Hadewijch (fl. 13th c.)

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Hadewijch (fl. 13th c.)

Flemish Christian beguine, mystic and writer-poet. Name variations: Hadewijch of Brabant; Hadewijch or Hadewych of Antwerp; Suster Hadewych; Adelwip. Pronunciation: HAD-e-vitch. Born around 1200 in or near Antwerp in the duchy of Brabant (Belgium); died around 1260.

Became the mistress of a group of young beguines and wrote a series of letters, poems, and accounts of her visions for their instruction; had her authority called into question and her pupils sent away; possibly exiled from the community for her teachings, scholars speculate, and spent the rest of her life caring for others in a hospital or other service-oriented institution.


31 Letters, 14 visions, 45 poems in stanzas, and 16 couplet poems were published together in one volume entitled The Complete Works of Hadewijch.

On a Sunday after Pentecost, a young woman lay in bed, too overcome with spiritual yearning to go to church. There, she received communion and experienced a vision of a meadow filled with trees. In the center of the pastoral was an uprooted tree of many branches. "O mistress," she heard an angel say, "you climb this tree from beginning to the end, all the way to the profound roots of the incomprehensible God!" As she turned from the tree, she saw Christ, who warned her that the cost of being one with him was to be poor, miserable, and despised by all, but the reward was the knowledge of his will and the experience of Love. He left her with these words, "Give all, for all is yours."

Like all of Hadewijch's writings, this narrative tells much about her character but nothing about the date or place of her first vision. Similarly, no other accounts can confirm information about her life. We know that she was one of one-hundred pious women who lived in the 12th and 13th centuries because a "list of the perfect," a listing of eighty people known to her, can be found at the end of her visions. Among the perfect is the name of a woman condemned to death by Robert le Bougre who was in Flanders from 1235 to 1238. From this, we surmise that Hadewijch lived in the middle of the 13th century.

Therefore, information about her background and education is conjecture based on her writings. In her letters, Hadewijch quotes a wide range of sources. She is well versed in Scripture, quotes Christian writers such as Augustine, is familiar with Latin and French, and writes in Dutch. Her poems incorporate rules of writing and versification taught at the schools of her day and are filled with references to courtly life, suggesting that she belonged to the higher class and had access to schooling.

Likewise, the tone of her letters implies an air of self-confidence and authority that could be attributed to a noble upbringing. She writes to Gilbertus, the abbot of nearby St. James' Abbey, as if he were her equal, freely chastising him for his lack of support and citing a wide range of scholarly sources that would impress him to elicit his aid. This emphasis on learning appears significant to Hadewijch, for she advocates the importance of intellectual progress. She writes of the "beautiful faculty of reason" given by God for enlightenment and instruction. She does not, however, see herself as a scholar, warning that scholastic theologians who put intellect before love will not reach the summit of spiritual life.

We know from her letters that she was mistress of a group of young beguines, women who lived a semi-religious life (religious because they lived a life of devotion to God; semi because they took no permanent vows of chastity, poverty, or obedience). They did not live a cloistered life like nuns but lived in communal houses that were usually in urban areas. There, they engaged in trades to support themselves and cared for the sick and orphaned. Because of their independence, they were often criticized by ecclesiastical authorities and were eventually outlawed.

The history of the beguine movement receives much scholarly attention as an early example of a women's emancipation movement. Likewise, the writing of beguines is seen as a new type of literature: one of the first examples of writing by women, for women, in the language of the common people. As all but one of Hadewijch's letters are written to young beguines for their care and instruction, they give us insight into their days. She charges them to a life of virtue and good works: "Be good," she writes, "toward those who have need of you, devoted toward the sick, generous with the poor, and recollected in spirit beyond the reach of all creatures."

I can will as highly as I wish, and seize and receive from God all that He is, without objection or anger on His part—what no saint can do.


To be "recollected in spirit," Hadewijch advises a life of humble service and personal dignity. While she suggests being docile and prompt, she also warns that a person must only satisfy everyone "as far as you can manage it without debasing yourself." She advises beguines not to dwell on conflicts that arise among themselves, adding that the one who fails in faithfulness or justice is harmed more than the one wronged. She is, however, quick to chastise a beguine who is not living up to the ideal of service and love. To one such, she writes: "You not [loving God] is hurtful to us both; it is hurtful to you and too difficult for me."

The main point of all her instruction, as noted by Nicholas Watson, was "refusing anything less than everything for herself, [and] demanding the same of others." But such a leadership style eventually got Hadewijch into trouble both among her followers and from outside sources. In one letter, she laments: "our adversaries are many." She writes of the pain of knowing that some of the beguines in her group are trying to disband and desert her. In another letter, she writes to Gilbertus and accuses him of projecting the shortcomings of his group onto hers. "To all of us it seems pitiable that people should be leading one another astray," she writes, "so as to charge us with their errors instead of helping us to love our Beloved." She appeals to him to act out of love and use his position in the community to see that her group is treated fairly.

We do not know if Gilbertus responded to Hadewijch's appeal, but her letters suggest that eventually her companions were either taken away from her or left her, and she was exiled. In one letter, she writes of her exile from the beguines named Sara, Emma, and Margriet. The pain of this separation is particularly poignant in regards to Hadewijch's references to Sara who was the beguine closest to her and yet most critical of her leadership. Her final letters struggle with finding solace in the midst of this separation. She ponders why God allows her to serve him and yet holds her apart from those he loves. She speculates that others abhor her because she shares little in common with them, and they do not know the experience of love as she does.

What actually became of Hadewijch remains a mystery. She speculates that, in the future, she may be imprisoned or left to wander alone. We have no evidence that either was the case. Because she urged others to care for the sick, it is possible that she may have spent the rest of her life working in a hospital or another typical beguine institution of service. Whatever her fate, scholars speculate that she remained true to these words of encouragement written to a faithful companion: "But you must still labor at the works of Love.… For my part I am de voted to these works at any hour and still perform them at all times, to seek after nothing but Love, work nothing but Love, protect nothing but Love, and advance nothing but Love."

There is, however, no mystery about Hadewijch's writing, the earliest original prose written in the Flemish language (c. 1230–50). She composed in a variety of forms, including letters, visions, and poetry, to instruct the beguines under her care. Her 14 visions describe not only the visions and their messages but the turmoil beforehand and return to consciousness afterward that marks visionary experience. Ulrike Wiethaus proposes that these accounts were challenges to authority in worship, empowering beguines to trust their own religious experience. Hadewijch's 31 letters clarify ideas about God's love and human response implicit in the visions. Her 16 poems in couplets, addressed to young beguines, cover such topics as the nature and names of love. Considered by many to be her greatest works are the 45 poems in stanzas. By fusing ideas about love found in courtly literature, Latin liturgy, and Christian mysticism, Hadewijch created a new genre of religious poetry. Columba Hart suggests that these poems served the function of reclaiming young beguines to their early fervor by poetically conveying the uncertainty, isolation, yet deep companionship and spiritual ecstasy of their life.

Central to all her writings is Hadewijch's view of the beguine life as a life of love. She writes, "If [God] is yours in love, you must live for Him, by yourself being love." She understood this life of love to be a spiritual pilgrimage to God, a long and arduous journey that required the same hard work and dedication as a physical pilgrimage. Just as any pilgrim needed good company and an eye for thieves, so too did beguines need a spiritual community of love and an awareness of those who would steal their spirits. Just as a pilgrim must bend into the wind and endure pain en route, the beguine must endure the heavy burden of Love with its terrible and implacable essence, its devouring and consuming shadow. Hadewijch showed that in order to reach the journey's end, unity with God, the beguine must become as God in Christ, one in his power to love and help others unto suffering and death. Summing up Hadewijch's ideas, Don Christopher Nugent observes, "Love is fire, and, as with so many great mystics, Hadewijch is a pyromaniac."

Not only does she declare herself a free creature, but Hadewijch asserts that she is closer to God than the saints, that, indeed, she is God's closest friend. She struggles with reconciling the unreasonableness of this idea with the certain knowledge of her spiritual experience. It is this self-knowledge which both inspired her followers and incited their anger. Refusing to compromise knowledge for reason or comfort, she writes, "In the end, I cannot believe that I have loved Him best, and yet I cannot believe that there is any living man who loves God as I love Him."

It has been left to her readers to decide if her certain knowledge reflects a truth or a self-obsessed fantasy. Her writing has never been popular or well-known. Only four copies of her work survive: three copies of her complete works from the 14th century written in Dutch, another containing her poetry from the 16th century. Her writings were known to Jan Van Ruysbroeck (1293–1381) who was the prior of a hermit group called the Canons Regular of Groenendael. Hadewijch's ideas about unity with God are found in his book The Kingdom of the Lovers of God. Her image of the upside-down tree of knowledge appears as the tree of faith in another of his books, The Spiritual Espousals.

Hadewijch's writings were evidently passed on to Ruysbroeck's disciples, then lost. The reason for their disappearance may be suggested in remarks made by one of these disciples, John of Leeuwen. Leeuwen testified to the validity of Hadewijch and her work, calling her a "true mistress of spirituality" and her writing "good, and just, born of God and revealed by Him." Yet he admitted that her teachings were not profitable to all, for there are "many who cannot understand them: those whose inner eyes are too dimmed, not yet opened by the love that adheres to God in the nakedness and silence of fruition."

Evidently few people were opened to the profitability of her ideas. Her work was known by the Canons Regular of Windesheim and the Carthusians of Diest, and a few of her letters were known in Bavaria where she was named Adelwip. By the mid-16th century, her writings were unknown. They were rediscovered in 1838 by the medieval specialist Maeterlinck and reintroduced to the scholarly community in the critical edition published by J. Van Mierlo in 1920. Her writing has become accessible to the general population with the 1980 Classics of Western Spirituality edition by Columba Hart.

At the end of the 20th century, Hadewijch enjoyed a revival of interest among scholars indicated by a number of scholarly articles and conference papers about aspects of her work. Hart argues that Hadewijch is "undoubtedly, the most important exponent of love mysticism and one of the loftiest figures in the Western mystical tradition," noting that Van Mierlo called Hadewijch, "universally human, her art is for all times." However, unless these scholarly investigations find new information about the writer of these works, the facts of Hadewijch's life will forever remain a mystery. Hadewijch realized the likeliness of her anonymity and the frustration inherent to those who would wish to study her in the future. "Since you wish to know all that concerns me," she wrote, "I am very sorry that you do not know everything you wish to know."


Hadewijch. The Complete Works. Translated and introduction by Columba Hart. NY: Paulist Press, 1980.

Nugent, Don Christopher. "Harvest of Hadewijch: Brautmystik and Wesenmystik," in Mystics Quarterly. Vol. 12, no. 3. September 1986, pp. 119–126.

Watson, Nicholas. "Classics of Western Spirituality, II: Three Medieval Women Theologians and Their Background," in King's Theological Review. Vol. 12, no. 2. Autumn 1989, pp. 56–64.

Wiethaus, Ulrike. "Learning as Experiencing Hadewijch's Model of Spiritual Growth," in Faith Seeking Understanding: Learning and the Catholic Tradition. Edited by George C. Berthold. Manchester, NH: Saint Anselm Press, 1991, pp. 89–106.

suggested reading:

Brunn, Emilie Zum, and George Epiney-Burgard. Women Mystics in Medieval Europe. NY: Paragon Publishers, 1989.

Dreyer, Elizabeth. Passionate Women: Two Medieval Mystics. NY: Paulist Press, 1989.

Milhaven, John Giles. Hadewijch and Her Sisters: Other Ways of Loving and Knowing. NY: SUNY, 1993.

Jane McAvoy , Associate Professor of Theology, Lexington Theological Seminary, Lexington, Kentucky