116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sweet Child of Memoria: Mechthild of Magdeburg, Genre, and the Creation of her Buoch

Adrienne Merritt, Oberlin College

A brief look at the role of genre in the composition of The Flowing Light of the Godhead and how Derrida's lecture "The Law of Genre" informs modern understanding medieval literary composition and alligns with medieval concepts of memory, reading, and textual creation.


The thirteenth-century beguine Mechthild of Magdeburg has occupied the imagination of numerous scholars over the past century, most focusing on the poetic ingenuity of her sole work, The Flowing Light of the Godhead Das fliessende Licht der Gottheit in Modern German).  Comprised of seven smaller books, Mechthild describes her entire work as a book (buoch in Middle High German), a point which numerous scholars have disputed. In this paper, I take a more nuanced approach to the genres found within Flowing Light, falling more in line with the research of Sara Poor and Patricia Dailey. I uphold Mechthild’s claim that her writings create a single buoch through the use of interwoven references from previous sections of the book, interaction with the reader-listener through the use of the second person, and commentary upon reader reactions in later books. This layering of dialogues aligns strongly with Jacques Derrida’s concept of “invagination” that he outlined in his lecture, “The Law of Genre.” The folds of potential readings are embodied within the composition, as well as the memory of and meditation upon the interaction with the divine. Mechthild’s literary creation grows and adapts over the course of the buoch, coming to life and speaking to the reader-listener in a way that encourages ongoing reading (and re-reading), discussion, and internalization. Taking a close look at excerpts from Books I, II, and IV, I present an outline of the significance of Derrida’s theory in Mechthild’s writings, and suggest that the textual embodiment of mediated divine revelations ensues in the birth of literary personality, as alive and vibrant as those setting the quill to parchment. Derrida’s play upon “donner le jour” as the conception of genre barriers and genre mixtures opens up new possible avenues of research in medieval Germanic studies.

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