Church HistoryTheology & Spirituality

Medieval Christian Mysticism

In my last post, I discussed Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe in the context of English vernacular mysticism. Mysticism is one of the two dominant fields of medieval theology along with scholasticism, and throughout the centuries of the Church has been an important mode for expressing spirituality, theology, and Christian practice. In this article I provide a bit of background on medieval Christian mysticism, in hopes to be able to engage my readers in further discussions of this particular type of Christian literature.

(The following portions of this article are taken from my master’s thesis, “Love of God and Love of Neighbor: Thomistic Virtue of Charity in Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue.”)

From the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries, various mystical movements arose across the landscape of late medieval Europe. The writing produced in these movements were in the vernacular language, rather than scholastic Latin; this distinguished these new mystical movements from the more monastic-based mysticism of the earlier Middle Ages. The movements usually varied according to region, and thus distinct brands of mysticism can be discerned across the Low Countries, the Rhineland, Italy, and England. Each of these movements became intimately linked to the increase in literacy and the desire for reform in the Church.

From approximately 1350 to 1550 AD, mysticism flourished in the Dutch and Flemish speaking Low Countries of Europe. Notable amongst the Dutch mystics are Jan van Ruusbroec and the devotio moderna founder Geerte Grooe, but the list expands far beyond these names. The proliferation of Dutch vernacular mystics serves as testament to heightened literacy of the newly urbanized Low Countries.[1] Historian Thomas Mertes estimates that seventy to eighty percent of Middle Dutch literature was religious in focus.[2] This prevalence of mysticism across the literary landscape of the Low Countries indicates a deep-set desire amongst the literate classes of the laity for spiritual literature.[3] Trinitarian exemplarism, emphasis on humanity as made in God’s image, a central role of the saving mysteries of Christ, an understanding of “superessential union,” and speculation about immediate vision of God in this life all characterized Dutch vernacular mysticism.[4] With the spread of both traditional Latin and vernacular literacy, many Dutch mystical works were translated into Latin and spread throughout Europe.[5] Significantly, devotio moderna grew out of this atmosphere of Dutch mysticism, and its popularity throughout Europe helped spread the teachings of Low Country mysticism.[6]

Across the Low Countries, along with France and Germany, a new movement of religious laywomen known as beguines spread. Beguines lived together in cloistered communities, although their lack of regulations made the beguines a varied and diverse group rather than a homogenous order. Many beguines received support from the mendicant orders, which allowed them to flourish despite suspicion from the hierarchy.[7] In the thirteenth century and forward, beguines became the target of inquisitorial investigations against mystical heresy. The heretical charges against beguine mystics can be seen in the trial and execution of Marguerite Porete, a fourteenth century beguine.[8] Porete composed her Mirror of Simple Souls in vernacular French and discussed the annihilation of the self into God. The self becomes one with God through love, according to Porete. Another notable beguine mystic was Mechthild of Magdeburg. The writings of Mechthild provide a glimpse into the religious life and mysticism of beguines. Mechthild recorded mystical visions of God, the Trinity, heaven, hell, and purgatory; her writings depict the centrality intense prayer and a concern about the ecclesiastical corruptions of the Church in her visions.

Perhaps the most notable of late medieval mystics in Germany is Meister Eckhart, whose life and works are closely connected to the beguine communities. Meister Eckhart was a Dominican who received his education from Albert the Great and, later, at the University of Paris. Eckhart recorded sermons in both Latin and German, thus representing aspects of both the scholastic theology and the mystical theology of the fourteenth century. As Eckhart provided pastoral leadership at the beguine community, scholars argue that his writings reflected the theological and mystical currents of German beguines. Meister Eckhart presented a more philosophical and metaphorical mysticism. Yet Eckhart only represented a portion of the proliferation of mysticism in late medieval Germany.[9]

The political, religious, and artistic atmosphere of Italian strongly influenced Italian vernacular mysticism. In addition to the Avignon papacy and corruptions of the Church, fourteenth century Italy underwent unrest as the various city-states, duchies, and kingdoms vied for power across the peninsula.[10] Many writers, especially mystics, focused upon this unrest in their writings, as can be seen even in Catherine of Siena’s political activity and her extensive ecclesiastical commentary in her Dialogue. Yet during this time, Italy experienced the nascence of the Renaissance, and this certainly influenced the religious and artistic tone of Italian mysticism. This era produced mystical writers, prophets, and poets, including Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Birgitta of Sweden, Dante Alighieri, who demonstrated the true diversity of Italian vernacular mysticism of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. A number of Italian women who belonged to tertiary orders wrote mystical treatises, such as St. Angela Folingo. However, other mystics never associated themselves with a particular order, such as Saint Catherine of Genoa. Thus Italian mysticism came from women of both religious orders and the literate bourgeoisie. McGinn notes that, with the exception of Dante and the Renaissance Platonists, the most significant mystics of late medieval Italy were women.[11] Thus Italian mysticism of the late medieval period spanned across the lay and religious, male and female, celibate and married, royalty and bourgeoisie.

Even though England was more removed from the flourishing of mysticism in central and southern Europe, it too experienced a proliferation in mystical writing. McGinn lists Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, and the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing as the most significant English late medieval mystics;[12] this list can be expanded to include Margery of Kempe, whose Book of Margery Kempe provides a significant piece of both late medieval mysticism and female authorship. These vernacular mystics followed upon a tradition of twelfth and thirteenth century monastic mysticism, which was written in Latin.[13] McGinn remarks how “The growth of mysticism was intimately connected with the emergence of vernacular theology…[which was] not only a new form of theology that employed the language of a specific linguistic region…but also one that appealed to a wide audience, including clergy and also significant numbers of the laity.”[14]

The laity across Europe eagerly received this mysticism, especially those of the emergent urban middle classes, who embraced it and adopted it in their own forms of piety. McGinn portrays mainland Europe in the fourteenth century as where “the towns continued to grow, and with them the urban middle class, who encouraged new forms of piety and made up much of the audience for spiritual and mystical literature.”[15] Perhaps the eagerness of this reception amongst the laity came from the prominence of lay figures in late medieval mysticism, such as Marguerite Porete, St. Angela of Foligno, and St. Birgitta of Sweden. These and other mystics likely made the mysticism that once belonged to the religious of abbesses and monasteries more accessible to the laity, since the lay members rightfully perceived more similarities between their own lives with these new lay saints. Besides the probable perceived connection between the common folk and the lay saints and mystics, the rise of literacy did indeed contribute to the rise of vernacular mysticism. W.A. Pantin argued, “The devout and literate layman was one of the most important phenomena of the period.”[16] Significantly, most of these “laymen” were actually women, thus indicating an increased literacy amongst women of this period. This rise in both lay sanctity and literacy created a new audience for mystical theology.

View Sources


Laura Norris

Laura Norris

Laura Norris is a Catholic, freelance writer, running coach, and outdoor enthusiast. She holds a master's degree in Theological Studies and now works as a running blogger and coach as, in the words of St. Ignatius Loyola, "a woman for others" in helping others live a healthy life and achieve their goals. She and her husband live on the Eastside of Seattle and spend their time running their own businesses and hiking in the mountains.

Previous post

Jesus of Nazareth: Baptism to Transfiguration | Book Review

Next post

Kierkegaardian Reflections on the Present Age