Book Culture

by Devon Sherwood

On February 23, 2024, The Other Sister held a thematic meeting on the topic of book culture among non-cloistered religious women. Works from the invited speakers had been circulated prior to the meeting.

  • John Van Engen (University of Notre Dame) gave a short introduction.
  • Barbara Newman (Northwestern University), “Mechthild of Magdeburg at Helfta: A Study in Literary Influence,” in Women Intellectuals and Leaders in the Middle Ages, ed. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Katie Bugyis and John Van Engen, Cambridge, MA: D.S. Brewer, 2020, p. 383–95.
  • Diana Denissen (Université de Lausanne), “Literacies, Learning, and Communal Reform: The Case of Alijt Bake,” in Medieval Women Religious, c. 800–c. 1500. New Perspectives, ed. Kimm Curran and Janet Burton. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2023, p. 137–51.
  • Patricia Stoop (Universiteit Antwerp) for an article written with Anna Dlabačová, “Incunabula in Communities of Canonesses Regular and Tertiaries Related to the Devotio Moderna: Toward an ‘Inclusive’ Approach of Late Medieval Book Ownership in the Low Countries,” Quaerendo, 51 (3), 219–48.

As is customary, the four speakers first spoke for a few minutes.

John Van Engen (University of Notre Dame) discussed his 2020 publication, Women Intellectuals and Leaders in the Middle Ages (co-edited with Kathryn Kerby-Fulton and Katie Ann-Marie Bugyis). He explained that the recent turn to inclusion in the history of women and a significant emphasis on the struggles of women inspired the editors to consider the roles of all women in religious history – those who struggled and those who did not. He highlighted the theme of “belonging” within religious communities as central to the study of women religious, emphasizing cultural, social, and religious inclusion. He concluded his introduction by sharing that Women Intellectuals focuses on this narrative of inclusion and development of community over time. Some similar themes have been highlighted in a recent review of the volume by Annette Volfing, in Speculum (2023), 898-899.

Barbara Newman (Northwestern University), discussed how the perspective explored in the volume Women Intellectuals focuses on the intellect of women religious. Her presentation emphasized how much fantastic research has come from approaching women religious in this way. Her chapter employs this lens to study Mechthild of Magdeburg, who, going blind, was invited to enter the Helfta monastery to complete the last book of her magnum opus, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, in dictation. Newman suggested that to be a writer was to work within a literary tradition. How, then, she asked, did women use their sources? What were their influences, how did they rebel, how did they influence others, and how did they understand and work within genres? Such questions are now givens serious consideration and new insights can come from an examination of how women writers responded to each other and to their predecessors: for example, Elizabeth of Schönau and Hildegard of Bingen, Hadewijch of Antwerp and her unnamed disciple, “Hadewijch II,” and Birgitta of Sweden and Margery Kempe have recently been studied. Newman’s chapter considers the “Two Mechthilds”: the visionary Mechthild of Magdeburg and her younger contemporary, Mechthild of Hackeborn, whom the elder Mechthild’s writing had inspired. Their cases are important because we rarely know so much about the contexts and conditions for medieval women’s writing. Newman explained that Low and High German are complex and that it can be difficult to trace discernible influences, such as remnants of court poetry, between texts written in the vernacular. For example, Mechthild of Magdeburg used the Goddess figure in her writing. While Mechthild of Hackeborn also used the same figure, she employed it via Latin masculine conventions, as with “love (amor) in the figure of a beautiful virgin,” thus obfuscating a direct link to the Goddess. Newman also referenced the possible influences of bridal mysticism, which has a long history of use and is significantly different from men’s mysticism, in Mechthild of Magdeburg’s texts. Differences are apparent between what Newman terms “servile-filial-bridal love” used in men’s mystic writing, in which God remains stable, and bridal mysticism in Mechthild of Magdeburg’s and Mechthild of Hackeborn’s texts, which depict God as filled with fierce desire. Mechthild of Magdeburg had to be moderated by the Helfta nuns due to her perceived excessive, erotic, and heterodox language. Her mysticism is very individual; theirs is communal. Newman also problematized the question of external virtues – while Mechthild of Magdeburg sheds them, the nuns of Helfta do not. Finally, Newman made a comparison between Mechthild of Magdeburg and Alijt Bake, the subject of the second speaker’s research. Both women lived extra-religious lives prior to entering nunneries. While Mechthild of Magdeburg did not know Latin and functioned exclusively in the vernacular, however, Bake was rebellious against the prospect of institutional learning and favoured prophetic revelation and book learning. Mechthild of Magdeburg needed assisted living; Bake was younger and drew concern about heresy, which she met with ferocity.

Diana Denissen (Université de Lausanne) discussed how her ideas since writing “Literacies, Learning, and Communal Reform: The Case of Alijt Bake” have evolved with her current research. She explored plural literacy as a continuum (e.g. oral vs. written, vernacular vs. Latin) and suggested that it is difficult to discuss literacy within women’s communities because of its many forms. The sister-books of Engelthal and Diepenveen contain evidence about how female religious translated or interpreted Latin texts during table readings, making texts available to all, regardless of levels of literacy.  Alijt Bake’s life further problematizes the concept of literacy and expresses a paradox about learning related to the tension between her intellectual skepticism/anti-intellectuality and her desire to read specific titles quickly to absorb as much information as possible. Denissen further considered the question of how books entered and left the convent, stating that both women religious and lay women moved books between communities. Her book chapter has become part of a broader project on spiritual autobiographies and biographical sketches incorporating interesting aspects of hagiography in sister books, and particularly on the relationship between social and intellectual networks that cross linguistic boundaries.

Patricia Stoop (Universiteit Antwerp) reiterated the previous speakers’ emphasis on collective and diverse forms of literacy and then discussed her co-authored article (with Anna Dlabačová), which grew out of Dlabačová’s research on ownership inscriptions from a printer in the Low Countries and Stoop’s similar work in Brussels. She contextualized their research by relating that, at the end of the eighteenth century, when the convent of Jericho was dissolved, a huge collection of books was discovered. Several incunabula were sold to other women, as mentioned in other contemporary archival documents. Yet, there is a massive gap between the claimed number of books and what remains. Early-modern book ownership needs to be studied as it is not as clear-cut as in the modern era. Certain Dutch lists of book ownership, copying, and transmission exist, but not for early printed books or manuscripts. The Devotio moderna movement had a huge impact on book production in the Low Countries. How did books come into convents? Were they purchased, bequeathed, or borrowed? What kind of texts were included? Were they new texts or copies? Stoop stated that the issue with this kind of research is that books are not systematically inventoried with ownership marks. She has begun to inventory books related to women religious in the Low Countries in the 1600s and researches how women were involved in the circulation of books, whether as authors, illuminators, or in other roles. She hopes that this will eventually lead to a broader understanding of intellectual culture across convents and institutions.


Joseph Akl moderated the Q&A period. The first question was from Isabelle Cochelin, who asked Newman and Denissen whether the women whom they study seem to have been sensitive to the issue of enclosure vs. non-enclosure. Newman answered that women often transitioned between groups (e.g. from being beguines or anchoresses to cloistered nuns). “We tend to build walls between orders,” she stated, “based on history written by religious men, but women tended to be more fluid and moved around much more than men or what men expected, but where you placed them wasn’t the question that mattered the most to these women.” Denissen added that Alijt Bake had a full life before entering a convent, and there seems to have been a text about her life before this point. She had friends among other groups, and Denissen wonders if she could have been an anchoress if she had been advised differently. Bake also appears to have experienced anxiety related to which convent would have suited her best – how did she want to express and live her spirituality? These tensions, preserved in her writing, reveal choice in the different paths for women religious.

Van Engen offered some additional contextual information about Bake’s life. She came from a privileged family and, after experiencing a deeply unpleasant unknown event in Utrecht, was directed to start over in a religious community further to the South. The section of her writing describing the event is missing (and was possibly confiscated from her at some point), but contextual information suggests that she wanted to teach, preach, and write and had already started doing this, potentially without permission. These threads are picked up in later sections of her writing as she explains how she became a woman religious, and she is reprimanded repeatedly for engaging in certain kinds of reading. Bake asserted herself as an intellectual figure whose writing could not be understood by some of her superiors. Van Engen suggested that it is possible she was deposed and exiled from Utrecht – letters written to friends ask for suggestions for her defence and bring up the possibility of an exile to Antwerp. Denissen asked Van Engen why Bake chose to relocate to Ghent and why she settled on this particular convent. Van Engen answered that Johannes Eckhart’s house was turned into a convent and that they offered to take Bake in. In fact, she was eventually made prioress (possibly by Eckhart himself) at a young age. Her removal from the position most likely occurred after his death. Stoop added that Bake suggests that she is unconvinced of the importance of texts and that spirituality should be learned elsewhere. Denissen responded that, on the contrary, texts were quite important to Bake. She also suggested that Bake’s commentary was a rebellion against certain forms of authority and possibly perceived as dangerous due to her visionary nature of textual production and drive to share knowledge with others, whether acceptable or not. Yet, she also had non-textual visionary experiences.

Next, Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski discussed the trajectory of Colette of Corbie’s vocational shift from anchoress to Observant Clarissan. She also considered the process of transition between manuscripts, incunabula, and early printed books, when texts were sometimes transcribed back into manuscripts. She asked Stoop’s opinion of this phenomenon. Stoop responded by considering why people began to copy printed books in manuscript forms. As an example, she brought up copying for annotation and as a spiritual exercise, also noting that some people might not have been able to afford a printed book, though she thinks that this is unlikely. Anna Dlabačová added other possibilities for manual transcription, such as the desire for a luxurious manuscript copy. She suggested that scholarship is only beginning to form understandings of these transitions since the trajectory from manuscript to printed book is often (wrongly) perceived as linear. Newman reiterated what other speakers had responded, focusing on what is lost in the transition from manuscript to printed book: hand-copying books is useful for intellectual and spiritual growth and to deeply internalize texts.

Bruce Venarde asked Newman about her evocation of a sanitization of Mechthild of Magdeburg’s writing. Who did Mechthild think would be reading her novel ideas, which incorporated so much originality? Newman responded that there was certainly an element of subversion at work since Helfta nuns were known to be proponents of the cult of the Sacred Heart. Newman suggested that Mechthild of Magdeburg’s book was for internal consumption since writing was a communal process. Dominican confessors also had a huge network, and Newman thinks that this is how the book was circulated, primarily in an abridged, Latin form, which allowed it to spread early beyond regional locations and outside purely religious contexts.

Akl asked, related to Venarde’s question, whether the symbolism of the heart as a door was used in the two Mechthilds’ texts. Newman responded that the cult of the Sacred Heart spread widely and that piety centred around the heart as a symbol of the interiority of Jesus and the Trinity, but she is unsure of whether illustrated copies exist and whether they are directly connected to the Helfta texts.

Michael Hahn asked Newman whether the shifts in bridal mysticism were part of a broader trend or specific to Helfta. Newman answered that the Helfta texts were particularly visible due to how prolific the nuns were in their writing. There was also a crossover between secular and religious ways of perceiving love and significant influence from courtly romance and troubadour poetry. This is shown in the notion of both parties as desiring love and becoming enmeshed in a turbulent relationship instead of as the soul making progress towards a stable and immovable God. John Arblaster evoked William of Saint-Thierry’s exposition on the Song of Songs: the mutuality between the heavenly bride and bridegroom, such as in the passage about the flowery bed, does not discuss desire, but points to a significant mutual passion expressed as kisses and joy. He also noted that the copying of texts was a devotional practice in itself and not only to familiarize oneself with the text.

Next, Cochelin returned to the issue of different denominations for women, suggesting that thinking in terms of orders is too limiting for women religious. Newman added the example of Juliana of Cornillon, who spent time in a leprosarium, which she tried to turn into an Augustinian priory, was exiled and moved between Cistercian monasteries without taking vows, then ended her life as an anchoress, suggesting that these transitions were more common than we might think. Stoop also specified that texts circulated easily across religious orders.

Stoop then asked Newman how far Mechthild of Magdeburg’s texts had circulated. Newman answered that her texts circulated much less than others at the time and that they mainly circulated in translation, reiterating that Latin texts enabled wider circulation.

Mercedes Pérez Vidal added an example to Stoop’s discussion of the circulation of texts between different religious communities. She mentioned a particular manuscript, a book on the Passion, copied by (and for) a Portuguese nun, which can be compared with manuscript copies of the Tleven ons Heren Ihesu Cristi, which circulated widely among communities of religious women in the Netherlands. As was the case in these communities, the Cistercian nuns of Lorvão also used incunabula alongside manuscripts.

Barbara Walters thanked Newman for her work and help with others’ research and mentioned Anneke Mulder-Bakker whose work was also instrumental.