Renske Hoff is currently doing a Doctorate on Hadewijch – she has agreed to lead our next Christian Classics Study Group on Friday 3 February! What follows is her introduction to the texts that we will consider. The texts themselves and Renske’s introduction can be downloaded below. The evening begins, as usual, with supper at 6:30pm in the Parsonage Hall and the talk and discussion begins at 8pm. Please let Hanna (firstname.lastname@example.org) know if you can come to the dinner beforehand so we can be sure to have enough food.
The texts you are going to read are texts by Hadewijch, a 13th-century mystic who wrote a large number of texts on her mystical, spiritual development. In this introduction, I will shortly describe who Hadewijch was, what kind of texts she has written, and which themes you can pay extra attention to while reading the texts.
We know little about the historical figure of Hadewijch. A biography (a ‘vita’) of her has never been written and in her texts itself we find very little clues to tell us something about her life. However, scholars agree that Hadewijch probably was the leader of a beguine community and that she lived and wrote around 1340. We know some of the women in her beguinage by name through the letters, but it is likely that her beguinage was larger and might even have included men. Hadewijch has probably received a good education: her texts show great knowledge about the theological and mystical tradition, as well as about contemporary love lyric.
Research shows that Hadewijchs beguinage was probably located in the area around the Flemish city Antwerp. However, it is likely that Hadewijch has traveled (she refers to this in one of her letters). We do not know why she traveled, but she does say in several letters and visions that her beguinage was under some kind of threat. She talks about ‘false brothers’: brothers in faith that are against her. It is not surprising that Hadewijch and her beguinage might have been under threat: her writings sometimes do not so easily fit the ideas of the Catholic church at that time. Hadewijch speaks of being completely taken into the Trinity and being inseparable from it, even being it. This might have crossed the thin line between devotion and heresy for Christian authorities at the time.
Hadewijch wrote in four different genres: visions, letters, rhymed songs and rhymed letters. All her texts are written in Middle Dutch, which makes her one of the first persons and the very first women to write in this language (and no longer solely in Latin). Hadewijch’s Middle Dutch shows a great feeling for the language: she uses not only the meaning (or several meanings) of words but also a word’s sound, rhythm or ‘melody’ to strengthen her texts.
Hadewijch’s mystical ideas are part of the tradition of ‘love mystic’, in which the discourse of the Song of Songs plays an important role. The central idea is that the human soul is the beloved bride of the holy Bridegroom (Christ or God). The aim of Hadewijchs texts is to teach her readers how to recognize, appreciate and embrace their potential as ‘beloved of the Beloved’, and how to live their earthly life in this knowledge.
I thought it might be good to start with Hadewijch’s twelfth vision. The book of visions consists of fourteen visions, that describe Hadewijch’s spiritual development. Her final goal, which she eventually achieves, is to form a complete unity with God, whom she calls ‘Minne’: Love. In the vision you are going to read, Hadewijch is taken into the spirit and brought to a large space, where she sees a miraculous disk, with at its centre Someone, who eventually appears to be God. She falls down out of respect and anxiety but is told by four eagles to stand up again and look around. She sees a bride approaching the great disk, with all twelve virtues on her dress. Hadewijch describes these virtues and their role in someone’s spiritual and mystical ‘upbringing’. Then one of the eagles tells Hadewijch that she is indeed that bride, and at that moment she sees herself being transformed in the bride and being received in the Union on the disk. She is then fully taken up in her Beloved and her Beloved in her: the unity between both is completed.
Secondly, you can read Hadewijch’s eleventh prosaic letter. This is one of the letters in which Hadewijch shows us a little bit of her life: she tells us that she was just ten years old when she was already so much taken by Love that she almost died of it. The letter is about Hadewijch’s question if it would be possible that someone might love God more than she does. The letter shows how convinced Hadewijch is of her love for God and that she is not afraid to say so. It suits her role as leader of a religious community.
The third text is very different from the letter. It is a song of Hadewijch on how Love can be so incomprehensibly harsh towards people. The ‘I’ in the song explains how Love seems to play tricks with her, and how hard it is for her to handle that. She knows that she should accept it and even appreciate it (because Love always does the right things), but that is not easy. However, everyone should be certain that Love will always heal the wounds made and eventually give good and loving people the treasures they deserve. This song by Hadewijch shows that it is not easy to reach the unity with God as described in the vision: God/Love can seem to be very far away, very unpredictable and incomprehensible. However, whoever keeps giving love to Love will eventually receive the ultimate goal.
While reading those three texts, I think it might be interesting for you to observe and think about Hadewijch’s notion of ‘Love’. What does this mean, how is it connected to her notion of ‘God’ and the human soul, and how is it connected to love between human beings?1 I am looking forward to your ideas about this: scholars do not yet agree. Every other idea, thought or question you have about something else in these texts is of course just as interesting and important! Please try not to be discouraged if you do not understand something in the texts: these texts are written more than seven centuries ago, in a context so very different from ours, so they seem indeed alien to us in several ways. However, the central questions on how to live, how to deal with difficulties in life and how to position yourself as a human being in the world and towards a greater being or greater goal, are still relevant.
The above introduction and the three texts we will discuss on 3 February can be viewed as a PDF file (and then downloaded) by clicking here.
1 If you like to look further into these questions, you might like to read the chapter on Hadewijch by Bernard McGinn, in his book ‘The Flowering of Mysticism’. This chapter can be viewed (and then downloaded) by clicking here.