Around 1250 a German poet, Lamprecht of Regensburg, wrote about women's mysticism under the telling name of kunst--knowledge or art. He expressed the usual consternation over female hegemony in this sphere:
diu kunst ist bî unserm tagen
in Brâbant und in Baierlanden
undern wîben ûf gestanden.
herre got, waz kunst ist daz,
daz sich ein alt wîp baz
verst dan witzige man?1
("Knowledge" has in our days sprung up among women in Brabant and Bavaria. Lord God, what knowledge is this that an old woman understands better than a learned man?)
Lamprecht gives a familiar and no doubt comforting explanation: women, because of their soft hearts and simple senses, could be "kindled more brightly" than men by desire for God. They were wiser mystics because they were better lovers. But when such women made their desire into an art, they belied the naïveté that Lamprecht wished to foist on them. To contemporaries, the sophistication of writers like Hadewijch, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete was as disconcerting as it was seductive, for here were "celibates with a real love life, . . . religious women who knew desire and [its] fulfillment" and had the hauteur of a courtly domna.2 It was an artful knowing, not mere desire, that made them into those dangerously subtle creatures, beguines clergesses. And it is art that must guide us in reading their desire today.3
La mystique courtoise was a distinctive creation of the thirteenthcentury beguines, not just a pretty new bottle for the same old wine, and once it appeared on the scene, mysticism would never be quite the same.