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

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Contexts
  • Feminist Approaches and Female Spirituality
  • Manuscript Approaches, Texts, and Contexts
  • The Afterlife of Mystical Writings

British and Irish Literature Mysticism
Denis Renevey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0044


Although unfamiliar to medieval culture, “mysticism” is an increasingly contentious and limiting term for modern scholars of medieval religious culture; however, its usefulness as a term is still the object of serious discussion. Mysticism is defined as follows in the Oxford English Dictionary: “a belief in the possibility of union with or absorption into God by means of contemplation and self surrender; belief in or devotion to the spiritual apprehension of truths inaccessible to the intellect.” A quick overview of the texts covered by Fanous and Gillespie’s Companion to Medieval English Mysticism shows that all are not “mystical texts,” in the sense not all of them describe accounts of personal union into God, mystical visions, or ways in which one can reach union with the divine by means of contemplation. The texts covered in the above volume range from Godric of Finchale’s early devotional lyrics (c. 1170), to Cressy’s 1670 printed editions of Julian of Norwich’s Showings: these texts thus broaden our notion of medieval English mysticism, a term that did not find its way into the English language until the 18th century. Among texts mentioned as part of the chronology, The Wooing Group (early 13th century) and Book to a Mother (c. 1370s) feature among several other non-canonical texts, together with translations of vernacular texts from the Continent. The common denominator of all the texts discussed in the volume is their interest in some aspect of contemplation. The latter term, defined as the activity by which an individual seeks to establish (and ultimately experiences) contact with the divine by means of prayer, meditation, or reading of spiritual treatises, is a more accurate translation of what some of the texts labeled “mystical” attempt to convey. As textual artifacts fashioning (and fashioned by) socio-religious phenomena, contemplative texts aim either to report experiential and highly individual interaction with the divine or to provide a path to facilitate access to it. Although this perception of the field of medieval English mysticism opens the door to a larger corpus of texts, it remains true that the textual productions of the so-called Middle English mystics deserve attention. While some room has been made for non-canonical texts, the aim largely is to consider the most useful publications so as to understand the contributions of the Middle English mystics in the larger context of the religious and devotional medieval tradition in England and on the Continent. Although pre- and post-14th-century textual productions are given some attention, the Middle English mystics are central to this investigation. They include a consideration of the textual output of Richard Rolle, the Cloud author, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe.

Introductory Works

Mysticism is a complex phenomenon (Pike 1992) that escapes rational understanding and objective qualification. Several scholars have attempted, more or less successfully, to account for it in religious, psychological, and philosophical terms. Even if categorization of various stages of the mystical experience, such as attempted in Underhill 1961, does not necessarily match accounts of experiences given by some medieval mystics (Knowles 1961), it nevertheless helps to understand the ultimate aims of mystics. Their attempts at recounting their experience with words are insurmountable, and their struggle to verbalize an experience that is beyond reason is at the heart of several mystical texts (Edwards 2004). The role that language, especially metaphorical language, plays in conveying personal mystical experiences is at the heart of several texts and discussed in Riehle 1981.

  • Edwards, A. S. G., ed. A Companion to Middle English Prose. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2004.

    Covers secular and religious prose; however, several chapters consider religious prose in particular, such as Ancrene Wisse, discussed by Millett; Rolle by Hanna; Walter Hilton and the Cloud author by Putter; Nicholas Love by Ghosh; Julian of Norwich by Windeatt; Margery Kempe by Spearing; and anonymous devotional writings by Gillespie.

  • Knowles, David. The English Mystical Tradition. London: Burns and Oates, 1961.

    Although slightly outdated, the book still offers an interesting overview of the most significant characteristics of Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, the Cloud author, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe, considered to be the Middle English mystics, with a chapter on Augustine Baker, who is post-medieval.

  • Pike, Nelson. Mystic Union: An Essay in the Phenomenology of Mysticism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.

    A philosophical attempt to provide an account of what it means to experience union with God, the ultimate aim of contemplative practice.

  • Riehle, Wolfgang. The Middle English Mystics. Translated by Bernard Standring. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.

    Remains one of the best language-based studies on the Middle English mystics. It offers useful insights on the lexical field of mystical language and allows an understanding of both the literary and religious sensibilities of the Middle English mystics.

  • Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development. New York: Dutton, 1961.

    Remains a must-read in the field of mystical studies. Although its systematic attempt to categorize the mystical experience according to different steps has been called into question, it nevertheless proves to be one of the best attempts at understanding various aspects (religious, psychological, theological) of the mystical life.

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