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The mystical movement of the fourteenth century in Germany was a remarkable, perhaps a unique, phenomenon in the history of mediaeval culture. It included three major writers: Eckhart, Tauler and Suso, and a host of others of lesser rank. What is more, it produced a reading public for their voluminous works. For the vast number of mystical sermons, tractates and anecdotes that were written in the vernacular at this time presupposes a large reading public. The latter were not confined to conventuals: communities of pious layfolk were also affected. Both in quality and in quantity the literary production is amazing: Eckhart and his compeers belong to the greatest mystics of all time. There has been much speculation as to the cause. How does it come about that at this particular time and in this particular country this phenomenon should have occurred?
It was a time of crisis, of violent upheavals in church and state, of bitter conflict. It began with the downfall of the powerful Hohen-staufen dynasty and the Great Interregnum (1250–1272). It continued through the 'Babylonian Captivity' of the papacy at Avignon and the struggle between the Pope and the Emperor from 1317 to 1347. This phase closed with the death of Ludwig the Bavarian in 1347. Civil war, anarchy, ban and interdict were followed by awe-inspiring natural calamities: pestilence, famine, earthquakes, and floods. The natural result of all this was to create a deep sense of the insecurity of human life and the evanescence of human happiness. The impending end of the world was a common theme in this troubled time.
Does this sombre background of crimes and calamities sufficiently explain the great diffusion of mystical experience and mystical literature in the Empire between about 1250 and 1370? Are we to consider that the temporal weakness of the Church, the exile of the Holy See, the undeniable corruption of morals in clergy and laity alike, caused the finer spirits of the age to take refuge in a spiritual religion, freed from the shackles of dogma and authority? Many writers answer this question in the affirmative. Was not Vienna the musical centre of Europe when Austria lay prostrate under the heel of Napoleon? Were not the Germans a nation of poets and philosophers at the time when their political fortunes were at their lowest ebb? Can we infer that like music and literature, mysticism is the product of political disintegration and material chaos?
There is much to be said against this hypothesis. Spanish mysticism flourished not at a time of decline, but in the greatest age of Spain, the sixteenth century, when her power and culture were at their zenith. Moreover, there have been other periods in European history that were equally catastrophic without being productive in the religious field. Italy had anarchy and civil wars in plenty and the Black Death into the bargain, but they produced nothing parallel to the mystical movement in Germany. It is, therefore, difficult to believe that adverse conditions are essential to the growth of mysticism. Nevertheless, one might concede the point that about the middle of the fourteenth century the historical background is reflected in the works of the German mystics. But this would not apply to earlier writers and least of all to Eckhart, the greatest of them all.
According to another theory, the movement of mysticism is a reaction against the sterile discussions of the schools, the cold abstractions of theologians. This is a one-sided and superficial view. We cannot get over the fact that Eckhart himself was a product of scholasticism, a typical representative of metaphysical speculation. So far from rebelling against these traditions, he accepted them implicitly in all their main tenets. Never is he found in opposition to Thomas Aquinas or Albertus Magnus in an essential point of doctrine. He did not dislike syllogistic reasoning or even juggling with words. He was himself an arch-juggler. He did not object to theology, but considered it of supreme importance. Of all mystics of the post-classical era Eckhart is the most intellectual.
It is true that one must draw a distinction between the period up to 1328 and that which follows. After the death of Eckhart mysticism ceased to be speculative and became practical. This was due in some measure to the trial and condemnation of Eckhart, but there were other causes. Later Dominican writers were inferior in intellectual capacity or were too much occupied with other matters to devote themselves to philosophical problems. It has also been suggested that the victorious advance of Nominalism undermined confidence in human reason, allowed the will to take the place of the intellect as the highest human faculty and put ethics in the forefront instead of metaphysics.
Whatever the cause, it is certain that learning was discredited by Tauler and his contemporaries. They refer to reason in disparaging terms; the word 'master' often has a derogatory sound. Of the three stages of the mystic way: purgative, illuminative and unitive, it is now the first two, the preparatory stages, that are commended and explored, the final one recedes in importance.
Are we justified in regarding German mysticism as a kind of protest against institutional religion? The real leaders of the movement were priests and hence members of the hierarchy. They had no reason for rebellion against the established order, nor were they rebels by nature. The search for inner perfection meant more to them than the machinery of administration. As for the free congregations of women, that is to say the houses of Beguines or the groups known as Friends of God, they were not instituted in opposition to the Church as it then existed. In their origins they were a result of the conditions of the times and were, so to speak, a by-product of monasticism. The Beguines were candidates for the cloister who could not be admitted for pecuniary or other reasons. They had no grievance against organized religion and wished for nothing better than to be nuns in a regular order. If they, or some of them, later developed on particular lines and even acquired heretical opinions, that was in no way connected with their origins, but was due to other causes.
As a result of continual wars, tournaments and jousts, there were heavy casualties among the male population, particularly the nobles, and a surplus of women. The influence of the Crusades in this respect, as in so many others, has often been exaggerated. They were only one of several factors. Many of the unmarried women tended to enter convents, which increased as a result in size and importance. In Strasbourg alone there were six Dominican nunneries in the early fourteenth century. There were eight in the district of Constance. In 1303 there were only fourteen in the whole of France.
Although the convents were so numerous, they were unable to cope with the applications for admission. The recognized orders could only found a new house or adopt an existing one under certain conditions. Official sanction usually required the intervention of an influential personage with the authorities. A convent had to be financially independent and free of the necessity of raising further funds. This meant a rich founder or wealthy inmates who could bring with them a dowry that would yield a substantial annuity. Hence the majority of the nuns were women of high rank, nobles, or patricians from the growing towns. Many of them were highly educated and knew Latin. Thus it came about that in the crowded Dominican nunneries there was an active intellectual life. We come across nuns who wrote original works in prose or verse and some who translated Latin passages into German.
If German mysticism can be explained at all, the true explanation is that of Denifle, who connects it with two things: first the obligation imposed on the Dominican friars to supervise the nunneries of their Order, and secondly the reform of Dominican convents of nuns in Germany about 1286–7. In 1245 the Friars Preachers took over the pastoral care of Dominican nunneries in Germany, which included the hearing of confessions, administration of the sacraments, preaching and regular visitation. There were also heavy administrative duties involved. The nunneries benefited considerably because they enjoyed all the privileges of the Order and were protected against encroachments. As a result of regular supervision the discipline was maintained and the spiritual life of the convents was guarded against aberrations of all kinds.
There were, however, grave disadvantages for the friars. Those selected to undertake the pastoral care of nunneries were above all the learned brethren, the magistri and lectors. They found themselves unable to pursue their studies because of the perpetual interruptions. The rapid growth of the nunneries made it an ever increasing burden. In the Province of Theutonia there were some seventy at the beginning of the fourteenth century. In the whole of Europe, including the Province of Saxony, the Order had only about ninety converts of nuns. In Theutonia there were between forty-six and forty-eight friaries, and hence the latter were far outnumbered by the nunneries. Elsewhere the opposite was the case. In addition to the regular convents there were the houses of Beguines which needed careful supervision. Obviously the task of the learned friars was extremely onerous.
The Dominicans made repeated efforts to be released from their obligations in this direction, and in 1252 Innocent IV yielded to their solicitations. In view of the fact that they were impeded by their new duties in the performance of their main task, which was that of preaching, he exempted them from the care of nunneries, excepting those of St. Sisto in Rome and Prouille in the South of France, which had been founded by St. Dominic himself. Two years later the Pope rescinded the provisions of the Bull and instructed Cardinal Hugo de Cher to make out new regulations. In 1256 the German Provincial was ordered to take over responsibility for all the Dominican nunneries in his province, and in the following year, the General Chapter of Florence extended this obligation to include all nunneries that had been previously in possession of this privilege, that is to say, nunneries of other orders. This state of affairs continued practically unchanged till the Council of Trent.
The growth of mysticism was then due to the impact of scholastic philosophy on educated women in nunneries. The friars had to express theological and philosophical ideas in a garb that would make them intelligible to women. The nuns stimulated the pastoral work of the friars and the friars encouraged the nuns to press on in the search for spiritual perfection. Mechthild von Magdeburg heard sermons preached by the friars and she had a Dominican as her confessor. He encouraged her to write and assisted her in so doing. Suso's friend, Elsbeth Stagel, secretly wrote down what Suso had told her by word of mouth or by letter about his own life. She was his Egeira and no doubt inspired some of his noblest utterances. Adelheid Langmann cured a man in Nürnberg of suicidal mania as a result of her intercessions. He became an Austin friar and studied in Paris. Heinrich von Nördlingen corresponded with Margareta Ebner at Medingen and ascribed great importance to her visions and revelations.
Many of the finest mystical writings are sermons preached to nuns. Most of Tauler's sermons belong to this category. Many nuns wrote down afterwards what they had heard the preacher say in the pulpit and some of them had quite phenomenal memories. The preachers themselves sometimes wrote down their own sermons or composed treatises of a devotional nature in the vernacular. Scholasticism provided a philosophy of mysticism. The stages of the way that led towards union with God were mapped out and described. All this was in Latin. To make it intelligible to laymen or nuns it had to be translated into German. The technical terms were lacking; they had to be improvised. After passing through the crucible of translation, the thought was imperceptibly changed. It was simplified, and one might say coloured, both by the preacher and his congregation. There was a marked preference for certain Biblical passages: the opening words of St. John's Gospel, the Song of Songs considered as an allegory of the love for Christ and His Church, the scene of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus and his account of what then happened.
If we compare Eckhart's Latin works which are so learned and at times so abstruse, with his German sermons, we see the effect of preaching to women. The learned tone becomes popular and homely. The enthusiasms which are restrained in the Latin treatises, burst forth freely. Abstractions tend to disappear and everything becomes more concrete and simple. There is more of the personal note. Here and there the preacher speaks in the first person to bring some point home. He introduces a vivid piece of dialogue, using the dramatic form to enliven his discourse. He is not now using the language of the learned, but his own mother tongue, and using it as it had seldom been used before.
It is a mistake to consider that German mysticism begins and ends with the three great names of Eckhart, Tauler and Suso. Certainly these giants tend to dwarf their contemporaries, but their predecessors were by no means a negligible quantity, if inferior to them in intellect and literary power. Later writers preserve the traditions of the past without notably enriching or extending them. There were minor mystics, chiefly Dominicans, such as Eckhart the Younger, Eckhart Rube, Franke and others. Very little of their work has been preserved: we have only a few odd sermons and sayings by them. As far as we can judge from the scanty material available, these writers are either contemporaries of Eckhart and kindred spirits, or they belong to an orthodox Thomist section without that strong strain of Neo-Platonism that distinguishes Eckhart and his disciples. One hesitates to speak of a school of Eckhart, because of the paucity of evidence, but there are excellent reasons for thinking that Tauler and Suso were by no means the only gifted pupils of the master, and that his fervid eloquence kindled a flame that long survived his condemnation and death.
It is customary to regard German mysticism as an entirely Dominican product and to ignore or minimize the Franciscan contribution. A reassessment is therefore necessary. David von Augsburg died about the time when Eckhart was born. Most of his works are in Latin, but his German prose is remarkable for its clarity and beauty. The greatest of Franciscan mystics is Marquart von Lindau, who kept alive in a dull and prosaic age the spirit of his predecessors.CHAPTER 2
Eckhart was born about 1260 at Hochheim, two miles north of Gotha, and was therefore, like Luther, a native of Thuringia. There is no foundation for the legend, first recorded in the sixteenth century, that he was born in Strasbourg. He was of noble birth, an Eckhart of Hochheim is mentioned in a charter dated 1251. In 1305 a knight named 'Eckhardus de Hochheim,' who owned property in the neighbourhood of Gotha, transferred a plot of land to the Cistercian nuns of that town. Among the witnesses who signed the document was 'the venerable Friar, Magister Eckhardus of Paris, Provincial of the Order of Preachers in the Province of Saxony,' This witness was no other than our Eckhart; he was the kinsman, probably the son, of the knight.
In the last quarter of the thirteenth century the Dominican Order was at the very height of its fame, and in Germany, as elsewhere, many youths of high rank and intellectual ability were attracted to it. Eckhart was among them and he became a novice at the nearest convent, which was that of Erfurt. Entrants to the Order had to be at least fifteen years of age and they were expected to have attained at least a competent knowledge of Latin, but this latter rule was not always rigidly enforced. After the preliminary course of instruction was completed, it was customary to send promising young friars from Erfurt to the studium generale at Cologne to study theology. It is highly probable that Eckhart studied in that city. His works show a close acquaintance with the writings of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, who had raised the reputation of the Cologne school to its highest point. But as St. Thomas Aquinas died in 1274 and Albertus in 1280, it is unlikely for chronological reasons that Eckhart knew either of these two great scholars personally.
Towards the end of the thirteenth century he was in Erfurt once more and was elected by his brethren as their prior. About the year 1300 he was sent to Paris, first to learn and then to teach. It may seem strange that a friar who had been so highly honoured by his own convent should be relieved of his post in order to continue his studies. But it was by no means unusual for a friar to serve for a short time in the administration of the Order or in a teaching capacity before going to Paris, which was the centre of the educational system of the Dominicans. It was a high distinction to be chosen to go to the studium generale åt Saint-Jacques in Paris; only three students from each province enjoyed this privilege. The course consisted normally of five years of theological study before the degree of Baccalaureus was taken. Then came three years' teaching under the direction of the Magister. At the age of thirty-five, or earlier if special dispensation was given, the candidate was presented to the Chancellor to receive the licentiate, which entitled him to teach as magister or doctor. Those who graduated at Paris in this way as Doctors of Theology (magistri in sacra pagina) formed the intellectual élite of the Western Church. Evidently in Eckhart's case the course of instruction was considerably reduced.
Excerpted from The Great German Mystics by James M. Clark. Copyright © 2013 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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