Rogier van der Weyden, Julian of Norwich

Saints, Witches, Hysterics: Christianity and Female Mysticism

Instructor: Liane Carlson
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

From the medieval period to the present, a small group of Christian women have fallen into trances, had erotic visions, heard voices, foresworn food, and claimed to have direct contact with God. This course asks two questions about these women. First, why have women who testified to similar spiritual experiences been alternately venerated as saints, burned as witches, and finally medicated as patients? Second, what do the scholarly and artistic interpretations of the lives of these women tell us about modern preoccupations with desire, the body, transgression, and gender politics? 

In examining the reception, destruction, and eventual medicalization of Christian female spirituality, we proceed chronologically, reading primary sources alongside more contemporary interpretations drawn from history, philosophy, literature, photography, film, and psychology. As we go, we will consider: can the extreme fasting of medieval mystics be understood as a form of anorexia nervosa? Was mysticism a means to political power? Were women mystics stigmatized, and their behaviors gendered, precisely because the mystic vision so often threatened prevailing gender paradigms? How have modern media such as photography and film transformed the mystical female “spirit” from a religious entity to a medical body? How has the history of mystical madness and hysteria led to the development of psychoanalysis and contemporary diagnoses, such as PTSD? Reading may draw from William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, Joan Jacob Brumberg’s Fasting Girls, Cristina Mazzoni’s Saint Hysteria, Georges Didi-Huberman’s The Invention of Hysteria, and Rudolph Bell’s Holy Anorexia, among other works.

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
March 08 — March 29, 2023
4 weeks


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