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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: April 2020

8 - A Woman Author? The Middle Dutch Dialogue between a “Good-willed Layperson” and a “Master Eckhart”


Eighty years ago, Herbert Grundmann proposed that religious writing moved from Latin into the vernacular initially to meet the needs of women, especially those active in what he called a “women's movement.” That writing, he further held, was not inherently suspicious simply by virtue of being in the vernacular – as post-Reformation interpreters had often instinctively held, and some scholars do still. Either men or women, likewise, might have authored or compiled such works, even if, he tacitly presupposed, it was mostly men and especially friars writing for women. Religious prose writings in the vernacular first emerged on any scale during the thirteenth century, grew exponentially during the fourteenth and especially the fifteenth centuries, and are today still abundantly represented in surviving manuscript materials. At issue, perhaps now more than ever, is how we are to situate all this work: Is it friars writing for their charges, as with many sermons delivered by Meister Eckhart and Johannes Tauler? Women writing for women, or for women and men, or in not a few cases women and men writing collaboratively? Were these vernacular books actually meant particularly for lay sisters or brothers inside religious orders? Or generated especially by and for “quasi-religious” groups? Or aimed rather at educated and aspiring laypersons? Or indeed written by and for circles of dissenters? All these are variously true, none exclusively so. No one approach will account for the range and multiplicity of surviving vernacular religious writing. We must expect and perceive multiple authorial situations and vernacular readers. This essay takes up, too briefly, one dimension of the issue, that of female authorship, and with respect to one little-studied work in Middle Dutch.

Vernacular writing on religious life undertaken by women, apart from earlier hagiography reconfigured as epic poetry, appeared in Latin Christendom first during the early thirteenth century. Earlier women authors on matters religious, thus Dhuoda or Heloise or Hildegard, wrote in Latin. Courtly epic, Romance, and lyric would move into written vernaculars during the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, and some of these composers were women, thus “Marie de France” along with trobairitz and trouveres.