Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World: A Biographical Dictionary

By Carole Levin; Debra Barrett-Graves et al. | Go to book overview

MECHTHILD OF MAGDEBURG
(ca. 1207/1212-ca. 1282/1297)

Germany
Christian Mystic and Writer

In thirteenth-century Europe, a number of Christian women had mystical experiences and left written accounts of these moments, either in their own words or as dictated to others. Historians generally agree that at this time in Christian history women were more likely than men to have ecstatic or visionary experiences and to acquire reputations as mystics. Scholars suggest that such experience allowed women personal contact with divinity at a time when they were increasingly excluded from direct participation in the liturgy and sacraments. One of these women was Mechthild of Magdeburg, whose book The Flowing Light of the Godhead records more than fifteen years of her visionary experience. Mechthild wrote on loose sheets of paper, using the dialect of Low German that she spoke rather than Latin. She is the first German mystic, male or female, to write in her native vernacular, a choice that probably made her work more accessible to a secular audience. (When Mechthild claimed ignorance of Latin in The Flowing Light, many scholars believe she meant theology, as her work indicates familiarity with the Latin liturgy and Psalms.)

Heinrich of Halle, a Dominican friend of Mechthild, organized her writings into six books or chapters; he is most likely the confessor mentioned in The Flowing Light who in 1250 urged her to record her mystical experiences. Readers can find recurring themes, concerns, and images in The Flowing Light, but given Heinrich's role, it is not possible to trace their development. Although the original manuscript has been lost, Latin translations made soon after Mechthild's death have survived. Sometime after Heinrich's death, a seventh book was added; it contains some early material as well as writings during Mechthild's later years at a Cistercian convent at Helfta. In the fourteenth century, The Flowing Light was translated into a form of High German and circulated widely throughout southern Germany. Although some scholars once speculated that the Matelda mentioned

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