Feminine Love in the Twelfth Century – A Case Study: The Mulier in the Lost Love Letters and the Work of Female Mystics
Eve Worth (University of Bristol)
History in the Making: Vol.1:2 (2012)
This article compares the twelfth-century writings of the secular mulier in the Lost Love Letters with the work of religious female ‘mystics’ to draw comparisons about the way these authors chose to express love. An analysis of the use of imagery and the dominant discourses in their writings allows the author to draw conclusions about the characteristics of a feminine expression of love in this period. The conclusions of the article open up the possibility of questioning the widely held idea of ‘uniqueness’ in the work of Hildegard of Bingen.
In 1999 the historian Mews sparked a ferocious academic debate when he declared that a set of ‘Lost Love Letters’ (LLL), as he described them, had been penned by the fêted Abelard and Heloïse. His controversial argument derived from an analysis of the linguistic and philosophical patterns in the letters. Since publication his work on the letters has generated ‘articles from many well-known specialists in Medieval Latin; a lengthy answer by Mews to his critics; and fresh defences of the attribution’ notably by Jaeger and Piron. Mews was building on the relatively unknown work of Konsgen, who had previously translated a set of 113 love letters which had been abridged and copied by a Cistercian monk of Clairvaux in the late fifteenth century. Konsgen had been encouraged by his editors to raise the tantalising possibility that the letters were a discovery of an earlier exchange between Abelard and Heloïse; although he remained sceptical. The debate over the ascription has however come to dominate work on the LLL and has impeded historians from analysing them outside of this paradigm. This case study seeks to break from the impasse and utilise the letters for their intrinsic value. It aims to use the woman’s voice in the LLL and compare it with the writings of two contemporary female mystics in order to assess whether there was a distinctively feminine expression of love in the twelfth century.