Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 May 2012
From the twelfth century through to the period of the Protestant Reformation, western Christian authors produced a great library of texts focusing on the relationship between human beings and God, offering insights to and paths for the spiritual life of the believer. Many of these were visionary texts, directly revealed to the author; some were formally theological and thus more properly could be called (using a word that medieval authors did not use in the way we do) ‘mysticism’. When twentieth-century scholars finally came to terms with this literature as part of the legacy of Christian thought, they basically agreed on two things: first, that the corpus (which had been largely neglected in favour of works of systematic theology) was an important part of the development of Christian theology, and second, that an encompassing term that could aptly describe a variety of these texts with a minimum of anachronism is ‘spirituality’ or ‘spiritual literature’.
Besides the fact that western Christian spiritual literature and the tradition of biblical exegesis are literary genres that have been relatively neglected by historians of Christianity, spirituality and exegesis have much in common. For one thing, spiritual literature relies on received traditions of biblical interpretation for fundamental keys to living a Christian life. In fact, many works of medieval biblical exegesis can be read as spiritual guides. This chapter will begin by discussing some of the most important examples of such ‘spiritual exegesis’, and then conclude with a look at how the traditions of biblical exegesis influenced a broader selection of spiritual literature.