"In that Instant I Saw Myself": Affective Response in the Writings of Hadewijch of Brabant

Benjamin Martin Breyer

"In that Instant I Saw Myself": Affective Response in the Writings of Hadewijch of Brabant
Breyer, Benjamin Martin
Thesis Advisor(s):
Dailey, Patricia A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
English and Comparative Literature
Persistent URL:
"`In that Instant I recognized myself': Affective Response in the Writings of Hadewijch of Brabant" analyzes the use of style and rhetoric in the writings of the eponymous thirteenth century Dutch mystic, (c.1250). Specifically, it examines the way she uses a style of writing that relies on affect to produce meaning. She employs these techniques in her prose and verse as a means both of teaching non rational knowledge about mystic union with God and of shaping the audience's emotional response to this knowledge. I argue that the affective style she uses is epistemic in all three modes in which she wrote (letters, book of visions, and songs) and that it is central to her strategy of teaching by word and by example in that the audience is led to feel the content of her words. The reader is affectively engaged through this sensory experience of the text, and affective response acts to confirm the cognitive component of her teaching. Because the formal framework of each mode influences her use of stylistics differently, I develop an explanatory model for each mode in order to highlight distinctions before offering a synthesis. This dissertation broadens the range of studies of affective style in medieval devotional literature, such as Sarah McNamer's study Middle English and Latin texts, by including a substantial Middle Dutch corpus of spiritual writings that offers a point of comparison for the philological study of the language of feelings in emergent vernaculars. Moreover, by expanding the range of vernacular literary forms studied from the perspective of stylistics to include the writings of the most significant female writer in Middle Dutch, this study thereby furthers the understanding of the use of three characteristic modes of writing in vernacular theology. This was a theology that relied less on technical precision in its expression and more on affective appeal. "In that Instant" also contributes to historical research on new forms of lay spiritual life in thirteenth century Europe. It accomplishes this by demonstrating how trends in affective devotional writing among women are reflected those of a prolific lay writer. My analysis further reveals how Hadewijch's varied texts are designed to themselves become sites in which affective desires are generated and directed. The first chapter examines Hadewijch's epistolarity i.e. how she uses the formal properties of the letter mode to produce and present meaning when giving spiritual direction to a small group of female followers. To contextualize my analysis of her epistolarity, I theorize the function of the sections of her letters using both medieval letter writing manuals and her use of the apostolic letters of Saint Paul as models of epistolary practice. Hadewijch found in Paul's letters a style of exhortative spiritual direction known as paraenesis; this allowed her to teach authoritatively on the basis of her personal experience while dissuading her readers from relying upon her instead of developing their own ability to discern God's will. Paul's letters also suited her belief that she was divinely chosen to teach others on the basis of her own salvation experience just as Paul believed of himself. I argue that Hadewijch's use of an affective style in the form of rhetorical devices and rhythm is an innovative interpretation of the medieval conception of the letter as a means of simulating for the reader the presence of the writer. Following Anika, I argue that when Hadewijch's letters are read aloud, the reader's breathing rhythm matches the rhythm of the prose as well as the units of thought marked out in the clauses of Hadewijch's periodic sentences. This bio rhythm enables the reader to feel the text and be lead to certain identifications through rhetorical figures of repetition. Moreover, the use of a bio rhythmic prose style enacts Hadewijch's belief throughout her letters that the members of her community are of one body and heart and must be made to feel that way to become friends in Christ. In the second chapter, I analyze how Hadewijch's book of visions, which I believe were written for one of the women addressed in her letters, shapes its reader. Unlike the letters, which are based on second-person address, the book of visions is a first-person account of Hadewijch's growth to spiritual perfection, and it does not address the reader directly until the final chapter. This requires the reader to analogize between herself and Hadewijch. The book can be described as an exemplar based on Hadewijch's growth to spiritual perfection and her understanding of this process through experience and reflection. I argue that the synaesthetic language used in the vision narratives is intended to allow the reader to understand the type of sensory knowledge and understanding that Hadewijch describes during her moments of mystic union. The arrangement of the vision narratives in a series of chapters in a single book facilitates the reader's understanding of Hadewijch's growth by establishing a horizon of expectations that is modified as the reader progresses through the text. I maintain that Hadewijch chose to create the book as a series of chapters in order to demonstrate to her reader how she meditated on her own experience and came to understand her growth as a series of stages. The third and final chapter is a study of Hadewijch's songs, which combine the courtly love lyric with a form of love mysticism derived from monastic commentaries on the Song of Songs. In addition to being musical texts, her songs differ from her prose works in that they were apparently composed for performance in her community of women. Thus, they have a ritual dimension that is not found in the letters or book of visions. Because her songs use the register of courtly love, passion and self understanding are foregrounded in the form of the suffering singer who seeks to understand the reasons her love is unrequited. I argue that the singer's lamentations, caused by her perception of God's absence, is a pedagogical method intended to instruct the audience in compassion, charity and the salutary effects of suffering. They also provide the audience with an exemplar of the proper relationship between the soul seeking God, which is based partially on a rhetorical model that Hadewijch derives from the Book of Job. Appealing to their sense of compassion by using a series of rhetorical commonplaces, the singer draws the listeners into the performance, empathetically absorbing them into the text and into her cognitive processes as she comes to understand the causes of her feelings and the proper responses to them. Acknowledging the suffering of the singer and empathizing with her, the audience becomes more communally oriented and less self-centered. Each of the modes Hadewijch uses presents her teaching in different ways, making it necessary to initially study her letters, book of visions, and songs apart from one another in order to see how they relate. Her letters address circumstantial topics specific to the spiritual life of an individual reader and seek to reorient the reader's affective disposition regarding that topic. The songs, by contrast, treat of subjects that are not circumstantially localized but applicable to the emotional disposition of her entire community. The book of visions is Hadewijch's introspective analysis of her spiritual growth to perfection and the process of self understanding through which she went. This requires the reader to analogize in order to transpose herself into the narratives. Even though there are significant differences among them, Hadewijch's writings are unified by her use of affective stylistics to convey to an uninitiated community of readers the mystical knowledge learned through her personal experience of divine union.
Affect (Psychology)
Comparative literature
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Suggested Citation:
Benjamin Martin Breyer, , "In that Instant I Saw Myself": Affective Response in the Writings of Hadewijch of Brabant, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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