photographConference report: Northern German Mysticism

Workshop in the School of Modern Languages establishes a new field of study

Location: School of Modern Languages, Newcastle University
Time/Date: 9th September 2010 - 11th September 2010

“Northern German Mysticism” is not an established field of study, neither for the Late Middle Ages nor indeed for any other period. However, in recent years interest in texts like Mechthild of Magdeburg’s writings, in material culture, art and architecture as expressions of female religiosity and in networks of textual transmission has grown exponentially. In planning a Companion to Northern German Mysticism as part of the Brill series of Companions to the Christian Tradition, Elizabeth Andersen and Henrike Lähnemann as editors conceived a mid-way workshop to agree on a working definition of “Northern German Mysticism”. This was to be an integral part in the production of the volume, providing the contributors with an opportunity to discuss as a group – a particular challenge for the 15 scholars coming from four different disciplines (history, German literature, musicology, theology) and working in three different languages (English, German and Dutch), each with its own epistemological background and methodological approach. Fortunately, most of the contributors and several specialists for the historical and linguistic background were able to come to Newcastle for the three days.

Key questions for the workshop were:

  1. How is the span of the timeframe to be structured?
  2. How is the Northern German region to be defined?
  3. What working definition of mysticism is the most appropriate in the context of this volume?

In advance of the workshop, all contributors had been asked to share their chapter plans and their selected primary source material since a particular feature of the volume will be the inclusion of a selection of primary source material attached to each chapter and translated into English. The programme began with the participants considering in three groups the primary source material, which ranges from the new Mechthild fragment of the thirteenth century to the letters of the nuns of the Lüneburg convents from around 1500. However, it soon became apparent that there was considerable unease around the proposed chronological structure of the volume, where contributions were to be grouped within the boundaries of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The disquiet was around the lack of a distinctive contribution to mystical thinking in the fourteenth century by comparison with the rich clustering of texts around Mechthild of Magdeburg and the convent at Helfta on the one hand and those of the reformed convents in the fifteenth century on the other.

Discussion in the plenary session around the awkward gap in the fourteenth century led to a growing awareness of the interdependence of the chronological, geographical, political and intellectual in defining the scope of the volume. Agreement was eventually reached on a two-part structure for the Companion, with 1370 as the pivotal date, determined by a confluence of factors. Stephen Mossman pointed to the importance of Erfurt in the Northern German context, following the exodus from Prague University, Friedel Roolfs highlighted the shift in the importance of Low German as a major language of communication and, through reference to the Teutonic Order, Mary Fischer drew attention to the increased political significance of Prussia. In the contextualisation of themes central to the volume, sometimes a synchronic approach seemed to be most productive, working with the concept of a “knowledge community” (Wissensgemeinschaft as in the case of Helfta) or a “conventual network” (Klosterlandschaft as in the case of the Lüneburg convents). In other instances a diachronic approach seemed more appropriate, thus for example the influence of the Devotio moderna on reform movements such as the Bursfelde Reform or the tracing of networks of transmission as in the reception of the revelations of Birgitta of Sweden.

With regard to the thorny issue of how to define mysticism for the purposes of the volume, the workshop followed the suggestion of Ulrike Hascher-Burger that the fluid model of “mystieke cultuur” (Thom Mertens, 1995) be adopted with its three overlapping and permeable concentric circles of speculative mysticism, affective mysticism and devotional piety. The contributions of Eva Schlotheuber and Anne Bollmann were particularly helpful in demonstrating the effectiveness of the model. Bollmann focuses on the extension of mystical experience to wider circles in the religious life effected by the Devotio moderna – a movement which Henrike Lähnemann reinforces in her concept of “widening participation” with reference to the devotional books of Medingen – and Schlotheuber highlights through the, as yet, unedited letters of Lüne, the way in which mystical thought resonates in social and religious practice.

And so what is now the shape of the Companion to Northern German Mysticism? The final day of the workshop was dedicated to the re-structuring of the whole volume, the meshing together of the various chapters and the systematisation of the source texts, images, maps and indices (see ….. for an overview of the revised table of contents). Each of the sections in the new bipartite structure will open with an introductory survey chapter (Elizabeth Andersen; Nigel F. Palmer) which traces the networks of knowledge and transmission, defining the Hanseatic region as a centre of rich exchange between Scandinavia, Southern Germany and the Low Countries . The following chapters will also be prefaced by a chapter (Jürgen Bärsch) which considers the liturgy as a catalyst for mystical experience.

For the first part “Beginnings and Formations”, Veerle Fraeters has re-conceived her chapter as a prelude, demonstrating through a case study of Hadewijch and the beguine movement the supra-regional network of mystical thought. The focus will then shift to the intertwined reception of the writings of Mechthild of Magdeburg and the nuns of Helfta. Sara S. Poor will re-evaluate the transmission of Mechthild’s work, particularly in the light of the recent discovery of the early Central German fragment of Das fliessende Licht der Gottheit (Moscow Gustav Schmidt collection, I, 47, Lomonossow University). In this context Friedel Roolfs made it clear how important it is to understand the complex relationship between Central and Low German. Balázs Nemes will also work with some recently discovered fragments in his study of the genesis and authorship of texts from Helfta, considering the generic relationship of these writings to the wave of female saints’ lives in the Low Countries of the thirteenth century on the one hand and the sisters’ books (Schwesternbücher) of the fourteenth century Dominican convents in Southern Germany on the other. The first part of the volume will conclude with a comparative study by Ernst Hellgardt and Ulla Bucarey of the different status of latinitas in the production, reception and dissemination of texts by Mechthild of Magdeburg, Gertrude the Great and Mechthild of Hackeborn. Bucarey will pay particular attention to her exciting identification of a Yale manuscript from the Convent of St Catherine in Nuremberg as one in which extracts from the different Helfta authors are compiled within a liturgical context.

Part II, “Reforms, Transformations and Exchange” will be introduced with a contextualisation of other strong currents of mystical writing in the fourteenth century which point to the Hanseatic region as a centre of rich exchange between Scandinavia, Southern Germany and the Low Countries (Nigel F. Palmer). A second “prelude” chapter  will delineate the preconditions for a new devotional culture in Northern Germany in the fourteenth century with reference to developments in the Low Countries. This will be followed by a chapter (Geert Warnar / Wybren Scheepsma) on Meister Eckhart in Northern Germany exploring the position of the German Dominican mystics in Dutch and Northern German literature and focusing on Tauler and Seuse as key figures in the Northern parts of the Netherlands.

With Johannes Marienwerder’s Vita of Dorothea (of Montau) Almut Suerbaum will shift the focus of interest away from the border with the Low Countries to the East. In the context of the Companion, Dorothea’s extraordinary Vita which has just undergone a complete new evaluation (Oxford German Studies special volume 2010/1) provides the only extant example of the genre that was so widespread in Southern Germany as well as presenting with Marienwerder an important link to Prussia and the German Order and the intellectual climate of Erfurt. After Dorothea, the volume looks north to Birgitta of Sweden, concentrating on the transmission of her Revelations through the Mohnkopf printers of Lübeck and the reception of them in devotional books and pictorial images in Northern Germany (Elizabeth Andersen).

In Anne Bollmann’s chapter on the Devotio Moderna and Ulrike Hascher-Burger’s on fifteenth century religious song, the Low Countries and Northern Germany are considered as a coherent cultural region. Through an examination of the “democratisation” of mysticism through the adaptation and re-working of writings as a personal expression of mystical experience in selected texts, Bollmann will delineate the place of mysticism in the multi-facetted devotional life of the Devotio Moderna. Hascher-Burger takes as her focus the widespread Latin and vernacular religious songs – contrafacts and liturgical chants, divorced from their original context – and will examine their function in the personal devotion of the religious and secular adherents of the Devotio Moderna.

The final three chapters are centred on three of the six convents on the Lüneburg Heath. The bi-lingual text production of the reformed convents of Wienhausen, Medingen and Lüne throws the reception and transformation of mystical writing in the fifteenth century into sharp relief. Through the fragment of the Wienhausen liturgical Easter play, Rianne Mus will provide a unique insight into how the liturgical play could be used as an exercise in meditation and devotion, while the manuscripts of the prayerbooks produced in and for the convent of Medingen provide a rich range of devotional text types centred on the feast of Easter for Henrike Lähnemann. Through the treasure trove of the letters from Lüne, Eva Schlotheuber will consider how the intellectual horizons of the novices were shaped by the instruction they received as preparation for a vita contemplativa in strict enclosure.

The editors of the volume are very grateful to the British Academy for the award of a small research grant which made it possible to bring the contributors together from Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA and the UK. The three lively days of constructive and productive discussion have meant that the volume (scheduled for publication in 2012) will be richer and more coherent. Thanks go also to the Faculty’s “Medieval and Early Modern Studies Group” and to the School of Modern Languages at Newcastle University for enabling the group to be inspired by a trip through ecclesiastical Northumbria.

Elizabeth A. Andersen / Henrike Lähnemann                                 Newcastle upon Tyne

Published: 2nd October 2010