Albrecht Classen

title.none: Wiethaus, Agnes Blannbekin, Viennese Beguine (Albrecht Classen)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.015 02.09.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Wiethaus, Ulrike. Agnes Blannbekin, Viennese Beguine: Life and Revelations. Series: The Library of Medieval Women. Woodbridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2002. Pp. x, 184. $60.00. ISBN: 0-859-91634-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.15

Wiethaus, Ulrike. Agnes Blannbekin, Viennese Beguine: Life and Revelations. Series: The Library of Medieval Women. Woodbridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2002. Pp. x, 184. $60.00. ISBN: 0-859-91634-0.

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

Undoubtedly, medieval mysticism represented one of the most important avenues for women to gain access to literary creativity. In fact, a majority of medieval women authors were mystics, although this term in itself would require a considerable differentiation before we could claim to have achieved a full understanding of its meaning as there were so many different types and degrees of mysticism. On the margin of mysticism, although sometimes already being part of it, we find a number of beguines who also experienced mystical visions and wrote them down, or dictated them to a scribe (often a confessor). One of them was the heretofore little considered Viennese beguine Agnes Blannbekin who died in 1315.

Agnes' mystical account was first edited in a modern printed version in 1731 by the Benedictine scholar Bernhard Pez (1683-1735). But the Catholic Church authorities were shocked and deeply dismayed about this medieval text as it contained explicit criticism of the Pope, references to naked monks, and especially Agnes' report that in a vision she metaphysically swallowed Christ's foreskin, among other allegedly scandalous and superstitious elements. Her revelations remained unknown until very recently, when Peter Dinzelbacher, together with Renate Vogeler, finally edited and translated the Leben und Offenbarungen der Wiener Begine Agnes Blannbekin in 1994.

Ulrike Wiethaus here presents an English translation which is entirely based on Peter Dinzelbacher's and Renate Vogeler's work, leaving out only a few short chapters because of space limitations. She introduces her translation with general remarks about the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Beguine movement, about Agnes Blannbekin as a religious person and her relationship with her confessor/scribe. Agnes' visionary account, extant only in Latin, was probably hastily translated by the scribe while she gave him an oral report about her revelations. There are also very interesting comments within the text reflecting the exchanges between the author and her scribe that indicate how much most medieval mystical texts were probably the result of co-production involving the female mystic and her scribe. Moreover, Agnes never holds back in her criticism against the moral decline of the Church during her time. Most important, however, seems to be her insistence that the ultimate mystical experience could not be shared with anyone, unless the Godhead gave her explicit permission to do so.

Scholarship has only recently begun to consider Agnes' account as a significant contribution to medieval women's literature. Admittedly, the medieval Latin does not excel in any noteworthy manner, and might even be called, in Dinzelbacher's words, "simply bad." However, we are dealing with an intriguingly hybrid text, and the weakness of the Latin might prove to be its actual strength as we are able to recognize the original Middle High German through the scribe's Latin. Ulrike Wiethaus's English translation offers a highly desirable opportunity to reassess both the literary quality of Agnes' text and its relevance for medieval mysticism.

The translation follows Dinzelbacher's edition with hardly any changes, except for those few chapters that were left out. Wiethaus makes an effort to stay as close as possible to the original Latin, which occasionally results in not quite idiomatic English. But no translation can serve as a full substitute for the original, so I can only second Wiethaus's appeal to the reader to consider the translation as a first key to the medieval Latin text.

The volume concludes with a brief interpretive essay in which Wiethaus discusses some of the unique features of Agnes' account. These include, for instance, her turn to the public spaces within the city where she could experience her visions. This text does not belong to "courtly mysticism," as Barbara Newman called some of the leading mystical literature by Mechthild of Magedeburg, Hadewijch, and Marguerite Porete. Instead, as Wiethaus suggests, it should be identified as "street mysticism" (166). This is also reflected in many comments by Agnes about her contemporary society, including derogatory remarks about Jews, non-white people, and homosexuals. Irrespective of these stereotypes and prejudices, typical of her time, however, she accomplished a remarkable "transformation of the secular into sacred space to counterbalance sacred spaces created and maintained by male privilege" (174).

In conformity with the technical requirements for the publication in this series, the Library of Medieval Women, Wiethaus offers only a select bibliography of her primary and secondary sources, whereas all other pertinent information is contained in footnotes. This makes it difficult to trace individual references. It would have been more preferable by far to have only abbreviated titles in the footnotes, but a comprehensive bibliography at the end. The index concluding the volume contains references to persons, objects, places, values, and ideas.

This translation would be a very welcome addition to the academic classroom, but considering the exorbitant price of $59.40, it seems unlikely that many instructors will adopt this book. Predictably, Wiethaus' pleasant translation will end up exclusively in University libraries, and students will then read, if that opportunity will arise at all, only photocopied excerpts. All previous volumes in this series were published as paperbacks ($19.95), reasonably priced for students. Now the Library of Medieval Women has moved into the world of hard covers, more profitable in the short run, but certainly to the disadvantage of the potential readers, students.