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On Mysticism and Materiality

Visiting Scholar Racha Kirakosian Examines the Fabric of Medieval Mysticism

Between March 15 and April 12, 2017, Dumbarton Oaks hosted Professor Racha Kirakosian as a Director’s Visiting Scholar. Kirakosian holds a joint appointment in the Germanic Languages and Literatures Department and the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard, and also serves on the Committee on Medieval Studies.

Kirakosian’s publications include studies of medieval German mysticism, female sanctity, and medieval law. She has written on the life and works of the female mystic Christina of Hane—her revised critical edition and analytic study of Christina’s Life will soon be published by De Gruyter—and is currently working on the late medieval reception of St. Gertrude of Helfta. At Dumbarton Oaks, Kirakosian pursued her research into the interplay between material culture and mysticism, delivering a talk on the material phenomena underpinning the life of Gertrude of Helfta.


Q&A with Racha Kirakosian

Part of your work is concerned with rethinking prejudices about female mysticism and female sanctity in the middle ages, so I wanted to ask you: What are some of these common prejudices that pervade the culture at that time, and that might be present in scholarship as well?

For a long time, so-called “female mysticism” was associated with what was deemed “practical” mysticism—“practical” because it contrasted with scholasticism, which was more traditionally “male.” Part of this classification stemmed from the notion that women were more engaged in a bodily experience of the divine, that their bodies were the medium of the divine encounter. This is one of the huge prejudices in the field, and one that you still encounter. It led, of course, to research that is focused on the body—what’s called “somatic mysticism.”

The thing is, though, you obviously find somatic mysticism in male authors and with male mystics, and of course you also have female mystics and visionaries who are highly intellectual. So these binaries of Latin-male-scholastic and vernacular-female-practical don’t hold when you actually look at the sources. And then, manuscript evidence is often so complex that you can’t even begin to think of the author’s gender or how this interacts with the subject’s gender—do we have a male author writing about a female mystic, or vice versa? What I try to do in my research is to work with the material as much as possible, so I follow the approach of material philology, which means you try to look at each manuscript as an individual piece of full-value evidence.


When did you begin working with Christina of Hane?

Well, the short version is that I settled on Christina after looking at the texts that I could work on. There’s an anthology that describes some of these texts, written in the 1990s by Kurt Ruh, an expert in the field, that talks about Christina of Hane. It basically says that the text bears many surprises, but is also kind of boring. I found this contradictory statement intriguing and challenging. In the four-page description written by this scholar, he claims that the theologically more interesting part of Christina’s life must have been written by a man, because surely a woman wouldn’t have known of such theology. And I just thought, “Wow. What a statement,” because that reading is so bound up with the stereotypes of nearly nineteenth-century scholarship: the reason so many texts associated with women weren’t actually studied is because they were considered low.

Here at Dumbarton Oaks, I was talking with one of the junior fellows in Byzantine Studies, Mihail Mitrea, about gendered writing and reading in the Middle Ages and how there’s an awareness, at that time, of a certain female and a certain male style. He was saying that in the eastern tradition—in Byzantium—women authors would only quote the Bible. That was their universe, whereas men would quote scholars and the classical literature and so on. So there’s an awareness, already, of a sort of gendered writing. But I’m not sure if this analysis actually holds up. When I think about my next book, on Gertrude of Helfta, and I see how erudite the nuns were—well, yes, of course they did not quote Aristotle, of course they quote what they have access to, and of course that will be the Church fathers and the Scriptures. But it will also be, for instance, Bernard of Clairvaux.

I think questions of gender can be very fruitful, but they can also cause damage if they’re projected onto the material, that is, if they don’t naturally arise from it. Gendered reading has been productive and good. But if readings are taken too far, if they aren’t questioned enough, they can sometimes begin to unfairly dominate a subject. You begin to think, “Really? Is that what female mysticism is all about?”


The narrative of Christina of Hane is often described as having a very erratic structure composed of discrete sections. You’ve also said that the language itself is very difficult—would you mind explaining what that means on the page?

There are these three, what Ruh called “blocks,” in the text. In the beginning, the text is structured as a hagiography, so it starts as the life of a saint, and then it moves into dialogues, in which you hear mainly one voice (in the text, God’s voice), and Christina, the bride, is mute most of the time. Then, in the end, you’ve got something that’s nearly a theological treatise. So there are structural difficulties with the text, and that was one of the reasons it got sort of sidelined. There was the assumption that a scribe had compiled sources in a bad way, so to speak, that they failed to smooth out the text, that they didn’t know how to put it all together. But that puts authorial intention into play, in the sense that, well, there were different sources going around, it might have been impossible for a scribe to put it all together. What I’m interested in looking at is the text’s effect as it is. I don’t want to judge the text, but I do want to see what it’s doing—and if you work like that, then it’s actually quite fascinating how the text develops, because the sections aren’t as clear-cut as you might think.

The beginning section takes you through a personal account of Christina’s life, where the hagiographical tone lets you know what to expect. Then the text moves into the dialogue section, where, in a way, the reader is constantly being addressed. God addresses Christina, with “you.” When the reader actually performs this, there’s a curious effect—you as the reader are totally engaged in the relationship between God and the soul, you are immersed. Finally, in the last section, you hear Christina’s voice, and she’s elaborating on highly theological questions—the Trinity, the birth of the Son, how time collapses between history and liturgical repetition, the birth of the soul.

The typical judgment has been that the text itself is a fragment, because it ends on something like, “the soul that is able to see God is dead of all sins, and it has no name, just as God has no name, it is dead in itself, etc.” Now, this “etc.” is fascinating: it’s an open ending, which I think pairs well with this idea of emulation that is present at the end of the text. Christina is speaking of herself as the soul, so in a way there’s a distance between the narrator, Christina, and her soul—which, in the process of reading, also becomes every reader. So just thinking of the effects, I find this ending strategically strong.


What have you been working on while at Dumbarton Oaks?

I’ve been working on a few aspects of my second book, which deals with the late medieval German reception of Gertrude the Great, a thirteenth-century mystic. I have moved on since my last book, but I still want to follow this idea of material philology, so, for instance, the talk I recently gave on textiles helped me to wrap my head around a chapter I’m currently working on, and how to structure it around textual evidence. I think it’s mesmerizing how some of the visions in the German text become nearly palpable in their material imagery. One of my chapters will look at dissemination—how the material filtered down from the Latin to the German, what sort of passages are transmitted, which manuscripts they appear in, and so on.

I was actually at Yale ten days ago, giving a talk as part of their Lectures in Medieval Studies series, where I was talking about one of my chapters, which centers on the idea of what I call the “Ontology of the Book”—that is, how the book comes into being on a very material level, on the one hand, and, on the other, how in later vernacular text versions the incarnation of the bride in the word allows the text production to enter the mystical program on a more virtual level. There’s also going to be another chapter linking the passion and the imitation of Christ’s passion to book production—the material’s really rich in that regard.


You’re really working with two types, or levels, of materiality: the book itself, the physical manuscript, and then, within the narratives, the material descriptions—the layering of a dress, for instance. How do you relate the two? How do you think about their interactions?

The first thing is that there are manuscripts. That’s really the point of departure, because it’s the material evidence that we’ve got. We don’t have the dresses, we don’t have the jewels that are mentioned in the text, but we do have the manuscripts. So for the book I’m writing now, the first three chapters are concerned with the actual, physically transmitted books, i.e., manuscripts that have come down to us. The next chapter will look at money and prayers, because in Gertrude of Helfta there’s this connection—prayers are treated as a currency. They are something to pay your debts with, to pay another’s debts with. You can pay them into an account; they can accumulate interest. The vocabularies of money and banking allow us to think of something that’s ordinarily highly immaterial—words, prayers, devotion—as something incredibly material. And when you read this you realize, that’s how it made sense for them; that’s how they understood, and grasped, these immaterial values.

The last chapter will focus on textiles, and will deal with the description of the dresses and other fabrics in Gertrude of Helfta, of course, which I dwelled on in my talk. But I’ll also link back to this idea of words transforming into another value—for example, how praying is like weaving. My hope is that in the book’s conclusion I can actually link text and textile, and the fabricating of the text, and how words create texture.


I was wondering if you could talk about your style of reading these texts, and how you go about entering them. It seems to me to be a highly literary approach, with a large emphasis on literary detail.

Believe it or not, I try to avoid using the term “literature.” I prefer to say “texts,” because so much damage has been done by deeming certain things “literature,” or talking about “literary studies.” This is something that goes back to nineteenth-century academic politics, when everything that entered the canon did so because it was considered aesthetically fine enough. It became “literature,” and everything else was sort of tossed out, and given to other disciplines. And that’s exactly how many of the texts that I work on ended up nowhere. The term “literature” often automatically ascribes an aesthetic value to texts—I talk about textual studies, or textual analysis, instead. Similarly, the term “metaphor” can be less useful than misleading. In a way, it presumes that behind the image is a higher meaning, and that’s what we should be focused on, whereas when you look at many medieval mystical texts, you realize it’s really about the image, the material image itself. In my work, I’m trying to move away from a Cartesian mindset that places matter behind meaning. The texts I work with transcend this division anyway.

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