Vernacular Religion in the Latin Middle Ages 3: Private Devotion

To my knowledge, at no time did the structures of the Church in western and central Europe bar the use of the vernacular in private devotion or in private writing. Indeed, for the illiterate, such prayers are the only way they could pray. For the literate, there were times when their mother tongue would take over, as when Stephen Harding (I think he’s the one; or Aelred?) died with the English name ‘Crist’ on his lips.

 

Anyway, the Latin Middle Ages contain a great quantity of vernacular religious literature, and there is, frankly, not enough time for me to go into all of it here. A few highlights are worth discussing, though, I’d think.

First things first, then. You should go check out Eleanor Parker’s blog A Clerk of Oxford, an excellent blog exploring many facets of Old English life, religion, and literature. A lot of it is devoted to religious literature, both its translation into modern English as well as its explication for the 21st-century reader.

If, for some reason, you’re still reading my poor excuse of a blog, I’ll start by saying that Anglo-Saxon Christian literature is very much worth your time. There is some splendid religious poetry to be found that will stir your heart up unto the Lord. Which is the whole point. A pleasant anthology, both from Old English and Latin, is Benedicta Ward’s Christ Within Me.

Vernacular Christian literature did not suddenly vanish in 1066 with the Norman Conquest. I’ve featured here the Middle English poem ‘Man and Woman Look on Me!’, a moving piece in the persona of Our Lord from the Cross. I find there is a lot of powerful devotional poetry in Middle English.

Of course, Middle English religious literature cannot pass by without discussing Julian of Norwich (d. 1416), one of the most famous mystics of the era (at least in English-speaking countries), whom I even feature here a little bit. Her Showings are worth a read or two. Julian is not the only vernacular English mystical writer from the Middle Ages, though. Also of great popularity from the second half of the 1300s is The Cloud of Unknowing, a discussion of how to focus the mind and heart on God, a guide to contemplation (I’ve not read it, alas). Third (and also waiting to be read by me) is Richard Rolle (1300-1349), another English medieval mystical writer in the vernacular. Another Middle English mystic I have yet to read is Walter Hilton (d. 1396), whose Scale of Perfection was recommended to me by Lisa Deam who now blogs over at The Contemplative Writer.

English is not the only vernacular literature of the Latin Middle Ages. Italy produced for us St Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) , one of the first poets to write in the Italian language. Besides his Canticle of the Sun, I highly recommend the next generation’s Fioretti, or ‘Little Flowers’, which are inspirational tales about the original Franciscans. Another important writer in Italian is St Catherine of Siena, herself a Dominican (d. 1347); her Dialogue is very challenging and thought-provoking.

There is so much more to cover — the continental Old Saxon Heliand, a ninth-century epic retelling of Christ; Lilja, an Icelandic poem of the fifteenth century; Dante (!!); medieval Irish saints’ lives and poetry; and so much more. If we lean forward just a bit, we can peek into the world of sixteenth-century Carmelites writing in Spanish as well — St Teresa of Ávila and St John of the Cross.

One thought that occurs as I glance over these authors. Most of them are members of religious orders or, in the case of Julian of Norwich and Richard Rolle, hermits/anchorites. But consider which religious orders — Walter Hilton was an Augustinian; Francis founded the Franciscans; St Catherine was a Dominican. These are the orders that interact with ordinary people, rather than the orders of the cloister (the Benedictines, Cistercians, etc). I am greatly fond of monastic spirituality, but perhaps something important is to be found in this 13th- and 14th-century vernacular mendicant literature that will not be found in the majestic twelfth-century monastic literature.

They also, whether monastic or mendicant, exist in the world of the cities and the growing merchant class — not all of whom may have known Latin but who could probably read their own language to some degree. Another thought worth pondering.

Be that as it may, the Latin Middle Ages had their share of vernacular religion for the ordinary people. It wasn’t just priests for priests or monks for monks. There was vernacular preaching, there were even vernacular Bibles, and there were vernacular treatises, poems, saints’ lives, and even plays. The medieval west is, perhaps, more varied than our post-Reformation visions give it credit, then.

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Readily available mediaeval mystics

Angelic Choir by St Hildegard

Carl Trueman, back in 2008, penned a little piece about why evangelicals should read the mediaeval mystics. One of the reasons put forward is the fact that our friends who aren’t Christian but with an interest in spirituality are likely to be probing the mystics who are readily available from publishers such as Penguin as opposed to some obscure or pricey Christian publishing house.

The question arises: Which mystics can you or your friends easily get a hold of without breaking the bank or darkening the door of a theological bookshop? Here are a few, drawing from Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics series. I admit to my knowledge being incomplete; perhaps other popular translations exist!

In chronological order:

The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. Benedicta Ward, published by Penguin. More Late Antique in origin and ascetic in focus, this text is nonetheless one of the streams out of which mediaeval mystical theology and monastic thought flow, although a dense and difficult one.

The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion published by Penguin. When I read St Anselm’s 11th-century meditations, I can’t help but feel there is some element of the mystical to his devotional writings.

The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, published by Penguin. This anthology keeps tantalising me; from it, I have read some of St Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on Song of Songs, one of the most influential texts of mediaeval mysticism that made St Bernard Dante’s guide to the uncreated light and who was regarded by Thomas Merton as the last of the Fathers. Note there is also the volume Selected Works of Bernard of Clairvaux from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics.

Selected Writings of Hildegard von Bingen, published by Penguin. (12th c.) St Hildegard was almost the foundress of mediaeval women mystics in the 1100s, experiencing visions from an early age, and becoming abbess of a Benedictine nunnery. Her Scivias are commentaries upon the visions she had, but she also composed sermons, letters to important men, music, and art.

The Life of Christina of Markyate, published by Oxford. This is the story of a 12th-century woman who maintains her virginity in the face of incredible odds and goes on to become a prioress and have visions from God.

Francis & Clare of Assisi: Selected Writings from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Works from the 13th-century mystic founders of the Franciscan movement, some ascetic, some poetic, some mystical.

The Life of St. Francis by St Bonaventure, from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Bonaventure was himself a mystical theologian, and it is in the stories about St Francis of Assisi that we see the great saint’s life as a mystic most clearly.

Selected Writings of Meister Eckhart, published by Penguin. Meister Eckhart was a 13th/14th-century German mystic who has been recommended to me but of whose work I have read none. I understand that he is deeply profound but some of his ideas were condemned by the Church.

The Cloud of Unknowing, published by Penguin; also available in the series HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. This anonymous English work of the later 14th century is one of the many frequently-cited mystical books I’ve never read but want to …

Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, published by Penguin; also available from Oxford World’s Classics. Julian (14th-15th c) is another major figure amongst women mystics of the Middle Ages of whom I’ve written here before. This book is a mature reflection of a visionary experience Lady Julian experienced in the 1300s.

The Book of Margery Kempe, published by Penguin. Also available from Oxford. Kempe travelled all over Christendom to pilgrimage sites and had some ecstatic visions and dreams in the 14th/15th centuries. Full disclosure: Some people find her annoying.

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, published by Penguin. This 15h-century treatise is not, strictly speaking, a mystical work. However, it is one of the most popular works of mediaeval spirituality ever written, and its ascetic bent is an essential pairing to the mystical enterprise.

Of course, many other mediaeval mystics and spiritual theologians have been translated into English, available in series such as The Classics of Western Spirituality or Cistercian Studies, but these are the ones I’ve found from popular publishers at affordable prices available at normal bookshops…