rather than ends. Experience may have some relative independence from morality, in that at a certain point in spiritual progress the medieval woman mystic ceases to have morality as a focus. Yet, this is not to say that the notions of and instinct for good and evil have been surpassed.


From 2002 on Hollywood has continued to exercise her dual citizenship of being a medievalist with feminist interests and being a postmodern theorist. She has published much since then, but interestingly not another monograph. Her last book is a book of essays with the title of Acute Melancholia and Other Essays: Mysticism, History, and the Field of Religion (2015). Medieval women mystics are prominent in this later text. Yet theory dominates, with Hollywood having added to her theoretical core of French Feminism and Bataille, the literature validating religious studies as a discipline. That theory was the end inscribed in the beginning seems to come even more to the fore when one discovers that her current work is focused on Heidegger’s and Derrida’s interpretation and use of mysticism. I have made the case that despite her wonderful intelligence and oftentimes deft and measured interpretation Hollywood makes invisible the medieval women mystics she wants us to see and drowns out the very voices she wants us to hear. 

I am mindful, however, that I could be accused of claiming too much and too little. Too much in that I took advantage of Hollywood’s problematic commitment to Bataille as a theorist, and perhaps did not allow sufficient room for her to cut back to her French feminists who do not have his baggage. There is a measure of truth in this, but in the main I was simply taking Hollywood seriously by taking her at her word. Still, I do concede that it would require a somewhat more complicated argument were Irigaray, for example, to be the standard bearer of theory.

Still, one should bear in mind that essentially the same result would be arrived at if it were shown that a particular feminist theory, rather than animating feminist concerns, turned out to overwhelm the phenomenon of these women mystics, thereby bleaching them of their historicity and their difference. As for claiming too little, here I am thinking of the objection that the particular damage done in a medieval subfield by the unfortunate use of a theorist such as Bataille does not tell against the application of postmodern theory to medieval religious phenomena in general.

Hollywood did not theorize with or through Foucault. What if she had? What if she had linked arms with other medievalists and scholars of early Christianity of theoretical persuasion and recurred to the patron saint of alternative historiography? I refuse to deal with hypotheticals. Yet I do concede that a critical engagement with Foucault is necessary. A reckoning postponed is not the same as a reckoning refused.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is the second part of a three-part series (click on the author's name to access the first installment) on theory and theological historiography. It was first delivered as the keynote speech at the 2019 Patristic, Medieval, and Renaissance (PMR) Conference at Villanova University.

Featured Image: Georges de La Tour, Penitent Mary Magdalene, c. 1650; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is the first installment of a multi-volume treatment of Hans Urs von Balthasar's response to philosophical modernity. The Anatomy of Misremembering, Volume 1: Hegel.

Read more by Cyril O'Regan