Hadewijch of Antwerp, largely unknown until the 19th century, has emerged in recent decades as one of the most popular mystics of the Middle Ages. This is entirely right. The mysterious Hadewijch is, indeed, one of the premier mystical authors of the period, astonishing both for her literary skill and the depth of her message about the soul’s love relation to God.
We know little about Hadewijch, despite her fairly extensive writings. Most authorities place her about the middle of the 13th century, but on scant evidence. Others, noting that her works are not cited until the early 14th century, argue for a later date. Her works reveal that she was a beguine, that is, one of the independent religious women living in small communities in urban contexts. The movement started in the 12th century and became popular in the Low Countries and Northern Europe from the 13th century on. Her literary genius argues that she was most likely from an aristocratic background; but, once again, we can only argue from supposition. Hadewijch does not talk much about her life, but does tell us a lot about her feelings, especially for God. She also demonstrates a powerful desire to communicate her message of love of God to a wider audience, beginning with other beguines, but also including all her fellow Christians (“even-Cristen,” as Julian of Norwich called them late in the 14th century). Hadewijch wrote for everybody—another reason why she has become so popular in recent decades.
Scholars of Middle Dutch/Flemish are the only people who can speak with authority about Hadewijch’s literary skills—and they have been unanimously favorable. Even in English, however, some of beguine’s impressive literary gifts are evident. Hadwijch was a master of both prose and poetry. Her literary remains include 45 “Songs” (Flemish: Liederen; formerly called “Poems in Stanzas”), lyrics modeled on Troubadour poems, but that shift their register from the love between humans to the love between God and the soul. These songs infuse the delicacy and love-trials of the courtly love tradition into power of the ultimate romance between God and the soul. Recent research has revealed that many of the Liederen are closely modeled on Troubadour lyrics, so that a recording has been made of Hadewijch’s Songs. Hadewijch also composed 16 “Poems in Couplets,” rhyming couplets that are more formal in structure and often more didactic. Nevertheless, they contain some of the most profound of her mystical speculations.
Hadewijch’s prose writings also fall into two genres. There are 31 Letters that the beguine wrote mostly to a younger beguine who was her pupil. These Letters, some in treatise form, show her mastery as a mystical teacher and spiritual guide. The Letters hint at some tensions between Hadewijch and other religious women, although the details are unclear. Hadewijch also leaves us 14 (actually 13) marvelous and colorful Visions that rank with those given to such notable medieval visionaries as Hildegard of Bingen, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Julian of Norwich. These showings, often tied to the feasts of the liturgical year, make use of unusual and striking images to manifest the beguine’s profound understanding of the mystery of the Trinity and the modes of our uniting with Christ.
Andrew Harvey’s new and fluid translation of excerpts from these writings now appears under the title, Love is Everything. A Year with Hadewijch of Antwerp (available at Medio Media HERE). Harvey calls it a “mystical daybook,” a genre that has become popular in recent decades for day-by-day spiritual reading during the course of the year.
For those who pray, meditate, and engage in daily lectio divina this is an excellent tool for focusing one’s attention on the inner life. Hadewijch of Antwerp certainly belongs among those teachers who are perfect for nourishing deep contemplative insight on a daily basis. Harvey’s title is tellingly appropriate. Hadewijch’s teaching touches on almost all aspects of the spiritual life, especially the role of the Trinity and the place of Jesus Christ. What ties her message together into such an impressive whole, however, is what she has to say about Love (minne), the vital force at the heart of God that is poured out on humans through the saving work of the Godman. Hadewijch gave her life to minne with all its power, its delights, and yes, its suffering too. Love is Everything invites the reader to accompany Hadewijch on the greatest journey of all—the mysterious path of the love that leads to God.