The Medieval Review 11.11.08

David F. Tinsley. The Scourge and the Cross, Ascetic Mentalities of the Later Middle Ages. Leuven: Peeters, 2009. Pp. viii, 217. 56 EUR. . . ISBN 978-90-429-2184-9.

Reviewed by:

Christine Caldwell Ames
University of South Carolina
AMESC@mailbox.sc.edu

Wishing to "take [severe asceticism] seriously on its own terms," The Scourge and the Cross explores its "function...in spiritual development, in particular, the essential role of disciplina in the soul's journey to God" (10-11). The book's five chapters explore that role among "Dominican nuns in the southern and western German provinces of the Holy Roman Empire in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries," accessed chiefly through the "sisterbooks" produced by the convents of Tö, St. Katherinental bei Dissenhofen, and Ötenbach (10).

The Scourge and the Cross is demonstrative rather than strongly argumentative, presenting itself as a necessary historicization of medieval asceticism and self-mortification. Chapter one intends to establish the context and mentality of asceticism in the Order of Preachers through Dominic, Peter "Martyr," and Thomas Aquinas. Yet a significant section of the chapter is devoted to De duodecim utilitatibus tribulationum, which Tinsley credits as "the most popular treatise on the spiritual benefits of suffering" in the later Middle Ages, without offering any evidence that the sisters knew it (23). Chapter two, on Elsbeth von Oye's Revelations, compares her mortifications to contemporary blood mysticism, while chapter three argues that the Lives of the Desert Fathers, rather than serving as misogynist counter-inspiration for the sisterbooks' composition, provided useful exemplars of holy women. Chapter four employs the relationship between Elsbeth Stagel and Henry Suso to examine links among gender, writing and authority, and spiritual progress, partly through suffering. Echoing the first chapter's digression from the sisters, chapter five's consideration of the theodicy of suffering discusses at length English anchorite Julian of Norwich. The conclusion argues for the pervasiveness of suffering in Dominican "convent culture" regardless of gender, while revisiting the methodological matter of how to take such suffering "seriously."

The book might almost be described as unwelcoming. There is remarkably little to acclimate readers who are not deeply familiar with the figures, texts, and locations it treats. Presuming knowledge of the subfield, Tinsley offers no biographical information for the nuns, no details of the texts' composition histories or manuscripts, and no background for the convents. A sense of dislocation is aggravated by elliptical writing, a sparse index, and Peeters' poor editing. (Within chapter five several sentences are repeated verbatim or nearly verbatim; compare pages 181-182 to 164-165 and 169-170.)

Tinsley's imagined reader is then a specialist in this German milieu, the scholarly debates in which he is embedded Germanophone. Engagement with Anglophone scholarship--including scholarship on women's religiosity and, specifically, of gender in the mendicant orders--is weak. Alistair Minnis would be useful for discussion of medieval notions of auctoritas, as would Nancy Caciola on discernment of spirits. More surprisingly, absent here are Dyan Elliott, Ann Matter, Lisa Bitel, Katherine Gill, Walter Simons, Brian McGuire, Catherine Mooney, and John W. Coakley, whose work on Dominican penitent women, and on relationships of saintly women with male amanuenses and companions, is an obvious touchpoint.

Even Caroline Walker Bynum is less visible than expected, and this has implications for the book's currency. Tinsley identifies three factors that he contends have heretofore caused a failure to take harsh asceticism, especially among women, seriously. First is "modern sensibilities," which, he repeatedly asserts, find such practices repugnant and bizarre. Second is "the patriarchal, misogynistic attitudes displayed by traditional scholars" who dismissed women's religiosity as fatuous or hysterical (4). Third, interestingly, is feminist scholarship; Tinsley charges "the matriarchy" with "lukewarm and sometimes even hostile responses to extreme asceticism" (5-6). The Scourge and the Cross is, to Tinsley, an exploration of nuns' diversity that transcends others' stale "generalizations" about "medieval women" (192). Yet it does not seem new to argue that "the power of revelation enabled medieval religious women to acquire status unavailable to them within the hierarchies of the church," or--post- Bynum--that "ritual self-mortification...should be understood as something more than just a symptom of 'spiritual or psychological disorder'" (147, 89). Tinsley describes the book as a study of "the methods, motivations, and rituals of ascetic practices within the Order of Preachers," and it would indeed be novel to survey institutionalized and ritualized pain among the Dominicans (7). And The Scourge and the Cross wisely insists that as suffering was pervasively esteemed by the order, asceticism cannot be simply gendered as "women's spirituality." But Tinsley does not consistently focus on ascetic practice, instead compressing together various forms of "suffering," from flogging to illness to interior spiritual suffering. Moreover, his footing in Dominican history does not seem sure. A claim that Peter Martyr's "spiritual biography...is not included" in Gerard de Frachet's Vitae fratrum is puzzling, and Diego of Osma is here "bishop of Olma" (34, 39 n.123).

Most importantly, any argument that self-inflicted pain was a Dominican meme, shared by friars and sisters alike in imitation of Christ, must contend with the fact that women were restrained from the order's most emblematic imitatio Christi--the apostolic life. As Tinsley suggests, in the exemplars of Dominic and Peter Martyr the vita apostolica was interwoven with the valor of suffering. The Scourge and the Cross, seeking to restore women's harsh asceticism to its medieval rationality, might have confronted more aggressively how the order--from Diana d'Andalo to Catherine of Siena- -struggled with incorporating women into that life, and how the distaste Tinsley persistently identifies as "modern" may be rooted in the order's own early restrictions upon sisters' participation in its distinct paradigm of pain.