Vision and Revision: The Female Mystics as Writers in Late Medieval Northern Europe

Mechthild of Magdeburg - 18th century depictionVision and Revision: The Female Mystics as Writers in Late Medieval Northern Europe

By Barbara Hamilton

PhD Dissertation, Rutgers University, 2009

Abstract: This study views the female medieval mystics of northern Europe primarily as writers in the period from 1250-1400 CE, concentrating on Hadewijch, a Brabantine beguine, Mechthild of Magdeburg, a German beguine with ties to the Cistercian convent of Helfta, and Julian of Norwich, an English anchoress. The writer questions why females writing within a theological context that discouraged female authorship would choose for their subject matter something which cannot be described. Through analysis of the cultural, theological, and literary context within which the women worked, and the mystic literature they produced, the study finds that authority to write was embedded within the vision itself and uncovered through the writer’s active, integrative re-vision and shaping of the liminal experience. The dialogic, social imperative inherent within the mystic situation led those women practicing beguine spirituality to a mixed path of inward and outward action as they sought to continually integrate their visionary insight with their outward reality through writing.

Concentrating on the mystics’ attention to form, description, synthesis, and audience, the study identifies limitations of past critical approaches including the theological, vernacular, liberationist, feminist, and Lacanian. In stressing the mystics’ social rather than alienated nature, the writer calls for a re-vision of our own perspective, a move from interpreting them using the “poetics of desire” model to one stressing a “poetics of integration,” concentrating less on their affective and more on their effective piety. The experience of the late medieval mystics is compared to that of a shamanic balancer and healer, one who voyages and mediates between worlds. The last chapter proposes a re-interpretation of the mystics based on new definitions of the self as multiple and networked rather than unitary. It offers insight on the role of the artist using this new model of the narrative self, borrowing concepts from cognitive science to re-describe the liminal or shamanic journey.

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Introduction: When I first encountered the writings of the medieval mystics years ago, I began this study with a simple question: why has so much writing been produced about a topic considered to be ineffable, inexpressible? If “nothing can be said” of the mystical union between human and that which is beyond human, as mystics of various religious traditions spanning centuries have claimed, why have so many pursued this path and written voluminously about it? As I expanded my search and began to study the works of the female mystics of northern Europe, my questioning grew deeper. How could the female mystics have envisioned themselves as writers? Why, given the misogyny of the ecclesiastical and political power structure of the Middle Ages, the restrictions against women speaking, and the lack of female literary ancestors, would women inclined to self-expression choose the inexpressible for their initial foray into authorship? If primarily writers, why choose mysticism? If primarily mystics, why write? Why choose the via contemplativa and then engage in such a social form of communication as authorship, writing in most cases with a conscious and obvious sense of audience?

Click here to read this thesis from Rutgers University

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