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“I Am Wholly Your Own”: Liturgical Piety and Community among the Nuns of Helfta1


When William James long ago characterized the God of the thirteenth-century Cistercian cloister of Helfta, in Saxony, as “full of partiality for his individual favorites,” he might have illustrated his claim with any number of passages from three of the surviving works composed by the nuns of Helfta, the Book of Special Grace, associated with Mechtild of Hackeborn (1241–ca. 1298/99), the Herald of Divine Love, associated with Gertrude of Helfta (1256–ca. 1301/02), and the Spiritual Exercises, written by Gertrude. James drew his readers' attention to the following account from the Herald:

Suffering from a headache, she [Gertrude] sought, for the glory of God, to relieve herself by holding certain odoriferous substances in her mouth, when the Lord appeared to her to lean over towards her lovingly, and to find comfort himself in these odors. After having gently breathed them in, He arose, and said with a gratified air to the Saints, as if contented with what he had done: “See the new present which my betrothed has given Me!”

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Anna Harrison , “‘Oh! What Treasure Is in This Book?’: Writing, Reading, and Community at the Monastery of Helfta,” Viator 39:1 (Spring 2008): 75106

Barbara Haggh , “Foundations or Institutions? On Bringing the Middle Ages into the History of Medieval Music,” Acta musicologica 68 (1996): 87128, esp. 89

John Bossy , “The Mass as a Social Institution, 1200–1700,” Past and Present 100 (August 1983), esp. 33

Jacqueline Jung , “Beyond the Barrier: The Unifying Role of the Choir Screen in Gothic Churches,” Art Bulletin 82:4 (December 2000): 622657

Brian Patrick McGuire , “Purgatory, the Communion of Saints, and Medieval Change,” Viator 20 (1989)

Sharon K. Elkins , “Gertrude the Great and the Virgin Mary,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 66:4 (December 1997): 720734

Barbara Newman , “What Did It Mean to Say ‘I Saw’? The Clash between Theory and Practice in Medieval Visionary Culture,” Speculum 80:1 (January 2005): 16

Peter Dinzelbacher , “A Plea for the Study of the Minor Female Mystics of Late Medieval Germany,” Studies in Spirituality 3 (1993): 91100

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Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
  • URL: /core/journals/church-history
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