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Matilda and Dante.
It was during the thirty years of Matilda’s Béguine life that she began writing the book 39 which has preserved her memory down to the days in which we live.
Not only does the book itself present Matilda to us as one of the most remarkable people of her age, but in a book more widely known is found, in all probability, the echo of her words, and the picture of herself as she appeared to the imagination of Dante. It is not necessary here to go into the proofs of this identification of the Béguine Matilda with the “lady all alone who went along
the “beauteous lady, who in rays of love did warm herself.” For those who desire to trace the connection of Matilda’s book with Dante’s poem, the proofs will be found in the first volume of Preger’s “History of German Mysticism,” and in a lecture delivered by Preger in the year 1873 on the subject of Dante’s Matilda.
The resemblances between Dante and Eckhart have been remarked upon in a recent work on Dante, where, however, no allusion is made to other German writers.
“Any one who has read the discourses of Meister Eckhart, ... will be struck by the 40 frequent and close resemblances, not of thought only, but of expression and illustration, which exist between him and Dante. So frequent and so close are these, that the reader can hardly conceive the possibility of their being due to mere coincidence.”
But whence did Eckhart derive his expressions which reappear in Dante? “Matilda,” says Preger, “expresses herself in a language higher than that of ordinary speech, and more fitted to the nature of heavenly things. And it may here be remarked, how frequently the elements of the speech of speculative mysticism, such as we may call the speech of Eckhart, are previously to be found in the writing of Matilda. But Matilda herself was not the creator of these expressions, for her poetical nature was inclined rather to expressions of thought in a manner less abstract, and appealing more vividly to the senses. But it would seem that before Matilda and Eckhart, certain characteristic theorems of speculative mysticism had become stereotyped in the German language. They form the stock of that capital of speech by which, especially through Eckhart’s writings, the German language has been enriched. Matilda is, therefore, of importance in leading us to the discovery of 41 how far Eckhart was indebted for his expressions to that more ancient store of language.”
It would occupy too much space to trace here the remarkable connection not only in general between the book of Matilda and that of Dante, but between certain passages which almost repeat themselves in the later book. Others, again, which are not similar, yet stand in relation to one another. The City of Woe, for example, seen by Dante, is found also in Matilda’s book, but there it is “the City of Eternal Hate;” and thus in many instances.
Matilda’s book is commonly known by the name, “The flowing forth of the light of the Godhead.” She wrote it originally in Low German, but of this original no copy is at present known to exist. Soon after her death, which occurred in 1277, a Latin translation was made by a predicant friar at Cologne, known as Brother Henry. Of this two copies remain, one of the fourteenth the other of the sixteenth century. The loose leaves had been first collected by another Brother Henry, also a predicant friar.
Afterwards a translation was made from Low German into High German by a priest, Henry von Nordlingen, assisted by a friend. It was 42 completed after two years’ labour in 1344. This Henry von Nordlingen, a friend of Suso, gave the High German translation to Margaret of the Golden Ring. Margaret gave it to the Waldschwestern in Einsiedeln. It was discovered in the convent library of Einsiedeln by Dr. Greith in the year 1861. In the year 1869 it was published in two forms by Dr. Gall Morel—first, the High German copy as discovered at Einsiedeln; secondly, a translation into modernised German.
It is from the Latin translation that it could be known to Dante.33The Latin translation of Matilda’s book appears to have been published very early, as it does not contain the seventh book, probably, therefore, considerably earlier than the year 1300. We know that the 6th and 7th Cantos of the Purgatorio were written between 1308 and 1313; the 24th Canto after the year 1314. If Dante passed through Cologne in his wanderings, as appears probable from his reference to Cologne in the Inferno, xxiii. 63, he may there have seen the book. It was, however, no doubt widely circulated before the end of the thirteenth century. The supposition that Matilda of Hackeborn was the origin of Dante’s Matilda is disproved by the later date of the Mechthilden Buch, which could scarcely have been published before the year 1310.
The original book is the oldest work of its sort hitherto known to have existed in the German tongue.
“It may justly be said,” writes Preger, “that 43 this book denotes a high degree in the measurement of the culture of German women, and of religious life in the Middle Ages. With freedom and clearness of thought, the writer combines tender and deep feeling; with a childlike and naïve perceptiveness, a true sublimity of conception. Matilda frequently touches the depths in which speculative mysticism is formed, and her influence is to be traced even in the work of the deep thinker who was her compatriot, namely, Meister Eckhart, in whose language we find the echo of Matilda’s speech. This language, which she employs with freedom and ease, takes at times the form of didactic speech, but it often rises to musical rhythm, to lyric song, and to epic portraiture. By the variety and life, as well as by the plastic intuition of expression, this work is distinguished from the monotonous writings on similar subjects by older authors.”44In his lecture on Dante’s Matilda, delivered at a later period, Preger raises the question whether the book of the Béguine is of such a nature as to have attracted in so considerable a measure the appreciation of a Dante. “I must here only repeat,” he says, “that which I have formerly written with regard to the spirit and poetical power of this work, as it appears in Morel’s edition. I think I may say that amongst all the known works of this nature up to the end of the thirteenth century, there is none that attains to the importance of this work. Only the second part of the book of the Nun Gertrude, written by herself, can be placed in any point of view in comparison with it. It is evident that the Béguine Matilda was of sufficient significance to make an impression on Dante, and to be used by him as a type of that form of contemplation which I have described under the name of practical mysticism.”44
Much more might yet be said of Matilda as a writer and a poet. But it is with Matilda, the persecuted “Friend of God,” the witness for Christ in a time dark as she describes it, that we have to do in the present instance.
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