“In Mei Memoriam Facietis”: Remembering Ritual and Refiguring “Woman” in Gertrud the Great of Helfta’s Exercitia Spiritualia

Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Tropes from the Bible and liturgical rites pepper the seven meditations comprising the Teachings of Spiritual Exercises (Documenta spiritualium exercitionum or simply Exercitia spiritualia) of Gertrud the Great, the thirteenth-century visionary of the Benedictine-Cistercian abbey of Helfta.1 With the memory of such ritual activity, Gertrud intends to continually renew her readers’ attention to the activity of the grace of God present from baptism up to preparation for death. In this way, Gertrud’s Exercitia serves as a fine example of the literary historian Mary Carruthers’s work on the role of memory in the medieval, rhetorical construction of identity.2


Human Person Female Voice Gender Behavior Male Persona Female Persona 
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  1. 1.
    Much scholarship has noted the liturgical quality of Gertrud’s writings. See Hilda Graef, “From Other Lands: St. Gertrude, Mystical Flowering of the Liturgy,” Orate Fratres 20 (1945–46): 171–74;Google Scholar
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  5. 2.
    Indeed, the English translators of the Exercitia say that Gertrud’s “exquisite style and accomplished use of rhetoric can not be mistaken for that of anyone else.” Gertrud Jaron Lewis, “Introduction,” in Gertrud the Great of Helfta: Spiritual Exercises, trans. Gertrud J. Lewis and Jack Lewis (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1989), 5 [1–18].Google Scholar
  6. For Carruthers’s work on the rhetorical construction of identity, see the introduction to this volume. In general, see Mary J. Carruthers, The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400–1200, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 34 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).Google Scholar
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  9. 5.
    Gertrud parenthetically remarks that readers outside of the religious state of life should make the appropriation to their own life circumstances. St. Gertrud the Great of Helfta, Œuvres spirituelles I: Les exercices, trans. and ed. Jacques Hourlier and Albert Schmitt, Sources Chrétiennes 127 (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1967), 3.21, p. 94.Google Scholar
  10. 7.
    On the medieval history of the consecratory formula, see Francis J. Wengier, The Eucharist-Sacrifice (Milwaukee, WI: Bruce Publishing Co., 1955), 173–85.Google Scholar
  11. 18.
    Indeed, only about 50 years prior to Gertrud’s birth, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) officially used the term “transubstantiation” for the first time to define the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist. “One indeed is the universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved, in which the priest himself is the sacrifice, Jesus Christ, whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the species of bread and wine; the bread (changed) into his body by the divine power of transubstantiation, and the wine into the blood [transsubstantiatis pane in corpus et in sanguinem potestate diuina], so that to accomplish the mystery of unity we ourselves receive from his (nature) what he himself received from ours.” Quoted in Michael O’Carroll, Corpus Christi: An Encyclopedia of the Eucharist (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier Books, 1988), 196.Google Scholar
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    Gertrud the Great of Helfta, The Herald of God’s Loving Kindness, Books One and Two, trans. Alexandra Barratt (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1991), 155;Google Scholar
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  14. 31.
    Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 223.Google Scholar
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    Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1991).Google Scholar
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  28. 53.
    As I have argued elsewhere, Gertrud’s writings affirm the possibility that woman, qua woman, could attain a particularly direct body-soul union with Christ in Eucharistic communion and thereby participate in and represent Christ’s body here on earth. See Ella Johnson, “Bodily Language in the Spiritual Exercises of Gertrud the Great of Helfta,” Magistra 14, no. 1 (2008): 79–107.Google Scholar

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© Margaret Cotter-Lynch and Brad Herzog 2012

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