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To most of us the Matelda of Dante has been scarcely more than a shape existing in the mind of a poet. It may be that she now stands before us not only as a woman of flesh and blood, but as one who has for us in these days a marvellous message. One of the great cloud of witnesses to the love and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, speaks to us in a German Béguine, who is now recognised by many as the original of her who conducted Dante into “the terrestrial Paradise.”
Whether or no we regard her as the guide of Dante, may she be to us a means whereby we “forget the things that are behind, and press forward to those that are before.” May she yet be to some sorrowful souls the guide into the blessed Garden of God—the garden no longer guarded by a flaming sword, but opened to the sinner who “has washed his robes, and made them white in the Blood of vi the Lamb.” May some to whom the future is dark and fearful, and who carry as a heavy burden the sin of past years, be led on across the river into the light, the sweetness, and the rest of the green pastures of Christ—the sin and sorrow left behind, remembered no more, for the Lord remembers them not. And in His Presence, where there is the fulness of joy, the sufferings of this present time can also be forgotten, for sorrow rejoiceth before Him.
Six persons have up to this time been regarded as the original of the Matelda of Dante. The Countess Matilda of Tuscany most commonly till modern times; Matilda, mother of Otto the Great; the nun of Hellfde, Matilda of Hackeborn; the “gentle lady” of the Vita Nuova, and of the Convito; Vanna, the lover of Guido Cavalcanti; and finally, the Béguine, also of Hellfde, known as Matilda of Magdeburg.
The claims of the Countess Matilda appear to rest on her name only, without further traits of resemblance; those of Matilda of Hackeborn have been disproved by the chronological researches of Preger; of the rest, only Matilda of Magdeburg shows any resemblance striking enough to lead to the conclusion that she was vii in the mind of Dante when he described the lady who sang the sweet songs of Paradise. Scartazzini, who regards the gentle lady of the Vita Nuova as the true Matelda, can assign no valid reason for doubting that Matilda the Béguine has a better claim. I think that few can doubt it who have carefully read the proofs furnished by the ancient records of the convent of Hellfde, and by the book of Matilda of Magdeburg. These proofs will be found summarised in a brochure published at Munich in 1873, “Dante’s Matelda, ein akademischer Vortrag von Wilhelm Preger.”
The extracts from her book, which I have endeavoured to translate, are chosen from the passages in her prose and poetry which best exemplify the Divine teaching, rather than from those which identify her with the Matelda of Dante. That which is useless, except for purposes of historic research, has been passed over. The writing of Mechthild, especially when in rhyme and measure, is difficult to translate, and I am conscious that the rendering of her poems is extremely imperfect.
In one case extracts from more than one have been placed together; in others, only a part of a longer poem has been given. The viii object has been rather to pass on Mechthild’s message than to give an adequate idea of the whole book, a great deal of which is defaced by the superstition of her times.
But the truth which is eternal is found richly in the midst of much that is false, and thus far, she being dead yet speaketh. That she learnt so fully much that we are now very slow to learn, is a fact the more remarkable when we consider, how lost and buried was the Gospel teaching of the Apostles in the ages that succeeded them. Their “successors” had been too often employed in “darkening counsel by words without knowledge.” All the more do the love and wisdom of God shine forth in the teaching which those who turned to Him only, received from His lips. Mechthild was one who sat at His feet and heard His words, and it is well for us to hear that which she learnt of Him. A somewhat free translation has been necessary, in order to render in English the equivalent to German mediæval language; but I trust that the sense and meaning have been faithfully, however unworthily, rendered.
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