The Medieval Review 09.12.09

Mixson, James D. Povertys Proprietors: Ownership and Mortal Sin at the Origins of the Observant Movement. Studies in the History of Christian Traditions, 143. Leiden: Brill, 2009. Pp. xvi, 264. EUR 99 / $147 978 90 04 17405 4. .

Reviewed by:

Thomas M. Izbicki
Rutgers University
tizbicki@rci.rutgers.edu

In Poverty's Proprietors James Mixson tries to extract the observant movements of late medieval Germany and Austria from the usual categories: crisis, waning, decline and reform. The result is not a new paradigm, but the book provides insights into the problems afflicting monasteries, houses of canons and friaries, as well as the measures employed to impose reform, not always successfully, upon them. Although some attention is give to observant movements elsewhere, the focus is on the houses of monks, nuns, canons and friars in the upper Danube region. The first three chapters are somewhat wider ranging in geography, but the last two are almost purely local in focus.

The first chapter, "Cultures of Property between Cloister and World," gives due attention to the dilemmas of religious in the later Middle Ages. The Black Death had decimated the ranks of monasteries and convents. Traditional economic resources like alms and agricultural endeavors were not able to sustain a common life. Abbots and abbesses separated themselves from their communities, while individual religious might obtain their own revenues and property, including from the families. One notes that books were among the items that were considered property, even if they were needed for devotion of study. These pressures helped undermine a common life without possessions. Monks and nuns, canons and friars grew up with these compromises as immemorial custom. Canon law gave them some backing by accepting the ability of the abbot or abbess to grant dispensations and privileges, even when they did not wink at outright abuse.

In the second and third chapters, Mixson looks at how the call to reform religious houses started in the region he targets. Chapter two recounts some "Calls from Without." Two of the outside voices were uncompromising. Henry of Langenstein, leading light of the University of Vienna in the late fourteenth century, preached against proprietarii, including the canons of Klosterneuberg, who were called "choir lords." He also wrote an influential tract on the issue of property that was widely read (39 manuscripts). Equally harsh was the opinion of the jurist Job Vener, written in 1415 at the Council of Constance (1414-1418). Vener's tract, occasionally attributed to Henry of Langenstein, survives in 65 manuscript copies. More nuanced was the opinion Dietrich Kerking, a theologian of Cologne, wrote for the nuns of Saint Giles in Mnster. Kerking was able to offer the nuns understanding and an exhortation to the common life, not just condemnation.

Chapter three, "Revolt from Within," begins some attention to the Italian observant movements and gives attention to the attacks on "proprietors" arising within the orders about the time of the Council of Constance. Among the critics of the status quo were Cistercians, Benedictines and Dominicans. Among the observants treated in this chapter are the Dominican theologian John Nider and John Wishler, a member of the reformed Benedictine community at Melk. Unfortunately, the Dominicans get little attention in the later parts of the book. Leaving the reader to wonder how the local convents fared as observance was spread in Germany and Austria. Perhaps the most interesting treatment of a reformer is that of Wishler, who answered many of the most typical arguments for the legitimacy of holding property with the permission of a religious superior. Wishler regarded a "bad license" (mala licentia) as leading a religious into mortal sin. What the reviewer misses here is the insights into the reforming efforts of Nicholas of Cusa within Germany that can be found in his correspondence with the abbot and prior of the monastery at Tegernsee, themselves sincere reformers treated in this book. [1]

The concluding chapters focus almost entirely on southern Germany and Austria. The chapter on "Property and Community between Principle and Practice" is largely concerned with the practice of reform. No one method was tried by the reformers, and no one method always succeeded. The entrenched abbots and monks, abbesses and nuns, often had powerful kin and friends to aid them in resisting the imposition of reform. The use of princely power to impose changes meant accepting the self interest that lay powers, however pious, brought to these dealings. Particularly useful is Mixson's discussion of the Reformationis Methodus written by Nicholas of Dinkelsbhl, a student of Henry of Langenstein in Vienna. Nicholas worked with Albert V of Austria and with clerical allies, some of them converts to observance, to build reformed communities. Formal visitations were conducted, and it could achieve real results. It also could prove superficial at best. Mixson notes in passing that these regimes of reform may have blighted "many forms of religious expression" prevalent among German nuns. [2] This is an issue that deserves further study at the local level.

The concluding chapter, "Property and Community between Penance and Perfection," looks at wider spiritual and intellectual issues. The whole genre of treatises against property is examined. (Mixson lists these, complete with manuscript shelf marks, in a detailed Appendix.) This analysis includes a discussion of two plates from a manuscript in Melk (pp. 188-189) showing through versions of the wheel of fortune motif both good and bad living of the monastic life. The discussion then opens out into an examination of themes of "penance and spiritual progress within and beyond the cloister." This includes both Latin and vernacular writings. Perhaps most interesting is the examination of the regulations governing reformed religious houses. These could be so detailed as to threaten the serious-minded religious with a problem of scrupulosity when trying to fulfill every precept. Mixson concludes with a nod to Martin Luther's own problem of scrupulosity, reminding us that he was a member of an observant community of Augustinians.

Although Mixson has not provided an entirely new paradigm for assessing the coming of the observant movements, his book gives us a more nuanced view of how having property came to be customary, the ways in which reform came about and how it was experienced, especially by those who were puzzled to find their long-established mode of life under attack as too lax.

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Notes:

1. Published in Edmond Vansteenberghe, Autour de la docte ignorance: une controverse sur la théologie mystique au XVe siècle (Mnster i.W.: Aschendorff, 1915).

2. Mixson quotes Dyan Elliott on that point at pp. 148-149.