In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Christian Mysticism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Collected Surveys
  • Collections of Sources
  • Origins
  • Vernacular and Female Traditions in the Later Middle Ages

Medieval Studies Christian Mysticism
Constant J. Mews
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0129


This introductory survey offers an initial overview of some of the main branches of Christian mysticism in the medieval period, broadly conceived as 500–1450. Mysticism is itself a highly contested term. Some use it to denote a personal experience of God. Others apply it to the literary articulation of religious experience, and as induction into a way of life that sees its goal as the vision of God. Mystical theology has developed in different ways within the various branches of orthodox Christianity as much as that of the Latin West. It can be argued that mysticism is a fundamental characteristic of Christianity as formulated within Eastern forms of orthodoxy, going back to the founding fathers in the Greek and Syriac world. By contrast, mysticism in the Latin West has often been seen as a particular branch of spiritual discourse and experience, distinct from the analytic forms of theology that developed in the 12th century. In the later medieval period, mystical writing in the West was increasingly formulated in vernacular languages, often by women. The development of such discourse in the vernacular, frequently invoking images and concepts quite distinct from those of normal scholastic exegesis, encouraged a perspective on mysticism as a minority pursuit within a religious milieu, often challenging the perspectives of orthodoxy. Even if has been an established tradition of linking vernacular mystical writing to other forms of vernacular literature, it also needs to be situated as a response to the Latin intellectual tradition, as well as to currents of thought emanating from Antiquity. While the major focus here is on Christian mysticism, Jewish and Islamic mysticism was also important in both Spain and the Middle East. Christian mysticism was unusual, however, in being promoted between the 13th and 15th centuries by women as much as by men, often operating outside the academy. Since the 1990s, there has been a strong growth of interest in these female mystics, not just in the medieval period, but in the 16th century and later (and thus beyond the scope of the present bibliographical survey). This article confines itself to core texts relevant to Eastern and Western branches of the medieval mystical tradition and to English-language translations and discussions of major medieval mystical writings. Certain authors are identified simply by the most recent translation, with secondary literature offering an opportunity to pursue original critical editions. Within each section, authors are presented in a broadly chronological sequence.

General Overviews and Collected Surveys

There are many introductory surveys, most focusing on the Western rather than the orthodox tradition, and presenting guides to selected key figures. Underhill 2002, first published in 1911, and Knowles 1967 are classic introductions that are still worth reading, even if now superseded in scholarship. There have been a number of guides to Western mystical writing, such as Szarmach 1984, Lagorio 1986, and King 2004, but the most important overview is now the multivolume survey McGinn 1992–2007. Weeks 1993 focuses on a long-range view of German mysticism, while Borchert 1994 is concerned with mysticism in general, situating Christian writers within a broader context of mystical literature. Louth 1981 (cited under Origins) and Turner 1995 (cited under Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite) focus on traditions of negativity and the roots of the Platonic tradition as vital to understanding mystical tradition.

  • Borchert, Bruno. Mysticism: Its History and Challenge. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1994.

    An accessible introduction that covers major themes of Christian mysticism, within the broader context of mystical discourse in general.

  • Hollywood, Amy. Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

    Analyzes the interest of 20th-century French thinkers, including Bataille, Lacan, and Irigary, in medieval mystical literature.

  • King, Ursula. Christian Mystics: Their Lives and Legacies throughout the Ages. London: Routledge, 2004.

    Introduction to key figures in the Christian mystical tradition, with one chapter (pp. 61–138) providing short summaries of all major medieval mystics.

  • Knowles, David. What Is Mysticism? London: Burns & Oates, 1967.

    Classic study of theological analysis of mysticism and contemplation.

  • Lagorio, Valerie M., ed. Mysticism: Medieval and Modern. Papers presented at the 20th Congress of the International Congresses on Medieval Studies held at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, May 1985. Salzburg Studies in English Literature. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistic, 1986.

    Essays on medieval mystical literature, mainly English and German of the 13th and 14th centuries.

  • McGinn, Bernard. The Presence of God. 4 vols. London: SCM, 1992–2007.

    Magistral survey of Christian mysticism, with particular reference to the West. Vol. 1, The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century (1992); Vol. 2, The Growth of Mysticism (1994); Vol. 3, The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism (1200–1350) (1998); Vol. 4, The Harvest of Mysticism in Medieval Germany (1300–1500) (2007).

  • Szarmach, Paul E., ed. An Introduction to the Medieval Mystics of Europe: Fourteen Original Essays. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.

    Collection of essays on medieval mystical thinkers, including three chapters on women mystics and two on Jewish mysticism.

  • Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2002.

    Classic study that established a spiritual agenda for considering mysticism as a shared experience, across different cultures and periods of time. Originally published in 1911.

  • Weeks, Andrew. German Mysticism from Hildegard of Bingen to Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Literary and Intellectual History. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

    Overview of German mystical writing, with particular chapters on Hildegard, Eckart, Suso and Tauler, as well as on Nicholas of Cusa.

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