The intense medieval interest in religion discharges itself mainly along two parallel paths: the intellectual and the intuitive. These, though distinct in their methods and sometimes pursued in isolation, yet frequently react upon one another; for the mystic and the theologian seek the same ultimate goal. The intellectual and speculative vigour of the time produced on the one hand the scholastic philosophy, and the great theological constructions of St Thomas Aquinas and his successors, devoted to the justification and explication of traditional dogma; on the other hand, it inspired anxious questioning and daring explorations, which opened the door to heresy and prepared the path of the Reformation. So too the intuitive and experimental religious temper produced that great efflorescence of mysticism which is one of the most striking characteristics of medieval Christianity; and which has, like the corresponding intellectual activity, important historical results both within and without the Catholic fold. Too various in its manifestations to be comprehended in any single formula, this mystical temper expresses itself not only in the personal experiences of spiritual genius, but also in corporate and democratic movements. It profoundly influences religion and art, and instigates both religious rebellion and religious reform. Appearing in history at the latter part of the eleventh century, it is at first closely associated with the Benedictine Order and completely orthodox in outlook and activities. From the twelfth century onwards, however, it inspires, on the one hand, an increasing number of mystical sects proclaiming the liberty of the individual soul, and, on the other, the best activities of those who oppose them, and seek to regenerate the Church from within. Thus on the extreme left we have the wild libertinism of such mystical sects as that of the Free Spirit, tending to moral and religious anarchy; and on the extreme right the unimpeachable orthodoxy of such great constructive mystics as Bernard, Francis, Catherine of Siena. Between these two points every gradation of feeling and doctrine can be found. The history of medieval Catholicism includes the perpetual friction of the mystical heretics with their criticism of ecclesiastical authority; and the tonic influence of the orthodox mystics, seeking to restore that authority to its primitive purity. This orthodox mysticism receives immense development through the practice and teaching of the Mendicant Friars. It has its golden age in the fourteenth century, and gradually recedes from the centre of the stage before the approach of the Renaissance.
Mysticism, the claim to an immediate apprehension of God and the craving for union with Him, is of course an element in all developed religion. It is present in Christianity from the first. But, though it is essentially the “religion of the heart” and so may conceivably exist at any level of religious culture, if it is to exert an influence on thought and action and so achieve historical importance, it requires a considerable intellectual equipment. The mystic needs abstract conceptions wherewith to communicate his doctrine and experience; and wherever a mystical movement arises through the influence of great spiritual personalities, it soon acquires a philosophy suited to its needs. With hardly an exception, the great mystics of history have been educated men, fed by tradition as well as by direct experience. Though doubtless hidden contemplatives were always numerous, those who achieved historical significance did so because of their acquaintance with the great mystical tradition of Christendom, which enabled them to nourish their mental life, express their intuitions, and so affect the religious life of their time. Therefore the primary fact for the student of medieval mysticism is the existence within the Church of this tradition, which guaranteed the classic phenomena of the interior life, explained them, and provided a symbolism in which they could be given literary form. Any carefully annotated mystical text will show the close dependence on authority even of the most apparently personal outpourings. Because the genuine mystic is a realist and speaks from experience, he often gives the impression of intense religious spontaneity. Nevertheless he is always in the truest sense a historical figure imbedded in the religious culture of his time. We have constantly to strike the balance between the often vigorous originality of the individual, and the strong tradition by which he was nurtured and which gave him his technique; and to be on our guard against discovering novelty in sayings and doctrines which are often adopted without acknowledgment from an earlier source. The Bible, and especially the Psalter—the daily food of the professed religious—is the dominant literary influence of medieval mysticism; and intimate Scripture knowledge is required of those who would understand its literature. Next in importance is St Augustine, through whom Neoplatonism entered Christian theology. Behind St Augustine, whose lofty genius has affected every great mystic of this period, stands Plotinus who—though only known by them at second-hand—is yet a determining influence in their development. The Dialogues of Cassian, which carried forward into medieval monasticism the teaching of the Fathers of the Desert on contemplative prayer and the works of St Gregory the Great, are also fundamental for an understanding of Benedictine spirituality and its offshoots. But the event which, above all, made possible the great development of mystical religion that culminated in the fourteenth century was the translation into Latin of the works of the so-called “Dionysius the Areopagite” by John Scotus Eriugena (ob. 877). Through these writings, which became gradually diffused throughout the Catholic world, and affected the spiritual outlook of all its greatest religious personalities, the mystics obtained a philosophy which justified and explained their experiences, and a theological landscape within which to place them. Their influence is especially to be felt in the Dominican and Franciscan schools. Though here mysticism will be studied mainly as a religious and social phenomenon and not in its doctrinal or philosophic implications, these cultural influences—Scriptural, Neoplatonic, and Patristic—must be remembered if we are to understand its manifold surface activities.
Since mysticism is essentially religious realism, claiming and emphasising first-hand intuitive experience of those spiritual realities which theology describes, and requiring their application to life, it is plain that where this type of religion prevails and is taken seriously it will act in one of two ways. (1) It will impart a more vivid actuality and meaning to traditional symbols and more fervour to traditional practices, heightening their spiritual content, colour, and significance. Thus the widespread medieval cultus of the Holy Name, the development of Eucharistic devotion, are in part the expression of the mysticism of the time. (2) Where these symbols and practices are felt to have become inadequate, formal, or unreal, the mystic may lead a revolt against them, involving a more or less complete rejection of tradition and claim to spiritual liberty: as in the Brethren of the Free Spirit. These opposing tendencies run right through medieval history. Where mysticism enters into an alliance with orthodoxy and expresses itself through orthodox symbols, it purifies and deepens the institutional life, opposes the constant tendency to degenerate, undertakes the reform of abuses, fills practices with fresh fervour, and inspires artistic and liturgic development. Thus Francis, Ruysbroeck, Catherine of Siena, while exerting a transforming influence on the religious life of their time, were valuable allies of the Church. On the other hand, where the intensely spontaneous element inherent in mystical feeling is out of harmony with its environment, and comes into conflict with authority—as in the “Spiritual” Franciscans; where it rejects the outward in favour of the inward, is associated with an extreme type of intellectual speculation—as in Eckehart—or enters into alliance with social unrest, mysticism may shOw itself as the inspiration of revolt and become the parent of heresy. Thus, though the great mystic is above all a man of prayer and contemplation, his social importance is considerable, and he often plays the part of reformer and prophet. The modem tendency to draw a hard line between active and contemplative life is not justified by history, which constantly shows their intimate connexion; and this especially in the period under review.
In their written works—and by these, after all, they are chiefly known to us—the medieval mystics constantly trespass on the ground of the moralists and speculative theologians; while their history is closely connected with that of the religious Orders and other group-formations. We cannot restrict the name “mystic” to those who write or teach on the degrees of contemplation or similar themes. Many are deeply concerned to impress on the world their own vision of holiness, or to remodel the life of the Church nearer to their heart’s desire. Thus the mystical and realistic temper of medieval religion first appears in that movement towards the reform of monasticism which is characteristic of the eleventh century. This is fully discussed as part of the history of the monastic Orders. Here we are only concerned with it in its mystical aspect, as the work of certain great personalities, filled with an enthusiasm for the other-worldly life of unimpeded communion with God which had been sought both by the Fathers in the Desert and the first monks of the West. In its pure form, monasticism is a life which gives the first place to these transcendental interests. Its ascetic disciplines, its liturgic, philanthropic, and intellectual activities, are all subservient to this. It was therefore pre-eminently the institution through which the mystical impulse of the period was likely to find its first path of discharge. The formation during the eleventh century of reformed Benedictine Congregations under the influence of saintly personalities witnesses to a genuine revival of mystical religion; even though this revival has left few literary memorials, hut was mainly expressed in terms of actual life.
The movement is first seen in Italy, where St Romuald (c. 950-1027) effected in the early years of the century what is usually counted as the second Benedictine reform. His career is typical of many others. After seven years in the abbey of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, which he sought to restore to exact observance, Romuald went to Venice, where he received an intensive ascetic training from a hermit. A period of wandering finally brought him to Camaldoli in the Casentino, where he founded the still-existent Hermitage—a little walled village of solitary contemplatives. This pioneer experiment in communal mysticism anticipated in many respects the great creation of St Bruno. Romuald’s follower, St Peter Damian (1007-72), Abbot of Fonte Avellana, though best known for his love of asceticism and his campaigns against ecclesiastical corruption, was also a contemplative at heart. The third of the Italian reformers, St Giovanni Gualberti (985-1073)—the hero of the beautiful legend of the Merciful Knight—was driven by the same impulse from the Benedictine monastery of San Miniato to Vallombrosa; there he lived in solitary communion with God, until the fame of his holiness drew so many disciples that he was obliged to organise them upon monastic lines. Thus was founded about 1020 the Order of Vallombrosa.
During the second half of the century, similar tendencies appear in France, and result in the foundation about 1080 of the Poor Men of Grandmont under St Stephen Muret (1048-1124); in 1084, of the Carthusian Order under St Bruno (c. 1032-1101); and finally, in 1098, of the Cistercian reform under St Robert of Molesme (1028-1111) and St Stephen Harding. The Poor Men of Grandmont did not long maintain the purity of their rule after their heroic founder’s death; but the setting up of the Carthusian and Cistercian Orders were events of capital importance for the subsequent development of medieval mysticism. St Bruno’s desire was to combine the perfect solitude of the hermitage with the mutual support given by the common life, a conception that could only have come to a mind for which contemplative interests were paramount, and is alone enough to prove St Bruno a mystic. With six companions, he established himself under conditions of great poverty and hardship at the Grande Chartreuse. Thus began an institution which exerted a great though not manifest influence on the development of mysticism during the succeeding centuries. The Carthusians lived and live still so hidden a life that we have few means of knowing the degree and way in which mysticism was cultivated in their houses. But we do know that they were the contemplative Order par excellence, each Charterhouse being by intention a community of practical mystics; and that they played a definite part in the maintenance of a lofty spiritual tradition. This they did by practice rather than by propaganda. The essence of mysticism being not a doctrine but a way of life, its interests require the existence of groups of persons who put its principles into effect. The early Carthusians seem to have fulfilled this office. Their houses were recognised places of resort for spiritual persons; and though they produced few mystical writers, Carthusian influence is constantly discovered in the lives of the great medieval mystics. The monks, who were educated men, studied mystical literature with eagerness, and collected it in their libraries. They also devoted much time to the copying of MSS; and many mystical works were thus preserved and disseminated by them.
The relations between the first Carthusians and Cistercians were close. St Bruno had received his early discipline from St Robert, the future founder of Citeaux; and in the following century St Bernard was on intimate terms with the monks of the Grande Chartreuse, visiting them, and exchanging letters upon spiritual themes. A Carthusian abbot was one of the first recipients of his mystical commentary on the Song of Songs—one of the great source-books of mystical doctrine in the later Middle Ages. These facts already shew the beginning of a phenomenon of great importance in this phase of religious history: the degree in which mysticism was fostered and imparted through social intercourse, personal instruction, and discipleship. Often conceived as a solitary adventure of the spirit, it has as a matter of fact a strongly marked social aspect, well seen in the relationship existing between some of its outstanding personalities and their followers.
St Anselm; St Bernard
Of such personalities, one of the most influential for the eleventh century revival of mysticism was St Anselm (1033-1109), Abbot of Bec and Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm is one of those great figures, peculiarly characteristic of Catholic culture at its best, which exhibit in action the fruits of contemplation. It is this type, balancing spirituality by immense intellectual and practical ability, which gives the Christian mysticism of the West its historical importance. Driven by a strongly religious temperament, Anselm after some years of wandering found at the abbey of Bec in Normandy a “heaven on earth”. He was professed at the age of twenty-seven, and lived there for thirty-three years, successively becoming prior and abbot. The charm and greatness of his character are well known to us from contemporary notices. In spite of the vast influence and permanent value of his theological writings and his important ecclesiastical work, it is a mistake to regard Anselm mainly as a theologian or administrator. His real interest and the efficacious cause of his ceaseless labours was the personal passion of the mystic. Thus while on the one hand rightly considered the father of scholasticism, on the other hand he anticipates St Bernard as a teacher of contemplative love. The genuine prayers and meditations which modern criticism has separated from the many spurious pieces passing under his name reveal the nature of his secret life. They were widely circulated and became one of the great formative influences of the medieval school, especially in England. It does not appear that St Anselm was acquainted with the works of “Dionysius the Areopagite.” As a mystic he depends chiefly upon St Augustine, whose philosophic and devotional fervour he reproduces in the terms of his own time, blending with it that personal and intimate feeling which was characteristic of medieval piety. His clear and critical mind rejected the elaborate and often ridiculous symbolism which weighed down the religious expression of the early Middle Ages, and dwelt by preference upon those first principles which are the food of the contemplative life.
Anselm’s life overlaps that of St Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), the outstanding name in twelfth-century mysticism. St Bernard was at once the son and the support of the Cistercian reform, which had at its outset a contemplative character afterwards lost. Behind him, and somewhat obscured by his many-sided brilliance, stands the beautiful figure of the true founder, Stephen Harding, the English saint, who combined great administrative gifts with a passionate love of poverty and an unfailing spirit of joy that anticipate St Francis of Assisi. Stephen was a convinced and realistic mystic, who saw the whole of life in terms of work and contemplation. The monks were consecrated peasants. The record of his rule at Citeaux is an epic of heroic other-worldliness and serene courage, in the face of the famine and pestilence which almost wiped out the community. It was saved from extinction in 1113 by the arrival of Bernard, a brilliant and attractive young noble of twenty-two, leading a band of thirty disciples. The party had spent six months in retreat together before asking admission at Citeaux, a sufficient tribute to the personal influence of their youthful leader, whose fragile body was possessed by an intrepid will to holiness.
Spiritual genius matures swiftly. At twenty-five, Bernard was sent to found the daughter house of Clairvaux, of which he remained abbot till his death. He entered almost at once on a career of boundless activity which finally made him the dominant spiritual and ecclesiastical influence of his time. Monastic founder and reformer, preacher, statesman, and director of souls, he is characteristic of the varied and vigorous religious life of the twelfth century. Yet he remained to the end a solitary and contemplative at heart, his many outward works the expressions of an interior devotedness. His personal charm and talent for friendship, the energy which triumphed over persistent ill-health produced by his early and immoderate austerities, the practical abilities which balanced his profound spiritual absorption, are all made plain to us by contemporary sources, which include considerable remains of his voluminous correspondence.
As a mystic, Bernard’s influence was on the whole conservative and anti-intellectual. His contemporary Richard of St Victor was making pioneer researches into the psychology of contemplation; but Bernard had no interests of this kind. His view of the mystical life was devotional and practical; he stressed affection rather than intellect, and continued the Benedictine tradition, based on the meditation of Scripture and on the writings of St Gregory and Cassian. Yet, adding nothing new to the doctrine of the contemplative life, he impressed on the developing mysticism of the Middle Ages a distinctive form and colour, and became one of the major authorities on whom all later mystics depend. Bernard’s spirituality emerges from the Benedictine tradition, as early Gothic art emerges from the Romanesque. It adds to inherited qualities a new graciousness, responds to a new emotional demand. The position given to him by Dante in the Paradiso correctly represents the place which he occupied in the religious development of the Middle Ages. The treatise On the Love of God, written in 1126 before the beginning of his great public career, and the sermons on the Canticles, composed in later life for the edification of his monks, are the chief literary expressions of his mysticism.
If the specific medieval tradition of spiritual life descends on one side from St Bernard, on the other it takes its departure from the Augustinian abbey of St Victor at Paris. Here about 1108 a theological school, which soon became an important centre of intellectual life, was founded by William of Champeaux (ob. 1121), one of Bernard’s personal friends. St Bernard, a man of prayer and action, had little interest in the speculative side of religion. The Victorines, who were Platonists and students of St Augustine’s works, supplied together with a deep spiritual fervour the necessary intellectual backbone to the growing science of the mystical life. For medieval thought, scholastic and mystical theology were closely related; and in the best Victorine writings an endeavour is made to harmonise rational and intuitive knowledge. Hugh of St Victor (c. 1096-1141), a great and influential thinker, is the chief theologian of the school. The poet Adam (ob. 1192), in his sequences, brought the learning and spirituality of the community to bear on the liturgic life of the Church. More important for the subsequent history of mysticism was Hugh’s Scottish—or perhaps Irish—disciple, the fervent and learned Richard (ob. 1173). Richard of St Victor was the first Christian thinker to attempt a psychological account of mystical experience, and is the originator of some of its most important distinctions. His remarkable analysis and description of the stages in the development of the contemplative consciousness—the expansion, the uplifting, and the transfiguration of the mind—exercised a decisive influence on the great mystical teachers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, especially the vernacular writers of the English and Flemish schools. His personal holiness is said to have been great; and though his writings are entirely objective and nothing is known of his own experience, for Dante he was the typical mystic “superhuman in contemplation.” Richard regarded the heart and not the head as the organ of spiritual knowledge; and he rivalled St Francis in his expressions of contempt for secular learning. Yet it is largely due to his penetrating intellect that the mystical fervour of the time was saved from an easy and general descent into the abyss of religious emotionalism. Thus the Victorines, though cloistered scholars, profoundly influenced the religious life of the Middle Ages. Much of their teaching was conveyed by way of mystical commentaries on Scripture, and with an abundant—often extravagant—use of symbolic imagery. Nevertheless, with them begins the great part played by the Dionysian writings, with their resolute rejection of symbol and image, in the development of medieval religion.
France was a chief centre of the great spiritual revival of the twelfth century; and French influence was at this period dominant in the spheres of monastic reform, religious art, and learning. We might therefore expect to find it at work in the religious movement which arose in England during the reign of Stephen, when a wave of spiritual enthusiasm comparable to the Puritan and Evangelical revivals spread over the country. The history of this movement is not yet fully made out. Its beginning apparently coincided with the coming of the Cistercians to England, and the rapid foundation—mostly under circumstances of poverty and hardship—of the great Yorkshire abbeys; but the form which it assumed was less monastic, more individualistic, than in France. It is significant that its chief literary monument, the ancren Riwle, witnesses to that cult of the solitary or anchoretic life which had already arisen in late Saxon times, and was afterwards so closely associated with the classic age of English mysticism. Perhaps the first English medieval mystic of whom we have certain knowledge is St Wulsi (ob. c. 1097), originally a monk of Crowland, whose longing for a contemplative life drove him to seek refuge in a cave near Evesham, where he lived for over seventy years, becoming one of the chief spiritual influences of the West. In the following century, the general dissatisfaction with the lax state of the nunneries and unreformed Benedictine houses led to numerous experiments in the solitary life being made by those who desired to give themselves to contemplation. Northern France at this time was said to be “full of hermits,” and although the Carthusians were not established in England till 1174, their fame had preceded them; and spiritual minds were drawn to seek means of imitating their methods. We hear frequently of small groups of hermits, or solitaries of either sex, established in lonely places in order to lead a life of contemplation. Some of these hermits exerted a widespread influence on the pupils and clients who resorted to them. Such were St Godric of Finchale (ob. 1170), who lived for seventy years in a lonely spot on the banks of the Wear, and is credited with the Franciscan power over animals; and St Wulfric (c.1080-ob. 1154), who lived in a cell adjoining the church of Haselbury near Crewkeme. St Wulfric was much venerated as a prophet and wonderworker, and Henry I and Stephen came to him for counsel. At Markyate, between Dunstable and St Albans, dwelt in the first half of the century the holy hermit Roger, a mystic whose soul “conversed with the invisible” and who was called the “friend of God.” His disciple St Christina of Markyate, a prophetess and clairvoyante, became one of the most notable women of her time. Henry II in 1155 made provision for her support out of the Exchequer; and Abbot Robert of St Albans, seeking to win the favour of Hadrian IV, could find no better gift than sandals and two mitres embroidered by “Lady Christina of the Wood.” Less famous figures, but equally significant of the religious outlook, are the visionary Seleth, supernaturally led from the south to set up a company of hermits in Airedale, and thence evicted by the ruthless founder of Kirkstall Abbey; Bartholomew, the hermit of the Fame (1120-93); or the two women brought in from the woods about 1140 by Abbot Geoffrey of St Albans to form the nucleus of Sopwell Priory. Though this widespread movement has left few literary remains, its chief personalities probably imparting their spiritual knowledge by direct intercourse with visitors and disciples, it is here that we must look for the origins of English mysticism. The beautiful Middle English rhapsody, A Talking of the Love of God—now recognised as a conflation of earlier materials— suggests something of the realistic spiritual passion which irradiated these solitary lives. So too the Meditations of St Aelred (Abbot of Rievaulx 1146-66)—often confused with those of St Anselm—and the Rule of a Recluse, which he composed for the use of his sister, must be reckoned among its characteristic products.
Especially in the Ancren Riwle we have a document which reflects the religious temper of this time. It is a spiritual directory written for three girls of noble birth, who had left the world to be enclosed as anchoresses, independently of the established religious Orders, and desired a rule by which to live. Though it deals much with the externals of their existence, there is implied throughout the mystical object for which they have been enclosed, and the contrast which exists in the writer’s mind between the formalism of the older religious Orders and the realistic spirituality which is required of the true anchoress. Here it is probably representative of the religious outlook which found expression in the cult of the solitary life. At about the time that the Ancren Riwle was written, the Gilbertine Order began (1131-35) with the enclosure by St Gilbert of Sempringham (1085-1190) of seven village girls in a church-anchorage. We must remember, in estimating such events, that they are at once an implied criticism of the older religious establishments, and the outward expression of a vigorous interest in the things of the spirit; the same desire to cultivate the invisible side of life, and subdue all external circumstances to its demands, which had inspired the heroic founders of Citeaux and the Grande Chartreuse.
Both in England and France the mysticism of this period was as a whole sober, austere, and comparatively free from sensational and apocalyptic characters. Devotional rather than intellectual, it expressed itself outwardly in a life of intense asceticism and tended little to speculation. In Germany and Italy, however, the mystical impulse took a more startling form; and, in the prophetic activities of St Hildegarde and the Abbot Joachim of Flora, entered into close relations with secular history. St Hildegarde (1098-1179), the “Sibyl of the Rhine,” was the first of those strange women of genius who played so great a part in the history of the medieval Church, her manifest psychic abnormality contributing to her spiritual prestige. Born in 1098, she entered the religious life as an oblate when only eight years old; and was educated by Jutta, an anchoress of noble birth, whose disciples formed the nucleus of the Benedictine convent of Mount St Disibode. Hildegarde took the vows here in 1117, becoming abbess in 1130. Subject to visions from childhood, and reputed to possess healing and other abnormal powers, Hildegarde laid claim to direct inspiration and believed the obligation was laid upon her to denounce the abuses of contemporary life. Her great prophetic period began in 1141, when she was divinely ordered to tell her revelations to the world. It continued for about ten years, during which time the series of symbolic visions described in her Scivias were received by her. As a result of her prophecies, which dealt in vigorous terms with the corruption of the Church and of society, and greatly disturbed the contemporary mind, she entered into relations with all the chief personages of her time, to whom she wrote with the authority of one who literally believed herself the “agent of the Living Light.” Her correspondents included four Popes, two Emperors, and numerous royal and ecclesiastical persons. She consulted St Bernard on the validity of her experiences, and his guarded letter of reply still survives. The latter part of her life, like that of St Teresa, was spent in ceaseless activities. She founded two convents, and travelled hundreds of miles in a country and time which were ill-adapted to women’s journeyings. Her intellectual interests ranged from medicine to music, and her literary works include a long physical treatise in nine books and over sixty hymns. Her friend and neighbour, the Benedictine nun St Elizabeth of Schonau (1129-65), was an ecstatic whose trance utterances and symbolic visions were also directed to the reform of ecclesiastical corruption. Her influence, however, was small in comparison with that of St Hildegarde.
St Hildegarde and St Elizabeth, like earlier mystics of their type, had denounced with violence the increasing wealth and political preoccupation of the Church, the glaring contrast between the worldly lives and the spiritual obligations of the priesthood. Their reputation for sanctity protected them; but their protests had little real effect. The religious revival of the early twelfth century, which had given to the mystical fervour of the great monastic reformers and solitaries so favouring an environment, was now nearly spent. As a result, when that fervour appeared in individuals, instead of driving its possessor to a monastery or anchor-hold, it tended more and more to emphasise the contrast between institutional and interior religion, and to find new expression outside the ecclesiastical frame. Especially in North Italy, the Rhineland, and France, groups and individuals were beginning to appear among the laity, filled with a craving for spiritual perfection which the average institutionalism did not satisfy; and seeking, as the monastic contemplatives had done—though with different results—an outward life consistent with the aspiration of their souls. Some of these spiritual realists managed to retain their Catholic status. Others, more logical and less submissive to authority, were driven into heresy. Although in the strict sense we cannot perhaps give the name of “mystic” to any of these movements and their founders, there was yet a definite mystical element in their teaching. Its theological basis was a pantheistic doctrine of the divine nature of the soul, which derived from the works of Eriugena and the Neoplatonists and tended to undermine the authority of the official Church. Its social impetus came from the manifest disorders and shortcomings of ecclesiastical life. Its devotional bias was quietist. If, from the point of view of Church history, these heretical mystics are precursors of the Reformation, seen from a more purely religious angle they represent the working under changed conditions and without institutional safeguards of that same realistic spiritual temper which had inspired the Catholic solitaries and reforming saints. While these had expressed their otherworldly passion by means of a vigorous and penetrating use of Catholic discipline and symbolism, perpetually seeking to restore their purity and power, the heretical mystics reacted with more or less violence against institutional religion, and sought the inward by the rejection of the outward. In them first appear the characters which afterwards distinguished the orthodox mysticism of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, namely, the ever greater part played by the devout laity and by the formation of free associations or groups; the abandonment of the old tendency to identify mysticism with a special class vowed to the “religious” life; and that use of the vernacular for religious writings which played so great a part in the development of European literature.
The general method of these sects was the substitution of religious experience for religious authority, and a return to the apostolic life of poverty. Their aim was the same liberation from an unspiritual world and initiation into the life of God which had been offered by the ascetic discipline of the cloister, the anchorite’s cell, or the Victorine mystic’s “elevation of the mind.” They attracted adherents, because this mystical craving for spiritual realities was at work in the medieval world, and was now assuming a democratic form. The support given by the Papacy to the Mendicant Orders in the next century was at least partly inspired by a recognition of this fact, and of the need of meeting the threatening tide of heretical mysticism by the counter-attractions of a popular spiritual movement embodying many of its principles but arising within and controlled by the Catholic Church. When Innocent III approved the First Rule of St Francis, he was announcing to the world that the life of the Gospel could still flourish within its walls.
The history of the numerous heretical sects and groups which appeared in North Italy, Germany, Flanders, and France during the twelfth century is still imperfectly known. Their literature is lost, and we now’ see them only through the eyes of their ecclesiastical critics. Some, particularly the dualistic Cathari and Albigenses and their offshoots, seem to have had little or no mystical character; and these need not be considered here. But in many others we find that combination of speculative freedom, moral earnestness, devotional fervour, and anti-clerical feeling which is in all periods characteristic of the Christian mystical sect. Two distinct but really complementary influences lie behind these movements. The first is that desire for a return to the pure apostolic life of the New Testament—and especially the evangelical poverty which is the price of spiritual freedom—which always tends to appear in times of ecclesiastical decadence, and was widespread in the latter part of the twelfth century. The second is the enormous impetus given to mystical speculation by the renewed study of the works of Dionysius the Areopagite and of Eriugena, which were much read and discussed—often with intoxicating effect—in the University of Paris in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The Neoplatonic philosophy, that unfailing stimulant of the mystical sense, was thus brought into the current academic life, offering a vision of spiritual reality which seemed to satisfy men’s deepest cravings. Actually, it tended to the encouragement of that “pure” mysticism which is in the end indistinguishable from pantheism; and, where it achieves concrete expression, commonly means a more or less complete revolt from authority and tradition, and a consequent reduction of religious practice to quietism.
This strand in the spiritual complex of the twelfth century appears early in Flanders, where the speculative religious temper was always at home. Mystical groups, at first orthodox but tending to degenerate into heresy, are already found at Arras in the mid-eleventh century. At the beginning of the twelfth, Tauchelin of Zeeland was teaching a pantheistic mysticism in Antwerp and Bruges, which survived into the next century. Mild tendencies of this sort within the Catholic fold have been detected in the Letter to the Brethren of Mont Dieu probably written c. 1145 in North France or Flanders by Abbot William of St Thierry, the friend of St Bernard. Addressed to the monks of a newly established Charterhouse, and afterwards widely circulated, this beautiful little treatise suggests how thin a line already divided the orthodox and the heretical mystic. In the following century we find its doctrine reproduced, with guarded ecclesiastical approval, by the daring Mirror of Simple Souls apparently written in French in the Liege district. In France, Amaury of Chartres (ob. 1205) had pushed to extreme lengths the Neoplatonic doctrine of divine immanence. His teaching was condemned, and he retracted before his death; but his disciples, variously known as the Amaurists or “Spiritual Society,” survived him, and promulgated his ideas in a more popular and excessive form. They held that all men were potentially divine, and hence emancipated from all rites and ceremonies; and also that the universal reign of the Holy Ghost—fixed for the year 1210—was at hand. This notion suggests Joachist influence, though it may have arisen independently. Groups holding similar pantheistic and quietist doctrines appeared about the same time in the Rhineland and Flanders, one of the chief distributing centres of medieval mysticism. Here, at the end of the twelfth century, Lambert le Begue founded at Liege the lay associations of Beguins and Beghards which played so large a part in the promulgation of mystical religion, both orthodox and heretical, during the later Middle Ages. These communities represented a definite revolt from Monasticism; and, after the coming of the friars, the orthodox groups were frequently under mendicant direction. Of those which departed from Catholic normality some—the Beghards—became closely allied with the Fraticelli; and others—the Beguins—with the Brethren of the Free Spirit. By the mid-thirteenth century, beguinages had multiplied in all the Rhenish cities; that at Malines is described as “a little town.” Many of the occupants being educated, they provided a favouring soil for that pantheistic mysticism, involving the claim to an inner light absolving its possessor from ecclesiastical and ultimately even from moral law, which was the common doctrine of the quietist sects; and so dangerous did they become in the eyes of the Church that in 1311 the Council of Vienne ordered their suppression.
The most celebrated and widespread association of heretical mystics, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, first appear in Augsburg in 1262; and for over a century they are prominent in German and Flemish religious history. By the beginning of the fourteenth century they were also numerous in Central Italy, where Boniface VIII and Clement V attempted their suppression. Historically descended from the followers of Ortlieb of Strasbourg, their ultimate ancestry is Neoplatonic. Other groups sought rather to revive the primitive Christian life. Among these were the Waldensians, who arose in the Lyons district under the leadership of Peter Waldo in the last quarter of the twelfth century, the Apostolics of Cologne, and the Humiliati of North Italy. The Humiliati, who seem originally to have been a gild or fraternity vowed to a life of prayer and evangelical poverty, anticipated in many respects—especially their “ third order” of married laity—the creation of St Francis. Their tenets included pacificism, and the refusal to take oaths or wear dyed clothing. They early split into two divisions: the “true” Humiliati, who remained within the Church, and tended under clerical influence to become more and more monastic in character, and the “false,” whose defiance of the prohibition against lay-preachers and the holding of conventicles finally drove them into schism. By the late thirteenth century all these various bodies of spiritual experimentalists and dissidents, including the Fraticelli and Brethren of the Free Spirit, had become closely interconnected, and formed a heretical movement so strong and widely spread that it persisted in the teeth of persecution until the Reformation finally absorbed its constituent elements. In estimating the mysticism of the Middle Ages and interpreting its literature, we have always to remember this fact, and the thin line which often separated mystical rebel from mystical saint. Many of the works of the orthodox mystics can only be understood in the light of the heresies they were concerned to rebuke or to avoid.
Meanwhile there had arisen in South Italy a mystic and prophet who was to influence profoundly the religious history of the West. Joachim of Flora (1132-1202) was born in Calabria, a district remote from the spiritual and secular interests and conflicts of the north. While spiritual and political unrest was filling North Italy and France with heretical movements, in Calabria Latin Christianity had developed in continuous contact with the Byzantine Church. Here the hermits of the tenth century still represented the spiritual ideals of the fervent; and the Basilian monks, though in union with Rome, still used the Greek rite.
The familiar characteristics of the mystical saints are seen in the Abbot Joachim, who is rightly placed by Dante among the great contemplatives in the Heaven of the Sun. His revelation of the “Eternal Gospel,” which shall wholly supersede the temporal gospel and bring in the age of the Holy Ghost, was the intuition of a mystic, who found in the Scriptures that which he longed to find there—the promise of a spiritual renovation, the coming of the Kingdom of God. His career was determined by a revelation received during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in which he believed that the true meaning of the Scriptures was disclosed to him. Returning to Calabria, he became first a wandering preacher, then a Cistercian monk, and in 1178 Abbot of Corazo. Obtaining papal permission to adopt the hermit’s life, he retired first to Pietralata and finally to the remote mountain-retreat of Flora, where with his disciples he lived in extreme austerity, absorbed in communion with the unseen world, and composing his great prophetic books. Occasionally he emerged to visit the Italian monasteries and urge them to reform. Universally revered as a great prophet, and enjoying papal approval throughout his life, the destructive element in Joachim’s revelations was not at first realised. For these revelations, astonishing in their vastness and daring, meant nothing less than the supersession of institutional by mystical Christianity. He declared that the epochs of Father and Son—the Old and the New Testament—were nearly over. The monks, and especially the hermits, restored to their primitive per fection of life, were about to bring in the epoch of the Spirit, that “new age” of love and freedom when the Church should be ruled by its contemplative souls. Joachim, in fact, solemnly announced from within the Church the precise consummation which the various heretical sects were seeking outside the fold. By a series of calculations he fixed the coming of the new era in the year 1260, and declared that it would be established through two new Orders, one of laymen, the other of priests, who would live in apostolic poverty the spiritual life. This prophecy, apparently fulfilled in the coming of the friars, probably contributed to the prompt success of the Mendicant Orders; and the friars in their turn demonstrated in the eyes of the world the truth of Joachim’s revelation.
In Italy during the thirteenth century, and indeed later, all spiritual minds were in some degree influenced by Joachist ideas, and by the spurious revelations which soon became attributed to him. In the general unrest of that vigorous time of transition, the apocalyptic longings of dissatisfied piety found in his visions a certain justification of their hopes. Though the Trinitarian doctrine of the “Eternal Gospel” was condemned by Rome in 1215, the holy life of the abbot and his followers was commended. The prestige of his prophecies increased, and after the death of St Francis they became a principal support of the Spiritual Franciscans in the struggle against the relarati. In Paris a Joachist circle, marked by vigorous criticism of the Papacy and belief in the coming of the New Age, formed round the friar Gerard of San Donnino, author of the notorious Introduction to the Eternal Gospel. This reductio ad absurdum of Joachist teaching, made in the interests of the Franciscan extremists, was solemnly condemned in 1256, and its destruction ordered. But its influence lingered for many years, and may be estimated by the fact that the Abbot Joachim is the only non-Biblical prophet to whom Dante gives a place in Paradise.
Francis of Assisi (1182—1226), who was to give the mysticism of the thirteenth century its most original characteristics, was twenty when the Abbot Joachim died. The son of a prosperous Umbrian merchant, living on the highway between North Italy and Rome, he can hardly have grown up without some knowledge of the prophecies of the Eternal Gospel on the one hand, and on the other of those heretical movements which anticipated his own cult of evangelical poverty. Similarities between certain doctrines of the Cathari and Humiliati and primitive Franciscanism have indeed been traced; but the unquestioning adherence of Francis to the Church and his life-long veneration for its sacraments preclude any suggestion of deliberate borrowing from this or any other anti-clerical sources. What Francis gave the world—or those who would listen to him—was rather a satisfaction from within the Catholic fold of those spiritual needs which the best and most sane of the heretical movements had sought to meet outside it. He was a mystic and poet, who insisted with the simple logic of a child or an artist on embodying his spiritual intuitions in the stuff of practical life. He obliged his first followers—and only these were in the full sense Franciscan—to live that “mixed life” of action and contemplation which the Middle Ages had accepted from St Gregory as its spiritual ideal, but had only practised in the rare persons of its saints. Basing his First Rule on three texts from the Gospels, and imitating as closely as possible the life therein described, he was by turns itinerant preacher, hermit, penitent, and troubadour. With him mysticism definitely comes out from the cloister into the open air, irradiates the natural scene, speaks the common language of the people, and accepts inspiration from the literature of romance; yet retains that contact with Catholic tradition and practice which had been deliberately broken by the heretical sects. Thus the “New Religion” of St Francis conserves the positive values of the evangelical reaction whilst avoiding its negative extravagances.
The spiritual genius of the Founder is shown especially in two directions. First, in the degree in which not only religion, but also literature and art, were affected by him; for it is not too much to say that the realistic fervour, the tender human quality which transformed late-medieval paintings and religious poetry, especially in Italy, are largely of Franciscan origin. Next, in the number of diverse strands woven into his practice and teaching: the penitential outlook of the Christian ascetic, the romantic outlook of the poet, the love of all living creatures which could serve the lepers and preach to the birds, the intense Christocentric fervour which controlled his whole career, found its consummation in the episode of the Stigmata, and left its mark on the devotional life of succeeding centuries. It is true that the life-long effort of St Francis to maintain his followers at his own level of spiritual realism ended in disappointment and frustration, and that his Order as a whole failed to reproduce his ideals. But the extraordinary impression made by his life—for the “relaxed” friars, who did not attempt to follow, still admired it—is shown by the common and quite literal belief that in him the earthly life of Christ had been lived again. This conviction, which is worked out in detail in the early Lives of Francis, had an enormous effect on the religious imagination of the time, and gives the Franciscan mysticism of the following generation its peculiar note of personal enthusiasm.
It is usual to say that Franciscan mysticism is mainly distinguished by this ardent personal feeling, while the Dominican school is marked by a more speculative and philosophic temper; but this contrast is too absolute. On the one hand, an intense fervour certainly enters into Dominican mysticism. On the other, the Franciscan contemplatives, while emphasising the emotional and volitional element in personal religion—and in their more extreme representatives continuing the founder’s hostility to secular and even theological learning—show in their greatest works close dependence on traditional sources, especially on St Augustine and Dionysius the Areopagite. The difference of temper between the two schools is better understood if we remember that one is primarily the expression of Latin, the other of Teutonic spirituality. The real marks of thorough-going Franciscan mysticism are (1) a sense of the unique commission of St Francis, and hence of his spiritual descendants, to restore within the Church the primitive evangelical life; (2) a continuance of his belief in the absolute spiritual worth and obligation of Poverty; (3) an adoring devotion to the earthly life, and especially the passion, of Christ. It is obvious that a mystical doctrine composed of these three elements may have revolutionary effects, both social and spiritual, on those who accept it literally. It permeated all the early Franciscan writings, especially the Lives and legends of the patriarch, and operated in various degrees of intensity over the wide area which was by the middle of the thirteenth century included in the Franciscan sphere of influence. At one end of the scale, the lives of the Conventual friars, who had accepted a mitigated rule, were but little affected by it. It appears in a reasonable and tempered form in the writings of St Bonaventura (1221-74), who nevertheless became, with St Bernard and Richard of St Victor, one of the chief literary sources of the fourteenth-century mystics. Whilst emphasis on evangelical poverty soon became the peculiar mark of the Spiritual extremists, the Christocentric side of Franciscan mysticism found its classic expression in the celebrated and popular Meditations on the Life of Christ, long attributed to St Bonaventura, but now recognised as the work of an unknown thirteenth-century Minorite, in whom ardent feeling and creative imagination have combined to produce a devotional masterpiece. The influence of this book, not only on the literature, but on the sacred art and drama of the later Middle Ages, was enormous. Ludolf the Carthusian, writing in the late fourteenth century his Life of Christ, which became a standard manual of meditation for the religious, merely copied its methods. Thus the contributions of the mitigated Franciscans to mysticism, though sober in method, were important and had permanent results.
At the other end of the scale were the “Spiritual” friars of the extreme left, who were driven by their own passionate logic into fanaticism, and finally into conflict with the Church. The history of the Spiritual party as a whole is complicated first by a lack of documents, and next by the extraordinary variety of interests and personalities which became included in it. But there can be little doubt that, even in its most turbulent manifestations, the movement was in essence a mystical one. It was born of the desire to actualise the spiritual vision of St Francis, and was supported by the influence of those saintly friars of the Primitive Observance—many of them the companions of the patriarch—who were still living in the latter part of the thirteenth century. These deeply-venerated brothers, who had refused to accept the mitigated rule, now dwelt in remote hermitages in Umbria and the March of Ancona. There they lived the life of poverty and contemplation, sometimes emerging to preach in the Umbrian cities, and constantly visited by the more fervent members of the Spiritual party. Among them were Brother Leo (ob. 1271), the close friend of Francis and unrelenting apostle of Franciscan rigorism; the great visionaries Conrad of Offida (1237-1306) and Peter of Monticello; and the mystics, John of Parma (1209-1288), who had ruled the Order for ten years, and John of La Verna (1259-1322), a celebrated preacher who is said to have been the spiritual father of Jacopone da Todi. The diversity of interests and cultural level among those who resorted to these hidden mystics and were inspired by their teachings was great, for the Spiritual party contained both lay and clerical elements and had political, doctrinal, and revolutionary, as well as purely mystical objectives. All these appear in the poetry of Jacopone da Todi (1236-1306), a man of education and of fierce enthusiasms, who had been by turns lawyer, penitent, wandering preacher, contemplative, and poet, and became one of the leaders of the Spiritual friars during the last quarter of the thirteenth century. The subjects of Jacopone’s laude, extending from the heights of Neoplatonic contemplation, through every phase of mystical fervour, to the depths of social and political satire, indeed invective, may be considered representative of the many types of feeling included in the Spiritual ranks. On the extreme left were those Franciscan zealots whose devotion to the prophecies of the Abbot Joachim and the principle of unmitigated poverty involved personal squalor, and an apocalyptic propaganda which at last drove them into schism. Joachist ideas began to spread in the Order during John of Parma’s rule (1247—57), mainly in Italy and the south of France. In Provence Hugues de Digue (1205-1256) and his sister the ecstatic St Douceline (1214-1274) became the leaders of a widespread mystical movement intimately connected with the Joachist dream of a Spiritual Church. This was continued by Petrus Johannis Olivi of Languedoc (1248-1298), a man of much learning and devout life, and a convinced believer in the Joachist prophecies. Twice summoned before the General Chapter of the Order, Olivi successfully defended himself against charges of heresy, and died faithful to his ideals. In Italy Angelo Clareno (1247-1337), a disciple of Brother Leo and friend of Conrad of Offida and Jacopone, was the leader of those Spirituals who had placed all their hopes on the hermit-Pope Celestine V, and were ruined by his abdication. All these had believed, on the authority of the Prophecies, that they were called to purge the Church of its manifest corruption and bring in the new era of the Holy Ghost, and in pursuit of this end mingled political intrigue with mystical enthusiasm. After Celestine’s fall, some recanted, some retired to their hermitages, others were imprisoned or exiled. The rest, known as Fraticelli, refused to submit to the Church. They spread northwards, tending to merge with other insurgent and Illuminist groups, and by the opening of the fourteenth century were intimately concerned with the heterodox beguins of Germany and Flanders. Yet the Spirituals had their belated triumph. It was a disciple of Angelo Clareno, the Blessed Giovanni Valle (1351), who brought back into the life of the Order the ideals of Francis, in that great Reform of the Strict Observance which restored to the fourteenthcentury Minorites something of the glory of primitive times. Combining the contemplative life of the hermitages with the missionary activities proper to the friars, the Strict Observance provided a frame within which some of the spirit of Franciscan mysticism could survive, and gradually absorbed into its ranks all that was best in the Order.
The most characteristic products of that mysticism, however, and our best clues to its character, are found in the vernacular writings which were produced in Central Italy, mainly in connexion with the Tertiary movement. The Tertiaries, who were devout lay-folk bound to an austere rule of life, were numerous in most of the cities of North and Central Italy by the middle of the thirteenth century, while in the Rhineland they formed the inhabitants of many of the orthodox beguinages. They were in fact a loosely-knit religious society, usually in close touch with those friars of the Spiritual Party who were struggling in the teeth of official discouragement to maintain the Primitive Rule, and occupied an important position in the religious life of Italy, where their groups provided a particularly favourable environment for the development of mystical enthusiasm. We recover their atmosphere in such relics of Spiritual literature as the Speculum and the Fioretti, in the works of the remarkable ecstatic and religious teacher Angela of Foligno (12481309), whom her admirers did not hesitate to call a Mistress of Theologians; in the personal confessions of her disciple, the tempestuous Ubertino da Casale; and in the laude of Jacopone da Todi, many of which were probably composed to be sung at their meetings. Angela, Jacopone, and Ubertino were all converts from a life of ease to absolute destitution, and in this exhibit the power operating in Franciscan mysticism of the second generation. The thought of Jacopone, while keeping close to the evangelical fervour of St Francis, is deeply tinctured with Neoplatonism; and it is perhaps from his laude, or a similar source, that Angela has obtained the Dionysian language in which some of her great visions are described. The work of both these mystics, which circulated rapidly, greatly affected the later development of mysticism; while many scholars find in Jacopone’s dramatic lauda, “Donna del Paradiso,” the origin of the Italian religious drama.
Such facts as these indicate how wide a variety of mystical phenomena was produced in Tertiary circles, and how high was the level of spiritual culture and enthusiasm presupposed in those whom the Franciscan vernacular writers addressed. Here the vision of Francis indeed survived, and was embodied in a democratic lay-movement, anticipating in many points that of the Friends of God, which arose in Germany in the next century under Dominican influence, and, like that movement, producing its own vernacular literature. Among the Tertiaries, social origin, learning, and ecclesiastical office appear to have been little considered. Only spiritual aristocracy was acknowledged; and this seems to have shown itself in many humble and nameless saints. Thus it was from the holy Sienese comb-seller Pier Pettignano (ob. 1289) that the brilliant friar Ubertino da Casale first learned “seraphic contemplation”; while Angela of Foligno, an elderly widow of the middle class, completed his education.
German thirteenth-century mystics
In Germany during the second half of the thirteenth century mysticism assumed two sharply contrasting forms: the first associated with the Preaching Friars, the second with the old Benedictine monasticism. In the great Dominican scholars, Master Eckehart (c. 1260-1327) and Theodore of Freiburg (1250-1310), we see the vigorous beginnings of an entirely new movement, destined to colour the spirituality of the next century, in which bold theological speculation and profound mystical fervour are combined with pastoral zeal. In the exuberant visionary, St Gertrude the Great (1256-1301), and her associates at the aristocratic Cistercian convent of Helfde in Saxony—Gertrude of Hackeborn (1232-1291) and her sister St Mechthild of Hackeborn (1240-1298)—we have the final flower of that Benedictine tradition which had nourished the genius of St Hildegarde. The mysticism of the Cistercians of Helfde owes its peculiar quality to the blending of two streams of influence. The first is that daily liturgic routine and sequence of the Christian year, which was the framework of the nuns’ religious lives, and inspired the vividly pictorial visions of Christ and the Saints which abound in their writings. The second is the romantic vernacular poetry of the Minnesingers, which reached them through the inspiring genius of the group, the exquisite poet and visionary, Mechthild of Magdeburg (1207-1282). Born near Magdeburg, of the ruling class, Mechthild renounced her rank and property in girlhood, and lived for many years under Dominican direction the unenclosed but dedicated life of a beguine. Her vigorous criticisms of the clergy provoked reprisals which at last drove her to take refuge at Helfde, where she was received by the Abbess Gertrude of Hackeborn in 1268. Her prophecies and denunciations of contemporary morals, in which Joachist influence has been detected, continue the tradition of St Hildegarde, but do not constitute her chief claim to remembrance. A true “Minnesinger of the Holy Ghost”, she resembles the Franciscan laudisti in her power of adapting the poetry of Chivalry to the purposes of spiritual passion. She wrote, in the Low German dialect of the day, her great Book of the Flowing Light of the Godhead, a collection of lyrics, visions, and dramatic dialogues in prose and verse, filled with the romantic idealism, the tender feeling, the fresh delight in natural beauty, which characterised the new-born secular poetry. In her we see again the mystical genius of the laity entering and transforming the traditional spirituality of the cloister, and contributing to the beginnings of a national literature. The contrast between Mechthild of Magdeburg and the three Helfde nuns is striking; but her influence can be detected in those poetic passages which—especially’ in St Mechthild of Hackeborn—relieve their more conventional visions and rhapsodies. The school had more than a local influence. The beginnings of the Catholic cultus of the Sacred Heart have been traced to the visions of St Gertrude; and her meditations have a permanent place in Catholic literature. Mechthild of Magdeburg—whose works were translated into Latin before her death—disputes with Mechthild of Hackeborn the honour of providing Dante with the model for the Matilda of the Earthly Paradise.
The lives of these nuns—who were, with the exception of the poetess Mechthild, “inheritors of a dying world”—overlapped the rise of that vigorous school of mysticism, at once so wide in its philosophic sweep and so practical in application, which was to inspire in the next century the great movement of the Friends of God. Mechthild of Hackeborn in one of her visions saw the two real founders of this school—the Dominican doctors Albert the Great and his pupil St Thomas Aquinas—entering Paradise. Though Franciscan mysticism in its later developments is by no means independent of literary and philosophic culture, and its great writers shew thorough acquaintance with Christian Neoplatonism, its inspiration is mainly evangelical. But the mysticism which developed in the Rhineland under Dominican influence explores, and subordinates to the requirements of orthodoxy and the needs of the devout laity, those religious speculations which had been inspired by the study of Dionysius the Areopagite and Eriugena. Thus one school proceeded mainly by the enhancement and spiritualisation of religious feeling, the other by the enhancement and spiritualisation of religious thought. In so far as they retained their Catholic status, and avoided capitulation, the first to the extravagant logic of the Fraticelli, the second to the pantheistic tendencies of the German religious temper, they formed together the Church’s answer to the demands and declarations of the heretical sects. The Dominican mystics have an intellectual background, a solid mental culture, hardly to be found in the Franciscans of the first generation. They all depend upon St Thomas Aquinas, whose unquestioned authority governs the orthodox mysticism of the later Middle Ages. St Thomas had learned from his master Albert the Great (who wrote a commentary on the Dionysian writings1) to appreciate the Areopagite and Richard of St Victor, both of whom he frequently and respectfully quotes in the Summa, placing their doctrine in precise and orderly relation with the general theological scheme. This, perhaps more than any other single fact, assured to Dionysius his prominent place among the sources of later Catholic mysticism. Though his treatment of mysticism in the Summa is entirely objective, and his real place is in the history of scholastic philosophy, St Thomas’ Eucharistic hymns are enough to prove that he had a strong mystical side. For medieval thought, the sharp modem distinction between philosophy, theology, and mysticism did not exist; and in the great mind of Aquinas, as afterwards in that of Dante, these three avenues to one Truth were harmonised.
Both Albert the Great and St Thomas had taught in the schools of Cologne, which retained the impress of their powerful personalities; and here German Dominican mysticism began in the person of Master Eckehart (c. 1260-1327), the dominant and in many respects the most enigmatic personality of the school. After centuries of neglect, modern students of mysticism have tended somewhat to over-estimate Eckehart’s originality. He should perhaps be regarded as the most brilliant and powerful representative of a school to which his contemporary Theodore of Freiburg also belonged. Theodore, who was studying at Paris in 1285, was, like Eckehart, in philosophy a Neoplatonist, in religion a profound and daring mystic. Both men passed their lives in the Dominican Order, in which Eckehart rose to the rank of Provincial for Saxony and Vicar General of Bohemia. Probably entering on his studies at Cologne about the year of Albert the Great’s death, in later life he spent two periods, in 1302 and 1311, at the University of Paris. Thence in middle-age he returned, soaked in the mystical philosophy of Dionysius and Eriugena, to begin his great career as a preacher at Strasbourg, at that time the chief religious centre of Germany, and much affected by heretical mysticism. About 1320, being now at the height of his power and reputation, he returned to Cologne, where he taught until his death, inspiring a group of disciples, which appears to have included Henry Suso (1295-1366) and Johannes Tauler (c. 1300-1361), the two chief Dominican mystics of the next generation. Both Eckehart and Theodore of Freiburg shew the workings of the speculative Teutonic mind on the transcendental doctrines of Christian Neoplatonism. Both embodied their teachings in vernacular sermons which are surprising in their profundity, when we consider the degree of theological intelligence presupposed in the congregations to which they are addressed. In his sermons—which only survive in transcripts of doubtful accuracy—we see Eckehart as a teaching mystic, full of pastoral zeal. In his fragmentary Latin writings he appears as a daring-speculative philosopher, expounding a doctrine which may possibly be justified as a legitimate development of Thomism, but is certainly susceptible of a pantheistic interpretation. Indeed, forty-nine propositions drawn from his works were condemned at Rome in the year of his death, and the heretics of the next generation frequently appealed to his authority. There is, however, no doubt that in spite of excessive language Eckehart’s intentions were strictly orthodox; and his memory was revered by his disciples as that of a saint. Moreover, careful comparison of his teaching with the most mystical poems of his Italian contemporary, Jacopone da Todi, reveals a close identity of doctrine between the most advanced Franciscan and Dominican mysticism, both in fact depending directly on Dionysius the Areopagite, and suggests that we must attribute Eckehart’s influential position far more to intellectual vigour and impressive personal qualities than to the novelty of his teaching. Here the point of interest for the historian of religion is the existence among the laity and in the beguinages and Dominican convents of the Rhineland— as among the Franciscan Tertiaries of Central Italy—of a public capable of assimilating the profound and abstract doctrines of Eckehart and his contemporaries and followers. They offered from within the Church food to that vigorous appetite for religious fundamentals which sought satisfaction in the heretical mysticism—often an exaggeration of orthodox teaching—flourishing in the Rhenish cities at the opening of the fourteenth century. This heretical mysticism, which infested the beguinages, was the object of persistent attack on the part of the great Dominican preachers. Cologne was an important centre of the Brethren of the Free Spirit, who actually extracted from Eckehart’s sermons many propositions in support of their own teaching.
It was mainly, however, through the work of his immediate disciples, the Dominicans Johann Tauler and Heinrich Suso or Seuse, that Eckehart’s genius bore fruit. They, like their master, were both philosophers and teaching mystics; and in them his spiritual realism and metaphysical passion for ultimates transfigure the ordinary materials of Catholic devotion. Even the intensely emotional Suso combines intimate fervour with strongly Platonic passages; while the impressive quality of Tauler’s sermons arises from his power of placing against the vast Eckehartian background the directly ethical and spiritual demands of the Christian life.
Born at Strasbourg, and probably a fellow-student with Suso and Nicholas of Strasbourg at Cologne, Tauler—who calls Eckehart his “most holy Master”—became the greatest German preacher of his time. His sermons, which unite the lofty mystical doctrine of Eckehart with simple Christian teaching, were mostly delivered at the orthodox beguinages and Dominican nunneries. They are his only authentic works. During the Interdict imposed by John XXII in 1324, he removed to Basle, at that time the headquarters of the Friends of God. Thence he returned in 1347 to Strasbourg, and finally to Cologne, where he died in 1361. Tauler was a thinker, teacher, and religious leader. As a mystic, he tells us nothing of his own experience. His contemporary Suso, though his exuberant symbolism conceals the degree in which he too has assimilated Eckehart’s philosophic doctrine, is pre-eminently subjective and emotional. His Life is one of the most important documents for the history of personal religion in this period. Like Eckehart of aristocratic origin, Suso was born by Lake Constance in 1295, and studied at Strasbourg and Cologne. Poetic and impressionable, he is the Minnesinger of the Dominican, as Mechthild of Magdeburg had been of the Benedictine, mystics, combining the two strands which run through the history of German religion—metaphysical speculation and pietistic sentiment. His devotion is given to the Eternal Wisdom, but is expressed in the terms of romantic love. His writings, which shew close acquaintance with Dionysius and Aquinas, are partly addressed to his immediate disciples and fellowmembers of the Friends of God, partly directed against the heresies of the Brethren of the Free Spirit. If Tauler is pre-eminently the preacher of the school, Suso’s teaching was chiefly imparted in personal ways. Trained in the cloister and practising for many years an extreme asceticism, he became a trainer and director of souls; and under his influence the Dominican nunneries of Switzerland and western Germany, especially Tosz, Unterlinden, Adalhausen, and Engelthal, became hotbeds of an intensive religious culture, closely connected with the movement of the Friends of God. The best known of these women mystics were Christina Ebner (ob. 1356) and Adelaide Langmann (ob. 1375) of Engelthal, and Margaret Ebner (ob. 1351) of Medingen.
The Friends of God, the chief fourteenth-century expression of group mysticism, came into existence as the result of the conjunction of various tendencies and events, local, political, and spiritual. The conditions surrounding institutional religion were of the most distressing kind. The removal of the Papacy to Avignon in 1309 had troubled all pious minds. In 1324 those German cities which supported Lewis of Bavaria in his struggle against the Pope had been placed under an Interdict. Heresy was increasing. The lives of many of the clergy were corrupt. The Black Death, which swept over Western Europe in 1347-48, inevitably left behind it a sense of the divine wrath, increased by the series of earthquakes which visited the Rhine valley about the middle of the century, Basle being almost destroyed in 1356.
Circumstances were favourable for a vigorous revival of mystical religion; and this in fact took place, largely under the influence of devout laymen of the middle class, such as Rulman Merswin of Strasbourg, but also in close association with the work of the great Dominican mystics. The Friends of God drew their inspiration on the one hand from the older German mysticism, especially the apocalyptic prophecies of St Hildegarde and St Elizabeth of Schonau, which they applied to the disorders of their own time as the Franciscan Spirituals had done with the Joachist prophecies. On the other hand, they absorbed through Eckehart’s disciples something of his exalted Neoplatonic mysticism, and thus obtained a theological landscape within which their reforming efforts could be staged. The movement appears to have penetrated all ranks of society, and bound together all religious realists in a concerted effort for the revival of the Christian life. It included sober citizens, friars, visionaries, anti-clerical agitators, and ecstatic nuns; and produced a mass of tendency-literature of a visionary and prophetic character. Essentially a movement of reform from within the Church, it presented the familiar features of lay-control, group-formation, a vernacular literature, and a great variety of mystical and inspirational phenomena; in all these points resembling the Franciscan lay-mysticism of Central Italy. The moral standard was austere, many Friends of God practising an extreme asceticism and detachment. The chief centres of the movement lay along the banks of the Rhine, especially at Strasbourg, Basle, and Cologne; but it was also strong in Bavaria. The member’s formed open groups in the chief towns, though some lived in brotherhood-houses like those of the Beghards. The circles were visited by itinerant prophets; and a considerable literature, which included Suso’s and Tauler’s works, was circulated amongst them. Apart from the sermons of Tauler, who is its greatest figure, the chief literary monument of the movement is Rulman Merswin’s Book of the Nine Rocks, which contrasts, in a series of apocalyptic visions, the spiritual ascent to which the Friend of God is called with the corrupt condition of the official Church. This and similar documents shew clearly that the Friends of God considered themselves an “inner church” of spiritual men, acting under direct divine guidance; but in spite of this exalted illuminism, and the critical attitude which they adopted towards the secular clergy, they were and remained orthodox Catholics. Possibly under the influence of their Dominican directors, they combined emphasis upon personal mysticism with great reverence for the sacraments, and carried on a vigorous campaign against the doctrinal and moral excesses of the Brethren of the Free Spirit. The movement produced one literary masterpiece, the exquisite Theologia Germanica, attributed to an unknown priest of the Teutonic Order in Frankfort, in which the doctrine of Eckehart is re-interpreted in terms of love and will.
The corporate activities of the Friends of God do not exhaust the history of the German mystical revival. Contemporary with them, and equally significant of the religious temper of the time, are many forgotten visionaries and saints, such as the Franciscan tertiary Luitgarde (c. 1290-1348), who, after twenty years as a beguine, founded “in great courage and poverty” the convent of Wittichen in the Black Forest. Luitgardes immoderate cult of poverty and ignorance suggests the influence of the Fraticelli. Her life abounds in abnormal incidents, and she is said to have travelled, like Catherine of Siena, to Avignon to plead with John XXII. In Flanders too, where the situation was much like that in Germany, mystical religion, fostered by social misery and clerical decadence, flourished both in its orthodox and in its heretical forms. Pious souls retreated to the beguinages, where mystical notions, often of an extravagant kind, were cherished, as we can see from the opening chapters of Ruysbroeck’s XII Béguines. In 1310 a beguine of Hainault, Marguerite Porette, leader of the sect of Porettists, was burnt in Paris; in Brussels, a few years later, the heretical mystic Bloemardine, a Sister of the Free Spirit, seems to have obtained a great following. Both taught those extreme doctrines of deification and quietism which easily tend to moral and religious anarchy, and are so vigorously denounced by Ruysbroeck (1293-1381), the greatest of the Flemish mystics.
Flemish mysticism: Ruysbroeck
The contemporary of Suso and Tauler, and probably in touch with the leaders of the Friends of God, Ruysbroeck lived till middle age as a secular priest in Brussels, at that time seething with the heresies of Beghards. Lollards, and Beguins. He was active in the campaign against them, especially attacking Bloemardine. In 1343 he retired to the hermitage of Groenendael, where with a few companions he took the Augustinian rule; and here most of his works were composed. Writing in Flemish, in order to reach the public the heretical mystics addressed, Ruysbroeck combined lofty spiritual qualities with a powerful and well-equipped mind. He takes from his predecessors, especially Dionysius, the Victorines, Eckehart, and Aquinas, what he requires for the expression of his own doctrine; and this doctrine corrects the most advanced mysticism of the time in such a sense that, while maintaining its transcendental quality, it remains within the frame of Catholic belief. The Franco-Flemish Mirror of Simple Souls, which its fifteenth-century English translator Methley actually attributed to him, shews how far it had once been possible to go without sacrificing orthodoxy. Nevertheless, the prevalence of pantheistic mysticism, and the narrow line between orthodox and heretic, caused a nervous scrutiny and even adverse criticism of some of Ruysbroeck’s more profound works. The Book of Truth, one of his last writings, was devoted, at the instance of the Carthusians of Herinnes, to clearing himself of the charge of pantheism. Yet in the next generation his doctrines were denounced as excessive by the mystical theologian Gerson, who involved them in a general criticism including the Letter to the Brethren of Mont Dieu.
The fourteenth century witnesses the transition from monastic mysticism, stated in precise theological and philosophical terms and addressing itself to the professed religious, to a more popular type of mystical religion, spread by means of vernacular writings, stated in terms of feeling and experience, and directed to practical results. In this revolution, initiated by the Mendicant Orders, and pursued with violence by the heretics and with more prudence by the orthodox mystics of the Church, Ruysbroeck occupies an important place, as a chief intermediary between traditional and empirical Catholic mysticism. His works, inspired by the Neoplatonists and scholastics, yet convey the impression of a personal experience exceeding that of normal minds. His teaching was spread partly through his vernacular writings, many of which were translated into Latin during his lifetime and widely distributed. In the next century the Franciscan Harphius (ob. 1477) and the Carthusian Denys Ryckel (14021471) wrote under his immediate inspiration. But his chief influence upon religious history was exerted through his personal disciples, who included the most spiritual contemporary minds; and especially through Gerard Groote (1340-1384), the founder of the New Devotion.
Gerard is a figure of great importance for the history of late-medieval religion. He was a brilliant and versatile scholar, and had taught at Cologne, where he was probably influenced by the Friends of God; his conversion being completed by the Carthusian Henry de Kalkar—the leader of a group devoted to mystical piety—and by Ruysbroeck, whom he frequently visited at Groenendael. He first became a lay-preacher, his eloquence drawing crowds to hear him; but his biting criticisms of the clergy having cost him his licence, in 1381, with his disciple Florent Radewyns, he founded at Deventer the Brothers of the Common Life. It was largely through this community, with its many schools and houses in the Flemish cities, and that of the Augustinian Canons of Windesheim which sprang from it, that the teaching of the Flemish mystics was disseminated, and initiated a genuine renaissance of personal religion within the Church. Though the “New Devotion” of the Brothers was in essence a simple and practical pietism, it drew its spirit of profound interiority from the works of Ruysbroeck and the classics of Christian mysticism, which were studied and copied in the houses of the Fraternity. It produced a literature of its own. The mystical tracts of Henry de Mande (c. 1360-1415), a disciple of Gerard who was known as the Ruysbroeck of the North, the beautiful Fiery Soliloquy with God of Gerlac Petersen (1378-1411), and the Lives of the founders by his friend Thomas à Kempis (1379-1471), show well the practical yet transcendental temper of its spirituality. But its chief gift to the world was the Imitatio Christi, in which we recapture its very spirit, and with it the interior trend characteristic of the best mystical religion at the end of the fourteenth century. Through this book—much of it a catena of Biblical and Patristic passages harmonised by one informing spirit—Flemish mysticism became an enduring influence in the religious life of Europe. It is needless to insist on the unique position which it occupies in Christian literature, but more important to recollect that in it we have the fruit of a spirituality derived from the school of Ruysbroeck, and perhaps embodying the actual notes and meditations of his pupil Gerard Groote. Thus the reform which began at Deventer looks back to the genius of Ruysbroeck—its main link with the Catholic mystic tradition—and forward to Nicholas of Cusa and the philosophic mystics of the next century.
English fourteenth-century mystics
In contrast to the philosophic character of German and Flemish mysticism and the tendency towards political action which marks that of Italy and Central Europe, the English fourteenth-century mystics were closely connected with that solitary life which was still the natural refuge of contemplative souls. Hence they appear to have exerted little or no influence on social and ecclesiastical affairs. One unfortunate result of this is that, with the exception of the exuberant and subjective Rolle, the personalities of the English mystics have left no mark on contemporary history. While much has come down to us concerning the character and life of Hildegarde, the first Franciscans, Suso, or Catherine of Siena, we are entirely ignorant of the origin and personal life of Hilton, or the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing, and know little of that of Juliana of Norwich. No doubt the roots of English fourteenth-century mysticism, with its emphasis on devotion and neglect of philosophy, and its strong Christocentric bias, go down into that religious stratum which produced such early medieval rhapsodies as the Orison and Wooing of Our Lord. Much of its writing reproduces on levels of experience the emotional temper of those Middle English religious lyrics based on the Iesu dulcis memoria and connected with the cult of the Holy Name. But the school as we know it arises, independently of monastic influence, in the north-eastern and eastern counties; and its works have a marked reference to the solitary life. There seems to have been in this country no inclination within the Church to form lay-groups or inspire lay-movements, such as the Humiliati or the Friends of God. The first definitely mystical writer who has been identified, Margery Kemp (late thirteenth century), was an anchoress of Lynn. Richard Rolle of Hampole (c. 1300-49) was a wandering hermit. The two great mystical treatises of the next generation—the anonymous Claud of Unknowing and Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection—were written for recluses. Finally, Juliana of Norwich (1342-1416) was an anchoress. English mysticism, then, is mostly concerned with individual spiritual culture. Its main works being either confessional, or intended for the instruction of lay persons—especially women—unable to read Latin, it is intimately connected with the beginnings of vernacular literature. The number of early MSS surviving, and also the quantity of anonymous mystical pieces found in MS collections, prove that its products were deeply appreciated, especially perhaps in Brigittine and Carthusian houses. But its work in the religious complex was quietly done. Though Rolle attacked monastic luxury and deeply desired the reform of the clergy, he led no movement for these ends. Again, the English mystics are little interested in speculation; and thus both avoid the metaphysical excesses of German and Flemish mysticism and fall short of its greatest achievements. Though Rolle, Hilton, and the writer of the Cloud were trained theologians, and Juliana of Norwich shews remarkable understanding of Christian Platonism, all are content to take their philosophic conceptions from St Augustine, Dionysius the Areopagite, the Victorines, St Bernard, and Aquinas. Richard of St Victor was particularly appreciated here, and has strongly influenced Hilton and the writer of the Cloud. But the ruling intention of these writers is practical; they abound in shrewd advice and homely imagery. A peculiar characteristic is the almost total absence of Eucharistic references, a feature which sharply distinguishes them from their Continental contemporaries.
Nevertheless, the English school, though so national in character, is influenced by Continental mysticism and articulated to the great Catholic tradition of the contemplative life. Means of contact were not lacking. The works of the Franciscan and Dominican mystics quickly circulated through the houses of those Orders. Early translations of Suso, Tauler, and Catherine of Siena survive. At Knaresborough in 1315, Edward II had established four Flemish hermits from Ypres. Rolle, a layman and vigorous religious individualist, whose anti-clerical temper and claim to direct inspiration first caused collision with the clergy, and afterwards recommended his writings to the Lollards, was a trained scholar, sent to Oxford as a boy. Recent research shows that he may also have spent one if not two periods at the Sorbonne, where he would receive the influences of contemporary European mysticism and learn something too of the prevalent heresies. The works of the Spiritual Franciscans—who may well have affected him—were well known in Paris at that time. He cannot entirely have escaped contact with Joachism, the ideas of Eckehart, or the spirit that produced the Friends of God.
In Rolle’s exuberant character the prophet, devotee, and lyrical poet combine; as in some of those Franciscan mystics to whom he is temperamentally akin, and whose passion for poverty he shares. Like them he blends mystical emotion with moral austerity, and like them seems to have led by turns the life of wandering preacher and recluse. His emotional and poetic mysticism is intimately connected with the cult of the Holy Name, at that time the favourite expression of Christocentric fervour. He attracted disciples, and his works were quickly and widely circulated; but his large and learned commentaries on the Psalter, and the fact that surviving MSS are chiefly from monastic libraries, suggest that his reading public was mainly of the religious class. Syon House, which had Yorkshire founders, and the Shene Charterhouse, which was in touch with Mount Grace, were peculiarly rich in Rolle MSS. During the 150 years preceding the Reformation, he was widely read both here and on the Continent, where he was known before the end of the fourteenth century. The contagious quality of his emotional fervour, the beautiful rhapsodies addressed to the Name of Jesus, and the entire absence of abstract and difficult doctrine, are enough to account for his popularity. His authentic English works are three epistles and a Commentary on the Psalms, written for women disciples, with five prose fragments and a few poems. His more important mystical writings, the Melum and Incendium Amoris, are in Latin. The first is mainly a glorification of the hermit’s career, which is sharply contrasted with that of the regular clergy, in terms which explain and even excuse his unpopularity with the authorities. In this distinctly egoistic work Rolle claims already to have attained the height of sanctity; but in the Incendium, written perhaps ten years later, he describes more humbly and attractively his spiritual course. Rolle’s reputation as a saint stood so high in the North that after his death an Office—our chief though not wholly reliable source for the facts of his early life—was composed in his honour; and though he was never canonised, a cultus survived at his shrine for over 200 years.
Rolle owes his historical importance, however, more to his religious and literary influence than to his quality as a mystic. Here he is outdistanced by his chief followers, especially the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing, and Walter Hilton, an Austin Canon of Thurgarton near Nottingham (ob. 1395-96). The Cloud of Unknowing, a remarkable treatise on contemplation addressed to a young recluse, represents the introduction of the Dionysian writings into English literature; and the number of surviving MSS attests its popularity. We have four epistles and a free translation of the Mystical Theology, entitled Dionise Hid Divinite, by the same unknown author, a mystic who writes in a North Midland dialect, is acquainted with Rolle’s work, but otherwise gives us no clue to his identity. His work, which shews much philosophic and psychological knowledge, deals with levels of spiritual experience untouched by Rolle, and is addressed exclusively to those called to contemplation. We note in him, as characteristic of the English school, that the use made of Neoplatonism is always practical, never speculative. Walter Hilton, whose Scale of Perfection became and remained a devotional classic second only in popularity to the Imitatio, is more general in his appeal; and is, perhaps, in his mingled practical and transcendental teaching, the most typical mystic of the English school. The rapid circulation of all these works shews the continued existence, here as elsewhere, of a tradition of spiritual culture within the Catholic Church, vigorously opposed both to Quietism and to Lollardy, which Hilton attacks in the strongest terms. Juliana of Norwich, one of the most individual products of this tradition, certainly depends on it. Traces of Hilton’s influence have been noted in her Revelations of Divine Love; and it is possible that they may have met, for she was over fifty when he died. Either by reading or oral instruction, Juliana had absorbed much theological knowledge, which has mingled with the fruits of intuition in her singularly poetic and sensitive mind to produce the spiritual masterpiece by which she is known. This in its developed form—for two versions exist—seems to represent her meditations upon a single mystical experience, occurring at the crisis of an illness in her thirtieth year. Juliana appeal’s never to have enjoyed the popularity of Rolle and Hilton, and so far only one early MS of her Revelations has come to light. Until a critical text is possible we cannot estimate her sources, or her place in the history of English religion. Her connexion with the Benedictine house of Carrow links her with the monastic tradition; while the intimate relation of Norwich with the Low Countries makes us suspect the possible influence of Flemish and German mysticism, for the works of Suso and Ruysbroeck were in circulation before the Revelations were composed. Apart from a few notices in her book, however, we are completely ignorant of her life and origin. Yet she is the first English woman of letters; and through her we learn what the life of the anchorhold could be and produce at its best.
Italy: St Catherine of Siena
The religious history of Italy in the second half of the fourteenth century is dominated by another woman of genius, the Dominican tertiary St Catherine of Siena (1347-80). In St Catherine we see mysticism in action, the spiritual realist at grips with the disorders of contemporary life. We incline, however, to attribute to her political action a unique character it did not really possess. The scandals she attacked were patent; and the particular aims she set before herself were the objects of all who had the welfare of Christianity at heart. The continued exile of the Papacy and the condition of the clergy created chronic dissatisfaction in all religious minds; and produced within the Church a series of reforming mystics whose denunciations exceed in violence anything uttered by its enemies. In Siena itself Giovanni Colombini (ob. 1367) had founded the congregation of Gesuati, devoted to absolute poverty and evangelical ideals, who surrounded Urban V with their ragged and disconcerting enthusiasm on his return to Rome. The preaching of the Gesuati caused a transient revival in Siena and Tuscany, especially among the friars, and helped to form St Catherine’s religious environment. From another point of view, Catherine took over and completed the work begun by Birgitta (Bridget) of Sweden (1303-1373). Birgitta, a mystic and visionary of the Hildegardian type, believed herself called by God to purify the Church and end the exile of the Papacy. After founding the Brigittine Order in 1346, she went in 1349 to Rome, where she ended her days. When Urban V retired to Avignon in 1370, she prophesied with accuracy his coming death. Driven by her revelations, she visited Gregory XI at Avignon, denouncing the immorality of the clergy, demanding his return to the Vatican, and warning him of the price of refusal. Her final appeal reached Gregory in 1373. Four months later she died, and St Catherine of Siena—whose political letters begin in 1372—took up her unfinished task.
At this time, aged twenty-six and at the height of her reputation, Catherine had only seven years to live. During a four-hour trance in which she nearly died, she believed that she had received a divine command to leave her cell and city and “witness before small and great,” including the Supreme Pontiff. Travelling now to Avignon in her turn, she pleaded with the Pope to such effect that he sailed from Marseilles in September 1376, she going overland to Genoa, where he visited her secretly and received from her courage to enter Rome. When we consider the initiative and self-sacrifice involved in the decision of a French Pope, knowing no Italian, to leave his country and family and establish himself in strange and hostile surroundings at the behest of a young woman recommended by nothing but her sanctity and simple-mindedness, we obtain from this incident a vivid impression of Catherine’s power. Though ecstatic and other abnormal phenomena abound in her life, she was no mere visionary, but a woman of genius controlled by her strong sense of vocation, whose astonishing public career only represents one aspect of her greatness. Born of the people and with little education, her spiritual power matured early; and at twenty she was already the centre of a group of disciples, including priests, scholars, and aristocrats, over whom she exercised an unquestioned authority. In private life an extreme ascetic, the transforming influence she exerted, the courage with which she opposed vested interests and attacked apparently impossible tasks, the mingled authority and humility of her writings—which are among the masterpieces of early Italian literature—all prove her spiritual transcendence. Her follower Barduccio called her with reason the “Mother of thousands of souls,” and at the culmination of her career the sight of her face was enough to effect a conversion. St Catherine’s letters, of which over 400 survive, shew the range of her interests and influence, extending from an intimate care of individuals to the pacification of Italy and the regeneration of the Church. Her aim was nothing less than the purging and spiritualising of political and ecclesiastical life, by applying to it the standards of contemplation and inspiring its rulers with that invincible spirit of charity and courage which possessed her own soul. The words with which her Dialogue begins: “Wishing to follow the truth in a more virile way”—show well the temper of her mind, which was doubtless cultivated by the Dominican and other scholars in her immediate circle. By the time her public career began, she had obtained from this or other sources considerable theological knowledge, and was well acquainted with the ruling ideas and symbolism of Christian mysticism. While her heartbroken accounts of clerical corruption are among the most terrible we possess, her vision of the Church and its destiny has an almost epic greatness. She was a militant mystic; and though her political work was soon undone, the impress of her amazing personality remained. “This poor little woman shames us by her valour!” said Urban VI when she appeared before him in 1378, racked by illness, but intrepid still.
In Ruysbroeck, Juliana of Norwich, and Catherine of Siena, we have three differing yet typical manifestations of the developed mysticism of the fourteenth century, with its often sublime transcendentalism, tender feeling, and moral and reforming zeal. It represents the reaction of really religious natures to the miseries of society and manifest disorders of the Church. It is probable that in this period the only monastic houses in “spiritual good health” were those where mystical piety flourished; and, in addition to these, we have evidence of the existence of many individual mystics, of whom most achieved only a local reputation. As the century matured, the character of its mysticism had gradually changed. The strict schools of monastic contemplation, the Benedictine and Augustinian ideals of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, were more and more criticised. The anchoretic life was no longer taken for granted. The more humanistic religious outlook encouraged by the friars shewed itself on the one hand in the steady increase of such Christocentric devotions as the cults of the Precious Blood and the Holy Name, with their strong emotional emphasis. On the other hand, it encouraged a democratic effort to bring into the common life a realistic spirituality which might or might not find nourishment in ceremonial and sacramental religion, but could flourish independently of the often corrupt institutional life. In the Franciscan Tertiaries, the Friends of God, and the Devotio Moderna we see the orthodox side of this movement. The often extravagant mystical heresies of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries shew the inevitable results of an uncontrolled popularisation of principles too abstract for general use, coupled with a rejection of the safeguarding influences of tradition. The final positions reached by many of these heresies were equally repugnant to normal morality and to common sense. Thus the history of mysticism in the fourteenth century is punctuated by the burnings of those—including some of the less prudent Friends of God—who had crossed the narrow line between an exalted and an insurgent spirituality.
The position of Catholic mysticism at the opening of the fifteenth century is well shown in the significant figure of the chancellor Gerson, at once a mystic in his own right and a keen and discriminating critic of the mass of religious writings, movements, and phenomena claiming the title of mysticism. Gerson was a second Bonaventura, a man of true and humble sanctity, a born psychologist, a lover in all things of the golden mean. Much experience had given him a dread of extravagances in religion, and an intense distrust of the visionaries and pseudo-mystics who swarmed in Flanders and France at the end of the fourteenth century. His hostile reference to the women whose visions brought back Gregory XI to Rome, and so gave rise to the Great Schism, reminds us that two opinions were possible about the activities of St Bridget and St Catherine of Siena. Yet Gerson’s sincerity and discriminating power is proved by two facts. First, that in spite of his anti-feminist and anti-visionary bias, he was one of the two theologians who guaranteed the authenticity of the voices of St Joan of Arc (1412-31). Next, that though a severe critic of Ruysbroeck’s more extreme doctrines, he defended at the Council of Constance (1418) the Brothers of the Common Life, whom a Dutch Dominican had charged with heresy. Gerson’s own works are partly concerned with the criticism of false mysticism, and also of the Neoplatonic and pantheistic tendencies in the Catholic mystics; partly with rules for the “discernment of spirits”; and partly with his own theory of the contemplative life, in which he keeps close to the Victorines and St Bonaventura. The fact that he has been regarded as a probable author of the Imitatio indicates the character and tone of his spirituality.
Save for a few scattered stars, of whom only one is of the first magnitude, we reach with Gerson the end of the classic period of medieval mysticism. The fifteenth century witnesses its gradual decline before the growing forces of humanism. A tendency to repetition, a failure to make fresh devotional discoveries, mark the dropping temperature characteristic of a transitional epoch. In Flanders the long life of Thomas a Kempis (1379-1471) covers the careers on the one hand of such merely reminiscent mystics as Harphius (ob. 1477) or the pathological visionary St Lydwine of Schiedam (1380-1432), and on the other of the saintly scholars, Denis the Carthusian (1402-1471) and Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464). In England in the same period, religious pieces inspired by Rolle and his followers continued to be produced; and the numerous fifteenth-century MSS of their works and those of other fourteenth-century mystics shew that mysticism was still a living interest in the Church, though no longer producing great and creative personalities. In Italy the exquisite yet entirely traditional spirituality revealed in the paintings of Fra Angelico (1387-1455) shews us the mystical piety of the early fifteenth century at its best. It is characteristic of the period that we find the older and truly medieval types of spiritual feeling and endeavour continuing side by side with those which look towards newer embodiments. Thus we still have reforming mystics, intent on the regeneration of religious Orders or religious practice. Such are the Franciscans St Colette of Corbie (1381-1447), St Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444), and St Catherine of Bologna (14131463). St Colette, who combined mystical fervour with immense practical energy, began life as a beguine. At twenty-two she was enclosed at Corbie as an anchoress, but was driven by her visions to leave her cell and undertake the reform of the Poor Clares. Travelling to Nice, she received the authority of Benedict XIII for this work, and founded thirteen houses of the Colettine reform before her death. St Bernardino of Siena, through whose preaching a wave of spiritual fervour passed over Central Italy, was glad to call himself her disciple. He shares with her, and with his compatriots St Giovanni da Capistrano (1385-1456) and the ecstatic Clarisse, St Catherine of Bologna, the credit of the transient revival of Franciscan mysticism, with its evangelical enthusiasm and moral demands, which marked the first half of the fifteenth century.
Nicholas of Cusa
Side by side with this, the current of spirituality arising in the New Devotion, and ultimately derived from the great mind of Ruysbroeck, is found operative in such typical scholars of the early Renaissance as Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) and his friend Denis the Carthusian. Here both intellectual speculation and reforming energy are transfused by the spiritual realism of the mystic. Denis, one of the great figures of fifteenth-century religion, was first an obscure secular priest; but in 1423 he entered the Charterhouse of Roermond, of which he became prior. His combination of ascetic and intellectual intensity—his works fill 45 large volumes, and he claimed with reason “an iron head and steel stomach”—gave him a European reputation for learning and sanctity. A mystic, subject to visions and ecstasies, and a profound student of Dionysius and Ruysbroeck, he was yet keenly interested in contemporary life. He advised from his cell the chief personages of the State, and accompanied Nicholas of Cusa on his reforming missions. Many of his visions were apocalyptic; and he steadily prophesied calamity for the Church if she delayed the work of reform. Yet Denis was not spiritually creative; and here he is typical of his period. His works, immense in range, mainly simplify and make accessible the lofty teachings of his predecessor’s, as Deventer had made accessible to ordinary men the monastic discipline of meditation and prayer.
Nicholas of Cusa was trained at Deventer, where sound learning no less than mystical piety flourished. He was an enthusiastic student of Eckehart and the Neoplatonists; and was also influenced by the writings of the Majorcan scholar-mystic Raymond Lull (1232-1316). These studies, congenial to his profoundly metaphysical intellect, at first gave Nicholas1 mysticism a coldly speculative character. But later, when beset by the many exacting duties of a great ecclesiastic, his vision of Reality was brought into more immediate relation with the demands of practical life. As between the intense intellectualism of the scholastics and the anti-intellectualism of those who identified mystical knowledge with the “wise ignorance” of the Areopagite, Nicholas, as we see in his De Visione Dei, takes an intermediate position, recognising the claims of both mind and heart. This little masterpiece—the final flower of Flemish mysticism—was written for the Benedictines of Tegernsee, who had applied to him for spiritual help. In its combination of intimate and metaphysical feeling, it expounds a mysticism too profound to be popular, but which was the inspiration of a life spent partly in scholarship, partly in the struggle that has called so many of the mystics to restore the purity and force of a Christianity which in Nicholas’ eyes had “degenerated into an appearance.”
Though nourished on the medieval tradition, Nicholas of Cusa is not truly a medieval figure. With him we are definitely moving away from the Middle Ages; and with the last great mystical saint of the period—St Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510)—we finally part company with them. While her compatriots, the widely venerated Dominican beati, Columba of Rieti (1430-1501) and Osanna Andreassi of Mantua (1449-1505), merely continue in their visions and denunciations the tradition of St Catherine of Siena, bringing no contribution of their own, Catherine of Genoa lifts Christian Platonism to fresh levels of fertility. She is a lady of the Renaissance with a genius for the spiritual life. She joins no religious Order, leads no campaign, performs no miracles. Her contemporary Savonarola (of whose existence she betrays no knowledge) is led from contemplation to a hopeless conflict with society; and at last to martyrdom. But Catherine Fieschi is content to teach her sublime doctrine to a small group of disciples, and to establish and rule with admirable common sense the first modern hospital. In her, mystical religion completes its transition from the medieval to the modern world.