Eckenstein, Lina, d. 1931 / Woman under monasticism: chapters on saint-lore and convent life between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500 (1896)
[chapter ix][p. 305]
EARLY MYSTIC LITERATURE.
| 'Die tumpheit behaget ir alleine seibe,|
die weisheit kan niemer volle leren.' (Mechthild the beguine.)
Mystic writings for women in England.
THE last chapter, in dealing with some of the women who distinguished themselves in the cause of charity and philanthropy, has suggested in what direction the determining feature of the religious life of women in the 13th century must be sought. Outward events, stirring political changes, and awakening confidence in national strength, had largely increased human sympathies and widened the mental horizon. In regard to women, who sought their vocation outside the circle of home, this had led on the one hand to efforts for alleviating human want and human suffering, on the other to a stirring of the imagination in the direction of speculation on the value and the help afforded by religious belief.
The different beauties of the active and the contemplative life had all along been realized, and were currently represented by the figures of Mary and Martha, types of divergent tendencies which were attractive in different ways. The busy Martha with her charitable devotion was the ideal of many women, since rescuing the needy, assisting the helpless, and ministering to the sick constituted the vocation of women in a special sense. But a peculiar charm of a different kind hung at all times round the thoughtful and studious Mary, who set the claims and realities of life at nought compared with the greater reality of the eternal [p. 306] life hereafter. At the beginning of the 13th century, when the increase in religious enthusiasm deepened yearnings for the apprehension of the divine, men in their individual capacities began to seek a personal and closer communion with God. The absorption by things spiritual as contrasted with things material took a new departure. On one side was the learned thinker who, trained in the knowledge of the schools, sought to fathom his own powers and through them the powers of mankind so as to transcend the limits of sensible existence, and who gave a new development to mysticism in its technical sense. On the other side was the large number of those who, no longer satisfied with the mediation of appointed ministers of the Church, sought a personal relation to God, the effect of which on themselves would be moral regeneration. It was in connection with these that a number of writings were composed which represent mysticism in its popular sense: the steps by which the divine can be approached, set forth under the form of an allegory.
The allegorical mysticism of the Middle Ages culminates in Dante (1260--1321). It is well to bear this in mind in the presence of minor lights. For while there is much that is strangely fascinating in the 13th century mystic, and touches of simple good faith and of honest directness of purpose abound, the conditions under which he works and the language in which he expresses himself cannot pass without criticism. Cloistered seclusion, estrangement from the outside world, the cult of asceticism, and insistence on the emotional side of life, if judged by the standard of to-day, are not conducive to mental and moral welfare. Moreover a later age always finds it difficult to understand that an earlier one had its own notions in regard to the fitness and beauty of the surroundings it made for itself. But productive genius at all times freely makes for itself surroundings that cannot be called absolutely healthy. It needs a certain effort to realise on what ground the 13th century mystic stands. But when once we are able to follow him, moving in his world is like walking in an enchanted garden, --enchanted to us, but real to him, where each growing sentiment and each budding thought has its peculiar charm.
It is the same with regard to the language in which the mystic expresses himself The close communion he seeks with the Godhead leads him to use terms which are directly adopted from those which express the experiences and feelings of ordinary life. There is in him no shrinking from holding God and the saints [p. 307] as personalities, and no hesitation in expressing desire for things spiritual in language currently used for expressing the promptings of desire for things of this world; for he is a realist in the view he takes of God and the saints. The old interpretation of the Song of Solomon supplied him with a model after which to form his conceptions, and by a further adaptation it led every nun to greet her bridegroom in Christ and every monk to greet his bride in the Virgin. Outside the convent the age of romance had brought a new element into the relations of the sexes and had accepted years of service and continued wooing as the steps which led to the consummation of desire. This idea transferred to spiritual relations now caused the mystic to dwell on the steps by which the Divine can be approached. The poetry of romance and the poetry of mysticism have much in common; both appear to have been the outcome of the same sentiments differently applied in convent and court. And as the language of real life made it possible for the mystic to formulate his feelings, so his religious aspirations in their turn helped to spiritualise the relations of real life.
It deserves special attention that some of the writings of these early mystics are in the vernacular and include some of the most beautiful productions in Middle English and in early German. Their philological interest has recently led to their publication, but their social importance is equally great. For in them we see how the high estimation of virgin purity, which was in the fore-ground of the moral consciousness of the age, was advocated by the leaders of thought and came to influence the lives of individual women, and how the asexual existence which hitherto had been accepted as praiseworthy was extolled as virtue in itself.
Again it is difficult for a later age to rate this conception at its just value, for the depreciation of the relationship of sex is to the modern mind not only misplaced but misleading. It is only when we think of the gain this depreciation has helped to secure in self-control and self-respect that it appears at all reasonable.
Of the early productions of the mystic school, which are distinctly moral in tendency and personal in tone, none offer greater attractions than works written in England during the first half of the 13th century for the use of women who were vowed to religion. All these writings, some of which will here be considered, are in the vernacular, and owing to their measured grace and tone of delicate refinement are among the most attractive [p. 308] monuments of Middle English. They are chiefly productions of the south of England where the Saxon element had been preserved in its integrity. Scholars have remarked how a certain roughness of diction and a heroic element opposed to softness of sentiment lingered on in the north and precluded the utterance of gentler strains, while the south used a language of combined vigour and grace and became the cradle of lyric poetry. Moreover the south at this period cultivated the qualities which give to a movement its moral stamina. We find loyalty to the king coupled with distaste for court pleasures, and strong religious feeling combined with that insistence on nationality which precluded servile submission to the Pope. The south was also in connection with the best intellectual forces of the age as represented by the growing schools at Oxford, and Oxford in its turn was in direct touch with Paris, which remained throughout the 12th century the most important centre of learning and education in Europe.
A few words must be given to this connection and its results, for it was in Paris that the master-minds of Oxford acquired that enthusiasm for study which, applied to the realities of life, became zeal for reform and desire for moral regeneration.
Two lines of study are apparent in Paris. There is the mysticism of the school of St Victor, represented by men of such mental calibre as Hugo († 1141), a native of Germany, and his pupil Richard († 1173), a native of Scotland. The combined influence of these two men on the English mind was very great, for many productions of the English mystical school were inspired by or adapted from their Latin mystical works. The writings of Richard translated into English are frequently found in manuscripts by the side of the works of the later English mystics, Richard Rolle († 1349), and Walter Hylton († 1395).
On the other hand Paris was the first to experience the vivifying influence of the renewed study of Greek philosophy, especially of the Aristotelian corpus, together with its comments by Arabian philosophers, especially with those of Averroes (fl. 1150). Jews from the south of France had introduced these writings, which, repeatedly condemned but as often advocated, had the effect on speculative minds of the introduction of a new science.[1*] Christian theology, rising to the occasion, adopted their metaphysical views, though so radically divergent from its own, and the result was the [p. 309] birth of scholastic philosophy. But where the incompatibility of the union was felt scholars left the halls of discussion and turned their energies to grappling with the problems of active life.
In Oxford as early as 1133 Robert Pullen, who had studied in Paris, was lecturing on week days and preaching on Sundays to the people, and during the course of the 13th century a number of men who had won the highest distinctions at the university,-- such as Edmund Rich († 1240), Adam Marsh († 1257--8), and Robert Grosseteste (afterwards bishop of Lincoln, † 1253), followed in his footsteps. Their efforts fell in with those of the newly founded orders of friars, and they greeted as brothers in the spirit the twelve Dominicans who arrived at Oxford in 1221 and the Franciscans who came in 1224. These maintained an utter distrust of learning, which led to much argument between them and the students, but all alike were zealous in working for the welfare of the uneducated classes.
We are indebted to Thomas de Hales[2*] for one of the earliest and most beautiful poems written for the use of a nun. He was a native of Hales in Gloucestershire, studied both at Oxford and Paris, and was under the influence of the Franciscan movement. Wadding says in his annals of the Franciscan order that 'Thomas de Hales, created a doctor of the Sorbonne, was most celebrated and is known not only in England, but also in France, Germany, and Italy.' Thomas was on friendly terms with Adam Marsh who had become a Franciscan friar, and he joined this order himself as is apparent from the superscription of his English poem.[3*] Various facts suggest possibilities as to his career, for Hales in Gloucestershire was the home also of Alexander de Hales († 1245) who went to Paris and spent his energies in compiling a work on scholasticism which secured him the title of doctor irrefragabilis. Moreover in 1246 Hales became the seat of a Cistercian monastery founded by Henry II Is brother, Richard, earl of Cornwall, who was intimately connected with the circle of men at Oxford and a friend and patron of the Franciscans. It is possible that Thomas owed encouragement to the learned Alexander or to Earl Richard. The year 1250 is accepted as the date when he flourished, but his English poem was probably written somewhat earlier. This is suggested by the praise bestowed in it on King Henry and his [p. 310] wealth, which could hardly have been accorded later than 1240, for it was then that the king began to alienate his people's affection by tampering with the coinage and by countenancing foreign influences at court and in the Church, in compliance with the wishes of his wife, Eleanor of Provence.
The poem of Thomas is called a Luve Ron, that is a love song; it consists of twenty-six rhymed stanzas with much alliterative assonance. Falling in with the tendencies of the age it treats of the happiness in store for women who accept Christ as their spouse. Thomas describes how he came to advise a nun in her choice of a lover. As the translation of the poem into modern English rhyme sacrifices much of its directness, the stanzas which follow have been rendered as prose.
That she might best learn how to take a faithful lover,
Most faithful of all, and best suited to a free woman;
I will not refuse her, but direct her as best I can.
In many ways fickle, worthless, weak, deceiving,
Men that are bold here pass away as the winds blow;
Under the earth they lie cold, fallen away as meadow grass.
For here man has many sorrows, neither repose nor rest;
Towards his end he hastens, abiding but a short time,
Pain and death hurry him away when most he clings to life.
Gold and silver, pomp and- ermine give him no surety;
Swift though he be, he cannot escape, nor lengthen his life by a day,
Thus, thou seest, this world as a shadow glides past.'
The poet then enlarges on the transitoriness of terrestrial love. Where are Paris and Helen, Amadis, Tristram, and others famous for their love? 'They have glided from this world as the shaft that has left the bow-string.' Wealth such as King Henry's, beauty such as Absalom's availed them nought. But the poet knows of a true king whose love abides.
He is fair and bright, of glad cheer, mild of mood,
[p. 311] Lovely through joy, true of trust, free of heart, full of wisdom;
Never wouldst thou regret it if once thou wert given into his care.
He is the richest man in the land as far as men have the power of speech,
All is given into his hand, east, west, north and south.
Henry the king holds of him and bows to him.
Maiden, to thee he sends the message that he would be beloved by thee.'
The beauty of this lover, Christ, is thus described, and the fairness of his dwelling, where hate, pride and envy enter not, and where all rejoice with the angels. 'Are not those in a good way who love such a lord?' the poet asks. In return for the bliss Christ grants, He asks only that the maiden keep bright the jewel of maidenhood which He has entrusted to her. The poem ends thus:
Bidding thee unroll it and learn each part by heart,
Then be very gracious and teach it faithfully to other maidens.
Who knows the whole right well will be comforted by it.
Sing it with sweet tones, and do as I bid thee.
He who has sent thee a greeting, God Almighty, be with thee,
And receive thee in his bower high up in heaven where He sits.
And may he have good ending, who has written this little song.'
From this poem we turn to the prose works written at this period for religious women, which are inspired by the same spirit of earnest devotion, and contain thoughts as tender, refined, and gentle as the poem of Thomas de Hales. The prose treatise known as the Ancren Riwle,[4*] the rule for recluses, is by far the most important of these works, and from the present point of view deserves close attention, for it gives a direct insight into the moral beauties of the religious attitude, and enables us to form some idea of the high degree of culture and refinement which the 13th century mystic attained.
A few words of criticism on the purpose of the book and on its authorship are here necessary. We have before us a work written not for the regular inmates of a nunnery, not for nuns who lived [p. 312] under the rule of a prioress or abbess, but for religious women who, after being trained in a nunnery, left it to continue a chaste and secluded life outside. The Church at all times gave most honour to those monks and nuns who were members of a convent and lived under the rule of a superior, but it did not deny the credit of holy living, or the appellations monk and nun, to those who either alone or with a few companions devoted themselves to religion, and dwelt sometimes near a chapel or sanctuary, sometimes in a churchyard. From the earliest times the people had held such male and female recluses in special reverence, and the Church, yielding to popular feeling, accepted them as holy, and in some instances countenanced their being ranked as saints.
With reference to the distinction made from the earliest period between the different classes of those who professed religion, and their respective claims to holiness, it seems well to quote from the introductory chapter of the rule of St Benedict. The following passages occur in all the prose versions of the rule known to me, whether written for the use of men, or adapted to the use of women.
The Anglo-Saxon version of the rule of St Benedict made in the 10th or 11th century, which is based on the version written by Aethelwold about the year 961, runs thus:[5*] There are four kinds of monks, muneca; the first kind are those in monasteries, mynstermonna, who live under a rule or an abbot. The second kind are the hermits, ancrena, that is settlers in the wilds (westensetlena), who, not in the first fervour of religious life, but after probation in the monastery, have learned by the help and experience of others to fight against the devil, and going forth well armed from the ranks of their brethren to the single-handed combat of the wilderness, are able without the support of others to fight by the strength of their own arm and the help of God against the vices of the flesh and their evil thoughts. A third and most baneful kind of monk are the self-appointed ones, sylfdemena, who have been tried by no rule nor by the experience of a master, as gold in the furnace, but being soft as lead and still serving the world in their works, are known by their tonsure to lie to God. These, in twos or threes or even singly without a shepherd, not enclosed in the Lord's sheepfold, follow the enjoyment of their will instead of a rule; whatever they think fit or choose to do they call holy, and what they like not they condemn as unlawful. There is a fourth [p. 313] kind of monk called wandering, widscrithul, who spend all their life wandering about, staying in different cells for three or four days at a time, ever roaming, given up to their own pleasures and the evils of gluttony, and worse in all ways than the self-appointed ones.
In the English versions of the rule for women, two of which, drafted respectively in the 13th and in the 15th century, are extant, the same distinctions are drawn between different kinds of nuns. The 13th century version states[6*] that there are the nuns living in a monastery under an abbess, mynecene,-- a kind of nun called ancre or recluse,--the self-appointed nuns,--and the wandering nuns who are declared altogether evil.
The difference between the nun and the ancre is made clear by these passages. The ancre or recluse, called in Latin inclusa, is the nun who after receiving a convent education lives a holy life away from the nunnery, and it is for ancren or nuns of this kind that the book we are about to discuss was written. Fortunately the work does not stand alone as an exhortation to women recluses. We are in possession of a letter from Ailred of Rievaulx, written between 1131 and 1161, and addressed to his sister (sic), which was written for a similar purpose though covering very much narrower ground, and contains advice analogous to that contained in the Ancren Riwle. The original is in Latin,[7*] and in this form it was probably known to the author of the Ancren Riwle, who refers to it, saying how Ailred had already insisted that purity of life can be maintained only by observing two things, a certain hardness of bodily life and a careful cultivation of moral qualities.
The letter of Ailred is in the form of a series of short chapters and is divided into two parts, the first of which (c. 1--20) treats of the outward rule. It gives advice as to whom the inclusa should converse with, and whom she should admit into her presence; it tells her that she should not own flocks, which leads to buying and selling; that she should live by the work of her hands, not accepting as a gift more food than she needs for herself and her servants; and that she must not do as some recluses do, who busy themselves with 'teaching girls and boys and turn their cells into a school.' It also directs her about divine service, and about her food and clothes.
Having so far dealt with outward things Ailred (c. 21--46) [p. 314] dwells on the inward life, on virginity, on the dangers of temptation and on the beauties of humility and love. His sentences are short and are illustrated by quotations from scripture, by reference to the holy virgin St Agnes, and by remarks on the respective merits of Mary and Martha. The concluding chapters (c. 47--78) are found also in the works of Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury († 1109),[8*] and appear to have been borrowed from him.
The letter of Ailred proves that the conduct of the recluse was attracting attention in the 12th century. Part of his letter was translated into Middle English by one Thomas N. in the 13th century, about the same time when the Ancren Riwle was drawn up, and in its superscription it is designated as the 'information' which Ailred, abbot of Rievaulx, wrote for his sister the inclusa.[9*] In this translation, however, the opening parts of the work which treat of the outward rule (c. 1--20) are omitted, evidently because the translation was intended not for recluses but for nuns, to whom directions about domestic matters, such as buying, selling, clothing and eating, would not apply.
Further evidence can be adduced to show that women recluses in the 13th century occupied public attention to an increasing degree. Hitherto they had been left to dwell where they pleased, supported by chance gifts from the people, but in the 13th century it became usual to leave them legacies. A mass of information on the subject has been collected by Cutts,[10*] who describes how women recluses occupied sometimes a range of cells, sometimes a commodious house; and how they kept one or more servants to run on their errands. In 1246 the bishop of Chichester issued an injunction which shows that his attention had been drawn to these women, and that in his mind there was a distinct difference between them and regular nuns. Under the heading 'On recluses (inclusis) it says:[11*] 'Also we ordain that recluses shall not receive or keep any person in their house concerning whom sinister suspicions may arise. Also that they have narrow and proper windows; and we permit them to have secret communication with those persons only whose gravity and honesty do not admit of suspicion. Women recluses should not be entrusted with the care of church vestments; [p. 315] if necessity compels it, we command it to be done with caution, that he who carries them may have no communication with the recluses.'
Taking these various remarks into consideration and comparing them with what is said in the Ancren Riwle itself, the author of which keeps clear in his mind the difference between recluse and nun, I think the idea that this work was originally written for the Cistercian nunnery at Tarent in Dorsetshire, as is usually alleged,[12*] will be abandoned. This assumption is based on the superscription of a Latin copy of the book, which states that Simon of Ghent wrote it for his sisters the anchoresses near Tarent (apud Tarente). But the theory that the book was originally in Latin, and that it was written by Simon, archdeacon at Oxford in 1284, and bishop of Salisbury between 1307--1315, has long been abandoned. The idea that it was written for the nunnery at Tarent may also be discarded, for Tarent was a house founded by Ralph de Kahaines in the time of Richard I. Therefore at the time when Simon lived, and doubtless also at the time when the book was written (1225-- 1250), the settlement must have consisted of more than three women recluses and their servants. Women recluses might be living at Tarent as elsewhere, since Simon forwarded the book to recluses there, but they would not be members of the Cistercian convent. It may be noticed in passing that the other Latin copy of the rule, which was destroyed by fire in 1731, had a superscription saying that Robert Thornton, at one time prior, gave it to the recluses (claustratibus) of Bardney, which is a Benedictine abbey for men in Lincoinshire.
To relinquish the idea that the Ancren Riwte was written originally for the Cistercian nunnery at Tarent is to relinquish also the supposition[13*] that it is the work of Richard Poor, dean of Salisbury, and afterwards bishop successively of Chichester and Durham († 1237), for the theory of his authorship rests only on his interest in this nunnery, to which he added a chapel and where his heart lies buried. A fuller knowledge of the English writings of the time may reveal by whom and for whom the book was written. The dialect proves it to be the production of a native of the south-western part of England, while its tone reveals a connection with Paris and Oxford. The writer must have had a high degree of culture, and was familiar with French, with court poetry, [p. 316] and with the similes so frequent in the stories of romance. He had a sound theological training, with a knowledge of the works of Jerome, Augustine, Gregory, Anselm, and notably of Bernard, from whom he frequently quotes. He had strong religious sympathies, but imperfect sympathy with the established church,-- these latter facts tend to prove that he was in some measure connected with the friars. His references to 'our lay brethren,' and his description of the 'hours' as said by them, may serve as a clue to his identification.[14*]
The Ancren Riwle or rule for recluses, fills a moderately sized volume and is extant in eight manuscript copies, of which five are in English, that is four in the dialect of the south and one in that of the north,--two in Latin, and one in French. The work is divided into eight parts, a short analysis of which will give an idea of the importance of the book and of the wide range of its author's sympathies. As he says himself the book was written for three sisters who in the bloom of their youth had forsaken the world to become anchoresses, but he expects it will be read by others. He assumes that his readers know Latin and French as well as English, a fact which in itself proves that like the ancren referred to above, the ancren here addressed had received their education in a nunnery.
In the short introduction which precedes the work the author says he will accede to the request of the women who have importuned him for a rule.
'Do you now ask what rule you recluses should observe?' he asks (p. 5).[15*] 'You should always keep the inward rule well with all your might and strength for its own sake. The inward rule is ever alike; the outward varies.... No recluse by my advice shall make profession, that is promise to keep anything commanded, save three things, obedience, chastity and stedfastness; she shall not change her home save by need, such as compulsion, fear of death or obedience to her bishop, or her master (herre). For she who undertakes anything and promises to do it at God's command, is bound to it and sins mortally in breaking her promise by will or wish. If she has not promised she may do it and leave it off as she will, as of meat and drink, abstaining from flesh and fish and other like things relating to dress, rest, hours and prayers. Let her say as many of these as she pleases, and in what way she [p. 317] pleases. These and other such things are all in our free choice to do or let alone whenever we choose, unless they are promised. But charity, that is love, and meekness and patience, truthfulness and keeping the ten ancient commandments, confession and penitence, these and such as these, some of which are of the old law, some of the new, are not of man's invention.'
He then goes on to tell them that if asked to what order they belong, they must say, to the order of St James, who was God's apostle (and who wrote a canonical epistle). He dilates upon early Christian hermits and recluses, saying that they were of the order of St James, for in his mind St James the apostle is identical with St James the hermit.
He then describes the contents of his work, saying the first part only shall treat of the outward rule, all the others of the inward.
The first part accordingly (pp. 15--48) is on religious service, and in it the women are advised what prayers they shall say and at what time of the day: 'Let everyone say her hours as she has written them,' and as a guide take what 'hours' are kept by 'our lay brethren.' The sick, the sorrowful, prisoners, and Christians who are among the heathen shall be called to mind. The tone which the author occasionally takes has the full personal ring of 13th century mysticism. (p. 35) 'After the kiss of peace in the mass, when the priest consecrates, forget there all the world, and there be entirely out of the body, there in glowing love embrace your beloved spouse (leofman) Christ, who is come down from heaven into the bower of your breast, and hold him fast till he have granted all that you wish.' Several prayers follow, one in Latin on the adoration of the cross, and several in English which are addressed to the sweet lady St Mary.
Outward observances being disposed of, the author then advises the women how to keep guard over the heart, 'wherein is order, religion and the life of the soul,' against the temptations of the five senses (pp. 48--117). The different senses and the dangers attending them are discussed, sometimes casually, sometimes in a systematic manner. In connection with Sight we get interesting details on the arrangement of the building in which the recluses dwelt. Its windows are hung with black cloth on which is a white cross. The black cloth is impervious to the wind and difficult to see through; the white of the cross is more transparent and emblematic of purity, by the help of which it becomes safe to look abroad. Looking abroad, however, is generally attended with danger. 'I write more [p. 318] particularly for others,' the author here remarks, 'nothing of the kind touches you, my dear sisters, for you have not the name, nor shall you have it by the grace of God, of staring recluses, whose profession is unrecognisable through their unseemly conduct, as is the case with some, alas!'
Speech too should be wisely controlled, talking out of church windows should be avoided, and conversation generally should be indulged in only through the 'house' window and the parlour window. 'Silence always at meals,' says the author, and quotes from Seneca and Solomon on the evil effects of idle prattling. Hearing, that is listening too readily, also has its dangers, for it leads to spreading untruths. 'She who moves her tongue in lying makes it a cradle to the devil's child, and rocketh it diligently as a nurse.' In passages which show a keen insight into human nature and which are dictated by a wise and kindly spirit, the author among other examples describes how anyone seeking the recluse's sympathy for bad ends would approach her in plaintive strains, deploring that he is drawn to her, and assuring her that he desires nothing but her forgiveness, and thus by engrossing her thoughts more and more, would perturb her mind by rousing her personal sympathy.
The sense of Smell also has its dangers; but in regard to the fifth sense, Feeling, there is most need, the author thinks, of comfort, 'for in it the pain is greatest, and the pleasure also if it so happen.' The sufferings of Christ are analysed and it is shown how he suffered in all his senses but especially in feeling.
The next part of the work (pp. 118--177) contains moral lessons and examples. The peevish recluse finds her counterpart in the pelican which kills her own young ones when they molest her. Like the bird, the recluse in anger kills her works, then repents and makes great moan. There are some fine passages on the effects of anger which is likened to a sorceress (uorschuppild) and transforms the recluse, Christ's spouse, into a she-wolf (wulvene). That women devotees often behaved very differently from what they ought is evident from these passages, for false recluses are likened unto foxes who live in holes and are thievish, ravenous and yelping, but 'the true recluses are indeed birds of heaven, that fly aloft and sit on the green boughs singing merrily; that is, they meditate, enraptured, upon the blessedness of heaven that never fadeth but is ever green, singing right merrily; that is in such meditation they rest in peace and have gladness of [p. 319] heart as those who sing.' In one passage, where the flight of birds is described, it says, 'the wings that bear the recluses upwards are good principles, which they must move unto good works as a bird that would fly moveth its wings.' From dumb animals wisdom and knowledge can be learnt, says the author, giving as an example the eagle, which deposits in his nest a precious stone called agate, which wards off harm, and thus Jesus Christ should be cherished to keep off evil. In another passage the author plays on the words ancre and anchor, saying that the ancre or recluse is anchored to the Church as the anchor to the ship, that storms may not overwhelm it. The reasons for solitary life are then enumerated under separate headings, and passages from the Old and the New Testament are freely quoted in illustration and corroboration of the statements made.
The fourth part of the book (pp. 178-298) dilates on temptation, in regard to which the writer holds that greater holiness brings increased difficulties. 'As the hill of holy and pious life is greater and higher, so the fiend's puffs which are the winds of temptation are stronger thereon and more frequent.' Patience and meekness are chiefly required to resist the troubles of sickness, and wisdom and spiritual strength must resist grief of heart, anger and wrath. Again the recluses for whom the book is written are assured that they have least need to be fortified against temptations and trials, sickness only excepted.
The imagery in which the author goes on to describe the seven chief sins is graphic and powerful. They are personified as the Lion of Pride, the Serpent of Envy, the Unicorn of Wrath, the Bear of Sloth, the Fox of Covetousness, the Swine of Gluttony, and the Scorpion of Lust, each with its offspring. Of the Scorpion's progeny we are told that 'it doth not become a modest mouth to name the name of some of them,' while the Scorpion itself is a kind of worm, that has a face somewhat like that of a woman, but its hinder parts are those of a serpent. It puts on a pleasant countenance and fawns upon you with its head but stings with its tail. Again, the sins are likened to seven bags (heggen), to whom men who serve in the devil's court are married. The description of these men as jugglers, jesters, ash-gatherers and devil's purveyors, gives interesting details on the characters in real life by which they were suggested. Of the comforting thoughts which the recluse is to dwell upon the following give a fine example.[p. 320]
'The sixth comfort is that our Lord, when he suffereth us to be tempted, playeth with us as the mother with her young darling:she fleeth from him and hides herself, and lets him sit alone, look anxiously around calling Dame, dame! and weep awhile, and then she leapeth forth laughing with outspread arms and embraceth and kisseth him and wipeth his eyes. Just so our Lord leaveth us sometimes alone, and withdraweth his grace and comfort and support, so that we find no sweetness in any good we do, nor satisfaction of heart; and yet all the while our dear father loveth us none the less, but doeth it for the great love he hath for us.
In times of tribulation the recluse is directed to meditate on God and His works, on the Virgin and the saints, and the temptations they withstood, such as are related in an English book on St Margaret. Again and again the writer, who does not tire of this part of his theme, dwells on the various sins separately, and on the best way of meeting them.
The next part of the book (pp. 298--348) is devoted to an analysis of the use and the manner of confession, the theory and practice of which in the Church of Rome are ancient, but which the religious enthusiasm of the Middle Ages elaborated into a hard and fast system. That self-introspection and analysis are helpful in developing and strengthening conscientiousness no one will deny, but the habitual disclosure of one's thoughts and criticisms of self to another, though it may still afford support to some, has ceased to appear generally advisable. Granted that the practice in the past served a good purpose, the advice given in this book for recluses appears dictated by a strong sense of fitness and moderation. The author considers confession powerful in three directions: it 'confoundeth the devil;' it gives us back all the good we have lost, and it 'maketh us children of God.' Under these headings there is a long and systematic elaboration of the sixteen ways in which confession should be made, viz, it should be accusatory, bitter, complete, candid, and it should be made often, and speedily, humbly and hopefully, etc. Stories out of the Bible and parables of a later age are introduced in corroboration of each injunction. Under the heading of candid confession the words to be used in self-accusation are interesting, because it is obvious that a higher moral standard is claimed from women than from men. The person who has committed sin is to address the father confessor (schrift feder) in these words: 'I am a woman, and ought by right to have been more modest than to speak as I have spoken, or [p. 321] to do as I have done; and therefore my sin is greater than if a man had done it, for it became me worse.' From the Gospels and the Fathers the writer adduces strings of wise sayings which bear on the points he would impress upon his readers. This fifth part of the book, he says, belongs to all men alike, not to recluses in particular, and he ends by admonishing the sisters in this way: 'Take to your profit this short and concluding summary of all mentioned and known sins, as of pride, ambition, presumption, envy, wrath, sloth, carelessness, idle words, immoral thoughts, any idle hearing, any false joy or heavy mourning, hypocrisy, the taking too much or too little meat or drink, grumbling, being of morose countenance, breaking silence, sitting too long at the parlour window, saying hours badly or without attention of heart or at a wrong time, any false word or oath, play, scornful laughter, wasting crumbs, or spilling ale or letting things grow mouldy or rusty or rotten; leaving clothes not sewed, wet with rain, or unwashed; breaking a cup or a dish, or carelessly looking after any thing which we own and should take care of; or cutting or damaging through heedlessness.' These in the writer's eyes are the likely sins among the recluses whom he addresses and against which he warns them to be on their guard. If they have committed them they must forthwith confess, but trivial faults should be wiped away by prayers said before the altar the moment the recluse is conscious of them.
Passing from the subject of Confession to that of Penance (pp. 348--383) the author as he says borrows much from the Sentences of Bernard, the general drift of which is in favour of self-discipline and implies mortification of the flesh. In this context comes the reference to Ailred's (Seint Aldret's) advice to his sister, who also was directed to give the body pain by fasting, watching, and discipline, by having coarse garments and a hard bed, and by bearing evil and working hard. But here again the recluses addressed are told that in the eyes of their adviser they incline rather to over-much self-denial than to over-much self-indulgence.
The seventh part of the book (pp. 384--410) treats of the pure heart or of love and is attractive in many ways. The sentiments developed and the pictures described give one the highest opinion of the feelings of which the age was capable, as reflected in this writer's innermost being. The beautiful parable where Christ woos the soul in guise of a king is well worth repeating, [p. 322] for there we see the courtly attitude, which the age of romance had developed in real life, receiving a spiritual adaptation.
'There was a lady who was besieged by her foes within an earthly castle, and her land was all destroyed and herself quite poor. The love of a powerful king was however fixed upon her with such boundless affection that to solicit her love he sent his messengers one after the other, and often many together, and sent her trinkets both many and fair, and supplies of victuals and help of his high retinue to hold her castle. She received them all as a careless creature with so hard a heart that he could never get nearer to her love. What would'st thou more? He came himself at last and showed her his fair face, since he was of all men the fairest to behold, and spoke so sweetly and with such gentle words that they might have raised the dead from death to life. And he wrought many wonders, and did many wondrous deeds before her eyes, and showed her his power and told her of his kingdom, and offered to make her queen of all that he owned. But all availed him nought. Was not this surprising mockery? For she was not worthy to have been his servant. But owing to his goodness love so mastered him that he said at last: "Lady, thou art attacked, and thine enemies are so strong that thou canst not without my help escape their hands that thou mayest not be put to a shameful death. I am prompted by love of thee to undertake this fight, and rid thee of those that seek thy death. I know well that I shall receive a mortal wound, but I will do it gladly to win thy heart. Now I beseech thee for the love I bear thee that thou love me at least after my death, since thou would'st not in my lifetime." Thus did the king. He freed her of her enemies and was himself wounded and slain in the end. Through a miracle he arose from death to life. Would not that same lady be of an evil kind if she did not love him above all things after this?'
'The king is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who in this wise wooed our Soul which the devils had beset. And He as a noble wooer, after many messengers and many good deeds, came to prove His love and showed through knighthood that He was worthy of love, as some time knights were wont to do. He entered in a tournament, and as a bold knight had His shield pierced everywhere in the fight for His lady's love.'
The likeness between the shield and Christ's body is further dwelt upon. The image of His crucified form hangs suspended [p. 323] in church, as 'after the death of a valiant knight, men hang up his shield high in church to his memory.'
There is more on the theme of love that is very fine. The ideas generated by knighthood are obviously present to the mind of the writer.
Interesting also is his classification of the different kinds of love. The love of good friends (gode iueren) is first mentioned, but higher than that is the love between man and woman, and even higher still that between mother and child, for the mother to cure her child of disease is ready to make a bath of her blood for it. Higher again is the love of the body to the soul, but the love which Christ bears to His dear spouse, the soul, surpasses them all.
'Thy love,' says our Lord, 'is either to be freely given or it is to be sold, or it is to be stolen and to be taken with force. If it is to be given, where could'st thou bestow it better than on me? Am I not of all the fairest? Am I not the richest king? Am I not of noblest birth? Am I not in wealth the wisest? Am I not the most courteous? Am I not the most liberal of men? For so it is said of a liberal man that he can withhold nothing; that his hands are perforated as mine are. Am I not of all the sweetest and most gentle? Thus in me all reasons thou may'st find for bestowing thy love, if thou lovest chaste purity; for no one can love me save she hold by that.--But if thy love is not to be given but is to be sold, say at what price; either for other love or for something else? Love is well sold for love, and so love should be sold and for nought else. If thy love is thus to be sold, I have bought it with love surpassing all other. For of the four kinds of love, I have shown thee the best of them all. And if thou sayest that thou wilt not let it go cheaply and askest for more, name what it shall be. Set a price on thy love. Thou canst not name so much but I will give thee for thy love much more. Wouldest thou have castles and kingdoms? Wouldest thou govern the world? I am purposed to do better; I am purposed to make thee withal queen of heaven. Thou shalt be sevenfold brighter than the sun; no evil shall harm thee, no creature shall vex thee, no joy shall be wanting to thee; thy will shall be done in heaven and on earth; yea, even in hell.'
And in a further development of this idea all imaginable good, Croesus wealth, Absalom's beauty, Asahel's swiftness, Samson's strength, are held out as a reward to the soul who responds to [p. 324] the wooing of Christ and gives herself entirely into His keeping. 'This love,' says the author in conclusion, 'is the rule which governs the heart.'
The last part of the book (pp. 410--431) appears to be appended as an after-thought, as it treats once more of domestic matters. 'I said before at the beginning,' says the author, 'that ye ought not, like unwise people, to promise to keep any of the outward rules. I say the same still, nor do I write them save for you alone. I say this in order that recluses may not say that I by my authority make new rules for them. Nor do I command that they shall hold them, and you may change them whenever you will for better ones. Of things that have been in use before it matters little.' Practical directions follow which throw a further light on the position and conduct of the recluse, and which in many particulars are curiously like the injunctions which form the opening part of the letter of Ailred. The recluses shall partake of Communion on fifteen days of the year; they shall eat twice a day between Easter and Roodmass (September 14), during the other half year they shall fast save on Sundays; and they shall not eat flesh or lard except in sickness. 'There are recluses,' says the writer, 'who have meals with their friends outside. That is too much friendship; for all orders it is unsuitable, but chiefly for the order of recluses who are dead to the world.' A recluse shall not be liberal of other men's alms, for housewifery is Martha's part and not hers. 'Martha's office is to feed and clothe poor men as the mistress of a house; Mary ought not to intermeddle in it, and if any one blame her, God Himself the supreme defends her for it, as holy writ bears witness. On the other hand a recluse ought only to take sparingly that which is necessary for her. Whereof, then, may she make herself liberal? She must live upon alms as frugally as ever she can, and not gather that she may give it away afterwards. She is not a housewife but a Church ancre. If she can spare any fragments to the poor, let her send them quietly out of her dwelling. Sin is oft concealed under the semblance of goodness. And how shall those rich anchoresses who are tillers of the ground, or have fixed rents, do their alms privately to poor neighbours? Desire not to have the reputation of bountiful anchoresses, nor, in order to give much, be too eager to possess more. Greediness is at the root of bitterness: all the boughs that spring from it are bitter. To beg in order to give away is not the part of a recluse. From the courtesy of a recluse [p. 325] and from her liberality, sin and shame have often come in the end.
This idea, that the recluse shall follow the example of Mary and not that of Martha, occurs also in Ailred's letter, though it is more briefly stated (c. 41 ff).
'You shall possess no beast, my dear sisters,' says the author of the Ancren Riwle, 'except only a cat. A recluse who has cattle appears as Martha was.' She thinks of the fodder, of the herdsman, thoughts which bring with them traffic. 'A recluse who is a buyer and seller (cheapild) selleth her soul to the chapman of hell.' Ailred similarly warned his 'sister' against keeping flocks (c. 5 ff.). But the author of the Riwle allows the recluse to keep a cow if need be. 'Do not take charge,' he says, 'of other men's things in your house, nor of their property, nor of their clothes, neither receive under your care the church vestments nor the chalice, unless compelled thereto, for oftentimes much harm has come from such caretaking.' The clothes the sisters wear shall be warm and simple, 'be they white, be they black; only see that they be plain and warm and well-made.' He warns them against severe discipline by the use of hair-cloth and hedgehog-skins, and against scourging with a leathern thong. He desires them to have all needful clothing, but forbids wearing rings, brooches, ornamented girdles and gloves. The recluse shall 'make no purses to gain friends therewith, nor blodbendes[16*] of silk; but shape and sew and mend church vestments, and poor people's clothes.' The point Ailred in his rule strongly insisted upon, the command that the recluse shall not keep a school as some recluses do, is reiterated by the author of the Ancren Riwle, for the excitement it brings and the personal affection it creates between teacher and pupil are felt to be fraught with danger. If there be a girl who needs to be taught, the recluse shall cause her to be instructed by her servant, for she shall keep two servants, the one to stay at home, the other to go abroad, 'whose garments shall be of such shape and their attire such that their calling be obvious. The recluse shall read the concluding part of this book to her women once a week, but she herself is to read in it daily if she have leisure.
Such in brief outline is the Ancren Riwle, a book which above all others gives an insight into the religious life as appre [p. 326] hended in the 13th century in England; a book which, written for women--the number of whom can never have been great, contains much that remains wise and instructive to this day, owing to its wide outlook and liberal spirit. It gives the very highest opinion of the author's gentleness and refinement, and of the exalted sentiments of the women he was addressing.
This is not the place to dwell on the numerous spiritual love-songs which were written in English at this period under the influence of mystic tendencies; but it must be pointed out that those which breathe the love of a woman's soul to Christ were presumably written in the interest of nuns. Among them is one in prose, entitled the 'Wooing of Our Lord,'[17*] written by its author for his 'sister,' which has a certain likeness to the 'Ancren Riwle,' and on this ground has been ascribed to the same author. Probably it is a paraphrase of part of it, but it has none of the harmonious flow of the treatise itself, and its tone is so much more emotional, that it looks like the production of a later age.
The idea of the exaltation of virginity at this period further led to the re-writing in English of the legends of women-saints whose stories turn on the might of virginity in conflict with the evil powers of this world. Among them the legends of St Margaret, St Juliana and St Cecilia, are extant in a manuscript of about the year 1230. Their authorship is unknown, but they were evidently written in the first place for religious women.
In conclusion a few words must be said on a treatise written about the same time called 'Holy Maidenhood' (Hali Meidenhad), the interest of which lies in the fact that while advocating the same cause as the writings discussed above, it is quite untouched by their spirit.[18*] Here also the advantages of the love of Christ over love for earthly things are enlarged on, and the superiority of the 'free' maiden over her who has embraced family life is upheld. But this is done in a broad familiar strain and with repeated fierce attacks on marriage.
The author ornaments his treatise with Biblical quotations, but he possesses none of the courtly grace and elegance of diction of Thomas de Hales and the author of the Ancren Riwle. In form the treatise answers to its drift, for it is written in an alliterative homely style which gives it a peculiar interest from the philological [p. 327] point of view. Looked at from the religious standpoint it yields a curious example of what the tone and temper would be of one who, grasping the moral drift of the age, remained a stranger to its tenderer strains. At the same time its author is not without considerable insight into the realities of life and has a sense of humour usually absent in mystic writings. The following passage which dwells on some of the annoyances of married life give a good example of this (p. 37).
'And how I ask, though it may seem odious, how does the wife stand who when she comes in hears her child scream, sees the cat at the fitch, and the hound at the hide? Her cake is burning on the stone hearth, her calf is sucking up the milk, the earthen pot is overflowing into the fire and the churl is scolding. Though it be an odious tale, it ought, maiden, to deter thee more strongly from marriage, for it does not seem easy to her who has tried it. Thou, happy maiden, who hast fully removed thyself out of that servitude as a free daughter of God and as His Son's spouse, needest not suffer anything of the kind. Therefore, happy maiden, forsake all such sorrow for the reward reserved to thee as thou oughtest to do without any reward. Now I have kept my promise, that I would show that to be glozed over with falsehood, which some may say and think of as true: the happiness and sweetness which the wedded have. For it fares not as those think who look at it from the outside; it happens far otherwise with the poor and the rich, with those who loathe and those who love each other, but the vexation in every case exceeds the joy, and the loss altogether surpasses the gain.'
The writer then recommends Christ as a spouse and gives a graphic description of pride, which he considers a power equal to that of the devil. He has such a lively horror of pride and thinks its effects so baneful that, should the maidenhood he has been extolling be touched by it, its prerogative, he says, forthwith breaks down. 'A maid as regards the grace of maidenhood surpasses the widowed and the wedded, but a mild wife or meek widow is better than a proud maiden,'--a distinction which is curious and I believe stands alone at this early period. The saints Catharine, Margaret, Agnes, Juliana and Cecilia are quoted as maidens of irreproachable meekness.
The treatise 'Hali Meidenhad' exists in one copy only, and there is no evidence as to how much it was read. Its obvious purpose is to encourage girls to become nuns, and this not so [p. 328] much on account of the beauties of convent life, as because of the troubles in worldly life they would escape by doing so.
The Convent of Helfta and its Literary Nuns.[19*]
The mystic writings with which the present chapter has hitherto dealt are works written for nuns, not by them, for of all the English mystic writings of the 13th century, womanly though they often are in tone, none can claim to be the production of a woman. It is different on the Continent, where the mystic literature of the 13th century is largely the production of nuns, some of whom have secured wide literary fame. 'Their writings, which were looked upon by their contemporaries as divinely inspired, are among the most impassioned books of the age. They claim the attention both of the student of art and the student of literature. For strong natures who rebelled against the conditions of ordinary life, but were shut out from the arena of intellectual competition, found an outlet for their aspirations in intensified emotionalism, and this emotionalism led to the development of a wealth of varying imagery which subsequently became the subject-matter of pictorial art. In course of time the series of images offered and suggested by Scripture had been supplemented by a thousand floating fancies and a mass of legendary conceits, which were often based on heathen conceptions; and the 13th century mystic first tried to fix and interpret these in their spiritual application. His endeavours may appear to some a dwelling on fruitless fancies, but since this imagery in its later representations, especially in painting, has become a thing of so much wonder and delight, the writers who first tried to realise and describe these conceptions deserve at least respectful attention.
The convent of Helfta near Eisleben in Saxony stands out during the 13th century as a centre of these mystic tendencies and of contemporary culture, owing to the literary activity of its nuns. All the qualities which make early mysticism attractive,-- moral elevation, impassioned fervour, intense realism and an almost boundless imagination,--are here found reflected in the [p. 329] writings of three women, who were inmates of the same convent, and worked and wrote contemporaneously.
The convent to which these women belonged was of the Benedictine order. It had been founded in 1229 by Burkhardt, Count von Mansfeld, and his wife Elisabeth, for the use of their two daughters and for other women who wished to join them in a religious life. So many of the daughters of the Thuringian nobility flocked thither that the convent was removed in 1234 to more spacious accommodation at Rodardesdorf, and again in 1258 to a pleasanter and more suitable site at Helfta.
The convent was then under the abbess Gertrud[20*] of the noble family of hackeborn, whose rule (1251--1291) marks a climax in the prosperity and influence of the house. The convent numbered over a hundred nuns, and among them were women distinguished in other ways besides writing. In the annals of the house mention is made of Elisabeth and Sophie, daughters of Hermann von Mansfeld;--the former was a good painter, and the latter transcribed numerous books and held the office of prioress for many years before she succeeded Gertrud as abbess. Reference is also made to the nun Mechthild von Wippra († c. 1300), who taught singing, an art zealously cultivated by these nuns.
This enthusiasm for studies of all kinds was inspired in the first place by the abbess Gertrud, of whose wonderful liberality of mind and zeal for the advance of knowledge we read in an account written soon after her death by members of her convent.[21*] She was endlessly zealous in collecting books and in setting her nuns to transcribe them. 'This too she insisted on,' says the account, 'that the girls should be instructed in the liberal arts, for she said that if the pursuit of knowledge (studium scientiac) were to perish, they would no longer be able to understand holy writ, and religion together with devotion would disappear.' Latin was well taught and written with ease by various members of the convent. The three women writers who have given the house lasting fame were Mechthild,--who was not educated at the convent but came there about the year 1268, and who is usually spoken of as the beguine or sister Mechthild,--the nun and saint Mechthild von Hackeborn, the sister of the abbess Gertrud, who was educated in the convent and there had visions between 1280 and 1300,-- and Gertrud--known in literature as Gertrud the Great. Her [p. 330] name being the same as that of the abbess caused at one time a confusion between them.
The writings of these nuns were composed under the influence of the same mystic movement which was spreading over many districts of Europe, and therefore they contain ideas and descriptions which, forming part of the imaginative wealth of the age, are nearly related to what is contemporaneously found elsewhere. In numerous particulars the writings of these nuns bear a striking resemblance to the imagery and descriptions introduced into the Divine Comedy by Dante. Struck by this likeness, and bent upon connecting Matelda of the Purgatorio with a real person, several modern students have recognised her prototype in one of the writers named Mechthild.[22*]
The writings of both these women are anterior in date to the composition of the Divine Comedy, and as they were accepted by the Dominicans, certainly had a chance of being carried into distant districts. But there is no proof that Dante had either of these writers in his mind when he wrote in the Purgatorio of Matelda as appearing in an earthly paradise to the poet on the other side of the river Lethe.
Singing and culling flower after flower,
With which the pathway was all studded o'er.
"Ah, beauteous lady, who in rays of love
Dost warm thyself, if I may trust to looks,
Which the heart's witnesses are wont to be,
May the desire come unto thee to draw
Near to this river's bank," I said to her,
"So much that I may hear what thou art singing.
It is she who makes the triumph of the Church apparent to the poet while Beatrice descends to him from heaven.
Without entering into this controversy, it is interesting to note the similarity of the visions in which Mechthild von Hackeborn describes heaven, and those which Mechthild of Magdeburg draws of hell, to the descriptions of the greatest of Italian poets.
In order to gain an idea of the interests which were prominent at the convent at Helfta it will be well to treat of the lives, history [p. 331] and writings of its three women writers in succession,--the beguine Mechthild,--the nun Mechthild,--and the nun Gertrud. Their characters and compositions bear marked points of difference.
Mechthild the beguine[23*] was born about 1212 and lived in contact with the world, perhaps at some court, till the age of twenty-three, when she left her people and came to Magdeburg to adopt the religious life. She was led to take this step by a troubled conscience, which was no doubt occasioned by her coming into contact with Dominican friars. At this time they were making a great stir in Saxony, and Mechthild's brother Balduin joined their order. Mechthild lived at Magdeburg for many years in a poor and humble way in a settlement of beguines, but at last she was obliged to seek protection in a nunnery, because she had drawn upon herself the hatred of the clergy.
The origin and position of the bands of women called beguines[24*] deserve attention, for the provisions made for them are evidently the outcome of a charitable wish to provide for homeless women, and to prevent their vagrancy and moral degradation. The name given to these women lies in great obscurity. It is sometimes connected with a priest of Liège (Lüttich) Lambert le Bègue (the stammerer, † 1172), a reformer in his way whose work recalls that of the founders of orders of combined canons and nuns, and who was very popular among women of all classes and advocated their association. Many settlements of beguines were founded in the towns of Flanders and Brabant, some of which have survived to this day; and in German towns also the plan was readily adopted of setting aside a house in the town, for the use of poor women who, being thus provided with a roof over their heads, were then left to support themselves as best they could, by begging, or by sick nursing, or by the work of their hands. These women were not bound by any vow to remain in the house where they dwelt, and were not tied down to any special routine. This freedom led to different results among them. In some instances they were attracted by mysticism; in others they advocated ideas which drew on them the reproach of heresy and gave rise to Papal decrees condemning them; in others again they drifted into ways which were little to their credit and caused them to be classed with loose women.[p. 332]
In one of the houses allotted to these women in Magdeburg Mechthild spent the years between 1235 and 1268, and during that time, under the encouragement of the Dominican friars, she wrote prayers, meditations, reflections on the times, and short accounts of spiritual visions, some in prose, some in verse, which had a wide circulation. The fact of their being written in German at a time when writings of the kind in German were few, was the cause of their being read in lay as well as in religious circles. These writings were afterwards collected, presumably in the order of their composition, by a Dominican friar who issued them under the title of 'The Flowing Light of Divinity.' Six of the seven books into which the work is divided were composed before Mechthud went to Helfta, and the visions and reflections she wrote after her admission were grouped together in the seventh book. These writings were originally issued in the German of the north, but the only German copy now extant is a south German transcript, which was written for the mystics of Switzerland. The work was translated into Latin during Mechthild's lifetime by a Dominican friar, but his collection only contains the first six books, the contents of which are arranged in a different order. Both the German and the Latin versions have recently been reprinted.[25*]
Among these writings were several severely critical and condemnatory of the clergy of Magdeburg, who resented these attacks and persecuted Mechthild. On this account she sought admission at Helfta, which was not far distant from Halle, where her special friend the Dominican friar Heinrich was living.[26*] The nuns at Helfta were on friendly terms with the Dominicans, who frequently visited them,[27*] and it appears that the nun Gertrud the Great knew of the writings of the beguine and advocated her admission to the nunnery. She came there in 1268 and lived there for about twelve years; passages in the writings of her fellow nuns refer to her death and burial.[28*]
With regard to her writings we are struck by their diversified contents, by their variety in form, and by their many-sided sympathies. The 'Flowing Light of Divinity' (Fliessende Licht der [p. 333] Gottheit), consists of a collection of shorter and longer compositions, some in poetry, some in prose, which may be roughly classed as spiritual poems and love-songs, allegories, visions, and moral reflections or aphorisms. Against mysticism the charge has been brought that it led to no activity in theological thought and did not produce any religious reformation, but surely enquiries into the nature of the soul and its relation to God such as these are full of speculative interest, and have played no small part in paving the way towards a more rational interpretation of the position of man with regard to faith, to merit, to retribution and to the other great questions of dogma.
Turning first to the poems which treat of spiritual love, many are in dialogue, a form much used by the Minnesingers of the eager but rarely by its religious poets. Among them is a dialogue[29*] between the Soul and the queen Love, who sits enthroned. The Soul accuses Love (spiritual love of course) of robbing her of a liking for the goods of this world, but Love justifies herself by saying that she has given to the Soul instead all that constitutes her true happiness. In another dialogue[30*] the Soul exclaims in wonder at Love, who in eloquent strains describes the power that is within her. By this power she drove Christ from heaven to earth; is it then to be wondered at that she can capture and hold fast a soul.
One of the longer pieces,[31*] less complete in form but more complex in ideas, describes how a call comes to the Soul, and how she urges her servants the Senses to help her to adorn herself to go forth to the dance, that her craving for joy may be satisfied. The Soul justifies her desire in strains such as these:
The gold in the furnace does not vanish but there attains its glow.
God has given to every creature to live according to its desire,
Why then should I resist mine?'
The Soul then describes the various experiences which led to her union with Christ, which she expresses in passionate strains suggestive of the Song of Solomon.[p. 334]
Again, we have the Soul[32*] complaining to Love of the ties which bind her to the body, and Love directs her how to overcome them. Understanding too discourses with the Soul,[33*] and the Soul admits the greater capacities of Understanding, but she insists that Understanding owes to her the capacity both of contemplation and spiritual enjoyment. In other poems like points of abstract interest are touched upon. One of the most curious of these productions is a dialogue in which Understanding converses with Conscience[34*] and expresses surprise at Conscience, whose attitude is one of proud humility. Conscience explains that her pride comes through her contact with God, and that her humility is due to her contrition at having done so few good works.
The question of how far good works are necessary to salvation, in other words justification by faith versus justification by works, is a thought prominent in the beguine's mind, and gives the keynote to a curious and interesting allegory on admission to the communion of the saints.[35*] A poor girl longing to hear mass felt herself transported into the church of heaven, where at first she could see no one. Presently youths entered strewing flowers,-- white flowers beneath the church tower, violets along the nave, roses before the Virgin's altar, and lilies throughout the choir. Others came and lighted candles, and then John the Baptist entered bearing the lamb, which he set on the altar and prepared to read mass. John the Evangelist came next, St Peter and so many more of heaven's inmates that the poor girl felt there was no room left for her in the nave of the church. She went and stood beneath the tower among people who wore crowns, 'but the beauty of hair, which comes from good works, they had not. How had they come into heaven? Through repentance and good intention.' There were others with them so richly clad that the girl felt ashamed of her appearance and went into the choir, where she saw the Virgin, St Catherine, holy Cecilia, bishops, martyrs and angels. But suddenly she too was decked with a splendid cloak, and the Virgin beckoned to her to stand by her side. Prompted by the Virgin she then took part in the religious service and was led to the altar, where John the Baptist let her kiss the wounds of the lamb. 'She [p. 335] to whom this happened is dead,' says the writer, 'but we hope to find her again among the choir of angels.'
This allegory was severely censured, and in a later chapter[36*] Mechthild says that a 'Pharisee' argued that it was forbidden for a layman, like John the Baptist, to hold mass. Mechthild's arguments in reply to the charge are somewhat involved, but she boldly declares that John, who was in close communion with God, was better fitted in some respects to say mass than Pope, bishop or priest.
With Mechthild, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and St Peter, patron saint of the Dominicans, stand foremost among the saints of heaven. There is a beautiful account[37*] of a Soul who found herself in company with God and the saints, who each in turn explained how they had helped to bring her there.
Glimpses of heaven and hell are frequent in these writings, and a full description of hell[38*] and one of paradise[39*] deserve special attention from the point of view of medieval imagery. Hell is here characterised as the seat of Eternal Hatred, which is built in the deepest depths from stones of manifold wickedness. Pride, as shown in Lucifer, forms the foundation-stone; then come the stones of disobedience, covetousness, hatred and lewdness, brought thither through acts of Adam. Cain brought anger, ferocity, and warfare, and Judas brought lying, betrayal, despair and suicide. The building formed by these stones is so arranged that each part of it is occupied by those who were specially prone to the various sins. In its depths sits Lucifer, above him Christians, Jews and heathens, according to the kind of crime committed by each. The horrors of their sufferings recall those pictured by Herrad, and at a later period by Dante and Orcagna. The usurer is gnawed, the thief hangs suspended by his feet, murderers continually receive wounds, and gluttons swallow red-hot stones and drink sulphur and pitch. 'What seemed sweetness here is there turned into bitterness. The sluggard is loaded with grief, the wrathful are struck with fiery thongs. The poor musician, who had gleefully fed wicked vanity, weeps more tears in hell than there is water in the sea. Many horrible and impressive scenes, such as the medieval mind loved to dwell upon, are depicted.
The picture drawn of paradise is correspondingly fair. Ac- [p. 336] cording to the beguine there is an earthly and a heavenly paradise. Regarding the earthly paradise she says: 'There is no limit to its length and breadth. First I reached a spot lying on the confines of this world and paradise. There I saw trees and leaves and grass, but of weeds there were none. Some trees bore fruit, but most of them sweet-scented leaves. Rapid streams cut through the earth, and warm winds blew from the south. In the waters mingled earth's sweetness and heaven's delight. The air was sweet beyond expression. But of birds and animals there were none, for God has reserved this garden for human beings to dwell there undisturbed.' In this garden Mechthild finds Enoch and Elias who explain what keeps them there. Then she sees the higher regions of paradise in which dwell the souls who are waiting to enter the kingdom of God, 'floating in joy as the air floats in the sunshine,' says Mechthild; and she goes on to explain how on the Day of Judgment paradise will altogether cease to exist and its inhabitants will be absorbed into heaven.
The beguine's writings contain various references to herself and her compositions, and considerable praise of the Dominican friars. In one place[40*] she describes how she was told that her writings deserved to be burnt, but she turned in prayer to God as was her wont from childhood, and He told her not to doubt her powers for they came through Him. 'Ah Lord,' she exclaimed in reply, 'were I a learned man, a priest, in whom thou hadst made manifest this power, thou would'st see him honoured, but how can they believe that on such unworthy ground thou hast raised a golden house? Lord, I fail to see the reason of it.' But the attacks against her roused her to anger, and she closes the poem with a stern invective against those who are false.
Another passage contains an autobiographical sketch of Mechthild's early experiences.[41*] She says that when she was twelve years old she felt drawn to things divine, and from that time to the present, a period of thirty-one years, she had been conscious of God's grace and had been saved from going astray. 'God is witness,' she continues, 'that I never consciously prayed to be told what is written in this book; it never occurred to me that such things could come to anyone. While I spent my youth with friends and relations to whom I was most dear, I had no knowledge of such things. Yet I always wished to be humble, and [p. 337] from love of God I came to a place (Magdeburg) where with one exception I had no friends.' She describes how at that time two angels and two devils were her companions, and were to her the representatives of the good and evil tendencies of which she was conscious. The devils spoke to her of her physical beauty, promised fame 'such as has led astray many an unbeliever,' and prompted her to rebellion and unchastity. Obviously her passionate nature rose against the mode of life she had adopted, but the thought of Christ's sufferings at last brought her comfort. She was much perturbed by her power of writing. 'Why not give it to learned folk?' she asked of God, but God was angered with her, and her father-confessor pressed upon her that writing was her vocation. In another impassioned account she describes how she was oppressed by a devil.[42*]
In the third book of her writings Mechthild says[43*] that God pointed out to her the seven virtues which priests ought to cultivate, and we gather from this that she did not consider the clergy devout or pure-minded. In further passages[44*] she dilates on the duties of prelate, prior and prioress, and severely attacks the conduct of a deacon of Magdeburg. Even more explicit in its severity to the priesthood is an account[45*] of how God spoke to her, and told her that He would touch the Pope's heart and make him utter a prayer, which is given, and in which the Pope declaims against the conduct of his clergy who are 'straightway going to hell.' In the Latin translation God's admonition is amplified by the following passages: 'For thus says the Lord: I will open the ear of the highest priest and touch his heart with the woe of my wrath, because my shepherds of Jerusalem have become robbers and wolves before my very eyes. With cruelty they murder my lambs and devour them. The sheep also are worn and weary because you call them from healthy pastures, in your godlessness do not suffer them to graze on the heights on green herbs, and with threats and reproof prevent their being tended with healthful teaching and healthful advice by those men who are supported by faith and knowledge. He who knows not the way that leads to hell and would know it, let him look at the life and [p. 338] morals of the base and degenerate clergy, who, given to luxury and other sins, through their impious ways are inevitably going the way to hell.'[46*]
The friars, it is said, must come to the rescue and reform the world, and Mechthild being especially inclined to the Dominicans dwells on their usefulness to true faith in a number of passages.[47*] There is a long description of how God saw that His Son, with the apostles, martyrs, confessors and virgins, was unable to lead back the people who had gone astray, and therefore He sent into the world two other children, that is the two orders of friars, to save them. In another vision.[48*] God explains to Mechthild the special purpose for which He has lately sent five new saints into the world, one of whom is Elisabeth of Thüringen 'whom I sent,' said the Lord, 'to those wretched ladies who sit in castles with much unchastity, puffed up with conceit, and so absorbed by vanities that they ought to be cast into the nether regions. Many a lady however has now followed her example in what measure she would or could.' The other saints are Dominic, who has been sent to reclaim unbelievers,--Francis, who has come as a warning to covetous priests and conceited laymen,-- a new St Peter, the Martyr († 1252),--and the sister Jutta von Sangershausen. History tells us of Peter that he was appointed inquisitor against the heretics in Lombardy and murdered at their instigation;[49*] and of Jutta that, having lost her husband in 1260, she placed her children in convents and went among the heathen Prussians where she tended the leprous till her death four years afterwards.[50*] From later passages in the writings of Mechthild, written after she had come to live at Helfta,[51*] it appears that she felt that faith was not increasing in the world; perhaps she was disappointed in her exalted anticipations of the influence of the friars.
The writings of Mechthild of this later period are more mystic and visionary than those of earlier days. She is distressed at the troublous times that have come to Saxony and Thuringen, [p. 339] and tells[52*] how she fell ill and was so perturbed that she lost the power of prayer for seventeen days. Many prayers and visions, some of great sweetness and beauty, were the production of these later days. A long allegory called the 'Spiritual Convent or Ghostly Abbey'[53*] shows the high opinion she had of life in a nunnery. In this poem the inmates of the convent are personified as the Virtues, an idea occasionally used during the Middle Ages, and one which at a later date in England, as we shall hear afterwards,[54*] was handled in a very different manner, the convent inmates being represented as the Vices. In Mechthild's convent Charity is abbess, Meekness is chaplain, Peace is prioress, Kindliness is sub-prioress, and among the inmates of the convent there is Hope the singing-mistress, and Wisdom the schoolmistress 'who with good counsel carefully instructs the ignorant, so that the nunnery is held holy and honoured.' Bounty is cellaress, Mercy sees to the clothes, Pity tends the sick, and Dread sits at the gate. The provost or priest is Obedience, 'to whom all these Virtues are subject. Thus does the convent abide before God,' the poem ends, '...happy are they who dwell there.'
The writings of Mechthild offer many more points of interest. Not the least curious among her compositions are the amplified descriptions of Biblical history, as of the Creation, the Nativity, and the early experiences of the Virgin,[55*] which enter minutely into the feelings and emotions of those immediately concerned and give them an allegorical and spiritualised application. Short spiritual poems are also numerous, but so much depends on their form that a translation cannot convey their chief beauty. Their general drift is exemplified by the two following.[56*]
'It is a wondrous journeying onwards, this progress of the Soul, who guides the Senses as the man who sees leads him who is blind. Fearlessly the Soul wanders on without grief of heart, for she desires nought but what the Lord wills who leads all to the best.'
And again, [57*] 'My Soul spake to her Spouse: Lord, thy ten [p. 340] derness is to my body delightful ministration; thy compassion is to my spiritual nature wondrous comfort; and thy love is to my whole being rest eternal.'
Thoughts such as these are found scattered up and down in the beguine's writings, and give one a high estimation of her poetic power, her ready imagination and her mastery of language. Her vigorous nature guided into the channel of spiritual aspirations frequently filled her poems with a passionate eloquence.
In conclusion may stand a few of the beguine's moral reflections, which, if they are not borrowed from elsewhere, argue well for her power of condensing thoughts into short sentences; but here also it is not easy to find the exact words in which to render the chief points of these reflections.[58*]
'Vanity does not stop to think what she is losing;
Perseverance is laden with virtues.
Stupidity is ever self-sufficient;
The wisest never comes to the end of what he would say.
Anger brings darkness unto the soul;
Gentleness is ever sure of attaining grace.
Pride would ever raise herself aloft;
Lowliness is ever ready to yield...
Sluggishness will never gain wealth;
The industrious seeks more than his immediate advantage.'
And the following,--which are the product of a later period and have in them the ring of a deeper experience--' [59*] None knows how firm he stands, until he has experienced the prompting of desire; none how strong he is, until hatred has attacked him; none how good he is, before he -has attained a happy end.'
From the writings of the beguine Mechthild we pass to those of her companion at Helfta, the nun Mechthild von Hackeborn. Her 'Book of Special Grace'[60*] consists entirely of visions or revelations described by her and put into writing by her fellow-nuns; it was widely read, and gave rise to similar productions in other nunneries. There are many early manuscript copies of the book in existence; it was originally written in Latin, but has been translated into German, English, Italian and French, and has repeatedly been printed.[p. 341]
The visions are so arranged that those contained in the first part of the book have reference to festal days of the Church, to Christ, Mary and the saints. The second part treats of the manifestations of divine grace of which Mechthild was conscious in herself, and the third and fourth describe how God should be praised and what is conducive to salvation or 'soul-hele.' In the fifth part Mechthild holds converse with those who have departed this life, chiefly members of the convent, for the belief that it was possible to hold communion with the souls of the departed was readily accepted at Helfta as in other religious houses.
A sixth and seventh part were added to Mechthild's book after her death by her fellow-nuns and contain information about her sister, the abbess Gertrud, and details about Mechthild's death and the visions other nuns had of her.
The nun Mechthild von Hackeborn, who was nine years younger than her sister Gertrud, had come to the house as a child on a visit with her mother, and was so much attracted to it that she remained there. She is described by her fellow-nuns as a person of tender and delicate refinement, whose religious fervour was remarkable, and these characteristics are reflected in her writings. She was often suffering, noticeably at the time when her sister, the abbess Gertrud, died (1291). She is praised for her lovely voice, and references to music and singing in her visions are frequent. It is not quite clear when her fellow-nuns began to put her visions into writing, presumably between 1280 and 1300, and authorities also differ on the year of her death, which the Benedictines of Solesmes accept as 1298,[61*] whereas Preger defers it till 1310.[62*]
In the description of her visions Mechthild von Hackeborn appears throughout as a person of even temper and great sweetness of disposition, one who was not visited by picturesque temptations, troubles and doubts, and who therefore insisted chiefly on the beautiful side of things; for hell with its torments and the whole mise-en-scène of the nether regions have no meaning and no attraction for her. In her revelations Christ, the Virgin, and other members of the vast hierarchy of heaven enter as living realities. She is particularly fond of the angels, whom she loves to picture as the associates of men on earth and in heaven. In conformity with the conceptions of her age Christ is to her the wooer of the soul, [p. 342] the chosen bridegroom, who combines all that makes humanity attractive and divinity sublime. Christ and the Virgin love to confer with Mechthild, or rather with her Soul,--the terms are used indiscriminately,--and enter into converse with her whenever she seeks enlightenment. Flowers and precious stones, the splendour of vestments, and occasionally some homely object, supply her with similes and comparisons.
The following descriptions occurring in visions will give some idea of the spirit in which Mechthild wrote.[63*] This water is called the river of love; thereunto the soul entered and was cleansed of every stain. In this river there were numerous fish with golden scales, which signified those loving souls which, separated from earthly delights, have plunged themselves in the very well-spring of all good, that is, into Jesus. In the vineyard palm-trees were planted, some of which stood erect, while others were bent to the ground. The palms that stand erect are those who despised the world with its flowers, and who turned their minds to things divine; and the palms that are bent down are those wretched ones who lie in the earthly dust of their misdeeds. The Lord in likeness of a gardener was digging in the earth, and she said: "0 Lord, what is thy spade ?" And He answered: "My fear."--Now in certain places the earth was hard, in others soft. The hard earth signified the hearts of those who are hardened in sin and who know not how to be corrected either by advice or by reproof; the soft earth the hearts of those who are softened by tears and true contrition. And our Lord said: "This vineyard is my Catholic Church, in which for thirty-three years I laboured with my sweat; do thou labour with me in this vineyard." And she said: "How ?" To whom the Lord replied: "By watering it." And straightway the Soul ran eagerly to the river and set a vessel filled with water on her shoulders, and as it was heavy, the Lord came and helped her, and its burden was lightened. And the Lord said: "Thus when I give grace to men, do all things performed or borne for my sake seem light and easy. But if I withdraw my grace, then do all things seem burdensome." Moreover round about the palms she saw a multitude of angels like unto a wall...
In a similar strain the visions of Mechthild proceed, always [p. 345] gentle and rarely impassioned but shining with the glow of endlessly changing imagery. There is no limit to the pictures which rise before her mental eye or to the points which suggest analogy with things divine.[64*]
'To rouse the piety of believers in relation to the glorious image of our Saviour Jesus Christ, on the Sunday Omnis terra (the second after Epiphany), that is on the day when the exposition at Rome of the image of Christ takes place, she was granted this vision. On a mountain overgrown with flowers she beheld our Lord seated on a throne of jasper decorated with gold and red stone. The jasper which is green is typical of the power of eternal divinity, gold represents love, and the red stone the sufferings which He endured through love of us. The mountain was surrounded by beautiful trees covered with fruit. Under these trees rested the souls of the saints, each of whom had a tent of cloth of gold, and they ate of the fruit with great enjoyment. The hill is emblematic of the mortal life of Christ, the trees are His virtues, love, pity and others. The saints rest under different trees according as they adhered to the Lord's different virtues; those who followed Him in charity, eat of the fruit of the tree of charity; those who were full of pity, eat of the fruit of the tree of pity, and so on according to the virtue each has practised.
'Then those who were ready to honour the holy face with a special prayer approached the Lord, carrying on their shoulders their sins, which they laid at His feet; and they were forthwith transformed into jewels of glowing gold (xenia aurea). Those whose repentance had come out of love, because they were sad at having offended God without having been punished, saw their sins changed into golden necklaces. Others who had redeemed them by saying the psalms and other prayers, had them transformed into golden rings such as are used at festivals (Dominicalibus). Those who had made restitution for their sins by their own efforts, saw before them lovely golden shields; while those who had purified their sins by bodily suffering, beheld them as so many golden censers, for bodily chastisement before God is like the sweetness of thyme.
The following is an example of a homely simile.[65*][p. 346]
'On a certain occasion she was conscious of having received an unusual gift through the Lord's bounty, when feeling her inadequacy she humbly said: "O bounteous King, this gift, does it befit me who deem myself unworthy of entering thy kitchen and washing thy platters?" Whereupon the Lord: "Where is my kitchen and where are the platters thou wouldst wash ?" She was confounded and said nothing. But the Lord, who puts questions not that they may be answered but that He may give answer unto them Himself, made her rejoice by His reply. He said: "My kitchen is my heart which, like unto a kitchen that is a common room of the house and open alike to servants and masters, is ever open to all and for the benefit of all. The cook in this kitchen is the Holy Ghost, who kindly without intermission provides things in abundance and by replenishing them makes things abound again. My platters are the hearts of saints and of chosen ones, which are filled from the overflow of the sweetness of my divine heart."'
From a passage in these books[66*] we learn that a large number of Mechthild's visions had been put into writing by her fellow-nuns before she was made acquainted with the fact. For a time she was sorely troubled, then she gained confidence, reflecting that her power to see visions had come from God, and indeed she heard a voice from heaven informing her that her book should be called the 'Book of Special Grace.'
She had all her life been distressed by physical suffering. During her last illness she was generally unconscious and her fellow-nuns crowded about her praying that she would intercede with God in their behalf.
Neither of the Mechthilds makes any reference in her writings to the nun Gertrud, but Gertrud's works contain various references to her fellow-nuns,[67*] and it is surmised that Gertrud helped to put the nun Mechthild's visions into writing before she wrote on her own account. A passage in her own book of visions[68*] refers to revelations generally, and the Lord explains to her how it is that visions are sometimes written in one, sometimes in another language. This idea may have been suggested by the fact that the beguine Mechthild's writings were in German and the nun Mechthild's in Latin.[p. 347]
Gertrud was very different from both of these writers in disposition.[69*] Probably of humble origin, she had been given into the care of the convent as a child (in 1261), and in her development was greatly influenced by the sisters Gertrud the abbess, and the nun Mechthild von Hackeborn. Of a passionate and ambitious nature, she devoted all her energies to mastering the liberal arts, but in consequence of a vision that came to her at twenty-five, she cast them aside and plunged into religious study. She mastered the spirit and contents of Holy Writ so rapidly that she began to expound them to others. Then she made extracts and collections of passages from the Fathers, out of which we are told she made many books. The influence of her personality was such that 'none conversed with her who did not afterwards declare they had profited by it.' The admiration she aroused among her fellow-nuns was so great that they declared that God had compared her to the nun Mechthild and that He said:'In this one have I accomplished great things, but greater things will I accomplish in Gertrud.'[70*] As a proof of her industry we are told[71*] that she was occupied from morning till night translating from Latin (into German), shortening some passages, amplifying others 'to the greater advantage of her readers.' From another passage it appears that she compiled a poem (carmen) from the sayings (dictis) of the saints,[72*] and as an illustration of her moral attitude we are told that when she was reading the Scriptures aloud and 'as it happened,' passages occurred which shocked her -by their allusions, she hurried them over quickly or pretended not to understand them. 'But when it became needful to speak of such things for some reason of salvation, it was as though she did not mind, and she overcame her hesitations.'[73*] Her great modesty in regard to her own requirements is insisted on by her biographer. Many bore witness to the fact that they were more impressed by her words than by those of celebrated preachers, for she frequently moved her audience to tears.[74*] In addition the writer feels called upon to mention a few incidents that happened to Gertrud, giving them a miraculous rendering, no doubt from a wish to enhance her worth.
The information about Gertrud is supplied by the first part of her book called 'The Legacy of Divine Piety,'[75*] which as it does ' [p. 348] not mention Gertrud's death, seems to have been written while she was alive, perhaps as a preface to a copy of her revelations. It was only after many years of study and literary activity that she determined to write down her personal experiences, and these accounts, written between 1289 and 1290, form the second part of the book as it stands at present and constitute its chief and abiding interest.
The admiration bestowed on the 'Legacy of Divine Piety' was almost greater than that given to the writings of the nun Mechthild. The perusal of a chapter will show Gertrud's attitude of mind. Starting from the occasion when she first became conscious of a living communion with God, she describes how step by step she realised an approximation to things divine, such as reverence, love, and the desire of knowledge alone can secure. She speaks of experiencing in herself a deeper religious consciousness which reacted in making her feel herself unworthy of the special attention of her Creator, and she continues in this strain:[76*]
'If I look back on what the tone of my life was before and afterwards, in truth I declare that this is grace I am grateful for and yet unworthy of receiving. For thou,O Lord, didst grant unto me of the clear light of thy knowledge to which the sweetness of thy love prompted me more than any deserved correction of my faults could have done. I do not recall having felt such happiness save on the days when thou didst bid me to the delights of thy royal table. Whether thy wise forethought had so ordained, or my continued shortcomings were the reason of it, I cannot decide.
'Thus didst thou deal with and rouse my soul on a day between Resurrection and Ascension when I had entered the courtyard at an early hour before Prime, and sitting down by the fishpond was enjoying the beauties of the surroundings which charmed me by the clearness of the flowing water, the green of the trees that stood around, and the free flight of the birds, especially the doves, but above all by the reposeful quiet of the retired situation. My mind turned on what in such surroundings would make my joy perfect, and I wished for a friend, a loving, affectionate and suitable companion, who would sweeten my solitude. Then thou, O God, author of joy unspeakable, who as I hope didst favour the beginning of my meditation and didst complete it, thou didst inspire me with the thought that if, conscious of thy grace, I flow back to be joined to thee like the water; if, growing in the knowledge of virtue like unto [p. 349] these trees, I flower in the greenness of good deeds; if, looking down on things earthly in free flight like these doves, I approach heaven, and, with my bodily senses removed from external turmoil, apprehend thee with my whole mind, then in joyfulness my heart will make for thee a habitation.
'My thoughts during the day dwelt on these matters, and at night, as I knelt in prayer in the dormitory, suddenly this passage from the Gospel occurred to me (John xiv. 23), "If a man love me, he will keep my words; and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him." And my impure heart felt thee present therein. O would that an ocean of blood passed over my head that my miserable inadequacy were washed out now that thou hast made thy abode with me in dignity inscrutable! Or that my heart snatched from my body were given to me to cleanse with glowing coal, so that, freed of its dross, it might offer thee if not indeed a worthy abode, yet one not altogether unworthy. Thus, O God, didst thou show thyself from that hour onwards, sometimes kindly, sometimes stern, in accordance with my improved or neglectful way of life; though I must admit that the utmost improvement to which I sometimes momentarily attained, had it lasted all my life, never had made me worthy of the least part of the sustenance which I received in spite of many sins and, alas! of great wickedness. For thy extreme tenderness shows me thee more grieved than angered by my shortcomings, a proof to me that the amount of thy forbearance is greater when thou dost bear with me in my failings, than during thy mortal life, when thou didst bear with the betrayer Judas.
'When I strayed in mind, tempted away by some deceitful attraction, and after hours, or alas! after days, or woe is me! after weeks, returned to my heart, always did I find thee there, so that I cannot say that thou hast withdrawn thyself from me from that hour, nine years ago, till eleven days before the feast of John the Baptist, save on one occasion, when it happened through some worldly dispute, I believe, and lasted from Thursday (the fifth feria) to Tuesday (the second feria). Then on the vigil of St John the Baptist, after the mass Nec timeas etc., thy sweetness and great charity came back to me, finding me so forlorn in mind that I was not even conscious of having lost a treasure, nor thought of grieving for it, nor was desirous of having it returned, so that I cannot account for the madness that possessed my mind, unless indeed it so happened because thou didst wish me to ex [p. 350] perience in myself these words of St Bernard: "We fly and thou pursuest us; we turn our back on thee, thou comest before us; thou dost ask and art refused; but no madness, no contempt of ours makes thee turn away who never art weary, and thou dost draw us on to the joy of which it is said (I Cor. ii. 9), 'Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard it, neither has it entered into the heart of man. These passages must suffice. Anyone desirous of following Gertrud through the further experiences which guided her to the knowledge of God and gave her an insight into the working of spiritual love must turn to her writings, which bear the reader onwards in continuous flow, and with much self-analysis and self-realisation give evidence of the conscious joy which develops into rapture in the presence of the Divine. A passage contained in the last chapter of the book describes Gertrud's hopes regarding her work, and fitly summarises her aspirations.[77*]
Behold, beloved God,' she writes, 'I here deposit the talent of thy most gracious friendship, which, entrusted to me, the lowliest and least worthy of thy creatures, I have set forth to the increase of thy power; for I believe and dare affirm that no reason prompted me to write and speak but obedience to thy will, desire for thy glory, and zeal for the salvation of souls. I take thee to witness that I wish thee praise and thanks, for thy abundant grace withdrew itself not from me on account of my unworthiness. And herein also shalt thou find praise, that readers of this book will rejoice in the sweetness of thy bounty, and, drawn to thee, learn greater things through it; for as students progress from first learning the alphabet to acquaintance with logic (logica), by means of the imagery here described they will be led to taste of that hidden divine sustenance (manna) which cannot be expressed even by allegory.. ..Meanwhile in accordance with thy faithful promise and my humble request, grant to all who read this book in lowliness that they rejoice in thy love, bear with my inadequacy, and feel true contrition themselves, in order that from the golden censers of their loving hearts a sweet odour may be wafted upwards to thee, making full amends for my carelessness and shortcomings.'
Before the personal interest of this portion of the book the other parts written by fellow-nuns fade into insignificance. They contain accounts of Gertrud's thoughts on various occa [p. 351] sions, and are chiefly interesting for the comments they contain on various accepted saints; we here see what thoughts were suggested to the Helfta nuns by the personalities of St Benedict, St Bernard, St Augustine, St Dominic, St Francis, St Elisabeth, and others. Thus the feast of St John the Apostle gives rise to an account of him[78*] sitting in heaven, where he keeps the holy record, and writes in different colours, sometimes in red, sometimes in black, sometimes in letters of gold--a simile which recalls the art of writing. The 'Legacy of Divine Piety' of Gertrud has repeatedly been printed in the original Latin, sometimes in conjunction with the 'Book of Special Grace of the nun Mechthild, and, like the revelations of Mechthild, the writings of Gertrud have been translated into German and English. Both in their original form and in selections the writings of these nuns are used as books of devotion among Catholics to this day, but neither Gertrud nor Mechthild have till now been given a place in the Acta Sanctorum.
Gertrud outlived her distinguished contemporaries at Helfta; she died in 1311[79*] her thoughts having been engrossed by the anticipation of death for some time before. During these last years of her life she composed a number of prayers called 'Spiritual Exercises'[80*] for the use of her fellow-nuns, the religious fervour of which has perhaps rarely been surpassed.
They are written in rhyme but in varying rhythm; perhaps they are best designated as rhymed prose. Only the original Latin can give an idea of their eloquence, but, in the interest of the general reader I have added one in English prose. It is one of the series designated as 'a supplication for sinfulness and a preparation for death.' There is one prayer for every canonical hour; the following[81*] is intended for repetition after the hour of prime, 'when the Soul holds converse with Love and Truth; and when the thought of eternal judgment, at which Truth will preside, causes the Soul to beseech Love to help her to secure Jesus as her advocate.'
'And thus shalt thou begin to effect a reconciliation with God.
'O shining Truth, O just Equity of God, how shall I appear before thy face, bearing my imperfections, conscious of the burden [p. 352] of my wasted life, and of the weight of my great negligence? Woe, woe is unto me; I did not make the payment of a Christian's faith and of a spiritual life there where the treasures of love are stored, that thou mightest receive it back with manifold increase of interest. The talent of life entrusted to me, not only have I left it unused; but I have forfeited it, debased it, lost it. Where shall I go, whither shall I turn, how can I escape from thy presence?
'O Truth, in thee undivided abide justice and equity. In accordance with number, weight and measure dost thou give judgment. Whatever thou dost handle is weighed in truly even scales. Woe is unto me, a thousand times woe, if I be given over to thee with none to intercede in my behalf! 0 Love, do thou speak for me, answer for me, secure for me remission. Take up my cause, that through thy grace I may find eternal life.
'I know what I must do. The chalice of salvation I will take; the chalice, Jesus, I will place on the unweighted scale of Truth. Thus, thus can I supply all that is wanting; thus can I outweigh the balance of my sins. By that chalice can I counterbalance all my defects. By that chalice I can more than counterpoise my sins.
'Hail, O Love, thy royal bondservant Jesus, moved in His inmost being, whom thou didst drag at this hour before the tribunal, where the sins of the whole world were laid on Him who was without spot or blemish, save that out of pity of me He charged Himself with my sins,--Him the most innocent, Him the most beloved, condemned for love through my love of Him and suffering death for me, Him I would receive from thee to-day, O Love Divine, that He may be my advocate. Grant me this security that in this cause I have Him as my defender.
'O beloved Truth! I could not come before thee without my Jesus, but with Jesus to come before thee is joyful and pleasant. Ah Truth, now sit thee on the seat of judgment, enter on the course of justice and bring against me what thou wilt, I fear no evil, for I know, I know thy countenance cannot confound me, now that He is on my side who is my great hope and my whole confidence. Verily, I long for thy judgment now Jesus is with me, He the most beloved, the most faithful, He who has taken on Himself my misery that He may move thee to compassion.
'Ah, sweetest Jesus, thou loving pledge of my deliverance, come with me to the judgment court. There let us stand together side by side. Be thou my counsel and my advocate. Declare what [p. 353] thou hast done for me, how well thou hast thought upon me, how lovingly thou hast added to me that I might be sanctified through thee. Thou hast lived for me that I may not perish. Thou hast borne the burden of my sins. Thou hast died for me that I might not die an eternal death. All that thou hadst thou gayest for me, that through the wealth of thy merit I might be made rich.
'Verily in the hour of death judge me on the basis of that innocence, of that purity which came to me through thee when thou didst make atonement for my sins with thine own self, judged and condemned for my sake, so that I, who am poor and destitute in myself, through thee may be wealthy beyond measure.'
[1*] Haureau, Histoire de la philosophie scholoastique,1850, vol. I, pp. 319ff.
[2*] Dictionary of National Biography, article 'Hales, Thomas.'
[3*] 'A luve ron, edit. Morris, Old English Miscellany, p. 93, for the Early EngI. Text Soc. 1872.
[4*] Edit. Morton for the Camden Soc. 1853.
[5*] 'Die angelsachsischen Prosabearbeitungen der Benedictinerregel,' edit. Schroer, 1885 (in Grein, Bibliothek der angels. Prosa, vol. 2), p. 9.
[6*] Schroer, Winteney Version der Regula St Benedicti, 1888, p. 13.
[7*] 'De vita eremetica (in Migne, Patrol. Cursus Compl., vol. 32, by an oversight it is included among the works of St Augustine), p. 145.
[8*] Anselm, Opera (in Migne, Patrol. Cursus Compl., vol. 158), 'Meditationes (nr 15--17), pp. 786 ff.
[9*] Edit. Koelbing, Englische Studien, vol. 7, p. 304.
[10*] Scenes and characters of the Middle Ages, 1872, pp. 93--151.
[11*] Wilkins, D., Concilia, 1737, vol. 1, p. 693.
[12*] Brink, B. ten, Early English Literature, trans. Kennedy, 1883, p. 205.
[13*] First advanced by Morton, Ancren Riwle, Introd. pp. xii--xv; it is supported neither by tradition nor by documentary evidence.
[14*] Dalgairns, Introd. to Hylton, Scale of Perfection, 1870, thinks it possible that the author was a Dominican friar.
[15*] Comp. throughout Ancren Riwle, edit. Morton for the Camden Soc. 1853.
[16*] That is bands or ligatures to be used after the letting of blood.
[17*] Old English Homilies,First Series, edit. Morris, 1867, p. 268.
[18*] Hali Meidenhad,edit. Cockayne, for the Early English Text Soc. 1866.
[19*] Comp. Revelationes Gertrudianae ac Mechtildianae, edit. Oudin, for the Benedictines of Solesmes 1875, vols., which contain the works of these three nuns; Mechthild von Magdeburg, Offenbarungen, oder Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit, edit. Gall Morel. 1869; Preger, W., Geschichte der deutschen Mystik im Mittelalter, 1874, vol. I, pp. 70--132.
[20*] Revelations,etc. Edit. Oudin, vol. I, Praefatio.
[21*] Ibid. Vol. I, pp. 497 ff.
[22*] Comp. Preger, 'Dante's Matelda' Acad. Vortrag, 1873; Paquelin and Scartazzini, 'Zur Matelda.Frage' in Jahrbuch der Dante Gesellschaft, Berlin, 1877, pp. 405, 411; Lubin, Osservasioni sulla Matilda svelata, 1878.
[23*] Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, article 'Mechthild' by Strauch, Ph.
[24*] Keller, L., Die Reformation und die alteren Reformparteien, 1885, pp. 29 ff.; also Hallman, E., Geschichte des Ursprzengs der Beguinen, 1843.
[25*] Mechthild von Magdeburg, Offenbarungen, oder Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit, edit. Gall Morel, 1869; the abridged Latin version in Revelationes, etc. edit. Oudin, vol. 2, pp. 423--710.
[26*] Heinrich not to be confounded with Heinrich who translated her work.
[27*] Revelationes, etc. edit. Oudin, vol. 2, pp. 298, 329, 332, etc.
[28*] Ibid. vol. I, p. 542; vol. 2, pp. 325, 330.
[29*] Mechthild, Offenbarungen, etc. edit. Gall Morel, p. 3 'Wie die minne und die kuneginne zesamene sprachen.'
[30*] Ibid. p. 6 'Von den rnegden (ler seele und von der minne schlage.'
[31*] Ibid. p. 18 'Von der minne weg,' etc.
[32*] Mechthild, Offenbarungen, p. 43 'Wie die minne vraget,' etc.
[33*] Ibid. p. 38 'Wie die bekantnisse und die sele sprechent zesamne,' etc.
[34*] Ibid. p. 232 'Wie bekantnisse sprichet zu dem gewissede.'
[35*] Ibid. p. 30 'Von der armen dirnen' (I have retained the designation 'saint' where it is used in the allegory).
[36*] Mechthild, Offenbarungen, p. 210 'Da Johannes Baptista der armen dirnen messe sang.
[37*] Ibid. p. 46 'Wie sich die minnende sele gesellet gotte, etc.
[38*] Ibid. p. 82 'Von der helle,' etc.
[39*] Ibid. p. 270 Em wenig von deni paradyso.
[40*] Mechthild, Offenbarungen,p. 52 'Von diseme buche,' etc.
[41*] Ibid. P. 90. 'Dis buch ist von gotte komen,' etc.
[42*] Mechthild, Offenbarungen, p. 110 'Von einer vrowe, etc.
[43*] Ibid. p. 68 'Von siben dingen die alle priester sollent haben.'
[44*] Ibid. p. 177 'Wie em prior, etc.' p. 177 'Von der regele eines kanoniken, etc.' p. 178 'Got gebet herschaft.'
[45*] Ibid. p. 198 'Wie bose pfafheit sol genidert werden.'
[46*] Revelationes, etc. edit. Oudin, vol. 2, p. 524.
[47*] Mechthild, Offenbarangen, p. p.. 115 'Von sehs tugenden St Domenicus' p. 116 'Dur sehszehen ding hat got predierorden liep' ibid. 'Von vierhande crone bruder Heinrichs' p. 154 'Von sehsleie kleider, etc.'
[48*] Ibid. p. 166 'Von funfleie nuwe heligen.'
[49*] A. SS. Boll., St Peter of the Dominican Order, April 29.
[50*] Ibid., St Jutta vidua, May 5, appendix.
[51*] Mechthild, Offenbarungen, p. 256 'Wie em predierbruder wart gesehen.'.
[52*] Meclithild, Offenbarungen, p. 243 'Von der not eines urluges.'
[53*] Ibid. p. 249 'Von einem geistlichen closter.'
[54*] Comp. below, ch. II, § I .
[55*] Mechthild, Offenbaruugen, p. 68 'Von dem angenge aller dinge' p. 107 'Von der heligen drivaltekeit, etc.' p. 147 'Von sante marien gebet, etc.'
[56*] Ibid. p. 14 'In disen weg zuhet die sele, etc.'
[57*] Ibid. p. 16 'Von der pfrunde trost und minne.'
[58*] Mechthild, Offenbarungen, p. 98 'Von zwein ungeleichen dingen, etc.'
[59*] Ibid. p. 214 'Bekorunge, die welt und em gut ende prüfent uns.'
[60*] 'Liber Specialis Gratiae,' in Revelationes, etc. edit. Oudin, vol. 2, pp. 1--421.
[61*] Revelationes,etc. Edit. Oudin, vol. 2, p. 727.
[62*] Preger, W.,Geschichte der deutschen Mystik im Mittelalter,1874, vol. I, p. 87.
[63*] Revelationes, etc. edit. Oudin, vol. 2 ('Liber Specialis Gratiae, bk I, ch. 30, De angelis), p. 102.
'After the feast of St Michael.. .she saw a golden ascent divided into nine grades, crowded by a multitude of angels, and the first grade was presided over by angels, the second by archangels and so on upwards, each order of angels presiding over one grade. She was divinely informed that this ascent represented the abode of men in this way,--that whoever faithfully, humbly, and devotedly fulfils his duty to the Church of God, and for God's sake, to the infirm, to the poor and to travellers, abides in the first grade, consorting with the angels. Again, they who by prayer and devotion are closer to God and in nearness to Him, are devoted to knowledge of Him, to His teaching and help, are in the next grade and are the companions of the archangels. Those again who practise patience, obedience, voluntary poverty, humility, and bravely perform all virtues, mount to the next grade with the Virtues. And those who, opposing vice and greed, hold the fiend and all his suggestions in contempt, in the fourth grade share the triumph of glory with the Powers. Prelates who fully respond to the duties the Church has entrusted to them, who watch day and night over the salvation of souls and discreetly give back twofold the talent entrusted to them,--these in the fifth grade hold the glory of heaven as a recompense of their work with the Pre-eminences. Again, those who with complete submission bow before the majesty of the Divine, and who out of love for Him love the Creator in the created, and love themselves because they are fashioned after the image of God, who conform to Him as far as human weakness permits, and, holding the flesh subservient to the spirit, triumph over their mind by transferring it to things celestial, these glory in the sixth grade with the Rulers. But those who are steadfast in meditation and contemplation, who embracing pureness of heart and peace of mind make of themselves a temple meet for God, which [p. 343] truly may be called a paradise, according to Proverbs (viii. 31 ) "my delights were with the sons of men," and about which it is said (2 Cor. vi. 16) "I will dwell in them and walk in them," these dwell in the seventh grade with the Enthroned. Those who outstrip others in knowledge and apprehension, who by a singular blessedness hold God in their minds as it were face to face and give back what they have drawn from the fountain of all wisdom, by teaching and explaining to others, these abide in the eighth grade of the ascent together with the Cherubim. And those who love God with heart and soul, who place their whole being in the eternal fire which is God itself, love Him not with their own but with divine love being the chosen ones of God, who see all creatures in God and love them for His sake, friends as well as enemies, those whom nothing can divide from God nor stay in their ascent--for the more their enemies attack them the more they grow in love,--those who, fervent themselves, awake fervour in others, so that if they could they would make all mankind perfect in love, who weep for the sins and faults of others, because, indifferent to their own glory, they seek but the glory of God, these shall for evermore dwell in the ninth grade with the Seraphim, between whom and God there is nought in closer nearness to Him.
'During mass she (Mechthild) saw that a large number of angels were present, and each angel in guise of a lovely youth stood by the side of the maiden entrusted to his care. Some held flowering sceptres, others golden flowers. And as the maidens bowed they pressed the flowers to their lips in sign of everlasting peace. Thus angels assisted at the entire mass.
'And as the maidens advanced to partake of the communion, each of the angels led her who was entrusted to his care. And the King of Glory stood in the place of the priest surrounded by shining splendour, on His breast an ornament in the shape of a branched tree, and from His heart, in which lies hidden the wealth of wisdom and knowledge, flowed a stream which encompassed those who advanced with a flood of heavenly joy.'
In the preceding passages we see Mechthild in the state of rapture called forth by the moments of celebration and service; the extracts which follow describe one of the divine visitations which came to her as a special manifestation of grace'.[p. 344]
'On a certain Sunday, while they were singing the Asperges me, Domine, she said "Lord, in what wilt thou now bathe and cleanse my heart ?" Straightway the Lord with love unutterable bending to her as a mother would to her son, embraced her saying: "In the love of my divine heart I will bathe thee." And He opened the door of His heart, the treasure-house of flowing holiness, and she entered into it as though into a vineyard. There she saw a river of living water flowing from the east to the west, and round about the river there were twelve trees bearing twelve kinds of fruit, that is the virtues which the blessed Paul enumerates in his epistle: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, benignity, meekness, faith, modesty, temperance, chastity.
[64*] Revelationes, etc. edit. Oudin, vol. 2 ('Liber Specialis Gratiae,' bk I, ch. 10, De veneratione imaginis Christi), p. 31.
[65*] Ibid. vol. 2 ('Liber Specialis Gratiae,' bk 2, ch. 23, De coquina domini), p. 165.
[66*] Revelationes, etc. edit. Oudin, vol. 2 (bk 2 ch. 43, De nomine et utilitate hujus libri), p. 192.
[67*] Ibid. vol. I, pp. 46, 269.
[68*] Ibid. vol. I, p. 218.
[69*] Revelationes, etc. edit. Oudin, vol. 1, pp. 1 ff. on her life.
[70*] Ibid. vol. I, p. 14.
[71*] Ibid. vol. I, p. 23.
[72*] Ibid. vol. 1, p. 227.
[73*] Ibid. vol. I, p. 27.
[74*] Ibid. vol. I, p. 39.
[75*] 'Legatus Divinae Pietatis' in Revelationes, etc. edit. Oudin, vol. i, pp. I ff.
[76*] 'Legatus Divinae Pietatis' in Revelationes, etc. edit. Oudin, vol. I, p. 61.
[77*] Revelationes,etc. Edit. Oudin, vol. I, p. 113.
[78*] Revelationes, etc. edit. Oudin, vol. i, p. 351.
[79*] Preger, W., Geschichte der deutschen Mystik im Mittlalter, 1874, vol. I, p. 78.
[80*] 'Exercitia Spiritualia,' in Revelationes, etc. edit. Oudin, vol. I, pp. 617--720.
[81*] Ibid. pp. 701 ff.
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