Response to TMR 11.11.08, Christine Caldwell Ames' review of David F. Tinsley, The Scourge and the Cross: Ascetic Mentalities of the Later Middle Ages, Mediaevalia Groningana New Series 14 (Leuven: Peeters, 2010).
Response by David Tinsley
University of Puget Sound
My book The Scourge and the Cross is a study of the blood mysticism and extreme asceticism that occupy a central role in the spiritual lives described in the so-called "Sisterbooks" (spiritual biographies collected by the sisters of nine Dominican convents in the fourteenth century, Henry Suso's Exemplar, and other texts the sisters read or helped to compose), and it aims to show how such practices, endorsed by some contemporaries and condemned by others, could be understood as an integral part of the soul's journey to God. Almost one third of this study is devoted to the blood mysticism of the Oetenbach sister, Elsbeth von Oye. The third chapter identifies ascetic models in German vernacular adaptations of the Lives of the Desert Fathers. The fourth chapter presents a reading of Henry Suso's Exemplar that reverses the gender hierarchy of canonical scholarship in order to privilege the asceticism of Elsbeth Stagel. The concluding chapter examines the implications of extreme asceticism that privileges suffering--whether imposed by God or the Devil--for theodicies arising in ransom theory. Prof. Ames is welcome to question my arguments or disagree with my conclusions about these texts, but she fails to engage my arguments at all, preferring to focus on what she thinks I did not do.
The critical approach I employ is that of studies in mentalité, pioneered by the Annales school, something that Prof. Ames does not mention. My intent is therefore to explore the asceticism of a particular collective at a particular time. The lives described in the Sisterbook materials provide examples of fourteenth-century Dominican asceticism; nowhere do I say that they define it. The conclusions I draw regarding blood mysticism and asceticism must therefore be examined, at least initially, in terms of their meaning for this collective and not at the level of generalization that Prof. Ames employs in her review.
Prof. Ames offers a list of well-known experts on Dominican spirituality that she says find no mention in my book. Her critique ignores the existence of the substantial body of scholarship written specifically on the Sisterbooks, on these Dominican convents, on Suso and Stagel, and on the revelations of Elsbeth von Oye. And it is precisely within this more concentrated area of focus that my discussion of secondary sources takes place. Here I took special pains to engage the most substantive discussions of the Sisterbooks material from both sides of the Atlantic, precisely because German and Anglo-American medievalists communicate so little with one another. Prof. Ames does raise a fair question: How much is one obligated to cite standard studies in Dominican spirituality when they do not reference directly the primary sources under analysis? This is a judgment call, but she does not cite specific omissions that resulted in misinterpretations.
Most troubling is Prof. Ames' seeming unfamiliarity with what she dismissively calls the "German milieu." Much essential research on the Sisterbooks material has been conducted by medievalists writing in German. Most of my book consists of close readings of Middle High German texts. Prof. Ames does not discuss the primary texts that I analyze. She does not cite the standard German scholarship on these texts, nor does she mention key sources written by North American medievalists in English. The result is that my conclusions are questioned without reference to the scholarly debates that inspired my research in the first place.
I can only speculate as to why my book provoked such a response by a scholar who has never published in any area related to my source material--Prof. Ames has written a fine book on the Inquisition and is certainly knowledgeable about the Dominican Order. I suspect it has to do with the differing points of emphasis in the critical debates within North American Dominican Studies and Medieval German Studies. I still believe these communities can learn much from one another, but only if they choose to engage in productive dialogue, which, unfortunately, was not the case here.