Mystics on the Margins (Hadewijch)

by Susmita Dave

 

The ability to transcend societal norms is also apparent in Hadewijch’s lifestyle. There is

little known about Hadewijch, the mystic, but she is thought to have lived in the 13 th century

in either Brabant or Antwerp as part of a beguine community (Jerome). Similar to Mirabai

she adopts erotic and sensory language to speak about her relationship with God but her use of physicality stems from her influence of the medieval troubadour movement. This tradition of the late 11 century includes songs with a focus on courtly love and chivalry which we see Hadewijch adopt in her queering of gender norms in section two. Trobar translates as “To invent” and this reflects Hadewijch’s style of poetry which takes physicality to new avenues such as viewing the process of the eucharist as a sexual encounter.


The beguine community was an important space in allowing Hadewijch to break bounds

placed on her as a woman. The concept of this community is a place where women chose

how to express their spirituality on their own terms whilst living together and taking care of

each other and the community. Most beguines will go out and serve the community but some prefer to have theological self-study. Women were allowed to join, leave, get married and return (if their husband gave permission), suggesting the opportunity for multiple guises like Mirabai. The community itself was considered subversive against patriarchal society.


To summarise Jerome there are four points which caused concern about the beguine lifestyle:

1) They were considered women on the loose i.e., not controlled by men and dangerous to

society as a result. For example, the beguines were able to stay economically self-sufficient

through their labour and community. (Suydam in Jerome) This was viewed as improper to

society in the low countries as they expected women to be dependent on men.

2) They were considered seducible women who are viewed as gullible and fickle. This space allowed Hadewijch to speak freely and “ to operate in safer space for writing down feelings or experiences that might have been seen as immoral” such as sexual desires, even directed

towards other women. (Wiethaus in Jerome).

3) They were simple women who were supposedly uneducated and as a result more likely to fall into heresy. Yet this environment is potentially where Hadewijch was educated in poetic forms and multiple languages.

4) They were considered sensitive women who were overly emotional and conflicted with the rational male of society.


The last point is of particular interest as Hadewijch’s work, similar to Mirabai, undermines

the notion of hysterical women by using emotional and desperate motifs as a means to be

heard and seen by God. Yet, unlike Mirabai, Hadewijch defies this stereotype by bringing

intellect into the emotional sphere through writing on rationality as the basis of virtue and

love. She legitimises her emotions in this way and shows herself to be equally competent as

male religious figures to utilise her rationality. This is why it is important to situate

Hadewijch within her context as it is reflective of the work she produced and why she

produced it.



As Mary Douglas notes, things that do not fit into categories are deemed dangerous to us because they are in a precarious position for themselves and for others who perceive them. In other words when Mirabai and Hadewijch do not exist under the expected and controlled

environments for them as woman, individuals become fearful as we do not know what they

have the potential to do or change. The instability of their characters provokes a sense of

alarm as to whether they could break down the boundaries and conventions we all take for

granted exist in society and this is unsettling to many. This also reflects the idea mystics can

see the world is full of constructs but they are not bound by them. This is what makes Mirabai and Hadewijch important female theologians for study today.



 

Susmita Dave is currently in her third year of studying philosophy and theology at St Benet's Hall. Her interests include Buddhist ethics, mysticism, and feminist religious art.