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The Catholic Historical Review 89.4 (2003) 763-764
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Agnes Blannbekin, Viennese Beguine: Life and Revelations. Translated from the Latin by Ulrike Wiethaus, with introduction, notes, and interpretive essay. [Library of Medieval Women.] (Rochester, New York: D. S. Brewer. 2002. Pp. vii, 184. $60.00.)
Agnes Blannbekin (ca. 1244-1315), Austrian mystic, may be little-known today because she was once briefly notorious. Like her more famous contemporary, Angela of Foligno, she dictated her revelations to an anonymous Franciscan confessor. One of those revelations, which the beguine herself was reluctant to disclose, involved the relic of Christ's circumcision. On the feast commemorating that event, Agnes felt the Lord's foreskin on her tongue, thin asthe membrane of an egg, and swallowed it with great sweetness "about a hundred times" (p. 35). Christ then revealed to her that his foreskin had been resurrected with him on Easter—although several churches claimed to possess the relic. When the first edition of Agnes's Revelations was published by Bernard Pez in 1731, it was attacked as blasphemous and promptly disappeared from view. Nor does any complete manuscript survive. The present abridged translation is based on Peter Dinzelbacher's edition of 1994, Leben und Offenbarungen der Wiener Begine Agnes Blannbekin, which relies on a rare copy ofPez.
Despite this scandalous history and a vision of the nude Christ, Agnes's text is considerably less erotic than the mystical writings of other beguines. The variety of her visions is typical of high medieval devotionalism. She uses familiar teaching techniques such as enumerating twelve glories of the Virgin, five types of confessors, and four ways of receiving the eucharist, made memorable through vivid color symbolism and animal imagery. The translator wants to see Agnes, a farmer's daughter, as representative of medieval women's "street mysticism" in contrast with the better-known "courtly mysticism" of Hadewijch and Mechthild of Magdeburg (p. 166). In one vision, for example, the beguine sees Christ dispensing different kinds of grace from three venues: a kitchen, a pharmacy, and a shop with general merchandise. Her revelations take the form of a spiritual diary organized around the liturgical year. Agnes's comments on the calendar can be most revealing when they are most disconcerting. For instance, she experiences Eastertide as the saddest time of year because Christ's followers no longer enjoy his bodily presence, but have not yet received the consolation of the Holy Spirit (p. 59). The beguine's Lenten devotions entail five thousand Pater Nosters and the same number of Ave Marias, with a genuflection to accompany each (p. 142), and on Good Friday she flagellates herself a thousand times with a juniper branch (p. 55).
Ulrike Wiethaus's introduction and interpretive essay should be read with caution. Volumes in the Library of Medieval Women, despite their high prices, are pitched to undergraduates; hence the translations are often abridged, the introductions broad. Wiethaus finds Agnes's piety to be more "gynocentric" than it appears to this reviewer, and feels the need to remind readers several times that her views on "homosexuals, lepers, Jews, and people of color" (p. 8) are unacceptable [End Page 763] by today's standards. Nonetheless, scholars of women's spirituality will welcome this entrée to the text of a lively, hitherto inaccessible author.