While I’m away from my blog doing my tour, I’m pleased to welcome Sandra Byrd as my guest poster! Sandra is the author of The Secret Keeper, a new novel about Juliana St. John, a young woman with the gift of prophecy who joins the court of Katherine Parr. I’ve downloaded The Secret Keeper to Mr. Kindle, and it looks great! Anyway, here’s Sandra!
Six women in the Bible are expressly stated as possessing the title of prophetess: Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Noahdiah and Isaiah’s wife. Philip is mentioned in Acts as having four daughters who prophesied which brings the number of known prophetesses to ten. There is no reason to believe that there weren’t thousands more, undocumented throughout history, then and now. According to religious tradition, women have often been powerful seers and that is why I’ve included them in my current novel: The Secret Keeper: A Novel of Kateryn Parr.
Hundreds of years before the renaissance, which would bring about improved education for women, Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) wrote medicinal texts and composed music. She also oversaw the illumination of many manuscripts and wrote lengthy theological treatises. But what she is best known for, and was beatified for, were her visions.
Hildegard said that she first saw “The Shade of the Living Light” at the age of three, and by the age of five she began to understand that she was experiencing visions. Although she was understandably reluctant to share her visions she continued to receive them, understanding them to be from God and, in her forties, was instructed by Him to write them down. She said, ” I set my hand to the writing. While I was doing it, I sensed, as I mentioned before, the deep profundity of scriptural exposition… I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of my heart or that of any other person, but as by the secret mysteries of God I heard and received them in the heavenly places. And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, ‘Cry out therefore, and write thus!”
Spiritual gifting is not given for the edification of the person receiving it, but for the church at large. Hildegard wrote three volumes of her mystical visions, and then exegeted them biblically herself. Her theology was not, as one might expect, shunned by the church establishment of the time, but instead Pope Eugenius III gave her work his approval and she was published in Paris in 1513.
Several centuries later, Julian of Norwich continued Hildegard’s tradition as a seer, a mystic, and a writer. In her early thirties, Julian had a series of visions which she claimed came from Jesus Christ. In them, she felt His deep love and had a desire to transmit that He desired to be known as a God of joy and compassion and not duty and judgment. Her book, Revelations of Divine Love, is said to be the first book written in the English language by a woman. She was well known as a mystic and a spiritual director by both men and women. The message of love and joy that she delivered is still celebrated today; she has feast days in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions.
It had been for good cause that Hildegard and Julian kept their visions to themselves for a time. Visions were not widely accepted by society as a whole, and women in particular were often accused of witchcraft. This risk was perhaps an even stronger danger in sixteenth and seventeenth century England when “witch hunts” were common. While there is no doubt that there was a real and legitimate practice of witchcraft occurring in some places, the fear of it whipped up suspicion where no actual witchcraft was found. Henry the VIII, after imprisoning Anne Boleyn, proclaimed to his illegitimate son, among others, that they were all lucky to have escaped Anne’s witchcraft. The evidence? So obviously bewitching him away from his “good” judgment.
In that century, the smallest sign, imagined or not, could be used to indict a “witch”. A gift handling herbs? Witchcraft. An unrestrained tongue? Witchcraft. Floating rather than sinking when placed in a body of water when accused of witchcraft and therefore tested? Guilty for sure. Women with “suspicious” spiritual gifts, including dreams and visions, had to be particularly careful. And yet they, like Hildegard and Julian before them, had been given just such a gift to share with others. And share they must.
One women in the court of Queen Kateryn Parr is strongly believed to have had a gift of prophecy. Her name was Anne Calthorpe, the Countess of Sussex. One source possibly hinting at such a gift can be found at Kathy Emerson’s terrific webpage of Tudor women: Emerson says that Calthorpe, “was at court when Katherine Parr was queen and shared her evangelical beliefs. Along with other ladies at court, she was implicated in the heresy of Anne Askew. In 1549 she was examined by a commission “for errors in scripture” and that “the Privy Council imprisoned two men, Hartlepoole and Clarke, for “lewd prophesies and other slanderous matters” touching the king and the council. Hartlepoole’s wife and the countess of Sussex were jailed as “a lesson to beware of sorcery.”
According to religious tradition women have often had very active prophetic gifts; we are mystical, engaging, and intuitive. I admire our sisters throughout history who actively, risk-takingly, used their intellectual and spiritual gifts with whatever power they had at hand.
 Bennett, Judith M. and Hollister, Warren C. Medieval Europe: A Short History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 317.
 Hildegard von Bingen, Scivias, trans. by Columba Hart and Jane Bishop with an Introduction by Barbara J. Newman, and Preface by Caroline Walker Bynum (New York: Paulist Press, 1990) 60–61.