The Medieval Review 11.01.05

Mossman, Stephen. Marquard von Lindau and the Challenges of Religious Life in Late Medieval Germany: The Passion, The Eucharist, The Virgin Mary. Oxford Modern Languages and Literature Monogrpahs. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. vi, 381. $120 ISBN 978-0-19-957554-1. .

Reviewed by:

Shami Ghosh
Oxford University

The religious life of the late middle ages has long been a difficult subject. Removed from the strict scholasticism of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, racked by schism, the aftermath of plague and the concomitant social and economic ferment, a period of political unrest and social upheaval, the religiosity of this era has often been perceived through the sort of lens adopted by, among others, Johan Huizinga: filled with the fear of death and the terror of torment in purgatory, people wavered between extremes of penitence and sensuous enjoyment of life while this was still possible. Even if one abandons this sort of paradigm, it cannot be denied that the surviving evidence often shows us very varying images of what religious life might have been like, and our problems as historians are compounded by the fact that there is in fact relatively little in the way of source material that could help us to understand what lay religious practice actually looked like. A further spectre that always looms is the problem of the Reformation: is it the culmination of currents that commenced in the late fourteenth or fifteenth centuries; or should we see it as something new, a break with the medieval past? These are not questions easily amenable to answers, and perhaps they are not even the sort of questions that should be asked too earnestly, tending as they do to the kinds of segregation by period that are generally rather dubious; but these are, nonetheless, important questions if one wishes to understand the historical development of western European culture and the causes and consequences thereof. With regard to religious life and practice, there are two ways of addressing this set of issues: trying to find evidence for what people actually did--a very difficult task, made the more frustrating by the explosion of the evidentiary base as one gets into the late sixteenth century, which makes comparison with earlier periods even harder; or analysing carefully the sorts of evidence that betray engagement with the religious issues that appear to have been most pressing at the time, and trying to reason from there regarding the nature of religious practice influenced by such (largely prescriptive) material. This latter method is put to excellent use by Stephen Mossman in the study under review, a monograph that will surely be of great significance for future scholarship on religious life in late medieval Germany.

Marquard von Lindau is a little known figure; Mossman argues convincingly that this obscurity is undeserved, not least because of his popularity in the fifteenth century: around 450 manuscripts survive containing his works, which places him in the upper reaches of medieval bestsellers, a ranking very few can match indeed. While not all bestsellers are of particularly good quality, it behoves us at least to try and understand why they sold as they did; Mossman, however, shows that Marquard is of great interest for reasons other than his popularity: he was an innovative thinker, drawing on a wide range of traditions and sources but also pointing the way, in his use of them, to the sort of developments in practical theology later introduced by Martin Luther. Marquard, a Franciscan who died in 1392, is known to have been associated with the convent in Strasbourg in the early 1370s (there is no evidence regarding him from before this) and later held the custody of Lake Constance, finally becoming provincial minister of the Franciscans in 1389. Mossman divides his works into five broad categories: about a dozen essentially scholastic Latin works probably intended to be used for the Franciscan studia; four allegorical works in Victorine style on union with God achieved through contemplation, of which three are in German; vernacular treatises on pragmatic issues arising from living the Christian life, including the Dekalogerklärung (c. 140 manuscripts) and the Eucharistietraktat (c. 75 manuscripts); a massive philosophical work in the form of a commentary on John 1: 1-14 in Latin (which was, however, translated into German later); and finally forty-one German sermons largely concerned with the contemplative life and union with God. A particular feature of Marquard's work is the sophistication of his ideas even in his vernacular writings: he was, Mossman suggests, possibly one of the most important innovators in creating a sophisticated theological and philosophical vocabulary in German, raising it to the status of an elevated intellectual language. But the significance of his vernacular writings extends beyond this: Mossman argues cogently that Marquard's work was aimed at a broad audience of people, from those in religious orders to lay (that is, unordained) religious communities, to literate lay persons not within religious communities, but nevertheless highly interested in complex religious issues. Marquard was thus responding to an exponential expansion of a sophisticated form of lay piety: religious practice that required a high level of reasoning and argumentation, without necessarily being that of persons in religious orders or those who had any sort of formal theological training. The very existence of Marquard's vernacular works, as well as their wide dissemination, therefore, is an important indicator of the tenor of lay religious practice in Germany and the Netherlands during the fifteenth century. After a lengthy introduction placing Marquard in the intellectual context of his time and adumbrating the different possible forms of religiosity on the spectrum from ordained theologians to lay people living secular lives, Mossman's monograph contains three very long chapters on Marquard's handling of the Passion, the Eucharist, and the Virgin Mary respectively; his principal sources are his German treatise De anima Christi and two German sermons for the Passion; his Eucharistietraktat for the Eucharist; and his Dekalogerklärung for Mary. In each case, he makes reference to other works of Marquard, including his Latin writings, and places Marquard's thought within the broader context of other contemporary texts on these topics, as well as the traditions he draws on or responds to, and, more briefly, the ways in which ideas present in Marquard's work play out in the later development of theology and religious practice in western Europe. Two aspects of Marquard's work are highlighted: the attention to practice, particularly that of lay people, and how this may be furthered by theological discussion; and the relatively moderate views on human sinfulness and the hindrance this poses to the reception of divine grace, which, as Mossman cautiously suggests, look forward somewhat to Luther.

Unlike much of what circulated in his time, in his writings on the Passion Marquard does not stress the corporeal sufferings of Christ (nor, therefore, encourage Christians to cause such suffering to themselves), but rather his mental anguish, which Marquard sees as caused primarily by Christ's awareness of the eternal sinfulness, and concomitant suffering, of humanity. He also argues strongly against belief in the so-called "secret sufferings" of Christ, apocryphal narratives of various corporeal torments that enjoyed great popularity at the time. Although otherwise clearly influenced by Bonaventura, with regard to the relative significance of Christ's (and his imitators') corporeal and mental suffering, Marquard appears to differ, positioning himself more closely with Ubertino of Casale and also (more surprisingly) Petrus Johannes Olivi. The significance of the shift from corporeal to mental becomes clear when we consider its potential effect in a climate where many preachers incited flagellants: for the lay person seeking to imitate Christ, this new theology argued instead for a life of contemplation of Christ's suffering as a means of turning one's own mind away from sin and achieving a Christ-like state of humility; with the proper form of imitation of Christ, the believer then has access to the treasury of merits deriving from a properly Christian life.

One of the main issues arising from the sacrament of the Eucharist was the state in which the believer had to be when receiving the sacrament: many theologians of the time were fiercely against not only frequent communion, but also communion without a very rigorous cleansing process. This sort of theology led to a climate of fear surrounding the sacrament, clearly evident in a number of contemporary works; Marquard, however, argues against this, stressing that devotion rather than fear should be in the mind of those receiving the Eucharist, and easing significantly the sorts of rules of purification that were commonly required. Here again one sees the influence of Marquard's primary task, the cura animarum, informing his theology: he wishes to persuade believers that there is indeed a way to God which they need not view with fear, but with hope, devotion and love, since despite their sinfulness, the primary quality of God is love, and thus there is always the potential to attain God. This does not mean, however, that Marquard argues that one is always worthy of receiving the sacrament: quite the contrary, one should be aware of one's unworthiness without this holding one back from sacramental reception. Here again, it is the inward state that matters more than the "good works" performed by the believer. Marquard only advises against communion when one is knowingly in a state of unconfessed mortal sin. Marquard thus argues that while all are always unworthy, God overlooks this unworthiness because of his boundless love; worthiness lies not in lacking sin (for this is not possible) but in wishing to repent and to try and avoid future sin. In this respect, therefore, Marquard seems to look forward to Luther's polemicising against the climate of fear many late medieval theologians had managed to cultivate. While Marquard's work was probably the most widely received text thus to anticipate later developments, Mossman shows that he was not alone: a number of other theologians also argued against the doctrine of fear, including some forerunners of Jan Hus, Matthaeus of Cracow and Matthew of Janov. Mossman is able thus to demonstrate that Berndt Hamm's suggestion that the climate of fear was not the overwhelming trend of pre-Reformation theology is not only correct, but can in fact be extended to the last third of the fourteenth century.

In the light of what has come before, we are not too surprised to find, in the final chapter of this book, that "Marquard presents Mary as a quiet contemplative" (247): while she certainly suffered internally, Marquard believes--in quite a radical departure from all other contemporary depictions of the Virgin--that she never wept. Here (as with his arguments against the secret sufferings of Christ, or against Eucharistic visions or perceiving sweetness in the Eucharist) Marquard clearly wishes to return to Scripture (though he also clearly exceeds this in his own portrayals of Mary's life) and to turn away from the excesses of devotional rapture that many scholars have found characteristic of the tenor of religious life in this period. Based closely on, but going beyond, the works of Eckhart and Jan van Ruusbroec, Marquard's Mary is an incitement to a life devoid of excess of any sort, spent in disciplined contemplation of God. In this, once again, he stands in a long tradition, going back to the Victorine theologians, though here too Marquard often goes significantly beyond his predecessors. In particular (and in this, though not every respect, Marquard follows Eckhart), Marquard is concerned to show that while Mary reached a level of perfection above others, she was still at a level of imitability: she functioned not as an unattainable ideal, but very much as an exemplum that could and should be followed by the truly devout: Mary is "the first to tread a particular path" and the one who trod that path "most perfectly"--but she is nevertheless not "essentially distinct from those who followed her along it" (334).

Marquard was, therefore, a man clearly within a long tradition of thought on these issues, but nevertheless an innovator, in particular in his insistence on inward qualities over externals, and on the boundlessness of divine grace as the factor that leads to salvation rather than external good works. Mossman concludes thus that while "there is a long and winding road" between Marquard's ideas and "the idea of justification by faith and faith alone that is associated with Martin Luther [...] that road, however winding, is nonetheless there" (337). Apart from his theology and use of the vernacular for sophisticated discourse, Marquard also shares with Luther the concern with the actual practice of his (often lay) readers: this is very much applied theology, or, to use the term Mossman borrows from Hamm, "Frömmigkeitstheologie"--and of a sort that looks forward to the developments of the Reformation. Marquard's importance in the later period is attested to not least by his continuing reception in the sixteenth century by figures such as Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg, and the printing of the Dekalogerklärung with a set of woodcuts commissioned for it from Hans Baldung Grien. Marquard's works--and Mossman's study of them--thus provide a cogent argument to study the centuries between c. 1250 and c. 1650 as a unit, rather than placing a caesura between medieval and early modern, with the Reformation as a more or less insurmountable barrier.

One minor quibble I have with this study is that while arguing that Marquard's writings are not mystical, however much they may adopt the mystical language and terminology of others (most prominently Eckhart), Mossman never really defines what he means by mystical. Marquard, even in Mossman's presentation, seems to suggest that a unity with God is possible, and provides methods of attaining it which are, as was also common with mystical writers, primarily inward rather than based on any sort of external practice. Yet while it is clear enough that Marquard is concerned more with practical advice on the steps to take to prepare one's mind for this kind of union rather than with describing what this union might be, it is not entirely clear how one separates a mystical union with God through some sort of religious practice from a non-mystical one. This is, however, a minor objection to what is an excellent work of scholarship--and one which, moreover, goes far beyond just a study of Marquard von Lindau, providing brief but useful analyses of contemporary theologians (and syntheses of scholarship on them where it exists), as well as placing the arguments put forth here within the context of current scholarship on late medieval religiosity, with judicious correctives and supplements to previous work. It is clear from Mossman's book that Marquard von Lindau is a major figure, and this elegantly written, thoroughly researched and fluently argued monograph will do much to restore him to his rightful place (and will be aided in this endeavour by the author's diligent translations of all his citations from German, making this material accessible to a wider audience of scholars). Equally apparent from reading Mossman is that there is a lot more to be done in understanding both Marquard's contribution to the lines of thought and practice that led to Martin Luther, and to the religious climate in which he lived and wrote. Stephen Mossman's book is an important stepping-stone towards the new intellectual and religious history of western Europe between c. 1250 and c. 1650 that is yet to be written.