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FROM the end of the thirteenth to the beginning of the fifteenth century may be called the golden age of mystical literature in the vernacular. In Germany, we find Mechthild of Magdeburg (d. 1277), Meister Eckhart (d. 1327), Johannes Tauler (d. 1361), and Heinrich Suso (d. 1365); in Flanders, Jan Ruysbroek (d. 1381); in Italy, Dante Alighieri himself (d. 1321), Jacopone da Todi (d. 1306), St. Catherine of Siena (d. 1380), and many lesser writers who strove, in prose or in poetry, to express the hidden things of the spirit, the secret intercourse of the human soul with the Divine, no longer in the official Latin of the Church, but in the language of their own people, "a man's own vernacular," which "is nearest to him, inasmuch as it is most closely united to him."
11Dante, convivio, i. 12.
In England, the great names of
Richard Rolle, the Hermit of Hampole (d. 1349), of Walter
Hilton (d. 1396), and of Mother Juliana of Norwich, whose
Revelation of Divine Love professedly date from 1373, speak for
The seven tracts or treatises before us were published in 1521 in a little quarto volume: "Imprynted at London in Poules chyrchyarde at the sygne of the Trynyte, by Henry Pepwell. In the yere of our lorde God, M.CCCCC.XXI., the xvi. daye of Nouembre." They may, somewhat loosely speaking, be regarded as belonging to the fourteenth century, though the first and longest of them professes to be but a translation of the work of the great Augustinian mystic of an earlier age.
St. Bernard, Richard of St. Victor, and St. Bonaventura--all three very familiar figures to students of Dante's Paradiso--are the chief influences in the story of English mysticism. And, through the writings of his latter-day followers, Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and the anonymous author of the Divine Cloud of Unknowing, Richard of St. Victor is, perhaps, the most important of the three.
Himself either a Scot or an Irishman by birth, Richard entered the famous abbey of St. Victor, a house of Augustinian canons near Paris, some time before 1140, where he became the chief pupil of the great mystical doctor and theologian whom the later Middle Ages regarded as a second Augustine, Hugh of St. Victor. After Hugh's death (1141), Richard succeeded to his influence as a teacher, and completed his work in creating the mystical theology of the Church. His masterpiece, De Gratia Contemplationis, known also as Benjamin
xiiiMajor, in five books, is a work of marvellous spiritual insight, unction, and eloquence, upon which Dante afterwards based the whole mystical psychology of the Paradiso.22Cf. the Letter to Can Grande (Epist. x. 28), where Dante, like St. Thomas Aquinas before him, refers to the Benjamin Major as "Richardus de Sancto Victore in libro De Contemplatione." In it Richard shows how the soul passes upward through the six steps of contemplation--in imagination, in reason, in understanding--gradually discarding all sensible objects of thought; until, in the sixth stage, it contemplates what is above reason, and seems to be beside reason, or even contrary to reason. He teaches that there are three qualities of contemplation, according to its intensity: mentis dilatatio, an enlargement of the soul's vision without exceeding the bounds of human activity; mentis sublevatio, elevation of mind, in which the intellect, divinely illumined, transcends the measure of humanity, and beholds the things above itself, but does not entirely lose self-consciousness; and mentis alienatio, or ecstasy, in which all memory of the present leaves the mind, and it passes into a state of divine transfiguration, in which the soul gazes upon truth without any veils of creatures, not in a mirror darkly, but in its pure simplicity. This master of the spiritual life died in 1173. Amongst the glowing souls of the great doctors and theologians in the fourth heaven, St. Thomas Aquinas
xivbids Dante mark the ardent spirit of "Richard who in
contemplation was more than man."33Par. x. 131, 132.
Benjamin, for Richard, is the type of contemplation, in accordance with the Vulgate version of Psalm lxvii.: Ibi Benjamin adolescentulus in mentis excessu: "There is Benjamin, a youth, in ecstasy of mind"--where the English Bible reads: "Little Benjamin their ruler."44 Ps. lxviii. 27. At the birth of Benjamin, his mother Rachel dies: "For, when the mind of man is rapt above itself, it surpasseth all the limits of human reasoning. Elevated above itself and rapt in ecstasy, it beholdeth things in the divine light at which all human reason succumbs. What, then, is the death of Rachel, save the failing of reason?"55 Benjamin Minor, cap. 73.
The treatise here printed under the title Benjamin is based upon a smaller work of Richard's, a kind of introduction to the Benjamin Major, entitled: Benjamin Minor; or: De Praeparatione animi ad Contemplationem. It is a paraphrase of certain portions of this work, with a few additions, and large omissions. Among the portions omitted are the two passages that, almost alone among Richard's writings, are known to the general reader--or, at least, to people who do not claim to be specialists in mediaeval theology. In the one, he speaks of knowledge of self as the Holy Hill, the Mountain of the Lord:--
"If the mind would fain ascend to the height of science, let its first and principal study be to know itself. Full knowledge of the rational spirit is a great and high mountain. This mountain transcends all the peaks of all mundane sciences, and looks down upon all the philosophy and all the science of the world from on high. Could Aristotle, could Plato, could the great band of philosophers ever attain to it?"66 Benjamin Minor, cap. 75. Cf. Shelley, The Triumph of Life: Their lore taught them not this: to know themselves." This passage of Richard is curiously misquoted and its meaning perverted in Hauréau, Histoire de la Philosophie Scolastique, i. pp. 513, 514, in the Dictionary of National Biography, vol. xvi., and elsewhere.
In the other, still adhering to his image of the mountain of self-knowledge, he makes his famous appeal to the Bible, as the supreme test of truth, the only sure guard that the mystic has against being deluded in his lofty speculations:--
"Even if you think that you have been taken up into that high mountain apart, even if you think that you see Christ transfigured, do not be too ready to believe anything you see in Him or hear from Him, unless Moses and Elias run to meet Him. I hold all truth in suspicion which the authority of the Scriptures does not confirm, nor do I receive Christ in His clarification unless Moses and Elias are talking with Him."77 Benjamin Minor, cap. 81.
On the other hand, the beautiful passage with which the version closes, so typical of the burning love of Christ, shown in devotion to the name of Jesus, which glows through all the writings of the school of the Hermit of Hampole, is an addition of the translator:--
"And therefore, what so thou be that covetest to come to contemplation of God, that is to say, to bring forth such a child that men clepen in the story Benjamin (that is to say, sight of God), then shalt thou use thee in this manner. Thou shalt call together thy thoughts and thy desires, and make thee of them a church, and learn thee therein for to love only this good word Jesu, so that all thy desires and all thy thoughts are only set for to love Jesu, and that unceasingly as it may be here; so that thou fulfil that is said in the psalm: 'Lord, I shall bless Thee in churches'; that is, in thoughts and desires of the love of Jesu. And then, in this church of thoughts and desires, and in this onehead of studies and of wills, look that all thy thoughts, and all thy desires, and all thy studies, and all thy wills be only set in the love and the praising of this Lord Jesu, without forgetting, as far forth as thou mayst by grace, and as thy frailty will suffer; evermore meeking thee to prayer and to counsel, patiently abiding the will of our Lord, unto the time that thy mind be ravished above itself, to be fed with the fair food of angels in the beholding of God and ghostly things; so that it be fulfilled in thee that is written in the psalm: Ibi
xviiBenjamin adolescentulus in mentis excessu; that
is: 'There is Benjamin, the young child, in ravishing of
mind."'88 Cf. below, pp. 32, 33.
The text printed by Pepwell differs slightly from that of the manuscripts, of which a large number have been preserved. Among others, it is found in the Arundel MS. 286, and the Harleian MSS. 674, 1022, and 2373. It has been published from the Harl. MS. 1022 by Professor C. Horstman, who observes that "it is very old, and certainly prior to Walter Hilton."99 Richard Rolle of Hampole and his Followers, edited by C. Horstman, vol. i. pp. 162-172. It is evidently by one of the followers of Richard Rolle, dating from about the middle of the fourteenth century. External and internal evidence seems to point to its being the work of the anonymous author of the Divine Cloud of Unknowing.
This is not the place to tell again the wonderful story of St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), one of the noblest and most truly heroic women that the world has ever seen. Her life and manifold activities only touched England indirectly. The famous English captain of mercenaries, Sir John Hawkwood, was among the men of the world who, at least for a while, were won to nobler ideals by her letters and exhortations. Two of her principal disciples, Giovanni Tantucci and William Flete, both Augustinian hermits, were graduates of Cambridge;
xviiithe latter, an Englishman by birth, was appointed by
her on her deathbed to preside over the continuance of her work in
her native city, and a vision of his, concerning the legitimacy of
the claims of Urban the Sixth to the papal throne, was brought
forward as one of the arguments that induced England, on the
outbreak of the Great Schism in the Church (1378), to adhere to the
Roman obedience for which Catherine was battling to the death. A
letter which she herself addressed on the same subject to King
Richard the Second has not been preserved.
About 1493, Wynkyn de Worde printed The Lyf of saint Katherin of Senis the blessid virgin, edited by Caxton; which is a free translation, by an anonymous Dominican, with many omissions and the addition of certain reflections, of the Legenda, the great Latin biography of St. Catherine by her third confessor, Friar Raymond of Capua, the famous master-general and reformer of the order of St. Dominic (d. 1399). He followed this up, in 1519, by an English rendering by Brother Dane James of the Saint's mystical treatise the Dialogo: "Here begynneth the Orcharde of Syon; in the whiche is conteyned the reuelacyons of seynt Katheryne of Sene, with ghostly fruytes and precyous plantes for the helthe of mannes soule."1010 Sene, Senis, or Seenes, "Siena," from the Latin Senae (Catharina de Senis). This was not translated from St. Catherine's own vernacular, but from
xixFriar Raymond's Latin version of the latter, first
printed at Brescia in 1496. From the first of these two works, the
Lyf, are selected the passages--the Divers Doctrines
devout and fruitful--which Pepwell here presents to us; but it
seems probable that he was not borrowing directly from Caxton, as
an almost verbally identical selection, with an identical title, is
found in the British Museum, MS. Reg. 17 D.V., where it follows the
Divine Cloud of Unknowing.
Margery Kempe is a much more mysterious personage. She has come down to us only in a tiny quarto of eight pages printed by Wynkyn de Worde:--
"Here begynneth a shorte treatyse of contemplacyon taught by our lorde Jhesu cryste, or taken out of the boke of Margerie kempe of Lynn."
And at the end:--
"Here endeth a shorte treatyse called Margerie kempe de Lynn. Enprynted in Fletestrete by Wynkyn de worde."
The only known copy is preserved in the University of Cambridge. It is undated, but appears to have been printed in 1501.1111 Cf. E. Gordon Duff, Hand-Lists of English Printers, 1501-1556, i. p. 24. With a few insignificant variations, it is the same as was printed twenty years later by Pepwell, who merely inserts a few words like "Our Lord Jesus said unto her," or "she said," and adds that she was a
xxdevout ancress. Tanner, not very accurately, writes:
"This book contains various discourses of Christ (as it is
pretended) to certain holy women; and, written in the style of
modern Quietists and Quakers, speaks of the inner love of God, of
perfection, et cetera."1212 Bibliotheca Britannico-Hibernica p. 452.
manuscript of the work is known to exist, and absolutely no traces
can be discovered of the "Book of Margery Kempe," out of which it
is implied by the Printer that these beautiful thoughts and sayings
There is nothing in the treatise itself to enable us to fix its date. It is, perhaps, possible that the writer or recipient of these revelations is the "Margeria filia Johannis Kempe," who, between 1284 and 1298, gave up to the prior and convent of Christ Church, Canterbury, all her rights in a piece of land with buildings and appurtenances, "which falls to me after the decease of my brother John, and lies in the parish of Blessed Mary of Northgate outside the walls of the city of Canterbury."1313 Quietaclacmium Margerie filie Johannis Kempe de domibus in parochia de Northgate. Brit. Mus., Add MS. 25,109. The revelations show that she was (or had been) a woman of some wealth and social position, who had abandoned the world to become an ancress, following the life prescribed in that gem of early English devotional literature, the Ancren Riwle.1414 She was, however, apparently less strictly enclosed than was usual for an ancress. It is clearly only a fragment of her
xxicomplete book (whatever that may have been); but it is
enough to show that she was a worthy precursor of that other great
woman mystic of East Anglia: Juliana of Norwich. For Margery, as
for Juliana, Love is the interpretation of revelation, and the key
to the universal mystery:1515 Cf. G. Tyrrell, Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love shewed to Mother Juliana of Norwich, Preface, p. v.
"Daughter, thou mayst no better please God, than to think continually in His love."
"If thou wear the habergeon or the hair, fasting bread and water, and if thou saidest every day a thousand Pater Nosters, thou shalt not please Me so well as thou dost when thou art in silence, and suffrest Me to speak in thy soul."
"Daughter, if thou knew how sweet thy love is to Me, thou wouldest never do other thing but love Me with all thine heart."
"In nothing that thou dost or sayest, daughter, thou mayst no better please God than believe that He loveth thee. For, if it were possible that I might weep with thee, I would weep with thee for the compassion that I have of thee."
And, from the midst of her celestial contemplations, rises up the simple, poignant cry of human suffering: "Lord, for Thy great pain have mercy on my little pain."
We are on surer ground with the treatise that follows,
xxiithe Song of Angels.1616 In the British Museum copy of Pepwell's volume, ff. 1-2 of the Epistle of Prayer and f. 1 of the Song of Angels are transposed. Walter Hilton--who died on March 24, 1396--holds a position in the religious life and spiritual literature of England in the latter part of the fourteenth century somewhat similar to that occupied by Richard Rolle in its earlier years. Like the Hermit of Hampole, he was the founder of a school, and the works of his followers cannot always be distinguished with certainty from his own. Like his great master in the mystical way, Richard of St. Victor, Hilton was an Augustinian, the head of a house of canons at Thurgarton, near Newark. His great work, the Scala Perfectionis, or Ladder of Perfection, "which expoundeth many notable doctrines in Contemplation," was first printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1494, and is still widely used for devotional reading. A shorter treatise, the Epistle to a Devout Man in Temporal Estate, first printed by Pynson in 1506, gives practical guidance to a religious layman of wealth and social position, for the fulfilling of the duties of his state without hindrance to his making profit in the spiritual life. These, with the Song of Angels, are the only printed works that can be assigned to him with certainty, though many others, undoubtedly from his pen, are to be found in manuscripts, and a complete and critical edition of Walter Hilton seems still in
xxiiithe far future.1717 Cf. C. T. Martin, in Dictionary of National Biography, vol. ix. For Hilton's alleged authorship of the De Imitatione Christi, see J. E. G. de Montmorency, Thomas à Kempis, his Age and Book, pp. 141-169.
The Song of Angels has been twice printed since the edition of
Pepwell.1818 Edited by G. G. Perry, under the title The Anehede of Godd with mannis saule, as the work of Richard Rolle, in English Prose Treatises of Richard Rolle de Hampole (Early English Text Society, 1866), pp. 14-19; and, in two texts, by C. Horstman, op. cit., vol. i. pp. 175-182.
mystical language, tinged with the philosophy of that mysterious
Neo-Platonist whom we call the pseudo-Dionysius, it tells of the
wonderful "onehead," the union of the soul with God in perfect
"This onehead is verily made when the mights of the soul are reformed by grace to the dignity and the state of the first condition; that is, when the mind is firmly established, without changing and wandering, in God and ghostly things, and when the reason is cleared from all worldly and fleshly beholdings, and from all bodily imaginations, figures, and fantasies of creatures, and is illumined by grace to behold God and ghostly things, and when the will and the affection is purified and cleansed from all fleshly, kindly, and worldly love, and is inflamed with burning love of the Holy Ghost."
But to this blessed condition none may attain perfectly here on earth. The writer goes on to speak of the mystical consolations and visitations granted to the
xxivloving soul in this life, distinguishing the feelings
and sensations that are mere delusions, from those that truly
proceed from the fire of love in the affection and the light of
knowing in the reason, and are a very anticipation of that
ineffable "onehead" in heaven.
The three remaining treatises--the Epistle of Prayer, the Epistle of Discretion in Stirrings of the Soul, and the Treatise of Discerning of Spirits1919 In the MSS. this is called: A pystyll of discrecion in knowenge of spirites; or: A tretis of discrescyon of spirites. --are associated in the manuscripts with four other works: the Divine Cloud of Unknowing, the Epistle of Privy Counsel, a paraphrase of the Mystical Theology of Dionysius entitled Dionise Hid Divinity, and the similar translation or paraphrase of the Benjamin Minor of Richard of St. Victor already considered.2020 All in Harl. MS. 674, and other MSS. The Divine Cloud of Unknowing, and portions of the Epistle, Book, or Treatise, of Privy Counsel have been printed, in a very unsatisfactory manner, in The Divine Cloud with notes and a Preface by Father Augustine Baker, O.S.B. Edited by Henry Collins. London, 1871. These seven treatises are all apparently by the same hand. The Divine Cloud of Unknowing has been credited to Walter Hilton, as likewise to William Exmew, or to Maurice Chauncy, Carthusians of the sixteenth century, whereas the manuscripts are at least a hundred years earlier than their time; but it seems safer to attribute the whole series to an unknown writer of the second part of the fourteenth century, who
xxv"marks a middle point between Rolle and Hilton."2121 D. M. M'Intyre, The Cloud of Unknowing, in the Expositor, series vii. vol. 4 (1907). Dr. Rufus M. Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion, p. 336, regards these treatises as the work of "a school of mystics gathered about the writer of the Hid Divinity." Neither of these authors includes the translation of the Benjamin Minor, which, however, appears to me undoubtedly from the same hand as that of the Divine Cloud.
The spiritual beauty of the three
here reprinted--and, more particularly, of the Epistle of
Prayer, with its glowing exposition of the doctrine of Pure
Love--speaks for itself. They show us mysticism brought down, if I
may say so, from the clouds for the practical guidance of the
beginner along this difficult way. And, in the Epistle of
Discretion, we find even a rare touch of humour; where the
counsellor "conceives suspiciously" of his correspondent's
spiritual stirrings, lest "they should be conceived on the ape's
manner." Like St. Catherine of Siena, though in a less degree, he
has the gift of vision and the faculty of intuition combined with a
homely common sense, and can illustrate his "simple meaning" with a
I have borrowed a phrase from St. Catherine, "The Cell of Self-Knowledge," la cella del cognoscimento di noi, as the title of this little volume. Knowledge of self and purity of heart, the mystics teach, are the indispensable conditions for the highest mystical elevation. Knowledge of self, for Richard of St. Victor, is the high
xxvimountain apart upon which Christ is transfigured; for Catherine of Siena, it is the stable in which the pilgrim through time to eternity must be born again. "Wouldest thou behold Christ transfigured?" asks Richard; "ascend this mountain; learn to know thyself."2222 Benjamin Minor, cap. 78. "Thou dost see," writes Catherine, speaking in the person of the eternal Father, "this sweet and loving Word born in a stable, while Mary was journeying; to show to you, who are travellers, that you must ever be born again in the stable of knowledge of yourselves, where you will find Him born by grace within your souls."2323 Dialogo cap. 151. The soul is a mirror that reflects the invisible things of God, and it is by purity of heart alone that this mirror is made clear. "Therefore," writes Richard of St. Victor, "let whoso thirsts to see his God, wipe his mirror, purify his spirit. After he hath thus cleared his mirror and long diligently gazed into it, a certain clarity of divine light begins to shine through upon him, and a certain immense ray of unwonted vision to appear before his eyes. This light irradiated the eyes of him who said: Lord, lift Thou up the light of Thy countenance upon us; Thou hast put gladness in my heart. From the vision of this light which it sees with wonder in itself, the mind is wondrously inflamed and inspired to behold the light which is above itself."2424 Benjamin Minor, cap. 72.
Pepwell's volume has been made the basis of the present edition of these seven treatises; but, in each case, the text has been completely revised. The text of the Benjamin, the Epistle of Prayer, the Epistle of Discretion, and the Treatise of Discerning of Spirits, has been collated with that given by the Harleian MSS. 674 and 2373; and, in most cases, the readings of the manuscripts have been adopted in preference to those of the printed version. The Katherin has been collated with Caxton's Lyf; the Margery Kempe with Wynkyn de Worde's precious little volume in the University Library of Cambridge; and the Song of Angels with the text published by Professor Horstman from the Camb. MS Dd. v. 55. As the object of this book is not to offer a Middle English text to students, but a small contribution to mystical literature, the orthography has been completely modernised, while I have attempted to retain enough of the original language to preserve the flavour of mediaeval devotion.
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