Elizabeth Petroff

Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism

Review by Maria Smilios, 2002

Petroff, Elizabeth. Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Elizabeth Petroff's book is richly, though perhaps unintentionally, resonant with William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. James' book is a travelogue through the multifaceted and, often, bizarre world of religious experience. With a brilliant rhetorical flair, he leads us through the experiences and subsequently the worlds of atheists, poets turned Jesus, ardent believers, laymen and those of the highest religious orders by taking us on a psycho-philosophic journey through the neurological and pathological, the imagined and the real, the intoxicated and the true mystic in an attempt to prove that religion is “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (James 21). James ability to maintain a balance between psychology, sociology, and philosophy, along with his profound insights opened new vistas for the study of religion and thereby secured the text as a classic—somewhere lurking behind every religious ideology is a hint of James.  But as is always the case, a century later, scientific, psychological, and theoretical advancements have made many aspects of the text appear dated, particularly the chapter on mysticism. While James’ claim that mystical experiences are rooted in specific  “states of consciousness” (379) has and still is sparking heated debates, the rest of the chapter (as compared to the preceding ones) appears an overview or mere gloss of the subject—James places drug and alcohol induced experiences alongside Sufi, Hindi, Christian and Buddhist experiences. Further, many of the particularities, such as gender specific practices, experiences, and socio-economic reasons, as to why or how these “states of consciousness” were being invoked and attained are lightly touched or overlooked. This absence, however, has proven to be a blessing, throwing open the field of mysticism by inspiring and generating volumes on the topic.

Elizabeth Petroff’s Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism does not claim to be either directly or indirectly a response to James’ chapter on mysticism, but traces of his ideology clearly resonate and, in some way, undergird her text. Body and Soul is a compilation of eleven essays (all by Petroff), with excerpts, examining women mystics, who hailed from Germany, England, Italy, France, and the Low Countries, and the worlds in which they lived. Petroff, with lively and energetic prose paints a vivid portrait of the agony and ecstasy, faith and doubt, visions and hysterics, unions and conversations that this women experienced. Unlike, James, she attempts to contexualize and classify the experiences as definitively as possible by taking into account and examining factors such as, socio-economic status, location, gender, writing style, and monastic life versus beguine life. Such a structure (the text is broken into three parts: part I: backgrounds; part II focuses upon the relationship between women and their tradition; part III address issues of female spirituality and authority), makes it conducive to and for novices first approaching the topic, the general-interest reader, and scholars.  However, her text retains what I believe is one major theoretical flaw that should be brought to light.

From the onset, Petroff states, “mysticism is an experience, not an idea”(3). Clearly this is in keeping with James’ ideology, but Petroff is explicit in emphasizing (and separating) experience and idea. This suggests that she perceives idea and experience, in this context, as unrelated. In this particular regard, I believe that idea precedes experience and that the idea to join a religious order and aspire toward mystical union may have inspired the actual mystical experience.

Petroff places a heavy emphasis on why woman desired the religious life: it offered women an escape “from the sordid frustration of the world into the liberty of an unpretentious spiritual life: enjoying vivid experiences of a loving God and occupied in useful service” (54).  She further delineates the distinct difference between the male and female contemplative practices and how this affected the female mystical experience: Women were taught a “visual and creative” (8) meditation, “not intellectual and abstract” (8) like men. Further the “devout woman was to imagine herself as an observer and participant in the life of Mary and Christ (8). We come to learn that visions and mystical states were much desired by these women because it enabled them to achieve an autonomous and authoritative status, but moreover gave them a voice.

Although Petroff’s makes the statement that “mysticism is an experience, not an idea,” I do not think she fully adheres to its broader implications. Throughout her text, she hints at the possibility that it was indeed the austere conditions these women opted to follow that caused such visions, “the spiritual practices…encouraged the kind of growth and metal concentration that often lead to visions and mystical experiences” (8). Her statements are strong enough to suggest the possibility that the visions were not a result of God having chosen one as a ‘mouthpiece,’ but of an idea nurtured and cultivated through a lifestyle entrenched in obsessive visual meditations and an insatiable yearning to ‘see’ or become one with God. Given the option of a sordid life replete with passivity, rigor, and inexpressibility or one of a type of freedom, the choice seems obvious, the latter prevails.