Sean Field

title.none: Poor, Mechthild of Magdeburg (Sean Field)

identifier.other: baj9928.0510.002 05.10.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Sean Field, University of Vermont,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Poor, Sara S. Mechthild of Magdeburg and Her Book: Gender and the Making of Textual Authority. Series: The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Pp. xvi, 333. 55.00 0-8122-3802-8. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.10.02

Poor, Sara S. Mechthild of Magdeburg and Her Book: Gender and the Making of Textual Authority. Series: The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Pp. xvi, 333. 55.00 0-8122-3802-8. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Sean Field
University of Vermont

Mechthild of Magdeburg (ca. 1210-1282) needs little introduction these days. The publication in 1990 of a critical edition of her book "The Flowing Light of the Godhead" and a reliable English translation in 1998 ushered in a new era in Mechthild scholarship [[1]], and she has also benefited from recent interest in medieval women's writings. But it is just this latter point that Sara S. Poor finds problematic. Her study aims "to interrogate the apparent fall of medieval women authors from and their return to our collective literary and historical consciousness" (xi). As a teacher of German literature, she is troubled by a dilemma--well-intentioned efforts to "recover" women writers have tended to implicitly essentialize and marginalize them by creating gendered categories such as "women's mysticism" and "medieval female writers." To escape this trap, Poor sets out to examine Mechthild of Magdeburg's "presence (not absence) in canons of the past that were central to German history and culture" (xiv).

Mechthild and her book certainly offer a challenging site in which to confront the problems of medieval textual authority. As Poor states, "[i]n Mechthild we have a writer who does not sign her own name, whose original text and language are little more than a supposition, whose writings survive only in late medieval copies of translations completed after her death, and whose editors mention her name only in passing if at all [ . . .]" (3). How to think about authorship and agency with such a text? Poor insists that we can and should investigate the means by which Mechthild shaped her book as a female author, but must also pay attention to "how the transmission of the text does or does not constitute Mechthild the author as a function or effect of the medieval book or the textual tradition it constructs" (10). Thus this study divides into two parts. The first (chaps. 1-2) deals with Mechthild's own agency, while the second (chaps. 3-5) examines the transmission of her text.

Chapter one argues that Mechthild made specific choices that demonstrate authorial agency. Most provocatively, Poor believes that it was Mechthild's choice to write in the vernacular. This seems counter-intuitive, since Mechthild tells us she knew no Latin. Although, as Poor points out, this claim need not be taken at face value, there is still no reason to think that Mechthild could have simply written her text in Latin if she had wished. Poor's point, however, is that a chain of Mechthild's choices led to the production of a vernacular text. Mechthild decided to become a beguine instead of an enclosed nun (which would have created different sorts of relationships to Latin learning and clerical advisors), and not to dictate her book to a scribe who would have recorded it in Latin. Instead, she used the vernacular as part of a Dominican-inspired mission to reach a universal audience. But "vernacular" is in turn a problematic category, since Mechthild wrote in Middle Low German while making allusions to courtly traditions associated with Middle High German. Poor again argues that this was a choice intended to make her book accessible to multiple audiences. Finally, Mechthild elected to promote a message of "conformist dissent," attacking the failings of the secular clergy while reinforcing a specifically Dominican reform agenda.

Chapter two uses a close analysis of one visionary episode (Book II.4) to show how Mechthild asserts her authorship while wrestling with cultural meanings of the female body. In this vision, a maid is unable to attend Mass because of bodily weakness, but is miraculously brought into a church and transformed into an angelic figure, clothed in a robe embroidered with love lyrics taken from an earlier section of Mechthild's own book. Then John the Baptist lays the host, in the form of a bleeding lamb, in the maid's mouth, where it enters her body and suckles on her heart. In Poor's analysis, as the maid is literally cloaked in text, "discourses about the body are contested in negotiating the problem of authority and the body is not punished or mortified, rather it is transfigured" (69). But then the body is "reclaimed" as a site of experience and symbol of authority through the second part of the vision.

The second half of the book turns to the transmission of Mechthild's book, in its Latin and High Middle German versions as well as in miscellanies. Poor points to evidence that "Mechthild and her book were already held to be part of a tradition of some kind in the fourteenth century" (82). So why did Mechthild fall into oblivion and have to be rediscovered first by German scholars in the nineteenth century and then by feminists in the twentieth? Poor argues against the idea that women's writings were generally disregarded simply because they were women's writings. Instead, she asserts that "the 'loss' of Mechthild's book was the consequence of [. . .] efforts to preserve her writings either in spite of or disregarding the woman who wrote them and the book from which they came" (83).

In chapter three, the author argues that in the Latin transmission, translators (Dominicans of Halle before 1298) aiming at a learned, male audience placed Mechthild in a tradition of prophetic women, reshaped her imagery, and downplayed her role as author in order to present her writings as coming directly from God. This latter move ensured greater authority for her words while hiding her authorial agency. Heinrich of Nordlingen, who had some role in the translation of Mechthild's work into its surviving High Middle German version in the mid-fourteenth century, intended the vernacular text to circulate among enclosed religious women. He obviously placed great value on the work, but never mentioned Mechthild's name when urging nuns and beguines to study it. Although he did not try to hide the fact that the book was by a "holy virgin," Heinrich also stressed that its words came ultimately from God. Thus both versions of the text display male uneasiness about passing on female writings, but find ways of solving the problem rather than simply suppressing Mechthild's book.

Poor next moves to a close analysis of three devotional miscellanies that transmit parts of Mechthild's book. For example, in a manuscript held by the Franciscans of Wurzburg, repackaged excerpts from the High Middle German version of "The Flowing Light" were bound in the fifteenth century with Latin grammatical works and sermons. Poor shows that the original compiler sought to control the meaning of Mechthild's passages by inserting Latin, biblical allusions. She then considers how this repackaged text functioned within the manuscript as a whole, in dialogue with the Latin works that surrounded it. Mechthild's own authorial role was becoming ever more deeply buried, but her words gained in authority by their association with other authoritative texts. Transmitting her name was not important in this context, but this effacement was not the result of a desire to hide the fact of female authorship; rather it resulted from Mechthild's very inclusion in a corpus of texts all partaking directly in God's authority. Though the other two miscellanies reveal differing relationships between author, compiler, scribe, and reader (in one manuscript Mechthild is not only named but called a "saint"), Poor's analysis illuminates the ways in which transmission created new contexts for and perceptions of Mechthild's writings.

In chapter four, Poor considers the role of women as producers and consumers of texts by examining eleven manuscripts that anthologize chapters from Mechthild. In the context of the fifteenth-century Observant movement, more and more devout readers were in contact with Mechthild's writings, even as she herself faded farther and farther into the background. Perhaps most interesting here is Poor's analysis of seven manuscripts (including four of her own discovery) of a fourteenth-century collection known as the "Ebrach Spruchsammlung" which contains one chapter from Mechthild. But as Poor shows, the collection itself quickly began to disintegrate as bits and pieces were folded into other anthologies, sometimes including the Mechthild excerpt and sometimes not. Poor's argument is that these unstable texts were created and consumed in the tension between Observant clerics who wished to guide female charges, and women who wanted to read and compile creatively. "In both cases, Mechthild's writings prove important enough to include," but "the conditions of that inclusion [. . .] result in an explosion of literary production that scatters the fragmentary remains of the 'Flowing Light' into oblivion" (172).

Finally, in chapter five Poor traces Mechthild's reception after 1500. Though the vernacular transmission reached a dead end, a sixteenth and seventeenth-century Latin tradition continued to associate her with the category of prophetic holy woman. But conflation with the more popular Mechthild of Heckeborn helped to keep her in obscurity and by the eighteenth century she had been all but forgotten. This moment was relatively brief, however, since after the German Dominican Carl Greith found a copy of Mechthild's German text in 1861 it quickly took its place in a romantic, nationalist discourse that merged with interest in figures such as Meister Eckhart. To Greith, gender was not a major issue; he saw Mechthild primarily as German and Dominican rather than as female. But with the subsequent emergence of "Frauenmystik" as a category of scholarly analysis, Mechthild was once again put into a distinct lineage of female authors and visionaries to be studied specifically as women and generally characterized as "irrational" when compared to "rational" male mystics. Poor ends where she began, criticizing recent anthologies that have perpetuated this relegation to the margins by taking medieval female authors as an essentializing category of analysis.

To my mind (and readers should note that I am a historian of medieval religion rather than an expert on German literature), some of Poor's specific arguments are open to challenge. Some readers will no doubt be fully convinced that Mechthild "chose" the vernacular, but others may remain skeptical of this line of reasoning. Some may also wonder whether the close analysis of a single visionary episode sufficiently illuminates Mechthild's complex relationship to authority in her text, or exactly how this analysis adds to what has already been said about Mechthild's authorial voice(s) [[2]]. Though Poor frequently pauses to engage with other scholars' positions, some of her analysis may not be as new as she would like to make out; for instance her survey of the critical reception of Mechthild evidently owes a great deal to Frank Tobin's work [[3]] (though adding new twists), and it is not always fully apparent where her own fresh examination of the manuscripts begins and her reliance on published descriptions ends [[4]].

Yet this book is more than the sum of its parts. Poor's conceptualization of textual authority as commencing with authorial choices but continuing in conversation with translators, scribes, compilers, readers, and modern scholars should be thought-provoking. She combines literary theory with close manuscript study in fertile ways. Chapters three and four are particularly important in exploring the reception of Mechthild's work in new depth. Her sweeping attempt to rethink what it means for an author (female or male) to be part of an accepted tradition in the context of religious writings is stimulating. In sum, Poor has not only contributed to our knowledge of Mechthild and the textual history of her work, but provided an ambitious model for how to engage with a medieval text, its author, its reception by disparate readers, and its perception by modern scholars.


[[1][ Hans Neumann, ed., Das fliessende Licht des Gottheit, 2 vols. (Munich, 1990; 1993); Frank Tobin, trans., Mechthild of Magdeburg. The Flowing Light of the Godhead (New York, 1998).

[[2]] For instance, Elizabeth A. Anderson, The Voices of Mechthild of Magdeburg (Oxford, 2000).

[[3]] Frank Tobin, Mechthild of Magdeburg: A Medieval Mystic in Modern Eyes (Columbia, S.C.: 1995).

[[4]] For instance, vol. 2 of the Neumann critical edition, prepared by Gisela Vollmann-Profe.