Dutch Mysticism

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Course about Christian spirituality
in a cultural-historical context

Medieval Dutch Mysticism in the Low Countries

Hadewijch and John of Ruusbroec, their faith and way of thinking

Rozemarijn van Leeuwen
© 1999-2001


Lecture 1/7.  The Middle Ages

Topics this hour:
  • Introduction and overview of the course
  • When were the Middle Ages, what characterises this period?
  • The medieval society and culture
  • Middle Dutch and Middle Dutch literature

Introduction and overview of the course

Good evening, a warm welcome to everyone to this course Medieval Dutch Mysticism in the Low Countries.

We have a series of exciting lectures ahead, in which we will look into unique and centuries-old manuscripts: the mystical writings of Hadewijch (13th century) and John of Ruusbroec (14th century).

Hadewijch wrote three documents during the Middle Ages: visions, letters and poems. She lived in Brabant (southern Low Countries) and wrote in Middle Dutch, a predecessor of nowadays Dutch. We will read parts of all her different genres: some of her visions and fragments of her letters and poems.

John of Ruusbroec (in Dutch: Jan van Ruusbroec) lives a century later, also in Brabant. He wrote 11 books and some letters and he also wrote about religious subjects in the regional language - Middle Dutch. We will read parts of a book, that is considered to be his masterwork, The Spiritual Wedding or Spiritual Espousals, in Dutch De geestelijke bruiloft.

Their texts provide a glimpse, a little insight, into the way of thinking of a 13th-century Brabantian woman and a 14th-century Brabantian man - they let us follow their line of reasoning about life, about their view on man, about their image of God.

To understand their thinking, the background of their ideals, their beliefs, the images they use, I'll pay much attention to living, thinking and believing in the Middle Ages during this course. So this course is not about reading as much of their texts as possible, but about clarifying and understanding their texts from their cultural-historical context.

The framework of the course will be as follows. In the first lesson hour, before the break, I will tell something about the cultural-historical background, so about the world Hadewijch and Ruusbroec lived in, the medieval thinking and believing. I'll extensively discuss subjects like the medieval world view and view on man, the medieval cosmology and the late-medieval ideal of poverty.

Then there will be a ten minutes break. In the second lesson hour, after the break, we will read fragments of the medieval texts themselves. I'll then comment on them, based on that cultural-historical background, the medieval way of thinking and believing.

The next three lectures we will read in Hadewijch's visions, letters and poems, the last three lectures we will read parts of Ruusbroec's Spiritual wedding (the fragments concerned are included in the Anthology).

At the end of the very last lesson hour we'll consider the question if reading both of these mystics, the 13th-century Hadewijch and the 14th-century Ruusbroec, gave us a clue of a shared spirituality. Is there something as an interconnected late-medieval mysticism of the Low Countries?


The approach of this course is cultural-historical, not spiritual.

This historical, literary and religious background will give us grip to understand these mystical texts from the medieval way of thinking, to understand what these texts meant for the audience of that time and how they functioned in their time.

So this course won't be about contemporary religious questions - I'll read these mystical texts, as literature historian, from their cultural-historical context.

This course is constructed in a 'cumulative' way: concepts in the earlier lectures are more and more worked out in later lectures. After all, it was designed as a coherent course and not with loose internet pages in mind.

So even in the final lectures I'll fall back on the medieval world, way of thinking, religious movements and mystical concepts of the first few lectures.

Today before and after the break

Today I will lay the foundation of the two main subjects of this course: the Middle Ages and mysticism.

After the break we will look into the phenomenon mysticism in general. In a course about mysticism, I think it's very important to get an as clear as possible answer to the question: what is in fact mysticism? After the break I will give a clear definition of mysticism, especially christian mysticism, because that will be the subject here.

But now I will tell a littlebit about the Middle Ages. Everyone has an idea about the Middle Ages (knights, noble ladies, castles, or stories like the Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the Canterbury Tales).

I would like to get this general picture clear again; trying to bridge the centuries between the 21st century and the Middle Ages. I would like to lead you all back to that medieval world in which Hadewijch and John of Ruusbroec lived their lives.

beatrijs miracle of mary kb 1374

Beatrijs, miracle of Mary, decorated initial
(copy KB, 1374).
-click to magnify-

My story about the medieval society and literature will consist of three parts: first I will discuss the period, the limitation in time. When were the Middle Ages exactely? And what characterises these centuries? Then I will discuss the medieval society and culture. How was the society constructed, who could read and write and how was education arranged? And the third part will be about the rise of the Middle Dutch literature.

The time is too short to really bring the Middle Ages 'to life' again, it are just the main lines, but next week I will continue with the world view, the ideas, the way of thinking of the medieval man.

When were the Middle Ages and what characterises this period?

When were the Middle Ages and what characterises this period? Which centuries do we call the Middle Ages? That was from approximately about 500 A.D. until about 1550.

This is a period of roughly a thousand years - 10 centuries. But why are these 10 centuries called 'middle ages', 'middle centuries', as if these centuries are clamped in between something else? Medieval people never heard of this term, the period got this name afterwards, during the 17th century. But why did the people of the 17th century give the preceding centuries this name?

To get an oversight you'll find a timeline in the hand-out.

First we will look into the beginning of the Middle Ages. At the left side of the timeline you see the period that is called the Greek-Roman civilization or Greek-Roman antiquity. In this period we find the starting point of our calendar, the year zero: the birth of Jesus and consequently the seed of Christianity. In the third and fifth century the most important Migration Periods of the Germanic Peoples took place, that were partially the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire. This empire came to an end around 400 A.D.

So the beginning of the Middle Ages in Europe, around the year 500, is marked by:
  • the fall of the Roman Empire
  • the rise of the Germanic civilisation
  • the spreading of Christianity

These last two points are very distinctive for how medieval Europe became what it became. The arrival of the Germanic peoples and the spreading of Christianity.

Both phenomenons overflowed Europe as two enourmous waves of change. After the Migration Periods (3rd and 5th century) roughly the whole of Europe is considered to be Germanic and Celtic (Germanic people in northern Europe and Celtic people in south and middle Europe; with a polytheistic religion, a believe in many gods and godesses, the Germanic mythology). And after that, the whole of Europe is christianised (6th until 10th century), out of the Roman Empire, and that brings a monotheistic religion from the Near East (with one god, the male sky god Jahweh).

This whole period of a 1000 years is often divided in three parts: the Early, the High and the Late Middle Ages. On the hand-out you'll find a characteristic of these three periods. Keep in mind that the early Germanic Peoples had no writing tradition - and what others (often opponents) wrote down about them were usually negative stereotypes (for the Romans they were 'barbarians'; for already christianised Christians they were 'pagans'; for the protestants, after that, medieval people were 'too catholic'; and for people in the 17th century these were 'dark centuries'). These negative qualifications still do define our image today, but in fact they say primarily something about the view of the others, it are are not historical facts about these thousand years of culture - our own history.

So on the hand-out you'll find a general, broad characterisation of the societey and culture of the Early, High and Late Middle Ages.

Societey and culture of the Early, High and Late Middle Ages  (hand-out)

The society in the Early Middle Ages (500-950), mainly farmers, was uniformly organised with a communal assembly (where all free man had the right to speak) and a 'Ding', the judgement by that assembly. The sea and the big rivers were used as trade routes, from northern Europe to the Mediterranean Area, northern Africa and the Near East (grain, wine, salt, oil, gems). From 800 onward almost the whole of Europe was one realm for a period of time, ruled by Charles the Great (lead by local earls, with one currency). The culture was, among other things, known for sublime art of forgery (like jewellery, articles of everyday use, like cups, and weapons, armament, with delicate treated gold and set-in gemstones); mosaics; textile art; and oral tradition of storytelling (a few stories, like the Edda, the Nibelungensong and Tristan and Iseult, were put in writing and were preserved).

The High Middle Ages (950-1270) is characterised by the art of building, construction work, architecture: castles, cathedrals and later cities with city walls and big town gates. They start to build gothic cathedrals with pointed archs, high gothic windows, with a lot of light. This leads to the highlight of leaded glass art and sculptural art. In cities like Bruges you still find beautiful houses. In the fashion for the nobility expensive fabrics are used, like velvet and silk, with rich embroideries. In the field of music, polyphony, music for multiple voices, and musical notation are developed. Parchment manuscripts were richly decorated and illustrated with margin decorations, miniatures and gold leaf. The first universities are founded.

The Late Middle Ages (1270-1550) is a time of economical decline and plague epidemics. But in these centuries they nevertheless invented new things like eyeglasses, a mechanical clockwork, the post mill (earliest windmill), the cannon, oil paint and the art of printing. The Flemish Primitives are the first highlight in the art of painting. Extraordinary writers like Dante, Petrarca and Christine de Pizan became famous throughout Europe and their works are still in print today. Jacob van Maerlant wrote the first encyclopedia (1270) and the history of mankind (1288) in Middle Dutch. Around 1360 the complete Bible is translated in Middle Dutch for the first time. In the 14th century thinking (science, that what can be proven) is seperated from believing - and this paves the way for the beginning of the Enlightenment later on.

As far as the Low Contries are concerned: after those two big waves of change, at the end of the Early Middle Ages (from the eight century onward) these countries are completely Germanic, populated by Frisians, Saxons and Franks, and completely Roman Catholic. And the people here then speak Old Low Franconian or Old Dutch local languages.

map low countries with frisians saxons and franks

Map of the Low Countries
with the Frisians, Saxons and Franks.
-click to magnify-

Allright, so far we have seen how the Middle Ages started and what characterises the Early, High and Late Middle Ages. Now I'll return to the timeline and focus on the end of the Middle Ages, around 1550, at the right side of the timeline.

From the second half of the 16th century onward, and especially during the 17th century, people strongly admire and long back for the culture of the Greek-Roman antiquity: concerning law and justice, literature and philosophy. For that reason they called the 16th and 17th century the 'Renaissance', the 'rebirth of the classical antiquity'. And the ten centuries in between were considered 'barbaric', 'ignorant' - in short 'dark ages'.

So this is not a fact or the absolute truth, but just a 17th-century view. Still till this day, the Germanic and Celtic civilisations are inaccurately refered to as 'dark'. Because this description is historically incorrect, other terms have been suggested, like the 'golden ages'.

So the term 'Middle Ages' ('middle centuries', 'in-between centuries') dates back to the 17th century, because this period of a thousand years - from their view - was clamped between the Greek-Roman antiquity and the Renaissance (the rebirth of that classical antiquity).

germanic golden fibula dorestad 9th century         germanic silver chalice rhineland 1230

Golden brooch (fibula) from Dorestad (Low Countries), early 9th century
and silver, partly gilded, chalice, from the Rhineland, early 13th century.
-click to magnify-

Around 1550 some fundamental changes take place that mark the end of the Middle Ages and are considered to be breaking points in respect of the following period of time. I will discuss two of those changes.

(1).  First of all around 1450 the art of printing is invented and from ±1550 onward this printing of books is carried out on a large schale. This is a very drastic change, it's hard for us to even imagine. In the Middle Ages people write with a goose feather on parchment; and the only way to get possession of a book, is to copy it, transcribe it word by word, or order someone to do this. Of course this is very time-consuming.

But it's also immensely expensive. Parchment was made by animal skin (of calves, cows, goats or sheep) and if you had a rather thick book to write, you needed to slaughter roughly a complete flock of sheep. After that you needed an army of experienced specialised workers: parchment makers, bookbinders, ink makers, transcribers, capital drawers, miniature painters and last of all a corrector (who still could scrape away a wrong letter and write the right one on that spot) - it easily would take one to several years of non-stop, painstaking work to make one book.

Due to this, one average book did almost cost a whole annual income of a craftsman (similar to a middle class car nowadays). So imagine that you had to pay roughly 30.000 euros or dollars in your bookstore for just one book...

And if you then consider how many books monasteries usually possessed (often decorated with miniatures, coloured and decorated initials, decorations on the margin, gold leaf, delicate silver ironwork on the cover - so many times more expensive than an average book), then you can imagine how rich these monasteries often were in those days (as if they possessed a car fleet of Porches...) - but this just in short aside.

So you can imagine, that people had to consider a book to be very important or exceptionally beautiful before one started such a huge effort and expensive undertaking. So in the Middle Ages books: are valuable, are limited manufactured, are selected carefully and are only within reach by limited groups of people.

book of hours bruges 15th century

Book of Hours from Bruges, 15th century (RLibr)
with detailed miniature (aureole of gold leaf), decorated initial, decorations on the margins, silver ironworks.
-click to magnify-

During the 16th century people start to print books on a large scale and from then they print on paper. Paper was made of rags (old fabric) and that is dirt-cheap, especially in comparison with parchment. Because of this literature and knowledge become available for much more people. So during the 16th century books become less expensive and less exclusive. The invention of the art of printing books and printing on paper is considered to be an important marking of the end of the Middle Ages.

(2).  The second fundamental change in the 16th century that I want to mention, takes place in 1517. Luther goes public with his theses, which initiates the beginning of the Reformation (the reforming of the church), the beginning of Protestantism. Resistance arises against malpractises in the Roman Catholic Church and people want to return to the texts of the gospels.

During the Middle Ages something like a reforming of the church is unheard of, impossible. The whole period of the Middle Ages, Catholicism is the one and only faith in the whole of Europe (this is very important as a factor that brings unity). Sure, there are during the Middle Ages groups that have ideas that deviate from the catholic doctrine, the orthodoxy, but those groups are quickly identified as heretical and strongly disputed and oppressed, mainly by the Inquisition (the church court) and often even completely eliminated.

Protestantism wasn't meant at all to create all sorts of new movements and religious communities (as the result turned out to be), but to reform that one, universal (catholic) church, to change it. The goal was the reformation of that one and only religion as a whole - but it lead to the end of the unity of faith.

Shortly thereafter (second half 16th century, so right after the point in time we consider to be the end of the Middle Ages) the ideal of freedom of religion arose (in the Netherlands this was already put down in the Union of Utrecht in 1579). But it was only during the Enlightenment (18th century) that it was more and more established all throughout Europe and from the end of the 18th century onward it became more often a constitutional right.

Ortho­doxy and hetero­doxy

The orthodox doctrine literally means: the 'straight' of 'right doctrine'. Every­one who had a diver­ging opinion was (until the rise of Prote­stan­tism) called a heretic.

During the Middle Ages there simply wasn't some­thing like per­sonal free­dom of reli­gion, that hadn't been invented yet. Heresy, with good reason, has de­rived from the Greek word hai­resis, which means 'choice'.

Another term was 'hetero­doxy' (heteros doxa means: 'other doctrine'), in other words 'wrong' or 'mistaken doctrine'.

In short, during the Middle Ages the Catholic faith is the only and generally accepted faith in Europe - so the rise of Protestantism from 1517 onward and the ideal of freedom of religion from the second half of the 16th century are really huge breaking points.

In this way we have roughly dated and defined the Middle Ages: the beginning, around the year 500, is marked by:
  • the fall of the Roman Empire
  • the rise of the Germanic civilisation
  • the spreading of Christianity (Roman Catholicism)

The thousand year-period of the Middle Ages can be characterised with:
  • sublime art of forgery, building art (cathedrals, cities), the founding of the first universities - Germanic civilisation
  • books written on parchment (time-consuming and expensive, so literature/knowledge is exclusive)
  • unity of faith: Roman Catholicism

And the end is marked by several big changes around 1550, like:
  • the Renaissance (admiring and drawing from Greek-Roman antiquity)
  • the art of printing books (literature/knowledge becomes cheap, available)
  • the rise of Protestantism and shortly after that also the rise of the ideal of freedom of religion.

The medieval society and culture

Hadewijch and Ruusbroec wrote their works in this period, the Middle Ages. Hadewijch during the 13th century (the High Middle Ages) and John of Ruusbroec during the 14th century (the Late Middle Ages). These are centuries at the last bit of those thousand years. They live in a time without computers and internet, even the ballpoint doesn't exist, there are no publishers, no public libraries, there is nothing like a law on public education; it is a completely different world. The medieval society is very different from our 21th-century society.

With this I've arrived at the second part of my story: the medieval society and culture. What is the construction of the medieval society? And because we will read medieval writings, I mainly want to give some thought to the question: who could read and write in the Middle Ages en how was education or schooling organised?

If you take another look at the timeline on the hand-out, at the beginning of the medieval era, it's very easy to realise that the medieval culture rests on three pillars: a Greek-Roman pillar, a jewish-christian pillar and a Germanic pillar.

Greek-Roman pillar    Latin, writing tradition, artes liberales, hierarchy
jewish-christian pillar    church, monasteries, christian faith
Germanic pillar    uniform communities with some noble families, using the native language, oral traditions

The medieval culture is in fact a melting pot of these three cultures, with Christianity playing the leading part. The christian faith, you can see it on the timeline, is created during the Roman civilisation. At first it's nothing more than a small movement within Judaism in the Near East, as there were more small groups with their own faith in the Roman Empire. In 313 there is a big change for this early Christianity, because in that year Emperor Constantine the Great converts to the christian faith and Christianity becomes an accepted and allowed faith in the Roman Empire. Almost 70 years later, in 380, it even becomes the official state religion.

From that moment on, Christianity more and more takes shape, concerning content and religious doctrine. And those first scholars that started to write about the content of Christianity, the theologians of the 4th, 5th and 6th century, are called the 'Church Fathers'. And they wrote in Latin. After all, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, and from that civilisation the Catholic Church inherits three things:
  1. a strong hierarchy
  2. using the Latin language and a writing tradition in Latin
  3. an educational system consisting of 7 subjects (the artes liberales or liberal arts) including grammar, arithmetic and cosmology.
Both the spoken and the written language within the church and the monasteries, and also within the education provided by the church and monasteries, is Latin. So this is not because Jesus spoke Latin (in fact he spoke Aramaic) or the Bible was written in Latin (that was written in Hebrew and Koine Greek), no, this originates from the Roman civilisation (the Roman pillar). The whole Middle Ages long this remains the same.

Within that medieval, christian culture, several social classes were distinguished. The medieval people divided society into three classes: the clergy (priests, monks, hermits, bishops and so on), the nobility (being of noble birth, earls, dukes, kings) and the farmers. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, from the 12th century onward, the cities start to flourish, and then the citizens make an entrance (craftsmen, merchants, city councillers). Instead of 'farmers' this class then more often is called 'the people' or 'farmers and citizens'. The division in these three classes is possibly a bit too rough, but for now it gives grip on our glimpse of the medieval society.

Every class had their own role in society (determined by God) - in short: prayers, fighters and workers ('oratores, bellatores and laboratores'). For example noblemen were landowners or vassals, who reigned and defended their land. Noblemen had an exclusive right on weaponry (knights with swords, spears and bow and arrows) - that was forbidden for farmers. That's why on pictures of peasant's revolts, you always see the people 'armed' with hayforks and pitchforks.

medieval society classes nobility and farmers in middle ages bergeres

Medieval classes:
Noble ladies, farmer, city and church tower (clergy).
Miniature French manuscript Bergères,
Les Secrets de l'histoire naturelle,
15th century, ill. Robinet Testard,
Département des Manuscrits Français 22971.
-click to magnify-

The possibility of writing and schooling is reserved for the class of the clergy, so for priests and monks. These clergymen by the way, are often noble boys, who aren't the eldest en will not inherit the estate/title (partly because they bequeathed their legacy to the monastery/church, those became immensely rich). The clergymen that came from the class of the nobility, usually got the high positions within church and convents - if you were from the class of the farmers, you usually became a lay brother and did manual labour within the monastery.

During the Middle Ages (until approx. the 12th century) the only way to get an education, was to enter a convent or to become a priest. And like I said, the tutoring was completely in Latin. Boys could start studying from eight years old until 15 years old at convent schools or cathedral schools; and after that, they could continue their studies in the monastery libraries for the rest of their lives. Monastic orders in those times, were, in a way, big, European organisations, huge knowledge networks.

As soon as you knew Latin, virtually everything that was ever written in Europe became within your reach. Latin was the international language, the 'lingua franca'; something like English is today, but even stronger (because there simply was no other writing tradition in regional languages until the beginning of the 12th century). Priest and monks had the possibility to read books in monastery libraries throughout Europe, to lend books to copy them, to exchange knowledge and spread it.

So literature and knowledge was strongly reserved for the class of the clergy. Not only because parchment books were very expensive, but also because until the 12th century books were almost always written in Latin. So using a second, foreign language has a excluding effect on laymen (everyone who hasn't the opportunity to learn that language -well enough-) and restricts the access to knowledge and the power to contribute ideas or to exert influence out of knowledge, to a small, elite group (of educated, noble men). But books, the tradition of writing, education and knowledge are during those centuries exclusively found within the clergy.

clergy    praying for spiritual welfare; exempted from taxation and military service; writing, education, Latin
nobility    waging war; governing, reigning; tax collecting
farmers/citizens    working, military service, paying taxes

If you entered a convent as a woman, you also were educated, but less than men. Nuns learned how to write, to be able to copy manuscripts, and they learned enough Latin to read the psalms. Generally they couldn't read scientific texts and they also didn't know enough Latin to write in Latin themselves.

Only in the 12th and 13th century a form of education came into existence that is detached from the church: in the cities the city schools were founded, the so called French schools. Children from the middle or higher class citizens learn to read, write and calculate at these schools. In that same 12th century also the first universities are founded (Bologna, Paris, Oxford): centres of knowledge, scholarship and natural filosophy - independent of the church, but still at these universities Latin remained the working language and written language. The university only was open for men, women were excluded from academic education.

Although I've mentioned some differences between men and women, in the Middle Ages you hardly find any indications that they questioned men-women inequalities. That was not the big demarcation line of that time: the issue was if you belonged to the nobility, or to the common people. A noble woman was considered to have a much, much higher position than a poor male famer. Within a class you have male-female differences, definitely, but the demarcation line that occupied the mind of the medieval people, was between the classes. The destinction (justified by 'God's will') between clergy, nobility and farmers/citizens.

Hopefully, the picture of the medieval culture and society is hereby clear. The medieval culture is based on three pillars (Greek-Roman, jewish-christian and Germanic), in which Christianity plays the leading role. And the medieval society is divided into three classes (clergy, nobility and farmers/citizens).

Regarding reading and writing: until the 12th century it is the clergy (priests, monks) who write religious texts in Latin and who're engaged in knowledge, (natural) philosophy, theology. Latin is the language of the writing tradition, both in religion and later at the emerging universities.

But what about reading and writing and literature in those other two classes? What about stories in the local language, the language of the people, what about literature in Middle Dutch?

Middle Dutch and Middle Dutch literature

This leads me to the third part of my story: the local language (vernacular - in Dutch we say: 'volkstaal', 'language of the people', 'folk language'), which was at that time Middle Dutch; and the origin of written literature in Dutch.

These two classes, nobility and common people, didn't have a writing tradition for centuries. The stories in the regional languages, the dialects, simply were not written down for centuries - they were passed on verbally, told, sung. So chivalry epics, exempla (short stories with a moral point), legends about saints, animal allergories and songs (love songs, weaving songs, drinking songs, dancing songs, narrative songs, ballads, religious songs, etc.) are passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.

So in the local language you have this oral tradition. This tradition derives from that third pillar, the Germanic pillar. The Germanic peoples didn't have a writing tradition. (They had a writing system, namely runes, but that was almost exclusively used for short inscriptions on gravestones, for honorary remembrance inscriptions, and on coins).

clergy writing, education, Latin Gr./Rom. pillar
nobility local language, oral tradition Germanic pillar
farmers/citizens local language, oral tradition Germanic pillar

The language that was spoken in the Low Contries during the Middle Ages, the native language, the mother-tongue, also is originating from the Germanic people, and is called Diets by the people of that time.

We call this Germanic language before the year 1150 Old Dutch (or: Old Low Franconian) and from 1150 onward Middle Dutch. This Middle Dutch is in fact a generic term for a group of related, West-Germanic dialects or regional languages.

You'll find two maps in the hand-out, showing both the medieval Low Countries, and the largest Middle Dutch dialect groups.

Diet means 'people' and diets means 'from the people', 'the people's language', the regional language. This word is derived from the Danish-German (Saxon) region Dit­mars­ken, the 'Ditsh' people.
Nowa­days we still know the words 'Duits' (German), 'Deutsch' (German) and 'Dutch' (Hollan­dic), which origi­nally refered to 'Germanic'.

map medieval duchies, counties and dioceses of the Low Countries, holland utrecht oversticht friesland gelre brabant vlaanderen limburg, in the Middle Ages

Duchies, Counties and Dioceses
in the medieval Low Countries.
-click to magnify-

Here you can see that the Low Countries were divided into several regions. In the northern Low Countries you see the County of Holland on the left (yellow), including nowadays Zealand; in the middle the Diocese Utrecht, with upper right the subpart Oversticht (both purple); in the high north the countries of the Frisians (pink); en between Utrecht and the Oversticht the County of Gelre (brown).

In the southern Low Countries you'll find the Duchy of Brabant, with Antwerp and Brussels (green); on the left the County of Flanders (brown); and on the right the County of Loon, the Diocese Liège and Limburg, in fact again subdivided in several authorities.

As you can see, during the Middle Ages the Low Countries were not a unity, in political respect. The uniting factor was unity of religion, Catholicism (this is one of the reasons why heresy was oppressed so fiercly; the meaning of the word 'catholicism' is 'universal', this refers to this unity).

In all these Duchies, Counties and Dioceses the people spoke different dialects or regional languages. We distinguish five large groups of dialects in Middle Dutch: Hollandic, the north-eastern (or Old-Saxon) dialects, Flemish, Brabantian and Limburgian. (Only during the 17th century Standard Dutch derived from those dialects, especially from Hollandic and Brabantian, because after the invention of printing books, people needed a uniform selling market for printed books).

map of five dialect groups middle dutch region languages in the low contries middle ages

The five large Middle Dutch dialect groups:
Hollandic, north-eastern, Flemish, Brabantian and Limburgian.
-click to magnify-

In these five dialect groups you can recognise the Germanic groups that settled in the Low Countries: the Frisians (Hollandic), the Saxons (Old-Saxon) and the Franks (Flemish, Brabantian and Limburgian).

Stories in those dialects, in Middle Dutch, weren't written down for centuries, there is only that oral tradition, but in the 12th century, so a hundred years before Hadewijch, this situation changes. During the 12th century people start to write texts in Middle Dutch (the start of a writing tradition in the vernacular, the start of putting the oral Middle Dutch literature in writing). What is happening during that 12th century that makes this possible?

The 12th century is a time of huge economic growth, the nobility has more money to spend and also gets more free time - and at the court (of Brabant, Limburg and Holland) we'll find the very first written Dutch literature. The nobility has no use for texts in Latin, since they never mastered that language. Often a noble family has a clerk as employee (a man that studied at a cathedral school), for administration and correspondence. And specially noble ladies (the gentlemen probably were too busy with fighting, governing and hunting) order these clerks to write down literature in their dialect.

During those early years, the 12th and 13th century, it were mainly chivalry epics (about King Arthur and Charles the Great), hagiographies about saints, and songs that were written down. Often this were translations from French - in France they started a bit earlier with writing in the vernacular than in the Low Countries. The first complete text in Middle Dutch that still exists today, was written down in 1170 by the clerk of the Court of Loon. The name of this clerk was Hendrik van Veldeke and he was ordered to write his texts by the Countess Agnes of Loon. He wrote in Limburgian dialect a legend of Saint Servaas, a story of the Roman hero Eneas, and some love songs. So that is the starting point of written Dutch literature: 1170.

hendrik van veldeke life of saint servaes manuscript 15e eeuw

Hendrik van Veldeke, Life of Saint Servaes,
manuscript 15th century.
-click to magnify-

Tristant moeste ane sinen danc
stade siin der koninginnen
want poisoen heme daer toe dwanc
mere dan die cracht der minnen
des sal mich die goede danc
weten dat ich niene gedranc
sulic piment ende ich sie minne
bat dan he ende mach dat siin
wale gedane valsches ane
laet mich wesen diin
ende wis doe miin.

Hendrik van Veldeke
(Limburgian dialect, 12th century).

Tristan, whether he wanted or not
had to be loyal to the queen (Iseult)
because he was forced by a love potion
rather than by the power of love.
For this my beloved will be grateful
I never drank such a herb potion
and I love her even more
than he did (than he loved Iseult), if that's possible.
Beauty, without any deception
let me be yours
and be you mine.

Hendrik van Veldeke
(translation RvL).

Songtext based on Chrétien de Troyes, 'D'amors, qui m'a tolu a moi'. Different from this French, traditional courtly song (in which a man worships a woman, one-way affair) Veldeke takes this a step further in the final lines and expresses a longing for mutual love.

During the first decades writing in Dutch is only done on a small scale. For example from that early period between 1170 and 1300 (so in 130 years) only 40 literary texts and fragments in Middle Dutch survived till today. So that is not so much. Probably more was written down, but during the centuries many manuscripts were lost: due to pillages of the Northmen, fire, flooding, or other disasters. Furthermore in the 17th century many medieval manuscripts were destroyed. In those days people thought that it had been a 'dark period' and they discovered it's very easy to boil parchment manuscripts to make glue. Really a gruesome thought..!

Those early Middle Dutch texts still contain traces of the oral tradition of telling stories. For example in a Dutch tale about Charles the Great (Karel ende Elegast) it says: Beautiful history and entirely true, I will tell you, listen to it ('Vraie historie ende al waer, mach ic u tellen, hoort ernaar'). It's all about telling and hearing, not about writing down and reading.

Hadewijch and Ruubroec both are Brabantines, they live in the Duchy of Brabant. We know that Ruusbroec lived in Brussels for many years. Both of their manuscripts are written in Brabantian dialect. And for example the Rooklooster (the Red Monastery), just outside Brussels, owned manuscripts of both mystics.

Next week we will read some of Hadewijch's writings, she wrote around 1240. If you keep in mind that only in 1170 people started to write in Dutch, her writings are very early; at that time it's only seventy years ago that writing in Dutch started. But Hadewijch's texts are not just very early, they also have very curious aspects. Hadewijch doesn't write a romance of chivalry after instructions of a court, translated from French - no, she writes in the local language about faith, about religion! And that is completely new, because in that time you're still supposed to do that in Latin! And on top of that, she is a woman - women in convents indeed copied manuscripts, but Hadewijch wrote her own texts. That is completely unique at that time. Who was this Brabantian woman, this Hadewijch, that she was able to do that? Many questions arise around Hadewijch.

Hadewijch is one of the most remarkable individuals of the medieval Low Countries. She is an outsider in almost every area. A female writer in the 13th century is already very unusual. But on top of that she writes about religion in the vernacular - that is simply revolutionary! And also her way of living does not fit at all within that neat framework of the three classes I described this last hour. Hadewijch doesn't fit in anything and is unique in our women's history, religious history and history of literature. But I will extensively come back on this topic in the third and fourth lecture.

To complete this lecture, I'll pass around a short, point by point summary on a hand-out.

Recapitulation  (hand-out)

This last hour we have seen some important features of the medieval world, which are a context for the lives of Hadewijch (13th century) and Ruusbroec (14th century).

•  The Middle Ages are roughly from 500 till 1550. This 1000-year-period is usually divided into the Early (500-950), High (950-1270) and Late (1270-1550) Middle Ages.

•  The beginning of the Middle Ages is marked by the fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of the Germanic culture and the spreading of Christianity.

•  The end of the Middle Ages is marked by the Renaissance, the invention of the art of printing books and Protestantism.

•  The Roman Catholicism is the one and only faith during the whole period of the Middle Ages (unity of religion).

•  The medieval culture was founded on three pillars: Greek-Roman, jewish-christian and Germanic. The Roman Catholic Church was moulded from that first pillar: a hierarchical organisation, writing in Latin and the Roman educational system (cathedral's schools, artes liberales).

•  The medieval society was divided into three classes: clergy, nobility and farmers/citizens. Monks and priest read and wrote in Latin (coming from the first pillar) about religion.

•  From the end of the 12th century onward, written literature in the local language, the several dialects, came into existence at the courts of the nobility: in Middle Dutch or 'Diets' (mainly chivalry epics, hagiographies and songs).

•  Hadewijch is unique in this framework: she wrote already halfway the 13th century, as a woman, in her dialect, about faith.

After the break

After the break we will in detail look into the question: 'what is mysticism?'.

Background information

The course Medieval Mysticism in the Low Countries consists of seven lectures. The mystical writings of Hadewijch and Ruusbroec will be read and understood from their cultural-historical context.

•  About this course Medieval Mysticism in the Low Countries: content and layout.

•  Background literature about the Middle Ages, Hadewijch, Ruusbroec and medieval mysticism.

•  About the teacher Rozemarijn van Leeuwen.

•  Read the reactions or leave a comment.

•  Texts of Hadewijch and Ruusbroec: fragments in Middle Dutch and nowadays Dutch.

Original Dutch course

•  Lecture 1/7 in Dutch: De Middeleeuwen.


©  Above lecture is part of the course Medieval Dutch Mysticism in the Low Countries, by Rozemarijn van Leeuwen (1999-2001).

It's not permitted to copy this text digital or in print and/or to publish it.

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Follow the whole course Medieval Dutch Mysticism in the Low Countries online:

    first lesson hour (cultural-historical background) second lesson hour (reading texts)
  1 The Middle Ages  ↑ What is mysticism?
  2 The medieval world view Hadewijch: vision and mysticism
  3 Hadewijch: glimpse of her life Hadewijch: roads towards God
  4 Women in the Middle Ages Hadewijch: bridal mysticism
  5 Ruusbroec: course of his life Ruusbroec: Active Life
  6 The horrible 14th century Ruusbroec: Inward Life
  7 Image and resemblance of God Ruusbroec: To meet Him