Award Date


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Anthropology


Anthropology and Ethnic Studies

First Committee Member

John J. Swetnam, Chair

Second Committee Member

George L. Urioste

Third Committee Member

Barbara J. Roth

Graduate Faculty Representative

Joseph A. Fry

Number of Pages



This dissertation explores the cultural and psychological factors that permitted six medieval female mystics to assume positions of leadership and innovation in a world marked by extreme gender inequality. Women religious have often been charged with being neurotics, hysterics, narcissists, and nymphomaniacs whereas males with similar experiences are rarely subject to the same degree of criticism. It is argued here that the women may well have been seeking to achieve the form of self-actualization described by humanist psychologist, Abraham Maslow, as a result of the "conversion" experience analyzed by William James. Furthermore, applying modern categories of mental illness to these women ignores the opinion of their contemporaries who felt that dedication to union with God was the ultimate form of social heroism.

This case study approach examines the lives of six women exemplars. Extended case studies include Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), Marguerite Porete (d.1310), and Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). The records of Joan of Arc (1412/13-1431), Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), and Madame Jeanne Guyon (1648-1717) are provided as comparative cases. The lives of these women span six hundred years and illustrate ways in which societal reaction to their revelations, doctrines and behaviors changed over time from high regard to suspicion or dismissal. This is a change that reflected major modifications in society as a whole wherein women suffered a general loss of power and prestige and monastic life-styles faded from the mainstream society.

Psychological explanations for the various phenomena of mysticism are of particular interest to this study in as much as they overlap the anthropologies of consciousness, psychology and religion. The dissertation examines the historical development of the fundamental cognitive concepts that influenced the lives of women mystics. Furthermore, each woman's life is assessed relative to the environmental, political, economic and religious factors with which they dealt. Emphasis is placed upon those cultural elements that may have provided motivation for their spiritual efforts and served as keys to their drive toward self-actualization. The importance given cultural factors clarifies the rationale for some of their behaviors that trouble modern students of religion and psychology.


Anthropology; Christian; Female mystics; Gender; Middle Ages; Mysticism – Social aspects; Philosophy; religion and theology; Self-actualization; Social sciences; Women mystics – Psychology


Anthropology | Medieval History | Religious Thought, Theology and Philosophy of Religion | Social and Cultural Anthropology

File Format


Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




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