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Medieval English Mystics

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English mystics in the 14th century produced a body of writing much of which had sufficient appeal to be widely copied. The individuals concerned differed greatly, and so did their experiences.

Richard Rolle of Hampole

Richard Rolle (c 1300—1344), sometimes called "the father of English mysticism", was a layman of considerable learning who abandoned his studies at Oxford without taking a degree, and took up the life of an anchorite, though without the usual rigours and fasting, finally settling near Hampole in Yorkshire. Claiming to be inspired by the Holy Ghost, he composed varied works in English and in Latin, in verse and in prose. Judging by the number of surviving manuscripts he was the most popular of the mystical writers, though some of his writings were purely didactic.

His mystical works had a strong emotional flavour, centring on the concepts of warmth (or fervour), sweetness, and "canor", which he regarded as a stage beyond the other two. The word can be translated as "melodiousness" but refers to a spiritual rather than corporeal gift.

Julian of Norwich

Little is known about Julian, though her year of birth can be identified as 1342, and her date of death was probably after 1416. In 1373 she had an illness which brought her near to death, and while she was in this state she had a "revelation of love" in 16 "showings". She is probably to be identified with the Julian who was an anchorite of St Julian's church in Norwich in 1394, but her status at the time of her revelation is not known.

The revelation was dictated in a short and a long version. Printed editions of this account are normally entitled Revelations of Divine Love. The first showings are visions of the passion of Christ, and the later ones are a mix of visions and new understandings of the nature of God. At one point she says that full understanding only came to her much later, and in the final chapter she says that after 15 years she realised that the meaning of the revelation was love, shown to her by Love, out of love. Some of the visions are vividly described, and some of the insights are striking, verging on the heretical. A fair amount of the text is therefore devoted to asserting her orthodoxy.

The revelations were not widely distributed before the advent of printing.

Cloud of Unknowing

All that is definitely known of the author of The Cloud of Unknowing is that this was a person of accepted spiritual authority writing for the instruction of someone engaged in leading the life of a contemplative. It is generally agreed that the work dates from the second half of the 14th century, and that at least three other works, and possibly another three come from the same hand. Among the more certain additional works is the Book of Privy Counselling which offers more advanced instruction in contemplation. The work survives in 17 manuscripts from different parts of England.

The title of the Cloud of Unknowing is given at the beginning of the work and also occurs notably in chapter six. In answer to the question "How shall I think on himself [i e God] and what is he?" the author responds, "Thou hast brought me with thy question into that same darkness and into that same cloud of unknowing that I would thou were in thyself . . . . Of God himself can no man think . . . . For why he may well be loved but not thought. By love he may be gotten and held, but not thought . . . . Smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of long love, and go not thence for thing that befalleth." (Language partly modernised.)

Walter Hilton

Walter Hilton (c 1343—1396) gave up a promising legal career to live as an anchorite, but then joined the Augustinian priory at Thurgarton in Nottinghamshire. His best known work, known as the Scale of Perfection came out in two parts, the first, ostensibly addressed to an anchoress, included practical advice. The second considered the practice of contemplation as a necessary part of the Christian life. In it, having said how much he dreads to speak of the inner vision, he concludes that love bids him do it, using such phrases as the "good dark", "luminous darkness", and "rich nothingness". In another work, he also addresses the problems of leading the religious life while undertaking worldly responsibilities.