03.01.11, Bellitto, Izbicki, eds., Nicholas of Cusa and His Age

Main Article Content

Cary Nederman

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.011


Bellitto, Christopher M., and Thomas M. Izbicki, eds.. Nicholas of Cusa and His Age: Intellect and Spirituality; Essays Dedicated to the Memory of F. Edward Cranz, Thomas P. McTighe and Charles Trinkaus. Studies in the History of Christian Thought vol. 105. Boston: Brill, 2002. ISBN: 90-04-12557-4.

Reviewed by:
Cary Nederman
Texas A & M University

There is hardly a topic of interest to historians of fifteenth-century intellectual, ecclesiastical or cultural life on which the writings of Nicholas of Cusa do not touch. Cusa was a vital figure in his own age, and he remains one in our own, as this collection of essays attests. His work as a church administrator and "political" operative -- a bishop and, eventually, a Cardinal -- does not seem to have diminished his zeal for engagement with the central theological and philosophical issues of his day. His learning bridged the gap between Renaissance humanism and more traditional modes of religious, political and legal thinking. Nor did he disdain to preach the faith in a manner consonant with his sophisticated thought, his sermons affording a prime source of his commitment to a Christian education that was in no way diluted by its appeal to a "popular audience."

Cusa has thus earned and merited many devotees among scholars in modern times, so much so that several active academic societies exist around the globe whose central aim is the investigation of and dissemination of knowledge about his life and career. The publication of Cusa's opera omnia and the translation of his writings into numerous modern languages has progressed at a startling pace. And monographs, edited books, and articles that treat the many dimensions of Cusa appear almost without stop. (The useful bibliography of English-language literature between 1994 and 2001, compiled by the book's co-editor Thomas Izbicki, sufficiently proves the latter point.) The contemporary state of Nicholas of Cusa studies is well reflected in the present volume, which was produced in order to honor the memories of three individuals who made particularly lasting and profound contributions to our understanding of him (as well as of the medieval world more generally). The multidisciplinary international array of authors whose work is represented in this collection testifies both to the impressive intellectual vitality of Cusa scholarship today and to the diversity of fields of inquiry within which Cusa himself made an impact.

Reviewing collections of essays such as Nicholas of Cusa and His Age can often be a frustrating process, due to the sheer breadth of the topics covered and the absence of internal cohesion. The current book is a happy exception to this generalization. Several salient themes criss-cross many of the chapters and give the book a feel of well-integrated intellectual enterprise. (The only noteworthy exception is perhaps Dennis Martin's essay on late medieval Carthusian spirituality, which, while an excellent piece of scholarship, leaves the connections between its theme and Cusa largely to the reader's deduction.)

First, nearly all of the essays focus on the "mature" Cusa, the churchman who, after his flirtation with conciliarism and a high regard for imperial majesty in the early 1430s, reconciled himself with papal authority and the hierarchical ordering of spiritual power and undertook a successful ecclesiastical career. Since among many students of the Middle Ages, awareness of Cusa concentrates almost exclusively upon the first part of his life, when he wrote works such as De concordantia catholica, this redirection of attention toward the many important aspects of his later career both as a prelate and as an author may be applauded.

A second unifying element of the volume arises from the relationship between Cusa's work as a philosopher and theologian of the first rank and as a preacher. Cusa's sermons have only recently begun to receive fully the attention that they deserve both among scholars of medieval preaching and among Cusa scholars themselves. There is no question that, while bishop of Brixen, he took his duties to preach very seriously indeed; as Walter Andreas Euler notes, Cusa wrote no significant works of philosophy or theology between 1454 and 1457, when he was most vigorously engaged in composing and delivering sermons (90). Not only do many of the chapters in Nicholas of Cusa and His Age undertake detailed examination of the contents of his sermon texts (including Euler, Lawrence Hundersmarck and Izbicki, Wilhelm Dupré, Clyde Lee Miller, and Bernard McGinn), they also construct fascinating bridges between his sophisticated Christian spiritualist teachings and the activity of preaching. Cusa's great erudition is always on display, and yet he does not neglect that the purpose of a sermon is to call the flock to the faith and hence requires attention to the needs of community to whom it is delivered.

A final thread that runs through many of the chapters is Cusa's relationship with his sources, and in particular the great German mystic Meister Eckhart, whom he is now known to have read by the 1440s. That Cusa was deeply indebted to the neo-Platonism that had been widely disseminated in the early Renaissance stands beyond doubt. But heavy concentration about the conventional neo-Platonic background has perhaps obscured debts to other authors, such as Eckhart and Jean Gerson. A key issue, highlighted by an exchange between Miller and Elizabeth Breint, emerges about the consequent originality of Cusa's theological and philosophical framework in relation to his sources. Does the discovery of Cusa's reliance upon a wide range of texts imply that we must his thought to be less innovative and more a channel through which the thoughts of other minds are expressed? Or does Cusa stamp his own special brand of philosophical and theological understanding upon all of the prior writings on which he draws? While there is perhaps no single or entirely satisfactory solution to this problem, it continues to raise its head in Cusa scholarship -- and indeed, in the study of important medieval thinkers generally -- just because of the very complex way in which authors of the Middle Ages interacted with and expounded the authorities of the past.

In reviewing a volume so replete with excellent scholarship, it may be somewhat unfair to single out for praise any one contribution, but I would be remiss if I did not identify my personal favorite chapter. Cusa has been rightly hailed as a progenitor of religious tolerance both between faiths and within Christianity: his De pace fidei of 1453 argues that, beyond a common acceptance of a few basic truths, religions should be permitted to flourish in "a variety of rites." Brian A. Pavlac's essay, provocatively titled "The Curse of Cusanus," provides a sort of test case for the practice of this principle by examining Cusa's use of the spiritual weapon of excommunication during his fifteen years as bishop of Brixen. As Pavlac notes, Cusa has sometimes been accused of overusing and misusing excommunication in order to achieve his ends of reforming the ecclesiastical and political institutions within his purview. Pavlac demonstrates, in a convincing fashion to my thinking, that the problem lay not with Cusa so much as with the very status of excommunication itself in the late Middle Ages. Supporting a thesis proposed a number of years ago by Elizabeth Vodola, Pavlac shows that by Cusa's time the legal situation of excommunication had grown so confusing and its authority had been so undermined that the same stigma did not attach to it that it had possessed in an earlier era. Hence, Cusa's apparently indiscriminate employment of declarations of excommunication was really part of a larger strategy to rein in the powerful within his jurisdiction and to reform the church in order to reestablish its liberty. And while this overall strategy may not have been successful, the reasons have much more to do with structural factors outside of Cusa's control, rather than with public annoyance at the bishop's overly zealous application of the stricture of excommunication.

Izbicki and Bellitto, then, have gathered together a fine summation of the present state of Nicholas of Cusa scholarship as well as a fitting tribute to the memories of three superb scholars. Taken severally and collectively, the papers contained in Nicholas of Cusa and His Age serve as an important indication of the energetic condition and promising future of Cusa studies throughout the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Article Details

Author Biography

Cary Nederman

Texas A & M University