Communal song and the theology of voice in medieval German mysticism

Claire Taylor Jones, University of Pennsylvania


In the Middle Ages, embodied religious practice did not necessarily manifest itself as self-starvation, physical castigation, or illness. Some mystics understand vocal performance to be a bodily practice of mysticism on the same order as illness or pain even in the absence of paramystical phenomena such as stigmata or visions. Although many medieval women contributed to this mystical practice, the experience explodes the category of gender to create new configurations of community based on a bodily activity shared by all. Historical traces of mystical vocal practice may often be found in songs, prayers, liturgical rites, and devotions which served as models for speech. I focus on a particular variation on ritual prayer: communal song in the liturgy, the ritual of worship in which a fixed set of texts adapted mostly from the Bible was sung daily. Through studies of the writings of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), Gertrud the Great of Helfta (1256-1301/2), Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) and Johannes Tauler (1300-1361), and Johannes Meyer (1422-1485), I show that performance of the liturgy is a form of asceticism and many medieval religious women and men understood it and approached it as such. I show that performance of the liturgy could become self-manipulation and these writers approached it as such and encourage their readers to engage in liturgical performance as a method of self-transformation. ^ Two main issues concern these medieval writers, namely, the relationship of the self to that which is called God, and the role of the body and bodily modes of being-with in shaping a self that can perceive this relation. Similar concerns still trouble philosophy in the twenty-first century, although the problems are now expressed as the radical dependence of the subject, the phenomenological possibility of revelation, and bodily experience. While the questions are fundamentally the same, the thought of the medieval writers moves along different paths and their approaches and insights often pierce through problems that seem impenetrable to twenty-first century philosophy. At issue in both the medieval and modern texts is the human experience of togetherness and excess given to the subject in communal performance.^

Subject Area

Literature, Germanic|Religion, History of|Music|History, Medieval

Recommended Citation

Jones, Claire Taylor, "Communal song and the theology of voice in medieval German mysticism" (2012). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3509140.