The Vita of Elizabeth of Spalbeek, a thirteenth century mystic and beguine from the diocese of Liège in the Low Countries, was written about 1267 by Philip of Clairvaux, who was then abbot at the Cistercian house and saw in Elisabeth the female replica of St. Francis of Assisi for her stigmata and her imitation of Christ’s Passion. The Vita of Elisabeth exists in only one manuscript: Bodleian Library, Douce 114, a fifteenth-century manuscript written in Middle English. The manuscript also contains the Vitae of two other Low Country beguines, Christina Mirabilis and Marie d’Oignies. Of the women whose vitae are represented in this manuscript, Elizabeth’s one was the most popular in England. Elisabeth was perhaps born in a noble family, and despite being a beguine, she did not live in a beguinage, but at home in the rural Spalbeek (Belgium) with her mother and sister (Simons, p. 135).
Jesse Njus, in his thesis mentioned below, argue that she provides an exceptional example of the spiritual networking described by scholars such as John Coakley and Anneke Mulder-Bakker. As they have shown, medieval holy women—recluses and anchorites included—functioned only within tightly woven spiritual networks that connected other mulieres religiosae, sympathetic clerics, and powerful nobles who provided economic and political support in return for the women’s prayers and spiritual authority. No one has analyzed Elisabeth’s network in this light in part because the chief source for her life—the text written by Abbot Philip of Clairvaux, who visited Elisabeth in 1266/7—omits the proper names of most people surrounding Elisabeth and fails to mention many of the people with whom she must have come in contact. In addition, major documents concerning Elisabeth have, until now, escaped any collective analysis. Through a painstaking review of all the pertinent documents, however, Jesse Njus succeeded in uncovering Elisabeth’s political and spiritual alliances, allowing him to study her in her milieu and to provide a detailed analysis of her possible secular and religious influence. He argues that she was actively engaged in building and extending her own network for this “politics of mysticism”. That has led this scholar to reinterpret her role in the last recorded event of her life, the French court battle between Queen Marie of Brabant and the chamberlain Pierre de la Broce.
Waler SIMONS and Jesse NJUS, The Politics of Mysticism: Elisabeth of Spalbeek in Context, Church History (2008), 77:285-317 Cambridge University Press
Walter SIMONS, Cities of Ladies. Beguine communities in the Medieval Low Countries. 1200-1565, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001