“Sometimes referred to as the Brabant mystic, Hadewijch of Antwerp is regarded as an influential and formative figure in Dutch literature. Associated with the medieval movement known as Minnemystiek (“love mysticism”), Hadewijch is thought to have been a beguine—a devout woman of noble birth who attended to the spiritual life of her thirteenth-century community. Love, or Minne as she called it, is the central component of Hadewijch’s poetry, and indeed of all her collected works, including her religious Visioenen (Visions, mid-thirteenth century). Drawn from the traditional courtly love poetry of the medieval troubadours, Minne was originally used to express the perpetual longing for an unattainable, worldly love. Having mastered the form and lyrical techniques of such verse, Hadewijch adapted its conventions and central conceit to her religious thought, spiritualizing Minne by associating it with the eternal love of God, literally depicting God experienced directly as Love. Not systematic in and of itself, her work and thought demonstrated a considerable influence on the spiritual system of fourteenth-century mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck, among others. Taken as a whole, her visionary prose and innovative lyric poetry are considered some of the earliest and most outstanding in the Middle Dutch vernacular.
Information about Hadewijch’s life, save that which can be surmised from her writings, is completely lacking. Tradition suggests that she was born in Antwerp, sometime in the early years of the thirteenth century. Educated and articulate, probably of an aristocratic family, Hadewijch could read Latin, French, and Provençal, in addition to Dutch. Her knowledge of Holy Scripture was formidable and her awareness of such writers as Saint Augustine, William of Saint Thierry, Richard of St. Victor, Bernard of Clairvaux, and others of the mystical tradition is borne out by her own work. Hadewijch lived in either Antwerp or possibly Brussels, and wrote in the language of thirteenth-century Brabant, an independent duchy (now northern Belgium and southern Netherlands). She recorded her sixth mystical vision as occurring when she was nineteen, while she experienced the first of her fourteen Visions years before she was old enough to understand their symbolic and spiritual significance. Hadewijch probably entered a beguinage while still a young woman. Records of these religious organizations show them to be small, self-sustaining communities of women from the noble laity devoted to Christian good works, prayer, and contemplation.
Beguinages had begun to appear in the Low Countries during the second half of the twelfth century. Accepted by Pope Honorius III in 1216 and widespread in Europe, the movement was officially condemned in 1310 due to its independence from ecclesiastical authority. In orientation similar to nuns, beguines did not adopt the monastic life, followed no official organizing principles, and swore no solemn vows; instead, in the words of critic Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, “beguines strove to live in the world without being of it,” adopting a life of poverty and focusing on charitable deeds. Internal evidence, particularly that of her “Letter 15,” suggests that Hadewijch was probably the spiritual leader of her particular community (although some recent scholars have disputed this, and even questioned her status as a beguine.) In any case, Hadewijch’s involvement in the spiritual life of the southern Netherlands is unquestioned. Other evidence hints at her possibly being linked to heretical movements or individuals, and perhaps being persecuted for her beliefs and actions. Portions of her thirty-one Brieven (Letters, mid-thirteenth century) suggest she may have been exiled, imprisoned, or otherwise separated from her cherished sisters against her will. (“Letter 25” expresses her hope that one day she will be reunited with them.) Most scholars believe that Hadewijch was a beguine and spent the majority of her career devoting herself to Christian charity, including care of the elderly, ill, and impoverished—activities she exhorted her fellow beguines to engage in as well. Meanwhile she composed a noteworthy and influential collection of poetry and prose, probably over the course of the years 1220 to 1240, or possibly slightly later. The date of Hadewijch’s death is unknown, although a terminal point in the early second half of the thirteenth century is generally accepted by scholars.
Hadewijch’s literary and theological significance was first recognized in the fourteenth century by such figures as Jan van Ruysbroeck and Jan van Leeuwen, who praised her writing and the majestic qualities of her spiritual vision and faith in Divine Love. In the century following her death, Hadewijch’s works also became known outside of the Low Countries, with complete translations of her Letters appearing in High German, although portions of these have since been lost. Her influence on the German mystic and theologian Meister Eckhart (whose more penetrative, introspective mysticism nevertheless contrasts with hers) has likewise suggested the spread of her thought in the late medieval period. Although her poetry and prose continued to be inscribed in fifteenth-century rapiaria (early modern anthologies of writing and thought), by the sixteenth century Hadewijch had fallen into obscurity. Her writings were rediscovered in 1838 by medievalists who began to study manuscripts in possession of the Royal Library of Brussels. The first modern critical editions of her works were edited by Jozef Van Mierlo and published between 1924 and 1952. Since then, translations of her poetry and prose have appeared in English, German, French, and Italian, as well as modern Dutch.
In the contemporary period, critical attention to Hadewijch’s writings has expanded rapidly. Among several areas of interest, a number of late twentieth-century scholars have highlighted the orientation of Hadewijch’s writing toward a female audience, and have analyzed her poetic evocation of gender and the body, including her occasional use of sexualized images to describe an ecstatic union with God. Indeed, feminist-oriented scholarship has proven to be one of the most compelling fields of modern Hadewijch study, especially in regard to her somewhat enigmatic Visions. In some of her more majestic writings, she depicts the Divine (Love) as female. The masterpiece “Twelve Hours” is a prime example.
Her other prose works, the Letters, have been lauded for their formal artistry and clarity of expression, while her verse has been deemed crucial to the development of Dutch vernacular writing. Theodoor Weevers (1960) writes, “Hadewijch ranks with the earlier Dante … as one of the great masters who, towards the close of the era of courtly chivalry, transformed the troubadour lyric with its rigidly circumscribed conventions into a form capable of expressing the highest aspirations of the human soul.” Summarizing generally laudatory modern perceptions, Ria Vanderauwera (1984) regards Hadewijch “as one of the most gifted literary geniuses of her period” who holds a prominent place in the canon of Dutch literature.”
Excerpts from her poetic writings:
“The nature from which true love springs has twelve hours which drive love out of herself and bring her back in herself. And when love comes back in herself she brings with her all that makes the unspeakable hours drive her out of herself: a mind that seeks to know, a heart full of desire, and a soul full of love. And when love brings these back she throws them into the abyss of the mighty nature in which she was born and nurtured. Then the unspeakable hours enter nature unknown. Then love has come to herself and rejoices in her nature, below, above, and around. And all those who stay below this knowledge shudder at those who have fallen into the abyss and work there and live and die. For such is love’s command and her nature.
In the first unspeakable hour of the twelve that draw the soul into love’s nature, love reveals herself and touches the soul unexpected and uninvited when her nobility leads us to least suspect it. No matter how strong-natured, the soul fails to understand, for this is truly an unspeakable hour.
The second unspeakable hour love makes the heart taste a violent death, and the heart goes through death, but it does not die. And yet the soul has not known love for long, and has barely moved from the first to the second hour.
In the third unspeakable hour love shows how one may die and live in her, and how one cannot love without great suffering.
In the fourth unspeakable hour love makes the soul taste her hidden designs, which are deep and darker than the abyss. Then love reveals how miserable the soul is without love. But the soul does not yet partake of love’s nature. This hour is truly unspeakable, for the beloved is made to accept love’s designs before he possesses love.
In the fifth unspeakable hour love seduces the heart and the soul, and the soul is driven out of herself and out of love’s nature and back into love’s nature. The soul has then ceased to wonder about the power and darkness of love’s designs, and has forgotten the pains of love. Then the soul knows love only through love herself, which may seem lower but is not. For where knowledge is most intimate the beloved knows least.
In the sixth unspeakable hour love despises reason and all that lies within reason and above it and below. Whatever belongs to reason stands against the blessed state of love. For reason cannot take away anything from love or bring anything to love, for love’s true reason is a flood that rises forever and knows no peace.
In the seventh unspeakable hour nothing can dwell in love or touch her except desire. And touch is love ‘s most secret name, and touch springs from love herself. For love is always touch and desire and feasts on herself forever. Yet love is perfect in herself.
The eighth unspeakable hour brings bewilderment when the beloved learns that he cannot know love’s nature from her face. Yet the face is held to reveal the inmost nature, and that is most hidden in love. For that she is herself in herself. Love’s other limbs and her works are easier to know and understand.
The ninth unspeakable hour brings love’s fiercest storm, harshest touch, and deepest desires. The face is sweetest there, at peace, and most winsome. And the deeper love wounds the one she assails, the sweeter she drowns him in herself with the soft splendor of her face. And there she shows herself in her loveliness.
The tenth unspeakable hour is that when no one judges love, but when love judges all things. From God she takes the power to judge all she loves. Love does not yield to saints or men, or angels, heaven or earth, and she enfolds the divine in her nature. To love she calls the hearts who love, in a voice that is loud and untiring. The voice has great power and it tells of things more terrible than thunder. This word is the rope love uses to bind her prisoners, this is the sword she turns on those whom she touches, it is the rod she uses to chastise her children, this is the craft she teaches her companions.
In the eleventh unspeakable hour love possesses the beloved by force. For not a moment can they stray from her, or their heart desire or their soul love. And love makes the memory shrink and the beloved cannot think of saints or men, or angels, heaven or earth, God or themselves, but of love alone who has possessed them in a present ever new.
In the twelfth unspeakable hour love is the likeness of her uppermost nature. Only now she breaks out of herself and she works with herself and sinks deep in herself, utterly satisfied with her nature.
She fully rejoices in herself, and even if no one loved her, the name of love would give her enough loveliness in the nature of her splendid self. Her name which is her nature inside her, her name which is her works outside her, her name which is her crown above her, her name which is the soil under her.
These are the twelve unspeakable hours of love. For in none of the twelve can love be understood, except by those I mentioned, those who have been thrown into the abyss of love’s mighty nature and those who belong there, and they believe in love more than they understand her.”
are too small
to hold me,
I am so vast
In the Infinite
for the Uncreated
it undoes me
wider than wide
is too narrow
You know this well,
you who are also there
Imagining we possessed what she kept back for herself.
What is sweetest in love is her tempestuousness,
Her deepest abyss is her most beautiful form;
To lose one’s way in her is to touch her close at hand.
To die of hunger for her is to feed and taste;…
We can say yet more about Love:
Her wealth is her lack of everything;
Her truest fidelity brings about our fall;
Her highest being drowns us in the depths;…
Her revelation is the total hiding of herself;
Her gifts, besides, are thieveries;
Her promises are all seductions;
Her adornments are all undressing;
Her truth is all deception;
To many her assurance appears to lie—
This is the witness that can be truly borne
At any moment by me and many others
To whom Love has often shown
Wonders by which we were mocked,
Imagining we possessed what she kept back for herself.
After she first played these tricks on me,
And I considered all her methods,
I went to work in an entirely different way:
By her threats and her promises
I was no longer deceived.
I will belong to her, whatever she may be,
Gracious or merciless; to me it is all one.
The Madness of love
The madness of love
Is a rich fief;
Anyone who recognized this
Would not ask Love for anything else:
It can unite Opposites
And reverse the paradox.
I am declaring the truth about this:
The madness of love makes bitter what was sweet,
It makes the stranger a kinsman,
And it makes the smallest the most proud.
To souls who have not reached such love,
I give this good counsel:
If they cannot do more,
Let them beg Love for amnesty,
And serve with faith,
According to the counsel of noble Love,
And think: ‘It can happen,
Love’s power is so great!’
Only after his death
Is a man beyond cure.
To Live Out What I am
My distress is great and unknown to men.
They are cruel to me, for they wish to dissuade me
From all that the forces of Love urge me to.
They do not understand it, and I cannot explain it to them.
I must then live out what I am;
What love counsels my spirit,
In this is my being: for this reason I will do my best.
Whatever vicissitudes men lead me through for Love’s sake
I wish to stand firm and take no harm from them.
For I understand from the nobility of my soul
That in suffering for sublime Love, I conquer.
I will therefore gladly surrender myself
In pain, in repose, in dying, in living,
For I know the command of lofty fidelity.
I do not complain of suffering for Love:
It becomes me always to submit to her,
Whether she commands in storm or in stillness.
One can know her only in herself.
This is an unconceivable wonder,
Which has thus filled my heart
And makes me stray in a wild desert.
Anyone who has waded
Through Love’s turbulent waters,
Now feeling hunger and now satiety,
Is untouched by the season
Of withering or blooming,
For in the deepest and most dangerous waters,
On the highest peaks,
Love is always the same.
the world’s things
Then the Naked
can grow wide,