Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Mechtild of Magdeburg

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 10
Mechtild of Magdeburg

by Michael Ott


A celebrated medieval mystic, b. of a noble family in Saxony about 1210; d. at the Cistercian nunnery of Helfta near Eisleben, c. 1285. She experienced her first inspirations at the age of twelve, when, as she herself states, she was greeted by the Holy Ghost. From that time, the greeting was repeated daily. Under this inspiration she desired to be despised by all without, however, deserving it, and for this purpose left her home, where she had always been loved and respected, to become a Beguine at Mageleburg in 1230. Here, under the spiritual guidance of the Dominicans she led a life of prayer and extreme mortification. Her heavenly inspirations and ecstatic visions became more frequent and were of such a nature that they dispelled from the mind of her confessor all doubt as to their Divine origin. By his order she reluctantly wrote her visions. Shortly after 1270 she joined the Cistercian nuns at Helfta, where she spent the remaining twelve years of her life, highly respected as one signally favoured by God, especially by her namesake St. Mechtilde of Hackeborn and by St. Gertrude the Great. Mechtild left to the world a most wonderful book, in which she recorded her manifold inspirations and visions. According to her assertion, God ordered the title of the book to be "Vliessende lieht miner gotheit in allu die herzen die da lebent ane valscheit", i.e. "Light of my divinity, flowing into all hearts that live without guile". The work is commonly styled "Das fliessende Licht der Gottheit". She wrote her inspirations on separate sheets of paper, which she handed to the Dominican, Henry of Halle, lector in Rupin. The original, which was written in Low German, is not extant, but a South German translation, which was prepared by Henry of Nordlingen about the year 1344 is still preserved in the original manuscript in the library of Einsiedeln, Codex 277. Mechtild began the work in 1250 and finished the sixth volume at Magdeburg in 1264, to which she added a seventh volume at Helfta. A Latin translation of the six volumes written at Magdeburg was made by a Dominican, about the year 1290, and is reprinted, together with a translation of the seventh volume, in "Revelationes Gertrudianse ac Mechtildianae", II (Paris, 1877), 435-707. The manuscript of Einsiedeln was edited by Gall Morel, O.S.B., who also translated it into modern German (Ratisbon, 1809). Other modern German translations were prepared by J. Muller (Ratisbon, 1881) and Eseherich (Berlin, 1909).

Mechtild's language is generally forcible and often exceedingly flowery. Her prose is occasionally interspered with beautiful original pieces of poetry, which manifest that she had all the natural gifts of a poet. She is never at a loss to give vent to her feelings of joy and grief in the most impressive form. Often also she delights in aphoristic and abrupt sentences. It is sometimes difficult to ascertain just how far her narrations are faithful reproductions of her visions, and how far they are additions made by her own poetic fancy. This is especially true of her realistic description of the hereafter. Writing on hell, she says, "I saw a horrible and wretched place; its name is 'Eternal Hatred'." She then represents Lucifer as chained by his sins in the lowest abyss of hell, all sin, agony, pestilence and ruin, that fill hell, purgatory, and earth, flowing from his burning heart and mouth. She divides hell into three parts; the lowest and most horrible is filled with condemned Christians, the middle with Jews, and the highest with Pagans. Hell, purgatory and heaven are situated one immediately above the other. The lowest portion of purgatory is filled with devils, who torment the souls in the most horrible manner, while the highest portion of purgatory is identical with the lowest portion of heaven. Many a soul in the lowest Purgatory does not know whether it will ever be saved. The last statement was condemned in the Bull "Exsurge Domine", 15 June, 1520, as one of the errors of Luther: "Animae in purgatorio non sunt securae de earum salute, saltem omnes". Mechtild's conception of the hereafter is believed by some to be the basis of Dante's "Divine Comedy", and the poet's Matelda ("Purgatory", Canto 27-33) to be identical with our Mechtild (see Preger, "Dante's Matelda", Munich, 1873). Whatever we may think of these and other statements in the work of Mechtild, much of it no doubt, has all the signs of a special inspiration from above. That she did not seek the favour of man is evident from her fearless denunciation of the vices of the clergy in general and especially the clergy of Magdeburg. Some authors call her saint, though she has not been canonized and apparently has never received any public cult.

MICHAEL, Kulturzustande des deutschen Volkes wahrend des 13. Jahrhunderts, III (Freiburg im Br., 1903), 187-199; IDEM in Zeischrift fur Kath. Theologie XXV (Innsbruck, 1901), 177-180; GREITH, Die deutsche Mystik im Predigerorden (Freiburg, im Br., 1861), 207-277; STRAUCH, Kleine Beitrage zur Geschichte der deutschen Mystik in Zeitschrift fur deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur, XXVII (Berlin, 1883), 368-381; PREGER, Geschichte der deutschen Mystik im Mittelater, I (Leipzig, 1874), 91-112; STIERLING, Studien zu Mechtild v. Magd. (Gottingen, 1909).

MICHAEL OTT