Women and Women's Writings from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages: Primary Sources

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SOURCE: Pan Chao. Pan Chao: Foremost Woman Scholar of China, translated by Nancy Lee Swann. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1932.

The following is an excerpt from the poem "Traveling Eastward," the oldest surviving work composed by the first century A.D. Chinese writer Pan Chao (or Ban Zhao).

It is the seventh year of Yung-ch'u;
I follow my son in his journey eastward.
It is an auspicious day in Spring's first moon;
We choose this good hour, and are about to start.
Now I arise to my feet and ascend my carriage.
At eventide we lodge at Yen-shih:
Already we leave the old and start for the new.
I am uneasy in mind, and sad at heart.
Dawn's first light comes, and yet I sleep not;
My heart hesitates as though it would fail me.
I pour out a cup of wine to relax my thoughts.
Suppressing my feelings, I sigh and blame myself:
I shall not need to dwell in nests, nor (eat) worms from dead trees.
Then how can I not encourage myself to press forward?
And further, am I different from other people?
Let me but hear heaven's command and go its way.
Throughout the journey we follow the great highway.
If we seek short cuts, whom shall we follow?
Pressing forward, we travel on and on;
In abandonment our eyes wander, and our spirits roam.…
Secretly I sigh for the Capital City I love, (but)
To cling to one's native place characterizes a small nature,
As the histories have taught us.…
When we enter K'uang City I recall far distant events.
I am reminded of Confucius' straitened activities
In that decadent, chaotic age which knew not the Way,
And which bound and awed even him, that Holy Man!
In fact genuine virtue cannot die;
Though the body decay, the name lives on.…
I know that man's nature and destiny rests with Heaven,
But by effort we can go forward and draw near to love.
Stretched, head uplifted, we tread onward to the vision.…


SOURCE: Yu Xuanji. "Joining Somebody's Mourning" and "Three Beautiful Sisters, Orphaned Young." In The Clouds Float North: The Complete Poems of Yu Xuanji, translated by David Young and Jiann I. Lin, pp. 52, 54-56. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1998.

The following are translations of two lyrics by the ninth-century Chinese poet Yu Xuanji (844-871), a nun who was executed in the latter years of the Tang Dynasty.

Many of [Yu Xuanji's] poems, to be sure, dwell on absence, longing, and loss, as do lyric poems in any culture and period. But their original handling of theme, their inspired sense of detail, their exuberant rightness of tone and form, all counterbalance the painful subject matter with exquisite formal and aesthetic pleasure. Whether this sleight-of-hand fully compensates the poet is not the question: the reader's gift is the distillation of experience, still potent after eleven centuries. In that distillation, the resilience and dignity of the human spirit are held in a kind of suspension. The pain and pleasure mingle, not canceling each other out but simply coexisting. Two truths are told at once—that life is streaked with sorrow and loss, and that existence is a miraculous gift to the responsive spirit.


You've seen her, bloom of the peach,
posture graceful as jade
breeze through willows and poplars
delicate arch of the eyebrows
pearl hoard in a dragon's cave
that shock of recognition
glimpsed in the mirror at state functions
happy among the chitchat
now changed to a somber dream
lost in mist on a rainy night
hating to hear the story
of bitter times and solitude
hills to the west, sunset
hills to the east, moonrise
and thoughts of loss
that are never going to end.


We used to hear about the south,
its splendid fresh appearance
now it's these eastern neighbors
these sisters three
up in the loft, inspecting their trousseaus
reciting a verse about parrots
sitting by blue-green windows
embroidering phoenix garments
their courtyard filled with colorful petals
like red smoke, billowing unevenly
their cups full of good green wine
tasted one by one
It's dreadful, staring into the mystic pond,
knowing you'll always be female
banished from heaven, stuck in this life,
unable to do what men do
a poet who happens to have some beauty,
ends up being compared
to a gorgeous woman who's silent—
that makes me feel ashamed
me, singing solo love songs
upon this vanishing zither
plucking the four strings softly
murmuring the words
facing my mirror and dressing table
to admire my black silk hair
as if I could rival the moon
by flaunting a white jade hairpin
A little cave among the pines
where dew drips down
the sky above the willows
a great net filled with mist
when you can be like the rain
your heart will have strength to go on
and you won't be afraid to blow the flute
before you've fully mastered it
my mother would get upset
because I talked to flowers
and my lover was from the past
a poet who came to me in dreams
The spirit makes fine, fresh verses
and then is broken
it's like watching a lovely young woman
give up her will to live
these gorgeous young creatures
who knows what they'll come to?
the clouds float north
the clouds float south.


SOURCE: Izumi Shikibu. "The Diary of Izumi Shikibu." In Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan, translated by Anne Sheply Omori and Kochi Doi, pp. 147-96. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920.

The following excerpt from the diary of Izumi Shikibu, a Japanese noblewoman of the early eleventh century, describes a clandestine love affair in the imperial court of Heian Japan.

Many months had passed in lamenting the World, more shadowy than a dream. Already the tenth day of the Deutzia month was over. A deeper shade lay under the trees and the grass on the embankment was greener. These changes, unnoticed by any, seemed beautiful to her, and while musing upon them a man stepped lightly along behind the hedge. She was idly curious, but when he came towards her she recognized the page of the late prince. He came at a sorrowful moment, so she said, "Is your coming not long delayed? To talk over the past was inclined." "Would it not have been presuming?—Forgive me—In mountain temples have been worshipping. To be without ties is sad, so wishing to take service again I went to Prince Sochi-no-miya."

"Excellent! that Prince is very elegant and is known to me. He cannot be as of yore?" [i.e. unmarried.] So she said, and he replied, "No, but he is very gracious. He asked me whether I ever visit you nowadays—'Yes, I do,' said I; then, breaking off this branch of tachibana flowers, His Highness replied, 'Give this to her, [see] how she will take it'. The Prince had in mind the old poem:

The scent of tachibana flowers in May
Recalls the perfumed sleeves of him who is no longer here.

So I have come—what shall I say to him?"

It was embarrassing to return an oral message through the page, and the Prince had not written; discontented, yet wishing to make some response, she wrote a poem and gave it to the page:

That scent, indeed, brings memories
But rather, to be reminded of that other,
Would hear the cuckoo's voice.

The Prince was on the veranda of his palace, and as the page approached him with important face, he led him into an inner room saying, "What is it?" The page presented the poem.

The Prince read it and wrote this answer:

The cuckoo sings on the same branch
With voice unchanged,
That shall you know.

His Highness gave this to the page and walked away, saying, "Tell it to no one, I might be thought amorous." The page brought the poem to the lady. Lovely it was, but it seemed wiser not to write too often [so did not answer].

On the day following his first letter this poem was sent:

To you I betrayed my heart
Alas! Confessing
Brings deeper grief,
Lamenting days.

Feeling was rootless, but being unlearned in loneliness, and attracted, she wrote an answer:

If you lament to-day
At this moment your heart
May feel for mine

For in sorrow
Months and days have worn away.



Buddhism as practiced in Japan and China … granted women areas of empowerment while at the same time treating them as subordinates, and portraying them as deceitful in much of the literature. Women went on pilgrimages to Buddhist temples, retreated to nunneries, sometimes gave public lectures, and led temple groups. Chinese Buddhism was at its height during the reign of Wu Zetian, who promoted the religion and even justified her rule by claiming she was a reincarnation of a previous female Buddhist saint. During Wu's reign, and throughout the early to mid Tang period, women enjoyed relatively high status and freedom. Lovely Tang Era paintings and statues depict women on horseback and as administrators, dancers, and musicians. Stories and poems, like those by the female poet Yu Xuanji, also attest to the openness of the period.

In contrast, Confucianism became the most pervasive doctrine to promote a belief in women's "natural place." Confucius himself did not directly denigrate women, although he placed them at the lower end of the patriarchal family structure. Through the ages, however, the belief that men and women had distinct social roles was based on Confucian hierarchical precepts. Prescriptive advice manuals like Lessons for GMs reinforced these lessons. Written by the female historian Ban Zhoa (Han Dynasty, ca. 45-120 c.e.), Lessons became one of China's most durable sources of advice about female behavior. One nugget tells women to "yield to others; let her put others first, herself last"

Reese, Lyn. "Teaching about Women in China and Japan: A Thematic Approach." Social Education 67, no. 1 (January-February 2003): 38-43.

He wrote often and she answered—sometimes—and felt her loneliness a little assuaged. Again she received a letter. After expressing feelings of great delicacy:

[I would] solace [you] with consoling words
If spoken in vain
No longer could be exchanged.

To talk with you about the departed one; how would it be [for you] to come in the evening unobtrusively?

Her answer:

As I hear of comfort I wish to talk with you, but being an uprooted person there is no hope of my standing upright. I am footless [meaning, I cannot go to you].

Thus she wrote, and His Highness decided to come as a private person.

It was still daylight, and he secretly called his servant Ukon-no-zo, who had usually been the medium by which the letters had reached the Prince, and said, "I am going somewhere." The man understood and made preparations.

His Highness came in an humble palanquin and made his page announce him. It was embarrassing. She did not know what to do; she could not pretend to be absent after having written him an answer that very day. It seemed too heartless to make him go back at once without entering. Thinking, "I will only talk to him," she placed a cushion by the west door on the veranda, and invited the Prince there. Was it because he was so much admired by the world that he seemed to her unusually fascinating? But this only increased her caution. While they were talking the moon shone out and it became uncomfortably bright.

He: "As I have been out of society and living in the shade, I am not used to such a bright place as this"—It was too embarrassing!—"Let me come in where you are sitting; I will not be rude as others are. You are not one to receive me often, are you?" "No indeed! What a strange idea! Only tonight we shall talk together I think; never again!" Thus lightly talking, the night advanced—"Shall we spend the night in this way?" he asked:

The night passes,
We dream no faintest dream

What shall remain to me of this summer night?


Thinking of the world
Sleeves wet with tears are my bed-fellows.
Calmly to dream sweet dreams

There is no night for that.

He: "I am not a person who can leave my house easily. You may think me rude, but my feeling for you grows ardent." And he crept into the room. Felt horribly embarrassed, but conversed together and at daybreak he returned.

Next day's letter:

In what way are you thinking about me? I feel anxiety—

To you it may be a commonplace to speak of love,
But my feeling this morning

To nothing can it be compared!

She answered:

Whether commonplace or not
Thoughts do not dwell upon it
For the first time [I] am caught in the toils.

O what a person! What has she done! So tenderly the late Prince spoke to her! She felt regret and her mind was not tranquil. Just then the page came. Awaited a letter, but there was none. It disappointed her; how much in love! When the page returned, a letter was given.

The letter:

Were my heart permitted even to feel the pain of waiting!
It may be to wait is lesser pain
To-night—not even to wait for

The Prince read it, and felt deep pity, yet there must be reserve [in going out at night]. His affection for his Princess is unusually light, but he may be thinking it would seem odd to leave home every night. Perhaps he will reserve himself until the mourning for the late Prince is over; it is a sign that his love is not deep. An answer came after nightfall.

Had she said she was waiting for me with all her heart,
Without rest towards the house of my beloved
Should I have been impelled!

When I think how lightly you may regard me!

Her answer:

Why should I think lightly of you?

I am a drop of dew
Hanging from a leaf
Yet I am not unrestful
For on this branch I seem to have existed
From before the birth of the world.

Please think of me as like the unstable dew which cannot even remain unless the leaf supports it.

His Highness received this letter. He wanted to come, but days passed without realizing his wish. On the moon-hidden day [last day of month] she wrote:

If to-day passes
Your muffled voice of April, O cuckoo
When can I hear?

She sent this poem, but as the Prince had many callers it could only reach him the next morning. His answer:

The cuckoo's song in spring is full of pain.
Listen and you will hear his song of summer
Full-throated from to-day.

And so he came at last, avoiding public attention. The lady was preparing herself for temple-going, and in the act of religious purification. Thinking that the rare visits of the Prince betrayed his indifference, and supposing that he had come only to show that he was not without sympathy, she continued the night absorbed in religious services, talking little with him.

In the morning the Prince said: "I have passed an extraordinary night"—

New is such feeling for me
We have been near,
Yet the night passed and our souls have not met.

And he added, "I am wretched."

She could feel his distress and was sorry for him; and said:

With endless sorrow my heart is weighted
And night after night is passed
Even without meeting of the eyelids.

For me this is not new.


SOURCE: Marie de France. "The Nightingale." In The Honeysuckle and the Hazel Tree: Medieval Stories of Men and Women, translated by Patricia Terry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Below is a translated reprint of Marie de France's twelfth-century lai titled "The Nightingale."

The story I shall tell today
Was taken from a Breton lai
Called Laüstic in Brittany,
Which in proper French would be
Rossignol. They'd call the tale
In English lands The Nightingale.
There was near Saint Malo a town
Of some importance and renown.
Two barons, who could well afford
Houses suited to a lord,
Gave the city its good name
By their benevolence and fame.
Only one of them had married.
His wife was beautiful indeed,
And courteous as she was fair:
A lady who was well aware
Of all that custom and rank required.
The younger knight was much admired,
Being, among his peers, foremost
In valor, and a gracious host.
He never refused a tournament,
And what he owned he gladly spent.
He loved his neighbor's wife. She knew
That all she heard of him was true,
And so she was inclined to be
Persuaded when she heard his plea.
Soon she had yielded all her heart,
Because of his merit and, in part, Because he lived not far away.
Fearful that others might betray
The love that they had come to share,
They always took the greatest care
Not to let anyone detect
Anything that might be suspect.
And it was easy enough to hide:
Their houses were almost side by side,
With nothing between the two at all
Except a single high stone wall.
The baron's wife had only to go
And stand beside her bedroom window
Whenever she wished to see her friend.
They would talk for hours on end
Across the wall; often they threw
Presents to one another too.
They were much happier than before
And would have asked for nothing more—
But lovers can't be satisfied
When love's true pleasure is denied.
The lady was watched too carefully
As soon as her friend was known to be
At home. But still they had the delight

Of seeing each other day or night
And talking to their hearts' content.
The strictest guard could not prevent
The lady from looking out her window;
What she saw there, no one could know.
Nothing came to interfere
With their true love, until one year,
In the season when the summer grows
Green in all the woods and meadows,
When birds to show their pleasure cling
To flower tops and sweetly sing;
Then those who were in love before
Do, in love's service, even more.
The knight, in truth, was all intent
On love; the messages he sent
Across the wall had such replies
From his lady's lips and from her eyes,
He knew that she felt just the same.
Now she very often came
To her window, lighted by the moon,
Leaving her husband's side as soon
As she knew that he was fast asleep.
Wrapped in a cloak, she went to keep
Watch with her lover, sure that he
Would be waiting for her faithfully.
To see each other was, despite
Their endless longing, great delight.
She went so often and remained
So long, her husband soon complained,
Insisting that she must reply
To where she went at night and why.
"I'll tell you, my lord," the lady answered;
"Anyone who has ever heard
The nightingale singing will admit
No joy on earth compares with it.
That's why I've been standing there.
When the sweet music fills the air,
I'm so delighted, I must arise;
I can't sleep, or even close my eyes."
The baron only answered her
With a malicious, raging laughter.
He wrought a plan that could not fail
To overcome the nightingale.
The household servants all were set
To making traps of cord or net;
Then, throughout the orchard, these
Were fixed to hazel and chestnut trees,
And all the branches rimmed with glue
So that the bird could not slip through.
It was not long before they brought
The nightingale; it had been caught
Alive. The baron, well content,
Took the bird to his wife's apartment.
"Where are you, lady? Come talk to me!"
He cried. ""I've something for you to see!
Look! Here is the bird whose song
Has kept you from your sleep so long.
Your nights will be more peaceful when
He can't awaken you again!"
She heard with sorrow and with dread
Everything her husband said,
Then asked him for the bird, and he
Killed it out of cruelty;
Vile as he was, for spite, he wrung
Its neck with his two hands and flung
The body at his wife. The red
Drops of blood ran down and spread
Over the bodice of her dress.
He left her alone with her distress.
Weeping, she held the bird and thought
With bitter rage of those who brought
The nightingale to death, betrayed
By all the hidden traps they laid.
"Alas!" she cried, "They have destroyed
The one great pleasure I enjoyed.
Now I can no longer go
To see my love outside my window
At night, the way I used to do!
One thing certainly is true:
He'll believe I no longer care.
I'll send the nightingale over there,
And a message that will make it clear
Why it is that I don't appear."
She found a piece of samite, gold-
Embroidered, large enough to fold
Around the body of the bird;
There was room for not another word.

Then she called one in her service
Whom she could entrust with this,
And told him exactly what to say
When he brought it to the chevalier.
Her lover came to understand
Everything, just as she planned.
The servant carried the little bird;
And soon enough the knight had heard
All that he so grieved to know.
His courteous answer was not slow.
He ordered made a little case,
Not of iron or any base
Metal but of fine gold, embossed
With jewels—he did not count the cost.
The cover was not too long or wide.
He placed the nightingale inside
And had the casket sealed with care;
He carried it with him everywhere.
Stories like this can't be controlled,
And it was very promptly told.
Breton poets made of the tale
A lai they called The Nightingale.


  1. Lines 49-51 Some have interpreted this passage to mean that the lady was watched when her husband was at home, but it seems more logical to assume that cil refers to the lover when he was at home, that is, not at tournaments.
  2. Line 138 The cloth was tut escrit, which could mean either that it was covered with the gold embroidery or that the message was written or depicted on it. In any case, there was an oral message as well, conveyed by the messenger.


SOURCE: Heloise. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, translated by Betty Radice. Hammondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1974.

In the following excerpts from her letters to Pierre Abelard, the twelfth-century nun Heloise (d. 1163/64) proclaims her love for the man who had seduced and secretly married her—a crime for which he was subsequently castrated.

God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.

For a man's worth does not depend on his wealth or power; these depend on fortune, but worth on his merits. And a woman should realize that if she marries a rich man more readily than a poor one, and desires her husband more for his possessions than for herself, she is offering herself for sale.

But if I lose you what is left for me to hope for? What reason for continuing on life's pilgrimage, for which I have no support but you, and none in you save the knowledge that you are alive, now that I am forbidden all other pleasures in you and denied even the joy of your presence which from time to time could restore me to myself?

For a long time my pretense deceived you, as it did many, so that you mistook hypocrisy for piety; and therefore you commend yourself to my prayers and ask me what I expect from you. I beg you, do not feel so sure of me that you cease to help me by your own prayers. Do not suppose me healthy and so withdraw the grace of your healing. Do not believe I want for nothing and delay helping me in the hour of my need. Do not think me strong, lest I fall before you can sustain me.…

I do not want you to exhort me to virtue and summon me to the fight, saying, "Power comes to its full strength in weakness" and "He cannot win a crown unless he has kept the rules." I do not seek a crown of victory; it is sufficient for me to avoid danger, and this is safer than engaging in war. In whatever corner of heaven God shall place me, I shall be satisfied. No one will envy another there, and what each one has will suffice.


SOURCE: Catherine of Siena. The Dialogue of the Seraphic Virgin Catherine of Siena, translated by Algar Thorold. Westminster, Md.: The Newman Bookshop, 1943.

In the following excerpted translation of Catherine of Siena's 1370 Dialogue of the Seraphic Virgin, originally published in 1907, Catherine describes the sufferings and ecstasies of the soul on its path toward blissful union with God.

How a soul, elevated by desire of the honor of God, and of the salvation of her neighbors, exercising herself in humble prayer, after she had seen the union of the soul, through love, with God, asked of God four requests.

The soul, who is lifted by a very great and yearning desire for the honor of God and the salvation of souls, begins by exercising herself, for a certain space of time, in the ordinary virtues, remaining in the cell of self-knowledge, in order to know better the goodness of God towards her. This she does because knowledge must precede love, and only when she has attained love, can she strive to follow and to clothe herself with the truth. But, in no way, does the creature receive such a taste of the truth, or so brilliant a light therefrom, as by means of humble and continuous prayer, founded on knowledge of herself and of God; because prayer, exercising her in the above way, unites with God the soul that follows the footprints of Christ Crucified, and thus, by desire and affection, and union of love, makes her another Himself. Christ would seem to have meant this, when He said: To him who will love Me and will observe My commandment, will I manifest Myself; and he shall be one thing with Me and I with him. In several places we find similar words, by which we can see that it is, indeed, through the effect of love, that the soul becomes another Himself. That this may be seen more clearly, I will mention what I remember having heard from a handmaid of God, namely, that, when she was lifted up in prayer, with great elevation of mind, God was not wont to conceal, from the eye of her intellect, the love which He had for His servants, but rather to manifest it; and, that among other things, He used to say: "Open the eye of your intellect, and gaze into Me, and you shall see the beauty of My rational creature. And look at those creatures who, among the beauties which I have given to the soul, creating her in My image and similitude, are clothed with the nuptial garment (that is, the garment of love), adorned with many virtues, by which they are united with Me through love. And yet I tell you, if you should ask Me, who these are, I should reply" (said the sweet and amorous Word of God) "they are another Myself, inasmuch as they have lost and denied their own will, and are clothed with Mine, are united to Mine, are conformed to Mine." It is therefore true, indeed, that the soul unites herself with God by the affection of love.

So, that soul, wishing to know and follow the truth more manfully, and lifting her desires first for herself—for she considered that a soul could not be of use, whether in doctrine, example, or prayer, to her neighbor, if she did not first profit herself, that is, if she did not acquire virtue in herself—addressed four requests to the Supreme and Eternal Father. The first was for herself; the second for the reformation of the Holy Church; the third a general prayer for the whole world, and in particular for the peace of Christians who rebel, with much lewdness and persecution, against the Holy Church; in the fourth and last, she besought the Divine Providence to provide for things in general, and in particular, for a certain case with which she was concerned.

How the desire of this soul grew when God showed her the neediness of the world.

This desire was great and continuous, but grew much more, when the First Truth showed her the neediness of the world, and in what a tempest of offense against God it lay. And she had understood this the better from a letter, which she had received from the spiritual Father of her soul, in which he explained to her the penalties and intolerable dolor caused by offenses against God, and the loss of souls, and the persecutions of Holy Church.

All this lighted the fire of her holy desire with grief for the offenses, and with the joy of the lively hope, with which she waited for God to provide against such great evils. And, since the soul seems, in such communion, sweetly to bind herself fast within herself and with God, and knows better His truth, inasmuch as the soul is then in God, and God in the soul, as the fish is in the sea, and the sea in the fish, she desired the arrival of the morning (for the morrow was a feast of Mary) in order to hear Mass. And, when the morning came, and the hour of the Mass, she sought with anxious desire her accustomed place; and, with a great knowledge of herself, being ashamed of her own imperfection, appearing to herself to be the cause of all the evil that was happening throughout the world, conceiving a hatred and displeasure against herself, and a feeling of holy justice, with which knowledge, hatred, and justice, she purified the stains which seemed to her to cover her guilty soul, she said: "O Eternal Father, I accuse myself before You, in order that You may punish me for my sins in this finite life, and, inasmuch as my sins are the cause of the sufferings which my neighbor must endure, I implore You, in Your kindness, to punish them in my person."

How finite works are not sufficient for punishment or recompense without the perpetual affection of love.



Caterina Benincasa was born in Siena, Italy, in 1347, and had her first vision of Christ smiling at her at the age of six or seven. At age fifteen, she began to actively reject the world and engage in strict self-denial that included little sleep, almost no food or water, binding her hips with an iron chain, and daily self-flagellation. Within a year, she joined the Dominican order in the congregation of the Sisters of Penance, and became well-known as a religious mystic and selfless caregiver to Siena's poor and sick. Her influence soon extended from caretaking to political action in support of the church, and she dictated letters to various political and church officials. Between 1377 and 1378 Catherine composed her well-known mystical work, which she simply called her "Book" but which has come to be known as Il dialogo della Divina Provvidenza ("dialogue of Divine Providence," or The Dialogue). In this work, she articulated more fully the mystical theology of love and service that was evident in her letters.

When her letters and prayers failed to resolve the Great Schism of the Catholic church (1378-1415), Catherine starved herself to death, hoping that her sacrifice would save the church. She died on April 29, 1380. In 1395, Catherine's confessor, Raymond of Capua, completed his biography of Catherine, Legenda major (The Life of Catherine of Siena, 1960), which was widely read and copied by others. In 1461, Catherine was declared a saint by Pope Pius II, and she is considered, with Saint Francis of Assisi, a patron saint of Italy. In 1970, Pope Paul VI declared Catherine to be a Doctor of the Church. She and Saint Teresa of Avila are the only women who have been granted this status.

Then, the Eternal Truth seized and drew more strongly to Himself her desire, doing as He did in the Old Testament, for when the sacrifice was offered to God, a fire descended and drew to Him the sacrifice that was acceptable to Him; so did the sweet Truth to that soul, in sending down the fire of the clemency of the Holy Spirit, seizing the sacrifice of desire that she made of herself, saying: "Do you not know, dear daughter, that all the sufferings, which the soul endures, or can endure, in this life, are insufficient to punish one smallest fault, because the offense, being done to Me, who am the Infinite Good, calls for an infinite satisfaction? However, I wish that you should know, that not all the pains that are given to men in this life are given as punishments, but as corrections, in order to chastise a son when he offends; though it is true that both the guilt and the penalty can be expiated by the desire of the soul, that is, by true contrition, not through the finite pain endured, but through the infinite desire; because God, who is infinite, wishes for infinite love and infinite grief. Infinite grief I wish from My creature in two ways: in one way, through her sorrow for her own sins, which she has committed against Me her Creator; in the other way, through her sorrow for the sins which she sees her neighbors commit against Me. Of such as these, inasmuch as they have infinite desire, that is, are joined to Me by an affection of love, and therefore grieve when they offend Me, or see Me offended, their every pain, whether spiritual or corporeal, from wherever it may come, receives infinite merit, and satisfies for a guilt which deserved an infinite penalty, although their works are finite and done in finite time; but, inasmuch as they possess the virtue of desire, and sustain their suffering with desire, and contrition, and infinite displeasure against their guilt, their pain is held worthy. Paul explained this when he said: If I had the tongues of angels, and if I knew the things of the future and gave my body to be burned, and have not love, it would be worth nothing to me. The glorious Apostle thus shows that finite works are not valid, either as punishment or recompense, without the condiment of the affection of love."


SOURCE: Birgitta of Sweden. "The Fifth Book of Revelations or Book of Questions" and "The Seventh Book of Questions." In Life and Selected Revelations, edited by Marguerite Tjader Harris, translated by Albert Ryle Kezel, pp. 99-156; 157-218. New York: Paulist Press, 1990.

In the following excerpt, originally written in the fourteenth-century, Saint Birgitta of Sweden relates portions of her mystic vision in which Christ and the Virgin Mary appeared before her and spoke. Christ begins on the subject of Birgitta's spiritual conversion, followed by Mary's admonition against priests marrying.

"For your heart was as cold toward my love as steel; and yet, in it there moved a modest spark of love for me, namely, when you thought me worthy of love and honor above all others. But that heart of yours then fell upon the sulpherous mountain when the glory and delight of the world turned against you and when your husband, whom you carnally loved beyond all others, was taken from you by death.…

And when at your husband's death your soul was greatly shaken with disturbance, then the spark of my love—which lay, as it were, hidden and enclosed—began to go forth, for, after considering the vanity of the world, you abandoned your whole will to me and and desired me above all things."

"O you to whom it has been given to hear and see spiritually, hear now the things that I want to reveal to you: namely, concerning that archbishop who said that if he were pope, he would give leave for all clerics and priests to contract marriages in the flesh. He thought and believed that this would be more acceptable to God than that clerics live dissolutely, as they now do. For he believed that through such marriage the greater carnal sins might be avoided; and even though he did not rightly understand God's will in this matter, nonetheless that same archbishop was still a friend of God.

But now I will tell you God's will in this matter; for I gave birth to God himself.…

For after he [Christ] instituted in the world this new sacrament of the eucharist and ascended into heaven, the ancient law was then still kept: namely, that Christian priests lived in carnal matrimony. And, nonetheless, many of them were still friends of God because they believed with simple purity that this was pleasing to God.…

After those earlier Christian priests had observed these practices for a time, God himself, through the infusion of his Holy Spirit, put into the heart of the pope then guiding the Church another law more acceptable and pleasing to him in this matter … so that he established a statute in the universal Church that Christian priests, who have so holy and so worthy an office, namely, of consecrating this precious Sacrament, should by no means live in the easily contaminated, carnal delight of marriage."

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Women and Women's Writings from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages: Primary Sources

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Women and Women's Writings from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages: Primary Sources