Reviewed by Mary FROHLICH , Catholic Theological Union, CHICAGO, IL
The third volume of Bernard McGinn's history of western Christian mysticism is, as usual for McGinn's work, stellar. Drawing on his exhaustive knowledge of history and theology, McGinn provides a magisterial interpretation of the context and trends of the "new mysticism" that began to appear in the thirteenth century. Here we read insightful analyses of Francis, Clare, Bonaventure, Jacopone da Todi, Angela of Foligno, Hadewijch, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, Gertrude the Great, and dozens of others less well-known. Anyone in need of a concise but encyclopedic review of studies on aspects of mysticism during this period will do well to make this the first stop. The footnotes will then lead on to the most significant scholarship available in all major European languages.
McGinn's forte has always been the "history of ideas." As in the previous two volumes, one finds relatively less comprehensiveness regarding the life stories, contexts, and practices that make up the fullness of lived spirituality. In this volume, however, I found more of the feel of the personalities and their often profound affective struggles coming through. No doubt this is partly because of the material itself, drawn from the heyday of the "excessive" mystics whose extremes of ecstasy and abandonment were often expressed in abundantly imagistic and even erotic language. For example, it is difficult to maintain an entirely dry tone when discussing a mystic like the thirteenth century Flemish beguine Hadewijch, for whom a typical expression is "[Love's] chains conjoin all things/In a single fruition and a single delight./.../So that each one knows the other through and through/In the anguish or the repose of the madness of love . . .".
The theological contributions of women, as well as the significance for mysticism of relationships between women and men, are major themes of this tome. In the late medieval period the "vernacular theologians" --the majority of them female--began to dare not only to teach and write in the vernacular but also to claim their own experience as a prime base for their authority. McGinn's scholarship conveys high respect for the theological insights and spiritual leadership of these women, and includes balanced consideration of recent feminist interpretations. At the same time, he resists attributing specific attributes to "female mysticism," arguing instead for seeing the "new mysticism" of this period as a broader movement that was often, but not exclusively, pioneered by women.
It is difficult to find much to criticize in a work such as this. One could perhaps quibble with the inclusion of figures such as Christina of Stommeln, whose "mysticism" seems to consist largely of bizarre and highly improbable feats. Yet considering the fact that many today still identify the mystical with just such phenomena, the effort to situate and evaluate them is a necessary part of the study of mysticism. As for other points of caution, I would note that this is most likely not the book to use as a course text in undergraduate or adult education settings. Its level of analysis and scholarship make it ideal for graduate courses, or as a recommended reference work for students researching specific figures or movements.
The process of the democratization and secularization of religious experience that began during the era covered here is still bearing its fruits today. Fascination with medieval mystics, especially the women, continues to grow. By making accessible in one place a narrative summary of the contexts and characters of late medieval mysticism, as well as guidance in locating the best scholarly views for further research, this volume provides a much-needed service to both the academy and the wider church.