Medieval English Mystics
General Background
Middle Ages (400-1500)
• Early Middle Ages: 400-1100
• Late Middle Ages: 1100-1500
• Anglo-Saxon England: ca. 450-1066
(Norman Conquest)
The Medieval English Church
• Pope/papal legate
• Archbishops (Metropolitan Bishops):
Canterbury, York (N. England)
• Diocesan Bishops (diocese/see) ~ 20
• Parish priests
• Secular clergy: priests living in the world, not
under a rule; no vows, can possess property,
under authority of a bishop
• Regular clergy: clergy living under a rule;
either monastic or regular canons
• Monks/nuns: members of a
religious community living
under vows of poverty,
chastity and obedience
• Some monks were priests;
recited Divine Office daily
• Some were not priests (lay
• Monastic orders: Benedictine
(reformed into Cistercian,
Trappist); Carthusian
Members of a mendicant (begging)
order, under a rule but heavily
involved in community
Dominicans (1216: “Black Friars”)
Franciscans (1209: “Grey Friars”)
Carmelites (1155: “White Friars”)
Augustinians (1244: “Austin Friars”)
Secular Canons: community belonging
to a cathedral (bishop) or collegiate
church (no bishop)
Regular Canons: lived together under a
semi-monastic rule, shared property
(see Nicholas Watson, “The Middle English Mystics” and Denise
N. Baker, “Mystical and Devotional Literature”)
• Mystical: ME mystike “figurative; secret” – 14th/15th c.:
symbolic/figurative meaning of the Bible
• “mystick theology” 1639; “mystic”/”mysticism” 18th century
• Contemplative: spiritual practices of professed religious (via activa/via
• Heightened consciousness of God: union, presence, ecstasy, deification
• Devotional: “an object or practice that stirs a religious emotion of awe,
reverence, or piety” (Baker 423) – between liturgical and contemplative;
individuals or groups: defined by objects, not forms; pilgrimages, relics,
art, literature
• Visionary: dreams, otherworlds, prophecies, punishments (many genres)
• Feminism / cultural studies / literary studies
Two Types of Mystical Theology
• Affirmative (cataphatic) theology: connects God's unity to
the world; can understand God through sensible things,
use imagery
• Negative (apophatic) theology: knowing by not knowing
• God is transcendent, infinite: darkens our reasoning
powers, but this leads to loving union
• Paradox: closer you come to union with God, the more
blinding God becomes to human reasoning
• nature of God becomes more immediately present.
• Awe and wonder temper human intellect
Major Figures in Mystical Theology
• (Pseudo-)Dionysius the Areopagite (ca. 500
• Influenced by Neoplatonism
• Mystical Theology: negates all language
about God; radical transcendence of
divinity cannot be known
• mystical union comes from unknowing
• Negative theology: God can’t be named
adequately even in negative terms - God is
prior to all affirmation and negation
• divine nature is beyond all knowledge and
• union with God can only occur in the cloud
and darkness of unknowing
• Ecstasy: go out from intellect to its hidden
source in the divine nature itself
• return to the God "beyond being"
• Anselm, Archbishop of
Canterbury 1093-1109
• Orationes sive Meditationes:
“affective spirituality”
(outside liturgy)
• Ascetic, intellectual; but
added to by others
• Became more emotional:
Passion meditations
• Suffering human Jesus:
passion -> compassion
• “affective piety”
Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153)
• Sermones super
Canticum Canticorum:
erotic mysticism
• Union with God is
possible in this life
• Humbling of Christ
• Book of
experience/book of the
• Imitatio Christi
Victorine Spirituality
• Abbey of St Victor,
• Fl. 12th c. - regular
canons (rule of St
Hugh of St Victor (d.
• Attempt to order
stages of
• Made Dionysius
Victorine Spirituality (II)
• Hugh’s Noah’s ark
treatises: mandala
(right) represents
cosmos, salvation
history, mystic's
inward journey to
divine union
• Richard of St Victor
(d. 1173): applied
method to mystical
integrated intellect
into contemplation,
Bonaventure, Cloud
of Unknowing