German Mysticism and the Politics of Culture

by Ulrike Wiethaus (Author)
©2014 Monographs X, 235 Pages
Series: American University Studies , Volume 303


Probing deeply into texts by and about prominent Christian mystics, religious authors, and saints, German Mysticism and the Politics of Culture challenges the reader to rethink the medieval past as a contemporary presence. This «presence of the past» shapes memory of place, valorizes the trope of ecstatic sexual union as death, and continues the religious marginalization of female voice and authority. The chapters focus on the works and lives of Hadewijch, Marie d’Oignies, Dionysius of Ryckel, Heinrich Seuse, Margarete Ebner, St. Elisabeth, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, and the stigmatic Therese Neumann. Part One of the volume examines the dynamics of cultural memory and forgetting as they relate to issues of sexuality, female authority, and national politics; Part Two explores themes of love and death, erasure and displacement. Medieval Christian mysticism, the author argues, cannot be narrated as a story of great cultural accomplishment but, rather, as a fundamentally agonistic scenario shaped by actors whose impact still affects us today.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Dedication
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part I. Anamnesis
  • Chapter 1. Unio Mystica
  • Chapter 2. Blood Mysticism
  • Chapter 3. Masculinity
  • Chapter 4. Who is Hrotsvit of Gandersheim?
  • Part II. Love and Death
  • Chapter 5. Homoerotic Desire
  • Chapter 6. The Punishments of Saint Elisabeth
  • Chapter 7. Love and Death in the Vernacular
  • Chapter 8. The Death Song of Marie d’Oignies
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index


This collection of essays is the outcome of many years of collaborative work with colleagues and students in the United States and Europe too numerous to name here – but still, thank you, fellow academic travelers. At key moments, listening to and learning from women and men committed to a contemplative way of life deepened my understanding. As always, I am grateful to Judith Sutera, OSB, for her dry wit, erudite insights, and for keeping us secular academics at Kalamazoo on our toes; to Annette Esser and Avis Glendenen, for asking where the women are. Being in place has been neither foreground nor background, but ground and grounding. The presence, simultaneously faint and strongly insistent, of medieval consciousness encapsulated in hewn rock, carved wood, ink, city maps, landscapes, and various art work in places such as Marburg, Bingen, Maria Medingen, and Antwerp inspired, evoked, and posed questions. Nothing in this collection could have been written without the impact of feminism on the academy, whose second wave carried me through graduate school onto the shores of independent academic work.

For chapter one, special thanks and my collaborative and inspirational debt belong to E. Ann Matter and Michael Sells; for chapter five, to Gary Ljungquist, Sharon Farmer and Carol Pasternack, for chapter seven, to Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Duncan Robertson, and Nancy Bradley Warren ← ix | x → in terms of academic dialogue, and to the nuns at Maria Edingen for inviting me and for keeping Margarete Ebner’s presence alive; for chapter eight, to Juliette Dor, Lesley Johnson, and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne for their transatlantic collegiality and for creating feminist frameworks that span the Atlantic; for chapter four, always special thanks to Katharina Wilson and her inspiring passion for Hrotsvit’s genius, but also to Jane Chance, Gillian R. Overing, Clare A. Lees, and especially to Phyllis Brown for her incisive comments; for a generous reading and the opportunity for discussion, I thank Ines Prodoehl and her colleagues at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C.; for chapter three, my gratitude extends to Stephen B. Boyd for asking trenchant questions, and especially to Liz Herbert McAvoy and Mari Hughes-Edwards, whose hospitality and support went a very long way indeed; for chapter six, my thanks go to Kathleen Verduin, Leslie J. Workman, and David D. Metzger; for chapter two, to Duncan G. Lewis and the nuns at the Carmelite Abbey Theresianum. Praise beyond bounds and a very big thank you go to my impeccable student assistants Jill Bjerke, Mary Bowden, and especially Sarah Hinshelwood, and to my indefatigable editors Heidi Burns and Jackie Pavlovic at Peter Lang Publishing.

← x | 1 → ·  INTRODUCTION  ·

Love the gods and consider kindly those who are mortal.

Friedrich Hölderlin, An die jungen Dichter

Written over the span of more than a decade, German Mysticism and the Politics of Culture, a collection of essays on German mysticism, has been assembled with a focus on the gendered production, reception, and textual transmission of mystical teachings. Part One, entitled Anamnesis, opens with an analysis of a core concept of mystical experience, union with the Divine, and its transfer into erotic and secular language beyond medieval mysticism. Despite its secularization, Western language about erotic union never lost its aura of numinosity and transcendence; indeed, modern writers such as Anne Sexton (1928–1974) could retrieve even its Christian agents (Chapter One, Unio Mystica). Contemporary spirituality also still shuttles back and forth between medieval and modern mystical discourse, whether textual or mimetic, thus generative of multiple types of resonance and reiteration that force open the discursive clamps of either secularized “progress” or religious “decline”. For a German context, aspects of late medieval blood mysticism and its reemergence in the life of the stigmatic Therese Neumann (1898–1962) will serve as a case study of such reiteration.1 As is the case elsewhere in this collection, Nazi Germany haunts the specifically “German-ness” of Therese Neumann’s mysticism and thus the ← 1 | 2 → reception of her medieval predecessors. In either case, German-ness is both a place and a story told. On the biographical level, critical categories such as gender and authorial identity invite similar questions about plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Chapter Three, Masculinity, traces the displacement of male embodiment in the construction of a Carthusian mystic’s authoritative persona, Dionysius of Ryckel (1402–1471), with a focus on site-specific cultic memory and masculinity. Chapter four contrasts the authorial self-creation of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (10th c.) with that of subsequent generations of mostly German scholars. Hrotsvit is usually approached as a writer without a spiritual or mystical bend. The essay “Who is Hrotsvit of Gandersheim?” explores authorial self-reflection as much as it reclaims mystical elements in Hrotsvit’s writings, especially so place-based mystical beliefs and practices.

Part Two, entitled Love and Death, begins with a recapitulation of the unio mystica motif, but in a new key, now moving from historiographical mimesis to an observation of existential processes of life-giving and death-dealing, of re/generation and destruction, may they be physical, emotional, or spiritual. Chapter Five explores an aesthetic of homoerotic desire in the work of the thirteenth century Beguine Hadewijch, with Minne replacing Christ as the soul’s lover. Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight investigate the difficult and fraught relationships between women mystics and their male confessors and biographers. It has been argued that these relationships could often be constructive and supportive. Nonetheless, they were asymmetrically constructed by ecclesiastical law and educational systems to favor the role of confessor.2

The second part of the book title refers to a rather broad concept, that of cultural politics. The emphasis on cultural politics acknowledges that the transfer of mystical knowledge, a complex process sui generis, is inextricably embedded in time, place, language, and relationships. The production of abstract theological knowledge about mystical experience runs parallel to its lived presence on the ground, where it is vetted, negotiated, selectively remembered, and creatively re-envisioned in multiple life worlds. To complicate matters, mystical knowledge leaves only fragmentary evidence in its textual double due to its subjective and experientially based nature.3 Whatever medieval fragments we may be able to work with, we are dealing with texts that are the outcome of individual people and groups having negotiated varying degrees of religious knowledge, spiritual expertise, institutional politics, and the concerns of localized (sub-) cultures.

For the sake of mapping the contents of such situational historiography, the term culture is applied broadly as the irretrievable totality of the dynamics, ← 2 | 3 → meaning, and practices expressed in social relationships through which religious and non-religious communities work out heterogeneous and frequently contested theories and practices of mystical spirituality. The textual workings and doings of such dynamics and practices are shaped by authorial strategies of remembering, reinventing, repressing, and displacing.4 “Unio mystica” (chapter one) thus offers a reading of such processes as they relate to the spiritually potent experience and concept of mystical union. In this case, the cultural memory trajectory and its ensuing expansion and transformation of the discursive field of ecstatic evocations of mystical union make way for other, no less searing descriptions of annihilation and bliss that retrieve a spectrum of loss and inequality latently embedded in earlier medieval descriptions. Sexuality and war displace the “God question”, women’s voices are actively forgotten and then again, actively reinvented.5

Generating a cultural memory of male-authored texts seems often to be the preeminent domain and indeed, the droit du seigneur of academic writers, theoretically (genealogically) conceptualized as Rezeptionsgeschichte, or reception history.6 The locally known but academically repressed memories of embodiment constitute a remarkable symbolic counter-representation of the life and work of the Carthusian mystic Dionysius of Ryckel. In contrast, a Western reception history of embodied female mystical writings resembles the stock exchange: it has bear and bull markets. Academic attention has waxed and waned in tandem with changes in European and/or American women’s social status, but also in a nation state’s need to utilize and always redefine its medieval cultural heritage.7 The essays on St. Elisabeth and Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (chapters four and six) consider the impact of first and second wave feminism in articulating violence against women (as in the case of St. Elisabeth and her confessor), and the nationalistic construction of a Latinate German past (as in the case of Hrotsvit). During the first feminist wave, for example, medieval women saints and mystics served both progressive and conservative cultural agendas. Alternatively defined as sexually repressed hysterics, victims of patriarchy, or model housewives, they provided a cultural code to process, absorb, and articulate massive social change.

Within the Church, the commemoration of medieval mystics fared better than on the outside – if the mystical teacher enjoyed canonical status. St. Gertrud, a member of the highly regarded Helfta nuns, and St. Elisabeth are a case in point. Other mystics, however, have languished in marginal ecclesiastical spaces – not quite saintly enough, not quite heretical enough. The life and memory of the German stigmatic Therese Neumann persists as the ← 3 | 4 → center of an international cult yet still without the approval of the Vatican. Neumann’s home town Konnersreuth, located near the Czech border, actively supports the cult with expertly tended local sites such as her home, her flower garden, and her grave. Busloads of pilgrims from across Europe and the US visit these sites annually to pray for her canonization and to ask for healing. Neumann’s high culture reputation, however, is marred by medical controversies surrounding her stigmatic ecstasies and her ambivalent political status during the Nazi regime.

These case studies of reception history are fragile and tentative readings in their own right. In its classical definition by Hans Georg Gadamer, reception history engages the past and present in creative, selective, and impermanent acts of reading, unavoidably thus always also constituting a misreading of the past. As Gadamer noted, our historical horizon as interpreters of the past is contingent as much as it is a container of our contingency. He notes that

Just as the individual is never simply an individual, because he [sic] is always involved with others, so too the closed horizon that is supposed to enclose a culture is an abstraction. The historical movement of human life consists in the fact that it is never utterly bound to any one standpoint, and hence can never have a truly closed horizon. The horizon is, rather, something into which we move and that moves with us.8

Gadamer’s insight constitutes a critique and caveat of my own authorial stand point. Begun in the early eighties in the United States, my reading of the works of medieval mystics has been informed by the interdisciplinary turn in religious studies and its corollary, an evolving feminist epistemology in the study of historical Christianity. An early monograph on medieval mysticism, Ecstatic Transformation compared then current transpersonal and humanistic psychology models with medieval descriptions of mystical states, especially Mechthild of Magdeburg’s The Flowing Light of the Godhead.9 Emerging from the sixties’ counter-cultural attentiveness to psychotropic drugs and altered states of consciousness, Ecstatic Transformation gauged the relevance of mysticism to a renewed interest in a spirituality of consciousness that was at same time critical of institutionalized religion and oppressive social norms, including sexism.10 If anything, what I have learned since then is that the tension between institutionalized power and non-normative life worlds is as critical to observe and to name today as it was then. Western gender analyses address new formations of consciousness, voices, and practices engaging the politics of culture, from Pussy Riot’s concerts in religious spaces to Edward Snowden and the NSA.

← 4 | 5 → The content of the essays in this volume remain anchored in the medieval time period that shaped my work on Ecstatic Transformation, ca. 1250 to 1350, the epoch which Bernard McGinn has characterized as an era of “new mysticism”. McGinn identified three interdependent characteristics of “new mysticism”: a revised relationship between monastic and lay lifestyles, new frameworks for gendered relationships, and new types of discourse.11 McGinn underscored that a change in gender relations depended on the close collaboration between religious men and women. According to McGinn, such alliances generated the tortured paradox of “mutual enrichment” and the “monologic triumph of the authoritative male voice of ecclesiastical authority”.12 The essays on Heinrich Seuse’s (1295–1366) literary association with Dominican nuns (chapter seven) and a comparison of two contemporaneous biographies of Marie d’Oignies’ (1177–1213, chapter eight) offer a close reading of such innovative collaborations – one within monastic walls, the other in newly formed lay movements.13


X, 235
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (September)
cultural memory sexuality female authority national politics female voice
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 235 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Ulrike Wiethaus (Author)

Ulrike Wiethaus received her PhD in religious studies at Temple University. She is currently Professor in the Department of Religion with a joint appointment in American Ethnic Studies at Wake Forest University. Her publications on medieval Christian spirituality include Agnes Blannbekin, Viennese Beguine: Life and Revelations (translated from the Latin with introduction, notes, and interpretive essay, 2002 reissued in 2012); Ecstatic Transformations: Ecstasies and Visions in the Work of Mechthild of Magdeburg and Transpersonal Psychology (1995); Maps of Flesh and Light: The Religious Experience of Medieval Women (edited, with an introduction and a previously unpublished essay, 1993); and Dear Sister: The Correspondence of Medieval Women (co-edited with Karen Cherewatuk, with an introduction and a previously unpublished essay, 1993).


Title: German Mysticism and the Politics of Culture
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