The Rise of the Medieval World, 500-1300: A Biographical Dictionary

By Jana K. Schulman | Go to book overview
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HADEWIJCH OF BRABANT(EARLY THIRTEENTH CENTURY). A Flemish Beguine and teacher, many of her letters, poetry, and recorded visions survive.

Little is known about Hadewijch, particularly since her writings include few autobiographical comments. She must have lived in the thirteenth century and must have composed her works before 1245 when the Muslims conquered Jerusalem; she calls Jerusalem the holiest of Christian cities and celebrates its leadership in one of her works. Her work shows an awareness of chivalric customs and court life and reveals a familiarity with language, rhetoric, numerology and astronomy, music theory, and theology. Thus, she must have come from an aristocratic family and must have obtained a broad education.

Hadewijch wrote in three genres. Her letters, of which thirty-one are extant, reveal her affection for the women of her Beguine community. She believed Christ had authorized her to lead and instruct younger women, so many of her letters are addressed to “Young Beguines” and encouraged the girls to live pious lives and submit to God’s will. She commands them to make love the greatest force in their lives. Encouraging the development of self-awareness, she nevertheless reminds her readers that God’s might is greater than any human power. Only through experiencing God can one truly know God; thus, Hadewijch stresses experiential knowledge of God over intellectual knowledge of him. Such ideas place her in the category of other mystics such as *Bernard of Clairvaux, and the letters to the young Beguines are perhaps the most well known of her works.

Many of Hadewijch’s letters are serious and sorrowful. Accused of teaching quietism, condemning human effort in salvation, she probably faced exile. This would explain why she had to send letters to the young girls and why her letters are full of comments about her “travels” and “wanderings.” Beguines faced some opposition in the thirteenth century because they resisted ecclesiastical control,

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