'Saint Hysteria?': The Tumultuous Aura of (Modern) Medieval Texts 'Christina Mirabilis' and 'Penny Dreadful'

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentationResearch


What is the difference between being ‘sane’ and being ‘sacred’? Between demonic possession and divine prophecy? Could a possessed person be sacred, become a saint? What do these terms even mean or signify? The entanglements of these questions underline the centuries long debate between supernatural influence and mental illness, wherein the demarcating line between the two is nearly non-existent as both are provocations beyond an established ‘norm’ while simultaneously in some way or another ‘exceptional’, outside of. Using a transhistorical approach, I propose placing two women beside one another, Saint Christina Mirabilis (1150–1224) and Vanessa Ives from the late-nineteenth era set Showtime series Penny Dreadful (2014–2016) to investigate the tensions and overlaps between ‘sanctity’ and ‘sanity’ where the entanglement of self, body, and emotion is perhaps most pervasive. I compare these two women who are separated by centuries because I believe that their narratives illuminate and complement one another in subject, theme, and intent. Both women emotionally and physically suffer, their bodies and selves the terrible tangible locus of their marked status as ‘Other’, be it as monstrous/demonic, sacred, and/or insane or hysterical by their peers--and sometimes themselves. I contend that using a contemporary fictional figure who presents the sanctity/sanity and possessed/divine dilemma as an analogue or ‘sacred sister’ to the medieval saint, wherein the difficult task of attempting understand (if not define) mystical behaviour may not be explained, but at least illuminated.
Period6 Jul 2023
Event titleLeeds International Medieval Congress
Event typeConference
LocationLeeds, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • hagiography
  • hysteria
  • gender
  • violence