Bernard McGinn’s The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism (1350–1550) engages with mysticism as it enters into the wider consciousness of the eager and pious laity emerging across late medieval Europe. It continues the author’s tireless cataloging of the mystical tradition in a celebrated series of books and also provides a useful introduction for those unfamiliar with the role mysticism played in the late medieval period. For specialists, McGinn’s work provides a refreshingly contextualized approach, reminding us that each of the writers he describes in detail, often writers who have not gained substantial scholarly attention before, both inherited and developed elements of this unique and interesting branch of spirituality. [End Page 243]
Late medieval Europe experienced something of an explosion of mystical thought. Yet, in comparison with continental Europe, England had relatively few mystical writings in earlier centuries. Works such as the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon prayer book The Book of Cerne, St. Anselm of Canterbury’s Meditation on the Dread of Judgement in the eleventh century, and St. Aelred of Rievaulx’s twelfth-century The Mirror of Love provide us with glimpses into the early establishment of the tradition that was to later flourish. By the end of the fifteenth century, however, England had produced some of the most diverse mystics of the period. It is vital to note that these writings were produced in the vernacular, or native tongue, and thus accessible to a wider audience than their Latin predecessors. The English mystics also exerted considerable influence on each other. The Augustinian monk Walter Hilton, whose most famous work was The Scale of Perfection, was influenced by the anonymous The Cloud of Unknowing, which was written around the same time. The anchoress Julian of Norwich, who set down her visions in an early shorter work, A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman, and later a more substantial version, A Revelation of Love, along with Richard Rolle’s The Fire of Love were both known to Margery Kempe, the fifteenth-century mother of fourteen children and wife of a merchant in King’s Lynn.
Comparatively, Italy produced some of the mostly widely known mystical works in earlier centuries. Inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, Jacopone de Todi and Angela of Foligno emerged in the thirteenth century from the milieu of Franciscan mysticism. Perhaps the more recognizable names of Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas reflect how widely the mystical tradition spread in the century and the enthusiasm acquired by those who adopted it, the culmination of which was undoubtedly its role in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The fourteenth century saw the startling life of Catherine of Siena, a female mystic who traveled the country advocating clerical reform while also playing a major role in the relocation of the papacy from France to Rome. By the fifteenth century, female mystics such as Catherine of Genoa and Battistina Vernazza, well versed in the writings of their predecessors, established Italy as the home of one of the greatest lines of female mystical writers in the entire tradition.
England and Italy along with the Low Countries form the main focus of McGinn’s book, labeling the period 1350–1550 as “The Golden Age of Mysticism.” The task of covering these three locations in one single volume is monumental. This is reflected in McGinn’s decision to split his book into three clear sections, each with its own introduction, to divide the subject up into manageable topics. These sections are titled “Late Medieval Mysticism [End Page 244] in the Low Countries,” “Mysticism in Late Medieval Italy,” and “Mysticism in Late Medieval England.” While it is perhaps slightly unorthodox to subdivide by location rather than thematically, such an approach allows for a clear and focused analysis of the three areas in turn.
The first section of the book focuses on late medieval mysticism in the Low Countries, an area that produced writers still understudied in modern accounts of mysticism. It is this oversight that McGinn seeks to rectify by tracing a tradition of Dutch mysticism through the...