Mechthild von Magdeburg: Gender and the "unlearned tongue"

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This essay interrogates the relationship between gender and the use of the vernacular in the medieval German religious writings of Mechthild von Magdeburg (1210-82). Scholars of German vernacular religious literature began early in the twentieth century to postulate a close, perhaps even causal, relationship between women, reading, and the beginnings of vernacular literacy. This line of thinking has often led to the assumption that vernacular writing was generally intended for a female audience, especially when written down by women and in a religious context. Correspondingly, early historians of mysticism understood the emergence of vernacular mystical texts as a direct consequence of the requirement made of the mendicant orders in the thirteenth century to care for the unlearned semireligious women in their midst. This requirement resulted in what was regarded as a transposition of scholastic thought into German. More recently, however, in an effort to legitimize vernacular mystical literature as distinct from scholastic writings, scholarly focus has turned to the relationship between the emergence of a new kind of mysticism in the thirteenth century and the emergence of the vernacular as the language best suited for its expression. Women figured in this historical moment both as innovators (e.g., Mechthild and Hadewijch) and as audience (Dominican nuns, tertiaries, and beguines). Nevertheless, as Susanne B̈urkle notes, even these attempts rest on the premise that the presence both of semireligious women needing guidance and of their writings (Frauenmystik) brings about the transition from Latin to the vernacular in mystical writing. The problematic association of vernacular religious literature with a female audience and with a gender-specific set of concerns persists.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Vulgar Tongue
Subtitle of host publicationMedieval and Postmedieval Vernacularity
PublisherPenn State University Press
Number of pages24
ISBN (Print)0271023104, 9780271023106
StatePublished - 2003

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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