The fragmentation of the body in central-Medieval female mysticism

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Abstract

The thesis of this article is that the fragmentation of the female body, focusing rather on its individual and disjointed parts than on the body as a unit, is an understated yet discernible feature in the work of several prominent female mystics from the 12th and 13th centuries. When references to bodily fragmentation in these works are juxtaposed it becomes possible to indicate this fragmentation or disjointing of the female body as an understated feature of, yet pertinent trend in, female mysticism during the central Middle Ages. The article systematically investigates four idea-historical sources (theological as well as philosophical, with specific reference to the positions of Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus Confessor, Richard of Saint Victor and Alexander of Hales) as subtle influences on both the Minnemystik and Wesenmystik trajectories in the central Middle Ages, focusing on relevant passages in the mystical writings of (alphabetically) Beatrice of Nazareth (ca. 1205–1268), Birgitta Birgersdotter (1302/3–1373); Gertrude von Helfta (1256 – ca. 1302), Hadewijch of Antwerp (fl. 1240), Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179), Marguerite Porete (1250–1310) and Mechtild von Magdeburg (ca. 1207 – ca. 1282). In conclusion the sacramental healing of the disjointed female body in these women’s mystic unifications with God, including the profoundly erotic nature thereof in particularly Minnemystik, is considered.

After a short introduction, Medieval Minnemystik and Wesenmystik are importantly distinguished: Minnemystik (with Hadewijch of Antwerp, Beatrice of Nazareth, Hildegard von Bingen and Gertrude von Helfta as some its most prominent exponents) can be described as an overtly feminine phenomenon, where the verb love (minnen) is employed to describe the (indeed worldly) unification between God and (wo)man as an erotic love relationship: God allows God to be experienced as Love (Minne) by the (female) subject in search of God’s love (minne). The exceptional feature of Minnemystik is its profound emotional-ecstatic and erotic nature: The union of God’s Love and the subject’s love affects the mind and the senses of the human being involved to such an extent that it results in various psychosomatic effects. These effects include intense visionary experiences with a deep-rooted sexual character (and, in Wesenmystik, the eradication of human subjectivity). The experience of the union with God and God’s Love leads to a concurrent psychological departure from the Self as well as an expansion of the Self’s self-understanding and interpretation of the world. Marguerite Porete presented a speculative Wesenmystik in which a spontaneous and radical sense of identity, similarity and affinity between the human soul and God are articulated (a less drastic version of Wesenmystik is encountered in the work of another beguine, Mechtild von Magdeburg). Where Minnemystik is overtly erotic in its presentation of a relationship, Wesenmystik, preoccupied with philosophical ontology, employs a robust imagery no less provocative than Minnemystik itself.

Four crucial discursive and idea-historical sources of central-Medieval female mysticism are next presented: 1) The Neoplatonic-inspired and negative theology of Pseudo-Dionysius (ca. 500) and its emphasis on the transcending of mundane (including dogmatic) language; 2) the four syntheses of Maximus Confessor (580–662); 3) crucially, Richard of St Victor’s (d. 1173) experience-driven epistemology; and 4) the Franciscan Alexander of Hales’s (ca. 1185–1245) synthesis of the perspectives of Dionysius, Maximus and St Victor in his emphasis on the intimate nature of the incarnation. From this opened-up and dynamic theological-philosophical anthropology follows an enlightenment of human understanding. This enlightenment is not established in the fact that it is filled with some new insight, such as a new understanding of the contents of faith, beauty or justice. It is not, therefore, about a new-found ability to assess more morally or impartially, but rather enlightenment from the unified experience with God: In the union with the Beloved, His incomparable Other, His beloved, may now be rationally known. Reason, as St Victor insisted, therefore plays a part in this highest mystical experience of the highest being, because it illuminates the lasting transcendence of God. Through the intervention of unification, the mystic can learn how to love God in God’s independence and wholly Otherness. The bodily experience of God in Minnemystik points towards St Victor’s oculus imaginationis, which can contemplate material reality only because it is “body” and materiality itself. The applications of the rational, discursive mind, oculus rationis, however, lead to enlightenment and understanding beyond oculus imaginationis. Yet both are subordinate to oculus intelligentiae, wherein God contemplates Godself and the unification between Beloved and beloved gives access, in the end, to precisely that divine Self-contemplation: whereas the objects of experience of oculus imaginationis (such as the body and functions of the body, such as the sexual) become present in an immediate and unmediated way, in oculus rationis the mind reflects on a mediated yet not-immediate reality, which is God. In the end – and this is the highest function of both Minnemystik and Wesenmystik, based on oculus intelligentiae as the complete invisible – God is, at last, contemplated as an immediate present.

Against this discursive backdrop the fragmentation of the female body is considered in terms of the fetishisation and eroticisation of the single part of the female body from the 12th century onward as a unique reaction to the theological-philosophical debates on the relation between universality or the whole and particularity or the part at the time. The role of medical conventions about the female body, especially with regard to orgasm, is explored, with special reference to the influence of Ibn Sina’s (Avicenna; AH370–AH428 / 980–1037) Liber canonis totius medicinis cordialibus, et cantica in the Latin West in the 12th century. Parts of the female body, especially the heart, hair (including pubic hair), arteries and veins, bones and bone marrow, are indicated as crucial focal points in this regard.

In close conjunction with the analyses of Caroline Walker Bynum and Michelle Sauer, mystical female orgasm or raptus as a form of “divine orgasm” is presented as the result of this fixation on the individual and fragmented parts of the female body. Juxtaposing relevant passages in the mystical works of several female mystics from the 12th and 13th centuries, bodily fragmentation is described as an innovative form of gender subjectivity, produced by the instigation of female sexual desire within a radically spiritualised context and culturally mediated by the cosmological and medical conventions of the time. The healing and unification of the fragmented female body in the sacrament of the Eucharist is finally considered as a post-raptus reconstruction of the female subject in her radical unification with God.

Keywords: Alexander of Hales (ca. 1185–1245); Beatrice of Nazareth (ca. 1205–1268); Birgitta Birgersdotter (1302/3–1373); Female body in the Middle Ages; Fragmentation of the female body; Medieval mysticism; Minnemystik and Wesenmystik; Gertrude von Helfta (1256 – ca. 1302); Hadewijch of Antwerp (fl. 1240); Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179); Marguerite Porete (1250–1310); Maximus Confessor (580–662); Mechtild von Magdeburg (ca. 1207 – ca. 1282); Pseudo-Dionisius (ca. 500); Richard of St Victor (d. 1173)

 

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