The anatomy of joy: transforming perceptions of mysticism in the Early Modern period

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Kathleen D. Fowler (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Christopher Hodgkins

Abstract: In Early Modern England, Christian mysticism was often associated with religious “enthusiasm” and was, therefore, discouraged by the Church of England. Those with a temperament which drew them to this intuitive and affective approach to spirituality often found themselves misunderstood and persecuted. Accusations against them ranged from heresy and superstition to perversion and madness. Despite this climate of fear and suspicion, mysticism did not die out. Protestants, as well as Catholics, still claimed to experience mystical phenomena and strove to understand the source and meaning of these experiences. Because of the lack of an over-arching tradition of mystical teachings in the Church of England, Protestant mystics developed their own individuated explanations and interpretations of these phenomena. Examining the lives of individual mystics in their historical contexts and through the lens of their own writings provides a way to analyze how contemporary pressures from religion, politics, epistemology, and science affected their approaches to understanding their experiences. This study examines the lives and writings of a variety of Early Modern English mystics. After the initial review of the literature and methods in Chapter 1, Chapter 2 focuses on the mystagogical texts of the recusants Benet of Canfield and Augustine Baker, examining how their Protestant education and their law training influenced the writing of these vernacular manuals and the effects of the popularity of these works. Chapter 3 examines ecstatic imagery in the poetry of Robert Southwell and Richard Crashaw. Both authors use their depictions of this type of mystical experience to create liminal spaces through which they invite readers to seek spiritual transformation. Chapter 4 then analyzes the autobiographical writings of the religious radicals John Bunyan, George Fox, and Jane Ward Lead with an emphasis on the overlapping elements of their experiences, their individuated responses, and the influence of those responses on others both locally and nationally. The final chapter discusses how the nature mystics Henry Vaughan and Thomas Traherne used contemporary popular sciences in an attempt to legitimize mysticism in an era of growing emphasis on empiricism and rational thought. In each of these chapters, we see how the selected authors’ responses to various mystical phenomena, as recorded in their writings, affected not only their own lives, but the lives of others within their faith communities and throughout the nation at large. Examining these responses reveals how their individuated approaches to understanding and interpreting mystical phenomena, in turn, influenced their contributions to English literature, religion, and society.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2016
Divine Union, Early Modern English Mysticism, Mysticism, Nature Mysticism, Protestant Mystics, Religious Ecstasy
English literature $y Early modern, 1500-1700 $x History and criticism
Mysticism $z England $x History $y 16th century
Mysticism in literature
Christianity and literature $z England $x History $y 16th century

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