Mechthild of Magdeburg and Her Book: Gender and the Making of Textual Authority

Mechthild of Magdeburg and Her Book: Gender and the Making of Textual Authority

Mechthild of Magdeburg and Her Book: Gender and the Making of Textual Authority

Mechthild of Magdeburg and Her Book: Gender and the Making of Textual Authority


Sometime around 1230, a young woman left her family and traveled to the German city of Magdeburg to devote herself to worship and religious contemplation. Rather than living in a community of holy women, she chose isolation, claiming that this life would bring her closer to God. Even in her lifetime, Mechthild of Magdeburg gained some renown for her extraordinary book of mystical revelations, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, the first such work in the German vernacular. Yet her writings dropped into obscurity after her death, many assume because of her gender.

In Mechthild of Magdeburg and Her Book, Sara S. Poor seeks to explain this fate by considering Mechthild's own view of female authorship, the significance of her choice to write in the vernacular, and the continued, if submerged, presence of her writings in a variety of contexts from the thirteenth through the nineteenth century. Rather than explaining Mechthild's absence from literary canons, Poor's close examination of medieval and early modern religious literature and of contemporary scholarly writing reveals her subject's shifting importance in a number of differently defined traditions, high and low, Latin and vernacular, male- and female-centered.

While gender is often a significant factor in this history, Poor demonstrates that it is rarely the only one. Her book thus corrects late twentieth-century arguments about women writers and canon reform that often rest on inadequate notions of exclusion. Mechthild of Magdeburg and Her Book offers new insights into medieval vernacular mysticism, late medieval women's roles in the production of culture, and the construction of modern literary traditions.


Since the 1970s, there have been repeated calls for the revision of literary canons to include female authors. Feminist criticism has faulted literary histories for systematically excluding the contributions of women; but the contributions of medieval women writers have been especially vulnerable to exclusion because many appeared simply to have been forgotten, lost in the transition from manuscript to printed book, or allowed to pass from memory in the drive to embrace a new and redefined modern age. Mechthild of Magdeburg (ca. 1210–1282), author of an extraordinary set of mystical revelations called Dasflieβende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of the Godhead), is now counted among a significant number of medieval women writers to have been recovered or reclaimed for the literary histories of the Middle Ages.

This group includes, but is not limited to, other figures from Germany (Hildegard of Bingen, Elisabeth ofSchönau, Gertrud of Helfta, and Mechthild of Hackeborn), Italy (Angela of Foligno and Catherine of Siena), France (Marguerite Porete, Christine de Pizan), Spain (Teresa of Avila), Sweden (Birgitta of Sweden), the Low Countries (Beatrice of Nazareth and Hadewijch), and England (Marie de France, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe). The presence of this illustrious group in numerous studies and anthologies of medieval literature now attests to their renewed status as important writers from a number of different perspectives (theological, literary, linguistic, historical, and cultural). Yet even such figures as Elisabeth of Schönau and Christine de Pizan, who were widely read in their own day, had to be rediscovered by nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars. The aim of this book is to interrogate the apparent fall of medieval women authors from and their return to our collective literary and historical consciousness.

My interest in this historical problem grows out of a desire to address a persistent and troubling dilemma for scholars of literature by women in literary studies departments: How does one advance the place and legitimacy of women authors in academic canons while also avoiding the pitfalls of essentializing and thus marginalizing them as women? This . . .

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