In the first volume of the ambitious new history of Dutch literature Frits van Oostrom practices what he has preached for years, that literary history must be contextual and take into account the work of cultural historians. That does not imply that literary history is the same as cultural history. In the final analysis, a history of medieval Dutch literature is about texts, and not about Dutch medieval culture in general. This article focuses on how Van Oostrom contextualizes the religious literature of the Dutch Middle Ages. It looks particularly at magic-religious texts, for which Van Oostrom distinguishes between their Christian and pagan content. The article questions the making of such a distinction, as the Christian faith in a pure form does not exist in history, but is always irrevocably mixed with elements from the culture in which it is practiced. Historians must take this practice, rather than some normative definition, as their point of departure. Illuminating is Van Oostrom's discussion of how the Church lagged far behind in recognising the possibilities of the vernacular in the preaching of its message. It was not until the 13th century that Dutch lives of Christ and the Saints were composed to counter the influence of courtly literature.
Early Dutch religious literature reached a first high point in 13th century female mysticism. Van Oostrom considers mysticism to be a constant phenomenon in the history of the Church. This article wonder if, instead, the mystical movement is not a typical 12th century phenomenon that should be seen as part of the development from a collectivist, ritualistic piety to a more personal devotion. More specifically, female mysticism seems to be an answer to the deterioration of the public position of women in a society that began to prefer merit to birth, and in a Church that granted the male clergy the monopoly of the sacred. The only way in which a woman could raise her voice in such a male-dominated Church was by claiming to be uniquely gifted by God. The role of mystically endowed prophetess was the only one left for women who wanted to be heard outside the private space of their own community.
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