Albrecht Classen

title.none: Tobin, Mechthild von Magdeburg

identifier.other: baj9928.9503.008 95.03.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Tobin, Frank. Mechthild von Magdeburg. A Medieval Mystik in Modern Eyes. Series: Literary Criticism in Perspective. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1995. Pp. xi + 152. $55.95. ISBN: ISBN 1-57113-001-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.03.08

Tobin, Frank. Mechthild von Magdeburg. A Medieval Mystik in Modern Eyes. Series: Literary Criticism in Perspective. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1995. Pp. xi + 152. $55.95. ISBN: ISBN 1-57113-001-2.

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

Since the rediscovery of Mechthild von Magdeburg's mystical work Das fliessende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of the Godhead) in 1861 by Carl Greith (ms. E - Einsiedeln), a virtual flood of scholarly and non-scholarly studies has come forth focusing on this amazing thirteenth-century writer. Gertrud Jaron Lewis lists in her Bibliographie zur deutschen Frauenmystik des Mittelalters (1989) twenty pages of publications on Mechthild and text editions, covering the entire research period from the early nineteenth century until 1987. Unquestionably it is a worthwhile enterprise to survey the history of Mechthild scholarship, and this task fell upon Frank Tobin, one of the leading North American scholars on German mysticism.

His "Forschungsbericht" conforms to the standards of the series "Literary Criticism in Perspective," which has so far covered a wide range of authors in the history of German literature. The specific purpose of the series is to "trace literary scholarship and criticism on major and neglected writers alike...One of the primary purposes of the series is to illuminate the nature of literary criticism itself, to gauge the influence of social and historic currents on aesthetic judgments once thought objective and normative." At the same time the targeted audience appears to be more the graduate student and general reader, and specifically those scholars who do not read German.

Tobin tries to strike a delicate balance between a serious "Forschungsbericht" and something like a running commentary, insofar as he quotes extensively both from Mechthild and contemporary sources, and from modern scholarship, and then provides English translations. This decision is to be praised highly, and yet it leads to some irritations particularly in the early part of Tobin's book. In order to capture the concrete messages and ideology expressed by some of the writers dealing with Mechthild, he quotes so extensively that almost the entire text consists of quotations and their translations. In the later sections Tobin kind of swims free from these too narrow constraints and offers longer quotations plus translations, and paraphrases more. This makes the reading more palatable, and also indicates that by then Tobin has successfully removed himself from the studies under examination and begins to assess them more critically.

Overall, however, a detailed survey of Mechthild scholarship is given that allows the reader to quickly examine the individual stages of the historical perception of this outstanding mystical writer. In addition, the bibliography is structured in a chronological fashion which allows for the additional collection of information. It is not an exhaustive bibliography, but includes all the major contributions to Mechthild research from 1797 until 1993, including Tobin's review of Neumann's critical edition of Das fliessende Licht der Gottheit, at that time still in press in Speculum.

The book is divided into five sections, four of which deal with the history of Mechthild scholarship since the early eighteenth century. The first chapter treats Mechthild's life, her book, the early readers, and the text history. This is one of the best introductions to Mechthild von Magdeburg in the English language ever written. Tobin here demonstrates his full command of the material, and also impresses us with his lucid style and clear structure of his discussion. He examines Mechthild's familiarity with the courtly lyric poetry, her early visions, her work on the Fliessende Licht der Gottheit, the use of bridal mysticism, the chapter headings and the question who might have written them, the translation of the original Middle Low German version into a Middle High German, her supporters and detractors, and the impact which her book had on later mystics. In addition, Tobin discusses the manuscript transmission, and the history of modern editions.

With the second chapter Tobin begins with his "Forschungsbericht" and takes the reader from the early Romantic movement to the most recent scholarly contributions to Mechthild. The way how the various authors are treated here might be considered as highly sensitive and polite, but it also could be seen as too detached and uncritical. Basically Tobin summarizes the individual findings and translates crucial passages. He also embeds the various scholars to some extent in their cultural context, but refrains, overall, from a critical discussion either of their ideological stance or of their perception of Mechthild. It is surprising, for instance, to read Tobin's almost entirely detached characterization of Rufus Jones' contributions, although he had perceived "large elements of pathology" in Mechthild and other mystics' texts (53). I wonder whether "absolute" objectivity in a "Forschungsbericht" is possible or even desirable. Tobin carefully questions the validity of E. Benz's study on visions (1969), and calls it "both useful and frustrating" (111), but refrains from evaluating it more rigorously.

There is a lot of repetition because scholars have not always made completely new contributions. Tobin even includes general introductions to Mechthild, prologues to translations, and other types of texts dealing with the mystic writer in his survey. This detracts from his otherwise excellent survey of Mechthild scholarship and somewhat clatters his text. If someone made only a passing reference to her (P. Diehl, 1985), then it does not seem to be necessary to include such comments in the discussion.

The inclusion of feminist discourse on Mechthild (122ff.) is of extreme importance in such a "Forschungsbericht." Tobin makes extensive references to writers such as Caroline Walker Bynum, Susan Clark (here we finally hear Tobin's personal view as a Mechthild scholar, decidedly disagreeing with Clark), Ursula Peters, and Leslie Batchelder. He summarizes their findings, but also opposes their attempts to apply excessively modernist approaches to literature on the interpretation of Mechthild's mystical text (phallocentric criticism).

In conclusion, Tobin's book offers an excellent introduction to Mechthild scholarship from the earliest contributions to the most recent ones. Whether such an overview really might be necessary, particularly when we consider the targeted audience, is another question and has to be addressed to the publishing house and its editors. I have my personal doubts about it, but happily acknowledge Tobin's first rate examination of the history of Mechthild literature.