Definite biographical information about Mechthild is scarce; what is known of her life comes largely from scattered hints in her work. She was probably born to a noble Saxon family, and claimed to have had her first vision of the Holy Spirit at the age of twelve.
In 1230 she left her home to become a Beguine, and live a life of prayer and mortification under the guidance of Dominican friars. Her criticism of church dignitaries and claims to theological insight seem to have aroused some opposition, and around 1270, she joined the Cistercian nunnery at Helfta, who offered her protection and support in the final years of her life, and where she finished writing down the contents of the many divine revelations she claimed to have experienced. The nuns of Helfta were highly educated and important works of mysticism survive from Mechthild's younger contemporaries, St Mechthild of Heckeborn and Gertrude the Great.
Mechthild's writing is exuberant and emotional: her descriptions of her visions are filled with passion. Her images of Hell are believed by some scholars to have influenced Dante Alighieri when he wrote The Divine Comedy, and Mechthild is thought to have been represented by Dante in that work, in the character of Matelda. However, there is no substantial evidence for this and there are important differences in Dante's conception of Hell.
While her work was translated into Latin during her lifetime, Mechthild was never canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Her work was largely forgotten by the 15th century, but was rediscovered in the late 19th century by P. Gall Morel, who published the first edition. Her work has been increasingly studied, both for its academic interest and as a work of devotional literature.