Introduction || St. Lioba || Hildegard of Bingen || Mechtild of Magdebourg

The Helfta Cistercian Nuns || Marguerite Porete || Meister Eckhart

John Tauler || Henry Suso || Jan van Ruusbroec || Bibliography

Hans Memling, St John Writing Revelation. St John's Hospital, Bruges.
Reproduced by permission, Memlingmuseum, Stedelijke Musea, Brugge, Belgium


n Early Christianity, in Ireland and England, hermits, contemplatives, paralleling those of the Egyptian and Syrian deserts, were known as the Celi Dei , the Friends of God. This name is also frequent in later contemplative movements and writings . At the same time that Julian of Norwich, Walter Hilton and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing were formulating their contemplative texts in England, other mystics were writing on the Continent. As in England, women were present alongside men in this project, this textual community stretching over most of Europe. Meister Eckhart had available to him the writings of Hildegard von Bingen, as had also John Tauler those of Mechtild von Magdebourg, and those of Marguerite Porete. Associated with Meister Eckhart was Agnes of Hungary, with Henry Suso, Elsbeth Stägel, while John Tauler likewise preached to Dominican nuns and Jan van Ruusbroec wrote spiritual treatises to them. That sense of women belonging to the 'Friends of God' (Wisdom 7.27, James 2.23) as well as men may have had its origins in the Christianizing of Germany from England by Anglo-Saxon monks and nuns, influenced by the Celi Dei, and who established double monasteries, St Hilda's Whitby, St Lioba's Bischopsheim and countless others. At first the mysticism, or contemplation, is Benedictine. Then it becomes strongly Dominican. Associated with it are also the women Beguines, such as Margaret Porete and Mechtild of Magdebourg . This booklet traces the lives and works of the God Friends, recognising that three of their texts, Marguerite Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls , Jan van Ruusbroec's Sparkling Stone and an extract of Henry Suso's Horologium Sapientiae , are found together with Julian's Showing of Love in the Amherst Manuscript in the British Library and that these other works may well have been translated for her and thus constituted her Library of Mystics from which she partly drew her inspiration.

St. Lioba (A.D. 700-780)

t Boniface travelled from England to Germany proselytizing amongst the pagan tribes there and establishing monasteries for both men and women. St Lioba, St Boniface's kinswoman, was a nun in Wessex who had studied under Mother Tetta (in secular life, Cuthberga, sister of the King of Wessex, wife of the King of Northumbria). Boniface sent for Lioba to come to Germany, because she was a skilled Classicist, learned in the Scriptures, the Church Fathers, canon law and the decrees of all the councils. In fact, she was never without a book in her hand, reading at every possible opportunity and she never forgot what she read. Her name 'Lioba' means 'Beloved'. Boniface asked that her bones be laid by his at her death. Charlemagne's wife adored her but Lioba hated the life of court like poison.

Her life tells, among others, this story: 'She had a dream in which one night she saw a purple thread issuing from her mouth. It seemed to her that when she took hold of it with her hand and tried to draw it out there was no end to it. . . When her hand was full of thread and it still issued from her mouth she rolled it round and round and made a ball of it .' An old and prophetic nun was asked about the meaning of the dream and explained that it referred to Lioba's wise counsels spoken from her heart. 'Furthermore, the ball which she made by rolling it round and round signifies the mystery of the divine teaching, which is set in motion by the words and deeds of those who give instruction and which turns earthwards through active works and heavenwards through contemplation, at one time swinging downwards through compassion for one's neighbour, again swinging upwards through the love of God.'

The image of the ball of purple thread in Lioba's hand is similar to Julian's hazel nut in the palm of her hand.

Hildegard of Bingen (A.D. 1098-1179)

From the Lucca Manuscript, lectured on in Florence by Sr Angela Carlevaris, 1999

ildegard of Bingen, and other women like her, such as Hrotswitha of Gandesheim (A.D. 932-1000) and Herrad of Landesburg, followed in this learned Benedictine tradition established in German-speaking countries from England, which gave women the status of Christian equality with men. Hildegard composed music and wrote treatises on medicine, on Benedict's Rule, a play, many letters, and visionary mystical works which she also illuminated in a manner that is deeply compelling. But, unlike Lioba, she was not a pleasing person. Until the age of forty she kept to her bed. Richardis, her friend and fellow nun, then persuaded her to embark on her career as writer of letters to the leaders of Church and State in her day and to compose her mystical treatises. When Richardis left her to become an abbess at another monastery Hildegard was furious, demanding her return. Richardis, obediently, died. Hildegard ruled her monastery by means of tyrannising over her nuns with her migraines - about which she writes in her medical works and whose effect she illuminates in her mystical treatises. She is an example of a genius who is less than charitable. One admires her work, but not her desire for control. She has significant prophetic messages for us today.

Mechtild of Magdebourg (A.D. 1207-1282)

echtild of Magdebourg was a Beguine who suffered persecution but wrote a most beautiful book called The Flowing Light of the Godhead. It influenced Dante' s imagery of light in the Paradiso. When she was old and blind she came to the monastery of Helfta and was taken in by its nuns who enabled her to complete the work's final, seventh chapter at 86. Her spiritual advisor was Henry of Halle. Her original Low German version no longer exists. It was translated into Latin, enabling Dante to read it. Heinrich of Nördlingen, a Friend of God, so loved the work that he translated it into High German and sent it to Margaret in the Dominican convent of Medingen and Christina Ebner, her sister, Abbess of the convent of Engenthal. Another Heinrich sent a copy to the Forest Sisters of Einsiedeln and a copy of it survives. She has a vision of a Mass.

P. Odo Lang OSB, Librarian, Einsiedeln Abbey, which owns Mechtild Manuscript, Cod. 277(1014)

Foto: Frau Liliane Géraud, Zürich

The Helfta Cistercian Nuns

ertrude of Hackeborn was elected Abbess of Helfta in 1251 at nineteen. Her sister, Mechthild of Hackeborn, like Mechtild of Magdebourg, wrote visionary works. And so did another nun who entered the convent, Gertrude the Great. Their visions are largely based on Bernard and the Song of Songs and filled with eroticism and the Body of Christ, in particular, his Sacred Heart. Julian is to borrow some of that imagery in her Showing of Love for the scene where Christ shows her the wound in his side, as he had earlier shown it to Doubting Thomas, to affirm his love for his Creation. The scribe of her Amherst Short Text Showing of Love also is the scribe of Mechtild of Hackeborn's Book of Ghostly Grace in Middle English.

Marguerite Porete (+1310)

arguerite Porete , like Mechtild of Magdebourg, was a Beguine. She, too, was influenced by the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius. She wrote her magnum opus, The Mirror of Simple Souls, presenting Pseudo-Dionysius ' negative theology as a dialogue between the Soul who sends to a distant Emperor, God, her portrait, and Love and Reason. In the text she states that in such a state of contemplative love of God the soul has no need of masses or prayers or of anything else. She also gives the Pseudo-Dionysian principle of evil as nought, as nothing, as non-existence. First her book was publicly burned by the Bishop of Cambrai at Valenciennes, then she was tried in Paris by the Inquisition and herself burnt at the stake, the people weeping because of her great learning and goodness. The theology faculty at the Sorbonne had united against her, amongt them Nicholas of Lyra , the converted Jew, whose commentary on the Apocalypse would influence Magister Mathias and through him Birgitta of Sweden. A friend struggled to protect her, calling himself the Angel of Philadelphia, but was forced to recant and burn his habit and belt, living the rest of his life in a monastic prison. Later we hear of Jean Gerson attacking both Marguerite Porete, whom he misnames as Marie of Valenciennes, for 'her incredibly subtle book', and Jan van Ruusbroec. Some copies of her manuscript survived, including three translated into English, one of which is in the same manuscript as is the earliest extant Julian's Showing of Love manuscript in the British Library, the Amherst Manuscript , which is written by a Lincolnshire scribe circa 1435-1450, perhaps earlier, and which emphatically states that this version of Julian's text, the Short Text, was written out in 1413 when she was still alive. The contents of this manuscript, apart from its initial two texts which are translations made by Richard Misyn, a Lincoln Carmelite, for an anchoress, Margaret Heslyngton, from texts written by Richard Rolle in Latin for other women contemplatives, one of them also an anchoress named Margaret, may represent Julian's own contemplative library. The Amherst Manuscript includes as well the Henry Suso excerpts from the Horologium Sapientiae and the Jan van Ruusbroec , Sparkling Stone, which are given here on this Juliansite. It is possible that Marguerite Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls, present in this same manuscript, was a part of Julian's own anachoritic library and that it influenced her. She departs from Marguerite Porete, however, in being actively concerned for her even-Christians, rather than Quietist.

Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

brilliant German Dominican, Meister Eckhart taught Theology, the 'Queen of the Sciences' at Paris. His predecessor had been St Thomas Aquinas who blended Aristotle's Philosophy, by way of the Arabs, together with Christian Theology. Meister Eckhart, instead, was deeply influenced not by Aristotle but by Plato, the Neoplatonists, Augustine, and most specifically by Pseudo-Dionysius. He had available to him the works of Hildegard of Bingen , Mechtild von Magdebourg and Marguerite Porete . When he was in Germany between teaching at Paris he preached constantly to Dominican convents, and countered there the rich imagistic contemplative practices of the Helfta school, insisting instead upon an imageless hegative theology about God, noughting all. He also speaks of us as birthing God. And he uses the word to be echoed by Julian ' ground', God is the ground of our being. Julian has God be ground of our prayer. Anthony Rudkin of the Eckhart Society wrote the following:
Under the Godfriends page on your site and at the bottom of the essay on Eckhart you have the words:
"Meister Eckhart's teachings were examined for heresy, because of their 'subtlety'. Like John Wyclif he was allowed to die rather than be executed."
Ursula Fleming, the founder of the Eckhart Society, persuaded a group of prominent people within the Dominican Order and outside it to request the General Chapter of the Dominican order which met in Walberburg 'to examine the possibility of issuing an official declaration of Orthodoxy of Meister Eckhart and rescinding the condemnation of some of his teaching contained in the Papal Bull "In agro dominico 27 March 1329."'
In 1983 The Master of the Order instituted the Eckhart Commission.
In 1986 the commission reported back saying that a reconsideration of the teaching of Meister Eckhart was justified. It also said that Eckhart does not  need rehabilitation in the canonical sense of the word, since his person, his doctrine, his apostolate or his spirituality were not really condemned.
Although no reconsideration of Eckhart's teaching has been formally undertaken by the Holy See, the present Pope, in 1987 at an important audience, strongly recommended Eckhart's teaching.

John Tauler (1300-1361)

he Dominican John Tauler was a prominent member of the Friends of God, knowing also Henry Suso, Nicholas of Basle, Rulman Merswin, and Margareta and Cristina Ebner. He preached on Hildegard of Bingen . There is a legend of how a Layman came to Doctor Tauler and told him that his sermons were learned but lacking in God. Tauler submitted himself to the Layperson for instruction, being given the Golden ABC by him, and he stopped preaching for two years in order to attain spiritual perfection under the Layperson's spiritual direction. The first sermon he tries to give after this retreat fails, for he can only weep. His second one is on Christ as Bridegroom.

Another story tells of how the Friends of God visited Pope Gregory XI in 1377 to plead for peace in Christendom, at the same time that St Birgitta made that plea and in whose writings the term 'Friends of God' is very frequently used. The 'Friends of God' gained entry through offering a most beautiful Swiss clock to the Pope. (Was it the prototype for Henry Suso 's 'Computer of Wisdom'?) Both the Delegation of the Friends of God and St Birgitta accurately prophesied the Pope's death of 1378. These Friends of God also attempted, but failed, to establish a monastery for themselves, called Gruenenworth.


Henry Suso (1296-1366)

he extract from the Dominican Henry Suso's Horologium Sapientiae and his biography is given in another booklet in this series, transcribed and translated from the excerpt in the same manuscript as is Julian's Showing of Love in the British Library. In his writings he was assisted by Elsbeth Stägel of the Dominican convent at Töss

Jan van Ruusbroec (1293-1381)

Jan van Ruusbroec writing his text, inspired by the Holy Spirit, beneath the trees of Groenendael, his scribe transcribing these same words to parchment folios.

While Meister Eckhart was German and Henry Suso was Swiss, Jan van Ruusbroec was Flemish in the region where the Beguines largely began, and where Marguerite Porete , particularly, flourished. Ruusbroec countered heresy in his writings, set up a monastery at Groenendael, near Brussels, where he would write his treatises initially onto tablets of wax known as diptyches under the trees and which became The Sparkling Stone (the work that is to be found in the same manuscript as is Julian of Norwich's Showing of Love in the British Library and is transcribed in another booklet), and A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness and other works. Later his writings and those of Marguerite Porete and Birgitta of Sweden were to be attacked by Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris, but during his lifetime Ruusbroec was not subjected to the Inquisition as were the other Friends of God. Consequently his writings display a splendid serenity. Nevertheless, the Friends of God and Ruusbroec were in communication, exchanging their writings with each other, and it would be Ruusbroec who would influence Gerharte Groote, and Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ , and beyond them the mystic Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, and the Reformation Protestants Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus. Their writings would continue to be quoted by English Benedictine nuns in exile in France in their own contemplative writings and their texts also reached Spain, influencing there St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross.


Jeanne Ancelet-Hustache. Master Eckhart and the Rhineland Mystics. Trans, Hilda Graef. New York: Harper, 1957.

The Revelations of Mechthild of Magdebourg or The Flowing Light of the Godhead Translated from the Manuscript in the Library of the Monastery of Einsiedeln. Trans. Lucy Menzies. London: Longmans, Green, 1953.

Medieval Women's Visionary Literature. Ed. Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Jan van Ruusbroec. Vanden Blinckenden Steen. Ed. Lod Moereels, L. Reypens. Tielt en Bussum: Lannoo.

Life and Sermons of Dr John Tauler. Trans. Susanna Winkworth. London: Smith, Elder, 1857.

'The Classics of Western Spirituality', Paulist Press, volumes on Margaret Ebner, Mechthild von Magdebourg, Meister Eckhart, Marguerite Porete, John van Ruusbroec, Henry Suso, John Tauler