15.03.15, Samerski, ed., Cura Animarum

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Matt Wranovix

The Medieval Review 15.03.15

Samerski, Stefan. Cura animarum: Seelsorge im Deutschordensland Preußen. Forschungen und Quellen zur Kirchen- und Kulturgeschichte Ostdeutschlands, 45. Cologne: Böhlau, 2013. Pp. 249. ISBN: 9783412210274 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Matt Wranovix
University of New Haven

This collection of thirteen articles by German and Polish historians was the product of a 2010 conference in Danzig-Oliva on the theme of pastoral care in lands of the Teutonic Order in Prussia between the conquest of Prussia in the mid-thirteenth century and the conversion of the last Grandmaster, Albrecht of Brandenburg-Ansbach, to Lutheranism in 1525. Although scholars in recent decades have studied the spirituality of the order and the theological program of the Order's architecture, studies of concrete pastoral activity have been lacking. According to the volume's editor, Stefan Samerski, the articles in this collection are intended to help fill that gap. Scholars in the volume approach pastoral care "in its contemporary conditions, organizational forms, and typical characteristics as the result of the individual identity of the involved institutions" (9). The effort to link practices in the cure of souls to the specificity of the Teutonic Order and other religious institutions in the region is laudable, but the failure to anywhere define what is meant by the term 'pastoral care' results in a volume less focused than one might wish.

After a brief preface by Paul Mai and foreword by Samerski, the volume begins with two efforts to identify the self-concept of the Teutonic Order. Using a fresh reading of the Order's statutes, Arno Mentzel-Reuters argues that scholarly emphasis on the Order's military character has served to obscure the fact that the knights saw themselves as monks in the Cistercian tradition. The theme of the Order's statutes is not the struggle against the heathen, as one might expect, but rather the subordination of aristocratic violence to spiritual ends and the values of a monastic community. Brothers administered hospitals that cared for pilgrims and the sick and borrowed practices from more traditional monastic orders, such as the Cistercian chapter at which members were expected to come forward to confess their faults to the community. The statutes were often copied with a liturgical calendar as well as a series of prayers, none of which had a military character.

Roman Czaja, on the other hand, uses chronicles and personal correspondence to argue that while the corporate identity of the Order remained focused on the crusade against the heathen, the Order failed to instill a strong corporate identity in its members. Chronicles, such as Peter von Dusburg's Cronica terre Prussie, which likened the eastern crusades to the ancient Israelites' conquest of Canaan, were read at meals. Czaja claims, however, that such practices were never able to overcome fully the regional differences among the members of the Order. Towards the end of the Middle Ages communal life broke down; brothers lived outside the convents, acquired private property, violated vows of obedience, and neglected common prayer. In this context, the individual identity of the brothers was more heavily influenced by courtly and aristocratic culture. It is difficult to reconcile Czaja's depiction of deteriorating communal life with Mentzel-Reuters' emphasis on the Order's communal religious practices.

Radosław Biskup provides a useful outline of the development of ecclesiastical structures in Prussia, a story that begins with the establishment of four dioceses (Culm, Pomesania, Ermland, and Samland) in 1243 and continues into the 14th century with the steady establishment of a network of parish churches. The Order enjoyed enormous influence over these ecclesiastical structures; the cathedral chapters in Culm, Pomesania, and Samland were incorporated into the Order, and the Order served as the patron of numerous parish churches.

Two articles survey the contributions of mendicants to the establishment of Christianity in the lands of the Order. Rafał Kubicki describes the convents and activities of Augustinian Hermits, Carmelites, Franciscans, and Dominicans, although the latter orders receive the lion's share of attention. The mendicants played important roles in missionary activity among the Prussian people and ministered to the spiritual needs of urban settlements. Mendicant brothers provided essential services prior to the establishment of a full network of parish churches; they preached, administered sacraments, served as pastors, permitted the endowment of altars and chapels in their cloister churches, and honored donors by inscribing their names in Books of the Dead. Piotr Oliński, on the other hand, focuses exclusively on the Franciscans. Originally brought in as a counterweight to the Dominicans, the Franciscans were active missionaries and also played a crucial peace-making role during periods of discord among Christian powers in the region.

Two articles deal with collections of Bible versifications that resided in the libraries of the Order and have thus been associated strongly with the Order in historical scholarship. Edith Feistner qualifies work over the last two decades that has questioned the existence of a well-defined and distinct genre of literature produced by the Order for the spiritual edification of its members. Feistner closely analyzes seven examples of vernacular bible versifications from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that retell stories from the Old Testament, including Judith, Esther, Daniel, Job, and Ezra and Nehemiah. Although found in the Order's libraries, there is no evidence that would suggest these texts were produced by or for the Order. However, Feistner argues that these texts were self-consciously collected by members of the Order because stories about the struggles of the Israelites for the Promised Land helped to legitimate the military campaigns and territorial lordship of the Order in Prussia. The texts were valued for their 'historical' accounts, not for their biblical exegesis. So while it would be incorrect to imagine a specific genre of catechetical literature produced specifically for the brothers, there is evidence that the Order sought out and collected texts that supported its mission.

Michael Neecke focuses on just one of the texts discussed by Feistner, 'Judith von 1254.' Neecke notes a potential tension between the militaristic self-image portrayed in the statutes of the Order and this poem, which calls on readers or listeners to engage actively with the text. Rather than the elimination of God's enemies, the text emphasizes the acquisition of spiritual wisdom through the study of scripture. Members of the Order, however, radically reinterpreted the text as a prefiguration of their own colonization efforts. Peter von Dusburg's chronicle, the Cronica terre Prussie, for example, used language from Judith in its description of an incursion by the Lithuanian prince, Witen.

Christopher Herrmann surveys the sacred architecture of the region, cathedrals, convents, and parish churches, describing the salient architectural features typical of the region along with more local variations. The article is based almost exclusively on the impressive footwork of the author (the article contains only two footnotes and both refer to the author's own Habilitationsarbeit). The article includes a useful map of the region's four dioceses and numerous color photographs, most taken by Herrmann himself. Annette Löffler provides a similar survey, this time of the region's liturgical practices. Using the Order's statutes as well as surviving calendars and liturgical books, Löffler describes the liturgical ranking given to various feasts along with the number and identity of the sequences associated with each.

In a lively article, Cordelia Heß questions the traditional claim that the Order had a unique spiritual relationship with the Virgin Mary. Mary, as regina coeli, was used to legitimate the Order's territorial lordship, but was also venerated by individual brothers as a personal intercessor and protector, the mater misericordiae. Although no one can deny the importance of Mary to the Order, Heß proves decisively that neither type of veneration was unique to the Order in Prussia. Other institutions used the image of Mary as regina coeli, and Mary as intercessor appears in art and literature throughout Prussia and the rest of Europe.

If Mary could never have been a patron unique to the Order, perhaps a more local figure could have been. Stefan Samerski describes the life of Dorothea von Montau and the efforts of the Order to have her canonized. Dorothea, born in 1347, was a married woman who adopted Bridget of Sweden as a role model. Even while married Dorothea went on numerous pilgrimages; after her husband's death she had herself immured near the cathedral in Marienwerder where she confessed and communicated daily until her death in 1394. A year later, formal petitions were submitted to the pope to consider Dorothea for sainthood. Miracle stories proliferated and her cult began to spread, but the Order's support for canonization was interrupted by the Great Schism, periodic warfare, and finally the secularization of the Order during the Reformation. Only in the 19th century did the cult re-emerge as a focus of Prussian identity, and Dorothea was not canonized until 1976.

Klaus Militzer traces the emergence of lay brotherhoods in the lands of the Order. Due to the slower development of cities and the later introduction of mendicant orders, brotherhoods appear later in the east than the west, but eventually they would fulfill similar roles in the lands of the Order as they did elsewhere.

The volume ends with a second, and very amusing, contribution by Edith Feistner. She provides the text and a modern translation of the middle-high German poem, "The Lithuanian" (Der Litauer), by Schondoch. In the story, a Lithuanian prince witnesses a Eucharistic and Trinitarian miracle; he sees a priest divide a strong man into three pieces from each of which a giant emerges. The priest gobbles up all three and then offers a similar meal to the assembled brothers. The prince is convinced that this explains why he is losing the war; whenever his warriors kill a Christian knight, another man simply emerges to take his place. The prince later corners the priest and expresses the desire to eat not three, but rather four men in order to become even stronger. Conversion ensues.

While the individual contributions to this collection are all valuable, more could have been done to improve the cohesion of the volume and to make the contributions more accessible. There is no introduction to the history of the Order and Prussia; the only article that provides anything resembling an overview is Biskup's description of the ecclesiastical landscape but that article appears third. The only map that can provide a general orientation to the region is provided in Herrmann's article on architecture. Some of the articles themselves could also have been made more transparent. Löffler's article does not define liturgical terms (such as totum duplex, duplex, and semi-duplex), while Herrmann's survey of the region's architecture contains no in-text references to the plates at the end of the article. The most glaring lack, however, is any definition of pastoral care or historiographical discussion that might help contextualize the individual contributions. The result is an eclectic mix of articles some of which are only tenuously connected to the topic of pastoral care as normally understood. Readers attracted by the title hoping to find articles, for example, about confession, sermons, parish administration, the parish clergy, or missionary activity will be disappointed. Especially in light of Heß's and Militzer's conclusions one is also left wondering what about pastoral care in Prussia in this period was truly distinctive.

These, however, are common pitfalls of collected editions of conference proceedings and should not detract from the real value of the individual contributions; each offers keen insight into the self-concept of the Teutonic Order and the establishment of Christianity in Prussia.

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Author Biography

Matt Wranovix

University of New Haven