When you study psychoanalytical writings by the philosopher and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (and also his scholars Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva), you will find references to mystic, medieval concepts of love. In his published seminar collection Encore (1975), for example, Lacan deals with the religious ecstasies of the holy Theresa of Avila and the enjoyment of God by the Dutch nun Hadewijch. For Lacan, these female mystics of medieval times represent femininity as the complementary opposite to male discourse of philosophy: the female enjoyment of the body is contrasted by the phallic male enjoyment of thinking.
But Lacan, transposing these concepts of love into his psychoanalysis, did not consider the historical background of medieval time. From the 12th-15th centuries, female enjoyment of the body meant receiving visions and miracles from God and being a “medium of God“. It meant to develop a bodily spirituality based on an existential and personal love relation with God. Religious women in general were expected by priests, monks and the clerics to be such “mediums of God“, but this expectation was also a strategy of female (self-)exposure; receiving ecstasies, visions and miracles indicated in the eyes of the general medieval population that the woman was God's “selected“ and “honoured“ servant.
Using this prestige, religious women could heavily influence politics and medieval mystic religious movements, which they have done since 1100. Regarding Lacans's understanding of those medieval religious women, he does not see their (self-)exposure to be a “medium of God“ as their strategy to gain more influence in the world and to construct their own mystic female identity. Nuns and monks during this time were expected to unify themselves with God as their spiritual lover—a kind of symbolic marriage.
This spiritual practice, called the unio mystica, was different between female and male spirituals, which raises this question: was the way of communicating with God the same for both sexes? This question concerns the social differences between the sexes. Women were not allowed to become priests or hold other similar positions in the medieval church. They were considered, as the medievalist Caroline Walker Bynum puts it, “typical laities“: as mediums, they occupied themselves with bringing the body into account to meet the spirit of God.
Monks Believed Hildegard of Bingen “Words From God“
To achieve a mystical enjoyment of God, Lacan thinks that female mystics were under pressure to extol ignorance, to abandon whatever knowledge they possessed. To him, receiving God in a physical way (having ecstasies, etc.) excludes having knowledge. Considering this conclusion, we must recognise what the mystic and abbess Hildegard von Bingen says about this issue—and we find a hint wherefrom Lacan possibly took his ideas: Hildegard of Bingen calls herself explicitly and intentionally indocta, meaning “ignorant“, “brainless“ and “illiterate“.
Although she had a rich and profound education reading the Bible and the writings of the fathers of the church, she wanted to appear ignorant. Being ignorant and brainless meant she could be a perfect medium of God, receiving only what she heard and saw without adding anything of her own. It was her strategy to use the social female role of physical reception to be a medium of God. Once, for example, she had a vision from God showing her the exact place for a new women's monastery. The monks believed her “words from God“ and agreed to construct this building, where Hildegard of Bingen later became abbess.
Proof of the Establishment of A Female Identity
Seeing the female only as a foil to male discourse, like Lacan does, is echoed in Lacan's controversial sentence: “La femme n'existe pas“ (1970-71). The gap in Lacan's psychoanalyst theory—not to conceptualise female identity—is criticised by the former scholar of Lacan and feminist Luce Irigaray. Irigaray's idea is to establish a female identity and position, which she thinks to find in the concept of being a medium of God. In Speculum de l'autre femme (1974), she points to distinctive mystical language describing the unio mystica as proof of the establishment of a female identity.
Both Irigaray and Lacan idealise the mystic, medieval love concepts without reflecting on the social and historical context of medieval time. Receiving God in a physical way through mystic visions and ectasies was, on the one side, expected of female mystics by the clerics, but on the other side it was a chance for women to establish their own position and develop their own identity. In both cases those mystic practices were a result of gender difference and social power relations. The phrase “I believe in female enjoyment“ thus becomes Lacan's credo and not a reward of female (self-) exposure based on body practices of identity.