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Women and Mystical Experience in the Middle Ages.

Pp. vi + 174. Woodbridge, Suffolk and Rochester, NY: The Boydell Press, 1992. 29.50 [pounds].

THE women of the title are Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), Mechthild of Magdeburg (1210-97), and Julian of Norwich (1343-post-1416). All three had mystical visions, two of them, Hildegard and Mechthild from childhood, Julian from the age of thirty. All three minimize their achievements: a ~simple creature', a poor little woman' (Hildegard); ~poor and unworthy as I am' (Mechthild); ~a simple creature, unlettered' (Julian). This may be simply a modesty topos or, in Julian's case, confessing her limited knowledge of Latin. But otherwise they are very different. Hildegard eventually became abbess of the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg. Her interests included cosmology, physiology, theology, music, and painting. Her visions were authenticated by St Bernard and Pope Eugenius III, and she undertook her first preaching tour of the Rhineland when she was around sixty. Mechthild lived in Magdeburg as a beguine before moving to the Cistercian convent of Helfta in her early sixties. The Flowing Light of the Godhead was translated into Latin by the Dominican Heinrich of Halle, rescuing it, as he said, from the barbara lingua of its original Low German. It is written in prose and poetry, on loose sheets, and there is sometimes little apparent coherence, even within the same vision: whose was the final ordering? Julian's sixteen revelations probably occurred at home, although she eventually became an anchoress in Norwich. They survive in both the more immediate and personal Short Text of 1373 and an expanded Long Text of some twenty years later.

The core of Frances Beer's book is three long chapters, one on each writer. These give useful accounts of the contents of the works and more detailed examination of some of them. For example, she examines the six visions of Part I of Scivias, including number 3, the famous cosmic egg, and the vision of Ecclesia from Part II. She sees Hildegard as influenced by the Germanic comitatus tradition, with God as her commander and herself as faithful vassal. Certainly she was independent, sometimes intransigent, and some of the accompanying illustrations -- Synagogue or Ecclesia -- are of Amazonian proportions. Hildegard, in fact, is not so much a mystic as a visionary and prophet and her sexual imagery is procreative and not often erotic in nature. Yet Beer's tendency to personalize, sometimes to allegorize, occasionally gets the better of her: the egg ~serves as a kind of model for her own personal relationships', the yolk standing for her relationship to her creator, the tough shell for her ~political/administrative side which regularly and fearlessly challenged the male power structure' and the softer white for ~that aspect of herself that was bound up with her convent, the arena in which her whole emotional life took place' (47). With Mechthild we are in the early years of the friars and their settlement in Germany. Commentaries on the Song of Songs had also become more numerous. Consequently Mechthild makes explicit use of the language of erotic love as a means of describing the soul's relationship to God. Beer illustrates well her affective piety, with a good discussion of the ~mass of John the Baptist' and the way Mary is elevated to near-divine status. The Julian chapter concentrates on the Short Text, with nothing about (for example) the parable of the Lord and the Servant. The discussion of Julian's chapters on the motherhood of God is sensible and one of the best I have read. It might have been worth comparing Hildegard's constant questioning (~How is this so?' ~What does this mean?') with Julian's habit of circling round texts in order to probe their meaning and to examine how these shape their respective narrative strategies.

The book is certainly a useful introduction to these three mystical writers. Its weaknesses are, I think, two. It tries to make the whole progression too smooth, and this appears in the two transitional chapters. In ~From Warrior to Lover' do we need summaries of the Old English Juliana, Judith, and Elene and the later ~Katherine group'? They are, incidentally, works in English, bridging two writers who wrote in German. The second such chapter, ~Richard Rolle and the Yorkshire Nuns', is the Rolle of the English epistles only. Nicholas Watson's book probably appeared too late for use here, but Sarah Ogilvie-Thomson's EETS edition of 1988 should have been consulted. The second, and related, weakness is to speculate too much on the basis of, at best, inadequate evidence. Did Mechthild become a beguine to reject ~the distasteful privileges of class' (9) and later take refuge in Helfta ~harassed by ecclesiastical authorities' (6)? Do we know that Rolle was ~spiritual advisor to an entire community of nuns at Hampole' (113) and was he really ~anti-intellectual' (112, 118)? It is pleasant to imagine the young Julian being educated by the Benedictine nuns at Carrow and later borrowing books from the Augustinian house across the road from her anchorhold. The book is, however, well produced with remarkably few errors. The only serious one I noticed is Hertfordshire for Herefordshire on page 67. The sensitive and affectionate portrayal of these three mystics certainly counteracts the older view that such women were mad, bad, and dangerous to know.
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Author:Hussey, S.S.
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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