Mechtild of Magdeburg (c. 1207–c. 1282)
Mechtild of Magdeburg (c. 1207–c. 1282)
German Christian mystic and Beguine whose writing describes the love affair between God and her soul . Name variations: Mechtild von Magdeburg; Mechthild of Magdeburg; Mechthild von Magdeburg; Mechtilde de Magdebourg. Pronunciation: MECH-tild of MAG-de-berg. Born between 1207 and 1212 near Magdeburg in Lower Saxony (Germany); died in the convent at Helfta in 1282 (although some suggest her death might be as late as 1297).
Had religious experience (c. 1219); left home for Magdeburg (c. 1229 or 1230), where she led a semi-religious life as a Beguin; wrote the first six books of The Flowing Light of the Godhead (1250–70); retired to the Cistercian convent at Helfta (1270), and wrote book seven of The Flowing Light before her death.
The Flowing Light of the Godhead, also referred to as The Flowing Light of the Divinity.
In 1860, when Mechtild of Magdeburg's The Flowing Light of the Godhead was found in a dusty corner of a monastery, it was considered a major discovery. Here was a work by a 13th-century woman describing the life of a mystic. Not only was it the first Christian mystical text known to be written by a man or a woman in the vernacular (or language of the common people) rather than in Latin, it also contained one of the first descriptions of a type of Christian devotion known as the Sacred Heart. With this discovery, German literary historians and theologians declared Mechtild of Magdeburg one of the first and best examples of the German mystic movement.
Yet it is difficult to say anything with certainty about the woman who wrote this text. What we do know comes primarily from references she recorded in her book. She was probably born in the Lower Saxony area of Germany near Magdeburg, which was one of the emerging towns of that time. Her birth date (between 1207 and 1212) is deduced from dates given in the prologue to her book. It is generally agreed that she was born of well-to-do parents because of her knowledge of scripture and Christian tradition, suggesting she was educated in some manner, and because of her knowledge of courtly life and customs, suggesting she may have had firsthand experience of life at court.
Mechtild herself reveals little about her upbringing. She states that the status of one's birth is not of primary importance, declaring that "discipline and good habits render one noble and well-bred." While she notes that as a child she was "the best loved of her family," only once does she mention her parents, saying that she will pray for them and "all the souls in Purgatory." We also know that she had a brother, Baldwin, a well-educated monk of the Dominican order, who distinguished himself by making an entire copy of the Bible single-handedly. As to her own education, Mechtild confessed that she could not write in Latin and was "unlearned," but her book begins and ends with the declaration that she wrote it with her own hand—a very unusual accomplishment for a woman of the 13th century. We do not know if she received her education from a noble upbringing or later in life. Either way, her writing ability suggests that she possessed the discipline and good habits which rendered her noble and well-bred.
At age 12, Mechtild had what she considered the defining moment of her early life, this being her first religious experience during which she was reportedly greeted by the Holy Spirit. In the context of her day, such an experience was not unheard of, but it was unusual. Mechtild understood this event as a calling to a special religious life as a mystic, one who devotes herself to a life of union with God. Before this event, she "knew nothing of God save the usual Christian beliefs." She calls herself "one of the simplest people who was ever in the spiritual life." Afterwards, she was a changed person who "could no longer have given way to serious daily sins." For the next 31 years, she daily experienced "a loving greeting" from the Holy Spirit.
More and more, her life centered around these experiences with the Holy Spirit until, around age 22, she decided to leave home to live a religious life. She states that she "longed to be despised through no fault of her own," meaning that she wanted to live a life modeled on the life of Christ even if it meant persecution. Therefore, she chose not to enjoy the relative comfort of religious life provided inside convent walls, but to travel to Magdeburg and live the semi-religious life of a Beguine.
Beguines were a diverse group of women who lived a life of religious devotion and community service. Their lifestyle is called "semi-religious" because they did not take permanent vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience like nuns and monks did. Instead, they vowed chastity as long as they were Beguines, but they could leave the community and marry later in life. They were allowed to keep private property and worked in a number of trades to support themselves. They also engaged in a wide variety of work for the poor, sick and orphaned. Most important, they took no vow of obedience to any monastic rule, house, or superior, although they were often associated with a monastic order and received spiritual direction from the monks there. Thus, Beguine life was less supervised than convent life, because supervision through a monastic order or parish priest was minimal.
Beguine life was also more vulnerable and dangerous than convent life. In the Middle Ages, women were subject to physical attack and poverty if not protected by a husband or religious order, but Beguines often lived in small groups in or near their place of service, usually in urban areas such as Magdeburg. They endured persecution, sometimes accused of heresy for their religious practices and ideas, other times accused of laziness or charged with illicit begging. At the heart of these criticisms was a concern for the protection of these women and disapproval of their independent lifestyle. In 1311, the Beguine movement was generally condemned at the Council of Vienne by Pope Clement V. It was endorsed by later popes, but eventually evolved into charitable institutions by the 15th century.
This life of independence and persecution fit Mechtild's needs. She wanted a way of life that would free her from earthly attachments, so that she could devote herself to love of God as well as challenge herself to walk in Christ's footsteps. Mechtild describes her life in Magdeburg as like "an exile in a foreign land." So dedicated was she to her goals that Mechtild ignored the one person she did know in Magdeburg upon her arrival for fear that friendship would keep her from "disdain of the world and the pure love of God."
For 40 years, Mechtild lived as a Beguine. During this time, she states: "God never left me. He brought me such sweetness of love, such heavenly knowledge, such inconceivable wonders, that I had little use for earthly things." However, these divine graces did not come easily. Mechtild confesses that she constantly struggled to overcome her angry and weak nature in an effort to foster love of God in her heart. Like many mystics of her time, she engaged in physical trials to increase her dedication. A Beguine, she writes, should foster humility, discipline, good habits, love and degradation. She notes that in addition to weeping, confessing, fasting, and constant worship she endured whippings and tremendous blows upon her body.
The result of this lifestyle was "many days of bodily illness," which Mechtild understood to be a test from God of her ability to trust the Lord to take care of her. When she revealed her thoughts to her confessor, he not only confirmed the authenticity of her experience but commanded her to write down all her experiences. Mechtild states, "Then he commanded me to do that for which I often weep for shame when my unworthiness stands clear before my eyes, namely, that I, a poor despised little woman, should write this book out of God's heart and mouth." Thus, Mechtild's writing was born. From the book's prologue, we know that the year was 1250.
For the next 20 years, Mechtild wrote down her thoughts on scraps of paper. Scholars agree that her writing was collected and arranged into six chapters (called books) by someone else, probably her spiritual director, who distributed them to the surrounding community. Mechtild never names her director but did refer to the reaction of Master Heinrich to her text. From this, it is deduced that her director was probably Heinrich of Halle, a member of the Dominican order, who is known to have translated her work into Latin near the time of her death.
Mechtild portrays herself as a reluctant writer urged on by God and her director to continue her work. She calls her director "my dear schoolmaster," who taught her, "simple and stupid as I am, to write this book." About the urging of God she states, "I cannot nor do I wish to write," unless feeling the power of the Holy Spirit. At other times, she complains of the inability to express herself, declaring that she is no expert in writing, and at one point saying, "German now fails me and I do not know Latin." It is difficult to interpret the meaning of these remarks because Mechtild is expressing a theme familiar to Christian writers: that God chooses the weak and poor. At one point, Mechtild wonders why God did not choose a priest rather than herself for this work, and she is told that God always seeks out the lowest and smallest so that "unlearned lips can teach the learned tongues of the Holy Spirit."
The contents of her writing, however, reveal anything but a poor and unlearned writer. Her work is a collection of diverse styles and themes. It consists of poems, love songs, allegories, visions, and moral reflections, gathered in no particular order. Most often quoted are the dialogues between God and her soul which are cast in the courtly language of a lord wooing a queen at court. Their courtship expresses the complexities of love with all its yearning and pain as well as closeness and joy. As to the latter, Mechtild writes, "Lord, now am I a naked soul and Thou a God most Glorious! Our two-fold intercourse is Love Eternal which can never die." Elizabeth Petroff observes that this combination of spiritual love expressed in courtly literary form is a reflection of the Beguine goal "to be in the world but not of it."
Another major theme of her work is criticism of corruption in the church. Mechtild calls cathedral clergy "goats" because of their impurity and urges them to confess and repent. She maligns the priesthood as a whole as the tarnished crown of the holy church because of their love of power. Even her own sisters, the Beguines, are criticized for their worldly ways, which she calls a "gruesome service" to Lucifer. In prophetic style, she not only criticizes but suggests characteristics of true servants of God, urging clergy to be good preachers, holy examples, and friendly counselors.
It grieves me to the heart that I, a sinful woman, must so write … in these words which seem so insignificant compared to the eternal truth.
—Mechtild of Magdeburg
Mechtild indicates that her writing was not well received by some. At one point, she refers to her critics as "my pharisee," a reference to those who criticized Jesus. Another time, she refers to being barred from taking communion, a punishment for those accused of heresy. Reflecting on the mounting criticism, she writes, "I was warned about this book and was told by many people that if there were no wish to preserve it, then flames could consume it." Given the context of the day—in which Beguines were always targets for criticism and those who veered too far from orthodox Christian beliefs were often branded as heretics—Mechtild could very well have suffered persecution. Despite criticism, she continues to be convinced of the validity of her work. She states that she is reassured by God that no one can burn the truth. "He who would take it from My [God's] hand must be stronger than I!"
Some have speculated that due to increased persecution and failing health Mechtild was forced to retire to the convent of Helfta around 1270. There, she met three other notable writers of the time, Gertrude of Hackeborne , Mechtild of Hackeborne , and Gertrude the Great . Helfta was a good place for a writer such as Mechtild. Under the leadership of Gertrude of Hackeborne, it had become a hub of learning and writing for women and a center for book collecting, copying and illumination.
Mechtild spent her final days at Helfta. Soon after her arrival, she suffered a serious illness and became totally blind. She asked God if she should stop writing but was reassured that God would give her the strength to continue her work through the assistance of her sisters. Though poor, blind, and unable to write by herself, Mechtild rejoiced that she was cared for by the goodness of others who served as her eyes, hands and heart. With their help, she completed the seventh book of The Flowing Light of the Godhead.
A major theme of the last book is Mechtild's reflection on old age and death. Calling old age a time that is cold and without grace, she laments that she is powerless to maintain the level of spiritual existence she had enjoyed for so long, for she can no longer "bear the fiery love of God." In reflecting on her life, she paints a picture of life as a house of suffering furnished with a bed of restlessness, a chair of trouble, and a table called indignation dressed with a cloth of poverty on which sit bitterness of sins and willingness to work. Her drink is rare praise, she writes, because of the few good works to her credit.
But despite all this, Mechtild does not despair. Even her present state is not to be grieved. "And yet a good old age is worth waiting for a long time," she writes, "and may be entrusted to God alone." She looks forward to the last day when her suffering will end and she will be filled with gladness. Reflecting on death, she thanks God that she was called to be a Christian and came to "real Christian belief." She takes leave of her friends, who have been her help in need, and her enemies, who have not vanquished her. To those left behind, she leaves this advice, "Any truthful woman or good man should read this little book if after my death he wishes but cannot speak to me."
A number of women and men have read her work through the years. The original was collected and arranged by Heinrich of Halle in German soon after her death and translated into Latin by him so that the work would be available to a larger audience. Some have speculated that Dante was familiar with this translation and had Mechtild in mind when he wrote of Matelda in his work Purgatorio, but there is not much evidence to support this claim.
In 1344–45, Heinrich of Nordlingen made another German translation and sent it to friends with the note: "This book, in delightful and vigorous German, is the most moving love-poem I have ever read in our tongue." It was the Nordlingen translation, bound with a few pages from a Christian group called Friends of God, along with essays and sermons by the German writer Meister Eckhart, that was found at Einsiedeln in 1860. A modern translation was made by Gall Morel in 1869, but it remained relatively unknown. Evelyn Underhill introduced English readers to Mechtild in her classic text Mysticism. For many years, the only English translation was that of Lucy Menzies . Today, those "truthful women and good men" who want to speak to Mechtild can read the work translated by Christiane Galvani .
Howard, John. "The German Mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg," in Medieval Women Writers. Edited by Katharina M. Wilson. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984, pp. 153–163.
Mechthild von Magdeburg. The Flowing Light of the Divinity. Translated by Christiane Mesch Galvani. Edited with an Introduction by Susan Clark. NY: Garland, 1991.
Menzies, Lucy. The Revelations of Mechthild of Magdeburg (1210–1297) or the Flowing Light of the Godhead. London: Longmans, 1953.
Petroff, Elizabeth Alvilda, ed. Medieval Women's Visionary Literature. NY: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Labarge, Margaret Wade. A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
Jane McAvoy , Associate Professor of Theology at Lexington Theological Seminary, Kentucky