Imitating Jesus in the Middle Ages
How an ordinary 12th century woman ruffled feathers by following Jesus, and inspires us to do the same

Five and a half years ago, Dr. Jonathan Juilfs visited Redeemer’s campus for the first time, interviewing for a tenure-track position in the English department. “I sat in former President Hubert Krygsman’s office,” Juilfs recalls, “and was asked a simple but direct question: ‘How does an Evangelical Christian find his way into the complex scholarly world of Medieval Studies? How does a Protestant Christian come to invest nearly 15 years of his academic reading in the primary texts, literary or otherwise, of the Catholic Middle Ages?’”

The answer to that question is, of course, complex, but Juilfs sums it up this way. “This fuels my own obsessions with great literature: reading, as a medium for learning about all aspects of human experience, is a gateway to knowing God. Literature unveils to the courageous soul both the problem of humanity (i.e. sin and human corruption) as well as its yearned-for resolution in Jesus’ redemptive work in time and history.”

“Reading, as a medium for learning about all aspects of human experience, is a gateway to knowing God.”

This November, Juilfs showcased the particular medieval text and the courageous woman whose life it concerns that has absorbed a great deal of his scholarly attention for the last ten years. A crowd of students, faculty of all disciplines and community members gathered to hear Dr. Jonathan Juilfs present his research on 12th century noblewoman Christina of Markyate. The tenure colloquium was a milestone in Juilfs’ career and an opportunity to explore the lives and spiritual interests of pre-modern Christians, which are not so dissimilar from those of postmodern Christians.

The story of Christina of Markyate is a window onto the complex challenges that medieval women faced in pursuing a religious life fully and wholly devoted to Jesus Christ. As an Anglo-Saxon (English) noblewoman, Christina was expected by her culture, clergy and family to marry, raise children and maintain a household. Christina, much to the chagrin of those around her, committed herself to the spiritual vocation of a recluse, figuratively dying to the world and pursuing a life of sustained prayer and contemplation with God. Christina’s desire for a life completely devoted to relationship with Jesus, in an overtly Christian environment, was against the grain of cultural expectations. “However, in spite of these social, familial, and ecclesiastical obstacles, women like Christina demonstrate how, with courage and perseverance, women can and have successfully carved out spaces of religious pursuit,” Juilfs reflects, “wherein they can grow, thrive and ultimately bless larger communities with their spiritual gifts.”

The Long 12th Century is a historical balance point, from which striking and fundamental changes took place in medieval peoples’ daily lives. This is the century that ushers the medieval West into the infancy of a modern world. It is this period that sets the stage for lay women, not cloistered but caught up as wives, mothers and daughters, to pursue apostolic lives. Here, we pick up the story of Christina of Markyate.

Christina’s life is recorded for us in a fourteenth-century manuscript, called Cotton MS Tiberius E.1 and housed by the British Library. It is part of a genre known as hagiography or “writings about the saints.” The manuscript collects these saints’ lives in chronological order according to the Church calendar year. Christina’s story was one of five added on to the original manuscript.

But we nearly lost her story. The manuscript was badly damaged in a London house fire in 1731. In the 1950s, Prof. C. H. Talbot pored over Christina’s story, recovering lines through ultraviolet-light photography and, when such technology could help no further, conjuring up his own expert knowledge of Latin to fill in what was missing.

“Like Christina, we rely on Scripture and on the counsel and example of wise Christians to help us uncover our vocations.”

But Christina’s life was not only important to academics in the ‘50s. The surviving accounts of Christina’s life gives us a look into the spiritual interests of her community and of medieval society at large. In these accounts, readers could discover in their own lives how they may imitate the saints and, by extension, Jesus. Latin-literate clergy included saints in their sermon material throughout the church calendar year, as a means of discipling their congregants, who were not pursuing overt lives of sanctity like nuns, monks and priests.

While post-Reformation Protestant pastors may not use saints as their sermon examples, we can read in Christina’s life “how many familial and communal pressures may come into deep and lasting conflict with our attempts to live out our callings,” says Juilfs. “Like Christina, we rely on Scripture and on the counsel and example of wise Christians to help us uncover our vocations.”

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