By Hayley E. Pangle
Grand Valley Journal of History, Vol. 1, Iss. 1 (2011)
Introduction: From the Gnostics of the second century to the Waldesians of the thirteenth century, popular religion as practiced outside the structures of the Roman Church challenged the religious authority of the papacy and greatly influenced the decisions it made as it refined doctrines, decrees, and practices that it deemed acceptable to the church. Christian mysticism, although having its roots in the earliest days of Christianity, expanded and intensified in the eleventh through fourteenth centuries in Europe. Several aspects of the mystic Christianity in the Middle Ages challenged the traditions of the church, including the mystics’ theological interpretation of scripture, their graphic visions, and their threat to established gender roles.
But first it is important to explain the basics of Christian mysticism. The term mysticism taken by itself embodies an idea that is prevalent amongst the world’s religions: that a human has the ability to experience a deep connection with the divine on his or her own terms, without the use of scripture, doctrine, and other rules dictating how the person should perceive or believe in the divine. Mysticism “is an experience, not an idea” which cannot be explained easily since it stresses the “inability of human reasoning to know the incomprehensible deity.” Commonly a mystical movement within a religion is viewed with skepticism from the doctrinal tradition; this was especially true with the medieval papacy and Christian mysticism. For although mysticism produced wonderful role models of Christian believers to laypeople, many of its aspects, i.e. the mystical interpretation of scripture, mystic visions, and challenge to gender roles, were “often on the periphery of acceptable practice” and directly challenged Roman Catholic traditions.
There were two main phases of mysticism in medieval Europe. Twelfth century mysticism was characterized by personal experimentation of the laity’s faith and subsequently having mystical experiences without the “benefit of theological training.” Evidence of this was religious community living and the production of theological literature that gained popularity in popular culture without papal sanction and control. The fourteenth century ushered in the second phase, an “age of intolerance and repression,” which was characterized by the papacy’s attempts to gain control or even eliminate these lay movements. As a result, many of the movements that started in the twelfth century deteriorated during this second phase. However a key idea ran strongly through both phases: the mystic should be “dissatisfied with a religion of external devotion” and must possess a spirit entirely dedicated to God through extreme asceticism and “inwardness.” Medieval mysticism stressed that the mystic needed to trust God to reveal himself to him or her, which he often did in areas that challenged papal traditions.