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Mechtild of Magdeburg


Beguine mystic; b. Saxony, c. 1209; d. Helfta, between 1282 and 1294. Mechtild was apparently of noble or well-born parents. According to her own testimony, her first mystical experience occurred when, at the age of 12, she was greeted by the Holy Spirit. Desiring to live wholly for God, she became a Beguine at Magdeburg in 1230, and under the direction of the Dominicans led a life of intense prayer and austerity for 40 years. The hostility aroused by her extraordinary spiritual experiences and by her severe criticism of the clergy forced her, in 1270, to leave Magdeburg. Ailing and partially blind, she sought refuge in the Cistercian convent at Helfta, where she was warmly received by SS. mechtild of hackeborn and gertrude the great. She remained there, in the congenial atmosphere of holiness, until her death. Although regarded as a saint by her contemporaries, she has not been canonized.

Mechtild's writings, begun in 1250 and completed sometime after 1270, were collected by her friends and widely distributed under the title of Das fliessende Licht der Gottheit, from the words supposedly spoken to Mechtild by Christ saying that she was to be a witness to the "light of my divinity flowing into all hearts that live without guile" (vliessende licht miner gotheit in allu die herzen die da lebent ane valscheit ). The original Low German text is lost, but a South German translation and a Latin translation from c. 1290 are extant.

Das fliessende Licht consists of somewhat disconnected compositions of varying length. There are spiritual poems about mystical experiences, love songs, and allegories, visions, moral reflections, and solid admonitions. Mechtild often borrows the language and imagery of the Song of Songs and frequently uses dialogue in the manner of the minnesingers. Her writings show that she was acquainted with the works of Bernard of Clairvaux, William of Saint-Thierry, the Victorines, David of Augsburg, Hildegard of Bingen, and Gregory the Great. While Das fliessende Licht lacks theological content, it does contain sound mystical doctrine and shows Mechtild's profound understanding of the mystery of Christ's love and mercy. Her poetry, which is interspersed throughout the book, reveals talent of a remarkably high order. Unfortunately, her poetic imagination obviously colors much of her writing, especially her descriptions of hell. It has been suggested that Dante was influenced by her, and that she is the Matelda referred to in Purgatorio, Cantos 27 to 33.

Bibliography: Texts. g. morel, ed., Das fliessende Licht der Gottheit (Regensburg 1869). Revelationes Gertrudianae ac Mechtildianae, ed. Benedictines of Solesmes (Paris 1878) 2: 435. The Revelations of M. of Magdeburg (12101297) or, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, tr. l. menzies (New York 1953). Das fliessende Licht der Gottheit (Einsiedeln 1955), introd. m. schmidt, with study by h. u. von balthasar. Critical ed. in prep. by h. neumann. Studies. w. preger, Dante's Matelda (Munich 1873); Geschichte der deutschen Mystik im Mittelalter, 3 v. (rev. ed. Aalen 1962). e. g. gardner, Dante and the Mystics (London 1913). j. ancelet-hustache, Mechtilde de Magdebourg: Étude de psychologie religieuse (Paris 1926). w. stammler and k. langosch, eds. Die deutsche Literatur des Mittelalters: Verfasserlexikon (Berlin-Leipzig 193355) 3:323326. m. s. c. molenaar, Die Frau vom anderen Ufer (Heidelberg 1946). m. schmidt, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 195765) 7:225.

[m. f. laughlin]

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