03.02.08, Keller, My Secret is Mine

Main Article Content

Dr. Debra Stoudt

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.008


Keller, Hildegard Elisabeth. My Secret is Mine: Studies on Religion and Eros in the German Middle Ages. Series: Studies in Spirituality, vol. 4. Leuven: Peeters, 2000. Pp. viii, 297. ISBN: 90-429-0871-8.

Reviewed by:
Dr. Debra Stoudt
University of Toledo

Although the volume title as well as the series name might suggest a focus on sacred literature, the scope of Keller's study extends beyond the "exquisite texts of German mysticism" (6) to permutations of the motif of Christian eroticism found in secular writing of the German Middle Ages. In the introduction the author characterizes the motif as a "phenomenon of literary, spiritual, and gender history" (6). Central to the study is an awareness of the amorphous roles of the bride and the bridegroom. The roles often are idealized; they are always influenced by the love relationship and spiritual marriage described in the text and by the distinctive characteristics of the literary genre itself.

Chapter 1, "Erotic Religiosity as a Motif in Cultural History," presents the tradition of the bride of God/Christ, the development of the roles of bride and bridegroom, and the representation of the bride in literature. The first part provides the requisite background for an understanding of Christian bridal mysticism in medieval literary history. Keller begins with a survey of erotic religiosity from non-Christian perspectives and then turns her attention to the allegories of the Judaeo-Christian tradition in the Old Testament -- stressing predictably and fittingly the Song of Songs -- and finally addresses examples in the New Testament, with Christ as Bridegroom and the Church as His bride. Although in early Christian times the motif of the bride of God is supra-sexual, by the high Middle Ages it is commonly a female who is assigned the human role with God or Christ as the (male) bridegroom in the love relationship between a human and a divine love partner. The nuptial roles become associated with a specific gender, which in turn fosters the use of gender-specific descriptions. Mindful of medieval misogyny, Keller draws parallels between the bride of Christ and the bride of the Devil, both of whom are characterized as females who engage in an erotic relationship with "transcendent beings" (22). Although there are examples in which a man's female soul is married to Christ, the conclusion is that "[i]n vernacular literature between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, brides of God tend to be female" (27) and over time the role of the bride becomes increasingly feminine and that of the bridegroom increasingly masculine (30). The marriage ritual itself, renewed emphasis on the concept of virginity, increased passivity of women as brides, and male (especially pastoral) promotion of bridal mysticism further the establishment of deeply rooted gender-specific nuptial roles. In her overview of the representation of brides in literature, Keller distinguishes between views by the brides themselves and views of them by others. The former are produced for the most part by female authors, who witness to their role as brides of Christ in actual or fictional autobiographies. The latter emanate from male priests, for whom the texts serve a didactic function toward their female spiritual charges and who themselves may give the bride away.

In Chapter 2, Keller focuses on the connection between love and marriage in light of medieval social and legal norms. The author examines how the Song of Songs shapes the discourse of love and how social history and marriage preaching mold the discourse of marriage. Contradictions abound: the text of the Song of Songs is characterized by a lack of specificity of time and place and reveals a dynamic, fragmented, and fleeting relationship between lovers, whereas medieval marriage is legalistic: it involves public, ritual acts carried out according to a specific chronology. In the Song of Songs, the bride takes the initiative and there is an apparent equality of the sexes, but the legal code of medieval marriage conforms to a model in which the man as dominant figure acts and the woman reacts. Sample texts identify different bride and bridegroom types that exemplify the dichotomous models of love and marriage derived from the above-mentioned sources. In most instances the divine bridegroom is portrayed as the ideal husband, and thus the bride chooses well in her marriage to Christ. The bride, in making this choice, is ennobled by the love of such a bridegroom and she attains the status of a queen, yet there are disadvantages since her vow of chastity necessitates self-sacrifice.

With the third chapter, Keller concentrates attention exclusively on the texts: Das fliessende Licht der Gottheit by Mechthild von Magdeburg, the St. Trudperter Hohelied, Tochter Syon of Lamprecht von Regensburg, the didactic poem Die Hochzeit, Driu liet von der maget (Maria) by Priester Wernher, and Der arme Heinrich by Hartmann von Aue. The selections provide an excellent cross-section from which to examine the motif; they include well-known and lesser-known pieces, works by males as well as females, writings from different genres and centuries, and texts from the sacred and secular spheres. Keller provides a brief introduction to every one; she then characterizes the erotic relationship between the bride of Christ and the divine bridegroom in each according to three steps: the first move by the bridegroom, the response of the bride, and the marriage union of bride and groom. In the final section the author notes the hardships inherent in brideship, which are more numerous and more significant in some descriptions than in others.

An additional text, Christus und die minnende Seele, is the focus of Chapter 4. The work is remarkable not only for its content but also for the illustrations that accompany the fifteenth-century manuscript. In the work, which Keller characterizes as "radical and bizarre" (185), there is an evolution of the relationship from a secular marriage to a spiritual one. In the first part, which reflects the realities of the (medieval) state of marriage, the bride is beaten and abused by the bridegroom -- acts graphically portrayed in text and image -- until she is "tamed" by her spouse. In the second part, the bridegroom shows mercy to his wife, and after a period of ascetic privation on her part, they ultimately enjoy a loving, intimate relationship.

Keller points the discussion in a new direction in the final chapter as she introduces Vrouwe Minne and the role the figure plays in the relationship between the bride and the bridegroom. The allegorical female archer is a conflation of genders, a figure whose androgyny affords her a multifaceted role in matters of the heart. However, in human form Lady Love may adopt the role of the protagonist, pursuing her beloved with a bow. Keller examines how the ritterin is portrayed in works like Tochter Syon (various versions) and the Song of Songs as well as two new texts: the Buch der geistlichen Armuth and picture-cycles of Christ and a loving soul from the fifteenth or early sixteenth century. The final texts afford yet another opportunity to examine remarkable images that complement the depictions in the written word.

The brief epilogue highlights the diverse characterizations of the bride presented in Chapters 1 and 2 and the typology of brides identified in the texts in Chapter 3. The author again underscores how the influence of the Song of Songs, the legal code, and pastoral care work together to inform the development of the concept of the sponsa Christi in history and in literature during the Middle Ages.

Keller's study is carefully crafted, and although each chapter offers its own conclusion and may be viewed to some extent as an independent study, the parts complement each other to form a coherent whole. Even with the careful and thoughtful efforts of Maria Sherwood-Smith, who assisted in the preparation of the English version (2), some passages still read like translations from a German original. Indeed, a glance at the bibliography indicates that this volume represents Keller's first (major) publication in English. Although there is the occasional unevenness in the manner of expression, the author is to be commended for publishing her study in English and thus making her scholarship accessible to a new and broader audience.

The manuscript is exemplary in almost every way, although the editor seems to have dozed off briefly, allowing four full sentences and two somewhat lengthy footnotes (14-15) to be repeated almost verbatim on a subsequent page (16). The citation of texts in the original language is most appropriate, but by providing translations for all quotations, the author creates a reader-friendly text that can be appreciated and understood even by those not expert in the field. Likewise, the entire audience will value the comprehensive bibliography. The marvelous illustrations certainly enhance Keller's arguments; one could have wished, however, that at least the identification of the figure number and perhaps the title for each illustration had been included on the same page as the image itself. Readers must hunt for the list of illustrations, which is tucked away in the final pages of the volume (295-97). For this reviewer one of the most intriguing and welcome aspects of the study is the inclusion of both sacred and secular texts and the selection of a very well-known work, Der arme Heinrich, for extensive commentary.

Keller's theses merit not only scholarly debate by those well-versed in medieval textual analysis but also classroom discussion among those making their first acquaintance with writings of the German Middle Ages. By juxtaposing familiar texts with less familiar ones and by viewing both through a unique critical lens, Keller offers readers new and valuable perspectives on a well-established but always fascinating motif.

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Author Biography

Dr. Debra Stoudt

University of Toledo