428 Mystical Writers
"Buch genant der Seuse" [Seuse vor der Ewigen Weisheit]
Mystical Writers
of the 12th—14th Centuries
     The period was greatly influenced by the sermons of preachers and the thoughts of mystical writers who not only transcended traditional forms of piety but, in doing so, also greatly advanced the fortunes of prose writing. Berthold von Regensburg (c.1210-1272), to only name one of the earliest such masters, attempted in his sermons to delineate ways whereby man could reach perfection directly and without any intermediary assistance from a representative of the Church in order to become "ein geist mit gote," one with God. In this attempt he anticipated the so-called «unio mystica» which was to become the ultimate goal of mystics such as the Benedictine visionary Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), the Cistercian, but Dominican-influenced Mechthild von Magdeburg (c.1212-1282), and the three Dominican mystics: Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), Heinrich Suso (1295-1366), and Johannes Tauler (1300-1361). The latter was the only one among the three to write exclusively in German. Although Hildegard von Bingen’s writings and mystical reflections were all composed in Latin, the reader will do well to consider Hildegard’s singular intellectual and literary contributions, as well as her ‘immeasurable’ and undisputed, influence on the development of medieval «Frauenmystik» (Christel Meyer).

The following excerpt is taken from the highly speculative mystical song "Granum sinapis"1 (anonymous, c.1300) the concluding strophe of which clearly illustrates the difficult task of expressing in words the concepts and images of mystical thought. At the same time, the ten lines capsulize, to the degree that this is possible, the very essence of mystical reflection:

O sele myn
genk vz, got in,
sink al myn icht
in gotis nicht, in Gottes Nichts,
sink in di grundelose vlut!
Vli ich von dir,
du kumst czu mir;
vorlise ich mich,
so vinde ich dich:
o ubirweseliches gut!
O meine Seele,
geh aus, Gott ein!
Sinke mein ganzes Etwas,
in Gottes Nichts,
tauche ein in die grundlose Flut!
Fliehe ich von dir,
kommst du zu mir,
verliere ich mich,
so finde ich dich,
o du über alles Sein hinaus seiendes Gut!
    Mysticism is an all-inclusive term for much that cannot be easily categorized. Its representatives were never the favorites of the Church establishment although some, as for instance Hildegard von Bingen and Elisabeth von Schönau (1129-1164), were nevertheless canonized. Then came the speculative Meister Eckhart, the "most creative genius among

Mystical Writers: Hildegard von Bingen and «Frauenmystik» 429


them, indeed, the creative type of much that became Luther" (H. O. Taylor, Erasmus and Luther, p. 71). While Heinrich Seuse’s mystical approach to the attainment of the Divine is couched in the imagery of courtly love (hence he refers to himself as the "geischliche riter" [‘spiritual knight’], or even «geistlicher Minnersänger» according to some German scholars), his only love ("ewiges liep," "minnekliches liep," "einiger trost," "einiges ein") is «Ewige Weisheit», the mystical ascent in most mystics follows along or parallels the three steps known in mystical terminology as «via purgativa» (clarification), «via illuminativa» (enlightenment), and «via unitiva» (mystical union).

    In their desire to express the inexpressible, the mystical writers resorted to the use of abstract nouns ending in -heit (istecheit for ‘essence’ [a comparison study of Hartmann von Aue and Mechthild von Magdeburg yielded a five-fold increase in the use of such nouns by Mechthild], -unge, and infinitives used as nouns, to negate concepts introduced by the prefixes un- (unaussprechlich), ent- (entwerden), ver- (verwerden), and ab- (abgruntlich), the suffixes -los (wortelos), as well as non-concepts (nichtsin), intensive forms with über- (überheilig) and al- (algewaltec), new abstract compounds (e.g. "ûzgang" to express the idea of denial), and the bold use of verbal prefixes, anticipating Klopstock’s «bewegte Sprache» ("ufvlammen" to describe a reaching for the Divine in terms of a flame leaping into the sky).




Hildegard von Bingen and «Frauenmystik»

    Hildegard von Bingen predates «Frauenmystik» by almost a century and hardly fits the spiritual mold of its representatives since her mysticism focuses primarily on the issues facing the contemporary Church and contemporary society rather than the union of the soul with the Divine (Rosel Termolen, Hildegard von Bingen Biographie, p. 12), more specifically, the devotional fervor expressed through the love for Jesus («Jesusminne»). Although in her writings she strives to vocalize the coincidence of everything in Christ, it was her influence on and through her considerably younger contemporary, Elisabeth von Schönau, on 13th century «Frauenmystik» that makes it seem mandatory to include some examples from Hildegard’s works despite the fact that she wrote exclusively in Latin. Hans Urs von Balthasar refers to her as one of the pillars of German intellectual history, together with Albert the Great, Mechthild von Magdeburg, Meister Eckhart, and Nicholas of Cusa. It is especially Hildegard von Bingen’s mysticism that underscores the essential difference between the contemplative and emotive manner medieval women attempted to capture in words the mystical experience, and the speculative, confrontational, masculine approach to the inneffable as exemplified by the male mystics. Thus Hildegard appears to sum up the

430 Mystical Writers: Hildegard von Bingen

essence of «Frauenmystik» by referring to the soul as but a "feather on the breath of God"2 while Mechthild von Magdeburg describes the mystical experience in terms of the workings of the "vliessendes lieht der gotheit" that visits the human soul like the dew that descends on a flower (V [I, 13]); by contrast, Meister Eckhart speaks of the spark («Seelenfünklein»), Johannes Tauler of a "barge tossed about violently and ultimately foundered" (sermon "Ascendit Jhesus in naviculam qui erat Symonis"), and Heinrich Seuse of "entering the forbidding wasteland and the abyss of the incomprehensibly Divine" ("ingang in die wilden wuesti und in daz tief abgrunde der wiselosen gotheit", Büchlein der Ewigen Weisheit, XII, 10). By contrast, the message of the female mystics appears as one of sustaining nurture despite the fact that even Mechthild occasionally resorts to images that can hardly be perceived as soothing, such as in Book III, chapt. 24 (Zweierleie lúten wirt gebotten zweierleie geist), where God is referred to as "dc heisse fúr". Still, the soul is not consumed by the fire; rather it merely melts and yields like wax ("dc vliessende wahs der minnenden selen").

    Hildegard von Bingen was born in c.1098 into the noble family of Bermersheim at Becklheim near the Hessian town of Alzey, three years after Pope Urban II had summoned Western Christianity at the synod of Clermont to recover the Holy Land from the Moslem («Deus lo volt»—"Gott will es"). A visionary from her earliest childhood to the close of her life, the ‘Sybil of the Rhine’ spent her formative years in the spiritual care of the recluse Jutta von Spanheim who was attached to the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg. After Jutta's death in 1136, Hildegard was elected spiritual directress («Meisterin») of the community of anchoresses which she subsequently converted into a regular Benedictine community in 1147 by moving to Rupertsberg. Once there did she begin to record her visions and visionary conversations. They are shaped by and determined by Biblical images, especially those of the Prophets and those appearing in the Book of Revelation, the daily liturgy of the Church and the writings of the Fathers. Her Liber Scivias, a record of her visions, was welcomed by Rome. Rome’s blessing gave her celebrity status among contemporaries and led to a prodigious correspondence with contemporaries of all classes. Between 1158-1163 she composed the Liber vitae meritorum, a handbook of Christian morality, and in 1163-1170 she wrote about the creation and man’s salvation in her Liber divinorum operum. In addition to these major writings, she also composed homiletic and exegetic essays, wrote the earliest discovered medieval morality play (Ordo virtutum) long before this dramatic form had become popular, biographies of saints, scientific (Physica) and medical treatises (Causae et curae, suggesting mainly herbal cures for illnesses), 77 hymns and sequences entitled a "harmonious symphony of heavenly revelations," and a cryptic text written in a secret language of her own invention (Litterae ignotae). The following selections are taken from her collection of hymns and are presented here in the excellent translation of Adelgundis Führkötter.

The first hymn (I) celebrates the triumph of women by presenting the theme of the ‘second Eve’ who overcame the consequences of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Gothic sculpture resumes this theme by

Mystical Writers: Hildegard von Bingen 431


portraying the Virgin holding an apple. Also, ll. 3-5 of the hymn anticipate Heinrich von Morungen’s portrayal of the «vrouwe» as "ein krôn vor allen vrowen" and "daz wunder, daz got mit schœne an ir lîp hât getân" (see, pp. 304ff.), thus illustrating the influence the veneration of the Virgin had on the origins of courtly love lyrics. The second hymn, "Caritas abundat" (II), is an attempt at a description of the nature of the Divine as love that cradles all of creation; it is characterized by nurture (l. 3) and culminates in the "osculum", the divine kiss, thus completing the circle of creation that sustains both worlds, the human and the Divine, creation and the Creator, as well as history (Hildegard von Bingen, Lieder, ed. by P. Barth, I. Ritscher, and J. Schmidt-Görg, p. 209). The third hymn (III) reiterates the theme of nurturing Divinity, except that here it is Divine Wisdom that lovingly sustains creation. The fourth hymn (IV) once again exemplifies the differences in the manner in which «Frauenmystik» approaches mysticism; here the soul is portrayed as a mirror of the divine Spirit, an image much in line with other images of non-violent confrontation with the Divine while sustaining and maintaining the Divine through reflection. Finally, the hymn praising the virtues of St. Boniface3 (V) seems to couch the mystical message in almost Swedenborgian terms when it speaks of waters emanating from and returning to the Divine, a revelation that is reiterated in Goethe’s Faust, ll. 449ff., where Faust speaks of "heaven’s powers" that "dip and soar" like "golden pails" passed from hand to hand ("Wie Himmelskräfte auf und nieder steigen / Und sich die goldnen Eimer reichen"). Moreover, the mystical experience is presented here in terms that suggest that God is equated with a living light that searches out the human soul, in itself a crystal whose luster is enhanced as a result of Divine friendship.

I De Sancta Maria An Maria

Quia ergo femina mortem instruxit   
clara virgo illam interemit,
et ideo est summa benedictio
in feminea forma
prae omni creatura,
quia Deus factus est homo
in dulcissima et beata virgine.
Den Tod, den eine Frau gebracht,
hat eine Jungfrau überwunden.
So ruht der höchste Segen
—vor jeder Kreatur—
auf der Gestalt der Frau.
Denn Gott ist Mensch geworden
in einer Jungfrau, einzig geliebt und
II Caritas abundat Die Liebe
Caritas abundat in omnia
de imis excellentissima super sidera,
atque amantissima in omnia,
quia summo Regi
osculum pacis dedit.
   Von der Tiefe bis hoch zu den Sternen
überflutet die Liebe das All,
sie ist liebend zugetan allem,
da dem König, dem höchsten,
sie den Friedenskuß gab.
432 Mystical Writers: Hildegard von Bingen
III Virtus Sapientiae Die Kraft der Weisheit
O virtus Sapientiae
quae circuiens circuisti
comprehendo omnia

in una via, quae habet vitam.
tres alas habens,
quarum una in altum volat,
et altera de terra sudat,
et tertia undique volat.
Laus tibi sit, sicut te decet, O Sapientia.

O Kraft der Weisheit,
umkreisend die Bahn,
die eine des Lebens ziehst um das All du
[die Kreise,
alles umfangend.
Drei Flügel hast du:
In die Höhe empor schwingt der eine,
auf der Erde müht sich der zweite,
und überall schwingt der dritte.
Lob sei dir Weisheit, würdig des Lobes.
IV O felix anima Die Seele: der Spiegel Gottes
O felix anima,
cuius corpus de terra ortum est,
quod tu cum peregrinatione huius
mundi conculcasti:]
Unde de divina rationalitate,
quae te speculum suum fecit,
coronata es.

Spiritus sanctus etiam
te ut habitaculum suum intuebatur.
Unde de divina rationalitate,
quae te speculum suum fecit,
coronata es.
Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.

O glückliche Seele
du hast auf dem Pilgerweg in dieser Welt
gesiegt über deinen der Erde entstammenden
Vom göttlichen Geiste
— der dich zu seinem Spiegel gemacht —
wurdest du gekrönt.
Der Heilige Geist erschaute in dir
die eigene Wohnstatt.
Vom göttlichen Geiste
— der dich zu seinem Spiegel gemacht —
wurdest du gekrönt.
Dem Vater sei Ehre, dem Sohn und dem
[Heiligen Geist!

V De Sancto Bonifatio An den Hl. Bonifatius

O Bonifati,
lux vivens vidit te
similem viro sapienti,
qui puros rivulos ex Deo fluentes
ad Deum remisisti,
cum viriditatem florum rigasti.
Unde es amicus Dei viventis
et cristallus lucens Kristall,
in benevolentia rectarum viarum, 
in quibus sapienter cucurristi.
O Bonifatius,
das lebendige Licht
erschaut dich als Mann voller Weisheit.
Die reinen Gewässer, die strömen aus Gott,
du führtest sie wieder zu Gott zurück,
als du da getränket das Grün all der Blumen.
So bist du ein Freund des lebendigen Gottes,
der erstrahlt
von der Lust an den richtigen Wegen,
die du weise durchlaufen.
Mystical Writers: Mechthild von Magdeburg 433

"Buch genant der Seuse" [Geistliche Ritterschaft]
Mechthild von Magdeburg
    Mechthild von Magdeburg is considered the most significant representative of medieval «Frauenmystik». Born of noble parents, she was broadly educated and especially familiar with contemporary literature. Like Hildegard von Bingen she is touched by the Spirit at an early age; this encounter changes her life, and at age 20 she trades the security of a noble woman for the habit of a Beguine4 in the city of Magdeburg. Similar to the communities founded by St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic, these communities of pious women of rank were founded initially in the 12th century in the areas of Flanders and Brabant in direct response to the increasing feudalization and the moral deterioration of the Church. It was not until her confessor encouraged her that she related her innermost experiences to one of her spiritual friends, Heinrich von Halle, in 1245. The originally Middle-Low German Fließendes Licht der Gottheit, or as she termed it more personally and intimately, "Ein vliessendes lieht miner gotheit in allú herzen die da lebent ane valscheit", has been lost; the original German version, however, had been translated into Latin and was then re-translated into Alemannic German by Heinrich von Nördlingen during the first half of the 14th century. It was this latter version that was rediscovered in 1861 at the library of the monastery of Einsiedeln and subsequently published.

    It is interesting to note that the Latin translator referred to the original as uneducated, while in the prologue Mechthild herself attributes its authorship solely to God (In fact, Mechthild herself cautions the reader to read her work nine times so that it will reveal its message [see prologue]). Though this may merely serve as an observation by one contemporary, it still illustrates in a way why women writers are so few and far between and why many early literary works are still summarily referred to as anonymous despite the fact that they may have been composed by women.

434 Mystical Writers: Mechthild von Magdeburg


Mechthild von Magdeburg


Dis buoch sol man gerne enpfan, wann got sprichet selber die wort.

        Dis buoch das sende ich nun ze botten allen geistlichen lúten, beidú bœsen und guoten, wand wenn die súle vallent, so mag das werk nút gestan, und ez bezeichent alleine mich, und meldet loblich mine heimlichkeit. Alle die dis buoch wellen vernehmen die sœllent es ze nún malen lesen.

        Dis buoch heisset ein vliessendes lieht der gotheit.

        Eia, herre got, wer hat dis buoch gemachet. Ich han es gemachet an miner vnmaht, wan ich mich an miner gabe nút enthalten mag. Eya herre, wie sol dis buoch heissen, alleine ze dinen eren? Es sol heissen: ein vliessende lieht miner gotheit, in allú die herzen die da lebent ane valscheit.


II Wie die selig sele spricht zuo irme lichamen an dem júngesten tage (VI, 35)

Stand uf min vil lieber, 
Und erhole dich aller diner pine, 
Aller diner wetagen, aller diner smacheit, 
Aller diner trurekeit, alles dines ellendes, 
Aller diner serekeit, aller diner arbeit. 

Der morgensterne ist vfgegân 
Dc ist Sante Marien geburt und ir leben. 
Die sonne hat iren schin getan, 
Dc ist dc got mensche wart, 
Sin werk und sin himelvart. 
Der mân sol jemer stet stan; 
Dc ist, das wir denne jemer stet sœllen wesen 
In dem ewigen lebenne. 





Mystical Writers: Mechthild von Magdeburg 435

(I) The prologue to Das fließende Licht der Gottheit seems to characterize the entire work. Its vocabulary and innumerable images are patterned after the commentaries on the Song of Songs and «Minnesang». The entire work illustrates how the idea of courtly love and service have been transposed into the religious plain of mysticism.

Dieses Buch soll man mit Freuden entgegennehmen, denn Gott selbst spricht die Worte.

        Dieses Buch sende ich nun als Boten allen geistlichen Leuten, (die Säulen der Kirche sind), den guten wie den schlechten, denn wenn die Säulen fallen, dann kann das Gebäude nicht überdauern. Es kündet allein von mir und offenbart mein Geheimnis, um (Gott) zu verherrlichen. Alle, die dieses Buch verstehen wollen, müssen es neunmal lesen.

Dieses Buch heißt ein fließendes Licht der Gottheit

(Ich sprach:)
            Eia, Herr Gott, wer hat dies Buch gemacht?
(Und der Herr antwortete:)
            Ich habe es gemacht, in meiner Ohnmacht, da ich meine Gabe nicht zurückzuhalten vermag.
(Ich sprach:)
            Eia, Herr, wie soll dieses Buch, das nur Deiner Verherrlichung dienen soll, heißen?
(Und der Herr antwortete:)
            Es soll heißen:
            Ein fließendes Licht meiner Gottheit
            in alle Herzen, die da leben ohne Falschheit.

(II) Mechthild's major contribution to mysticism may be seen in her insistence that there exists a harmony between the body and the soul, that corporeality is natural and good and not something to be repressed and despised. Thus, the soul welcomes the body on the Day of Judgement as its comforter and inseparable companion in the eternity ahead.

Wie die Seele am Jüngsten Tag zu ihrem Leib spricht (VI, 35)

Steh auf, mein Viellieber, / Und erhol dich all deiner Leiden, / All deiner Wehtage, / All deiner Schmach,
(5) All deiner Traurigkeit, / All deiner Verbannung, / All deiner Verwundung, / All deiner Mühen!

Der Morgenstern ist aufgegangen
(10) Mit Mariens Geburt und ihrem Leben, / Die Sonne hat ihren Schein gegeben, / Da Gott ein Mensch ward / Und sein Werk vollbrachte und die Himmelfahrt. / Der Mond wird keine Veränderung zeigen,
(15) Das heißt: wir werden stets unverändert bleiben / In dem ewigen Leben.

436 Mystical Writers: Mechthild von Magdeburg

Ettewenne lag alles min heil an dir,
Nu lit aller din trost an mir. 
Were ich zuo dir nit widerkomen,
Us disen aschen wúrdest du niemer genomen.
Der ewige tag ist vns entstanden.
Nu sœn wir vnsern lon enpfân.
III Wie sich die minnende sele gesellet gotte und sinen userwelten lieben, und sol gelich sin allen heligen. Wie der túfel und die sele sprechen zesammene (II, 24)

            Maria Magdalena, ich wone mit dir in der wœstunge wan mir sint œlú ding ellende, sunder alleine got. Herre, himelscher vatter, zwischent dir und mir gat ane underlas ein vnbegriflich aten, da ich vil wunders und vnsprechlicher dinge inne bekenne und sihe und leider wenig nútze empfahe, wan ich bin so snœde ein vas, dc ich dinen minsten funken nit erliden mag.


IV Die sele lobet got an fúnf dingen (I, 17).

O du giessender got an diner gabe!
O du vliessender got an diner minne!
O du brennender got an diner gerunge!
O du smelzender got an der einunge mit dinem liebe!
O du ruwender got an minen brusten, ane die ich nút wesen mag!
V Wie got kumet in die sele (I, 13)
Ich kum zuo miner lieben
Als ein tôwe vf den bluomen.
Mystical Writers: Mechthild von Magdeburg 437

Sonst lag mein ganzes Heil bei dir, / Nun liegt all dein Trost bei mir. / Wär ich zu dir nicht wiedergekommen,
(20) Nie würdest du aus der Asche genommen. / Der ewige Tag ist für uns aufgegangen, / An dem wir unseren Lohn empfangen.


(III) Similar to Hildegard von Bingen’s notion of a constantly ‘dipping and soaring’ Divine, Mechthild describes her mystical experience of God as forever communicating and flowing to and fro. Here in the first excerpt (II, 24), during her visionary conversation with Mary Magdalene, herself a fervent admirer and lover of Jesus, she perceives the Divine as unceasing, yet shared breath. The reference to «Funken» should not be interpreted in terms of the «Seelenfünklein» of Meister Eckhart; rather "funken" here signifies a minute fraction of the divine breath. Finally, in (IV) I, 17 Mechthild expands on her notions of the Divine in highly personal and erotic terms.

Wie sich die liebende Seele Gott und seinen Auserwählten zugesellt und wie sie allen Heiligen gleichen soll. Wie der Teufel und die Seele zusammen sprechen. (II, 24)

Maria Magdalena, ich wohne mit dir in der Wüste, weil mir alle Dinge fremd sind außer Gott allein.

Herr, himmlischer Vater, zwischen Dir und mir geht ohne Unterlaß ein unbegreiflicher Atem, in dem ich große Wunder und unausprechliche Dinge erkenne und sehe, doch leider wenig Nutzen daraus empfange, denn ich bin ein so armseliges Gefäß, daß ich den kleinsten Funken nicht ertragen kann.

(IV) Die Liebe lobt Gott an fünf Dingen (I, 17)

O Du gießender Gott in Deiner Gabe! 
O Du fließender Gott in Deiner Minne! 
O Du brennender Gott in Deiner Sehnsucht! 
O Du verschmelzender5 Gott in der Einung mit Deinem Lieb! 
O Du ruhender Gott an meinen Brüsten! 
Ohne Dich kann ich nicht mehr sein. 
(V) Wie Gott in die Seele kommt (I, 13)
Ich komm zu meinem Lieb 
Wie der Tau auf die Blume.