One of the major focuses of modern day medieval Church history is the mystical life of its members. There have been countless histories of the “institutional” Church, e.g., studies of popes, administrative machinery, interactions with secular kings and prices, and the like. There are numerous works in academia translating and exploring the writings from medieval Church scholars and universities of that time, what history would call the pillars of scholasticism and foundational theology. Medieval mysticism, on the other hand, until recent times has gotten at best a short shrift and at worst wholesale condemnation. Today I checked my review of Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (1970) by the venerable Englishman R.W. Southern, and in a concluding remark I said that
Southern's penultimate chapters are devoted to what he called the fringe orders; today we would think of these in part as the Beguines and the multitude of spontaneous mystical and devotional movements associated with the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. His final chapter, "A Confusion of Tongues," continues his account of spiritual diversification leading to early Protestant thought and practice.
I happen to be an admirer of Dr. Southern, who was knighted by the Queen in 1975, but were he alive today he would have access to better documentation and translations, not to mention the greater appreciation among scholars for the vitality and influence of grassroots movements of spirituality. In speaking of mysticism, we are addressing the intense internal experiences of individuals and their communications to a following of people disposed to embrace an accompanying lifestyle. The first question, naturally, is whether the religious experience of a mystic is real or “valid.” Here, the traditional criterion for credibility is Biblical, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” Even today the Church is very slow to offer a pastoral opinion on the origins of devotional religious movements or reported visions, unless its proponents stray from Church Tradition and practice.
The “fruits” would be identified as maintaining an organic connection to the teaching Church and a holy way of life. Mystics. Francis of Assisi at his heart was a conservative and loyal son of the Church who sought the permission of a sitting pope (Innocent III) for his little band, its mission of preaching penance, and the austerity of his primitive rule. On the other hand, in the fourteenth century the Spiritual Franciscans—an extreme branch of the entire Order—were condemned as heretical for maintaining that no pope could change the Order’s rule as written by Francis, who had died a century earlier. The Spirituals, with their austerity, devotion, and unbreakable respect of Bible and founder, served as catalysts and spiritual directors or chaplains for many like-minded Catholics of the age in many parts of Europe.
Another question is the relationship of mystics and spiritual movements to religious founders and established religious orders. Here the answer is more complex. Not every religious order was founded by a mystic, but the template of the order’s lifestyle became an inspiration and eventually a way of life for laity who witnessed the communities in their midst. It is little surprise that monasteries were magnets for laity seeking a closer relationship with God with an intense experience of prayer. There is frequent reference in medieval paperwork regarding lay persons building huts and residences next to monasteries, and the same Innocent III who blessed Francis of Assisi issued a prohibition against lay women entering the Premonstratensian Order of monks itself!
Mysticism and mystical communities took shape throughout Western Europe, and in some places with notable intensity. Moreover, the focus of local spirituality and the type of religious intensity varied from place to place. Medieval Irish mysticism included intensely penitential focus, austerity, and missionary fervor, certainly colored in part by Celtic culture, landscape, the weather, and the rough seas. (One of our faithful readers told me once that there would be no Irish folk music had Prozac been developed centuries ago.) It is no accident that individual repeatable confession originated in Ireland in the later part of the first millennium. One of the lesser-known qualities of the Franciscan movement was advocacy of pacifism, which disturbed civil authorities to no end when they attempted to raise forces for the many medieval clashes.
On the other end of the spectrum from the friars were the controversial Knights Templar. I have not yet read Dan Jones’ The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God's Holy Warriors (2017, New York Times best seller), but this controversial movement of warrior spirituality developed as a response to the atrocities of the First Crusade (1095-1099) and the spiritual encouragement of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose own biography is a study in medieval spiritual identity. The Knights, “fighting monks,” began as a religiously structured military protection force for pilgrims in the Holy Land, developed into a fighting elite or flagship army in successive Crusades in union with King Richard the Lion Hearted, and later into something of a medieval House of Rothschild financial empire, until the Church—for complicated reasons—signed off on their execution, disbanding, and confiscation of goods in the early 1300’s.
The overarching piety of motivated lay Catholics in much of continental Europe was a movement called Devotio Moderna, which overlapped and integrated many local spiritual movements. DM was a move toward simpler and uncomplicated religious life, with emphasis upon the interior life over external manifestations. It originated in the Low Countries and much of its best literature comes to us in Dutch. Devotio impacted religious orders as well as lay clusters, and its roots seem to have sprung from disenchantment with institutional Church life and the conduct of the clergy, though sources differ on the point. It is safe to say that religious enthusiasm probably did not find many parochial channels in the routine of life in the centuries leading up to the Reformation.
The spirituality of Devotio Moderna had the advantage of outstanding authors—whose translation into English continues to this day—and the newly expanded printing and binding industry. One product of this spirituality may be the most published devotional of all time, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. I am posting a link here to the Mercer University edition, which provides a scholarly description of the work and a good sampling of the text itself. [When I attended a high school boarding seminary in the 1960’s, The Imitation of Christ was the one work that helped me get through some hard times.] Translator William Creasy explains the attraction of this work, and by extension the Devotio movement itself: that everyone has the choice to capitulate to the fear and chaos of his time or seek security within the depths of his soul of eternal truths.
By 1500 the Catholic Church was experiencing massive internal difficulties in reforming diocesan and parochial life to the point where its most venerable rites and leaders were able to feed the longings of its baptized members for that safe harbor in the turbulence of what we now call the beginnings of the modern age.The outcroppings of spiritual movements and devotions to fill this void had met this need for many and probably postponed a Reformation-scale rupture for a time. The last hope for the spirit of medieval spiritual reform to save the unity of the Church was the Council Lateran V (1512-1517). Summoned by a Borgia pope and badly attended by bishops, it dissipated early in the same year that Luther posted his 95 Theses.