New SNSF Project

Re-configuring the Apophatic Tradition in Late Medieval England (1 March 2022 – 28 February 2026)

Denis Renevey (Principal Investigator), Christiania Whitehead (Senior Researcher), Olena Danylovych (Doctoral student)

In recent years, scholarly attention has been overwhelmingly directed toward cataphatic or affirmative traditions of contemplation and mysticism in late medieval England. Containing strongly visual and affective elements, most of the members of the small group misleadingly homogenised in modern times as ‘The Middle English Mystics’, utilise these traditions to a greater or lesser extent. The peculiar bodily performances of Margery Kempe in response to visions of Christ, and the sensations of dulcor, canor and calor (sweetness, melody and heat) experienced by Richard Rolle, taken over and redirected by subsequent writers in his tradition, have been particularly closely scrutinized, generating responses from a variety of historicist and theoretical angles.

However, running alongside this tradition of cataphatic mysticism, is a second contemplative tradition, termed apophatic or negative, which seeks to erase sensory perceptions and to strip away all that can be known about God, leading the disciple instead toward a place of darkness and cognitive obscurity. This tradition, ultimately derived from the writings of the sixth-century Syrian, Pseudo-Dionysius, has received much less attention despite its profundity. Its main exponent in Middle English is an anonymous author known as the Cloud-author, probably a Carthusian from the northeast Midlands, who wrote an ambitious contemplative work titled The Cloud of Unknowing, together with five shorter treatises, including a Middle English translation of Pseudo-Dionysius’s Mystica theologia. Although excellent editorial and translational work has been undertaken on these treatises, astonishingly no largescale critical work has been published for almost twenty-five years, and they have rarely formed the focus of scholarly discussion. By the same token, the net has not been broadened to consider the possibility of an English apophatic tradition, within which the Cloud-author plays a key but by no means singular role. 

This research project will make good both of these omissions. It will generate new critical work on the Cloud corpus in response to major developments in the understanding of late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century religious culture in England over the last twenty years, paying especially close attention to the five minor treatises. In addition, using a codicological methodology, it will examine the fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century manuscripts of the Cloud-corpus, thinking through the implications of the texts they are copied alongside, and exploring their environments of reception and circulation. Innovatively, the project will also approach the Cloud-corpus as a major component of a broader English apophatic tradition, additionally comprising the Latin and vernacular writings of the late fifteenth-century Carthusian, Richard Methley, the Middle English translations of the apophatic continental mystics, Marguerite Porete, Jan Ruusbroec, Hugh of Balma, and Heinrich Suso, and a number of contemplative compilations. Work is badly needed to assess the number of manuscripts of Pseudo-Dionysius’s works in medieval English libraries in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, along with commentaries by Thomas Gallus, Hugh of St Victor, John Sarracenus, Robert Grosseteste and others, and it is unknown to what extent these Latin texts continued to circulate and to be recopied. Equally, while the oeuvre of the twelfth-century Victorine authors, Hugh and Richard, is often cited as a contemplative influence upon the Cloud- author and Rolle, more work is needed to ascertain to what degree these Victorine texts were available in late medieval England, and to understand how they were being read. The findings from these bibliographical investigations will enable us to sketch the perimeters and distinctive traits of an English apophatic tradition.