The Excessive If Love in Hadewijch’s Complete Works

I. Introduction
II.  Univocity in the Medieval Period
III. The Trajectory of Univocity to Immanence
IV. The Conceptual Paradigm of Immanence in Deleuze

V. The Excessive If Love in Hadewijch’s Complete Works

The typical way of conceptually situating Hadewijch is to place her somewhere within the expressions related to neoplatonism.[1] This is understandable given both her intellectual setting as well as a number of her Letters and Visions. One of the most clear connections to neoplatonism is found in Letter 22 in which Hadewijch attempts to express the paradoxes of God.[2] Within this account we read of God as the one who “alone can move himself” (95) and that knowledge of God comes from the “emanation of his name” which is “multiplied” among the many (99-100) and finally that “the divine height is never absolutely reached” (102). While this letter does attempt to problematize a completely stable notion of divine transcendence (stating in this letter that to have something of God is to have God in God’s entirety) its imagery and format align closely with concept of neoplatonic transcendence outlined above. Scattered throughout her works are other references to this sort of neoplatonic conceptual model (see also Letter 19). However, what distinguishes these particular accounts from being adequate for understanding her thought is the larger context in which these expressions are made. It should not be denied that these accounts are a part of Hadewijch’s theology, however, these should only make sense within her conception of God as Love, which demands a different engagement than with God as Unity/One or Abyss.

John Milhaven has identified this distinguishing feature of love as expressing a sort of “mutuality unacceptable to theologians of her time or earlier.”[3] It is precisely in identifying this mutuality that opens up an understanding to the sort of immanent relay that was articulated earlier. The question remains whether this mutuality can be considered as opening the two-way street in which there is an understanding that we must speak and name ‘God’ but that this naming remains unsatisfied by any transcendent signifier of any form (even if it is unsignifiable object of negative theology) but rather ‘keeps the relay open’ and performs the excessiveness of immanent difference.

Several features of Hadewicjh’s work support this connection such as the unsystematic nature of her writings. While this is not uncommon for mystical accounts it should also be noted that Hadewijch is not consumed by one form negative theology, of Neoplatonism or even of genre. She writes across genres and employs a wide range of imagery and conceptual patterns. The conditions of her thought did not seem to fit a single genre or clear logical guidelines.

Hadewich’s biblical imagery should also be noted. While Hadewijch often cites scripture, Song of Songs and the book of Job are referenced with a high degree of frequency. These books are important in how they stress the mutuality of the relationship between God and humanity. A key image from the Song of Songs for Hadewijch (as well as other mystics) is the phrase I am my beloved and my beloved is mine (Song of Songs 2:16 and 6:3). The book of Job is an account of someone who suffers but will not be satisfied by theologically orthodox rationales (which stabilize nature by the authoritative naming of God) but rather demands the audience of God (to open the relay) to hear his case. While less frequent, Hadewijch does expand significantly on the account of Jacob wrestling with God (Genesis 32). This image is described in Letter 12 stating that “Jacob is everyone who conquers; by the power of Love, he conquered God, in order to be conquered himself” (73). Here again we encounter the mutual and reflexive relationship between God and humans. There is not one pole of effect but a two-way street of affection.

Transcendence often works itself in a stabilizing form of authority. In her writings Hadewijch pays no attention to ecclesial authority. Unlike many other female mystics Hadewijch does not reference any religious authority figure within the church. Many figures enter in as inspirational (such as Augustine) but she does not appeal to them on the basis of some conferred authority. Even with respect to the authority of God there is boldness to how she approaches this relationship. In Letter 4 Hadewijch challenges the authority of reason if it “fails to stand up to [God’s] greatness” (54). This neglect of priestly authority, challenge to Reason and boldness before God further points to the ongoing relay between her and God. As with Jacob, there are times when she must confront God or at least acknowledge the insufficiency of their relationship. In Vision 7 Hadewijch is concerned that “I did not content my Beloved, and that my Beloved did not fulfill my desire” (280; see a similar expression in Vision 11). Hadewijch is later confirmed in her strength and boldness. At the end of Vision 14 Hadewijch receives power from God which was “the strength of his own Being, to be God” (302). This ends in a voice which says, “O strongest of all warriors! You have conquered everything and opened the closed totality” (305). Power flows from God but God’s totality is thereby opened (cracked?).

The most pervasive indicator that Hadewijch’s work relates to Deleuze’s concept of immanence is understanding how love functions in her works. Love can be read off of nearly every page of her works. Love never settles; it does not remain at the heights of heaven nor in the depths of hell but in fact moves through and beyond these places. Here again, to distinguish from negative theology, Hadewijch does not remove God from the scene signifying an unsignifiable unity but rather God and Hadewijch and love continue to move in increasingly excessive articulation, they pour over each other as though all finally constitute one substance in an ongoing differential relation. This is seen most clearly in her poetry. In her poetry there appears to be an attempt in several instances to see where love can all fit, to see if it is actually possible for all to be love. In the appropriately titled ‘Were I but Love’ Hadewijch writes,

Beloved, if I love a beloved,
Be you, Love, my Beloved;
You gave yourself as Love for your loved one’s sake,
And thus you, Love, uplifted me, your loved one, with you!

O Love, were I but love,
And could I but love you, Love, with love!
O Love, for love’s sake, grant that I,
Having become love, may know Love wholly as Love! (352)

It is possible to render this poem to the point where the only word that remains acknowledging difference is if. For if Hadewijch were love then everything would pour over love from love to love for love as love. All that remains are prepositions that point to the differential relation of one substance. Whereas Spinoza attempted to keep open the relay of univocal substance with the phrase God, or Nature Hadewijch takes a different path pursuing the line of desire, if love. This path also unfolds in excessive relay building up in courage (185), getting lost in abyss (145), being blinded by light (119), sinking into hell (356) all as the excesses of love.


I have demonstrated that the trajectory of univocity from the medieval period traced by Delueze and carried forward in the concept of immanence represents a relevant category by which to interpret medieval mystical texts using Hadewijch of Brabant as an example. This paradigm did not need to rely on ‘performance’ or ‘body’ for an interpretative key but considered the conceptual conditions that makes such interpretations possible. The condition is immanence. In this model one does not rely on a transcendent object or reality in order to render thought or reality intelligible. Because reality is immanent, one can only perform the relation and such a performance is excessive by its nature. Love was such a performance for Hadewijch. Love acknowledged one substance but sustained difference through its own infinite relay of pouring over itself.

Hadewijch’s work also differs than the conceptual model of Spinoza who gestured at the necessarily open relay between God or Nature. Hadewijch perused if Love. This conditional statement, positing no prior unity but gesturing towards relationship opened onto an excess, remains incompatible with many models of theology but should no longer be rejected because of the authority of those theologies but conversely cannot be proven as true to them because that would be to reinscribe a transcendent logic and forsake the if love.

If love then love. This phrase gestures towards a certain madness, an expression familiar to Hadewijch who often expressed the madness of love, but it is also a madness not unfamiliar to Deleuze who calls immanence ‘the vertigo of philosophy’.[4] The ‘instability’ or excess of performances found in Hadewijch and Deleuze will likely remain marginal or questionable to academic discourses that typical function in the register of a transcendent ontology, but they also cannot be so easily dismissed for their very performance draws us into the relation of Life and living which, at least for Hadewijch, continually sets before us the lure of the relation itself, if love . . .


[1] Prudence Allen, The Concept of Woman, vol. 2, The Early Humanist Reformation 1250-1500 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 46.

[2] All references to the works of Hadewijch are taken from Hadewijch of Brabant The Complete Works trans. Columba Hart (New York: Paulist Press, 1980) and pagination will be bracketed within the text.

[3] John Milhaven, Hadewijch and Her Sisters: Other Ways of Loving and Knowing (New York: SUNY Press, 1993), 16.

[4] Cited in Thacker, After Life, 215.


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