Hadewijch: A Poet in the Service of Love

This second week will start with an informative article on Hadewijch. 📝

She is the first female writer we know of, living in the 13th century in Antwerpen, which was part of the Low Countries back in the day. She is one of the few special writers who we know, even though she was not as popular in her own time as she is now. Her works are mainly on the topic of love. ❤️

Read more about her in this article:

Hadewijch | circa 13th century | Duchy of Brabant/Belgium | Writer, Mystic

Similar to other medieval writers from the Low Countries, the life of Hadewijch is shrouded in mystery. It is unknown when she exactly lived; scholars have pinpointed her life somewhere between the twelfth and the fourteenth century. Nor is it known where she lived; according to scholarly tradition, she is said to hail from Antwerp (which is nowadays part of Belgium). Hadewijch’s use of the Middle Dutch Brabantian dialect makes it possible to argue that Hadewijch had her roots in Brabant, a duchy within the Low Countries that is nowadays part of the southern part of the Netherlands and northern part of Belgium.

However, with the little titbits of information that we have on her, it is possible to view Hadewijch as a religious and well-learned woman. Throughout her use of references to the Bible, church fathers and classical antiquity, it can be said that Hadewijch was a well-learned woman that hailed from the higher strata of medieval society. Hadewijch, as a religious woman, must certainly have been part of the clergy. It is argued that she might have been a nun in a convent or a so-called ‘Beguine’. Beguines were unmarried religious women that, similarly to nuns, lived together according to a religious rule. However, contrary to nuns that often lived in convents removed from society, Beguines accordingly lived to a looser religious doctrine, mostly in an urban environment. The Beguine movement could especially thrive within the highly urbanized Low Countries, of which its biggest cities, such as Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent, were among the largest within Western Europe, because of their importance within European trade networks. These cities were also the places where literature written in Middle Dutch, the language of the common folk, could blossom; patrons of writers and copyists often were rich commoners, that often could not speak Latin. This seemingly fertile ground for Middle Dutch writers was also the place where Hadewijch would thrive.

As little as we know about the life of Hadewijch, there is much more certain about her work. According to medieval literature historian Veerle Fraters, the work of Hadewijch is unique within both the literature of the Low Countries as well as that of Western Europe itself. She gives Hadewijch’s songs as an example; in these songs, the poet combined elements from religious chorals, secular folk songs and courtly chivalric romances. Because of this, she was able to create a unique mix of both secular and religious, high-class and low-brow elements that was never heard before, nor after Hadewijch had put down her pen. Besides these songs and poems, Hadewijch is also known for her letters and her Visions: a book in which she describes the visions she had received from God before becoming a religious woman. The fact that we know so much about the work of Hadewijch, makes her an important figure within Middle Dutch literature. Within Middle Dutch and medieval literature in general, authors mostly remain anonymous; with due exceptions such as the highly-productive Jacob van Maerlant. Since there are so few medieval authors known by name and gender, there is a chance that Hadewijch may as such be not unique as a female writer in an environment often perceived to be male-dominated.

Love (or ‘de Minne’ in Middle Dutch) plays an important role in the work of Hadewijch. It can be interpreted as love towards God and/or Christ; something that fits within the all-encompassing approach to religion that was typical for the European Middle Ages.  However, it can be argued that Hadewijch’s use of love can also be interpreted as being more of an abstract kind of love. Only by falling in love with love itself, the lover will find true love. This view on religion and love can be found within most works of Hadewijch, both in the poems as in her Visions: the visions show Hadewijch in her transformation to a pious and religious woman, all through God and the power of love. This journey is told through a list of metaphors and allegorical figures, during which she ends up metaphorically marrying Jesus and even God Himself. 

Strangely enough, Hadewijch never was as popular in the Middle Ages as she is now. The work of Hadewijch is preserved in only four extant manuscripts and fell into obscurity with the dawn of the Early Modern Era. Only in the 19th century, were the manuscripts of her works discovered again, to gain interest within the circles of medieval philology. Within Dutch literature, Hadewijch and her work have an important position: she is both the first female writer that we know of, and the composer of religious literature that was unique for both its time and its place in Europe.


Author: Roos in ‘t Velt
Image: Front Cover of ‘Strofische Gedichten’ (1961)


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