Hadewijch of Antwerp Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Hadewijch of Antwerp fl. mid-thirteenth century-

Dutch poet and mystic.

Sometimes referred to as the Brabant mystic, Hadewijch of Antwerp is regarded as an influential and formative figure in Dutch literature. Associated with the medieval movement known as Minnemystiek (“love mysticism”), Hadewijch is thought to have been a beguine—a devout woman of noble birth who attended to the spiritual life of her thirteenth-century community. Love, or Minne as she called it, is the central component of Hadewijch's poetry, and indeed of all her collected works, including her religious Visioenen (Visions, mid-thirteenth century). Drawn from the traditional courtly love poetry of the medieval troubadours, Minne was originally used to express the perpetual longing for an unattainable, worldly love. Having mastered the form and lyrical techniques of such verse, Hadewijch adapted its conventions and central conceit to her religious thought, spiritualizing Minne by associating it with the eternal love of God, literally depicting God experienced directly as Love. Not systematic in and of itself, her work and thought demonstrated a considerable influence on the spiritual system of fourteenth-century mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck, among others. Taken as a whole, her visionary prose and innovative lyric poetry are considered some of the earliest and most outstanding in the Middle Dutch vernacular.

Biographical Information

Information about Hadewijch's life, save that which can be surmised from her writings, is completely lacking. Tradition suggests that she was born in Antwerp, sometime in the early years of the thirteenth century. Educated and articulate, probably of an aristocratic family, Hadewijch could read Latin, French, and Provençal, in addition to Dutch. Her knowledge of Holy Scripture was formidable and her awareness of such writers as Saint Augustine, William of Saint Thierry, Richard of St. Victor, Bernard of Clairvaux, and others of the mystical tradition is borne out by her own work. Hadewijch lived in either Antwerp or possibly Brussels, and wrote in the language of thirteenth-century Brabant, an independent duchy (now northern Belgium and southern Netherlands). She recorded her sixth mystical vision as occurring when she was nineteen, while she experienced the first of her fourteen Visions years before she was old enough to understand their symbolic and spiritual significance. Hadewijch probably entered a beguinage while still a young woman. Records of these religious organizations show them to be small, self-sustaining communities of women from the noble laity devoted to Christian good works, prayer, and contemplation.

Beguinages had begun to appear in the Low Countries during the second half of the twelfth century. Accepted by Pope Honorius III in 1216 and widespread in Europe, the movement was officially condemned in 1310 due to its independence from ecclesiastical authority. In orientation similar to nuns, beguines did not adopt the monastic life, followed no official organizing principles, and swore no solemn vows; instead, in the words of critic Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, “beguines strove to live in the world without being of it,” adopting a life of poverty and focusing on charitable deeds. Internal evidence, particularly that of her “Letter 15,” suggests that Hadewijch was probably the spiritual leader of her particular community (although some recent scholars have disputed this, and even questioned her status as a beguine.) In any case, Hadewijch's involvement in the spiritual life of the southern Netherlands is unquestioned. Other evidence hints at her possibly being linked to heretical movements or individuals, and perhaps being persecuted for her beliefs and actions. Portions of her thirty-one Brieven (Letters, mid-thirteenth century) suggest she may have been exiled, imprisoned, or otherwise separated from her cherished sisters against her will. (“Letter 25” expresses her hope that one day she will be reunited with them.) Most scholars believe that Hadewijch was a beguine and spent the majority of her career devoting herself to Christian charity, including care of the elderly, ill, and impoverished—activities she exhorted her fellow beguines to engage in as well. Meanwhile she composed a noteworthy and influential collection of poetry and prose, probably over the course of the years 1220 to 1240, or possibly slightly later. The date of Hadewijch's death is unknown, although a terminal point in the early second half of the thirteenth century is generally accepted by scholars.

Major Works

Hadewijch's body of work is contained in three complete manuscripts that survive from the late fourteenth century, as well as in a few fragments, including one dating from about 1500. The overarching influence on her writing is scriptural. Love is its central theme, and both her poetry and prose are saturated with love motifs, expressed in terms of Minne, a feminine noun in the Dutch language that connotes the concepts of Divine Love or Lady Love, depending on context. Although the precise chronology of Hadewijch's works has proved difficult to establish, scholars accept her admission that she experienced several religious visions while still quite young. Most commentators acknowledge, nevertheless, that she likely recorded the content of these mystical experiences years later, after reaching maturity and perfecting her literary skills. In “Vision 1,” considered a symbolic synthesis of her spiritual doctrine, an angel leads Hadewijch past seven trees (symbolizing the chief Christian virtues) before leaving her in the presence of Christ, who then directs her to embrace these virtues and accept the sufferings of human life through love before uniting with the Divine. Christ appears in several of the subsequent Visions, addressing her again in “Vision 8.” The tenth through twelfth Visions draw heavily on themes and imagery of the Apocalypse from the biblical revelation of St. John. “Vision 5” describes an almost bodily union with the Divine, while “Vision 9” conjoins Hadewijch's theme of love with that of Redene (“reason”). In “Vision 13,” a six-winged manifestation of God appears to Hadewijch, after discussing the powers of faith and humility, literally engulfs her. Included with the Visions, “The List of the Perfect” enumerates the saints and contemporary individuals whom Hadewijch most admired: Origen, Augustine, and Isidore of Seville.

Hadewijch addressed her Letters to a young beguine whom she sought to inform on the primary subjects of faith. Common themes in these epistles include the Holy Trinity, self-knowledge, grace, and of course, God's love for humanity. Several of the Letters are more properly short theological treatises, including “Letter 15,” a spiritual allegory concerned with a holy pilgrimage, or “Letter 20”—devoted to “the twelve unspeakable hours of love”—which chronicles the soul's mystical progress toward God. Of her poetic works, Hadewijch's forty-five Strofische Gedichten (Poems in Stanzas, mid-thirteenth century) represent her creation of a new lyric genre by skillfully adapting the tropes of courtly love poetry to her deeply spiritual mode of expression. In her stanzaic verse Hadewijch glorifies the duties and sufferings of an ecstatic lover in search of union with God. Rather than projecting herself as the bride of Christ, a common construct of medieval mystical writings by women, Hadewijch instead evoked the imagery of a doughty knight journeying through the wilderness of love. Paralleling the theme of the questing knight-errant in romantic service to an unattainable lady, the speaker of Hadewijch's Strofische Gedichten evokes her soul's longing to join with God through love. Throughout her poetry, Hadewijch described Minne as a multifaceted concept, one that embraces unrequited desire, confusion, and estrangement, as well as the joy of divine union. Broadly representative of the Strofische Gedichten, “Poem 6” begins with a seasonal allusion, in this case to spring, an exploration of love as a struggle of conquest and submission, a movement toward the intensification of feeling, and a countermotif of alienation from the soul's desired end, Divine Love. Another of the works, also rich in metaphor and paradox, “Poem 28” concentrates on the speaker's mad and passionate love for God and highlights the rewards of Christian suffering. Hadewijch's Mengeldichten (Poems in Couplets, mid-thirteenth century) lack the stanzaic structure of her other lyrics but are instead composed as a series of rhyming couplets. (Most scholars caution that only the first sixteen of the Mengeldichten contained in extant manuscripts can be authoritatively attributed to Hadewijch. The latter portion of the collection, comprising poems 17 to 29, is generally ascribed to another, unknown author, possibly a member of her group of beguines and usually designated as “Hadewijch II.”) Terse and aphoristic, as opposed to the more lyrically evocative Strofische Gedichten, the Mengeldichten, like Hadewijch's Letters, appear to have been addressed to the young beguines of her community. While Minne remains the central concern of the Mengeldichten, a number of related themes are developed in individual poems. For example, “Mengeldicht 14” describes the virtue of humility, while “Mengeldicht 16” is an evocation of the soul as it exists in divine harmony with the Holy Trinity.

Critical Reception

Hadewijch's literary and theological significance was first recognized in the fourteenth century by such figures as Jan van Ruysbroeck and Jan van Leeuwen, who praised her writing and the majestic qualities of her spiritual vision and faith in Divine Love. In the century following her death, Hadewijch's works also became known outside of the Low Countries, with complete translations of her Letters appearing in High German, although portions of these have since been lost. Her influence on the German mystic and theologian Meister Eckhart (whose more penetrative, introspective mysticism nevertheless contrasts with hers) has likewise suggested the spread of her thought in the late medieval period. Although her poetry and prose continued to be inscribed in fifteenth-century rapiaria (early modern anthologies of writing and thought), by the sixteenth century Hadewijch had fallen into obscurity. Her writings were rediscovered in 1838 by medievalists who began to study manuscripts in possession of the Royal Library of Brussels. The first modern critical editions of her works were edited by Jozef Van Mierlo and published between 1924 and 1952. Since then, translations of her poetry and prose have appeared in English, German, French, and Italian, as well as modern Dutch.

In the contemporary period, critical attention to Hadewijch's writings has expanded rapidly. Among several areas of interest, a number of late twentieth-century scholars have highlighted the orientation of Hadewijch's writing toward a female audience, and have analyzed her poetic evocation of gender and the body, including her occasional use of sexualized images to describe an ecstatic union with God. Indeed, feminist-oriented scholarship has proven to be one of the most compelling fields of modern Hadewijch study, especially in regard to her somewhat enigmatic Visions. Her other prose works, the Letters, have been lauded for their formal artistry and clarity of expression, while her verse has been deemed crucial to the development of Dutch vernacular writing. Theodoor Weevers (1960) writes, “Hadewijch ranks with the earlier Dante … as one of the great masters who, towards the close of the era of courtly chivalry, transformed the troubadour lyric with its rigidly circumscribed conventions into a form capable of expressing the highest aspirations of the human soul.” Summarizing generally laudatory modern perceptions, Ria Vanderauwera (1984) regards Hadewijch “as one of the most gifted literary geniuses of her period” who holds a prominent place in the canon of Dutch literature.