09.07.16, Scheepsma, The Limburg Sermons

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Judith Oliver

The Medieval Review 09.07.16

Scheepsma, Wybren. The Limburg Sermons: Preaching in the Medieval Low Countries at the Turn of the Fourteenth Century. Brill's Series in Church History. Leiden: Brill, 2008. Pp. xiii, 486. ISBN: 9789004169692.

Reviewed by:
Judith Oliver
Colgate University

Recent palaeographical and art historical research has redated the manuscript known as the Limburg Sermons (long assigned to much later in the fourteenth century) to around 1300 or even earlier in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. The ramifications of this have redefined the early history of Dutch literature, suddenly identifying its texts as the first thirteenth-century vernacular Middle Dutch sermons to survive. Most of them are translations of a Middle High German corpus known as the St. Georgen Sermons composed in the Upper Rhineland. Sixteen texts, however, are independent Dutch compositions, amongst which are the earliest known copies of texts attributed (or misattributed) to the two most famous female mystics of the Low Countries of that era, Hadewijch and Beatrijs van Nazareth. Scheepsma's study provides a painstaking analysis of each and every text, a very valuable overview of scholarship on Middle Dutch and German religious literature more broadly, and important insights into the mystical piety of Mosan and Brabantine religious circles. In the process he sheds valuable light as well on the splendid mystical compendium known as the Rothschild Canticles, which is of particular interest to art historians.

The manuscript which is the focus of this literary monograph, Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek MS. 70.E.5, is a small book of 247 folios in a fourteenth-century binding, decorated with red and blue penwork and one introductory historiated initial (reproduced in color on Scheepsma's book cover). The original provenance of the manuscript is unknown. Textual references to "brothers" lead Scheepsma to conclude that it was made for male religious who were beghards or pious laymen, since monks would be reading Latin, or alternatively for monks engaged in the cura monialium. This makes the Limburg Sermons the only such literary work not made for women. However, he posits the existence of a lost text model that would have been written for a female audience. The dialect of the text localizes its scribe in western Limburg where Brabantine elements were dominant. Shortly after their completion, the sermons were bound with a passion play whose Ripuarian German dialect indicates a Rhenish origin for this portion of the book. At least in the eighteenth century the manuscript belonged to the Franciscan tertiaries of Maagdendries in Maestricht, which had earlier been a house of beguines.

In the introductory chapter, Scheepsma sets out the history of the manuscript and earlier theories of authorship. Turning to its textual contents, he begins with a clear and concise survey of sermons as a genre and then introduces the German St. Georgen Sermons. This thirteenth-century collection was written in the Upper Rhine for nuns, probably Cistercians, and thus Cistercian filiations could explain how this text migrated to the Mosan region. Setting the St. Georgen Sermons in context, Scheepsma looks at sources in Cistercian writings and German religious literature in general in the Rhineland, all of it written for religious women. Much of it too was inspired by the Song of Songs, which plays an even greater role throughout the Limburg Sermons than in its German source. Finally the author places the manuscript in its historical context, noting the fervor of the new beguine movement in the Mosan region in the late thirteenth century, the large number of Cistercian nunneries for which male cura monialium was required, the large number of vitae of religious women from the region, a genre which was not as popular elsewhere, and finally the significant number of women writing in the vernacular equally notable in the region.

Chapter 2 constitutes the heart of Scheepsma's study, looking at each of its forty-eight texts in turn, to assess their origins, their themes, any internal evidence of potential audience and literary connections, and asking too how the sources were altered, and what the compiler's purpose was. A table of contents gives the theme of each sermon in Latin, its Dutch title, a short synopsis, and an indication of its length, which would have been useful in oral presentation. Thirty-two of the Limburg Sermons are translated from the St. Georgen Sermons, in several cases combining its sermons together. The same order is followed, with the exception of the first St. Georgen sermon which is moved to the end of the manuscript as its theme does not adhere to the bridal mysticism shared by the rest.

Two texts of French origin were also incorporated into the Limburg sermons. The Book of the Palm Tree (Sermon 31) is based on the French- language Livre du Palmier of c. 1220, which was translated in turn into Latin and then into German where it appears in the St. Georgen Sermons. An illustration of this treatise illustrates the Rothschild Canticles (New Haven, Yale University Beinecke Library MS. 404) of c. 1300, studied in depth by Jeffrey Hamburger, who identified numerous links between its imagery and German religious literature. This contradicts its very evident Flemish style, as its closest parallels are with books from St. Omer and Therouanne. The redating of the Limburg Sermons and its inclusion of the Palm Tree treatise and several other texts (including the Spiritual Wine Cellar, Sermon 43) related to images in Rothschild Canticles resolve the problematic Rhenish links, and resituates the book in Flanders in a Dutch-language mystical religious literary tradition rather than having it depend directly on a German one. [See also Scheepsma's earlier article, "Filling in the Blanks: A Middle Dutch Dionysius Quotation and the Origins of the Rothschild Canticles," Medium Aevum 70 (2001): 278-303.]

A second French source, Guiard of Laon's treatise on the twelve fruits, was translated in Sermon 40. Guiard (d. 1248) was Bishop of Cambrai, the diocese which included Brabant, and he was personally involved with several of the religious women of the Netherlands and was a supporter of the efforts to institute the feast of Corpus Christi. His treatise circulated in Latin, French, German, and in another independent Dutch version, so the exact text model for the Limburg Sermons text is unknown.

The Limburg Sermons has links with the two best known female mystics writing in Dutch. It contains part of one of Hadewijch's Letters (No. 10) in sermon 41, but this letter has now been removed from her canon. The Book of the Orchard (Sermon 39) is infused with Song of Songs mysticism, and appears to have made use of one or more of Hadewijch's letters. Scheepsma comes back to the subject of Hadewijch's writings at greater length in chapter 4. The second text traditionally ascribed to female authorship in the Limburg Sermons (Sermon 42) is the Seven Manieren van Minnen of the Cistercian nun Beatrijs van Nazareth (d 1268). Scheepsma takes a critical revisionist stance on its authorship, proposing that because it is very theological it is the work of a cleric, and possibly originated in Germany.

Other texts in the Hague manuscript are independent Dutch creations. Seven Passion sermons make great use of earlier exegetical texts and address a monastic audience. The Book of Lord Selfart's Rule (Sermon 44) discusses an unworthy monastery where monks follow self-will, a text which may be Franciscan in origin. Two sermons (46 and 48) bracketing the last of the St. Georgen Sermons at the end of the original manuscript are drawn from liturgical texts, the last a paraphrase of Ps. 150, the last of the psalms.

Within the space of two or three decades, the Limburg Sermons manuscript had travelled east to a German-speaking region which Scheepsma identifies as Aachen on the basis of dialect, and there the so-called Maestricht Passion Play was added, beginning on what appear to have been lined but unwritten pages of the original manuscript.

Chapter 3 then takes stock of the form and function of the texts. Using the Wine Cellar sermon (43) as his example, he explores some of the key elements of this literature: its insistence on the role of preachers and humility, its use of allegory as a form of exegesis, and the peculiarity that this is indeed work in prose in an era when all other vernacular Dutch literature was in rhyming couplets. Prose he argues was geared to oral recitation. The sermon genre with its dialogues, colloquial language, numerical lists, and vivid imagery from everyday life was geared to a semi-literate audience. The Song of Songs provided a rich store of imagery for the "minne mysticism" infusing these texts, that is ecstatic mystical experience of direct contact with divine love.

Chapter 4 is entitled "Backgrounds," which is a rather infelicitous choice for a chapter exploring the later transmission of the Limburg Sermons texts, their relations with the works of Hadewijch, the phenomenon of "minne mysticism" in this era, parallel developments in French religious literature, and finally the mystical networks in which the Limburg Sermons finds its home. Looking at later copies of Limburg Sermons material or fragments of it, Scheepsma identifies Brabant as the region where the largest number of copies were made, providing some support for its origin in this region. The extant copies of the letters of Hadewijch also came from this region. She is identified here as a beguine living in the second half of the thirteenth century, probably in Brussels. Scheepsma provides an overview of scholarship on Hadewijch, and assesses the likelihood that she was the author of the corpus ascribed to her. Links with the Limburg Sermons are assigned to use of common sources rather than to a direct connection between the two, but he concludes the works are contemporary and from the same region. Another service which the study provides is in providing an overview of French religious literature in the Mosan region, and an assessment of work associated with the beguines with which the Limburg Sermons has some affinities. However, Scheepsma concludes that there are few if any direct borrowings from French literature in the Limburg Sermon corpus.

Given the length and density of the text, its noticeable sprinkling of small typographical errors was probably inevitable, and the fact that it is a translation excuses its occasional choppy syntax. (The present volume is a translation of his De Limburgse Sermoenen. De oudste preken in het Nederlands [Amsterdam: B. Bakker, 2005].) Some errors, possibly the result of translation, deserve mention, however. Villers (83) was not a nunnery. In the life of Mary of Oignies, Jacques de Vitry (not Richard of St. Victor) "presents an ascending list" of her virtues (87). There is no bishopric of Huy (375, 390). The Sonian Forest (passim) is better known as the forest of Soignies. Polen (383) is Poland. Something was lost in translating "...translates minner with minner" (370). The many sections suddenly set off in smaller print provide a respite for the reader, perhaps, but the reason behind the shift isn't clear.

Scheepsma's study is enriched by 23 illustrations of key text pages and related manuscripts, as well as five appendices. These provide: 1) a detailed codicological analysis of the manuscript, concentrating on the problematic relationship of the original sermons portion and the added passion play; 2) the rubrics for all 48 texts; 3) a concordance of the texts in the Hague manuscript with all later copies of any of these texts and with the St. Georgen sermons; 4) transcriptions and analyses of the five instances where "brothers" are addressed in the text (hence identifying its original audience as male religious); and 5) full texts of two sample sermons, the Book of the Palm Tree and the Book of the Orchard (Sermons 31 and 39). There is also an extensive bibliography, an index of manuscripts, and a general index (with useful cross-references to variant spellings of authors' names, titles of texts, and all the individual sermons).

This meticulous, encyclopedic and minutely observed study elicits well-earned respect, and gratitude from English-speaking scholars for making this area of literary study accessible. It is dense with cross references amongst the many texts discussed and requires some close attention to footnotes. The insights Scheepsma's analysis of these sermons provides should enrich all future discussion of the beguines' literary context, Song of Songs imagery, and medieval mysticism more broadly, and will be of interest not only to literary historians but also to church historians, and art historians as well.

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Author Biography

Judith Oliver

Colgate University