- The Secret Within: Hermits, Recluses, and Spiritual Outsiders in Medieval England by Wolfgang Riehle
In 2011, Wolfgang Riehle's monograph Englische Mystik des Mittelalters was published (C. H. Beck). The Secret Within, translated into elegant English by Charity Scott-Stokes, is a modified version of this earlier book. Riehle's focus is on mystical texts, and to this extent the original German title is more accurate than the new English one. Riehle has been publishing on medieval English mysticism for many decades, and in The Secret Within he engages not only with a wealth of scholars' views from both English- and German-language scholarship (often in the rich and detailed endnotes), but also with his own earlier assessments (for example, in his view that his earlier research had dismissed Margery Kempe too quickly).
On one level, the book is a chronological study of mystical texts produced in England between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. Familiar texts are studied: Ancrene Wisse (dated here to the late twelfth century, and seen as a text promoting many Cistercian themes), Richard Rolle's writings (practically all of them, including lesser-studied ones such as Melos Amoris), The Cloud of Unknowing and related texts, Walter Hilton's writings, and the works of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. Less familiar texts are also included, cause and effect of Riehle's idea that the so-called canon of mystical literature needs to be expanded, particularly given that medieval mystical texts could never be contained within a single genre. Thus, Riehle studies A Talking of the Love of God, the Meditations of the Monk of Farne, the Middle English translation of Marguerite Porete's Le Mirouer des simples âmes, as well as, more briefly, The Abbey of the Holy Ghost, Nicholas Love's Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, plays from Chester and elsewhere, and much more. It is in the large number of texts analysed that readers can really appreciate the depth and breadth of Riehle's achievement here. Riehle aims to 'consider the texts as works of literary and theological significance'(p. xv), and the book certainly succeeds in these twin aims, at times arguing that the theological sophistication of certain texts has been under-appreciated in previous scholarship (e.g. in relation to Julian of Norwich), and in the process providing the reader with a thorough reminder of the long and varied textual tradition (e.g. the Psalms, Pauline writings, Origen) from which medieval mystical writers could gain both certainty and confusion in theological matters.
On another level, the book provides more than a survey of many mystical texts. It also has various running arguments. One is that English mystical writing was heavily indebted to twelfth-century Cistercian theology; another is that English mystical texts had much in common with continental mystical writing, particularly with respect to female mysticism. On the former topic, Riehle discusses twelfth-century Cistercian themes presented by Bernard of Clairvaux, Aelred of Rievaulx, and the hymn Dulci Iesu memoria. On the latter, he identifies [End Page 195] instances where themes in the English texts appear also in writings by Gertrud of Helfta and Mechthild of Magdeburg (as with Julian of Norwich), Mechthild of Hackeborn (as with Margery Kempe), and others. Both these arguments are big ones in their ramifications. I sometimes felt that there was scope to question further the difference between similarities that might happen to appear in different texts on the one hand and direct causal influences that might be present between these texts on the other hand. But this is simply to recognize the ambitious scope of this book. I think that readers will gain much from using it to frame their own approaches to medieval mysticism.
This is a dense book, packed with material. It is not a book for students, but for those already familiar with at least some of the material it covers. At times the reader may wish for...