From Virile Woman to Womanchrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature

By Barbara Newman | Go to book overview

Excursus 2. Gnostics, Free Spirits, and "Meister Eckhart's Daughter"

Among the many dubiously orthodox texts that circulated in Meister Eckhart's name is a tract called Schwester Katrei, which in some manuscripts bears the inscription: "This is Sister Catherine, Meister Eckhart's daughter of Strassburg."1 The tract takes the form of a dialogue between a beguine ("Sister Catherine") and her confessor, a figure modeled on Eckhart. Since the master lived in Strassburg ca. the second quarter of the fourteenth century. Its authorship is unknown, but Strassburg had a large population of beguines, and the writer was probably among them. Several features of the text suggest female authorship, especially its exaltation of the beguine's all-absorbing love at the expense of her confessor's churchly prudence. Although Sister Catherine begins by obediently following the confessor's advice, she soon leaves him to pursue "the fastest way" to God in exile and abjection. When she returns some time later, he no longer recognizes her, for in mystical contemplation she has "become God" and is soon "established in union." From this point onward the roles are reversed: the disciple becomes the mistress, delivering some remarkable sermons as the confessor listens until, following his daughter's advice, he attains ecstasy at last.

Schwester Katrei is suffused with Free Spirit ideas, but unlike Marguerite Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls, it escaped official repression. The dialogue survives in at least seventeen manuscripts with considerable variation. It was read and copied by monks and nuns as well as beguines, and a Benedictine, Oswald of Brentzahusen, found it worth translating into Latin in the fourteenth century. Oswald did not know who the author was, but assumed her to be a woman -- "a certain young girl, noble and delicate."2 That, of course, is the authorial image that Schwester Katrei and other beguine texts deliberately project. For the sake of convenience, therefore, I will refer to this anonymous writer as "Sister Catherine."

Despite its innocuous reception, Schwester Katrei now appears much further from orthodoxy, than does Marguerite's book. Aside from its Free

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