Mechtild of Magdeburg
A celebrated medieval mystic, b. of a noble family in Saxony about 1210; d.
at the Cistercian nunnery of Helfta near Eisleben, c. 1285. She experienced her
first inspirations at the age of twelve, when, as she herself states, she was
greeted by the Holy Ghost. From that time, the greeting was repeated daily.
Under this inspiration she desired to be despised by all without, however,
deserving it, and for this purpose left her home, where she had always been
loved and respected, to become a Beguine at Mageleburg in 1230. Here, under the
spiritual guidance of the Dominicans she led a life of prayer and extreme
mortification. Her heavenly inspirations and ecstatic visions became more
frequent and were of such a nature that they dispelled from the mind of her
confessor all doubt as to their Divine origin. By his order she reluctantly
wrote her visions. Shortly after 1270 she joined the Cistercian nuns at Helfta,
where she spent the remaining twelve years of her life, highly respected as one
signally favoured by God, especially by her namesake St. Mechtilde of Hackeborn
and by St. Gertrude the Great. Mechtild left to the world a most wonderful book,
in which she recorded her manifold inspirations and visions. According to her
assertion, God ordered the title of the book to be
Vliessende lieht miner
gotheit in allu die herzen die da lebent ane valscheit, i.e.
Light of my
divinity, flowing into all hearts that live without guile. The work is commonly
Das fliessende Licht der Gottheit. She wrote her inspirations on
separate sheets of paper, which she handed to the Dominican, Henry of Halle,
lector in Rupin. The original, which was written in Low German, is not extant,
but a South German translation, which was prepared by Henry of Nordlingen about
the year 1344 is still preserved in the original manuscript in the library of
Einsiedeln, Codex 277. Mechtild began the work in 1250 and finished the sixth
volume at Magdeburg in 1264, to which she added a seventh volume at Helfta. A
Latin translation of the six volumes written at Magdeburg was made by a
Dominican, about the year 1290, and is reprinted, together with a translation of
the seventh volume, in
Revelationes Gertrudianse ac Mechtildianae, II (Paris,
1877), 435-707. The manuscript of Einsiedeln was edited by Gall Morel, O.S.B.,
who also translated it into modern German (Ratisbon, 1809). Other modern German
translations were prepared by J. Muller (Ratisbon, 1881) and Eseherich (Berlin,
Mechtild's language is generally forcible and often exceedingly flowery. Her
prose is occasionally interspered with beautiful original pieces of poetry,
which manifest that she had all the natural gifts of a poet. She is never at a
loss to give vent to her feelings of joy and grief in the most impressive form.
Often also she delights in aphoristic and abrupt sentences. It is sometimes
difficult to ascertain just how far her narrations are faithful reproductions of
her visions, and how far they are additions made by her own poetic fancy. This
is especially true of her realistic description of the hereafter. Writing on
hell, she says,
I saw a horrible and wretched place; its name is 'Eternal
Hatred'. She then represents Lucifer as chained by his sins in the lowest abyss
of hell, all sin, agony, pestilence and ruin, that fill hell, purgatory, and
earth, flowing from his burning heart and mouth. She divides hell into three
parts; the lowest and most horrible is filled with condemned Christians, the
middle with Jews, and the highest with Pagans. Hell, purgatory and heaven are
situated one immediately above the other. The lowest portion of purgatory is
filled with devils, who torment the souls in the most horrible manner, while the
highest portion of purgatory is identical with the lowest portion of heaven.
Many a soul in the lowest Purgatory does not know whether it will ever be saved.
The last statement was condemned in the Bull
Exsurge Domine, 15 June, 1520, as
one of the errors of Luther:
Animae in purgatorio non sunt securae de earum
salute, saltem omnes. Mechtild's conception of the hereafter is believed by
some to be the basis of Dante's
Divine Comedy, and the poet's Matelda
Purgatory, Canto 27-33) to be identical with our Mechtild (see Preger,
Dante's Matelda, Munich, 1873). Whatever we may think of these and other
statements in the work of Mechtild, much of it no doubt, has all the signs of a
special inspiration from above. That she did not seek the favour of man is
evident from her fearless denunciation of the vices of the clergy in general and
especially the clergy of Magdeburg. Some authors call her saint, though she has
not been canonized and apparently has never received any public cult.
MICHAEL, Kulturzustände des deutschen Volkes während des 13. Jahrhunderts, III (Freiburg im Br., 1903), 187-199; IDEM in Zeischrift fur Kath. Theologie XXV (Innsbruck, 1901), 177-180; GREITH, Die deutsche Mystik im Predigerorden (Freiburg, im Br., 1861), 207-277; STRAUCH, Kleine Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Mystik in Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur, XXVII (Berlin, 1883), 368-381; PREGER, Geschichte der deutschen Mystik im Mittelalter, I (Leipzig, 1874), 91-112; STIERLING, Studien zu Mechtild v. Magd. (Göttingen, 1909).
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