14.09.17, Wesjohann, Mendikantische Gründungserzählungen im 13. und 14. Jahrhundert

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Anne Müller

The Medieval Review 14.09.17

Wesjohann, Achim. Mendikantische Gründungserzählungen im 13. und 14. Jahrhundert: Mythen als Element institutioneller Eigengeschichtsschreibung der mittelalterlichen Franziskaner, Dominikaner und Augustiner-Eremiten . Vita regularis - Ordnungen und Deutungen religiosen Lebens im Mittelalter- Abhandlungen . Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2012. Pp. 744. ISBN: 978-3-643-11667-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Anne Müller
University of Wales Trinity Saint David

When it comes to the study of historical narratives compiled in, or rather for the mendicant orders, I think this new book will become a new pillar of this subject area. Rooting in Wesjohann's doctoral thesis and forming part of the well-known German series "Vita regularis," this impressive thick tome concentrates on the foundation histories in the great mendicant orders of the Franciscans, the Dominicans and the Hermits of St. Augustine, commonly called the Austin Friars. The analysis develops in the context of three crucial questions. The first is: why could religious orders apparently not stand their grounds without a mythical origin? The second asks how these orders shaped and manipulated their histories; and the third is about the purposes for which the historical narratives evolved.

Presenting three different stories of identity building, the great value of the book lies in its comparative approach. While emphasizing the constructive, stabilizing function of the orders' own founding histories (for which German academic discourse uses the term "Eigengeschichte"), Wesjohann is surely right not to bother his head with ideal divisions of genres, such as hagiography and historiography. Running the gamut of all degrees of mythical texts and sacred fiction, his analysis includes chronicles, saint's lives, legends, paranetic texts, sermons, tracts as well as 'official' documents produced by the orders' governments. For the sake of simplicity, Wesjohann packs together and approaches all these texts as "myths."

Building on theoretical reflections that derive from an analysis of institutional systems, the book's introduction stresses the formative power of charismatic leadership in the process of the orders' foundation. It then points to the problem that charisma faded after the founder's death and the need arose for transpersonal "authoritative substitutes." The main argument behind the whole book is that the myth in this crucial situation generated a new formative power. It was within the myth, Wesjohann argues, where the dynamics and charismatic energy of the founding phase was actually preserved. According to Wesjohann, there was no stronger incentive for the members of orders than the charismatic substance conserved and perpetuated in the myth.

Forming the main body of the book, the following three chapters put this assumption to the test. The evident diversity of the three orders in regard to structures, ideas and historical development certainly adds to the excitement of this study. This, in particular, includes the basic problem that not all of the three mendicant orders could historically hark back to their own, real charismatic founder, but had, as in the case of the Austin Friars, first to create one.

The first part of the book explores the myths developed around St. Francis, a true and well known charismatic figure. Here, of course, Wesjohann cannot steer around the confusions brought in by the "Franciscan question." Yet he is not using his pages to spark a new, full discussion on what is basically about the dating and interdependency of the Franciscan sources. Wesjohann's approach to the sources is different. He starts to look at what we know about the real life and real ideals of Francis. It is from there that he then goes to detect how actual developments made and shaped the myth. What he is looking for in particular is, as he calls it, the surplus funds of the myth ("mythischer Überschuss"). His argumentation in this context is that the myths around the life of St. Francis were not only developed for setting a good example for the generations to come. The crux in this regard, Wesjohann reminds us, was that the charismatic life (and extraordinariness implied) were hardly imitable by the normal member of the order. Therefore, Wesjohann argues, the myth had effect at another level: By recalling the life of the founder, an extraordinariness rooting in the creation of the order was built up--and this made the order unique. In the Franciscan context, this extraordinariness was connected to completely new ideas of poverty--one of the central themes from where the myths around Francis grew out. With this point of view, Wesjohann offers us an exciting and new story about self-legitimization. He shows us how Francis' own and real ideas of extreme poverty were transferred in the order's own narrative, how they manifested the claims of the future community and indeed provided orientation in the teeth of historical change.

The second part of the volume explores the process of myth-making in the Dominican Order. As is well known, this order came into being with a hardcore pragmatic at its top. Rationality, functionality and an affinity for rule and order are features normally connected to Dominic's life, rather than charisma. Nevertheless, what Wesjohann shows by taking the reader close to the Dominican legends is that there was also a mythical nucleus in this founder's life with a clear charismatic dimension. In this case, however, it was preaching and pastoral tasks from which the myth sprung out. Those two themes equally dominated the mythical narratives of this order as well as the normative texts.

The third part then looks on the Augustinian Hermits and the breeding grounds for their myth. Here the discussion builds on the work of Erik Leeland Saak as it traces a founding myth coming out in fact from a fiction--a fiction, which indeed supported the beginning of this order as an artificial combination of several eremitical groups. Centering on the claim that the fourth-century church father St. Augustine in person had founded the order, this fiction came up at a strikingly late point of time, namely in the late 1320s, when the order had already two generations or so under its belt. Wesjohann shows us how this new link and claims to the bishop of Hippo as well as the hermits' self-understanding as "sons of St. Augustine" supported the gradual transformation of the order into a coherent group and helped to shape out a form of religious life nourished by the intellectual and spiritual life of the church father. The chapter is remarkably thorough in its analysis of legends and narratives amongst which Jordan of Quedlinburg's Vitasfratrum appears as a key text for the construction of the Augustinian Hermits' new Fourteenth century identity. In this context, Wesjohann's discussion also gives food to ponder whether or not the Augustinians had sparked their historical fictions under competitive pressure. This, apparently, was the case when the Augustine Hermits claimed the right of the tomb-guarding at the grave of St. Augustine in Pavia. This was at the expense of the Austin Regular Canons, indeed their strongest competitors. Consequently, at the core of these two orders long-lasting quarrel was the validity of the myth.

Achim Wesjohann's book reveals a broad knowledge of historical source material as well as of international secondary literature. The study is complex in argument, but written in a nice and clear language, which is not often a hallmark of German academic books, let alone doctoral theses. This book deserves a broad audience, not only in Germany but also (as I am writing this from Germany) beyond the sea. I am sure this study will centrally contribute to the current debate about identity building in religious orders and set new parameters for future comparative work.

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Author Biography

Anne Müller

University of Wales Trinity Saint David