Debra Stoudt

title.none: Volfing, John the Evangelist in Medieval German Writing (Debra Stoudt)

identifier.other: baj9928.0211.012 02.11.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Debra Stoudt, University of Toledo,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Volfing, Annette. John the Evangelist in Medieval German Writing: Imitating the Inimitable. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. x, 273. $72.00. ISBN: 0-19-924684-x.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.11.12

Volfing, Annette. John the Evangelist in Medieval German Writing: Imitating the Inimitable. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. x, 273. $72.00. ISBN: 0-19-924684-x.

Reviewed by:

Debra Stoudt
University of Toledo

With this volume Annette Volfing provides background on the life and legend of John the Evangelist and characterizes the image of him gleaned from selected medieval German texts. The German writings surveyed include religious and secular pieces; they provide divergent approaches to John's persona, but all focus on a key theme: "imitating the inimitable," which is the subtitle of Volfing's study. In her introduction Volfing notes that the book examines two parallel uses of John in medieval German texts, the devotional and the poetological. The approach employed is contingent upon the genre and the intended audience; in religious texts primarily for female audiences, the authors commonly present John for devotional purposes, whereas in secular texts for broader audiences, they portray the saint as a potential role-model and as a literary rival. Volfing intertwines the two strands around the theme of imitatio: To what extent is it laudable or possible for the listeners, readers, or authors to be like John in terms of experiences and achievements? Volfing cites the classification scheme of G. W. Pigman in her own delineation of three levels of imitatio: sequela, imitatio proper, and aemulatio. In each case there is a tension between the imitator, curiously designated as the "latecomer" by Volfing, and the one being imitated, namely John. In the case of sequela the imitator never measures up to his model, in imitatio proper he does, and in aemulatio there is an inherent competitive spirit in that the imitator wishes to surpass his model. Volfing explains the classification in terms of a spectrum of relationships: at one end the imitatio Christi basically allows only for sequela and at the other end the imitatio auctorum, the imitation of established authors, stresses aemulatio.

The imitatio sanctorum, the subject of this study, falls somewhere between the two extremes. The first part of the book, which consists of two chapters, deals with the Latin background of the tradition of John the Evangelist. In Chapter One Volfing sketches John's life based on biblical, apocryphal, patristic, and legendary sources. Interesting in this regard is the origin of myths associated with John, for example, his identity as the beloved disciple (John 13:23) and his role as the bridegroom at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11). The second half of the first chapter is devoted to three biographical themes -- John's virginity, his authorship, and his death -- and the distinctive ways in which medieval texts address each theme. John's role in medieval liturgy is the focus of Chapter Two. The texts for John's two feast days, 27 December and 6 May, are examined in detail, with emphasis on the former, which is a major double feast. Volfing describes the image of John revealed in individual antiphons, sequences, responsories, and tropes. Although the author identifies the authoritative medieval liturgical texts consulted here, including English, French, and German sources, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain whether her descriptions reflect the German tradition or a European one. In the second part of her study Volfing highlights the devotional uses of John in the medieval German tradition based on selected sermons (Chapter Three) and the Johannes-libelli (Chapter Four).

As the author notes, any examination of extant Middle High German homiletic texts is fraught with difficulties. Were the sermons recorded in the form in which they were preached or in the form of Lesepredigten, more suited for subsequent audiences of readers? Did the preachers themselves prepare or edit the final versions, and if not, who did? The first part of the chapter draws from numerous sermons for the two feasts of John in which he is portrayed as an intermediary between man and God. Dating from the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries, the sermons characterize John as an intercessor, a father figure, and role model for adherents of the vita contemplativa. Borrowing a term from Jeffrey Hamburger, Volfing examines these portrayals in terms of John's "Christomorphism," his special status as the deified image and likeness of Christ. Volfing argues that because John has been granted this role, those who seek to imitate him are by extension imitating Christ as well. John's virgin status also finds particular resonance among those in the female religious communities for whom the sermons are prepared. The chapter concludes with a detailed discussion of a sermon for the feast of Mary Magdalene by the thirteenth-century Franciscan Berthold of Regensburg. Volfing has selected this sermon as a contrast; it presents a less idealized view of John and interprets an exemplum in which the Evangelist is compared to John the Baptist.

The Johannes-libelli are compilation manuscripts consisting of texts in German relating to John. The five extant manuscripts include various types of devotional texts written toward the end of the thirteenth and at the beginning of the fourteenth century for religious women. Volfing contends that, despite their mystical orientation, the texts urge the women toward moderation with regard to any attempt to imitate John's mystical experiences and desexualize the imagery of the Song of Songs. As the author notes, the extant manuscripts of the Johannes-libelli date from the fifteenth century, so the question arises whether the didactic and hortatory features occur already in the previous century or if they are the result of the reform movement among women's religious communities in German-speaking territories in the fifteenth century. In her discussion of the Johannes-libelli Volfing comments on the abundant imagery derived from the Song of Songs, discussing in detail the relationship between some of the Old Testament images and those in the New Testament scene at the Last Supper when John sleeps on the bosom of Christ. The author takes note of John's shifting role as the son of Mary (and hence the brother of Christ), the bride, and the bridegroom. Regarding the latter representations, Volfing concludes that John's transformation from bride to bridegroom succeeds in distancing the saint from female religious who may themselves aspire to become brides of Christ and in "subverting the very paradigm of bridal mysticism itself" (160).

Although an examination of the Johannes-libelli may lead to these conclusions, Volfing's study excludes a number of significant examples that present a different picture. These can be found in the works of the fourteenth-century female German mystics. Volfing makes reference to several texts by women mystics, including Elsbeth of Oye from Brabant and the Germans Gertrude the Great of Helfta and Mechthild of Magdeburg, as well as a passing reference to the experiences of several sisters at Katharinenthal. She also alludes to Friedrich Sunder, whose text, like those of the women, is not a homiletic one, but (auto-)biographical in nature. Unlike the works Volfing investigates, these texts contain descriptions of the mystical experiences of the authors or protagonists themselves. The writings exemplify the devotional use of John but provide a different approach from that employed in the homiletic works. The significance of John to Dominican women like Adelheid Langmann and Christina Ebner is well documented in their revelations. Likewise, Margaretha Ebner's revelations are replete with references to John, identified as the sister's "favorite." Given that the experiences of women such as these undoubtedly represent the "excesses" against which the male preachers in the fifteenth century admonish in the Johannes-libelli, a brief discussion of the women mystics' experiences and writings would have been appropriate to present a balanced picture of the image of John within the religious sphere in late medieval Germany.

Poetological uses of John are the focus of Chapters 5 and 6, which constitute the third part of the book. Volfing begins with a characterization of the two genres of the texts under discussion, the biblical narrative and the Meisterlied. The five biblical narratives from the early fourteenth century represent three different approaches to John: two focus on his role in Christ's life on earth and the life of the early Church; one deals with John as author of the Patmos vision; and the two other texts present a mixed approach. Volfing examines each author's stance toward John in light of the purpose of the work. She notes that since in two of the texts John is not the protagonist, the authors in these cases take care not to make John preeminent; the presentations of the saint are tempered by literary necessity. In each of the texts John's role as author, his authorial legitimacy, and the nature of his visions are analyzed as well. In her discussion of Mary Magdalene in Der saelden hort, the first text discussed, the author seems to stray from the subject at hand, but the characterization of the Magdalene as "John's own personal 'Frau Welt'" puts the study back on track. In Heinrich of Hesler's Apokalipsis Volfing highlights the narrative dichotomy between the protagonist John relating his account of his experiences on Patmos and the authorial "ich" behind John's tale. Although there is a clear characterization of the nature of the texts chosen for analysis, it would have been useful to know what criteria Volfing used to select the five works in the first place. Are these the only ones with references -- or a significant number of references -- to John to warrant study, or do these narratives simply exemplify the various perspectives the author wishes to examine?

In Chapter 6 Volfing analyzes selected Meisterlieder, polystrophic lyrics generally didactic in nature, noting that the visionary author is a popular theme among works of this genre. The texts under discussion here come primarily from four authors: Frauenlob, Der Marner, Regenbogen, and Der Kanzler. The focus of the Johannine songs is the interpretation of John's writings, not information about John's life. The writers see John less as a visionary and more as an authority upon whom claims concerning doctrine, e.g., the institution of the sacrament of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (213) and the nature of the Trinity (215), can be based. The chronicling of John's visions as a journey through the cosmos allows authors of some Meisterlieder to tout their own astrological-astronomical knowledge; it also affords them the opportunity to characterize John's intellectual acumen in terms of the artes liberales, thereby offering a critique of human wisdom. Volfing notes the ambivalence of the Meisterlied genre to the liberal arts, at once critical of them but also secure in the belief that familiarity with them is a prerequisite for any master skilled in their art. Some songs claim that the Holy Spirit rebuked John for his intellectual curiosity. In other texts John is portrayed as the "chancellor of the godhead" (237), who reads the documents at his disposal and then prepares his own writings based upon them. Volfing concludes that in the course of the later Middle Ages there is an "anti-hagiographical" trend in the depiction of John in German texts. Whereas the homiletic works and the Johannes-libelli make use of the Johannine biographical tradition to characterize the visionary and intercessor, the authors of the biblical narrative and especially the Meisterlieder focus on a human trait, such as the acquisition of knowledge or the skill in writing, to present the saint in more human, less idealized terms. The writers of the sermons remind their audiences that it is the unusual nature of John's personal experiences that makes it impossible for others to emulate him; in contrast, by understating the unique aspects of the saint's biography, the composers of the Meisterlieder make John into a(nother) writer with whom they can compete and whom they can hope to surpass in skill.

The volume concludes with a useful bibliography of primary and secondary sources and a general index. The glossing throughout the study of all quotations -- from Latin, Middle High German, and Modern German -- is most beneficial to the non-expert in the field. Given the care and thoroughness of the study, a bit more vigilance on the part of the editor was warranted. Sometimes names are cited in English, sometimes in German, e.g., Rupert of Deutz (27) and Rupert von Deutz (38) or Walther of Rheinau and Walther von Rheinau (both 183). There are half a dozen typographical errors or misspellings in German titles in the bibliography, as well as hyphenation mistakes with German words: "Stre-itgedicht" (120) and the Middle High German "gotle-ichen" (152). Several errors in the English occur as well: "enconium" (24), "prime sources" (30), "of the John 13:23" (47). There is a cryptic reference to a publication by Volfing in 1993 (166, footnote 6) that is not listed in the bibliography. In the index there are also occasional lapses, e.g., no reference to Gertrude the Great of Helfta. One mistaken participle form appears in a Middle High German translation; given the German "...von der alle ding gefloszen sint," the English should read: "...from which all things have flowed," not "flown" (113).

Annette Volfing's study provides a useful, informative, and most interesting examination of the figure of John and its evolution in medieval German texts. She offers her audience a very readable synthesis of source material and analysis of texts that skillfully interweave the biblical texts with passages from lesser-known texts of late medieval Germany, highlighting commonalities and differences in an edifying and convincing fashion.