Childhood and Fantasies of Medieval Mystics

By Ralph Frenken, Ph.D.

Dr. Frenken studies sixteen German mystics who lived during the period from the thirteenth to the mid-fifteenth centuries. Using primarily psychoanalytic tools, the author uses the writings and biographies of the mystics and of others, to determine the origin of their mysticism. Of those studied by the author, the most well known in the United States is Heinrich Seuse, better known in the English speaking countries as Henry Suso.

This article is derived from material in the author's book, Kindheit und Mystik im Mittelalter. Dr. Frenken's book is significant as it is a detailed analysis of early traumas in the lives of seventeen German mystics. Professor Peter Dinzelbacher, a historian, has called Frenken's book a breakthrough in the historical research on mystics. Many researchers had used the same source material as the author, but apparently had not recognized that they were reading about the lives of traumatized children.

The charts which accompanied Dr. Frenken's article are not included with this article since they proved difficult to reproduce on the internet. One chart shows that most of the early lives of the studied mystics fall somewhat above the lowest classification of Lloyd deMause's division of the evolution of childrearing practices throughout history. A link to deMause's material on this subject is included at the end of the article for those who wish additional information on the subject.

--John A. Speyrer, Editor, The Primal Psychotherapy Page

God is the single most powerful human experience."
-- Michael A. Persinger,
Neuropsychology of the Bases of God Beliefs

"The psychodynamics of mystics, their symbol formations
and their actions are based on excessive early trauma. . . .
There is evidence that medieval mystics were deprived
and also emotionally and sexually abused as children."

-- Dr. Ralph Frenken

It is difficult to say what "mysticism" is. A definition seems to be impossible. The religion phenomenologist Widengren sketches mysticism as the attempt to experience the unification with God in an ecstatic state.1 The mystic wants to experience the so-called unio mystica, a unification of God and the soul. Dinzelbacher depicts the difference between "mysticism of experience" and "theology" as follows: While the theologian constructs a logically consistent system of talking about God in "cold" language, the mystic articulates his or her experiences with God in a "glowing" language.2 According to Dinzelbacher, one can say that God is for the theologian (mainly) an object of thought, but for a mystic an object of experience.

The following study is based on autobiographical and biographical writings of about sixteen German experiential mystics, thirteen women and three men, who lived from the 13th to the 15th century. Most experiential mystics were women in medieval times. Most of them - though not all - lived in monasteries or religious communities. Some were married and had families.

The experience of most of these mystics is characterized by the following features:

  1. Excessive self-destructive behavior, directed against one's body;
  2. Hallucinative experiences of religiously interpreted objects (God, Jesus, Mary, Jesus-children, devils, demons, dead people);
  3. Permanent dealing with a religious fantasy system;
  4. Extremely repressed sexuality and at the same time pedophile fantasies, particularly experienced in connection with the Jesus­Child-Imago.


At least fourteen of the sixteen mystics showed extreme asceticism, which I term self­destructive behavior, such as self-flagellation, severe fasting, and genuflection (falling on one's knees, venia). These behaviors were exhibited by almost every mystic. Most of them also developed idiosyncratic forms of self-destructiveness, such as cutting religious symbols into the skin (Seuse); self-immolation (Dorothea of Montau, Christina of Retters); self-chaining (Seuse); wearing itching clothes or devices that hurt the skin permanently (nail crosses, narrow belts, stingers in the underwear [Seuse, Adelheit Langmann and others]); self-biting (Elisabeth Achler) and other forms.

The mystics of this sample show different degrees of severity concerning self-destructiveness. Mechthild of Magdeburg writes only few passages on it; she recommends self-flagellation every morning with lashes.3 One cannot interpret these passages concerning the frequency of these practices. Mechthild of Hackeborn writes rarely about self-destructiveness. But in one passage she writes that she laid broken glass in her bed after she heard "careless songs." Then she rolled in the glass until her whole body was wounded and bleeding.4 Seuse hit himself for 20 years and practiced even more severe asceticism. However, he managed to decrease self-destructiveness.5

Dorothea of Montau seems even to have enhanced the severity of her self­destructiveness. She practiced it from her seventh year until her death at the age of forty-seven, including self-immolation. At the end of her life she let herself be entombed alive in a sealed stone chamber.6 The most extreme forms were exhibited by Christina of Retters. Several times she burnt her vagina out with a glowing piece of wood. She died at the age of twenty-three.7


To understand the etiology of self-destructiveness one has to use clinical material of today's self-destructors. John S. Kafka tried to explain self-destructiveness by using the concept of the transitional object of Winnicott.8 Winnicott used this concept in order to describe phenomena that take place in the phase of the child's separation from the mother.9 The child creates in fantasy a representation of the mother by using a real object: a teddy bear or a blanket. Usually, the concept "transitional object" is neither used for the mother (as a real object) nor for parts of the child's body.

In pathological cases the child may use his or her own body as a transitional object. The body is not experienced as belonging to the self, but as an independent object. According to this form of experience the child interacts with its own body as though it were a lifeless object which becomes cathected with love and hatred. Kafka presumes that this treatment of one's one body is based on the little child's intensive hunger for human contact. This longing was never satisfied, or was connected with bodily contact that led to severe pain.

Hirsch mentions two etiologically relevant factors for self-destructive behavior: (1) early deprivation and (2) traumatic overstimulation, usually severe physical and sexual abuse.10 Hirsch presumes that the part of the body that becomes the aim of self-destructiveness represents a bad object. He writes that states of unbearable tension catalyze the self-destructive behavior. These tensions are connected with feelings of being alone, with fears of separation or with conflicts about autonomy and bonding. Pathologically dealing with one's own body as a maternal transitional object, according to Hirsch, is based on the dissociation between self and body self, what some call "alters." This dissociation stems from traumatic infantile experiences that became stored in a dissociative manner in order to maintain a consistent and safe emotional life. The adult who shows self-destructive behavior acts out elements of the early traumatic parent-child relation. In addition, he or she punishes his or her body because of feelings of guilt. The self destructor has identified with the aggressor and now introjects such aggressions as guilt. Self-destructiveness is a form of self punishment.

The connection between self-destructive behavior and sexual abuse is crucial for the understanding of medieval mystics. Hirsch, DeYoung and Shapiro point out this connection in their clinical samples.11 One must examine if today's etiology also holds for historical subjects.

Two questions shall be answered:

1. Were the Medieval mystics deprived as children?
2. Were the Medieval mystics sexually or emotionally abused?

In order to answer these two questions, one must examine what mystics wrote about their own childhood, their object relations, and their fantasies about infantile topics. In general, there is strong evidence that medieval babies routinely suffered early deprivation: They were swaddled tightly for up to a year and one must presume that their first experiences were the same as those of the Albanian swaddled babies who were examined by Danzinger and FrankI in 1934.12 These authors reported that the babies spent the first year swaddled in a cradle and passed their time in a dark room. The babies struggled against the swaddling while their mothers ignored these efforts. Now, the mystical texts must be examined by looking for hints of early deprivation and abuse.


In the following examination I differentiate between the description of real childhood and the description of fantasized childhood. "Real childhood" refers to the experienced relationships with parents and the family members; "fantasized childhood" refers to hallucinations and fantasies, most often connected with the Jesus-Child.

The real childhoods of mystics are rarely mentioned in the relevant texts. In most of the short passages there is almost never any mention of positive emotional relations. Many mystics were abandoned children given away to monasteries, such as Gertrud of Helfta, who already lived in a monastery at the age of 5 years.13

Mechthild of Magdeburg mentions only that she prayed as a child when she was sad, and nothing else about her childhood.14 Mechthild of Hackeborn writes that she succeeded in living in a monastery against the will of her parents.15 Friedrich Sunder lost both of his parents when he was a child and mentions that all of his relatives - maybe including his parents - treated him badly.16 Some mystics fasted as children (Agnes Blannbekin, Dorothea of Montau) or showed other forms of asceticism. When Luitgard of Wittichen was seven years old, she laid a hard board in her bed so she would not sleep too long.17

There are more detailed hints connected with the childhood of two other mystics. Magdalena Beutler, who stemmed from a wealthy family, was the only surviving child of nine children of her mother Margaretha. The father died shortly after Magdalena's birth. Already her mother had "mystical" experiences and practiced self-destructiveness.18 In a description of Magdalena's life one can read about her treatment by her mother:

And so the mother raised her child in her house and guarded her in a way that the little child Magdalena was always alone, and she locked her into a room, in order to rest undisturbed in her prayer. And there the little child Magdalena rested alone in her room, un­ consoled by anyone. And so God did not want to leave his young consort unconsoled because she was not more than 3 years old and screamed and cried because of misery, therefore our beloved Lord Jesus Christ did appear to his young consort as a child of 2 years.19
The mother's obsession with redemption led to her daughter's extreme deprivation. When Magdalena was five years old, she became an oblate (Puer oblatus), which means that she was given away to a monastery. From her twelfth year she practiced self-destructiveness, i. e., she hit herself when she spoke useless words or when she did not think about God.20

The most detailed description of childhood in this sample concerns Johannes Marienwerder, the biographer and father confessor of Dorothea of Montau. As a child she showed several symptoms. For example, she tried to sleep as little as possible. Instead, she leaned against the wall and drilled holes into it or ripped her skin against nails in the wall.21

The symbolism of penetration and getting penetrated is obvious. Under the instruction of her mother she practiced genuflection by falling on her knees by the age of seven. She fasted sometimes for four days, and then avoided especially dishes with milk. In her seventh year Dorothea survived a trauma that is described in the vita as follows:

When the blessed Dorothea reached the 7th year, there it happened by an omission that she was poured on with boiling water, so that her mother was tortured with pity and had to revive her in a cradle.22

It remains unclear whether there was an act of omission of the mother, and if the accident was possibly unconsciously motivated. Anyway, from the seventh year on, Dorothea started her self-destructiveness, including self­scalding with boiling water. Dorothea burned her ankles and scalded her shoulders, arms, her breasts and legs with hot fat.23 Conversely, she exposed herself to cold and let wet clothes freeze on her body.

The "mystical" experiences with God or Jesus are perpetually described in the vita with heat metaphors. This leitmotif can be found in literally hundreds of passages such as: "The heat of divine love had lighted her in the service of the Lord;" Dorothea "desired the lord hotly' and became 'lighted and burned first in the heart, then in the soul and in the head, then in all of her members.' Once, she cried and "sweat so much that she became as wet as if she was poured on and sat in a hot bath." Dorothea calls the love of God burning, hot-desiring, boiling and over-flowing.24

Dorothea integrated her scalding-trauma into her fantasies about God. She did not simply suffer an accident passively, but internalized the trauma and interpreted heat and being scalded as signs of love by God. Again, one must speculate whether the mother was connected with the accident. If this was the case, Dorothea had to internalize the trauma as a defense against this knowledge. Behind the God-imago, there would operate an extremely aversive mother-imago. At the same time, no good and reliable father-imago can be found which would have allowed her to maintain any distance from the trauma.

While real childhood is only rarely mentioned in mystical writings, fantasized childhood can be found quite often. In such scenes, fantasies and hallucinations, the authors are usually dealing with topics such as deprivation, consolation, care and feeding. There is also frequently a reversal of positions: The experienced (hallucinated or fantasized) Jesus-child then takes care of the adult mystic.

A frequent topic is deficient care of the Jesus-child. Gertrud of Helfta hallucinated the Mother of God, who blamed her for not taking good care of the Jesus-Baby. Gertrud also writes that some nuns let the head of the Jesus-baby hang down - a detail that might be taken as evidence of an unempathic mother-child relation.25 Gertrud describes her consolation by Jesus in another passage that also contains details of an unempathic mother-child-relation (the reference to "erecting puppets that arouse anxieties" refers to the common practice of constructing frightening dolls to terrorize children):

Look: A mother has a little child, whom she loves much and whom she wants always in her nearness. But the child wants to run away, because it wants to play with peers. Therefore the mother erects puppets nearby and other things that arouse anxieties, in order that the child is frightened and runs back into the arm of the mother. As well I wish, that you will never go away from my side . . .26
Gertrud had the wish to become bound together with the Jesus-baby and wrote: "not even a thin napkin should separate me from You, whose embracing and kisses surpass the sweetness of honey."27 Mechthild of Magdeburg fantasized or hallucinated the newborn Jesus-baby swaddled in coarse cloth.28 The baby felt hunger and froze. Mary left him alone in the crib on hard straw, as God had told her to do.29 Mechthild of Hackeborn compared the swaddling of babies with the crucifixion of Jesus.30

Other mystics felt themselves bound during altered states of consciousness. Margaretha Ebner wrote about her psychosomatic states of paralysis. Her greatest lust was felt in "strong ties," and nobody else but Jesus had caught and bound her.31 The bodily experiences were caused by idealizing the object Jesus, who obviously represented aspects of the early mother.

For the description of her states, in which she could not speak, Margaretha Ebner used the following formulations: "merciful sweet ties," "to lie in ties," "Strong ties of our Lord," "bound and caught unable to speak".32 She described the untying of her ties as follows:

And after the mass at the morning, there I felt a strong relief of all those ties, with which I was caught in big unknown suffering. There I was given the sweet grace of God with his true sweetness and the sweet name of Jesus Christ with great joy, in which I came back again.33

Margaretha describes the reactualization of her early baby-emotions with the tight swaddling, so common in the Middle Ages. Seuse chained himself in the night with a complicated system of belts and locks.34 Mechthild of Magdeburg, who hallucinated the aversive swaddling of the Jesus-baby - as already mentioned - wrote of 'tied love" and prayed to Jesus: "Jesus, my love! Free me from my ties and let me be with you!"35

Although Mechthild clearly desired the tie with God, she was also ambivalent about this form of relationship. She wanted to keep this relation and the contact and get rid of the torturing tie at the same time. As already stated, these forms of experiencing relations can be derived from the swaddling experiences of the medieval baby, Swaddling existed in the West until the 20th century.36

Other mystical phenomena understood as hallucinated or fantasized include scenes of childhood in which the Jesus-child takes care of the adult mystic. These scenes frequently contain sexualized undertones. Adelheit Langmann suckles the baby and starts laughing "because of grace and sweetness," then she cries.37 Jesus as a child of four years of age embraces and kisses her.38 Margaretha Ebner writes that she developed interest childhood of Jesus while she wrote her revelations. She also wanted to have some information on the circumcision of Jesus.39

She had a wooden puppet of the Jesus-child. In certain ecstatic states she experienced this puppet as living and talked with it. This puppet, that is the hallucinated Jesus-child, demanded from her: "If you do not suckle me, then I will go away, although you love me." Therefore, she took the puppet/the child out of the cradle and laid it to her naked breast with "great pleasure and sweetness.'' She comments:

But my desire and my lust were in the suckling, that I would be cleansed by his pure humanity, and inflamed from his ardent love, and I would be bathed by his presence and his sweet grace, that I would be torn into the true delight of his divine being with all the loving souls, who have lived in the truth.40

One can notice how concrete this lust for suckling is described; one must not understand the formulations metaphorically. I presume that Margaretha is dealing with her own childhood deprivation. She fantasized herself into the position of the Jesus-baby and gave him what she missed painfully in her own childhood: the body contact and the feeding. Margaretha behaved like a little girl who plays with her puppet. These play interactions usually contain elements of experience and fantasy, and can be understood as dealing with the integration of relationship-experiences.

One must stress that the puppet-play of an adult woman clearly demonstrates how cathected the connected memory traces were. The threat of the Jesus-baby to leave Margaretha if she refused to suckle him clearly points to the underlying aggressive aspects. As a child, Margaretha feared losing her mother because of experiences of deprivation, consisting of missing emotional nearness and hunger. She projected her aggressive wishes for contact with the object onto the "living" puppet. Then she fulfilled the needs of this puppet representing her infantile self, giving contact and food. At the same time the sexualization of the scene is obvious. She wrote explicitly that she was excited by suckling, what might be called pedophilic sexuality. The baby-puppet replaced the adult lover.

Margaretha repeated the suckling of the puppet and pressed it to her breast with all her strength. She felt the touch of his mouth and was at first frightened by it.41 Later, she took a big crucifix and pressed it so hard onto her breast that "signs of death" (hematomas) appeared. A traumatic suckling experience with a fetish object is re-enacted clearly here, presumably combined with the phallic aspects of a crucifix and the body of an almost naked man. The strong pressing could arise from sexual abuse, but also symbolizes the fear of losing an object.

Once the hallucinated Jesus-baby demanded to be taken out of the cradle. She put it onto her lap and told him to kiss her with the words: "Kiss me, and I shall ignore that you have disturbed me. There, he embraced me and hugged me and kissed me." 42 One can see easily how infantile topics (especially the wishes for care) and sexual topics are melted together. Because of the marked tendency to show the reversal-reaction, mystics cannot clearly separate the parent and child position.

Heinrich Seuse describes a continuing hallucinated scene with the Mother of God and the Jesus-child. Seuse asks Mary to allow him to kiss the Jesus-baby. Seuse writes:

And when she gave him [the Jesus-baby] to him so kindly, he spread his arms into the endless parts of the wide world and welcomed and embraced the lover about one thousand times in an hour. He watched his pretty eyes, he looked at his little hands, he greeted his delicate mouth, and all of his child-like members of the heavenly treasure he looked through, then he looked up and cried out because of the wonder in his heart, that the carrier of heaven is so big and so small, so nice in heaven and so child-like on earth . . . 43

Then Seuse played with Jesus and gave the baby back to his mother. Seuse is excited by the infantile body. The quotation above contains something like a cryptic description of a coitus between Seuse and the Jesus­ baby: (1) excitement through the visual contact with the object, the Jesus-baby, (2) sexual actions, (3) continuing enhancement of excitement, (4) orgasm, (5) post-orgasmic play.

Seuse sees the child as small and helpless, and at the same time as a giant carrier of heaven. This seems to be an example for the reversal-reaction and the double-image in the sense deMause describes.44 The incompatible images rest in the mind of Seuse, showing the ongoing primary process. Seuse takes his pleasure from the Jesus-baby; the latter is not described regarding his needs, but only as the object of satisfaction for Seuse.

Again, these must be called pedophilic fantasies. In a former article of mine, I reconstructed from the fantasy scenes of Seuse that he was orally raped by his father.45 In the scene above, one can see the derivation of this trauma, including the reversal of activity and passivity.

There are more and less aggressive descriptions of pedophilic fantasies in mystical literature. Mechthild of Hackeborn hallucinated that the Jesus­ baby sucked the breast of all sisters of the monastery. She wished to kiss the Jesus-baby and "embrace him with the soul."46 Almost every mystic had such wishes.

There is a quite sharp distinction between the male and the female mystics in this sample. While the female mystics describe aggressive pedophilic wishes only sublimininally, the male mystics show them quite openly. Friedrich Sunder said to the hallucinated Jesus-child:

"They say often, how strong you would be, and that nobody is similar to your strength. Now, I want to see, if I can overcome you." And she [the soul of Sunder] fell over the divine child and pressed it swiftly at herself and said: "I shall not let you, until you bless me." There, the child spoke to his mother: "My little mother, help me, because the soul [of Sunder] has tied me strongly with ties of love and does not want to let me." There Mary spoke: "My tender dear child, now help yourself and do what the soul wants." There the child spoke to the soul: "Most lovely soul of mine, let me."47
But the soul of Sunder did not stop and forced the blessing and the promise of the Jesus-child never to separate from Sunder. In another passage in his autobiography Sunder wrote how he gave birth to the Jesus­ baby, how he suckled it and that he, under the supervision of Mary, unified with the Jesus-child in the bed of marriage - an almost blatant mentioning of having intercourse with the Jesus-child,48 and again, a hint of pedophilic sexuality.

Pedophilic sexuality is accompanied by melting-fantasies. Berner describes how pedophiles fantasize themselves as caring and loving and deny their dominance and their aggressions against their infantile sexual-objects.

Berner writes:

In psychotherapy with them [pedophiles] it becomes vividly clear that the topic of dominance-the contrast between big and small, mighty and helpless-is an important background of their eroticiza­ tion. They eroticize the relation between a totally dependent, small partner needing care and help, and a mighty, caring, and nurturing partner in fantasy.49

It is exactly this acting-out that Sunder and Seuse manifest. The mystic brother Heinrich zum Grünenwörth describes this even more aggressively. In an hallucinated scene he lets Mary give him the Jesus-baby. In his vita is written:

He took the child in his hands and had great joy with him that he did strange things with him, danced with him, touched him tenderly and kissed him. And as he did that for a long time Mary spoke to him: "Give me my child again!" There he answered: "Look, how do you need him so [missing word], let's have the child!" Now he kissed him, then he catched him and could not become tired of him. She said to him: "Give me my son!" He said: "Ah, dear woman, how can you need him so? Wait only a little," and because he did not want to stop and had his way with the child, Mary came and took the child from him by force.50
After that, brother Heinrich cried, exactly like Seuse in the scene described above. The visitors at the mass heard this cry in reality, and brother Heinrich went away full of shame. Besides the pedophilic wishes, the familial triangulation also becomes clear, consisting of a passive infantile object (Jesus), an idealized mother-imago (Mary) and an aggressive and sexualized father-imago (Heinrich). Brother Heinrich and other mystics do not love the Jesus-baby - instead they need it.

Sexuality among adults is always seen as dangerous, sinful, and objectionable. At the same time, the relation to the God-Jesus phantasm is always sexualized. In the Freudian sense, the repressed returns: repressed sexuality becomes acted out in relation to fantasy-objects, while it would never be lived with real adult objects. And these fantasies are often connected with extremely painful aspects. As an example, Dorothea of Montau hallucinated that:

Two new and beautiful spears were pierced into her heart . . . their shafts were very long and rose from her heart to the wonderfully decorated throne of heaven . . . There they [Jesus and Mary] began to push the spears by their shafts deeper into the heart of the bride, to press them stronger into her and stick them so deep into her, as if they wanted to push out her heart through her back." Later God tells her: "I have now stuck two hard, dark and giant spears into your heart, in order that you and your friends really know and can openly admit that you have an enormously potent bridegroom."51
The connection with scenes of abuse seems to be close in the case of such sexual fantasies. In this passage Jesus and Mary [sic!] penetrate Dorothea. Such symbolic passages can be found in several mystical writings. Mechthild of Magdeburg becomes shot through with a crossbow by God; the arrows consist of light.52 Gertrud of Helfta wrote: "All words that she [Gertrud] sang appeared like a pointed (sharp) lance, that went from her heart to the heart of Jesus, excited it in the innermost chamber, penetrated it in the innermost chamber and excited infinite joy . . . . At the barb of the lance drops appeared in vast quantity. . ."53

Seuse hallucinated that a "huge hellish person" drilled a twist drill into his mouth.54 Agnes Blannbekin dealt frequently with the topic of the bad priests. One of them was accused of having raped a little girl.55 Margaretha Ebner experienced thrusts into her heart and then swelled as if she was pregnant.

These pushes were ambivalently cathected; she writes about a "vivid shot of his [Jesus] ray of love into my heart with great pain." While she first calls the pushes "sweet" later she calls them "cruel."56 The two Bavarian nuns Katerine and Margret were supposed to be virgins when they entered the monastery at the age of thirteen. Nevertheless, their father confessor writes that they knew more about sexuality "than the worst woman knows, who prostituted herself for 20 years."57 The two nuns showed self-destructiveness and restaged scenes of rape and abuse with devils as aggressors.

The sexualized trials of the mystics in which they have relations with the God phantasm are highly ambivalently cathected. The genesis of this almost unbearable ambivalence can be seen in traumatic childhood abuse, where both emotional nearness and traumatic experiences (pain, shame) are connected. This leads to almost insoluble conflicts.


The mystics in this examination can be seen as borderline personalities. Their psychodynamic is characterized by dissociation and hysterical symptoms, which influence the experience and behavior intensely.

On a descriptive level, the borderline personality organization consists of: (a) chronic free floating anxiety; (b) polysymptomatic neuroses (compulsions, phobias, multiple conversion symptoms, hypochondria, amnesia and disturbances of consciousness); (c) polymorphous-perverse sexuality; (d) impulsive neuroses, including autoaggressive behavior; (e) intensive affects (especially rage) and depression, combined with far-reaching anhedony.58 On a structural level, Kernberg points out unspecific indications of ego­weakness, an access to primary process thinking and specific defense mechanisms, especially dissociation (splitting). According to Kernberg the borderline personality uses dissociation as an active defense mechanism in order to avoid the contamination of good object representations with bad ones. Kernberg sees the normal development of object relations as an integration of good and bad objects, as paranoid anxieties become replaced by more depressive forms, leading to more realistic objects.

Because of this integration the child now experiences simultaneously aggressive and libidinistic aspects with the same object. This integration does not take place in childhood or later in the case of borderline personalities. Instead the child uses dissociation and "primitive idealization," and creates "totally good" and "totally bad" objects.59 Primitive idealization is a fantasy structure that equips the object with magical attributes in order to defend oneself against aggressive objects. At the same time, the self is dissociated into "totally good" or "totally bad" selves or alters. These pathological selves are connected with fantastic ideals of omnipotence and power and lead to distorted idealizations, while the superego remains undeveloped and continues containing sadistic and threatening superego-precursors.

In 1975, Kernberg had already described as an etiologically relevant condition for the development of the borderline syndrome real experiences of frustration, in other words, traumatic events. Meanwhile he writes of the "fixation to the trauma" as the most important condition for the development of pathological object relations and their representations.60

Rohde-Dachser, relying on Kernberg's approach, calls early sexual abuse one of the main etiological factors for the development of a borderline personality.61 In their masochistic acting-out, the mystics tried to force the appearance of the object by suffering, a trial of integration by restaging traumatic scenes that Rohde-Dachser called "struggling for empathy."62 In the case of the medieval mystics, one has to presume an early depriving and traumatic mother-child relation, followed by a sexualized father-child relation.63 These experiences lead to dissociated and split parental imagos. The dissociated imagos, as we have mentioned, can also be understood as alter personalities, similar to the most dissociated forms one can find in cases of dissociative identity disorder.64 The central mystical personality organization contains an aversive mother-imago that becomes feared and a primitively idealized father-imago, that was erected as a means of defense.

Mystics frequently direct their fantasies of hate against the indifferent, neglectful mother-imago, while the father frequently (but not always) is idealized and sexualized. Mechthild of Hackeborn wrote that the whole world was in mourning for Jesus - except Mary.65 Gertrud of Helfta wrote in her autobiography that she could not remember any mother who caressed her child.66 Christina of Retters hallucinated that a picture of Mary gave her a box on the ear.67 Beside these aversive mother-imagos, virtually all mystics have idealized father-imagos, projected onto fantasies of God, Jesus or saints.

The psychodynamics of mystics, their symbol formations and their actions are based on early excessive trauma. An insufficient relation to the mother was followed by an aggressive and sexualized relation to the father. The early trauma were: hunger, tight swaddling, being left alone, beating, emotional indifference of the parents. The later trauma included additional sexual abuse, emotional exploitation and abandonment. Without early infantile trauma there would be no mystical experiences like those described for the mystics of this sample. Summarizing, the two questions from the beginning must be answered as follows: There is evidence that medieval mystics were deprived and also emotionally and sexually abused as children.

I want to try to answer Dinzelbacher's question: "How does one become a mystic?"68 From a psychohistorical point of view I want to state the following hypotheses: There is evidence that medieval mystics were deprived and also emotionally and sexually abused as children.

  1. The childhood of a later mystic of experience is characterized by deprivation and trauma in the interaction with his parents. Good and healthy relations are missing.

  2. Besides trauma there could be a constitutional heredity that underlies the mystical-hallucinative manner of experience (diathesis­ stress-model).

  3. The parental images become split. The child develops an uncontrollable aversive mother-imago and an idealized father-imago. Both images later become displaced onto a religious fantasy-system.

  4. Even in childhood a process of socialization into a religious fantasy-system takes place.

  5. The adult meets a group that shares a fantasy system, in which his idiosyncratic fantasies are allowed to be communicated.

The two genuine mystical topics nuptial-mystic and Jesus-child-devotion69 can be reconstructed psychohistorically as follows:

In the nuptial mystical fantasies, genuine sexual wishes become displaced onto the divine phantasms. In the Jesus-child-devotion, sexualized and traumatic experiences become re-enacted in connection with an infantile fantasy-object (the Jesus­ child or -baby). At the same time the reversal-reaction becomes acted-out: sexual wishes and wishes for care become projected onto the fantasy-child.

Male mystics also show aggressive dominance and force against the child. Also in genuine nuptial mystical forms of experience, one can find in addition to sexual topics frequent parent-child-interactions. The mixing of parent-child interactions and sexual interactions is so far - reaching in mystics because incestuous sexuality in the family has to be presumed. An adequate separation of both interaction forms is missing in the mystic's psyche.


Max Weber called the mystic's wish for unification with God - the unio mystica -"crypto-sexual ."70 As I demonstrated, one can also call it "crypto-infantile." The so-called "religious" or "mystical" forms of experience are permanent fantastic-hallucinatory reenactments of early trauma. The hallucinating of fantasy objects and the creating of consoling symbols are attempts to integrate the dissociated personality structures. Mystical experience is an attempted self-therapy that is successful in some aspects, but often fails.

One can combine the reconstructed childhoods of these sixteen mystics with those of the oldest German autobiographers. I previously examined the childhoods of nineteen of the earliest secular German autobiographers.71 Every childhood was categorized in terms of a psychogenic mode delineated by deMause.72 All the mystics have to be categorized below the abandoning mode. This categorization can be justified because of the rare descriptions of childhood (deprivation, abandonment, abuse, frightening etc.). DeMause called this mode "infanticidal." Indeed, in some mystical texts, hints of infanticidal impulses of the parents could be found.73 One has to stress the enormous sexualization of mystical texts; in this regard one could also call this mode the "sexualized mode."

The chart on the following page shows the evolution of childhood in Germany from 1200 until 1655, comparing mystics and secular autobiographers.74 [Unfortunately, this chart and a table are not included here. For a chart and table of descriptions of Lloyd deMause's division of history from the aspect of sympathetic childrearing practices see the Digital Archive of Psychohistory website - John A. Speyrer, Editor].

Also by Dr. Frenken is: The Evolution of Childhood, Personality Structure and Superego in Germany - (1200 - 1700)

References and Footnotes

This article is from the Fall, 2000, issue of Lloyd deMause's The Journal of Psychohistory and is reproduced with permission.

Psychologist Ralph Frenken, Ph. D. was born in 1965. He studied at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University in Frankurt/Main, Germany. His dissertation was on the history of childhood: "Kindheit und Autobiographie vom 14. bis 17. Jahrhundert: Psychohistorischen Rekonstruktionen" = Childhood and Autobiography from the 14th to the 17th century: Psychohistorical reconstructions).

The author's research interests include the history of childhood, psychohistory, psychoanalysis, qualitative methods, dream research and Gestalt theory.

He is Editor with Dr. Martin Rheinheimer (historian) Associate Professor at the University of Esbjerg (Denmark) of the series: Psychohistorische Forschungen (= Psychohistorical research) and a contributing editor of The Journal of Psychohistory.

Dr Frenken is presently working in child and youth psychiatry as a clinical psychologist and is licensed to teach (German: Lehrauftrag) at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University, Department of Pedagogy. His e-mail address is:

Some of Dr. Frenken's publications include: (1997). The History of German Childhood through Autobiographies. In: The Journal of Psychohistory, 24 (4), S. 390-402; (1999). Kindheit und Autobiographie vom 14. bis 17. Jahrhundert: Psychohistorische Rekonstruktionen. 2 Bände. (= Psychohistorische Forschungen, Band 1/1 u. 1/2). Kiel: Oetker-Voges; (2000). Changes in German Parent-Child Relations from the Fourteenth to the Middle of the Seventeenth Century. In: The Journal of Psychohistory, 27 (3), S. 228-272; (2000). Die Psychohistorie des Erlebens: eine einleitende Programmatik. In: Ralph Frenken; Martin Rheinheimer (Hg.). Die Psychohistorie des Erlebens. (= Psychohistorische Forschungen, Band 2), Kiel: Oetker-Voges. (S. 7-19); (2000). Mystisches Erleben. In: Ralph Frenken; Martin Rheinheimer (Hg.). Die Psychohistorie des Erlebens. (= Psychohistorische Forschungen, Band 2), Kiel: Oetker-Voges. (S. 227-254); (2000). Childhood and Fantasies of Medieval Mystics. In: The Journal of Psychohistory, 28 (2), S. 150-172; (2000). Book Presently In Print: Frenken, Ralph (2002). Kindheit und Mystik im Mittelalter. Frankfurt am Main: Lang. 344 pages. ISBN: 3-631-38467-X.

For other articles on this subject, see on this website, The Psychology of Mysticism

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