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Mechthild von Magdeburg's vocabulary of the senses

Marilyn W Webster, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Among the linguistic innovations attributed to mystics is the use of sensual, sensory words to express spiritual and abstract ideas (Waterman 101) which Otto Zirker calls a "Tendenz zur Vergeistigung des Sinnlichen" (15). When histories of the German language discuss Mechthild von Magdeburg (ca. 1212-ca. 1282), they focus primarily on the passionate passages in her text, Das fliessende Licht der Gottheit. While Mechthild's descriptions of the mystical union between God and the soul are indeed full of sensual images, her use of sensory vocabulary is not limited to this context. The goal of this dissertation is to come to a fuller understanding of Mechthild's use of sensory vocabulary by means of an investigation constructed from the vocabulary itself, not from a theoretical framework down. Mechthild says that there are five senses, but does not specify what they are. The underlying assumption is that she was acquainted with the traditional five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. In addition, she describes an allegorical bride with five kingdoms: eyes, speech, thoughts, hearing and touch. This investigation, therefore, includes the additional "senses" of speaking and thinking. An analysis of Mechthild's sensory vocabulary indicates that Mechthild privileges the senses of sight, hearing, and touch over smell and taste and these have the largest amount of vocabulary allotted to them. These senses are also the most prominent in the interaction between the soul and God. God reveals "visions" to the eyes of the soul and Mechthild records the visual details of what she has seen. God and the soul are among the many voices in Das fliessende Licht. They listen and speak with each other in prayers and dialogues. Mechthild also acquires a voice as she speaks through her text. God and the soul also enter into an intimate tactile relationship with each other in the unio mystica, the union between God and soul for which the mystic longs.

Subject Area

Germanic literature|Womens studies|Biographies

Recommended Citation

Webster, Marilyn W, "Mechthild von Magdeburg's vocabulary of the senses" (1996). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9709666.