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The Secret Within

The Secret Within: Hermits, Recluses, and Spiritual Outsiders in Medieval England

Wolfgang Riehle
Translated by Charity Scott-Stokes
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Cornell University Press
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  • Book Info
    The Secret Within
    Book Description:

    Spiritual seekers throughout history have sought illumination through solitary contemplation. In the Christian tradition, medieval England stands out for its remarkable array of hermits, recluses, and spiritual outsiders, from Cuthbert Godric of Fichale and Christina of Markyate to Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe. In The Secret Within, Wolfgang Riehle offers the first comprehensive history of English medieval mysticism in decades, one that will appeal to anyone fascinated by mysticism as a phenomenon of religious life.

    In considering the origins and evolution of the English mystical tradition, Riehle begins in the twelfth century with the revival of eremitical mysticism and the early growth of the Cistercian Order in the British Isles. He then focuses in depth on the great mystics of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: Richard Rolle (the first great English mystic), the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Walter Hilton, Margery Kempe, and Julian of Norwich. Riehle carefully grounds his narrative in the broader spiritual landscape of the Middle Ages, pointing out both prior influences dating back to Late Antiquity and corresponding developments in mysticism and theology on the Continent. He discusses the problem of possible differences between male and female spirituality and the movement of popularizing mysticism in the late Middle Ages. Filled with fresh insights, The Secret Within will be welcomed especially by teachers and students of medieval literature as well as by those engaged in historical, theological, philosophical, cultural, even anthropological and comparative studies of mysticism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7093-6
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xx)
    Wolfgang Riehle and Stattegg bei Graz
  6. Chapter 1 The Development of Eremitical Mysticism in the British Isles
    (pp. 1-14)

    The beginnings of vernacular mysticism in England, as on the Continent, can be traced back to the decisive transformations in theology, intellectual history, and the history of mentalities that have long been associated with the “twelfth-century Renaissance.”¹ During this period, which can actually be said to begin around 1050, historians have noted an emerging interest in the question of what constitutes human individuality.² Yet how can a new understanding of human identity be grasped and described centuries after the fact? Can one speak of isolated individuals “emerging” from community bonds, insisting on self-determination and on being their own person independent...

  7. Chapter 2 Early Cistercian Theology in England
    (pp. 15-39)

    The presence of the Cistercians in medieval England remains powerfully visible today in the ruins of the great Cistercian abbeys of Yorkshire, especially Fountains (1131), Rievaulx (1131), and Byland (1135). Visitors to those abbeys, however, may not fully appreciate the enormous impact that the Cistercians had on English spirituality in the Middle Ages. Nor, for that matter, are they likely to realize the critical role that England played in the formative years of this order of reformed Benedictine monks, which traces its origins back to the village of Cîteaux, near Dijon in eastern France.¹ Although a complete history of the...

  8. Chapter 3 Ancrene Wisse: A Magnificent Exemplar of Early English Mysticism
    (pp. 40-58)

    We now turn toAncrene Wisse,a pinnacle of early Middle English prose and, in recent years, a major focus of scholarly attention.Ancrene Wisse (AW),which means “guide for anchoresses” in Middle English, was written sometime in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century to meet the religious needs of three young sisters, who had chosen the recluse’s extreme form of life in a solitary cell.¹ The author, who is unidentified, probably knew them personally. Diverse allusions to the three sisters’ former station in life indicate that they were young and came from a wealthy background; the earliest manuscript...

  9. Chapter 4 “Female” versus “Male” Spirituality? A Talking of the Love of God and the Meditations of the Monk of Farne
    (pp. 59-69)

    Remarkably, the flowering of religious prose in England that we have observed in previous chapters largely ceased after the middle of the thirteenth century. It would not be until the fourteenth century that England would again produce such an impressive body of writings, by the likes of Richard Rolle,The Cloud of Unknowingauthor, Walter Hilton, and Julian of Norwich. This “yawning gap,” this absence of mystical prose texts during the later thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, is astonishing, particularly if we consider the emergence of Franciscan spirituality in the thirteenth century. What we have are a few examples of...

  10. Chapter 5 Richard Rolle of Hampole: England’s First Great Mystic
    (pp. 70-134)

    Richard Rolle seems to have been born in Thornton Dale near Pickering in north Yorkshire as son of a certain William Rolle, about whom no detailed information is available. He clearly came from a good, though not affluent, family.¹ His birth has usually been dated around the first year of the new century. His parents sent the highly gifted thirteen- or fourteen-year-old to study in Oxford, with financial support from the priest Thomas de Neville, later archdeacon of Durham.² For a depiction of Rolle’s life we are dependent on theOfficium et miracula,compiled after his death with the aim...

  11. Chapter 6 Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls and Its Reception in England
    (pp. 135-150)

    In 1310, about a decade after Richard Rolle’s birth, a woman was sentenced to death at the stake in France because of her extraordinarily bold mystical textLe mirouer des simples âmes anienties et qui seulement demourent en vouloir et desir d’amour;twenty-one reputable theologians had condemned the work as heretical. Until the 1960s it was transmitted anonymously, and the author was unquestioningly assumed to have been a man; there are some reminiscences of Meister Eckhart, who may have read Marguerite’s text or have heard of its tenets.¹ There are good reasons for devoting a whole chapter to it in a...

  12. Chapter 7 The Cloud of Unknowing and Related Tracts
    (pp. 151-172)

    To many readers the term “English mysticism in the Middle Ages” will immediately bring to mind the well-known and ever-popularCloud of Unknowing.Some of them turn to it in the belief that it offers Christians a form of contemplation that can match Zen Buddhist spiritual experience. In Europe, and in America, it has opened up a possibility of fruitful dialogue with the spirituality of the Far East, and especially in Japan it has aroused great interest. Yet in the course of widespread leveling of the differences between Christian and Eastern traditions, there is now a risk that the Middle English work...

  13. Chapter 8 Walter Hilton: England’s Mystic Theologian
    (pp. 173-199)

    Walter Hilton, with his “modern”–sounding name, is regarded as the actual theologian of English mysticism. Hans Urs von Balthasar has praised him as the author who gave English mysticism its “definitive . . . shape,” and he recalls that Thomas More considered Hilton’sScale of Perfectionto be the decisive theological work of instruction for the English people up to the time of the Reformation.¹ There is no precise evidence regarding the date of Hilton’s birth, or his origins, but it is unlikely that he was born later than 1343. His intellectual and literary activity, like that of the...

  14. Chapter 9 The Singular Vision of Julian of Norwich
    (pp. 200-245)

    Julian of Norwich is the most attractive and most original figure in medieval English mysticism. For many people she has become a spiritual authority through her unique revelations of the human love of a maternal God. Not only does her work move readers more deeply than any other English mystical text; it has also been described as the most significant theological achievement of late-medieval England.¹ Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012, goes so far as to surmise that her writings “may well be the most important work of Christian reflection in the English language.”² It is therefore...

  15. Chapter 10 Margery Kempe: The Shocking “Fool in Christ”
    (pp. 246-281)

    We now turn to the second late-medieval Englishwoman whose work has come down to us. Margery Kempe does not reach Julian’s intellectual or spiritual stature, and is altogether different in temperament; yet she provides a colorful addition to our picture of spirituality in England in the Late Middle Ages. Her well-known only work,The Book of Margery Kempe,is remarkable in many ways, and controversial; until the 1930s it was known only from contemplative excerpts printed by Wynkyn de Worde.¹ She has often been denied recognition as a genuine mystic, by myself as well as others. The bone of contention...

  16. Chapter 11 Some Aspects of Popularizing Mysticism in Late Medieval England
    (pp. 282-297)

    Beginning with the later fourteenth century, the growth of a new critical self-awareness among the laity can be discerned. The wish for a return to the sources, for New Testament piety, was voiced ever more strongly, as was evident in the case of Margery Kempe. Considerable numbers of people became unwilling to pursue experience of God solely under the auspices of the church; ecclesiastical authority was frequently called into question. New trends toward reform and religious movements developed, such as Devotio Moderna. However, such Continental groupings and “mass movements” did not gain a firm footing in England. It is important...

  17. Conclusion
    (pp. 298-302)

    The present study has tried to take a fresh look at medieval English mysticism, based on the underlying theological tradition and the wider European perspective. We have seen that more attention needs to be paid to the vivid exchange of ideas, which reflects an astounding medieval mobility in spite of the great difficulties of travel. Richard Rolle, for one, can be viewed and evaluated more fully in the light of this mobility, and his highly developed sensibility facilitates an exceptionally sensuous and richly differentiated, almost “feminine” language, which has rightly been compared with that of Henry Suso. Both were strongly...

  18. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 303-304)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 305-388)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 389-414)
  21. Index
    (pp. 415-428)