Using R to analyze “The Flowing Light of the Godhead”

A few weeks ago I started learning the R programming language for use in quantitative and computational approaches to textual analysis. Although my areas of expertise are in 3D visualization and simulation, it seemed to me that a lot of work in the digital humanities is in textual analysis (e.g., text mining and topic modeling) and that it would probably be a good move to develop some proficiency in this area. I was originally planning to get back to Python for this purpose, but decided on R after discovering Textual Analysis with R for Students of Literature by Matthew Jockers. I have found the book to be a useful introduction to the topic, and I am looking forward to expanding my proficiency with Quantitative Corpus Linguistics with R: A Practical Introduction by Stefan Gries and Analyzing Linguistic Data: A Practical Introduction to Statistics Using R by Harald Baayen. Working through the chapters on correlation in Jocker’s book, the thought occurred to me that I could apply what I learned to a topic I am familiar with, specifically the mystical theology of the 13th century German medieval mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg.

An interesting aspect of Mechthild’s theology as expressed in Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (“The Flowing Light of the Godhead”) is the relationship between physical pain and divine love. Regardless of how deeply Mechthild sinks into the pain inherent to her fallen condition, this descent is countered by the appearance of the divine presence. The same is also true for humanity in general. No matter how far humanity is removed from God in its fallenness, deity is always present to succor it. What this theology suggests is the divine presence in all things, especially in the abyss of human suffering and pain. Notwithstanding humanity’s fallen condition, God is ever ready and willing to dispense his eternal love to the soul who actively seeks and cries out for him. Mechthild writes:

Eya selige gottes vro[e]medunge, wie minnenklich bin ich mit dir gebunden! Du stetigest minen willen in der pine und liebest mir die sweren langen beitunge in disem armen libe. Swa mitte ie ich mich zu[o] dir geselle, ie got gro[e]ssor und wunderlichor uf mich vellet. O herre, ich kan dir in der tieffi der ungemischeten diemu[e]tekeit nit entsinken; o[v]we ich dir in dem homu[o]te lihte entwenke! Mere ie ich tieffer sinke, ie ich su[e]ssor trinke.

Das fließende Licht der Gottheit, IV.12.102-107

[Oh blessed estrangement from God, how lovingly I am bound to you! You make my will constant in pain and make my difficult and long wait in this poor body pleasant for me. By whatever means I join myself to you, the more intensely and wonderfully God descends on me. Oh Lord, I can not sink from you in the depths of pure humility; alas, how easily I escape you in pride! The deeper I sink, the sweeter I drink.]

Indeed, one could argue, Mechthild sees her fallenness as a means whereby she can gain mystical union with God. This theological insight is typical of the women’s religious movements of the 13th century that sought to spiritualize the flesh and to erase the difference between the inner (spiritual) and outer (carnal) human being. According to Mechthild, God can be found and experienced not only in and through the spiritual exercise of cloistered contemplation, but also more intimately and powerfully in and through the human body.

As the last line (“Mere ie ich tieffer sinke, ie ich su[e]ssor trinke”) in the passage above suggests, there is a positive correlation between pain and love. The more Mechthild embraces the pain of her human condition, the more readily is God’s love revealed to her. Is this positive theological correlation, I wondered, also present in the mystical language of Das fließende Licht der Gottheit? Is an increase in the frequency of the word “pine” (“pain”) also matched by an increase in the frequency of the word “minne” (“love”)?

One of the first problems I encountered was the difficulty of finding a TXT file of Das fließende Licht der Gottheit that would be ready for ingestion into RStudio. I eventually found a PDF of the P. Gall Morel edition (1869) on the Internet Archive, but this file contained a lot of dirty OCR that had to be hand corrected. After a few weeks of working through the text in my spare moments, I finally had the first book of the treatise ready for ingestion. To ensure that R would not split words based on non-word characters, diacritics and the like were included in-line (e.g., “zuo” instead of “zů” or “zu[o]”). All the code for this analysis, which is based on the code provided by Matthew Jockers, and the hand-corrected TXT file of Mechthild’s treatise can be viewed on my GitHub account.

A statistical analysis of Book 1 of Das fließende Licht der Gottheit in Voyant Tools reveals 1,806 word types with 7,147 tokens. Of these tokens, “minne” (“love,” appearing 65 times) is one of the most frequent words in the corpus. Other frequent words include: “si” (“she,” appearing 134 times) “ir” (“her,” appearing 80 times); “got” (“God,” appearing 57 times); and “sele” (“soul,” appearing 55 times). The feminine personal pronoun “si” and feminine possessive adjective “ir” are most likely used in connection with the female noun “sele,” suggesting that the primary topic of Book 1 is the relationship between God and the soul, and the role that love plays in facilitating this union. The relative frequencies (i.e., how many times a word appears in 100 words of text) of the word “minne” also shows how important this concept is in Book 1:


The word “pine” (“pain”) also appears in Book 1, although not with the frequencies that “minne” appears. In fact, “pine” only appears in three chapters alongside “minne”: Chapters 22, 35, and 44. And when it does appear with “minne” in a chapter, it is never used more than “minne.” As its erotic imagery would suggest, Book 1 seems to be primarily about the passionate love between God and the soul. It is, so it would seem, a story about a young and ardent relationship that has not been tested and enriched by the appearance of pain.


Bar chart depicting relative frequency of “pine” and “minne” in Book 1 of Das fliessende Licht der Gottheit

Running Pearson’s product-moment correlation (in R: cor.test() with the “method” parameter set to “pearson” in the function call) on the data from Book 1 of Das fließende Licht der Gottheit reveals that there is actually a slight negative correlation (-0.129192) between “pine” and “minne,” although a large p-value (0.3868) indicates no statistical significance. It will be interesting to see whether this correlation changes with the addition of more data, or whether more data will result in smaller p-values. Testing the correlation through 100,000 randomization values also reveals that the observed negative correlation (-0.129192) is more typical of the of the norm than the extremes. There does seem to be a large grouping of negative values, which hints at a negative correlation between “pine” and “minne,” but the observed finding falls squarely within the 95 percent confidence interval (-0.4014646 to 0.1640615), just a little bit south of the mean (-0.000403109) and with a large standard deviation (0.1471764). At this point there may be a negative correlation between “pine” and “minne,” but I just can’t be absolutely sure without more data to work with.


Histogram of the correlation coefficient between “pine” and “minne” with 100,000 randomization values

So what does this mean? Well, first, it has made me very aware that I need to brush up on my statistics. It’s been a while since I took my statistics course and I will need to review things like t-values, p-values, and standard deviation; the course textbook is in a box somewhere in my basement. With regard to Mechthild and the language of her mystical treatise, however, I can only guess at some possible interpretations. Although Mechthild describes a positive correlation between the pain inherent in her fallen condition and the appearance of divine love, the narrative of her being unfolds in time and is subject to the cause and effect of the fallen world. There is, in other words, no eternal now in which human want is immediately sated by divine love. As a result, Mechthild is continually moving between the pain caused by physical discomfort and distance from the divine, and the love that pours into her being during mystical union. Her reality consists of “throbbing” moments of pain and the sweetness of its release. It will, of course, be interesting to see what more data adds to the analysis, especially in later books of the treatise in which pain plays a more central role in facilitating a connection with the divine (e.g., Book IV.12 in which Lady Pain functions as a lady-in-waiting who arranges a tryst with the divine lover). Also of interest will be to compare the correlation between “pine” and “minne” from book to book in the treatise. Are there instances where “pine” appears more than “minne”? What other themes are present in the book that could explain these larger “pine” values? How does the relationship between “pine” and “minne” evolve in the treatise over time? It will, in any case, be interesting to see whether R can shed any light on these questions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s