Untimely meditations
: Female mysticism in medieval culture and modern scholarship

  • Louise Wasson

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Beginning with a survey of the writings of the medieval mulieres religiosae this comparative thesis attempts to explore the medieval mystical tradition as a space of self-construction and self-expression in both the medieval and modem periods. The thesis is preoccupied with tracing an 'untimely' relation between these two historically distant periods via a series of synchronic case studies stretching from the twelfth to the twentieth century, and focusing specifically on the ways in which the writings of female mystics are mediated in the medieval period and re-mediated in the modem period. The return, recurrence and endurance of the medieval within the modem is thus a key point of interest. The opening chapter provides a survey of medieval mysticism and considers the problems of developing and defining a language set with which to discuss the abstract nature of the mystical. This survey is followed by a set of diverse case studies which consider a selection of medieval mystics from the life of orthodox figures such as the beguine Marie d"Oignies (1177-1213) to the speculative writings of heretic and beguine Marguerite Porete (d. 1310), and finally the Middle English translation of Saint Catherine of Siena's (1347-1380) Dialogue. Chapter Three builds on this analysis of medieval mysticism by considering the ways in which the mystical tradition is received and subsequently, recovered and perpetuated in the early twentieth-century. Beginning with a consideration of the crucial work of female medievalists such as Evelyn Underhill and Hope Emily Allen in this area, the thesis progresses by analysing twentieth-century models of the medieval devotee/confessor relationship (Adrienne von Speyr and Hans URs von Balthasar) before juxtaposing the writing of Simone Weil and Anne Carson, which resonate with the removal or 'decreation' of self that form the foundation of the apophatic genre. Concluding with a survey of the so-called 'religious' or 'apophatic turn' within Continental philosophy and the humanities more broadly, the thesis hopes to usefully reflect on the role of the medieval mystical tradition and its contribution to an emerging women's history. This thesis is fundamentally preoccupied with the impact which female religious writings have and how they are re-mediated and reappropriated in both modem scholarship and feminist historiography. Overall, a range of apophatic writings will be analysed as I argue for this genre as a paradoxical space for both the empowerment and silencing of the female voice at different historical moments. Mystical languages of 'unsaying' and the concomitant oscillation between languages of 'selfing' and 'unselfing' engendered by the self-negating nature of apophatic discourse ·will be shown to play a central role in the politics of women who write and are written into history

Date of AwardDec 2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorStephen Kelly (Supervisor)

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