The Medieval Review 10.06.25

Lindgren, Erika Lauren. Sensual Encounters: Monastic Women and Spirituality in Medieval Germany. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. Pp. 210. 60.00 ISBN 978-0-231-14238-0. .

Reviewed by:

David Tinsley
University of Puget Sound
tinsley@pugetsound.edu

Dominican women's spirituality continues to provide fertile ground for exploring spiritual alternatives available to aristocratic and patrician women within the patriarchal hierarchy of the Order of Preachers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The mendicants' reluctant and limited sanctioning of women's houses was motivated above all by the desire to contain a massrevelatory movement spearheaded by women's search for alternatives to traditional roles, a movement whose power the male clerics not only recognized, but also feared and envied. Peter Dinzelbacher encapsulates beautifully their awestruck response in the words of the Franciscan, Lamprecht of Regensburg, "I would not care what anyone said of me, if I could only lose my senses in the same way they do." The Dominican women's houses generated their own "hagiography," compiled and composed by sisters for sisters in order to celebrate the lives of famous sisters. They inspired searing revelations like those of Margarete Ebner, Adelheid Langemann, and Elsbeth von Oye, and they were the setting for fruitful interaction that brought great Dominican mystics and confessors like Meister Eckhart, Henry Suso, and Johannes Tauler into pastoral relationships and, in Suso's case, creative collaboration with Dominican sisters like Elsbeth Stagel.

It is useful to remind ourselves how this rich literature was ignored or dismissed for decades as epigonal and inferior by Altgermanisten. Thanks to the dissertations of Georg Kunze in Hamburg (1952), Hester Gehring at Michigan (1957), and Walter Blank in Freiburg (1962), along with the pioneering study by Herbert Grundmann (1961), the Dominican women's literature gained a foothold within medieval studies. The work of Siegfried Ringler (1980), Otto Langer (1987), Ursula Peters (1988), Peter Dinzelbacher (1993), and Ruth Meyer (1995) in Europe, along with the groundbreaking work by Gertrud Jaron Lewis (1996) in North America, has won widespread acceptance of the legitimacy of these texts. I was already familiar with Lindgren's excellent dissertation, Environment and Spirituality of German Dominican Women, 1230-1370, completed in 2001 under the direction of Constance Berman at the University of Iowa, having cited it in my own study of Dominican women's asceticism, The Scourge and the Cross (2010). I am therefore pleased to review the thoroughly revised adaptation that Lindgren published in print and as an e-book through Columbia University Press in 2009.

In this volume Lindgren attempts nothing less than a "history of the sensual environment" that surrounded nuns of the Order of Preachers from the founding of their houses until the onset of the reform movement that swept through the Dominican houses like a spiritual tsunami, beginning around 1370. Her goal is to explore "the entire surrounding in which these women were immersed, incorporating the architecture in which they dwelt, the objects that decorated those spaces, the books they read, and the sounds and silences which they created, heard, and observed" (2). Following an introduction to Dominican women's spirituality, the book is organized into four chapters: Space; Sight; Sound; and Seeing and Hearing, essentially a chapter on what the nuns read and sang. The introduction and the conclusion highlight the vita of the novice Kathrin Brümsin, which contains a dream-vision that she had of John the Evangelist who taught her a twenty-four-verse sequence that was subsequently performed often at the convent of Katharinenthal. The book's apparatus includes the Middle Latin and Middle High German texts of the Brümsin sequence; statistical tables on the Dominican Order in the fourteenth century and its liturgical books; and bibliographies of unpublished primary sources, published primary sources, and secondary sources. There is no index, probably because the e-book version, available at no cost on-line (http://www.gutenberg-e.org/lindgren/), is fully searchable. The e-book contains the sections noted above, plus a gallery of images, including photographs of the architectural spaces that have survived, along with key illuminations, initials, and miniatures to which Lindgren refers in the course of her study. Readers should note that the hard-copy version of the book contains none of the images. Thus, it is highly recommended that readers access the on-line version or work with the on-line or e-book version on their computers if they choose to buy the print edition.

The diversity of sources, touching on virtually every aspect of Dominican spiritual life, is a principal strength of Lindgren's book. She uses three of the so-called Sister-Books from the Dominican monasteries of Adelhausen, Unterlinden, and St. Katharinenthal. The Sister-Books (Nonnenbücher, Schwesternbücher, Nonnenviten, Convent Chronicles) refer to nine collections of spiritual biographies, convent histories, and anecdotes compiled by nuns of the Order of Preachers from the lives of exemplary sisters, beginning in the fourteenth century and continuing throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. The women's communities that generated and continually revised these collections included the convents of Adelhausen, Engelthal, Gotteszell, Katherinenthal (Diessenhofen), Kirchberg, Oetenbach, Töss, Unterlinden, and Weiler, all of which were located in today's Alsace, Switzerland, Swabia, and Bavaria. In addition to the three Sister-Books just named, Lindgren examines psalters, graduals, diurnals, martyrologies, collectars, and sanctorals from the Dominican monasteries such as St. Agnes, St. Katharina, and the Penitents of St. Maria Magdalena in Freiburg, Germany, as well as the Rule of St. Augustine, the Dominican constitutions, sermons, and devotional writings by Johannes Tauler and Henry Suso, and a wealth of other texts.

The chapter on space concerns itself with two key questions, first, what was considered sacred space within Dominican monasteries, and, second, to what degree were the nuns in these houses actually enclosed. Although Lindgren concedes that neither question can be answered definitely, she uses accounts from the Sister-Books to re-envision sacred space--such as the nuns' choirs--as defined by dynamic spiritual encounters, especially visions, that the "women used to actively signify their religiosity in ways that were understood by the other female inhabitants of the community" (39). Her discussion of infirmaries, refectories, kitchens, dormitories, workrooms, gardens, and especially of the cloister arcade demonstrates how "Dominican women blurred the lines [between designated spatial function and expected conduct], using their actions to give the spaces importance or functions never intended by the authors of the constitutions and other documents" (50). Lindgren reframes the question of enclosure by a nuanced study of cloister windows, showing how their size, design, and decoration served to restrict or to open visual or physical access to the outside.

The chapter on sight focuses on "items and artifacts that were seen by cloistered women" (58). I found the sections to be particularly insightful on Christus-Johannes-Gruppen as a reflection of devotion to John the Evangelist and John the Baptist, as well as on surviving wall hangings such as the Wappen-Teppich of Adelhausen and the Malterer-Teppich from St. Katharina of Freiburg as reflections of worldly presence within the cloister. In general, this is the most derivative section of the book, and it could have benefited by engaging some of the work by Jeffrey Hamburger on pre-reform Dominican art, especially Suso's devotional art.

In her chapter on sound, Lindgren contrasts the severe injunctions concerning the maintenance of silence with both ritualized and spontaneous breaking of this silence. The section on ritual sounds includes discussions of bells and "the banging of the board" as transitional signals, an examination of the evidence for nuns' preaching and for what sermons they probably heard, and a wonderful section on spontaneous vocalization in the form of weeping, shouting, and breaking into song. In the process Lindgren redefines our understanding of cloistered silence by showing how these nuns "created a rich and varied acoustic environment around themselves, one that was found in all parts of the monastery, and, through the existence of the windows, one that could extend beyond the confines of the community" (112).

The chapter on seeing and hearing is worth the price of the book alone, in that it catalogues and describes the manuscripts--beyond the Sister-Books and constitutions--produced and used by Dominican women of the pre-reform era. Specialists who do not read German or do not have access to manuscript libraries now have a list of psalters, graduals, antiphonals, martyrologies, and other manuscripts, augmented by Lindgren's analysis of how these Gebrauchstexte reflect the rich and nuanced spirituality that the nuns developed around exemplars such as John the Evangelist, John the Baptist, and Mary Magdalen. For this section, access to the images of the e-text will be essential.

Lindgren's approach to the material does raise two minor concerns, one bibliographical and one theoretical. The bibliography does not seem to have been substantially updated beyond about 2000, except for citations of Anne Winston-Allen's Convent Chronicles (2004) and Alison Beach's Women as Scribes (2004). So there are no references to the Notre Dame anthology on Dominican spirituality, Christ among the Medieval Dominicans (1998), or to Barbara Helbling's anthology on the mendicants in Zurich Bettelorden, Brüderschaften und Beginen (2002), or to Rebecca Garber's chapter on the Sister-Books in Feminine Figurae (2004), or to Maiju Lehmijoki-Gardner's anthology of Dominican penitent women's writings (2005). More importantly, I would have loved for Lindgren to engage the ideas of Jeffrey Hamburger as set forth in The Visual and the Visionary (1998) or to reference Peter Dinzelbacher's application of mentalité-studies to Dominican women's spirituality in Europäische Mentalitätsgeschichte (1993). She cites these authors in the footnotes, but there is no sustained discussion of or response to their ideas, something that might have enriched her analysis considerably.

My other quibble involves Lindgren's approach to the historicity of the Sister-Books, an issue that provoked a vehement yet productive debate between Ringler and Dinzelbacher in the 1980s. For example, when the novice Kathrin Brümsin is reported to have had a vision in which John the Evangelist teaches her a sequence, should this report be read as a fictional construct drawn from hagiography and visionary literature, as Ringler argued, or is it impossible to rule out the possibility that Kathrin actually had such a vision, as Dinzelbacher claimed? In her discussion of sources in the introduction, as well as in her citations from the Sister-Books throughout the volume, Lindgren appears to accept the historicity of narrated events, arguing that "these sources describe the behavior and beliefs of female monastics in their own words, unfiltered by the reworkings of male advisors" (12). But this essentialist argument begs the question of the authors' and compilers' own literary sophistication. If Lindgren is willing to grant these Dominican women the ability to shape their spiritual environment by their actions, often in defiance of restrictions imposed by the patriarchy, why is it not possible for the sophisticated and literate authors of the Sister-Books to shape the narrative of events by incorporating motifs from hagiography and revelatory writing? And doesn't such a possibility problematize the historicity of such narratives?

Erika Lauren Lindgren's solid study of spaces, sounds, and images in Dominican women's spirituality is a welcome addition to Gertrud Jaron Lewis's groundbreaking By Women, Marie-Luise Ehrenschwendter's work on Dominican women's libraries, Jeffrey Hamburger's studies of Dominican art and spirituality, and Anne Winston-Allen's history of women's reform movements as part of a developing English-language canon that will help to shape our understanding of Dominican women's spirituality for decades to come.