- The Female Mystic: Great Women Thinkers of the Middle Ages by Andrea Janelle Dickens
According to the back cover of this book, Andrea Janelle Dickens's study is directed at both the undergraduate student and the general reader. The book succeeds in meeting the needs of these two audiences. In its twelve short chapters it provides introductory surveys of twelve medieval women. Each of the chapters contains information such as the basic details of the woman's life and the text(s) through which she is known, a good number of quotations and extracts from the text(s) in question (in modern English translation), and identification of characteristic elements of that woman's spirituality. The chapters usually contain some explicit discussion of scholarly debates (on both mysticism in general and on the individual women) that readers may or may not wish to pursue.
The twelve women under investigation are all quite different. They are: Richeldis of Faverches, the eleventh-century founder of the English shrine at Walsingham; Hildegard of Bingen from the twelfth century; Christina of St Trond (Christina the Astonishing) from the decades either side of 1200; Hadewijch of Brabant, Mechtild of Magdeburg, and Mechtilde of Hackeborn of the thirteenth century; Angela of Foligno and Marguerite Porete of the late thirteenth/early fourteenth centuries; Julian of Norwich, who wrote in the late fourteenth century; Catherine of Siena, the shorter-lived contemporary of Julian of Norwich; Margery Kempe, who was particularly active in the early fifteenth century; and, skipping a century and taking us from the medieval to the beginnings of the early modern period, Teresa of Avila, who lived from 1515-82. Most of these women were themselves writers (which could involve dictating to a scribe), while some of them were the subjects of writings by others.
The choice of women positions this book well as a text for classroom use. Apart from Richeldis (an English woman about whom little information is available, being known to us only via a ballad composed 400 years after her death), all the women are already part of the canon of women studied in university courses on medieval religious women. But, despite the popularity of these women in scholarship and, to a lesser extent in general studies on Christian religious writings and mysticism, it still remains difficult to find, between the covers of one book, a good basic scholarly introduction. For this reason alone, the current book serves a very useful purpose. While each chapter identifies key aspects of each woman's spirituality, there is also attention to the wider ecclesiastical and social contexts which influenced the women and which they, on some occasions, in turn influenced. [End Page 233]
Each chapter is essentially a stand-alone study, but similarities and differences between various women are noted where relevant, and there are also some general themes that emerge throughout the book. Dickens regularly notes the ways in which the ideas of Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, and William of St-Thierry appear in some of the women's writings. One might think that it is not unusual for these authoritative writers to have influenced other medieval writers (such influence is certainly not unusual when we examine male writers), but this fact is useful support for one of Dickens's overall arguments, namely, that (some) medieval women were theologically knowledgeable and theologically creative, just as their better-known male contemporaries were. To this extent, the book challenges those who would say that the male scholastic world had a monopoly on medieval theology.
In the Conclusion, Dickens notes that the three topics of love, space and place (including pilgrimage and movement), and authority (both the presence and the lack of it) have occurred regularly in the preceding discussions. The extent to which many of these women identified love as a key element (often the key element) of the Christian message and promise comes through particularly clearly.
There were some aspects of the book that might have been...