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 4/7.  Women in the Middle Ages: the woman within church and society

Topics this hour:
  • The position of women within medieval church and society
    • Several ways women were excluded from church
    • Changes in education and marriage
  • Side-way: feminist theology and the male image of God
  • Mysticism and resistance
  • Hadewijch's songs


This is the last lecture about Hadewijch. Next week we'll pursue John of Ruusbroec, and with that we'll enter a whole other world. The 14th century is very different from the 12th and 13th century, it's another time, with a very different atmosphere. And we'll get into a different environment, within the church (John of Ruusbroec was a priest), a world mainly of men.

For this reason I would like to use this hour before the break, now it still makes sense, to give a moment's thought to Hadewijch as a woman. And I would like to focus on two aspects: first, in general, on the position of women in the Middle Ages. This also gives more background to everything I told about the beguines last week. We will get a better understanding of things like: why choose women to live as beguine, why choose women for a religious life at all, why is this increasing so extremely rapid during the 12th century? So this will be the first part of my story, the position of women in medieval society and church.

With that we move from the literary history to the area of women's history and church history, with a short side-way to the feminist theology.

In extension of that, I then will take a closer look at Hadewijch as the female leader of a group of beguines. She has chosen the life as a beguine, positioning herself somewhat outside society, she writes as a woman, she is leading as a woman. And my question would be, how her texts have functioned whithin that environment of beguines, within that group of beguines. And that will bring us especially to her strophic poems.

I've written the features we found last week again on the black board, as background to this hour's lecture.

Ideal of poverty 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
• inward oriented faith, affectively experienced religion
  Early beguines

• a 'class in-between' within the social order: semi-religious
• devotion and freedom
• studying, teaching, giving guidance, writing
• local language, in own words

The position of women in medieval church and society

To get a better understanding of the beguines and to understand why women choose to live as a beguine, which could be dangerous (as we saw last week), I think it makes sense to tell something about the position of women in medieval society in general. What are the ideas about man-woman-relationships, what was the juridical status of women, her opportunities to do work, her position within religion and her position within marriage? What were the basic conditions from which she chose to marry or to live a religious life?

Last week I told you that the number of women that start to live a religious life increases explosively from the 12th century onward. The number of nunneries grows enormously and at the end of the 12th century the beguine movement comes into existence. Why does the number of nunneries increase and do women start to live as beguines, just now, during this 12th century? Why do these women choose not to marry? And why do beguines on top of that choose not to enter a monastery?

It's a very interesting observation, that this striking many women choose a religious or semi-religious life during the 12th century. Partially the reason will be that they were attracted to the new ideal of poverty. But there are also social and gender-related causes why women, just from that period onward, choose more and more often for a religious life.

medieval women spinning weaving     medieval women falconry hunt

Noble women spinning, weaving, embroidering (l),
having a falconry hunt (r).

I will give a historic overview of the Middle Ages, but the emphasis will of course be on that 12th century. Several changes in society happen in this century. And for the most part not for the benefit of the woman. To follow these social changes, I will start at the beginning.

You will remember from the first lecture that the medieval society is based on three pillars: the Roman, the jewish-christian and the Germanic - and these three collide when it comes to their ideas about women. For example in the Greek-Roman society, the position of a woman was actually rather poor. A woman is the possession of her father or husband and she herself has no legal capacity: this means that her signature is invalid (so she can't independently do business or start a trial) and that a woman in fact officially never comes at age (becomes an adult). Because of her legal incapacity, she has no right of self-determination.

On the other hand in the Germanic culture, as far as it is known, we see more equality. Women had the possibility to interfere in political power: for example they could start a war and actively fight in it. A marriage in Germanic culture was based on mutual fondness and mutual consent and within a marriage man and woman were, in principle, equal partners.

In medieval culture these different opinions about women meet. Socially, the position of women in the Middle Ages is not too bad. Women have legal capacity (so she is considered to be an adult, her signature is valid, she could do business independently, she could start a trial and control her own finances). In medieval society a woman has legal capacity.

Several ways women were excluded from church

Then the third pillar, the jewish-christian pillar. For the Roman-Catholic church of course is very important for the ideas about women in the Middle Ages. And these ideas, starting with the very early christians, develop through the centuries.

To start with the earliest Christianity: the New Testament. It's known that Jesus treated women in a different way than what was customary amongst jews. He had female followers (in other words: he taught women, which wasn't according the jewish tradition), he openly spoke with a Samaritan woman and reprimanded the jews that they allowed that a man could leave his wife, after which she became a pariah in society. So Jesus clearly shows a different attitude towards women than what was usual in jewish culture.

It's known that the earliest christian communities were groups without hierarchy and without an official leader or pastor. The group got together and each time someone else could be speaking before the group; this could both be a man and a woman. This didn't last too long, about two centuries; because as soon as the Romans started to interfere with christianity, this custom of course was considered impossible (given their opinions about women). From that time onward, they no longer refered to the (male and female) followers of Christ, but to the 12 male disciples (pupils of Christ).

During the fourth century, the Romans increasingly regulated and institutionalised Christianity. In 313 freedom of religion became a right, which ended the prosecution of christians (during the reign of Constantine the Great); in 325 the confession of faith was determined (Council of Nicaea, also during Constantine); in 380 Christianity in fact became the state-religion (Emperor Theodosius I); in 381 the dogma of the Trinity was formulated (Council of Constantinople); and in 392 all other religions were officially forbidden by Theodosius.

So both form and content of Christianity, weren't established by Jesus, but about three centuries later, by Romans (meaning: by Roman males, from their Roman culture).

From that 4th century onward, women were excluded from having a position within the Roman-Catholic church; and they were obliged to be silent within the church, so it was no longer possible for women to contribute actively to form and content of the religion. In this same period the church also got a hierarchy, after the example of the power structure of the Roman Empire. That belonged, among the Romans, exclusively to males and the hierarchy of the church was moulded after that example.

medieval woman in childbed     medieval women working in fields duc berry heures 1410

Woman in childbed (l),
female farmers working in the fields (r).

The forming and also deepening out the content of Christianity is reserved for a still smaller group. In the 4th, 5th and 6th century, it are the Church Fathers who are engaged in the content of christian faith - in Latin. Laymen (everyone who doesn't know Latin, so all women, but also all male lay persons) are excluded. The most famous Church Fathers are, amongst others: Jerome (or Hieronymus), Ambrose (Aurelius Ambrosius), Irenaeus and Augustine of Hippo. So from the fourth century onward, theology is the business of men (an exclusive group of males within the church); they create the content of faith.

Well, what about the ideas of these Church Fathers about women? These ideas stem from ideas that were very important in medieval Christianity, first of all: the ideal of virginity. They assumed that Jesus had remained a virgin his whole life and of course: Mary, woman above all women, was a virgin according to the New Testament (at least: during the birth of Jesus. Although later on she got other children, like Jesus' brother Jacob the Righteous, she was still considered to be a virgin - the literary origins of the phenomenon 'virgin birth', I briefly touched on two weeks ago).

Furthermore, the Church Fathers wanted to give a meaning to the ceremonial laws of purity in the Old Testament (they had to be obeyed the day before you entered the Temple, to be pure in a ritual sense). Only if you were ritually pure as a jew, you could enter the Temple. But Christianity didn't have such a temple. So the Church Fathers started to interpret these ceremonial laws of purity in a moral way: if you were impure, you were sinful; and if you were pure, you were holy. These ceremonial laws of (im)purity also included touching women and sexuality. In the course of the centuries, that led to the idea within Christianity that sexuality and touching women was sinful, and abstinence and celibacy made you holy.

Because of this ideal of virginity (after Jesus' unmarried state and Mary's supposed virginity) and because of the moral interpretation of the (originally) ceremonial purity, from the 4th century onward the conviction started that sex was sinful, and subsequently - from a male point of view - that the woman, as seducer, was the source of sin, the source of evil. (Of course this also perfectly suited with the story of Eve as seducer to evil).

So these morally reshaped laws of purity and the ideal of virginity led to the idea (from this male point of view) that a woman was a source of sin and that led to a huge fear of women. And this fear of women remained during the whole of the Middle Ages: the woman can seduce you to sin, the woman is a source of evil.

Position women within Catholic Church
  • women excluded from position within church
  • women excluded from contributing to form and content of faith
  • ideal of virginity and moral laws of purity
  • woman as source of sin

Eventually, the ideal of virginity and the morally reformed laws of purity lead (amongst other things) to the dogma of celibacy for priests in the 12th century (1139, Lateran Council). For the church, this solved another pressing problem, because the possessions of the church again and again were cut into pieces, because of the inheritance laws (the capital and possessions of a priest were inherited by his legitimate children - in the case of childlessness, everything went to the church). So the origin of celibacy lies in this 12th century: on the one hand out of practical reasons (the church fully inherited the capital), and on the other hand out of the new idea that women are sources of sin (based on the ideal of virginity and on the newly invented idea that sexuality made you sinful and celibacy made you holy).

Marriage, obviously, wasn't valued that much by Christianity in the Middle Ages. Religious life was much better, remaining a virgin was better, a marriage was more or less third-rate, inferior.

So regarding the position of women within Christianity in the Middle Ages it's clear: in the first centuries of our calender, women are excluded from a position within the church and from the possibility to contribute to the form and content of christian faith. Furthermore women were looked at with suspicion: because one started to consider sex as sinful, she was the one who could seduce a man to sin and so she was (from the male perspective) a source of evil.

Changes in education and marriage

So far about medieval Christianity. Within society, as I mentioned before, the position of women at least is better than in the Roman Empire: women have legal capacity and are therefore allowed to act independently within society. However, during the 12th century much is changing socially for women. I will discuss two areas in which the position of women in the 12th century change for the worse.

First of all the area of education. The first universities are founded (Bologna 1088, Paris 1150, Oxford 1167) and women are not allowed to study there. So from the 12th century onward, women are excluded from the highest level of education. The universities offered a general study programm and three fields of study (specialisations): theology, law and the art of medicine. I will give an example of what it meant for women that they couldn't study these subjects.

medieval professor with students paris university 1464

Professor with students, Paris University
(Gautier de Metz, L'image du Monde, 1464).

During the Middle Ages (until the 12th century) everyone could become a doctor, man and woman, the only things you needed were knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs, knowledge of astrology (it was believed that the position of the stars could cause diseases) and knowledge of treating wounds and broken bones and so on (for example there was much knowledge about injuries caused by swords, pulling out arrows, etc.). But during the 12th century the art of medicine becomes an academic discipline, so suddenly women can no longer become doctors! So the consequences are enormous. The fact that women are excluded from higher education, puts them in an immense backlog position, a total position of disadvantage.

An unimaginable and outrageous disadvantage and repression of the position, possibilities and freedom of choice for women, that would last for about 700 years (!) non stop.

Position of women within society 12th century
  • women excluded from highest level of education

The second large social change for women in the 12th century, is her position within marriage. In the early Middel Ages a marriage was a relation based on equality for the purpose of begetting offspring and safeguarding family possessions. Women remained entitled to their dowry and in case of a divorce they maintained ownership of these belongings and savings.

Unlike today, marriage was not about romantic love, but about family relationships, socioeconomic security and safeguarding and passing on possessions and prosperity.

What about the habits of wedding during the Middle Ages? Until the end of the 12th century, four different forms of wedlock were possible. In case of the nobility, they had the habit of giving away in marriage (usually for political and economical reasons). This was a wedding with an official contract and a dowry. For several reasons a divorce was allowed and it was rather customary for men to have a mistress before and during their marriage. Bastard children, born out of wedlock, often were provided for, but had no right to inherit.

Besides giving in marriage, three other kinds of marriage were customary until the 12th century. First of all a so called marriage for the time being. This already included a dowry, but the relationship still could be broken off, for example if one of them met a better suitor. It was considered to be advantageous when the woman became pregnant before the marriage was final, because then they knew for certain that she wasn't infertile. A more simple form was to start living together (we think that this is a modern invention, but in fact this is medieval). After a few years, the pair was cosidered to be married. And last of all, it was possible for a girl to leave with her beloved to his homeland; when you settled there, you were considered to be married. This taking off or eloping usually took place voluntary, after agreement.

However, during the 11th century, the church is demanding that a priest has to be present at every wedding. It's the only way they recognise the relationship as valid any longer. For the church, becoming more and more powerful in this period, it's a possibility to get more hold on the lives of laymen, specially important in the case of the nobility (political influence). At the end of the 12th century, in 1184 (Council of Verona) they even determine that marriage is a sacrament and from that moment on, the Catholic Church acknowledges no other kinds of relationships anymore than the religious marriage that takes place in a church. All four above mentioned forms of relationships are no longer valid.

In this way, the church got a strong grip on the balance of power and on the private lives of, especially, the nobility. They are able to antagonise virtually all intentions to marry, throughout the whole of Europe, or give dispensation, if it was convenient for them. Don't underestimate this: in fact the church now pulls the strings within the nobility and obtains huge secular power.

Position of women within society 12th century
  • women excluded from highest level of education
  • marriage
    • giving in marriage, marriage for the time being, living together and eloping →
      replaced with religious marriage within church

This one and only permitted, religious (ecclesiastical) marriage - from the 12th century onward - is organised in a feudal way: according to the model of a master and a subordinate. The woman then becomes the subordinate of the man. According to, amongst other things, the Bible verse: 'Christ is the head of the man, the man is the head of the woman' (1 Corinthians).

And clearly from the end of the 12th century onward, women massively start to escape this feudal organised marriage. And the only accepted way to do that, was: choosing a religious life. And women do this in immensely large numbers: the number of nunneries increases explosively from the end of the 12th century onward; and also the movement of beguines arises right around that time. Of course, a part of these women will have chosen religious life because they were attracted to the new ideal of poverty, but another part surely will have chosen this life to avoid a marriage.

medieval marriage ring around finger

Man puts ring around finger woman (± 1375)
(British Library, Royal 6 E VI, f104r.).

So during the 12th century the position of women in society deteriorates in two ways. Women can't enter universities and are excluded from the highest level of education, bringing them in a disadvantaged position. And secondly, the religious marriage is organised in a feudal way, and the woman becomes subordinate to the man within the marriage. So both within church and within education and within marriage, there no longer is equality between both sexes, but gender becomes a hierarchical principle of organisation: the man is put above the woman, or the male above the female.

Position of women within society 12th century
  • women excluded from highest level of education
  • marriage
    • giving in marriage, marriage for the time being, living together and eloping →
      replaced with religious marriage within church
    • hierarchical, woman subordinate to man

This proces of exclusion of women, from church and education, really reaches rock-bottom during the 17th century. During the 17th century people started to orientate towards the culture of the Roman Antiquity, because they started to admire it so enormously (Renaissance) - also the legislation and jurisdiction of that time. And because of this, women in Europe lost their legal capacity in the 17th century.

So on top of exclusion from church and higher education, also social exclusion is now introduced. From that 17th century onward, women no longer are allowed to act independently in society (she can't sign contracts, control her own money, or start a trial - she always needs a father, husband or guardian to do these things). Just as in the Roman Empire, she again has no full legal capacity. By the way, there were three other groups of people who had no legal capacity: children, criminals and mentally insane persons - and now all women were added to this list. In the Netherlands this lasted until 1956.

By the way, thanks to women's emancipation both social exclusion and academic exclusion and the inequality within marriage is reversed. But the emancipation within the church is far from completed. The exclusively male hierarchy of this institute, the exclusive male priesthood, and also the content of faith, that is determined exclusively by males from the 4th century onward and became eternal dogmas - all these things are still unchanged.

Side-way: feminist theology and the male image of God

For a short moment I'll turn into a side-way of my lecture: a short look into feminist theology. This whole proces of excluding women from church and society is reflected in the christian image of God - or better maybe: society is a refelection of this image, enforced during the christianisation.

In Christianity, God is represented as exclusively male (this image partly stems from the jewish Old Testament and partly from the Ecclesiastical Councils of the 4th century). This image of a god-as-man (a Lord) was shaped both in the jewish culture (that also excluded women from studying or a say in religion) and during those first centuries of the Roman-Catholic church - so it was shaped exclusively by men. Within feminist theology there is a school that points out how problematic and worrying such an exclusively-male-image-of-god is, in several ways.

First of all they notice that this exclusively male image of God, excludes the female from the divine. There no longer is a female god (no Great Goddess, no Freyja, no Nehalennia), there no longer is an example for the female divine. No female god that acts actively in stories, who is creative, brave, merciful, a heroine - and who can be a role model for women, who learn naturally within that faith that the female belongs within the world of the gods, within the divine.

Secondly they argue that women in the case of an exclusive male image of god, can't identify themselves directly with God or the divine. The famous German professor and theologian Dorothee Sölle wrote an impressive book about this subject (God is more than a man, 1988), in which she shows that a woman can't directly identify with a male god and therefore can't naturally take part in the divine. Just like girls at a young age who temporary identify themselves with their mother and boys with their father, while searching for their identity, just alike a man can identify himself with a male god (recognise himself in him, take an example, see him as ideal to strive for), but a woman on contrary is excluded from identification with the divine.

And in the third place this exclusive male image of god could be used as a justification for the inferiority of women and for the male domination over women (for example within a marriage, as we saw just before). The medieval church seriously literally said: "The man is created in the image of God and has to answer to God, the woman is created out of the man and has to answer to the man". And the Bible verse I quoted before: 'Christ is the head of the man, the man is the head of the woman' (1 Corinthians). Such statements (that completely ignore the Bible verse 'God created the human in His own image, male and female He created them') such statements enforced both the one-sided view of God as male, and the inferior position of women.

It's clear that the two enforce each other: excluding the female from the divine enforces the exclusion of women from society, what gives more reason to imagine a god as exclusively male, and so on.

This short side-way of course can't do justice to the position and the research results of decades of feminist theology - those who feel interested in this, I'll advice to read more about it, for example the book of Dorothee Sölle I mentioned.

gospel thomas nag hammadi

Gospel according to Thomas, Nag Hammadi codex
(late 2nd century, picture shows Coptic translation 4th century).

This is the last bit of my side-way. Within the theology, also other gospels are studied, beside the four gospels that are approved by the church and included in the Bible. In the 1st and 2nd century many more gospels were written. Some of them were known and were called apocryphal gospels - and many more were discovered in the 20st century. The most important find was the Nag Hammadi library, which includes the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. These text can of course shed some more light on the thoughts and doctrines during the first centuries after Jesus.

There is one paragraph that I don't want to deprive of you, given the context of this part of this lecture. It's from the gospel of Thomas, chapter 22:

Jesus said to them:
If you make the two one
and if you make the internal as the external
and the external as the internal
and the above as the below
and if you make the masculine and the feminine as one
in a way that the male no longer will be male
and the female no longer female
then you shall enter the Kingdom.

Gospel of Thomas, chapter 22.

This text encourages people to strive for balance, for the masculine and the feminine in each person. It clearly contains a plea for equality between the two sexes. But unfortunately, this text didn't make it into the Bible.

Mysticism and resistance

I return to the Middle Ages. Throughout the centuries there have been women and mystics who resisted oppose their position in society, their position in the church and with respect to components of the content of the religious doctrine. That was very hard to do, because women more and more were excluded from higer level education, political power and influence within the church.

For example the beguines, they resist by not confirming. They turn their back upon social conventions, the organisation of religion, and upon marriage and they try to go their own way.

The features of the early beguines show resistance to all the things I wrote on the black board this last hour about the deteriorating position of women in the Middle Ages:

  • they don't marry (resistance to the religious marriage)
  • the don't enter a monastery (resistance to the church organisation)
  • they start to study and write themselves (resistance to the situation in both education and church)
  • and they start to guide, to lead (resistance to man-woman relations, in which the man is placed above the woman, both in marriage and in church).

Furthermore, female mystics have an unique way to resist. They take part in the theological discussions of their time, but of course they can't fall back on theological studies. And instead of that, they refer to God Himself. By refering to their visions and mystical experiences (that were taken seriously by their contemporaries, from their medieval view on man and view on the world, as we have seen), they are able to refer to the authority of angels, saints, Christ or God Himself.

So: visionary and mystical texts give a mystic the authority to take part in the theological discussions of their time and to influence religious ideas.

We've already seen examples of this phenomenon in the first lecture. For example several mystics describe God as male and female (androgyny of God) and by this they deviate from the christian image of God (Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich and in later centuries for example Jacob Boehme, 16th century).

Hadewijch's texts generally function in a very small circle: the group of beguines around her. She hardly ever reacts on theological discussions or social circumstances of her time. But of course her way of living is meaningful for sure: the not-confirming and original way of living of the beguines, and moreover the fact that she is guiding, leading and that she is writing (about religion, in the regional language).

But occasionally Hadewijch does use the medieval authority of a visionary or mystical text to resist oppose theological, religious ideas of her time. Last week we've seen two examples of it.

In the first vision (about the road through a tree orchard) we read that Hadewijch is critcal about the image of the Trinity (the Three-Oneness). She states that this (4th century) image of God is an image used by exiles who are at a far distance from the love (minne), to try to understand God. In this way she in fact states that the scholars and theologians of her time fall short.

And her eighth vision (about the fifth road) contains criticism about priests, theologians, who approach faith exclusively in a rational way and who don't experience religion in an affective way. Keeping the common believer out off affection, is called a 'huge injustice'.

These examples show how these texts functioned in their time, in their cultural-historical context. Refering to visions and mystical experiences, gave a mystic authority, what was obviously important in the social and religious circumstances of that time.

Hadewijch's songs

All this information gives us a glimpse of Hadewijch's life against the background of the world she lived in. Last week: the scarce information about her life, about the 12th-century spirituality and about the early beguines. This week: the broader framework of the position of women within the medieval church, the changes in society in the area of education and marriage, and how mystics can take part in religious discussions thanks to the authority of visions.

With all this knowledge I'll return to the only thing we still possess of this 13th-century Brabantian woman: her writings - the 14 visions, 31 letters and 45 poems. How did these texts function during her life? Hadewijch mostly doesn't give her opinion about the debate of her time. For the most part her texts are addressed to the small group of beguines, kindred spirits, around her.

It's clear that Hadewijch's letters (mostly short treaties) were written to woman friends and they will have functioned as send around letters. The letters are not only substantive contemplations, but also confirm the friendship between the women and confirm Hadewijch's leadership and status as tutor.

The visions will have circulated in the same circle. They confirm her authority, her exemplariness and her leadership, because her high spiritual climb is repeatedly mentioned explicitly. This will have given the beguines around her the hope, the confirmation and the confidence that unification with God really could be possible during their earthly life. They show the woman friends who and what God is, make God visible, and they make God's love and the love for God real.

But the poems, the lyrical texts, have another story, rather remarkable. For a long time it remained unclear what had been their role in Hadewijch's surroundings, for which purpose she had written them. But just since a few years we know that these lyrical texts were sung, so they aren't strophic poems at all, they are strophic songs. Professor Louis Grijp, musicologist at Utrecht University, proved in 1992 that six of Hadewijch's poems originally were written on music.

For 700 years these lyrical texts were identified as 'poems', but now he proved in a pioneering, groundbreaking research, convincing and indisputable, that they had been songs.

medieval female harp player harpist middle ages

Medieval harp player.

It's too much information for just this hour to explain how Louis Grijp could determine this with certainty and which connections he discovered between Hadewijch and the trouvères in northern France, but it's all passed around on the hand-out.

Hand-out Hadewijch's songs:
contrafacta, northern French trouvères, literary influence from Arras

In which way can one determine with certainty that lyrical texts were songs? During the Middle Ages it was quite common to write songtexts on existing melodies. (Like we still do for a wedding, writing our own lyrics on a well-known melody). Such a song with new lyrics on an existing melody is called a contrafactum. And most of the time in the Middle Ages one copied one verse out of the original songtext, for example one sentence of the original refrain was used in the new lyrics.

So Louis Grijp searched amongst still known, medieval songs for texts with exact the same lay-out of strophes, the same length of the verses, the same rhyme scheme and one verse with identical words (so both formal and literary borrowing).

And in several song books of northern French trouvères, all dating from the 13th century and all located in or around Arras (then called Atrecht, in the south of Flanders), sure enough he found several songs in which Hadewijch's poems fitted and that had indeed a similar line of text. So Hadewijch's strophic poems are songs: they were sung.

Louis Grijp identified six melodies and five of them were originally French songs and one of them Latin. Notably several of them were Mary-songs.

Professor Grijp only could find similarities with northern French trouvères (not with southern French troubadours, German minnesingers or Middle Dutch minstrels). Among them the trouvères: Moniot d'Arras ('the monk of Arras', active 1213-1239), Thibaut de Champagne (1201-1253), Richart de Fournival (Amiens, just below Arras, 1201-1260), Jehan Erart (Arras, 1210-1258), Perrin d'Angicourt (around Arras, active 1245-70), Gillebert de Berneville (Arras, active 1250-1280) en Colart le Boutellier (Arras, active 1240-60).

So Hadewijch used several melodies that were originating from (around) Arras (Atrecht), written by trouvères who were active in the period 1225-1270. This confirms the dating that she wrote her texts around 1240 and raises the question which connection she had with Arras.

In short: Hadewijch used several melodies originating from (around) Arras (Atrecht), written by trouvères who were active in the period 1225-1270. This confirms the dating (we saw last week) that she wrote her texts around 1240 and raises the question which connection she had with Arras. It could be worth trying to search the archives for a Brabantian noble family with a family branch in Arras.

colart le boutellier trouvere arras     gillebert de berneville trouvere arras

Two 13th-century trouvères of Arras
whose melodies Hadewijch used:
Colart le Boutellier and Gillebert de Berneville.

So Hadewijch wrote songs on existing melodies. And that clarifies how these texts functioned within the circle of beguines around Hadewijch: they were sung, and singing together connects a community. And on top of that, having your own repertoire of songs, confirms the group identity. It also makes clear why many of her lyrical texts include the word 'we'. This also indicates singing together.

In some cases also the musical notes were written down in the northern-France song books. And that makes it possible to set Hadewijch's lyrics again to music. This is precisely what Louis Grijp did. At the time he was the leader and lute player of the music group Camerata Trajectina. And they recorded one of Hadewijch's songs: the 45th song.

By listening to Hadewijch we probably get the nearest to her as possible. Hadewijch wrote these lyrics and undoubtedly also sung this song herself. This melody must have been familiar to her. The way we will listen to the cd, is the same way as Hadewijch listened to the song sung by women like Sara, Emma en Margriet.

So to finish this lesson hour, we'll listen to Hadewijch before the break starts. The lyrics of song 45 are included in the Anthology. The Latin text is the original song, the Mary-song Maria Praeconio. The Latin words that Hadewijch has adopted are easy recognisable.

The 45 songs have more or less a similar theme: Hadewijch, and the other singers, is longing for the love.

In the first verse Hadewijch says: 'In the whole wide world there is nothing / that can give me joy / than the true love'. But this love, the divine love, isn't noticeably present. 'Give me', Hadewijch says in the fourth verse, 'the entire secret of your high nature'. That is what she is asking for, and we know by now that she describes this divine nature as love, minne. So the whole song is about the abandonment and the longing for the divine love, the ghebreken (lacking).

Click on 'play music' to listen to Hadewijch's song. You can read along the lyrics in Middle Dutch and in translation.

speaker music icon    play music  /  or click here

Hadewijch, lied 45.
Recording: Camerata Trajectina,
Pacxken van Minnen (cd, 1992).

Ay, in welken soe verbaert die tijt,
En es in al die werelt wijt
Dat mi gheven mach delijt,
Dan: verus amor.

Ay minne, op trouwe (want ghi al sijt
Miere zielen joye, miere herten vlijt),
Ontfaermt der noet, siet ane den strijt;
Hort cordis clamor!

Ah, whatever time of year it is
nothing in the whole wide world
can bring me joy
but true Love.

Ah Love, you faithful (since you really are
the joy of my soul, the diligence of my heart)
have pity on my need, behold my battle
listen to my heart's lament.

Ay, wat ic mijn wee roepe ende claghe,
Die minne doe met mi hare behaghe;
Ic wille hare gheven alle mine daghe
Laus et honor.

Ay, minne, ocht trouwe u oghe ansaghe!
Want mi maect coene dat ics ghewaghe;
Want mi ierst op uwe hoghe staghe
Uwe traxit odor.

Ah, however I cry out and complain about my pain
the Love is doing to me as she pleases
every day I want to give her
praise and honour.

Ah Love, if you would have an eye for my loyalty
just mentioning it gives me courage
your scent has attracted me to
your high place.

Ay, minne, ja ghi die niet en loghet:
Want ghi mi tonet inder joghet
Daer ic na quele, (want ghijt vermoghet),
Sijt medicina.

Ay ja, minne, ghi die als zijt voghet,
Gheeft mi om minne dies mi meest hoghet;
Want ghi sijt moeder alre doghet,
Vrouwe ende regina.

Ah Love, yes, you who never lies
for you've shown me in my childhood
what I'm yearning for (you have the ability)
be my savior.

Ah yes, Love, you who masters everything
give me, out of love, what gladdens/heightens me most of all
for you are the mother of all virtues
Lady and queen.

Ay, weerde minne, fine puere,
Wan sidi ane hoe ic gheduere,
Ende sijt in minen betteren suere

Ay, ic dole te swaer in davontuere.
Mi sijn alle andere saken suere;
Volghevet mi, minne, u hoghe natuere

Ah, valued Love, fine and pure
behold how I endure
and be a relieve for me
from my bitter pain.

Ah, I'm wandering too much in this adventure
I dislike all other things
give me, Love, the entire secret
of your high nature.

Ay, benic in vrome ocht in scade,
Si al, minne, bi uwen rade:
Uw slaghe sijn mi ghenoech ghenade

Ay, wadic ghewat, clemme ic op grade,
Benic in honghere ochte in sade,
Dat ic u, minne gnoech voldade,
Unde mori. Amen. Amen.

Hadewijch, lied 45.

Melody: Maria Praeconio.


Ah, whether it's to my advantage or to my disadvantage
it all happens, Love, by your advice
your blows are enough grace for me
my Redeemer.

Ah, whether I wade though the water or climb another step
whether I'm hungry or fullfilled
I wish, Love, that I fully satisfy your desire
and decease in that way. Amen. Amen.

Translation: Camerata Trajectina, Pacxken van Minnen (cd).  Song 45 entire text.


This last hour we have been engaged in the position of women in the medieval church and society. We've discussed several ways of resistance and how that's reflected in Hadewijch's texts and way of living.

•  In medieval society a woman had legal capacity and within a marriage the partners were in priciple equal (stemming from the Germanic culture).

•  Within the Roman Catholic Church women were excluded in several ways.
  • women excluded from position within church
  • women excluded from contributing to form and content of faith
  • ideal of virginity and moral laws of purity: sex became sinful
  • woman as source of sin: fear of women

•  During the 12th century several changes take place in education and marriage, causing the position of women to change for the worse.
  • women excluded from highest level of education
  • marriage
    • giving in marriage, marriage for the time being, living together and eloping →
      replaced with religious marriage within church
    • hierarchical, woman subordinate to man

•  In church, education and marriage (and from the 17th century onward also in society) gender becomes a hierarchical principle of organisation: the man is put above the woman, or the male above the female.

•  During the centuries both women and mystics resist oppose inequality and exclusion.

•  Beguines resist by not confirming in several ways. Female mystics get themselves involved in theological issues by refering to the authority of God Himself. Several mystics resist against an exclusively male image of God (that doesn't allow women to identify themselves directly; which excludes the female from the divine; and which gives a justification for the exclusion of women).

•  Hadewijch also is sometimes critcal about theologian thoughts of her time. In her first vision, she makes objections to the image of the Trinity (the Three-Oneness), as created in the fourth century. In her eighth vision, the kimpe (the theologian) falls short, because he didn't experience religion in an affective way. Keeping the common believer out off affection, is called a 'huge injustice'.

•  Also Hadewijch's way of living is non-conformist. She gives guidance, instructs and writes about religion. Her songs show how her texts functioned within a group of kindred spirits (community formative). And with respect to content she does teach others about that 'fifth road', reaching God through love, in which theologians fail.

After the break

After the break we'll read texts about the 'lacking', the 'ghebreken', in which Hadewijch tries to integrate her spiritual experiences into life here on earth. And we'll see that she has very daring and radical ideas about spiritual growth and divinization of the soul - and that she's very familiar with the (Latin) theology behind it.

This brings us, at last, to the bridal visions. And I will argue that everything substansive we read so far logically arises from one another: the road of the virtues and the minne, spritual growth and divinization; and finally the bridal vision - they can't be understood as isolated subjects.

That all after the break.

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 4/7 in Dutch: Vrouwen in 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