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Teaching the Visions: Female Mystics’ Participation in Thirteenth-Century Education
By Dauna M. Kiser
Education: Forming and Deforming the Premodern Mind – Selected Proceedings of the Newberry Library Center for Renaissance Studies 27th Graduate Student Conference, edited by Karen Christianson (Newberry Library, 2009)
Introduction: Female visionaries in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries brought to their readers vivid accounts of spiritual meetings with God regarding the religious life. They passed on moral lessons or doctrinal ideas acquired from various beings or personas during their visions. The imagery and message in their written accounts is the subject of much scholarship, as is the authority a female visionary gained within the Christian church even from outside the official hierarchy. But the mystic and her written works provided the medieval reader with another valuable kind of knowledge—that of the practical aspects of a mystical experience. From clues in the work of Hadewijch of Brabant, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Beatrice of Nazareth, and from the latter’s biography, we can also discern some of the realities students would need to understand regarding the processes that occurred during a spiritual voyage. I suggest that during the thirteenth century a specific program of study existed in which promising students could learn advanced techniques for achieving a visionary state. While the specifics of such “coursework” involving the visionary experience may appear informal or unstructured in historical records, the training in these “schools” paralleled other types of educational programs that have been more closely studied by modern scholars. Knowledge gained by mystics through otherworldly revelations became as important in the greater medieval culture as it was in any monastic or secular school of the time, as evidenced by the increase in visionary literature during the thirteenth century.