Mechthild of Magdeburg

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Mechthild of Magdeburg
Mechthild von Magdeburg.jpg
Bornc. 1207
Diedc. 1282 – c. 1294
Notable work
The Flowing Light of Divinity
EraMedieval philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolChristian mysticism

Mechthild (or Mechtild, Matilda,[1] Matelda[2]) of Magdeburg (c. 1207 – c. 1282/1294), a Beguine, was a Christian medieval mystic, whose book Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of Divinity) described her visions of God. She was the first mystic to write in German, as she did not know how to write in Latin.


Definite biographical information about Mechthild is scarce; what is known of her life comes largely from scattered hints in her work. She was born in a noble Saxon family.[3][4] She had her first vision of the Holy Spirit at the age of twelve.[5] In 1230 she left her home and “renounced worldly honour and worldly riches”[3] to become a Beguine at Magdeburg.[5] There, like Hadewijch of Antwerp, she seems to have exercised a position of authority in a Beguine community.[6] In Magdeburg she became acquainted with the Dominicans and became a Dominican tertiary.[7] It seems clear that she read many of the Dominican writers.[8] It was her Dominican confessor, Henry of Halle, who encouraged and helped Mechthild to compose The Flowing Light.[5]

Her criticism of church dignitaries,[9] religious laxity and claims to theological insight aroused so much opposition that some called for the burning of her writings. With advancing age, she was not only alone, and the object of much criticism but she also became blind.[10] Around 1272, she joined the Cistercian nunnery at Helfta, who offered her protection and support in the final years of her life, and where she finished writing down the contents of the many divine revelations she had experienced. According to Professor Kate Lindemann, it speaks much of this community and its Abbess, that they would embrace a woman who was over 60 years of age, in poor health and so isolated by society. It is unclear whether she actually formally joined the Cistercian community or if she simply resided there and participated in the religious services but did not take Cistercian vows.[10] The nuns of Helfta were highly educated and important works of mysticism survive from Mechthild’s younger contemporaries, St. Mechthild of Hackeborn and St. Gertrude the Great.

It is unclear when Mechthild died. 1282 is a commonly cited date, but some scholars believe she lived into the 1290s.[11]


Mechthild's book is a product of linguistic developments in 13th century Magdeburg, which had adopted a vernacular form of German to record their city laws, treatises and other documents. While Middle High German was used at the courts of nobility (usually aristocracy, as royal courts held less sway in Germany than in France or England), Middle Low German had taken hold in some of the towns like Magdeburg. Mechthild's writing has been described as Middle Low German, with bits of Middle High German mixed in (especially in lyric sections, as Middle High German was the language of poetry in 13th century Germany).[12]


Mechthild’s writings are formed of the seven books that constitute Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of Divinity), which was composed between 1250 and 1280. There appear to have been three stages in the evolution of the work. The first five books were finished by about 1260. During the next decade Mechthild added a sixth book. After joining the community of Cistercian nuns at Helfta around 1272, she added a seventh book, rather different in tone from the previous six.[13]

The Flowing Light was originally written in Middle Low German, the dialect of northern Germany. While her original composition is now lost, the text survives in two later versions. First, around 1290, Dominican friars of the Halle community translated the first six books into Latin. Then, in the mid-fourteenth century, the secular priest Henry of Nördlingen translated The Flowing Light into the Alemannic dialect of Middle High German. This version survives complete in one manuscript and in fragmentary form in three others.[11]

What is unusual about her writings is that she composed her work in middle low German at a time when most wisdom literature was composed in Latin. Thus she is remembered as an early proponent and popularizer of German as a language worthy of the divine and holy.[10] Mechthild’s writing is exuberant and emotional: her descriptions of her visions are filled with passion. Her images of Hell are believed by some scholars to have influenced Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy, and Mechthild is thought to have been represented by Dante in that work, in the character of Matelda.[14][4][15] However, there is no concrete evidence for this and there are important differences in Dante's conception of Hell[citation needed].

While her work was translated into Latin during her lifetime, her work was largely forgotten by the 15th century. It was rediscovered in the late 19th century by Pater Gall Morel, who published the first edition. Her work has been increasingly studied, both for its academic interest and as a work of devotional literature. Her feast day is 19 November.[7]


  1. ^ Bevan 1896.
  2. ^ Bevan 1896, p. 8-10.
  3. ^ a b Bevan 1896, p. 40.
  4. ^ a b Preger 1874.
  5. ^ a b c Flowing Light 4.2.
  6. ^ Flowing Light 6.7.
  7. ^ a b Ghezzi, Bert. Voices of the Saints, Loyola Press ISBN 978-0-8294-2806-3
  8. ^ See for example the influence of the friars in Flowing Light 4.20-22.
  9. ^ Bevan 1896, p. 51-57.
  10. ^ a b c Lindemann 2014.
  11. ^ a b McGinn 1998, p. 223.
  12. ^ Poor, Sara S. Mechthild of Magdeburg and Her Book: Gender and the Making of Textual Authority. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 32.
  13. ^ McGinn 1998, p. 222-223.
  14. ^ Bevan 1896, p. 8-10, 58-62.
  15. ^ Preger, lecture on Dante's Matilda, 1891 (Probably Preger 1873)

Published editions[edit]

Note: Most English translations are based on the German manuscripts of Mechthild's work.

  • Morel, F. Gall (1869). Offenbarungen der Schwester Mechthild von Magdeburg: oder, das fliessende licht der Gottheit [Revelations of Sister Mechthild of Magdeburg: or, the flowing light of the Godhead] (in German). Eegensburg: Georg Joseph Manz.
  • Monks of Solesmes, ed. (1875–77). Sororis Mechtildis Lux Divinitatis Fluens in Corda Veritatis. Revelationes Gertrudianae et Mechtildianae (in Latin). 2. Paris/Poitiers: Oudin.
  • Mechthild von Magdeburg (1990). Neumann, Hans (ed.). Das fließende licht der Gottheit: Nach der Einsiedler Handschrift in kritischem Vergleich mit der gesamten Überlieferung [The flowing light of the Godhead: According to the hermit's handwriting in a critical comparison with the entire tradition]. Münchener Texte und Untersuchungen zur deutschen Literatur des Mittelalters (in German). 100. München: Artemis.
  • Mechthild of Magdeburg (1998). The flowing light of the Godhead. Classics of Western Spirituality Series. Translated by Tobin, Frank. New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press. (preface by Margot Schmidt)
  • Mechthild von Magdeburg (2003). Vollmann-Profe, Gisela (ed.). Das fließende licht der Gottheit [The flowing light of the Godhead]. Bibliothek des Mittelalters (in German). 19. Translated by Vollmann-Profe, Gisela. Frankfurt a. M.: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag. ISBN 3-618-66195-9.

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