Eureka professor brings medieval mystics to light

Tom Batters
Dr. Jessica Barr, an assistant professor of English at Eureka College, is one of the nation’s experts on medieval mystic literature.

You won’t find copies of Beatrice of Nazareth’s biography at the local bookstore, or on one of those mega book warehouse websites.

Most people have never heard of the 13th century mystic who experienced visions of God and wrote about those visions in a time when writing the wrong thing could have gotten her burned at the stake.

Dr. Jessica Barr, an assistant professor of English at Eureka College, knows all about Beatrice of Nazareth, though.

Last summer, after receiving a grant through the President’s Fund for the Advancement of Learning, Service and Leadership, Barr traveled to

Brussels to read Beatrice’s works at the Royal Library of Belgium.

This may sound like a rather dull, or overly academic way to spend the summer, but Barr calls it “fascinating.”

Barr’s specialty is medieval literature, more specifically, the literature of Medieval mystic women. So, getting the chance to examine Beatrice’s works in person was like finding the Holy Grail.

“I was over there looking through one of the texts, and I came to a page that had a really interesting image. It was a bright red drawing of an oval with a cross at the base of it,” she said. “The drawing was actually a depiction of Christ’s wound. That’s the kind of thing you just have to see for yourself. It was really interesting.”

Barr said she was always enchanted by dragons and castles and anything related to the Middle Ages, but she did not pursue medieval literature seriously until she was in graduate school.

“I took a medieval literature class, and started to read some of the mystics, and thought, ‘Here is something I could say something about.’ I got captured by them, and wanted to learn more about them.”

Barr, who has published several articles, just finished a book entitled, “Willing to Know God: Dreamers and Visionaries in the Later Middle Ages.”

Later this year, she will speak at an international conference in Helsinki. The academic accolades and published articles are great, but Barr said her richest reward comes when she is able to create the same enchantment for mystics in her students.

“I’ll admit. Some of the texts are quite dry, and I don’t blame the students for rolling their eyes or falling asleep. Some of the mystics tend to whine a lot, and that can get annoying” she said, smiling.

“But, many of the texts are fascinating ... Some are ‘out there,’ but that makes them interesting.”

Julian of Norwich, a 13th century English mystic, for example, writes that there is no sin and that everything will eventually be redeemed.

She retells the story of Adam and Eve allegorically, with one twist: There is no Eve. Adam is the one who fell from grace.

Barr, who teaches a variety of English classes, also binds her own books as a hobby.

“My mom taught me when I was young,” she said. “I make them (hand-made books) as gifts or for journals. It relates to the Medieval interest, in a way, because, back then each book was like a special work of art. They were all different.”

For more information on Barr and her published works, visit eureka.edu.