The Virgin Above the Writing in the First Vita of Douce 114
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 11 (1994)
Elizabeth of Spalbeek (d. 1316) has not attracted much critical attention among Anglo-American scholars. Her religious observances are neither as repulsive to modern sensibilities as Angela of Foligno’s, nor as fantastic as those of Christina Mirabilis, Elizabeth’s textual neighbor in the Middle English manuscript Oxford Bodley Douce 114. Caroline Walker Bynum and Valerie Lagorio have both referred to Elizabeth in passing, but for both scholars, Elizabeth is one of a group (albeit very different groups), noteworthy in so far as she provides additional exemplary evidence of medieval women who participated in identifiable trends of mystical practice. Bynum also gives some small attention to Philip of Clairvaux as Elizabeth of Spalbeek’s Latin biographer. For the most part, Bynum quotes or paraphrases Philip’s text (probably written in 1267), referring, as I will, to the only published version, “Vita Elizabeth sanctimonialis in Erkenrode, Ordinis Cisterciensis, Leodiensis dioecesis,” from the Bollandists (1886). In her footnotes, however, Bynum implies something about Philip’s attitude toward his subject: “Philip of Clairvaux calls Elizabeth of Spalbeek’s ecstasies imbecillitas.” The context of this comment and of its twin in an earlier footnote makes it clear that, on the basis of this word imbecillitas, Bynum thinks Philip considered Elizabeth “insane.” That other biographers shared this opinion about their subjects provides the basis for Bynum’s remark that “in the frenzy of trance or ecstasy, pious women sometimes mutilated themselves with knives, as Mary of Oignies did, or, like Beatrice of Nazareth and Elizabeth of Spalbeek, drove themselves to what they and their companions saw as ‘insanity’.