Ruling the Spirit

Women, Liturgy, and Dominican Reform in Late Medieval Germany

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Claire Taylor Jones
The Middle Ages Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , September
     2017.
     232 pages.
     $59.96.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780812249552.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Claire Taylor Jones’s cogent and insightful book argues for substantial continuity in the central concerns and objectives of Dominican women and their male advisors between the 13th and 15th centuries, against versions of Dominican history which foreground distinctions between the aims and achievements of the 13th-century founders, 14th-century “mystics,” and 15th-century Observant reformers. Jones locates this continuity in the importance attached to an ordered communal life which found its central expression and constitutive moment in liturgical celebration “as the wellspring of spiritual experience and reward” (4). In identifying this leitmotif of female Dominican spirituality she also emphasizes a further harmony of parts within the order, especially in the relationship between the order’s male and female members.

Jones draws these conclusions from four interrelated source corpora, each analyzed in a separate chapter. The first is the writings of Heinrich Seuse (1295–1366) and the sermons of Johannes Tauler (c.1300–1361) (chapter 2, 27–56) in their relationship to the second body of sources, the lives of exemplary women described in the “sisterbooks” of 14th-century Dominican convents (chapter 3, 57–85). From the era of the Observant reform Jones focuses on works by Johannes Nider (†1438) and Johannes Meyer (1422/3–1485): Nider’s sermon cycle The Twenty-Four Golden Harps (c.1428), inspired and (for Dominican sisters) complemented by a German translation of Cassian’s Conferences (chapter 5, 97–126), and Meyer’s chronicle of the Observant reform (1468) together with his Book of Duties (1454) on the practicalities of life in a Dominican convent (chapter 6, 127–160). These analyses are supported by shorter chapters underscoring the importance for Dominican sisters of the Divine Office from the perspective of the (male) leadership of the order in both the 13th century (chapter 1, 12–26) and amongst the Observant reformers of the 15th century (chapter 4, 86–96). Jones’s method throughout is a close reading of the texts with a focus on their relationship to regular religious life, the Dominican liturgy in particular and ritualized prayer or recitation of religious texts more generally, utilizing semantic sensitivity, a keen eye for allusions to liturgical texts and contexts, and convincing interpretations of texts in their social and intellectual context.

The argument for a continuity of ordered, communal, and liturgical forms of spirituality contends that the 14th-century tradition of Seuse, Tauler, and the sisterbooks was taken up by the Observant reformers because these works shared the reformers’ “emphases and concerns” (10). Jones traces in detail the thread of these concerns through her sources: “orderliness” as a foundation for “letting go” of the world (Gelassenheit) and receptivity to God, together with adherence to routine as an ascetic exercise in Seuse and Tauler; obedience to the rules and routines of the order as a precondition for nearness to the divine in the sisterbooks; the emphasis which Nider places on “ascetic regimen, life in common and liturgical prayer” (107) for Dominican sisters (in contrast to laypersons, for whom he prescribed a different spiritual regime); and the detailed advice on the day-to-day running of a community of Dominican sisters in Meyer’s Book of Duties. Jones also consistently shows that these forms of communal orderliness were conceived in ways specific to the lives of Dominican women, and that the Dominican liturgy was always a highly significant part of this ordered communal life as a path to spiritual fulfilment. This is especially striking in the analysis of the sophisticated ways in which the exemplary women of the sisterbooks creatively transform liturgical material (69–85), and in the reading of liturgy in Meyer’s chronicle as the foundation and expression of the enclosed community, including in its relationship to wider society (130–42).

In highlighting these common concerns across periods, regions, and genres, Jones also positions the advocacy of friars for this model of religious life as an element “contiguous” (28) with the aims and ideals of Dominican women, rather than an attempt to tame or correct “immediate and corporeal feminine spirituality … by imposing a male rationality” (28). This is demonstrated through intertextual relationships: Seuse, Tauler, and the sisterbooks are shown to have had common interests; Meyer did not redact the sisterbooks, and in fact imitated them; Nider cannot have reworked Cassian in order to shield an audience including female religious readers from certain aspects of the original, as he commissioned a German translation of the Latin original for the Dominican sisters of St Katherine’s, Nuremberg. This text contained guidance on the regular communal life which he had omitted from his Harps, which had a different intended audience. In any case, the well-stocked library of St. Katherine’s gave the sisters substantial intellectual independence from their confessors. Male control of female thought was no more possible than it was necessary: male and female Dominicans were, in respect of liturgical piety at least, partners playing gendered roles in a common spiritual enterprise rooted in their common Dominican way of life.

It is important to clarify expectations of this book in certain respects. While achieving its primary aim of showing that the Divine Office was “at the center of Dominican women’s spiritual lives from the order’s origins through the end of the Middle Ages” (3), the book also embraces the entire regular, communal life of which the Divine Office was the apex. Liturgy is more the heart than the subject of the book, which deals throughout with ideas which go far beyond liturgical performance even as they center upon it. Furthermore, although the blurb advertises the book as “grounded” in the library of St. Katherine’s in Nuremberg, this library is used more as a recurring example of certain ideas in action rather than as the empirical basis of the work. In other words, the book’s arguments have wider implications than might initially be assumed. It is, nonetheless, a targeted intervention with clearly defined objectives, and is certainly not intended to flatten medieval Dominican history and elide its diversity and conflicts, for all that the emphasis here is on continuity and common purpose. The argument for continuity is the most fully developed, but that for the common purpose of male and female Dominicans may well have the most impact: against interpretations which present female spirituality as either deficient or seditious in relation to a male norm, Jones’s book genuinely centers women’s experience on its own terms.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin Pope is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Tübingen, Germany.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Claire Taylor Jones teaches German at the University of Notre Dame.

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