Margaret Prioress and Mystic

Margaret of Oingt was one of the many women living during the Middle Ages who turned to mysticism to become closer to God. Mysticism, unlike scholasticism, takes a direct approach to God using sensory perception, not reason. For this purpose, it allowed women to identify with God on a very personal and spiritual level. This is significant to Margaret’s rationalism for writing her visions in a time when women had such a trivial amount of power in the intellectual community; she did not write her visions for others to learn from, but rather as a personal form of worship to God. In her compositions Margaret describes herself as having almost no importance or authority in matters of the church, and this is why her work was graciously accepted as valuable in her time. Because she disclaimed possession to any understanding of reason, the church believed that her writing was given to her directly by God through prophetic visions. This was the only way that she could have any authority to record her thoughts, because in her time women were seen to have no understanding of reason, and were therefore incapable of understanding knowledge. Although she was a prioress of a Carthusian convent, she still had to adhere to the regulations that women could not practice scholasticism. Margaret denied that she might understand reason, and by virtue of this, she was free to worship God through her writings. The imagery and language in Margaret’s meditations, prayers, and letters, captures the essence of her love and passionate devotion to Christ, and they also act as a window to the understanding of this popular form of piety in her time.

The intimate level upon which Margaret identifies with God is strikingly clear in the many ways she addresses Him in her meditations. As a nun, Margaret renounces her earthly family and vows a symbolic marriage to Christ. In a sense, Christ becomes her lover as well her entire family. At times she describes her love for Christ with language that borders along the lines of being erotic. When she thinks of his body lying on the cross, she describes her heart as “being on fire.” In one of her letter speaks of kissing Christ while he lies on her bed. And when she addresses him she declares “when I see you on the cross, I want to be despised and disfigured for your love; and even more, I want to be able to die for your love and for the salvation of those that you so lovingly set free.” It was prevalent for nuns to speak of the lord with such passion. In actuality, they vowed to love no other man except for the Lord, and mystics found that referring to God with so much desire defined more prominent and personal relationships between women and Christ.

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It also is consequential that, in many instances, Margaret refers to Christ as her mother. Margaret compares the life of Christ to her worldly mother in labor, “The mother who bore me labored at my birth for only one day or one night, but you…were in labor for me for more than thirty years.” This comparison serves as an insight into the beliefs of female mystics during this period. In Margaret’s own time it became common to refer to God as feminine, as well as masculine. Because God was seen by many as sexless, women found that they could identify the term “creator” to be substantially in common with the term “mother.” Men occupied most significant roles in the church, and women had a lower level of identification between themselves and God than men did. By incorporating the use of feminine language to describe God, women could identify with God on a much more intimate level than by using masculine language to describe the Lord.

Margaret’s effective use of language in her imagery describes the intense vivacity of her visions. Her description of hell in her meditations is an ardent example of the senses she uses to depict her visions. She explicates how people will be tortured by demons, “There will be burning flames, stinking, sulfur, and devils in the form of snakes who will gnaw at the breasts and hearts of those that did not have true faith. There will be poisonous dragons who will eat the lips and tongues who blasphemed the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” She also goes on to describe how the hate that these people will have for one another will strip them of compassion, how they will suffer hunger, and how their skin will be pulled off with their clothing. This approach she takes to describe hell is not based on reason, but on fear. The scholastic approach to describe hell would not go into such visual detail, but would more than likely attempt to prove why hell must exist. Margaret’s approach is valuable to seek converts or to convince Christians to live a more pure existence simply because of the fear of hell. The description succeeds at comparing hell to a reality that everyone can comprehend; whereas the scholastic approach would simply state that hell is the most hateful existence for anyone to belong to, which is not substantial as Margaret’s sensory approach to manifest fear in peoples’ thoughts.

Margaret uses several stories throughout her literature to illustrate her visions. One of these visions discusses a woman who finds a tree that has five branches, each with one of the five senses written on each branch. The tree points downward, the branches are dry, but once the woman raises her eyes to the mountains, a stream rushes down and the branches are green again and point towards the heavens. This appears to be a metaphor for the state of decadence that the human senses are in without the presence of the Lord. When the woman turned her attention to the tree, she found only decaying roots, but when she turned her attention towards heaven, the tree became alive and vibrant, just as the woman. Margaret could have also have meant this as a metaphor for the human fascination with wealth; those who turn their senses toward the earth and worldly pleasures will only find pain, but those who turn their senses towards the worship of Christ will rejoice in His glory.

Through her writing Margaret attempts to explain the concept of transubstantiation through The Life of the Virgin Saint Beatrice of Ornnacieux. When Saint Beatrice takes communion at the altar, she contemplates that her sins have made her unworthy to take the host. Margaret claims that God communicated with Beatrice by turning the host into actual flesh. To many, this bold affirmation may have seemed heretical. Because of human sin, one could not taste the blood or flesh of Christ. To claim that one has tasted the flesh could be perceived as saying that one was without any sin. Because Margaret constantly claimed that she and the women she wrote about were almost unworthy of God’s love, the Church accepted this to mean not that Beatrice was without sin, but as a message from God that her love had indeed found Him. Her description of the flesh in Beatrice’s mouth made transubstantiation appear to be reality.

Like many female mystics, Margaret wrote in the third person to describe her visionary experiences, to avoid blasphemy and charges of heresy by the church. Because literacy was so unattainable to most women in the Middle Ages, especially Latin, writing was a source of empowerment for female mystics, even though some just dictated their visions to others to write down. It is interesting that people in the Middle Ages found that mysticism did not rely on reason, even though they accredited it to corporeal awareness. It would seem to make sense that one’s own perceptions would be the greatest form of reason. This is why the church accredited the mystics’ visions as coming directly from God, and not the mystics’ own thoughts. In reality, however, did the mystics themselves believe that their experiences were from God, or were they using the authority given to them by the church to advance their own assertions? By analyzing Margaret’s writing, it seems almost clear that she believed God communicated with her. Her persuasive declarations of love for Christ are expressed with sincere devotion, as well as inner conflict, and her words depict a women of great power and courage, who by expressing her visions made it possible for female mystics gain authority and prominence in the Middle Ages.

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Margaret Prioress and Mystic. (2018, Sep 09). Retrieved from