The Medieval Review 11.02.23

Jansen, Katherine L. and Miri Rubin. Charisma and Religious Authority: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Preaching 1200-1500. Europa Sacra. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2010. Pp. 260. 60 EUR ISBN 978-2-503-52859-5. .

Reviewed by:

Niall Christie
Corpus Christi College
niallchristie@yahoo.com

Charisma and Religious Authority represents the results of a conference held at Queen Mary University of London in 2004, at which scholars from Europe, Israel and the United States of America explored a number of topics related to charisma, preaching and authority. Of the eighteen papers presented at the conference, the volume collects twelve that were subsequently developed into chapters for the volume. While volumes based on conferences sometimes run the risk of presenting a disparate range of papers on a range of topics, this volume is striking for its cohesiveness of approach to its theme, even though the coverage of topics is still somewhat patchy.

Much of this cohesiveness derives from the editors' and authors' conscious adoption of Max Weber's theory of charismatic authority as the basis of their enquiries into the role of charisma in preaching. This perspective is laid out in the introduction to the volume. Following Weber's theory, "charisma" is understood to refer to the relationship between a preacher and his or her listeners, who themselves view the preacher as affected by some sort of divine inspiration. The two-way nature of this relationship should be noted; while a preacher might be accorded respect by the audience on the basis of the perceived divine inspiration, or possibly by virtue of religious office representing what Weber calls the "routinization" of this charisma, the preacher is under the obligation to provide a satisfactory response to the audience's needs, often taking the form of a desire for salvation or redemption. Thus the authority that the preacher may derive from his charisma carries with it a responsibility to his audience, and failure to fulfill this responsibility may lead to abandonment by the dissatisfied listeners.

We will discuss other aspects of the introduction to the volume in due course, but a survey of the articles found in the collection may be helpful. The twelve chapters in Charisma and Religious Authority are divided between five parts. Part 1, "Preaching and Charismatic Authority," presents us with two articles. In "Prophetic Performances: Reproducing the Charisma of the Prophet in Medieval Islamic Preaching," Linda G. Jones explores the close connection between charisma and imitation of the Prophet Muhammad among Muslim preachers. Focusing mostly on the khutba (sermon) given at the Friday noon prayer service (although she also devotes attention to less formal, exhortatory preaching), Jones demonstrates that the success or failure of a preacher was intimately linked to the degree of accuracy with which he followed the customs established by the Prophet with regard to both actions and manner of speaking. A preacher who did not fulfill the expectations of the audience in this regard was likely to receive a negative response from them, and thus ritual observance became an essential component of the charismatic success that a Muslim preacher might achieve in influencing or asserting authority over his listeners. "Tauler's Minnenclich Meister: Charisma and Authority in the Vernacular Mystical Tradition of the Low Countries and the Rhineland," by Geert Warnar, focuses more firmly on one preacher, the German Dominican Johannes Tauler (1300-61). Warnar probes Tauler's use of the expression "minnenclich meister" (beloved master) in his writings, challenging the established view that he used the expression to refer to Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-1328) and arguing that Tauler may instead have been referring to the Dutch mystic Jan van Ruusbroec (1293-1381). In the process he draws attention to the at times uneasy interaction of intellectual and charismatic authority in Germany and the Low Countries in the fourteenth century.

Part 2, "Charismatic Preaching and Polemics," opens with Beverly Mayne Kienzle's article, "Crisis and Charismatic Authority in Hildegard of Bingen's Preaching against the Cathars." Kienzle surveys Hildegard's writings directed against heretics, including drawing attention to previously little- known works. She discusses the theological points that Hildegard used to support her denunciations, including the powerful imagery that the seeress employed, and shows that Hildegard's anti-heretical work strengthened her charismatic authority, even if some of her other actions led her into conflict with other members of the clergy. "Attempts to Control the Pulpit: Medieval Judaism and Beyond," by Marc Saperstein, presents the volume's only article that deals primarily with charisma in Jewish preaching. Starting with the Middle Ages and surveying the situation up to the modern day, Saperstein explores the tension between the fact that any (usually male) Jew may deliver a sermon and the expectations of Jewish audiences and religious authorities. As Saperstein shows, preachers who failed to maintain what their audiences saw as an adequate standard of preaching, or who addressed topics outside the expectations of their audiences, could be the target of vicious criticism, and attempts were periodically made in some communities to control who could preach and what they could discuss in their sermons, but with little success. A similar tension informs "Audience and Authority in Medieval Islam: The Case of Popular Preachers," by Jonathan P. Berkey, in that as in Judaism, uncertainties about exactly who among the Muslims should have a right to preach led to the rise of popular preachers who attracted the ire of the 'ulama' (religious scholars). As Berkey shows, the major concern of the 'ulama' was the role of these preachers in subverting the system that kept control of the religious tradition in their hands, while the major factor that contributed to the success of the popular preachers was their ability to speak to the needs of their audiences. Berkey also demonstrates that the political authorities of the time, in contrast to the religious authorities, were generally more tolerant of popular preachers, whose actual impact on them was usually limited.

In Part 3, "Preaching and Performance," we are presented with two articles. In "Italian Pulpits: Preaching, Art and Spectacle," Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debby examines both the design and use of pulpits in Italy in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. She draws particular attention to the fact that pulpits were generally placed in the lower nave, enabling the preacher to speak intimately with the laity. She also explores the relations between preaching and sacred theatre, showing that the two were often closely linked and worked in harmony with one another to influence the preacher's audience. "Preaching and Publicness: St John of Capestrano and the Making of his Charisma North of the Alps," by Ottó Sándor Gecser, considers the Italian saint's interaction with public space during his preaching mission north of the Alps in the mid- fifteenth century. In the process Gecser pays particular attention to the impact of John of Capestrano's reputation, the celebrations accompanying his entry into the cities in which he preached, and the extent to which he attempted to make his sermons accessible to his listeners. Gecser shows that the results of the St John's efforts were decidedly mixed, thus illustrating the precarious nature of the charismatic relationship between a preacher and his audience.

Part 4, "Charisma and Sacred Place," maintains the focus on Italian Christianity. In "'Preaching to the People, dressed as a Hermit': The Discreet Charm of Italian Hermits," George Ferzoco explores the relationship that existed between hermits and those who lived in the vicinity of their homes. He demonstrates that in contrast to what one might expect, a number of notable hermits had close relationships with the laity, preaching to them and working miracles for them, and thus establishing a charismatic relationship with them. Gabriella Zarri shifts our attention to female preachers in "Places and Gestures of Women's Preaching in Quattro- and Cinquecento Italy." She argues that women's preaching in the later Middle Ages was restricted to two forms: edificatory preaching conducted by female monastics within their communities; and prophetic preaching that might also be delivered outside the monastic house, and could take the form of ecstatic re-enactments of scenes from the passion of Christ. Both forms of preaching were recognized by their audiences as providing evidence of divine inspiration conferred upon the preachers, particularly due to their drawing on an established canon of practices and symbols that marked them as falling within orthodox tradition.

Part 5, "The Preacher's Charisma and Political Change," provides us with three articles that focus more closely on the relationships of preachers with political or religious authorities. "Virtue and the Common Good: Moral Discourse and Political Practice in the Good Parliament, 1376," by Christopher Fletcher, discusses the role of moral concerns and charisma in the expressed in "Good Parliament" in England. Challenging the common view that moral qualms played only a peripheral role in the Commons' complaints, Fletcher argues that concerns about morality gave the Commons the charismatic power that enabled it forcefully to assert its opposition to the corruption and mismanagement of resources by the king's counsellors and intimates. Mishtooni Bose, in "Can Orthodoxy by Charismatic? The Preaching of Jean Gerson," examines the sermons given at the Council of Constance (1415-18) by Gerson, considering in particular how he articulated his charisma as a preacher, especially through his self-presentation, and what he sought to achieve with his preaching. Bose also provides a useful discussion of his impact on the work of Erasmus. The volume ends with another article on Italy, "Rhetorics of Transcendence: Conflict and Intercession in Communal Italy, 1300-1500," by Stephen J. Milner. Milner brings Weber's discussion of charisma to the cities of Italy with the intention of considering the impact of preaching and similar presentations on their political environments. He shows that an animating concern for preachers in the Italian communes was the tension between earthly desires and the need for salvation, but their relationship with political authorities was an uneasy one, given their potential to disrupt the social order. He also considers the preacher's relations with his audience, drawing on Freud in preference to Weber to provide a model of how preachers might modify the outlooks of their listeners and hence gain sizable followings. Milner closes his article with a note of caution: as in the past, charisma can be used today as a tool to promote intolerance and exclusivist views, and it remains the obligation of the Academy instead to provide opportunities for dialogue and give attention to multiple perspectives and opinions.

In the introduction to this collection the editors make two claims that give this reviewer pause: that it "introduces for the first time a comparative dimension which looks at Christian preaching alongside Jewish and Muslim homiletic traditions, seeking to highlight overlapping themes and structures, while underscoring difference," in contrast to other works that have focused exclusively on Christian preaching; and that it is "the first to examine the unfolding of these traditions over time from the medieval th[r]ough the early modern periods" (3). These claims seem perhaps a little exaggerated in the face of the significant body of scholarship on preaching that has preceded its publication. As but one example, with regard to the comparative aspect, a direct comparison of Christian and Muslim holy war preaching may be found in Niall Christie and Deborah Gerish, "Parallel Preachings: Urban II and al-Sulami," Al-Masaq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean 15 (2003): 139-48. By the same token, Brill's 5-volume series, A New History of the Sermon (published 1998-2010) is one example of a major work that includes consideration of both the medieval and early modern periods.

The cross-religious comparative aspect found in this volume is primarily present in the section of the introduction where the editors draw out common themes shared by the various articles, and this is an important contribution to scholarship of preaching. However, it is hampered by the rather patchy coverage of the volume itself; of the twelve articles found in the volume, nine are devoted to Christian preaching, while only two deal with preaching in Islam and only one deals with Jewish preaching. Looking at the articles on Christianity, we see that all deal with Roman Catholic Christianity, and the majority deal with Italian perspectives on preaching the faith. This rather unbalanced range of topics makes it difficult to claim that the collection provides a widely representative comparative perspective that goes beyond the basic remarks on shared themes that we have noted.

It should be emphasized that the reservations outlined above in no way detract from the quality of the articles included in the volume, and it is impressive for the cohesiveness that stems from its contributors' shared adoption of the Weberian model of charisma outlined above. Charisma and Religious Authority is a valuable contribution to the study of medieval and early modern preaching, and given the content summarized above it will be of particular use to scholars studying sermons and preachers in Italy in these periods.