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The Cistercian nuns' monastery of Helfta was founded near Mansfeld in 1229. By the late thirteenth century it had transferred locations within Saxony twice, and its community members had also managed to compose an extraordinary corpus of spiritual writings. Between about 1270 and 1282, the recently arrived Beguine Mechtild of Magdeburg probably composed and dictated the end of her German-language Flowing Light of the Divinity at Helfta. Then, three Latin texts were composed at Helfta. Probably in the 1280s-1290s Gertrude of Helfta wrote the Spiritual Exercises as well as Book Two of what would become the Herald of God's Loving Kindness. In 1290 the ill Helfta nun Mechtild of Hackeborn began telling others about the "wonders of his [the merciful Lord's] secrets" (13) that had been revealed to her. Over the next decade anonymous nuns at Helfta edited and compiled these revelations. After initial reluctance, Mechtild of Hackeborn accepted that her sisters were writing down her words, and eventually she provided an editorial oversight of the book. This book became known as the Book of Special Grace. At the same time, one or more unknown nuns at Helfta wrote the rest of the Herald. Probably finished after Gertrude's death in 1301 or 1302, the completed Herald comprised five books.
The three Latin texts fill 1250 modern pages. As Anna Harrison's fine study demonstrates, these three texts were both causes and consequences of the Helfta nuns' capacious, and life-affirming, sense of community. Although modern scholars may previously have thought first of all of texts or famous individuals when they thought of Helfta, Harrison's book encourages us to think first of all about community.
The book has three thematic parts, each exploring different forms of community that were important to Helfta's nuns and each using the spiritual writings as evidence of this: Chapters 1-4, the nuns; Chapters 5-6, within and beyond the cloister; and Chapters 7-8, the living and the dead. The Helfta literary corpus is large, and Harrison's decision and capacity to identify themes from within these writings is itself evidence of Harrison's deep and thoughtful familiarity with the texts. Most of the book's examples come from the Herald and Book of Special Grace, with far fewer from the Spiritual Exercises. The Flowing Light is discussed occasionally, usually in footnotes and to provide useful comparison and contrast - the extent to which this text was read by Helfta's nuns is unclear.
Harrison positions this study as a redirection from previous scholarship which understood late medieval religiosity as "centering on individual, inner experience rather than on group practice or on communal response, even when the context is religious or monastic community" (xvi). The book succeeds admirably in its aims; both the themes in the Helfta texts, and the processes by which the texts were produced and read, highlight the intrinsically interdependent nature of Christians' lives, especially for those living in monasteries.
Chapter 1, which builds on Harrison's 2008 Viator journal article, takes us immediately to the interconnectedness of individuals and groups, arguing that the Herald and Book of Special Grace were collaborative textual creations. They were certainly not composed by sole authors (traditionally argued to be Gertrude of Helfta and Mechtild of Hackeborn, although note that in her 2017 English translation of the Book of Special Grace Barbara Newman referred to the authors as "Mechtild of Hackeborn and the Nuns of Helfta"). They were not even "communal" works. They were something more, i.e. truly "collaborative" works. They were composed (with "composed" including both those who wrote and those whose discussions provided ideas for the writing) by "an unspecified number of women" (37) at Helfta, including Gertrude and Mechtild but extending to others too. In the Book of Special Grace Christ says "I am...in the mouth of those speaking; I am in the hand of those writing" (23). In other words, the Book of Special Grace was seen as God's book, and the "authors" at Helfta were seen as God's assistants. As Harrison argues, this medieval perspective means that we ask the wrong question if we try to identify a sole author for a text from Helfta. There is no need to try to untangle all the contributors to the texts; rather, collaboration (between nuns themselves, and between nuns and the divine) was the whole point.
Chapter 2 is about relationships and friendships among the nuns. As in all chapters, this chapter paints a picture by including many examples and quotations from the texts in both the body of the narrative and the footnotes. The examples and quotations are one of the book's strengths, as Harrison shares here her extensive knowledge of the texts. Chapter 2 shows that the texts allow us to "overhear portions of perhaps hundreds of the [Helfta] sisters' conversations, sometimes at length, sometimes only snatches" (58). The overall message is a fundamental one of cenobitic life - rely on one another, value mutual dependency, and do not try to do everything alone.
Chapter 3 studies what the texts say about illness, dying, bereavement, and relationality more broadly. In Chapter 4, which extends considerably from Harrison's 2009 Church History article, the focus is on revelations that come to Gertrude and Mechtild of Hackeborn in the Office and Mass. As in other chapters, here the community that is valued is one in which Christ is central. Being part of a liturgical community provided the daily, repeated, and ongoing opportunity to join Christ and be "buoyed by confidence in human beings' capacity to provide mutual assistance across death's porous divide" (164). Although Gertrude and Mechtild received the visions, the texts are not about, or for, these two women alone. Rather, there was a mutual link between receiving visions and hearing texts read and recited, and vice versa, which extended the texts' meaning to the entire community of sisters.
In Part 2, Chapter 5 examines the place of clergy in the women's perceptions of community. Interestingly, the texts say very little about clergy. If the spiritual writings were all one had to go by (and, as it turns out, surviving administrative documents do not tell us who provided the nuns' pastoral care), it would seem that priests were not very important to Helfta's nuns! Harrison suggests that maybe this was because the nuns prioritised the female visionaries among them who had such strong relationships with Christ; after all, encounters between Christ and the soul were completely beyond the access of sacerdotal authorities. Sometimes Gertrude confided in an older man about her relationship with God but, more often, she sought out her fellow sisters when she wanted advice about how to interpret her experiences. The texts do tell us something about the role that the women understood themselves to play in the lives of men, but not vice versa.
Chapter 6 discusses the nuns' sense of their connections with conversi, convent administrators, and kin and other members of the laity, including both positive and negative interactions. The chapter includes some useful historical context about social changes affecting thirteenth-century German lay elites. Given Harrison's focus on the spiritual writings, however, most of the book's discussions of historical context are brief, although extensive footnote citations point interested readers to where they can learn more, as indeed footnote citations also point readers to research on scholarly debates about authorship, biographical details of Gertrude and the two Mechtilds, etc.
In Part 3 attention turns to purgatory (Chapter 7) and heaven (Chapter 8). The spiritual writings have many examples of the ties binding the sisters to people in purgatory. God is depicted sometimes as a God of justice and sometimes as a God of mercy. But, always, the sense of interconnectedness persisted. All the saved are part of the body of Christ, and therefore praying for others was encouraged, since this was in a sense praying for oneself. The heaven depicted in the Helfta writings is a happy and lively place, with Mary and the saints engaged in lots of conversations that one can listen to! The thousands and thousands of lovers of the book's title is a quote from John the Evangelist to Gertrude, reassuring Gertrude (and, by extension, the Helfta community) of Christ's ever-presence. Never doubt, says John: there is room for "thousands and thousands of lovers in Christ's embrace" (413).
As Harrison notes, the Helfta writings are "extravagantly cataphatic" (xix). They offer "a synesthetic explosion of images" (18) and variety, indeed "a kaleidoscope of colors" and "sumptuous descriptions of mystical flight" (19) as well as frequent borrowings from liturgical language. And, although the sense of community we gain from reading these texts does not omit the problems that affect all groups, overall the literature bursts with a "fervent optimism" (433).
In this 494-page book, Harrison's vivid and immediate literary style honours the vigour, energy, and positivity of the Helfta texts. We read that the jointly-composed texts are "like pieces in a patchwork quilt" (34); the Herald and Book of Special Grace were not texts composed by a single authorial voice "in splendid isolation" but, rather, they are like "densely braided choral strands" (38) and they are texts strewn with dialogue in which there is "a continual cascade of conversation" (373).
The study of the medieval community of Helfta is undergoing a revival at present, focussed especially on Gertrude and encouraged by the 2008 discovery of the earliest surviving manuscript of the Herald and the cause to have Gertrude declared a Doctor of the church. Harrison's excellent book is a key contribution to this expansion in Helfta research and will also give anyone interested in medieval Western Christian monastic life much to savour. Readers will be in Harrison's debt for the profound expertise so generously shared in this book.