Medieval Writing
Religious Experience
Medieval Christianity was a religion of authority, and that authority was based and confirmed in written texts. The literature of the medieval church tends to be cumulative. The Bible and the patristic literature formed a basis for commentary, development of concepts and debate. Many facets of church belief and practice which we may believe were founded in the very roots of the religion were developed in the medieval era, but they were constructed by a continual process of building on and refining of earlier work. There was, however, some space for works based on mystical experience and personal divine revelation. This could be a risky area. The church was always alert to the danger of heresy.
Within the New Testament of the Bible the book of The Revelation of St John stands out as a piece of experiential writing, full of wild imagery, at the end of a long series of narratives and moral counselling. The images were reproduced in volumes of the Apocalypse, but were also turned to moral instructional purpose in representations of the Last Judgment in sculpture and wall painting. These latter emphasised the fate of the souls of the good and wicked rather than the strange creatures and mighty battles that populate the text. The Book of Revelation was tamed and rendered didactic for public consumption.
Image from a 13th century French Apocalypse (Cambridge, Trinity College Library, MS R 16.2, f.14). (From New Palaeographical Society 1904)
The Last Judgment on a tympanum at Rheims Cathedral, showing the fates of souls.
The term mysticism is used for processes of unification with God and direct revelation of God's power and love. Much debate in the medieval church revolved around the nature and possibility of such revelation, and its relationship with intellect and reason. This is really intellectual debate about the philosophy of mysticism, rather than actual experiential writing. A very early treatise by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, probably a Syrian monk of the late 5th or 6th centuries, fuelled this debate for centuries and various translations from Greek into Latin were made of his work during the course of the middle ages. As an aside, the reason he has a name that sounds as if it comes from a Monty Python sketch is that for centuries he was believed to be an individual converted to Christianity by St Paul, and he even included some fraudulent references to witnessing events of that time to confound the issue. Funny thing for a mystical philosopher to do.
  Pseudo-Dionysius codified the concept of the nine orders of angels, much used in medieval art, as in this stained glass window in All Saints, North Street, York.
There were those who claimed experience of divine revelation, but they did not all write treatises on the subject. St Francis of Assisi received the stigmata, or wounds, of Christ. Modern psychologists would no doubt have a bit to say about that, and the medieval church found Francis a bit of a problem at times. Once he had safely expired they could make him a saint and build a nice big church with lovely frescos in his honour. He did not leave any autobiographical text of his personal religious experience.
The church of St Francis in Assisi.
Recording personal religious experiences required ratification by the church. In the early 12th century a young and sickly Hildegard of Bingen started receiving prophetic visions with startling imagery. At around the age of 40, when she had achieved the status of superior of a Benedictine convent, she became convinced that these were divine revelations which should be recorded and publicised. Hildegard could not write. The abbot who supervised her community ordered a monk to write down her descriptions, but the work had to be examined by the bishop and clergy of Mainz, the bishop of Verdun and Pope Eugene II before it could be accepted as the divinely revealed word of God. Her major work, called Scivias, was printed in Paris in 1513, by then an acceptable work of religious writing. Hildegard is still known today, but mainly for her church music which continues to be recorded. Medical experts who have examined descriptions of her revelations in detail are convinced that she suffered from serious migraines, but God reveals himself in mysterious ways.

Links to articles, discographies and background material about Hildegard can be found at the Hildegard of Bingen website.


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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last modified 28/2/2005.