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Annihilation and Authorship: Three Women Mystics of the 1290s

Annihilation and Authorship: Three Women Mystics of the 1290s

By Barbara Newman

Speculum, Vol.91:3 (2016)

18th-century print of Angela of Foligno
18th-century print of Angela of Foligno

Abstract: One of the most startling tenets of late-medieval mysticism is its call for self-annihilation. The human soul, with all its powers of knowing, willing, and loving, must be reduced to nothing and merge into God without remainder, sacrificing its unique identity in indistinct union with the Beloved. Mystical annihilation proves to be a complex idea, with significant variants across the range of late-medieval spirituality. Although the concept became widespread only in the calamitous fourteenth century, it first emerged in the relatively calm 1290s. More remarkably, it emerged simultaneously in the writings of three women who lived far apart and could not possibly have known of each other. Three great works of women’s mysticism came into being in this decade and all profess the new doctrine, though in different ways and to differing degrees. Mechthild of Hackeborn, Angela of Foligno, and Marguerite Porete were exact contemporaries who differed in language, social status, and modes of religious life; their books diverge no less in genre, modes of production, and posthumous destinies. Thus comparing them can provide a way to contextualize the radical idea of annihilatio, which Bernard McGinn links expressly with women, as it took shape within the varied contexts of their authorship.

Introduction: One of the most startling tenets of late-medieval mysticism is its call for self-annihilation. The human soul, with all its powers of knowing, willing, and loving, must be reduced to nothing and merge into God without remainder, sacrificing its unique identity in indistinct union with the Beloved. On the face of it, the quest for annihilation—a Christian version of nirvana—seems to represent the epitome of disillusionment with the present life. Nothing in this world is worth saving, for salvation merely reverses the gratuitous act of creation. As one fourteenth-century mystic put it, the naked soul must return to the naked Godhead, “where I was before I was created.” Yet mystical annihilation proves to be a complex idea, with significant variants across the range of late-medieval spirituality. Although the concept became widespread only in the calamitous fourteenth century, it first emerged in the relatively calm 1290s. More remarkably, it emerged simultaneously in the writings of three women who lived far apart and could not possibly have known of each other. Three great works of women’s mysticism came into being in this decade and all profess the new doctrine, though in different ways and to differing degrees.

Click here to read this article from Academia.edu

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