Book Preview: Augustine Baker’s Mysticism

This blog post discusses elements of Chapter 1 of my forthcoming book due out in April 2019. You can find out more about the monograph here.

The Benedictine monk Augustine Baker is a pivotal figure in the narrative explored across Mysticism in Early Modern England. His works not only inspired a wide range of devotional outpourings within Benedictine convents but had a wider impact on English Protestants in the seventeenth century. Baker’s work was discussed positively by the Presbyterian divine Richard Baxter, the ‘Cambridge Platonists’ Henry More and John Worthington, Philadelphian authors Richard Roach and Francis Lee, and the moral reformer Edward Stephens. He found critics in the form of the Anglo-Irish theologian Henry Dodwell and the ‘latitudinarian’ scholar Edward Stillingfleet. Baker’s works were often found at the center of debates over the legitimacy of mysticism in late seventeenth-century England.

Born David Baker in 1575, he belonged to a family of ‘church papists’ which were described by his biographers as being ‘neutral in religion’ and conforming to the Church of England despite a strong Catholic bent to their practice. His hometown of Abergavenny was notable for its high concentration of Catholics, as was the wider county of Monmouthshire. Yet Baker slowly lost faith, falling into a ‘kind of atheism’ according to his biographers. This all changed after a near-death experience convinced him that God had intervened directly to save his life and had a greater role for him to play. Shortly after Baker converted to Catholicism, eventually becoming a Benedictine in 1605.

Portrait of Augustine Baker, 1657 (probably by William Faithorne)

As I’ve argued elsewhere, Baker was a controversial figure in Catholic circles. In 1624 he became a spiritual adviser to the Benedictine nuns of Cambrai, promoting an individualistic form of mystical experience to the female religious housed there. His prioritisation of mystical inner experiences at the cost of anything else often meant that his teachings were in direct conflict with pre-established power constructs in convents like Cambrai.

Baker devoted his time to transcribing, translating and writing works of mysticism for the nuns, while also helping them record their own mystical experiences. His productivity resulted in over thirty original works and translations. It is estimated that Baker wrote well over one million words across his entire manuscript corpus during his lifetime, producing one of the most substantial bodies of mystical work preserved in the English language.

His mysticism was noticeable for a number of reasons. Firstly, Baker greatly advanced the concept of a ‘mystical tradition’ in the English language. More than any figure before, Baker constructed a ‘canon’ of writers who wrote about mysticism. This included ancient, medieval and contemporary figures. Baker referred to these as ‘mysticks‘, perhaps for the first time in the English language. He also gathered an impressive library of texts for the nuns to read and constructed numerous reading lists for them to follow as they progressed on their mystical journeys. A ‘raw and ignorant’ nun that
was on the first step of her mystical ladder was recommended no fewer than twenty-three works by authors including Harphius, Blosius, John Tauler and Walter Hilton, as well as Baker’s own original works.

The chapter explores Baker’s followers and critics within the English Benedictine Congregation through manuscript accounts and letters written on the subject. Conflict in the 1630s saw Baker being removed from Cambrai and then Douai, eventually returning to England before his death in 1641. After his death, another bout of controversy over the potential censoring of his manuscripts occurred in the 1650s. The crisis caused Abbess Catherine Gascoigne to consider removing Cambrai from the grasp of the English Benedictine Congregation and place the convent under the authority of the Archbishop of Cambrai in order to save Baker’s work. Such episodes show how much the nuns valued Bakers works, as well as the extreme lengths Baker’s followers were willing to go to in order to preserve his legacy.

Mysticism in Early Modern England is available to pre-order/buy now by following this link