Friday 18 August 2017

Meeting Mechthilde, Marguerite and Hadewijch

My reading over the last month or so has taken me in many directions. It is like a magical, mystery tour! Early this week, I found myself back in the Middle Ages meeting a group of women that would come to be known as the Beguines. I had heard of these women and had a vague idea of who they were, but now they have come alive for me in a different way.

At the beginning of the 12th Century, women had the choice of getting married and raising a family or becoming a nun and entering a cloister. Both choices involved living under male authority. Some women, however, chose to live alone and devote themselves to prayer and good works, but did not want to take the vows involved in entering a cloister. These women began to dwell together or side by side and communities developed. To choose this way of life was a statement to others that they did not need to live under male headship. To make this counter-cultural choice, in the first place, showed signs of great resilience and strength.


Delving deeper, I set about reading individual stories. The first woman I met was Mechthilde of Magdeburg. She was born into a noble family, but left home to join a Beguine community in Magdeburg. Mechthilde had many visions during her life and she wrote about these in a series of books titled "The Flowing Light of the Godhead" and written in Middle Low German. Throughout her life she was highly critical of church dignitaries, religious laxity and claims to theological insight and gained much opposition. Some even called for the burning of her writings. In her older years, and in poor health, she entered a Cistercian community who protected her and assisted in the writing of her last writings.

The next woman I met was Hadewijch of Antwerp. Not so much is known about Hadewijch. We assume this is her name as it was scribbled in the margin of one of her poems. She wrote her visions, letters and poetry in Middle Dutch and is well known as a 13th Century mystic poet. From her letters we know that she held a leadership position in her Beguine community. It can also be established that she led a wandering life due to opposition. Hadewijch's writings were full of passion and love in her relationship with the Divine.

I then discovered Marguerite Porete. Margeurite was a French speaking beguine who wrote about the workings of divine love. Her book was titled "The Mirror of Simple Souls" in which she spoke of how the simple soul was connected to God and had no will but God's. Margeirite was arrested for heresy and ordered to take her book out of circulation. She refused and was burnt at the stake in Paris after a lengthy trial in 1310.

These women, and many others like them, were amazing. They lived in a time where women were in many ways far more vulnerable than they are today. They chose to forge their own path in life, going against cultural norms and expectations. They were outspoken, gutsy and bold in their statements. They wrote about their personal experiences of God and didn't feel they needed to answer to any religious authorities. They wrote in the language of the people, making their works accessible to more people. They faced opposition with courage and integrity. All of this, and they were the inspiration for many greats who followed, such as Meister Eckhart. These hidden women have so much to teach us about living life being true to yourself. I'm going to keep digging and find more gems from these bold women of the Middle Ages.

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