Dr Liam Peter Temple’s new book, the latest in our Studies in Modern British Religious History series, traces how mysticism featured in polemical and religious discourse in seventeenth-century England and explores how it came to be viewed as a source of sectarianism, radicalism and religious enthusiasm.
My book grew out of an initial interest in medieval English mysticism. As an undergraduate, I developed a passion for religious history that was nurtured by lecturers and supervisors who introduced me to classics like The Cloud of Unknowing and Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. Such works had generated a rich and densely packed historiography, with scholars from a range of different disciplines taking interest in these medieval accounts.
Eventually, however, I became dissatisfied with how many accounts of English mysticism ended at the Reformation, with only a handful of works engaging with what I increasingly believed were important research questions. How did Protestants engage with this pre-Reformation spirituality? How problematic was mystical experience in a time of hardening confessional identities? What new forms of mysticism emerged and how were they received?
These are all questions that Mysticism in Early Modern England addresses. The answers, I believe, are incredibly important to the wider study of Christian mysticism. We find, for example, evidence of writers being described as ‘mystics’ for the first time in the English language. We also find the construction of mystical traditions, with writers now referencing a long line of previous mystical authors in order to prove their own legitimacy, that were more advanced and purposeful than anything recorded in the medieval period. We see a multitude of arguments, often spanning decades, about the legitimacy of mysticism and its place within English Protestantism between passionate defenders of mystical experience and equally determined critics.
While the book focuses on England, it is not insular in its approach. At most stages it was written with one eye on Continental events, which are necessary for the narrative to make sense. We find, for example, Civil War radicals being labelled as ‘Swenck-feldians’ because of their similarities to the German theologian Caspar Schwenckfeld. We also find individuals at the end of the seventeenth century being labelled ‘Bourignonists’ due to their similarities to the French-Flemish Quietist writer Antoinette Bourignon. Attitudes towards mysticism in countries like France and Germany undoubtedly influenced English thought and the book tries to encompass as many of these as possible.
Finally, the book also tries to highlight the multitude of mystical works which crossed the confessional divide between Catholicism and Protestantism. Some Protestants spoke disapprovingly of ‘monk Admirers’ within their ranks, while some Catholics included prefaces to their works discouraging ‘the Reader who is not Catholike’. In exploring some of these examples I try to stress how mysticism, and perhaps spirituality more generally, was not entirely confined by the ‘confessional straitjacket’ that polemical works at the time sought to construct between groups.
Deconstructing this binary opposition and exploring more similarities between Catholics and Protestants in the early modern period will continue to be a major part of my research for years to come.
This guest post was written by Liam Peter Temple who gained his PhD from Northumbria University, Newcastle.