Mystics, English

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The great flowering of English mysticism was in the 14th century, with such writers as Walter hilton, julian of norwich, Richard Rolle (see rolle de hampole, richard), and the nameless author of The cloud of unknowing. It was the full and final growth of a tradition of devotion and speculation that had begun soon after the Christianization of England with Bede; in many of his homilies and commentaries we find his learning in the Scriptures and the Fathers expressing itself in an affective prose that tells of a progress through prayer and contemplation to an immediate perception of God's nature. In Bede's writings we find the germ of the devotions to the Sacred Heart, to the Passion and to the mysteries of Our Lady, for which later medieval England was to become famous.

Development. From the earliest days of the Anglo-Saxon Church, contacts with Ireland, though not always amicable, had existed. No doubt the Irish contributed to the growth of the body of highly individual prayers, especially those to the crucified Savior, found in such pre-Conquest compilations as the Books of Cerne and Nunnaminster. The Dream of the Rood, a much earlier composition, is beyond question the finest contribution of Old English literature to Christian devotional writing. One further circumstance in the religious life of the times, a trait shared with Ireland, helped to mold the forms and the thought fully expressed only centuries later: England became celebrated for its great numbers of hermits and anchorites. It may be that the Norman Conquest, which for a time excluded most Englishmen from ecclesiastical preferment, gave impetus to the solitary life of contemplation. Certainly in the 11th century and onward, we have much evidence to show that this life was pursued by many.

In the simple illiterate hermit Godric of Finchale, poet of the love of Christ and His Mother, we have a successor to the great tradition of Caedmon. Godric's contemporary, Christina of Markyate, though she wrote nothing, survives in her biography as an intrepid seeker for graces which she gained only by a total denial of the world. Some of the greatest figures in the English Church of this time wrote treatises which became standard among those vowed to anchoritic contemplation. Special mention must be made of St. Anselm's Latin Meditations, St. Aelred's Latin Mirror of Love and St. Edmund's French Mirror of Holy Church. Their fruitfulness is witnessed by the speed with which they were turned into English, and the wide circulation such translations gained. In the early 13th century there appeared a wholly original English work, the ancrene riwle, in which the traditions of vernacular prose writing were given new life. The Riwle is only one of a number of contemporary guides to the solitary life of contemplation. The "Katherine Group" of English spiritual writings show that the author of the Riwle was not alone in his revival of English prose. Until the very end of organized religious life in the mid-16th century, the Riwle continued to be read, adapted, copied, and quoted. Many works which gained an independent fame in the 14th and 15th centuries, such as The Chastising of God's Children, The Poor Caitiff and Disce Mori, derive inspiration from it; and its study is today essential to those who would understand the individual genius of the spiritual thought of the age.

Religious Poetry. The religious life of medieval England is, indeed, singular in the West for the huge body of vernacular religious poetry, almost all of it anonymous, which has come down to us. It is still fashionable to regard much of it, the poems of love for Our Lady in particular, as derivative alike in language and inspiration from profane songs of courtly love; but this view is objectionable in many ways. It is equally arguable that courtly literature owes much of its inspiration to religious models, and the evidence, in England alone, provided by such very early lyrics as those of Godric and the evocative quatrain upon the Crucifixion quoted by St. Edmund in the Mirror, shows that the Franciscans were far from being the first to make popular songs about the love of God. Even before Richard Rolle we have such poems as Thomas of Hales's Love Rune to witness to the survival of long-established traditions. In Rolle, though we may think his reputation as a contemplative exaggerated, in his own times and ours, we find an unrivaled poet of the sweetness of divine love. The author of the Cloud and Walter Hilton both make adverse criticisms of the type of devotion which Rolle popularized, showing that it could lead to a superstitious veneration of "consolations," real or imagined, for their own sake; but they were themselves in some respects Rolle's debtors. He helped to preserve and adapt the style in which they wrote, and there are few who study the Cloud and The Scale of Perfection without having first known Rolle's Incendium Amoris and his English treatises and poems. Who the author of the Cloud was we do not know, nor is his identity important. His teachings, partly inspired by Pseudo-Dionysius and Richard of Saint-Victor, on the steps in contemplation and prayer that will lead to an immediate union with God, to "deification," aroused hostility. Doctrinally, the Cloud and its constellation of minor treatises, Privy Counsel and the rest, resemble principally John Ruysbroeck among Western mystics. Walter Hilton, the solitary turned Augustinian canon, is more sober, more academic, less original in his manner of presentation; nonetheless his writings established themselves in the 15th century as authoritative guides to contemplative prayer.

Ecstatic Mysticism. Quite apart from these two is their contemporary, Julian, the anchorite of Norwich whose Revelations show her to have been England's one great ecstatic mystic. This she does not claim for herself: her book merely records a series of mysterious visions, granted to her over a short period early in life, and the doctrine she drew from them after long pondering. What she teaches of the Incarnation, the Passion, Redemption, and damnation, makes comparison of her with Hadewijch, Mechtild of Magdeburg, and Catherine of Siena not inappropriate.

Until the ruin of organized Catholic life, and afterwards, these mystics continued deeply to influence the country's life and thought, as St. Thomas More and Augustine Baker, among many others, show us; but they had written for an age which had died, and it was not until the 19th century revived men's reverence for the medieval world that they were able again to show students of spiritual life the paths towards God which they, no less than the saints of the Counter Reformation, had followed to their goal.

Bibliography: d. knowles, English Mystics (London 1927); The English Mystical Tradition (New York 1961). w. r. inge, Studies of English Mystics (London 1906), St. Margaret's lectures for 190506; to be read with caution. m. ward, ed., The English Way: Studies in English Sanctity from St. Bede to Newman (New York 1933). e. colledge, Medieval Mystics of England (New York 1961).

[e. colledge]