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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: April 2020

7 - Walking in Grandmothers’ Footsteps: Mary Ward and the Medieval Spiritual and Intellectual Heritage


Mary Ward was born in Yorkshire in 1585 and died during the English Civil War in 1645, but her life's trajectory so clearly bridges the world of medieval and early modern women that she needs no apology for appearing in this collection of essays. Connecting Mary Ward and the medieval spiritual and intellectual heritage is a matter of circumstantial evidence, since she makes little or no reference to books or writers other than the Scriptures, the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and Lorenzo Scupoli's Spiritual Combat. Nevertheless Thomas a Kempis and the Devotio Moderna underlie Mary's spiritual perspective as they do that of Ignatius of Loyola. James Walsh, one of Julian of Norwich's foremost twentieth-century editors, also edited Mary Ward and detects within her writing, as in Julian’s, the language and rhythms of the Latin Vulgate as well as a rhetoric expressive of the theology and spirituality of the monasticism of the Late Middle Ages. He underlines Mary's conviction that a love of learning is as indispensable as holiness for candidates to the new religious congregation she founded, but maintains that her own “Third Instruction” to her sisters is more reminiscent of Thomas a Kempis’ views on learning. Like Thomas she claims that women can achieve a “true knowledge and right understanding,” without the learning that is the privilege of men, through the infused gift of a love of truth for the sake of God, who is Truth itself. Here and elsewhere she acknowledges the intellectual capacity of women while pointing to an aptitude for spiritual leadership greater than the learning of those men who “practis not what they know nor perform what they preach”.

Additionally, we know that Julian's Revelations were printed and propagated in seventeenth-century England within a recusant network with which Mary was closely connected. Her access to a copied manuscript must remain a matter of conjecture, but the dramatis personae behind Serenus Cressy's 1670 edition of Julian reads like a roll call of Mary's family and close collaborators.