Claims not only to experience God’s presence but also some kind of union with God occur throughout the texts of early Christianity; they are arguably found in Augustine and also in Clement (d. c. 215), Origen (c. 185–254), Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–94), in the texts attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite (c. 500), and in a host of martyrological, hagiographical, and monastic texts. In the medieval west, the influence of Augustine and Dionysius looms largest, and both suggest – without clearly asserting – that union involves a dissolution of the self before and in God. Yet the mainstream of the Augustinian tradition, represented by the work of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) and his fellow Cistercians, as well as that of the twelfth-century Victorines and much thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Franciscan mystical writing, insists on a union of wills in which the soul maintains its identity as other than God even as it feels as if that distinction is lost.

The notion of a union of wills remains central to the theological articulation of mystical experience throughout the Middle Ages. Yet there is a counter-trend, one first visible in northern Europe in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries (although there is evidence for similar views espoused contemporaneously south of the Alps). The beguines Hadewijch (c. 1250) and Marguerite Porete (d. 1310) and the Dominican Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–1328) suggest that complete union with God occurs when the soul not only overcomes its sinfulness, but also its very creatureliness or createdness. Hadewijch hints at this view in a vision in which an angel shows her an ideal, ‘full grown’ Hadewijch who is enclosed within the deity and who has never fallen into sin. Marguerite Porete goes further, arguing that the truly free and annihilated soul – one who has not only overcome her own sin and will, but who has also destroyed reason, will and desire – exists there ‘where she was before she was’.