Academic journal article Magistra

Writing Beguines: Ecstatic Performances

Academic journal article Magistra

Writing Beguines: Ecstatic Performances

Article excerpt

The Vita of Ida of Nivelles, a thirteenth century Cistercian nun, recounts her journey with another nun to the city of Liège. That night they stayed at another Cistercian monastery and, before bedtime, the nun asked Ida to "expand for her edification on some of the good things with which the Lord had enriched her."(1) Ida's edifying words to this nun were not words from Holy Scripture, although she certainly knew many portions by heart. Neither were they prayers from the breviary; Ida and her friend had already said those. Instead, Ida recounted one of her visionary experiences.

As she told the story, Ida's face began to glow. Moreover, the story itself had an amazing effect upon her companion. The Vita says that "the nun gazed upon her [Ida's] countenance as upon the countenance of an angel who had sat next to her...She also had fears lest from so honeyed an exchange she might faint away."(2)

There are three noteworthy features of this very interesting account from Ida's vita. First, somehow Ida was able to recall and re-experience a vision that had presumably happened some time earlier. This re-collection had the same transformative effect as the original vision; her face glowed "with the spirit" and she appeared to another as angelic. Secondly, this "honeyed exchange" (collocutione tam melliflua) also transformed her companion. Subsequently, the nun was able to reassure Ida that their candle would not go out until they were finished. She, not Ida, attained second sight through Ida's story. Finally, the telling of a visionary experience was deemed by the nun and by the monastic scribe who wrote the Vita, as "edifying," just as are the words of Holy Scripture, the prayers of the Church, and sermons one might hear.

This little story highlights a sometimes forgotten, but important, aspect of medieval visionary writings. There was an audience involved, often in the initial experience, and in the telling, re-telling and, eventually, the writing. Readers often lose sight of this audience because the vitae of visionary women sometimes give the impression that all such women existed in a vacuum, spontaneously and individually experiencing rapture wherever they happened to be. If, however, these vitae are examined more closely, it becomes clear that there are always other people, such as companions, assistants, confessors or choirs around them.

This is certainly the case in the vitae of medieval Low Countries beguines, such as that of Ida of Nivelles. Although many of these women were described as heroically holy, their holiness did not take the form of solitary reclusiveness. Women like Marie d'Oignies, Ida of Leuven (Louvain), and Beatrijs of Nazareth were all connected to religious houses or to some form of communal life.(3) Moreover, it is clear that in the Low Countries beguines were communally organized from early in their history. Rules for specific beguine communities were written down in the mid-thirteenth century.(4) These rules state explicitly that beguines were expected to spend their days communally, and that they had to ask permission to go anywhere unaccompanied.(5)

These facts of beguine life have important consequences for the understanding of beguine religious writings. It may be argued that the presence and mediation of audiences, immediate, transcribing and hearing, in beguine religious experiences call for a different "reading" of beguine devotional literature. It will be proposed here that this literature be treated as theatrical texts that attempt to recall and inspire devotional performances.

A well known example of beguine ecstatic literature is the Visions of Hadewijch of Antwerp, a thirteenth century beguine from Brabant. No vita was ever written about Hadewijch so, unlike Ida of Nivelles, there is no possibility of knowing what specific transformative effect(s) she had upon her audience. However, there is no doubt that Hadewijch had an audience. She lived in the Low Countries at the same time that the early rules for begijnhoven, or beguinages, were established. …

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