The Medieval Review 13.02.16

Anderson, Wendy Love . The Discernment of Spirits: Assessing Visions and Visionaries in the Late Middle Ages. Studies in the Late Middle Ages, Humanism, and Reformation. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011. Pp. x, 266. 89.00 EUR. ISBN: 978-3-16-151664-1. . .

Reviewed by:

Debra Stoudt
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

The discernment of spirits is central not only to the experience of the visionary but also to that of the prophet, the reformer, the magician--and occasionally the heretic. Identified by St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (12:10) as a gift of the Holy Spirit, the ability to discern spirits serves as a token of divine favor, one bestowed on a variety of individuals throughout history. These men and women, clerics and laypersons are remarkable not only for the gift they have received but for its unique manifestation in their lives. In her engaging study Wendy Love Anderson traces how prophecies and visions are "received and understood by the visionaries themselves and by the people around them between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries in Christian Europe" (2). The examination is an outgrowth of Anderson's 2002 University of Chicago dissertation, the title of which, "Free Spirits, Presumptuous Women, and False Prophets: The Discernment of Spirits in the Late Middle Ages," draws attention to the marginal role in society played by many recipients of the gift. The revised title and the study itself give precedence to the historical context of the experiences and the tradition of commentary that evolved concerning the discretio spirituum.

The introduction begins with the response of delight by Christina of Markyate around 1115 to a vision of the Virgin Mary alongside the skeptical reaction of Veronica Binasco in the second half of the fifteenth century to a similar experience. What transpired in the intervening centuries? What criteria merged by which true revelations could be distinguished from false ones? What authority did religious and secular powers wield concerning such matters? In the subsequent chapters Anderson undertakes a contextualization of the responses to these queries, linking the responses of succeeding generations to explain the remarkable shift over time.

Anderson proposes the rediscovery of prophecy by European Christians in the twelfth century as the impetus for change. The visionary experiences of Franciscan clerics stimulate debate on the topic in the thirteenth century, and by the fifteenth century it is the visionary experiences of lay women take center stage. The shift attests to the gendering of theological discernment discourse and results in a multifaceted discourse on the discretio spirituum in terms of gender, ecclesiastical status, and the struggle for symbolic power by the early fifteenth century (11). Anderson argues that the question of authority maintains preeminence over that of gender with regard to the gift of discernment (7), but it might be contended as well that the two are inextricably intertwined.

In a section on the visionary context of discernment (4-8) Anderson references recent literature, including Nancy Caciola's Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages (2003) and Dyan Elliott's Proving Woman: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages (2004). She identifies the scholarly niche her study fills, namely that "[t]he late medieval discourse on the discernment of spirits was a visionary project (in both senses), a series of reactions to key events in the history of Christianity, and a dynamic conversation across several centuries addressing widely diverse claims to religious authority within late medieval Christendom" (8).

The first chapter outlines the biblical and patristic origins of the Christian characterization of the discernment of spirits, with its occasional exhortations to beware of false prophets and claims that the clergy possess the gift ex officio. Augustine's tripartite understanding of visions--corporeal, spiritual, and intellectual-- remains an essential concept through the Middle Ages, but the advent of the monastic tradition introduces a difference nuance to discretio spirituum, one that reflects "communal moderation" (36). The chapter concludes with the advice of Bernard of Clairvaux on the subject and a brief examination of the reception of the visionary experiences of Hildegard of Bingen, Joachim of Fiore and Elisabeth of Schönau at the end of the eleventh and the beginning of the twelfth century, focusing on the question of whether each is expected to prove her or his prophetic status and how each understands that status.

Chapter 2 explores the impact of the new order and the new mysticisms on discernment in the thirteenth century. What proof is needed to confirm an individual's status as prophet and who evaluates that proof become central themes of papal letters and canon law. The diverse opinions within the Franciscan Order are exemplified by the skeptical stance of David of Augsburg toward the trustworthiness of revelations and visions as well as the more defensive posture of Peter of John Olivi. In the course of the fourteenth century Olivi's writings are interpreted by other authors, e.g., Arnald of Villanova and Augustinus of Ancona. Anderson situates the writings of this time in the context of the historical ages set forth by Joachim of Fiore at the close of the twelfth century and the growing instability of the Church that culminated in the Avignon papacy of the fourteenth century.

The focus of Chapter 3 lies squarely on the writings of a number of Germanic theological figures. Henry of Friemar "the Elder" sets forth criteria for the discernment of the spirits in the tradition of the medieval scholastics. However, his critique of the "philosophers" in favor of the holy men inspired by grace serves as a precursor to the mystically informed writings of a number of Dominicans, especially Henry Suso and John Tauler. Suso uses the Middle High German underscheit/d to translate Latin discretio as well as distinctio and touts the potential role of visionary experiences in the spiritual guidance he offers. In a similar vein, Tauler provides homiletic advice as to how to distinguish the divine from the diabolic. The Dutch mystical tradition is exemplified by Jan Ruusbroec, who examines discernment as part of the inward life, providing direction for those who might be tempted to spiritual error. Anderson underscores the didactic nature of the writings of these figures and examines the impact of the pronouncements in light of the Free Spirit heresy, which she links to the "misapplication of reason" in understanding spiritual teachings (122).

Chapter 4 is concerned with three individuals caught up in the historico-religious events of the time: Birgitta of Sweden, Pedro of Aragon, and Catherine of Siena. All are advocates of the return of the papacy to Rome, and their influence is examined in view of their authority as shaped by "the proper place of revelation within the institutional Church" (126). In all three cases the experiential relationship with Christ serves a pivotal function. Anderson ascertains a shift to a post-Schism idea of discernment, in which an outside authority is called upon to validate the visionary experience.

Chapter 5 explores the role of medieval universities during the years of the Great Western Schism in the debate regarding discernment. Most prominent reformers are university-based theologians eager to participate in church affairs. Drawing on the commentary of previous, they conclude that the right to determine the authenticity of visions and revelations is indeed their prerogative (189). In this regard Anderson examines the influential comments of Pierre d'Ailly on the question of true and false prophecy as well as the doctrine of discernment of Henry of Langenstein, who identifies false prophets as those who lack ratio as well as discretio (175). It is left to the pupil of both men, Jean Gerson, to champion their ideas. The chapter concludes with an excursus on critiques by various scholars of the last century concerning the writings of the above- mentioned theologians and reformers, with a focus on medieval women's spirituality and the gendering of discourse. There have been similar debates regarding the central figures in other chapters, and one may wonder why only in this particular case the topic is explored in depth.

Anderson's argument for a nuanced understanding of Gerson's ideas and their evolution over time provides the context for the first part of Chapter 6. The mature Gerson is convinced that theologians must not only be educated, they must also have an "ineffable encounter with the divine" in order to provide guidance regarding discretio spirituum (224). He becomes increasingly moralistic as he compares theologians and visionaries and ever more systematic as he establishes authorial hierarchies for discerning spirits. Anderson interprets Gerson's disparaging comments toward visionary women as more of a critique of male confessors and the institutional church than of the females themselves (213). However, at this time the topic of female visionaries is a contentious one--as it has been throughout history-- exemplified by the case of Joan of Arc, whom Gerson defends in Super facto puellae, although his arguments are misrepresented at her trial two years after his death. The concluding pages review the salient points of the study. Anderson also offers a glimpse into the "Future of Discernment," with references to Savonarola as well as Reformation and post-Reformation debates on the subject.

Anderson's presentation of the topic is even-handed, but any study is selective by necessity. Women's spirituality is explored at various points but seldom takes center stage. Although devils are given their due, the topic of witchcraft is avoided. Notably absent from discussion are representatives of the English mystical and theological tradition, aside from the introductory reference to Christina of Markyate. Likewise the voices of female spiritual charges of the German Dominicans of the Rhineland might have been heard or evidence from their writings presented to support (or refute) the efficacy of the spiritual advisors' guidance. Given the introductory chapter summaries (13-16), there may have been the expectation of more extensive commentary regarding certain topics, e.g., the choice of vernacular languages among German and Dutch writers in the thirteenth century. However, these desiderata do not detract from the argument the author sets out to make. Anderson achieves her stated goal: she succeeds in neatly fitting together selected pieces of the history of discernment of spirits to provide a valuable, readable description of the contours of its evolution in the late Middle Ages.