Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Hadewijch of Antwerp: "Love Is Everything"

Hadewijch of Antwerp (posted on the date of Suzanne Lilar's death, 12 December 1992) 

I suppose that you could regard today's post on the thirteenth-century mystic Hadewijch of Antwerp as something of a double post.

There are simply too few details about Hadewijch's life to find a relevant date for writing about her, at least one related to her own history. We know virtually nothing about her, except for what can be teased out of her writing--frequently biographical details for medieval women writers are embedded in their work, but in the surviving texts, Hadewijch reveals little about her life. Or, at least, her physical life.

From a fourteenth-century manuscript
collection of Hadewijch's work;
the poem begins,
"Ay, al es nu die winter cout, /
cort die daghe ende die nachte langhe"
("Ah, though now the winter is cold,
the days short and the night long...")
I am writing about Hadewijch of Antwerp today, and choosing to do so on the date of the Belgian francophone writer Suzanne Lilar. Born Suzanne Verbist in 1901, she enrolled at the University of Ghent in 1919, where she studied philosophy and, in 1925, where she received a law degree. While at the university, she discovered the work of Hadewijch and found in the thirteenth-century mystic an inspiration for her own essays, plays, and poetry. 

In her 1963 Le Couple (translated as Aspects of Love in Western Society), in particular, she refers to Hadewijch's use of minne, or all-embracing love, and her mystical nuptial imagery, in her descriptions of an all-embracing, ideal of love, one that sees human love as a revelation of divine love.

As for Hadewijch. Bernard McGinn, the historian of western mysticism, named her as one of the "Four Female Evangelists" of thirteenth-century mysticism, along with Angela of Foligno, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete:
I use the term "evangelist" in a perhaps provocative way, not only to underline the stature of these four women (Angela, Hadewijch, Mechthild, and Marguerite Porete) as the most important female mystics of the thirteenth century, but also to emphasize the bold, quasi scriptural claims they made for their writings.
About Hadewijch, McGinn writes, she "remains a mystery, as much for the paradoxes and perplexity of her writings as for her life." 

Given her references in her work--she refers to the Latin and French works of St. Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, and other Christian authorities, for example--we can conclude that she was "obviously learned." She must also have come from a noble family, not only because of the education she must have received, but also because of her familiarity with courtly love poetry. Like many of the women mystics of the thirteenth century, she used the language of courtly love in her visionary work, such mystic language variously identified as "courtly mysticism," Minnemystik, or la mystique courtoise, depending on your linguistic preference. Using elements that have their origins in troubadour poetry, female mystics expressed their yearning for the divine beloved in ecstatic and erotic terms. 

Like Mechthild and Marguerite Porete, Hadewijch was a beguine.* From details in her surviving letters, she seems to have been the head of a beguine house for some time, but she also seems to have been forced out of this life and into a wandering existence at some point. (This last detail comes from one of her letters, number 29, but McGinn also considers the possibility that this reference to a "wandering life" may be a kind of literary formula.)

Although Hadewijch's work survives only in a handful of fourteenth-century manuscripts, her "literary mastery surpasses that of any other medieval woman mystic, not least because of the variety of genres in which she expressed her message" (I am quoting McGinn here). 

Hadewijch's surviving work includes Strophische Gedichten (Poems in Stanzas), forty-five lyrics modeled on troubadour poetry, but adapting the language of secular love poetry "into the field of mystical discourse." The Mengeldichten (Poems in Couplets) are sixteen poems in rhyming couplets expressing elements of her faith.

Hadewijch's Visioenenboek (Book of Visions) is the "earliest vernacular collection" of this kind of visionary revelations, probably dating to the 1240s. Finally, there are thirty prose letters. What little biographical evidence that survives can be gleaned from these letters, but they also expand on and develop "all-embracing theme," love: "Minne is everything" (from letter 25, "Minne es al"). 

Despite Suzanne Lilar's interest in Hadewijch, her work has really only become well-known in the late twentieth-century. The first English translation appeared in 1980, when Mother Columba Hart published Hadewijch: The Complete Works for the Classics of Western Spirituality series. The first influential study of her Hadewijch and her work to appear was Paul Mommaers 1989 Hadewijch: Writer – Beguine – Love Mystic, which won the Flemish Prijs De Standaard (Mommaers's work was translated into English in 2004).

For the most complete discussion of Hadewijch, especially her complicated views of minne, I recommend Bernard McGinn's The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism--1200-1350, volume 3 of his history of western Christian mysticism.

*As we have seen, the beguines were a lay religious movement--beguines like Marie of Oignies and Mechthild of Magdeburg were not associated with any religious order, nor did they live in any officially sanctioned community. They lived an ascetic, spiritual life, devoting themselves to poverty and chastity, working among the poor and ill and modeling their lives on the life of Jesus.