E. Ann Matter

title.none: Milhaven, Hadewijch and Her Sisters

identifier.other: baj9928.9401.009 94.01.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: E. Ann Matter, University of Pennsylvania

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Milhaven, John Giles. Hadewijch and Her Sisters: Other Ways of Loving andKnowing. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1993. Pp. xiii + 171. $12.95 paper..

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.01.09

Milhaven, John Giles. Hadewijch and Her Sisters: Other Ways of Loving andKnowing. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1993. Pp. xiii + 171. $12.95 paper..

Reviewed by:

E. Ann Matter
University of Pennsylvania

The thesis of this provocative book rests on the claim that the theology of Hadewijch, a thirteenth-century Beguine, is the beginning of a Christian theology of love which demands a reciprocal response from God. Closely linked to Milhaven's description of Hadewijch as a theological innovator is the idea that this demand for mutuality can also be seen in the theological and ethical writings of twentieth-century feminists, "Hadewijch's sisters." In spite of the promise of the title, however, contemporary feminist authors are discussed rather sparingly. Instead, the book focuses squarely on medieval authors: Part 1 (72 pp.) sets forth the thesis, "Hadewijch and the Mutuality of Love;" Part II (48 pp.) is an essay on "Medieval Women and Bodily Knowing," and an appendix (26 pp.) offers and analysis of "Thomas Aquinas on the Pleasure of Sex and the Pleasure of Touch."

Milhaven's approach to medieval religious texts has some surprises for those of us who read Hadewijch, Thomas, and other authors from the perspective of the development of medieval thought. First, the careful construction of Hadewijch as a "systematic theologian" (pp. 3-14) seems unnecessary, if not somewhat misguided. What medieval authors perceived as the work of knowing and loving God spills over our categories of the theological enterprise; "theologia" includes biblical interpretation, how-to books of the spiritual life, and religious autobiography. In the medieval context, a theological author who appears unequivocally "systematic" (and Thomas Aquinas is the obvious example) is the exception rather than the rule. In other words, of course Hadewijch should be seen as, and taken seriously as, a theologian; but the application of the adjective "systematic" says more about the twentieth century than the thirteenth.

Milhaven also seems uncompromisingly twentieth-century in his repeated assertion (pp. 7 and "passim") that Hadewijch was the "first" theologian to insist on a love relationship of mutuality, even of mutual conquering, between the devout soul and God. Milhaven sees this as the beginning of a theological tradition:

But what Milhaven doesn't seem to understand is the historically-nuanced nature of this tradition, which is best described as thirteenth-century Beguine spirituality (see Joanna E. Ziegler, "Reality as Imitation: The Role of Religious Imagery Among the Beguines of the Low Countries," in Maps of Flesh and Light: The Religious Experience of Medieval Women Mystics, ed. Ulrike Wiethaus (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1993) pp. 112 - 126.) Hadewijch was, in fact, an exact contemporary of Mechthilde of Magdeburg and of Lutgard of Anywieres. Even if one doesn't want to argue for contacts between these women (and I don't), it is clear that they shared a world of spiritual insights that came from their anomalous position as non-cloistered, non-professed religious women living a series of highly charged religious experiences in a world in which the language of idealized love ("Minne") was commonplace. Why go to such lengths to avoid contemporary parallels in the context of Hadewijch's theology?

Perhaps Milhaven was led to overstress Hadewijch's particularity so that he could more easily make the connections to twentieth-century feminist thought. He says:

What is particularly frustrating here is the lack of contextual depth in the portrayal of both Hadewijch and feminist scholars. Oddly, Hadewijch is here denied her spiritual fellow-travelers, while modern feminist scholars are denied their special particularity. One could well argue that Audre Lorde, Carter Heyward, and Mary Hunt have more striking differences of theological perspective than do Hadewijch and Mechthilde of Magdeburg!

Just below the paragraph quoted above, Milhaven alludes to Thomas Aquinas as the brilliant exemplification of the medieval ability to invoke authority as a precedent for novelty (p. 44). This move to explain Hadewijch's original contribution in a thomistic sense brings me to the Appendix, a discussion of Thomas Aquinas on the pleasure of sex and the pleasure of touch. This appendix makes obvious what the reader may have suspected all along: that Milhaven is using Thomas as the touchstone of the "normative" male experience of God against which the specific type of theological knowing exemplified by Hadewijch was measured and found wanting. This essay is interesting in its own right, but hard to link to the main argument of the book. I would have preferred more detailed analysis of the twentieth-century feminist theologians who appear in passing throughout to an excursus on thomistic theology of embodiment.

Milhaven's book is based on an insight that many medievalists will find interesting and promising. We should be grateful for the courage of this thesis, even as we realize there are still many aspects of women's spirituality of embodiment, both in the thirteenth and the twentieth centuries, that remain to be explored.