Mysticism flourished in many parts of Europe, including Germany, Italy, the Low Countries, and England, from the middle of the thirteenth century to the middle of the fifteenth. The greatest figures in Germany were Meister Eckhart, a Dominican friar of formidable intellectual gifts, and his pupils, also Dominicans, Johannes Tauler and Henry Suso. In the Low Countries, John Ruusbroec developed a Trinitarian mysticism that owed much to Eckhart, despite his apparent disagreement with the earlier teacher. In Italy, the Franciscan scholar Bonaventure, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Catherine of Genoa upheld the mystical flame, and there was also a mystical outpouring in England, associated with the names Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing.
Many of the continental mystics were members of the Friends of God, a movement that worked for the spiritual revival of people at a time when the worldliness of the Church, the ravages of the Black Death, and the cracks in the traditional social order created a desire in many to develop a deeper spirituality. Although some of the mystics were hermits, like Rolle, others combined their mysticism with practical concerns such as preaching, administrative duties, and caring for the poor and the sick.
The most enduring figures in medieval mysticism produced works of high spiritual and sometimes literary quality. Although they were all loyal to the Church (including Eckhart, in spite of the fact that he was posthumously condemned for heresy), they expressed their mysticism in a wide variety of themes and tones. Eckhart’s lofty statements from the standpoint of eternity are very different from Catherine of Genoa’s intense dialogue between soul and body, for example. Similarly, the visions of Christ’s passion granted to Julian of Norwich differ greatly from the down-to-earth advice given by the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Taken as a whole, the writings of the medieval mystics provide a remarkable record of the vitality and variety of the spirituality of the period.