Church History

Research Article

“I Am Wholly Your Own”: Liturgical Piety and Community among the Nuns of Helfta1

Anna Harrison

When William James long ago characterized the God of the thirteenth-century Cistercian cloister of Helfta, in Saxony, as “full of partiality for his individual favorites,” he might have illustrated his claim with any number of passages from three of the surviving works composed by the nuns of Helfta, the Book of Special Grace, associated with Mechtild of Hackeborn (1241–ca. 1298/99), the Herald of Divine Love, associated with Gertrude of Helfta (1256–ca. 1301/02), and the Spiritual Exercises, written by Gertrude. James drew his readers' attention to the following account from the Herald:

Suffering from a headache, she [Gertrude] sought, for the glory of God, to relieve herself by holding certain odoriferous substances in her mouth, when the Lord appeared to her to lean over towards her lovingly, and to find comfort himself in these odors. After having gently breathed them in, He arose, and said with a gratified air to the Saints, as if contented with what he had done: “See the new present which my betrothed has given Me!”


1 I am grateful to Anne L. Clark, Rachel Fulton, Anna Trumbore Jones, Kathryn M. Rudy, Anne Bagnall Yardley, and participants of the California Medieval History Seminar for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay. I remain indebted to Caroline Walker Bynum and Joel Kaye for their encouragement and conversation. I owe special thanks to the anonymous Church History reader.

Anna Harrison is an assistant professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University.