Academic journal article Magistra

Infancy and Education in the Writings of Gertrud the Great of Helfta

Academic journal article Magistra

Infancy and Education in the Writings of Gertrud the Great of Helfta

Article excerpt

The German Benedictine nun Gertrud the Great of Helfta (c.1256-1302) was one of the most highly educated of medieval women mystics. Unlike most religious women of the Middle Ages, she not only read Latin but also wrote it fluently and prolifically. Latin is the language of almost all her surviving writings: The Herald of God's Loving-Kindness, The Spiritual Exercises and (probably also written by her) The Book of Special Grace. The Herald consists of five books, although only Book 2 comes, quite literally, from the pen of Gertrud herself. The opening describes how she snatched up the writing tablet at her side and wrote the first section under divine inspiration (II, Prologue(1)).

Book 1 is a biographical sketch of the saint, written by another Helfta nun, while Books 3, 4 and 5 were compiled either by that same nun or another, using material provided by Gertrud, and as far as possible authorized by her. In compiling The Book of Special Grace, Gertrud almost certainly performed a similar service for her own mentor and novice-mistress, Mechthild of Hackebom. In addition, according to the biographer of Book 1, Gertrud wrote much more in Latin and the vernacular, including prayers and devotions, and commentary on and paraphrases of scripture (I. 1,2), but none of this has survived.

There are many references in Gertrud's writings to childhood and education, particularly in the lively similitudines (extended similes or analogies) which often illustrate particular points in her dialogues with the Lord. It must be said that most of these are put into His mouth, so their status in providing information about Gertrud's own intellectual formation is problematic, but they can probably tell something about her mental, if not real, world. While they may well be influenced by literary sources, they must to a certain extent reflect the experiences of herself and of her sisters in religion, and they mainly describe what sounds like the typical medieval education of aristocratic children (boys as much as girls): informal, private, and secular.

While Gertrud herself presumably came from the aristocracy, her own education must been somewhat different. She entered the monastery at the age of four as a child oblate, that is, her parents handed her over to Helfta to be brought up to be a nun. Child oblation was an ancient practice for which Chapter 59 of the Rule of St. Benedict made specific provision. It had in the earlier Middle Ages been the standard method of entrance into the religious life and adult entrants or conversi the exception. However, the practice fell out of favor in the twelfth century, (the last recorded cases in an English Benedictine house took place in the mid-twelfth century) and the new Cistercian order made a point of eliminating it. It was discouraged by the Lateran Council of 1215, which declared it unlawful, but nonetheless it continued sporadically.(2) Houses where it did continue had ideally to provide a full range of education, from the most elementary training in literacy to the study of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic) which formed the substance of the university arts degree.

For thirteenth-century monks the educational minimum was "to read, sing and perform the liturgy correctly," but "by the middle of the thirteenth century the first attempts were being improve the facilities for study in their orders. In 1245 the general chapter of the Cistercian order...urged that every abbey should have facilities for study if possible"(3) while "in 1331 the [Cistercian] general order had commanded that communities of forty monks or more should maintain a lecturer to instruct the younger brethren in grammar and logic."(4)

As is so often the case, however, very little, if anything, is known about what happened in women's houses. The anonymous Irish Poor Clare who was Gertrud's nineteenth-century translator states that the saint grew up "under the careful training of the Benedictine Dames, -- who then, as now, devoted themselves with unwearied solicitude, and more than ordinary intellectual abilities, to the education of those confided to their charge,"(5) but this is more pious optimism than hard historical fact. …

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