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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 3/7.  Hadewijch: a glimpse of her life

Topics this hour:
  • Biographical information about Hadewijch's life
  • The ideal of poverty in the 12th century
  • The beguines
  • Hadewijch as a beguine
  • Inquisition and stake


Today, and also next week before the break, we will discuss Hadewijch's life. Who was Hadewijch, when did she live, what were her circumstances and what was her intended public?

In the first lecture I mentioned that Hadewijch is an extraordinary, unique figure in our history: a remarkable woman, female writer, religious person, female mystic. Many questions crop up around her: why did she start writing as a woman, and moreover, about religious subjects in the regional language? For whom did she write? How did her texts end up in expensive, parchment books? Did she enter a monastery? Who was Hadewijch?

Unfortunately, we never have found the slightest trace of her existence in medieval manuscripts or in archives. In fact we know nothing for sure about Hadewijch's life: there's not a shred of biography passed down till this time. All we have are several medieval parchment manuscripts, with a spiritual, visionary, mystical content, with her name.

Even so, we will try during this hour to get a glimpse of her life, the world she lived in, her parentage, her place in society, and her dedication to realise her ideals.

The two texts that mention Hadewijch

During the whole of the Middle Ages, only two times someone has written down something about Hadewijch (or better: just two texts have been preserved), although unfortunately both times no biographical information is mentioned. These two texts are included in the Anthology.

The first fragment is written by Jan van Leeuwen (deceased 1378). In the 14th century he was the cook in the Groenendaal Monastery - that was John of Ruusbroec's monastery. So in fact he was Ruusbroec's cook. But he not only was a cook, he also wrote several religious texts and in one of those texts he praises Hadewijch as a 'holy, glorious woman'. Let's read what Jan van Leeuwen wrote about Hadewijch in the 14th century.

Aldus sprect oec een heylich glorieus wijf / heet hadewijch / een ghewareghe lereesse / ; want hadewijchs boeke / die sijn seker goet ende gherecht // uut gode gheboren ende gheoppenbaert / . Want haywighen boeken / die sijn voer doeghen gods gheprueft / ende overmids ons here ihesum cristum gheexamineert / ende oec inden heileghen gheest / daer sise goet ende ghewarich vonden / wel concorderende ende overeendraghende met aller heiligher schrijft / .

Oec bekinnic haywighen leeringhen / alsoe ghewarich als ic mijns heren sinte pauwels leeringhe doe / . Mer niet alsoe orberlijc, om dat vele menschen haywighen leeringhen niet verstaen en connen, die welke haer inwendeghe oghen te doncker hebben / ende hen niet ontploken en sijn overmidse ghebrukelike aenclevende bloete stille minne gods / . Want haywighen leeringhe es in vele steden alle menschen te edele ende te subtijlijc verborghen / die in den bloeten aenschijn der godliker minnen niet en gheraken.

Jan van Leeuwen († 1378).

In: De zeven tekens uit de zodiak (mns. 888-890 KB Brussel, fol. 44-45).



This is also said by a holy, glorious woman, called Hadewijch, a true teacher (female teacher). Because Hadewijch's books, certainly are good and truthful, born from God and revelated. Because Hadewijch's books are verified by God and tested by our Lord Jesus Christ and also in the Holy Spirit, where they were found good and truthful, conforming to and corresponding with all of the Holy Scripture.

I also deem Hadewijch's teachings as true as the teachings of the holy lord Paul. But not as useful/fruitful, because many people are not able to understand Hadewijch's teachings, their inner eyes are too dark and not opened by the joyful (ghebrukelike), attached, pure, silent love (minne) of God. Because many parts of Hadewijch's teachings are too noble and too subtly hidden, for all the people who don't reach the pure appearance of the divine love (minne).

Jan van Leeuwen († 1378).

English translation by RvL.

So according to Jan van Leeuwen, Hadewijch is a true teacher and her books are born from God. He deems her teachings as true as the teachings of the apostle Paul. But Hadewijch's books are hard to understand for people who never experienced God's silent love themselves (so... we are warned).

So Jan van Leeuwen expresses his admiration for Hadwijch and he calls her a holy woman (although she never was beatificationed or sanctified) - but he tells us nothing about her life.

That's also the case in the other fragment. This is part of a German manuscript from the 14th century, that also contains several of Hadewijch's letters. The name Hadewijch is corrupted in Old German to 'Adelwip' and she again is called holy: 'saint adelwip, a great holy person'.

Dis ist gar ein nutze lere die sante adelwip lerte die do ist ein grosze heilige in dem ewigen lebende; von der lere sunderlich alle gottes frunde in brabant von hundert jaren zuo dem aller vollekomenesten lebende komen sint, und von der gnaden gottes durch su erluhtet.

German manuscript (14th century).

(Berlin, SBB-PK, Mgo 12, fol. 38r).



The holy Hadewijch taught a very profitable teaching, she is a great holy person, who lives in the eternity (who is deceased). Since a hundred years, all God's friends in Brabant have reached a perfect life due to this extraordinary teaching, and thanks to her they are illuminated by God's grace.

German manuscript (14th century).

English translation by RvL.

Again this German text expresses admiration for Hadewijch's works. It is an 'extraordinary teaching', that leads to a 'perfect life' and Hadewijch is called a 'great holy person', thanks to her, people are 'illuminated by God's grace'.

This text states that for a hundred years, the God's friends in Brabant reach a perfect life due to Hadewijch's teachings. Most probably the community in Groenendaal, that Ruusbroec belonged to, was (also) meant with these 'God's friends'. We know that this community was familiar with Hadewijch's books - Jan van Leeuwen wrote about her, we read this just before.

So Hadewijch's writings remained well-known and appreciated during the first hunderd years after her life, both in Brabant and in Germany. But no one wrote anything about her life, at least it wasn't preserved.

Biographical information about Hadewijch's life

The only thing we know for sure, is that Hadewijch wrote three texts in the Middle Ages: visions, letters and poems. This involves 14 visions, 31 letters (+ 16 rhymed letters) and 45 strophic poems.

We still have three medieval manuscripts with her texts. These all date back to the 14th century, so a hundred years after her life, and they all contain her complete works (this is unique in 13th-century literature). Nowadays they are kept in the Royal Library of Brussels (mns. A and B) and in the University Library of Ghent (mns. C). But originally, they were located in monastery libraries around Brussels/Louvain.

mns. A   Roo Monastery (near Brussels)   dating ± 1325-1350
mns. B   Roo Monastery (near Brussels)   copy of A, ± 1380, from the inventory of the Brussels bookbinder Godevaert de Bloc
mns. C   Bethlehem Convent (near Louvain)   ± 1350-1400, see picture a bit below

(We know for sure that there at least has been one other manuscript, that has been lost since: a late-medieval library catalogue mentions a book called Proverbia Hadewigis).

These manuscripts weren't written down by Hadewijch herself - it are transcriptions. Hadewijch wrote on waxed tablets, that text was copied on parchment and the manuscripts we still have are transcriptions of that, or even transcriptions of transcriptions of transcriptions.

medieval waxed tablet wooden board

Wooden waxed tablet, 15th century
Handgeschreven wereld, 1995).
-click to magnify-

This picture shows such a waxed tablet, that was preserved since the Middle Ages: a wooden board, covered with wax. One could write on this with a sharp wooden pin, a writing pin. If the text was no longer needed, or it was copied on parchment, one could smoothen the wax again and re-use it. Hadewijch will have used these kinds of waxed tablets.

You can see that a text in wax was very temporary, volatile and limited in length. For sure her texts must have been transcripted on parchment during her life. In the Anthology a page of one of the 14th-century parchment manuscripts is depicted (mns. C, Ghent). In the right column, you see the first strophic poem 'Ah, although the winter is cold now / The days short and the nights long' ('Ay, al es nu die winter cout / Cort die daghe ende die nachte langhe').

You can see it's a very neat manuscript, with a little bit colour. And you'll remember from the first lecture, that parchment manuscripts were very expensive to make. In fact this was only done in rich monasteries (in Latin) and from the 12th century onward also within the universities (also in Latin) and to a small extent also within the nobility (in the local language; but that were mainly chivalry novels and lyrics).

The question is: how was it possible for Hadewijch to get her Middle Dutch religious texts, from those volatile waxed tablets into those expensive parchment books, and into the safe monastery libraries, where they could be preserved for centuries? More than that: she is the first Dutch author with the complete works bundled in one binding, one cover.

hadewijch strophic poems first poem 1

Hadewijch, first strophic poem
'Ay al es nu die winter cout'
(mns. Ghent, UB 941, around 1350).
-click to magnify-

Well, Hadewijch, the 'holy, glorious woman' Hadewijch, never wrote down any biographical information herself, but even so, we can deduce some facts from her writings. I will mention four facts about her life that we can conclude based on her texts.

I follow with these four facts, the book I have here on the desk, to look through: Hadewijch. Writer, beguine, mystic (Hadewijch. Schrijfster, begijn, mystica) by prof. Mommaers.

(1). Good education, probably belonging to the nobility

First of all, Hadewijch must have been a very well-read, educated, developed woman. She is very able to express herself in Middle Dutch, she writes beautifully; and she masters several genres; also a difficult literary artistic form like lyrical poetry. Hadewijch also must have spoken French very well, she knows the French culture of songs; and she knew Latin, she even translated several theological Latin fragments into Middle Dutch.

It's very plausible that Hadewijch belonged to the nobility. This is the only setting in which it would have been possible for her to receive any kind of education (remember Hildegard, who was the eighth child of a lower German earl, a century earlier, and who wrote all her works in Latin). It's possible that Hadewijch was taught in a monastery: sometimes (in the late Middle Ages) noble girls were sent to a nunnery for a few years to learn how to read and write. But she is more highly developed than an average medieval nun. Another possibility is that she was able to attend private education at home: sometimes the noble sons were educated by a clerk at home, and if the daughters proved to be intelligent, they were allowed to attend that private education. So maybe Hadewijch had the luck to have a brother. Anyway, she must have had a good education.

In one of her texts (the 'List of the perfect', a supplement to her last vision) Hadewijch mentions that she had contact with a certain lord Hendrik of Breda. He visited a female hermit in Germany on her behalf. These lords of Breda belonged to the higher nobility of Brabant, and their territory stretched out from Breda to Schoten (near Antwerp). This is a strong clue that Hadewijch belonged to the noble circles.

Although many archives and Brabantian family trees are thoroughly searched, no one ever was able to find a Hadewijch that had to be our mystic with certainty. A possible explanation is, that 'Hadewijch' wasn't her given name (baptismal name), but a later chosen religious name (the name means something like 'female warrior' or 'fight of all fights'). In that case it will be impossible ever to determine her historical identity with certainty.

(2). Brabant

Secondly: Hadewijch probably lived in the Dutchy of Brabant (in the south of the Low Countries). The three preserved manuscripts all are written in Brabantian dialect. In those days, cities like Bois-le-Duc, Breda, Antwerp, Louvain and Brussels all were situated in Brabant.

In the 15th century (so three centuries later) someone has written on one of the manuscripts that Hadewijch was of Antwerp. There is no way of knowing whether this is true (three centuries is a long time to keep a fact alive in oral tradition), but Antwerp is situated in Brabant. The contact I mentioned before, with lord Hendrik of Breda, indicates she had contacts or even kinships in the area Breda-Schoten (Schoten is near Antwerp) - so the northern part of Brabant.

However, the manuscripts that still exist today, can all be located around Brussels (the Roo Monastery is near Brussels and the Bethlehem Cloister is near Louvain, just east of Brussels). And last but not least, there is a clear literary influence from several writers from Atrecht (then in the south of County of Flanders - nowadays called Arras in the north of France). I will get back to that literary influence next week.

But if you really want to give the name 'Hadewijch' a specific designation, the name 'Hadewijch of Antwerp' has too much uncertainty - and 'Hadewijch of Brabant' would be the saver choice.

kaartje middelnederlandse dialecten streektalen in de lage landen middeleeuwen

Brabant is depicted in light green
(map of the medieval Low Countries).
-click to magnify-

(3). The middle of the 13th century

In the third place: Hadewijch mentions several contemporaries and circumstances and they indicate that she wrote her texts probably around the middle of the 13th century, around 1240.

For example she mentions (in her 'List of the Perfect') the infamous Dominican inquisitor Robert le Bougre, who convicted hundreds heretics to the stake in the years 1232-1239 in France and Flanders. So this list must have been written after this period. Furthermore Hadewijch mentions in this same list that hermits are living at the city walls of Jerusalem. This city was conquered by the Muslims in 1244, so she must have written this list before that year. In short, the 'List' is written after 1239 and before 1244.

Therefore her texts are very generally dated 'around 1240' - but it's unknown how many years or decades her authorship lasted, before and afterwards. We already saw that the German text from the 14th century stated that Hadewijch is 'living in eternity' (is living in heaven, is deceased) at that time and her teachings influenced the God's friends in Brabant for 'a hundred years' (clearly putting her life in the 13th century). Also the literary ties with Atrecht all concern songs from the 13th century (1225-1270), but more about that next week.

By the way, Hadewijch mentions in her 'List of the Perfect' also other historical persons of the late Middle Ages. For example the 12th-century Bernard of Clairvaux ('the holy Bernard') and Hildegard of Bingen ('Heldegaert who saw all the visions'). Furthermore she mentions a certain lady Nazareth ('my lady nazaret') and the question is, whether she possibly has meant her contemporary Beatrice of Nazareth with that, who was a writer and prioress of the Brabantian monastery Nazareth.

hadewijch list of the perfect

Left column, just above the middle:
'A beguine that was killed by Master Robbeart
due to her rightful love'.
-click to magnify-

(4). Beguines

In the fourth place her texts make clear that Hadewijch wasn't a nun. She wasn't committed to an oath, a rule, and she lived in several places; she even writes that she has been 'roaming through the country'. Probably Hadewijch can be situated with the beguines.

I don't refer to the nowadays picturesque beguinages, the courtyards with their own little church, that are tourists attractions in many cities in the Netherlands and Belgium today. Only at the end of the 13th century, larger groups of beguines begin to organize and to found convents and houses around a courtyard with their own church. But this didn't happen yet in Hadewijch's time. What should we imagine if we talk about that early movement of beguines?

The ideal of poverty during the 12th century

The movement of beguines arises at the end of the 12th century, but of course this didn't appear out of the blue. During the 12th century (so a century before Hadewijch) several major changes occur, both in the social area and in the religious area. To get a clear image of that early movement of beguines, that Hadewijch most probably was a part of, I will tell you a little bit about that new spirituality that arises in the 12th century.

The 12th century is a very prosperous time, economically, in the area of literature and also in the area of religion. During the 12th century, the pope obtains more power, also secular power, and the cloisters become increasingly rich. These circumstances lead to the development of countermovements, especially the so called movement of poverty, or the ideal of poverty.

So during this 12th century there is this strong rise of this ideal of poverty and I will mention three important features of this new spirituality.

* First of all, people want to start living as Christ and the apostles, and like the very first Christians; that is: without possessions and without an institutional hierarchy. They reject the power and wealth of the Catholic Church. They want to pay much more attention to the New Testament: the Gospels about Jesus' life; the Acts of the Apostles; the letters to the early christian communities; and the Revelation to John (or Apocalypse of John).

* Second of all, these people want to carry out, to preach, Christ's message themselves. There is a feeling of discontent that only a small group of clergy (scholars, priests) within the church is allowed to do that.

* And in the third place, people pay more attention to the historical Jesus, Jesus as human being, his life, his suffering and death.

  • the ideal of poverty during the 12th century
    • living as the very first christians (without possessions and institutional hierarchy)
    • carrying out (preaching) Christ's message yourself
    • suffering and death of the human Jesus
This ideal of poverty, this new religiosity from the 12th century onward, is especially localised with several new orders; for example the chivalric orders (founded by knights, returning from crusades to the Holy Land). And also with the Franciscans and the Dominican Order (two mendicant, beggar's orders, founded in the 12th century). And you also can find that new religiosity, that ideal of poverty, very strongly in the Order of Cistercians (following the Rule of Saint Benedict), in the north of France.

Now, a very famous and highly influential Cistercian is Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) - we already read a fragment of his works during the first lecture. His range of ideas are called the Bernardine spirituality. Very important to him are the humanity of Christ; a more inward oriented, internalised, innerly felt faith, or spiritualisation of faith; and affection or love for Christ and for God. From then on in center point of this believe are: spiritualisation of faith, self knowledge and affection, love.

  • chivalric orders
  • Franciscans, Dominicans
  • Cistercians
    • spiritualisation of faith, love
Bernard isn't interested in logic, in theories, but in personal growth. You could say that he started an subjectively experienced religion. Knowledge, by his account, can't be acquired through study, but through experience, the experience of love. This is a completely new fundamental idea. True knowledge of God is based in the experience of love - and Bernard imagines that (based on the Song of Songs) as a spiritual marriage between Christ as bridegroom and the soul as bride.

Try to grasp this, this thought is completely new in that time. Beside religious texts containing intellectual theology or humble devotion, within this new movement arise texts expressing a deep love for Christ; Christ as Beloved, being a beloved for Christ (meaning an equal relationship instead of a humble one); about undertaking a spiritual marriage with a divine bridegroom. And the most important inspiration for this is the Song of Songs.

The Song of Songs and Bernard

The Song of Songs (Sir Hassirim, or Canticum Canticorum, or Canticles) is a book of the Old Testament and consists of a collection of secular love songs and ritual wedding songs (from regions in Egypt, Babylon and the Hellenic Greek world, ± sixth to third century BC). These songs praise the love between a woman and a man, between an (intended) bride and groom, in a passionate and sensual way (largely in personal dialogues).

Not earlier than around 100 A.D. these songtexts were included in the Old Testament, because the jewish rabbis of that time approved to an allegorical interpretation. The (intended) bride was interpreted as the people of Israel and her beloved as the god Jahweh. In this way the Song of Songs contributed to the importance of love within the jewish faith.

Church father Origenes († 254) transformed this into a christian allegory: the bride was the church, the groom was the christian God. This was sanctioned by theologians like Ambrosius, Gregorius the Great and Beda. The image of the church and God as beloveds corresponded to important basic ideas about love in the New Testament (like: 'God is love'; and 'Love your neighbour as yourself and love God above all else').

About a thousand years later, in 1128, Bernard of Clairvaux and William of Saint-Thierry (both confined to their sick-bed in the infirmary, where the vow of silence didn't count) talked for weeks about the meaning of the Song of Songs. Based on these conversations, Bernard delivered inspiring sermons for about 20 years (until his death in 1153), for both the monks in his own monastery and during his many travels through Europe, about the Song of Songs (about the first 3 out of 8 chapters) - written down in 86 sermons.

Bernard's interpretation is fundamen­tally renewing - in that time considered to be sensational - in two ways. First of all his explanation of the allegory is personal: the bride is the believer himself and the groom is 'the Word' or Christ. Second of all the believer, while reading the Song of Songs, should actively feel the content, feel the love, experience it, bring it to life. Due to this love and returned, mutual love, the beloveds, the loving soul and Christ, become equals.

   Interpretation through the centuries
   the love is between:

± 600BC   woman/bride   man/groom
± 100   people of Israel   Jahweh
± 200   church   chr. God
± 1128   believer himself   Christ

Bernard's renewing explanation, putting love and experience in the centre of faith, got a huge responce. His sermons are considered to be the beginning of the affective spirituality from the 12th century onward and of the love mysticism or bridal mysticism within western Christianity (that had it's heydays between the 12th and the 16th century). The unification of the soul and God is therby represented as a mystical wedding.

So: bridal mysticism didn't come into existence out of the blue; or because of a literary tradition since the anti­quity; or because a seer suddenly reported bridal visions or something like that - no, it started with an ideal and a long series of motivational sermons by a French abbot. Only after that, when believers actually start to practice this, to imagine this, to provoke it, to live through it, that visions are reported with such nuptial images. So it started with an idea, literature, imagery. Here again faith and religious images precede visions and mysticism.

Looking back, trying to get oversight, you could say that the passionately desired, radical, new religious ideal of the late-medieval christians, to become the bride of the god they believed in, eventually stems from secular love songs from the antiquity. It's remarkable how the meaning that is given to texts can shift enormously through the centuries.

During the decades the new poverty-ideal was arising and spreading (to live in poverty, preaching Christ's message yourself, a personal and affective experienced faith), the nunneries multiplied superfast. You could say, like the phrase goes, in the 12th century, nunneries spring up like mushrooms with an incredible high rate.

Of course you could assume that many women were drawn to this new religious ideal, but the reason for the high share of women was probably also the changing social circumstances of that time (more about that next week).

But not only the number of women within the monasteries is growing; during that same 12th century women also start to live religious lives outside the established convents, in the trend, in the spirits of that new religiosity - and that are the beguines.

The beguines

Well, who were these beguines? Beguines are religious women who live individually in society. The very first beguines can be found at the end of the 12th century. It's impossible to use the term 'beguine movement' for it in those days, because they were not yet organised. These women live religious lives, alone or in small groups, within society.

And that's very remarkable: these women don't enter a nunnery! They aren't bound by a rule, like monks, through a public, eternal oath. They only vow privately, that they will live in poverty, that they will live pure (chaste), and that they will obey their confessor.

They attach value to the fact that they have to choose for a religious life, every day again, out of freedom, not bound by an eternal oath, while living in the midst of society, not in a monasterie. The very first beguines provide in their income by begging, but very soon they start with manual labour (spinning, weaving, taking care for the sick). Everything they earn more than they need, they give away, entirely according to the ideal of poverty.

elisabeth of thuringen handing out food caring poor middle ages             elisabeth of thuringen handing out clothes caring poor middle ages

Taking care of the poor:
handing out food (left) and clothes (r).

These religious women, living individually within society, were called mulieres religiosae, 'devout' or 'godly' women. Commonly known as 'beguines', but possibly this word had a heretical or mockingly connotation. These early beguines lived alone or in small groups in a house. We still have descriptions dating back to that time. For example Jacques de Vitry, a French priest, a canon, writes about those early beguines in the 13th century:

They live in one house (...). And under the leadership of one of them, who surpasses the others in virtue and wisdom, they are taught both through good example and through the scriptures, in waking and praying, in fasting and in all kinds of ascetisms, in manual labours and in poverty, in humility and in disavowal.

Jacques de Vitry (13th century).

English translation by RvL.

To us, in the 21st century, eight centuries later, this may seem not very sensational. Some women in the regions of Brabant, Flanders, France and Germany, start to live religious lives within society. But in the Middle Ages, this is revolutionary. In several ways, these women don't behave as expected. I will point out some of the aspects in which beguines are really innovative.

The first aspect is the social order. We discussed that social order in the first lecture. There were three classes in the Middle Ages: the clergy, the nobility and the farmers/citizens. The beguines however, radically break with this medieval social order. They don't fall within any of this three classes.

  • Beguines are innovative
    • social order
Most of the beguines come from the nobility or the higher bourgeoisie, and these women were supposed to get married, when they reached the marriageable age (and imagine: if you weren't married at 18 or 19 years old, you were, according to medieval standards, an 'old spinster'!). If a girl doesn't want to get married, she only had one option: to enter a nunnery. Society had no other options. So as a woman you had two choices: either you marry and you remain in the social class of the nobility or citizens; or you enter a monastery and you fall within the class of the clergy.

Beguines choose neither of these options: they don't marry, but they also don't enter a cloister. They don't choose for the safity and economic security of marriage, nor for the socially accepted monastic life. They bring about an enormous cultural shift, by leading a religious life, while simply remaining within society. With that they break through that fixed structure of the three classes: they no longer belong to the nobility or farmers/citizens, but they neither enter the clergy. In fact they form a 'class in-between'. Nowadays we call this: semi-religious: indeed live a religious life, but not within the existing religious orders.

  • Beguines are innovative
    • a 'class in-between' within the social order: semi-religious
In several 13th-century texts, we can read that people in those times indeed experienced beguines as a class in-between. I included a fragment about that subject in the Anthology. Gilbert of Doornik, a Franciscan, writes in 1273:

And we have other women, and we don't know whether to call them seculars (worldly women) or religious (women within monastery). For they partially follow the secular (worldly) way of living and partially the monastic way of living.

Gilbert of Doornik (13th century).

English translation by RvL.

So beguines form a class in-between in medieval society.

Because beguines don't enter a monastery, but remain in society, they don't take eternal vows. Beguines only make some personal promises in private. In that way, they combine devotion and freedom, which is highly original in the 12th and 13th century.

  • Beguines are innovative
    • a 'class in-between' within the social order: semi-religious
    • devotion and freedom

Hadewijch as a beguine

Hadewijch too has made the conscious choice not to enter a convent and not to take eternal vows and not to live by a rule. She writes about that in her fourth letter:

By obeying a rule one worries about many things of which one could be free, and that is a mistake of the reason. A spirit with a good will, lives internally in a way that is more fair than what all the rules together could come up with.

Hadewijch, letter 4 (v. 64).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De brieven van Hadewijch (1990).  Letter 4 entire text (M.D. and translation).

So the point is, for the beguines, to live a religious life out of free will; to focus on God out of free will.

Hadewijch's letters also give an impression of her way of living. For example in letter 29:

Even so I've lived amongst the people, caring for them with all my works. They found me equiped with a strength that was ready for their needs. This was made public against my will.

I also was close to them in everything: from the moment that God touched me with the completeness of the love (minne), I felt the need of every human being, according to what he truly was. With his love of one's neighbour, I felt that need and gave everyone the affection he needed.

With his wisdom I felt his mercy and why one has to forgive another person so much. And I felt how a man falls and gets up, and how God gives and takes back, hits and heals and gives himself in that - for free.

With his highness I felt what the ones, I heard mention and saw during this life, have done wrong. And from that moment onward, I have sentenced all these righteous judgements together with God, according to the foundation of his truth, concerning all of us, whoever we are.

With his unity (oneness), located in the love (minne), I felt since that time the forlorness due to the joyment in the love (ghebrukene in minnen) and the suffering because of the lacking of that delight. And I felt the rightful ways, that the love takes in everything, and how she acts towards God and all people.

Hadewijch, letter 29 (v. 61-84).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De brieven van Hadewijch (1990).  Letter 29 entire text (M.D. and translation).

You could imagine that Hadewijch took care of sick people, for example. But not as a job out of economical motives, for her livelihood, no, she writes that she works out of love, love of the neighbour, and out of wisdom. She tries to interact with her fellow men out of love and wisdom.

taking care for ill sick patients religious shelter infirmary middle ages

Religious women take care for ill people
in a shelter, an infirmary.

At the same time, Hadewijch also keeps a bit of distance from the people and society. Earlier that same letter, she writes:

Furthermore I hardly joined other people concerning eating, drinking and sleeping. And just as little I decorated myself with their clothes, colours and fineries. And I never received a happiness in which a human heart rejoyces itselves, that they can get hold of or receive, except those moments of joy to feel the love (minne), and that exceeds everything.

Hadewijch, letter 29 (v. 30-35).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De brieven van Hadewijch (1990).  Letter 29 entire text (M.D. and translation).

So Hadewijch is living within society, within the world, but not secular, worldly (according to the social class 'in-between'). And she lives out of freedom, not following a strict rule, but she does try to live out of love (for the neighbour) and out of wisdom.

But there are several other ways in which the beguines are innovative in 12th- and 13th-century society. These women actually start studying, reading the Bible, teaching each other about religious matters, carry out their spirituality amongst each other, give religious guidance within small groups and they start writing.

  • Beguines are innovative
    • a 'class in-between' within the social order: semi-religious
    • devotion and freedom
    • studying, teaching, giving guidance, writing

You will remember that I discussed in the first lecture, that generally speaking it was the class of the clergy that is studying and writing - in Latin. They, the educated clergy, the ordained priests, the monks, they are allowed to preach, to take care of spiritual welfare, to give spiritual guidance. And now, within those groups of beguines, women start to do all those things themselves. We read about it just before, I repeat:

They live in one house (...). And under the leadership of one of them, who surpasses the others in virtue and wisdom, they are taught both through good example and through the scriptures (...).

Jacques de Vitry (13th century).

English translation by RvL.

Most likely, Hadewijch also was such a woman-leader of a group of beguines. This is the most clear in her letters, addressed to her female friends, including Sara, Emma and Margriete. For example in her 25th letter, she writes to them:

Send my regards to Sara too (...). Tell Margriet that she guards herself from pride and that she becomes more sensible and that she turns herself to God every day and that she pulls herself up to perfection. Tell her to prepare herself to live with us, wherever we will start living together.

Hadewijch, letter 25 (v. 1, 24-28).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De brieven van Hadewijch (1990).  Letter 25 entire text (M.D. and translation).

In Middle Dutch this sounds:

Groet mi oec saren (...). Segghet mergrieten, datse hare hoedet van hoverdecheden, Ende datse vroede Ende ane gode va elcs daghes, Ende datse hare trecke ter volmaectheit wert, Ende ghereide hare met ons te woenne daer wi versamenen zelen.

Hadewijch, letter 25 (v. 1, 24-28).

speaker music play middle dutch   play Middle Dutch  /  or click here

So it's clear there have been plans to start living together with a group of women. It's unkown if this ever actually took place. This short fragment also shows, that Hadewijch instructs her female friends in this letter, gives them advice.

In one of the visions, the fourteenth, the last one, Hadewijch also speaks to a female friend - in a very friendly, loving way. It shows us a glimpse of what could be a motive to write down such a vision, and tells us something about the intended audience. In the middle of this visionary text, she says:

I also loved you so deeply and I couldn't and can't forget you, not even for a moment. I felt your death and the love's harshness towards you, that drove you so tempestuously towards God, so deeply along with you, that I even turned more to God together with you - this gave me even more grieve. And that it was you - both child and a human - was too heavy a burden for me.


I speak extensively, but only because you so much love to hear about in which circumstances the things happened to me that were so beautiful or so inhuman (...) and also seeing other visions. I wrote you earlier about this and also before that. There still are many more things, I never wrote you about, and that grieves me, because I long to carry out your will, and you would like to know everything about me. So it grieves me that you don't know everything you desire.

Hadewijch, vision XIV (v. 49-60, 96-108).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De visioenen van Hadewijch (1979).

This seems to indicate that Hadewijch wrote down at least this vision for another woman, apparently after her request or insistence, and that she already sent her other texts before this. It's clear she is trying to support this female friend, who is longing for the love, the minne, but feels abandoned. With her visions, Hadewijch gives these like-minded, kindred spirits, these sympathisers, hope and confidence that the ideal of minne is reachable.

The letters also give us clues that Hadewijch, as leader of a group of beguines, encourages the women around her to read, to learn, to study. She writes them in her 24th letter - and listen afterwards to the Middle Dutch:

Bi toren moede en laet ghene wijsheit onghevraghet die ghi niet en weet, want ghi sijt sculdech van gode te wetene alle die doghet die ghi gheleren moghet Met arbeite, Met vraghene, Met studeerne, met erenste.

Hadewijch, letter 24 (v. 16-21).

speaker music play middle dutch   play Middle Dutch  /  or click here



Don't disregard out of surliness to ask for all the knowledge you lack: you are obliged to God to figure out all that is good and that you're able to learn by working, asking, studying and persistance.

Hadewijch, letter 24 (v. 16-21).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De brieven van Hadewijch (1990).  Letter 24 entire text (M.D. and translation).

And later, that same letter, she writes - and I'll repeat it in Middle Dutch:

Ende al die woert die ghi hoert van hem in die scrifture, ende die ghi selve leset, Ende die ic u gheseghet hebbe, ende die u iemen zeghet in dietsche ochte in latine, die laet in uwe herten gaen, Ende merct ende benijedt te levene na zine werdecheit. Dus oefent u in al dat ic u geseghet hebbe.

Want menne mach niemene minnen leren, Mer dese doechde volleiden den mensche ter minnen.

Hadewijch, letter 24 (v. 104-111).

speaker music play middle dutch   play Middle Dutch  /  or click here



All the words you hear about God in the Scripture and those you read yourself and those I told you and those someone else is telling you in Diets ('Dutch') or in Latin, let them enter your heart. And pay attention and make an effort to live like He is worthy. Therefore engage yourself in everything I told you.

Because it's impossible to teach the love (minne) to someone, but the virtues lead a man entirely up to the love (minne).

Hadewijch, letter 24 (v. 104-111).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De brieven van Hadewijch (1990).  Letter 24 entire text (M.D. and translation).

Studying and reading the Scriptures like that was not self-evident at all during the 13th century. The catholic church was very much opposed to laymen reading the Bible themselves (and therefore against translations of the Bible into national languages) - especially concerning women. In 1229 (Council of Toulouse) it was dictated that laymen weren't allowed to possess a Bible (except for the Psalms) and by no means in translation.

And for example the theologian and scholastic Henry of Ghent (1217-1293), who taught theology at Paris university, wrote in that same 13th century about Bible exegesis, reading the Bible oneself and explanation to others:

A woman is not entitled to do this: she is not allowed to teach publicly (...) because of the weakness of her female intellect, it is simply not possible for her to reach the required perfection within this knowledge.

A wise scholar will, concerning this knowledge, only explain to a woman what is necessary and useful for her and nothing more, also when she wants to hear more: because women are eager to find out things that aren't useful to them. (...) Very unwise are they (...) who explain the mysteries of the Scriptures to them and give them the sacred books in the national language to read.

Henry of Ghent, Summae quaestionum ordinarium (13th century).

By the way, this attitude towards women partly goes back to a letter from the apostle Paul to Timothy, which is included in the New Testament, in which he writes: 'Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I won't allow a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence' (1 Tim. 2, 11-12).

Despite this heavy opposition, both from the church and the theology, women start studying from the 12th century onward anyway - indeed not at the monastery schools or at the brand-new universities, but in the form of self-tuition, reading the Bible yourself, teaching each other. And given the fact that these women know little Latin, or none at all, and the women they write for also (hardly) don't know Latin, they use their own dialect, their local language.

  • Women
    • writing about religion in the local language
The fact that women start to develop intellectually, start to read and write about religion in their Middle Dutch dialect, start to teach each other and to give religious guidance: this is all revolutionary in the 12th and 13th century.

women lady in flanders end 13th century

Two persons in Flanders, 13th century
with richly embroidered clothes, a cloak
(sign of nobility) (l) and a golden brooch (r).
(Lausanne U964).

The Franciscan Gilbert of Doornik writes towards the end of the 13th century:

In our lands we have women who are called Beguines. Some among them have a strong sharp-mindedness and enjoy novelties. They interpret the mysteries of the Scripture and transcribed them into common French [the local language]. They read these together, without respect, in a daring way, just in religious gatherings [not within a church], in workhouses, on the streets.

Gilbert of Doornik (13th century).

English translation by RvL.

Thus women, who don't know Latin, are the first ones to write about religion, about spirituality, in the local language, their own dialect. During the 13th century two authors wrote about religion in Dutch, or Diets, as Hadewijch calls it herself - these are Hadewijch and the other is Beatrice of Nazareth (1200-1268), also a woman. She wasn't a beguine, but (and this will not surprise you) a Cistercian nun, prioress of the Abbey Nazareth in Brabant.

Throughout the whole of Europe you will find women writing about faith and spirituality in their mother-tongue in the 13th century. For example in Germany, Mechtild of Magdeburg (1212-1282), a beguine, is well-known, she wrote The flowing light of the divinity. And for example in France, Marguerite Porete (deceased 1310) is well-known, also a beguine, who wrote the book The mirror of simple souls. These women write in the atmosphere of the new spirituality, in line with the poverty movement, and in line with Bernard of Clairvaux; about a personal experienced faith, about their inner experiences, about spiritual growth towards God, and some about their mystical meetings with God.

mechtild of magdeburg             marguerite porete

Mechtild of Magdeburg (l) and Marguerite Porete (r),
(portraits made in later centuries).

These women not only write in the regional language, they also choose their own, personal, non-theological words.

  • Women
    • writing about religion in the local language
    • in their own words (non-theological)
After the break, and also next week, we will see that Hadewijch criticises a traditional description of the image of God. She's opposing the clergy, the scholars, and she blames them for exclusively trying to understand God with their intellect. Hadewijch too deviates from the standerd theological wordings of her time. She even chooses a whole new term to refer to God and to express her spiritual experiences: 'minne' (love). Hadewijch is the first one to use the word 'minne' in a religious context.

There remain a lot of questions about the bundling, distribution and the preservation of Hadewijch's works.

Many of those questions still have no answers. How large was the spreading, the circulation amongst her sympathisers (or in even larger circles)? Who were the customers of the Brussels bookbinder Godevaert de Bloc, exclusively the monasteries and the court of the duke, or also the citizens of the whole city of Brussels? And who did bundle her works and how did they end up in parchment manuscripts in monastery libraries? Many things remain unclear.

We've seen that there always were strong (family) ties between the nobility and the clergy, so the assumption that she came from a noble family, could partly offer an explanation.

At least it's clear that an enourmous admiration existed for her works (in several circles at least) in the 13th and 14th century. The fact that one possessed several of her letters in 14th-century Germany and wrote about the 'extraordinary teachings' of this 'holy Hadewijch', who lead the God's friends in Brabant to a 'perfect life' and that they become 'illuminated by God's grace' - this shows a glimpse of that admiration

This is also the case in Jan van Leeuwen's text. He calls her a 'true female teacher' and her books 'good and truthful, born from God and revelated'.

This admiration for this 'great saint' and her 'extraordinary teaching', with a vision book that is unique in 13th-century Middle Dutch, offers an explanation for the fact that some people used a lot of time and money to transcribe her texts on expensive parchment, to bundle everything, copy the texts multiple times, preserve them.

Inquisition and stake

Well, I aproach my conclusion. The beguines are very innovative in almost every aspect, as the list on the board shows.

  • They form a 'class in-between' within the social order.
  • They combine devotion and freedom (living a religious life, but not bound by an eternal vow or rule).
  • They are the first women, in a larger scale, that start to study, to read the Bible, to give spiritual guidance, to teach others and to write their own religious texts.
  • And they dare to do that in their own dialect, their mother-tongue, and in their own words.
In all these aspects they don't adjust to the existing order. This also brings them in a difficult position, a dangerous position even. Last time I told you that the church wants to have a grip on religious movements and wants to control the orthodoxy. And those 'illiterate', uneducated women, who suddenly start writing and start to give guidance to others - indeed extremely dubious - of course were observed very closely.

Books about religion in national languages were burnt on a large scale (the so called 'bookburnings'). For example in 1210 the Synod of Paris determined that all religious books written in French, had to be handed to the bisshops to be burnt.

And worse than that: many beguines ended up at the stake. Not a few, not dozens, but hundreds of beguines. If they couldn't be institutionalised, apparently in those days they had to be destroyed. Marguerite Porete, the French beguine I just mentioned, was burnt alive in 1310, because of her book The mirror of simple souls. And the German beguine Mechtild of Magdeburg entered a monastery when she was 60 years old (in 1270), because she really no longer felt save as beguine.

Hadewijch writes about a beguine she knew, who was killed by the inquisitor Robbert le Bourgre around 1238, because of 'her rightful love' ('hare gherechte minne'). And Hadewijch herself also didn't always have a calm life. She writes in het 29th letter:

Ay soete kint, uwe bedroeven es mi leet, Ende uwe swaerheit ende uwe rouwe. Ende dies biddic u oversere ende mane ende rade (...) dat ghi u om mi bedroevet, soe ghi minst moghet. Hoe soet met mi gaet, Eest in doelne achter lande, Eest in ghevancnesse.

Hadewijch, letter 29 (v. 5-13).

speaker music play middle dutch   play Middle Dutch  /  or click here



Ah, dear child, I regret that you are sad and disheartened and sorowful. And so I beg you the uppermost and suggest to you (...) to be as little sad about me as possible, however my circumstances, whether I'm roaming through the country or I'm imprisoned.

Hadewijch, letter 29 (v. 5-13).

English translation by RvL, based on: P. Mommaers, De brieven van Hadewijch (1990).  Letter 29 entire text (M.D. and translation).

Professor Van Oostrom has raised the question whether Hadewijch might actually have ever been suspected or accused of heresy. He hereby refers to Jan van Leeuwen's statement, we read at the beginning of this hour. In this fragment Van Leeuwen obviously very strongly emphasises that Hadewijch's texts were 'verified' and 'tested' by God, Christ and the Holy Spirit - as if he precautionary tries to cover of even is defending the content.

Some researchers have suggested, that the total absence of transcriptions dating from the 13th century, or likewise a biography (vita) of Hadewijch, sets one thinking. Could it have existed and be burnt? Was the name 'Hadewijch' a pseudonym to enlarge her anonymity and safety - and was it effective? For about a hundred years there is a complete silence around her. Her final fate is unkown.

Only during the fourteenth century, when priests and monks in circles around the Roo Monastery, Herne and Groenendaal, start to study and transcribe religious literature in the national language, then her manuscripts resurface again en start to circulate in several collected works.

For us today (with our constitutional state, social services as safety net, freedom of speech, personal religious freedom, right to apostasy, authority that democratically can be outvoted, insurances for illness and legal assistance and freedom of the press) it's hardly imaginable anymore how difficult the circumstances must have been for these early beguines, for Hadewijch.

They didn't have the economical security of a marriage or monastic life, and they had to be careful with every word they said or wrote down - this 'being imprisoned', that Hadewijch mentions here, is a real danger, the chance of ending up at the stake (as she wrote about, concerning a fellow beguine she knew) was a real danger. Hadewijch takes as much space as she can, for her way of living and for her religious ideals (possibly supported by the power of her (or a) noble familiy) and she clearly is surrounded by admirers, like-minded female friends and people with money and contacts. But even so, she lives in an uncertain, sometimes dangerous position in respect of the society (class in-between) and of the church (personal experienced spirituality).

This last hour we discussed several backgrounds that make clear that Hadewijch was an original, innovative and sometimes revolutionary person in 13th-century Brabant.

She is (together with prioress Beatrice of Nazareth) the first woman in the Low Countries, whose collected works were preserved till this day. She writes in the regional language, Middle Dutch or Diets. She writes in that dialect (and not in Latin) about religion. She lives religious, but didn't enter a monastery. And in her letters, she takes the position of a (female) leader, she instructs other women, encourages them, urges them to read, to ask questions, to study.

At each and every one of these points, she is unique in the thirteenth century, the first one, a forerunner in the literary history, religious history, women's history. And she acts in an intelligent, developed, educated manner, writing in a beautiful style, in her own words - often imaginative and passionately; sometimes personally, appealing; sometimes incomprehensible, difficult, only understandable for insiders, initiates; and sometimes rigid, carrying through her opinions very far and maybe inflexible, to the extreme. But such a driven personality probably was necessary in those days, those very early circumstances (probably often difficult, sometimes even dangerous circumstances) that made it possible for a woman to write, to develop spiritually, to give a little bit of guidance, to instruct.

Hadewijch does this, she is able to do this, from the background of that new spirituality that arose in the north of France in the 12th century (the ideal of poverty, carrying out your religion yourself, to experience faith in a personal and affective way); and the rise of the mulieres religiosea, the devout, godly women (the early beguines), who take the liberty to live a religious life within society, as a class in-between (semi-religious).

Next week we will take a deeper look into the circumstances of Hadewijch's life, with the subject 'women in the middle ages'.

If you would like to read more about Hadewijch, I can recommend prof. Mommaers' book, I showed you before, which is very informative and readable: Hadewijch. Writer, beguine, mystic (1989). See also the List of used literature.


In the last hour we have discussed Hadewijch's life. Although we have no biographical information at all, her texts do give some clues about her life.

•  Hadewijch must have had a good education, probably belonged to the nobility, lived in the Dutchy of Brabant, lived around the middle of the 13th century and can be placed in the circles of the mulieres religiosae, the early beguines.

•  The early beguines arise against the background of the 12th-century ideal of poverty: to live like the very first Christians, to carry out Christ's message yourself, to pay attention to the suffering and death of Jesus as human being.

•  Very influential within this spiritual movement was Bernard of Clairvaux with his innovative explanation of the Song of Songs: personal en affectively experienced. He describes the mutual love between the soul and Christ in nuptial terms. This is the starting point of the rise of bridal mysticism.

•  The beguines are innovative in several aspects and sometimes even revolutionairy: they are a class in-between (semi-religious), they combine devotion and freedom, they start to study, teach, give guidance and write themselves, and they do so in the regional language and in their own words.

•  Hadewijch probably was the female leader of such a group of beguines. She mentions that she has roamed through the country (not indicating monastic life); she doesn't want to follow a rule, but she want to live religiously out of free will; she lives in society, but not worldly; she asks Margriet to join her to live together; she teaches kindred spirited female friends in her letters; and she writes in her dialect and in her own words (like her use of 'minne').

After the break

After the break we will read more of Hadewijch's works. We'll read several visions, first to learn more about her image of God, and secondly about the roads that lead to God according to these visions.

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 3/7 in Dutch: Het leven van Hadewijch.


©  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