Journal Article: The Mysticism of Augustine Baker

The historical memory of Augustine (nĂ© David) Baker has been that of a ‘saintly’ figure, a
submissive and genteel contemplative who wished for nothing more than to be left alone
to foster a state of mystical passivity. However, Baker was hounded during his lifetime by
‘jealous’ contemporaries both within and outside the Continent-based, English Benedictine
Congregation, which had been revived and restored by Rome in the period from
1607 to 1633 when some Englishmen and Welshmen abroad had become monks and
were returning clandestinely to England as illicit missioners. Baker’s reputation was
attacked by some fellow-Catholics in his lifetime and posthumously. It was only due to
the prolonged efforts of his followers that his name was cleared and the reputation of
the ‘Venerable Father Augustine Baker’ was restored. This is a narrative many modern
scholars have happily subscribed to: Baker was an innocent and uncontroversial figure
deserving of the epithet 'venerable'.

Augustine Baker, Benedictine Mystic
My new article, published in Reformation and Renaissance Review, argues that this interpretation of Baker was one constructed and successfully maintained by the cultus of followers his doctrines fostered both during and after his lifetime. It suggests that this interpretation of Baker conceals much of what would have made him a controversial figure in the seventeenth century. By exploring these controversies seriously, rather than discrediting them as the product of ‘jealousy,’ my article argues that we can begin to appreciate the extent to which our understanding of Baker’s life and doctrines has been shaped by the wholly successful and persuasive image of Baker put forward by his followers.

It argues that a reconsideration of Baker’s life and doctrines is long overdue. In recent decades scholars have become acutely aware of the limitations of previous studies of mysticism which viewed their subjects through both a religious and academic lens. More recent scholarship has warned against the possible anachronism these accounts of mysticism could yield, especially their tendency to interpret and represent writers and works of mysticism in a way which was more concerned with contemporary religious issues than with historical accuracy.

The article is divided into three sections. The first explores Baker’s life and works of
mysticism. The second explores how critics within the English Benedictine Congregation
sought to curb Baker’s doctrines, due not to ‘jealousy’ of his relationship with a group of
nuns, but rather to identifying the potential disorder his teachings could cause if taken to
their full conclusion. Special focus is given to aspects of Baker’s advice to his audience of nuns that directly contradicted prevalent power constructs within early-modern convents.
In the final section, we will consider Sancta Sophia (1657), the posthumous publication of
Baker’s doctrines by his disciple Serenus Cressy (c.1605–1674). Until recent decades
Cressy’s digest was the only source of Baker’s doctrines available to most scholars,
largely owing to the rarity of Baker’s manuscripts and a lack of transcripts of his original
texts. It will be argued that Sancta Sophia concealed much about the controversies Baker
was embroiled in, distorting our understanding of his character and influence. It is in this
final section that we see the image of Baker now widely accepted first emerge. Understanding
the internal struggles within the English Benedictine Congregation over Baker is
argued to be vital to our interpretation of the way Baker has been presented ever since.
The victors of this debate, the ‘Bakerists,’ were able to commit to print their version of
Baker’s life. Thus, the image of the ‘Venerable Father Augustine Baker,’ an innocent
man wrongly plagued by jealousy and false accusations, was finalised. It is this image of
Baker which has continued to dominate our understanding of his doctrines and
significance.

A limited number of copies can be downloaded for free by clicking here.