The roots of heart religion – The English affective tradition


Richard Rolle, detail from “Religious Poems,” ...

Richard Rolle, detail from “Religious Poems,” early 15th century; in the British Library (Cotton Ms. Faustina B. VI). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the fifth part of the tour of medieval heart religion from the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows the first part here, which looks at Origen and Augustine, the second part here, on Gregory the Great, the third part here, on Anselm of Canterbury, the fourth part here, on Bernard of Clairvaux, and the fifth part here, on Francis of Assisi.

The English affective tradition – devotional writers

Affective devotion came of age in late medieval England. For some reason it seems the English were particularly good at retaining the earthy and emotional elements of the Christian tradition—from relics and saints to mystery plays and mystical experiences. I want to look for a moment at the English affective tradition—first in overview, then through four of its leading figures: Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe.

Summarizing English spirituality

It’s important to note that the English were no less Scriptural in their faith than other parts of Christendom: they read aloud (or had texts read to them), then meditated on what they had read or heard (ruminated, chewed and digested it) until they had memorized it, then prayed through what they had read, and finally rested in God’s presence, praising him for the privilege of union with him: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio.[1] Having read, however, they also poured out their hearts in the tradition of affective piety, loving Christ’s humanity as Mary Magdalene had done.[2]

Richard Rolle (1290/1300 – 1349)

Richard Rolle’s spiritual  writings are striking for the earthy, empirical way he described the physical experience of passionate concourse with the Lord. In The Fire of Love, he describes actual bodily warmth he felt while in prayer. John Wesley, eat your heart out (so to speak)!  “‘I cannot tell you how surprised I was the first time I felt my heart begin to warm. It was real warmth too, not imaginary, and it felt as if it were actually on fire. . . . I had to keep feeling my breast to make sure there was no physical reason for it!’”[3]

As if this weren’t enough, Rolle also experienced audible song wafting down from heaven—“‘the joyful ring of psalmody, . . . in myself I sensed a corresponding harmony at once wholly delectable and heavenly. . . . The effect of this inner sweetness was that I began to sing what previously I had spoken; only I sang inwardly and that for my Creator.”[4]

He was exuberant in his joy, and he spoke and wrote about his experiences not for educated clerics or monks, but for “the simple and unlearned, who are seeking rather to love God than to mass knowledge.”[5]

Walter Hilton (1340 – 1396)

Walter Hilton and Julian of Norwich were late-medieval English mystics whose writings Lewis loved, recommended to many, and rated highly as “great Christian books.” Hilton was an Augustinian Canon in Nottinghamshire. Lewis marked his Scale [Ladder] of Perfection copiously, particularly noting (in a jotting on the endleaf) Hilton’s simile that “mere knowledge” is like water, but Jesus turns that cold, logical water into wine, as he did at the wedding at Cana: “cold naked reason into ghostly light and burning love, by the gift of the Holy Ghost.”[6] In another passage Lewis marked, Hilton insisted that “because he loved us so much, therefore He giveth us His love, that is the Holy Ghost. He is the giver and the gift, and maketh us then by that gift to know and love Him.”[7]


[1] (Nuth, find citation).

[2] “This new feeling toward the humanity and suffering of Christ, linked to a similar devotion to the Mother of God, spread throughout the twelfth century, led by Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercians, finding expression in countless meditations, poems, hymns and prayers, all designed to inspire and give voice to an intense, intimate love for the Saviour. The Franciscans brought such devotion out of the monastery into the market-place through their sermons and their advocacy of [18] popular devotions to the infancy and passion of Christ. By the fourteenth century the influence of this movement was everywhere present.” [Nuth, 17-18]

[3] (ATK:      145)

[4] (Atk 146)

[5] Atk 146)

[6] (5 – 7)

[7] (Hilton, 318).

2 responses to “The roots of heart religion – The English affective tradition

  1. Pingback: Sep 28 – Rolle, Hilton, & Kempe – Mystics | Paradoxical Thoughts

  2. Pingback: Sep 28 – Rolle, Hilton, Kempe | Holy Women, Holy Men

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