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Xenoglossia as a Means of Comfort to Women in the Middle Ages
Paul the Apostle by Bartolomeo Montagna
Definitions & Background
Many miracles were performed during the medieval ages among Christians who were expanding the Church. One of these miracles was that of speaking in tongues. While commonly thought of as a feature of modern day Pentecostal or charismatic denominations, both men and women of the medieval Catholic Church experienced this gift of the Spirit. This paper explores the role of one form of speaking in tongues by women of the Middle Ages.
Xenoglossia and glossolalia are both familiar miracles and gifts with biblical reference that occurred in the Medieval European Church. Xenoglossia – the sudden, spontaneous, and miraculous ability to speak, understand, read, or write a foreign language --is represented in Acts 2, when the apostles in the upper room experience speaking in tongues on the day of Pentecost. According to the scripture, the apostles miraculously began speaking in tongues. The raucous noise drew a crowd of “God fearing Jews from every nation under Heaven.” Despite the language barrier among the crowd and the Galilean apostles, each crowd member understood what was being said in his own language. 1
Glossolalia, the act of speaking in an incomprehensible language, is the experience modernly referred to as speaking in tongues. Since the apostles in Acts 2 were comprehended by members of the crowd, the example they provide of speaking in tongues is not glossolalia. This different type of speaking in tongues is referred to by Paul in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 14. In verse 2, he explains that one who speaks in tongues does not speak to people, but to God by uttering mysteries of the Spirit..2
While addressing the act of speaking in tongues, Paul goes on to set forth rules for doing so. One might argue that if glossolalia was a gift from God, it would be at His control and not under human command; but Paul’s choice to address it implies a need to do so. Perhaps this style of individual, incomprehensible, and easy-to-imitate form of speaking in tongues was simply disrupting the congregation and preventing the sharing of God’s word. Paul explains that merely speaking in incomprehensible language is not pious if it offers no enlightenment to the congregation, implying that many in the congregation must be doing just that. Rules, then, were necessary to control speaking in tongues during the age of the apostles. Verse 34 states that all women should be quiet in the church. They should not speak in tongues, prophesy, or ask questions there. Instead, they should be in submission to men, saving their questions to be asked at home. While Paul’s rules for orderly worship seem to exclude women, he brings them back as active participants in Christianity just five verses later. Verses 39 and 40 say, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” So, Paul does not completely restrict women from speaking in tongues or prophesying or any other of the gifts of the Spirit. He just promotes order in the church that omits female participation there.3
Despite Paul’s instruction for Christians not to forbid speaking in tongues, both forms of the gift of the Spirit seemed to disappear inexplicably for some time. Perhaps no mention was made of glossolalia simply because it was a private, individual communication with God rather than performed as interpersonal communication. Whatever the reason, Saint John Chrysostom (345-407) and Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) claimed the notion of speaking in tongues was obscure in their era. Yet the act of xenoglossia was recorded again, centuries later, in the medieval Catholic Church. A book called The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi suggests that speaking in tongues was revived by Saint Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) when he preached a sermon before the pope, cardinals, and many men from various nations. He was timid and quiet at first, but once he began preaching, Saint Anthony became very charismatic. When he spoke his own native tongue, every man in the building understood the sermon clearly in his own language– an example of miraculous xenoglossia. Saint Anthony’s gift allowed him to attract crowds as large as 30,000 people, proving that xenoglossia – for men at least – was to be used for preaching and gaining converts.4
Like Saint Anthony, many other men who preached the Gospel were said to have received the gift of understood language. St. Dominic (1170-1221), founder of the Dominican Order, was given the gift of tongues along with Friar Bertrand to communicate with Germans during their journey to Paris. Saint Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419) converted tens of thousands of Muslims and Jews even though he was not bilingual. Equally as important, a diverse Genoa crowd to which Saint Vincent preached in 1405 included women and children. Their presence along with his gift of the Spirit allowed them to hear the Word of God in their own language despite their lack of education or literacy.5
Medieval Women’s Xenoglossia
The first part of Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians allowed women of the medieval Church to have the opportunity for xenoglossia, but did not seem to present an opportunity in which to use the gift. After all, women could not speak in church. Women of the Middle Ages did indeed have xenoglossic experiences, though. Women were very involved in the Christian movement of the medieval Church -- some as nuns and some as pilgrims on the path to developing a deeper personal relationship with God. Their devotion and piety put them in the perfect position to experience xenoglossia for the benefit of growing the church and winning converts, too; but their gift was rarely used in that function.
Women reported to have the experience of xenoglossia in the Middle Ages are much less common than reports of their male contemporaries, and the incidents occur on a much smaller scale. Christine Cooper-Rompato suggests that the act of being pious, thus strictly adhering to Paul’s instruction to be submissive in the church, kept women from reporting their xenoglossic experiences. Christina Marabilis (1150-1224) was one of these women. She was illiterate, but understood Latin and scripture. She refused to answer questions about scripture, however, because she wanted to obey the command to be submissive. Her xenoglossia gave her comfort. She did not share her knowledge gained through her miraculous understanding of Latin because she was honoring her role as submissive and quiet in church. 6
Not all medieval women kept their xenoglossic experiences quiet like Marabilis. One outspoken woman of the era, Margery Kempe (c.1373-1438), claimed to have been afraid of being labeled as a Lollard or other heretic for her behavior. The English Church worried that the Lollards, extremists who caused disruptions in churches, would build a following on their platform against the increasing pride and wealth of the clergy. As a woman entranced or speaking in tongues – or speaking at all for that matter – Margery would have certainly been a church disruption. 8
Hoping that documenting her xenoglossic experience would give her credibility, Kempe worked with scribes to record the story of her life, the first known autobiography written in the English language. Additionally, her book provides insight into a woman’s life as she worked for piety in the Middle Ages. Margery’s autobiography outlines her visions and describes her ability for miraculous translation through intercessory prayer. She recounts two xenoglossic miracles in her own life. First, she prays for a priest to gain the understanding of the part of her book that has already been transcribed. Since she was illiterate, she had someone else write her story. The first writer recorded her details in very poor English vernacular. The priest she sought to complete the story, however, could not read the vernacular. She and the priest pray about the situation a lot, and the priest one day discovers that he is suddenly able to read and translate the book. Her second xenoglossic activity occurs while Margery is on a pilgrimage. Her attempts to find a confessor lead her to a German priest. After thirteen days of prayer she and the German priest are able to understand each other. The miracle is specific to Margery and the priest, however, because he cannot understand anyone else’s English. 9
The xenoglossic miracles of translation that Margery outlined were very important to her. Of the two, she was most proud of her confession to the German-speaking priest. This example of her ability to understand and be understood was significant because Margery was a highly misunderstood person. For Kempe, the ability to speak in tongues comforted her, giving her reassurance of her own visions and other religious experiences. To the public, her miraculous xenoglossia gave credibility to what often appeared to be crazy antics or acts of heresy.Her fit-resembling religious trances and episodes of being slain in the Spirit (a seemingly unconscious state) were disruptive demonstrations in the medieval Church. Unlike most women of the era, she was so aggressive in her search for piety that she was often viewed as a lunatic or worse – a Lollard.
Saint Collette of Corbie (1381-1447) was another woman who had the gift of xenoglossia. When the group of nuns with whom Sister Collette was traveling came into the presence of armed men, she was able to talk with them despite not knowing their language. Her xenoglossic experience comforted her group in their time of need and may have very well saved their lives.
Saint Clare of Montefalco (1228-1308) was able to miraculously speak and understand French to talk with another woman who sought solace at the convent.Saint Lutgard (1182-1246) also received the gift of French in a crisis. Her gift is seen as a double miracle because of an unusual circumstance.
Sister Lutgard did not want to be transferred to a position in another locale where she would have to speak French. She prayed for inability to learn the language. Her prayer was answered and she was only able to speak enough French to beg for a piece of bread. Over the next 40 years, her French simply did not improve; yet when a French-speaking woman arrived in need of consolation, Lutgard was able to speak and understand her.
Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a German Benedictine nun, was gifted with a different form of xenoglossia. Despite being illiterate in Latin, she was able to write it. Her written translations about visions encouraged many others.
Saint Elisabeth of Schonau (1129-1165) was another German Benedictine nun who had the gift of Latin in speech. She received visions and often reported them in Latin. The accuracy of the Latin miraculously reinforced the truth of her visions. 10
While we have no way of knowing today how many medieval women did speak in tongues, we do know that some did. Scripturally, women were not permitted to speak in church, which was not so different from the medieval female archetype.
The Medieval Female Archetype
Medieval society was very male-oriented. Women were limited to jobs that society deemed appropriate. Any job the medieval woman had outside the home would have been in addition to her family care-giving responsibilities. The ten percent of women who were fortunate enough to live in town would have been permitted to have jobs such as sewing or weaving.Despite having a craft, they were denied membership to the town’s guilds because of their gender. The majority of women lived in rural areas; so they were involved with work on the family farm. Working for another farm would have earned them wages lower than men who performed the same job. 11
In addition to pay inequality, the medieval male-dominated society restricted business and land ownership possibilities for women. Special permission had to be granted for a woman to own a business. Women could not inherit any part of their parents’ land if they had living brothers. They did not marry without the parents’ consent and in some instances, marriages were arranged for them. Girls from wealthy families married sooner than those who lived in poverty, mainly because the poor families needed to keep as many children as possible working on their farm. Many poor women died before reaching age forty. No matter what the socio-economic position was for the medieval woman, her main priority was tending to her family’s needs – physical, emotional, and often financial. 12
Conclusion: The Gift Fits the Archetype
Given the medieval female archetype, Paul’s exclusion of women from actively participating in church activities would have complied exactly with the societal norm of the period. By today’s American standards, the scripture seems prejudiced. Despite today’s view of this as gender-based discrimination, medieval women did have the same opportunity as men to experience xenoglossia; only the purpose for it differed. Women used xenoglossia to maintain the characteristics that were the accepted norm for them.They were expected to be comforting and nurturing, an archetype – or stereotype depending on one’s personal view -- that lingers to some degree with females today.
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Notes & Sources
1. Christine Cooper Rompato, The Gift of Tongues: Women's Xenoglossia in the Later Middle Ages, (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 1; and Bible Gateweay Online, “Acts Chapter 2,” (New International Version), http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=acts%202&version=NIV.
2. Bible Gateway Online, “1 Corinthians, Chapter 14,”http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20corinthians%2014&version=NIV.
4. Christine F. Cooper, “Miraculous Translation in The Book of Margery Kempe,” (University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 272-273; and T.W. Arnold, ed.,The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, (London: Matto and Windus, 1953), 111-115.
5. Cooper, 276-277.
6. Cooper, 284.
7. Margery Kemp, The Book of Margery Kempe, (New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1944). The author draws this conclusion based on her understanding of the book.
9. Cooper, 271.
10. Cooper, 278-281; and Elizabeth Hallam, ed., Saints: Who They Are and How They Help You (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994). In addition to Cooper’s notes, Saints offers comprehensive data about saints of the Catholic Church.
11. Chris Trueman, “Medieval Women,” History Learning Site, http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/medieval_women.htm.
Arnold, T.W., ed, The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi, London: Matto and Windus, 1953.
Bible Gateway Online, “1 Corinthians, Chapter 14,” (New International Version),
Bible Gateweay Online, “Acts Chapter 2,” (New International Version), http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=acts%202&version=NIV.
Cooper, ChristineF.,“Miraculous Translation in The Book of Margery Kempe,” University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Hallam, Elizabeth, ed., Saints: Who They Are and How They Help You, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.
Kempe, Margery, The Book of Margery Kempe, New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1944.
Rompato, Christine Cooper, The Gift of Tongues: Women's Xenoglossia in the Later Middle Ages, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010.
Trueman, Chris, “Medieval Women,” History Learning Site, http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/medieval_women.htm.