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“I do medieval”: How Mechthild of Magdeburg led me into the Middle Ages

By Cait Stevenson 

The Middle Ages are the best ages, and my current research focuses on one of their most enduring mysteries: if books were so precious and so expensive, why medieval people read bad ones?

The printing press was invented in mid-fifteenth century Germany: the first time and place in the Middle Ages where demand for books was so high that publishers could produce 500 copies of a text and expect that 500 people would buy them. And yet—fifteenth-century literature is terrible. “These are the three weapons against mortal sin.” “These are the five things salvation requires.” “These are the five weapons against mortal sin.” (Really, Johannes Nider?) Over and over and over. So if fifteenth-century books were so repetitive and so dull, why on earth did so many people read them—and why did nobody write better ones?

While my PhD committee quite rightly expressed their concern over the completion of a dissertation whose foundational principle is that its sources are really, really boring, I carry a secret weapon that keeps my love of history not just alive but living. For the past couple of years I have been writing for and now help run one of the largest public history forums on the Internet, AskHistorians. The way people ask questions—“What would happen if a king’s crown didn’t fit?” “I am a French noble in the 1700s and it’s ever so hot today. I shall require cooling and refreshments. What is at my disposal?”—reminds me that history is more than deep textual analysis (…you people and your newfangled “material” “culture”). People want to know what it would have been like to live back then, want to make sense of that world, want to connect with it. I can get so wrapped up in the struggles of grad student life that sometimes I feel like I love what I do, with everything that I am, but I can’t really remember why.

And so my username on AskHistorians, sunagainstgold, is my daily reminder of my why. It’s from one of the poems by Mechthild of Magdeburg, the thirteenth-century beguine (an unofficial nun, more or less) and mystical writer, in her Flowing Light of the Godhead:

 You shine into my soul
 Like the sun against gold

I discovered Mechthild the second semester of my historical theology MA. My background in the Middle Ages from undergraduate is…rather underwhelming, so when our medieval theology seminar paper topic was “medieval theology,” you can imagine I was feeling pretty lost. I had the vague idea I wanted to write on something about religious justification for violence, maybe something to do with the Crusades? Maybe? What else is there to medieval theology besides the Crusades and scholastics?

Well, before I could get to the Crusades, my various searches for “medieval violence” brought me to a handful of articles on violent imagery in…women’s mystical writing? Wait, what? Women in the Middle Ages? Women writing? And what is mysticism besides a word that sounds religious and exotic? I couldn’t get to the library fast enough. I checked out what I’m pretty sure is the SLU library’s entire collection of Classics of Western Spirituality translation and somehow got them back home. I can still remember sitting on my couch in the cold of a Midwest winter, wrapped up in six blankets, randomly picking Flowing Light of the Godhead as my first book. This text incorporates basically all genres, poetry and prose alike, in “chapters” of varying length. And this—this was like nothing I had ever read before. In the opening chapters, Mechthild creates a tantalizing dialogue between Lady Love and the soul as Queen, dances around the boundaries of trinitarian theology before pulling back from the subject where even divinely-graced medieval women dared not tread, explores the cost to her physical body of her devotion to God…and then:

 16. God Likens the Soul to Four Things
 You taste like a grape.

You taste like a grape.

Statue of Mechthild von Magdeburg by Susan Turcot – © Ajepbah / Wikimedia Commons

There are three other things listed, of course, but those are beside the point. You taste like a grape. I burst out laughing from the sheer joy of it, Eucharistic imagery and all. This was nothing like Thomas Aquinas, nothing like the ponderous weight of the “papal monarchy,” not even anything like the Cadaver Synod where they dug up a pope’s skeleton and put it on trial. I read on:

Once God showed her the horrible purifying fire [of purgatory] and the kinds of torment in it as varied as the sins punished there. This person’s spirit was so fiercely moved that she embraced the whole of purgatory in her arms…The spirit lamented: “Alas, dear Lord, then free some of them!”…Out Lord said: “Then take a thousand and lead them wherever you wish.” Then, black, fiery, slimy, burning, bloody, stinking they rose out of the suffering.

From that evening on, I had my answer whenever anyone asked me what my subfield was: “I do medieval.” Eight years later, I’ve moved on from the thirteenth century to the fifteenth, and believe my dissertation will be all the stronger for using texts by women and men to tell a fuller story. But my answer to that basic question of what I study, of who I am, remains the same: “I do medieval.”

I am so excited for the chance to write here, and I hope I can make the Middle Ages come alive for you the way Mechthild will always do for me.

Look for more articles by Cait Stevenson

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