15.06.15, Beebe, Pilgrim and Preacher

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Michael Vargas

The Medieval Review 15.06.15

Beebe, Kathryne. Pilgrim and Preacher: The Audiences and Observant Spirituality of Friar Felix Fabri (1437/8-1502). Oxford Historical Monographs. Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2014. pp. xviii, 270. ISBN: 9780198717072 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Michael Vargas
State University of New York at New Paltz
vargasm@newpaltz.edu

While in his mid-forties Friar Felix Fabri twice left his Dominican convent at Ulm to travel to the Holy Land. On the second trip his pilgrimage took him as far as Mount Sinai. Each time he traveled with a group that included other religious and members of Swabia's nobility, some of whom supplied him with travel funds. He later produced four texts recording and reflecting upon his travels: the Gereimtes Pilgerbüchlein, the Evagatorium, the Pilgerbuch, and the Sionpilger. Fabri is well known to those who study medieval travelers, especially because the Evagatorium makes curious and colorful reading. Kathryne Beebe's monograph does not invite readers to participate in Fabri's itinerary and tourist experience; readers are not encouraged to open their imaginations to what he sees and experiences, nor to the people he travels with and encounters along the way. For this experience virtual travelers and students of medieval wayfaring will want to turn to any of the editions and translations now available; English-language students will still find useful Hilda Prescott's learned retelling, Once to Sinai: The Further Pilgrimage of Friar Felix Fabri (London, 1947).

Professor Beebe has other aims, which include: recalling the circumstances of the production and transmission of each of Fabri's travel writings; understanding the reception and readership of the various textual forms; and gleaning what each of the texts tells us about late-medieval religious life in Germany, especially the religious life of the friars, nuns, and laity engaged in Observant reforms. This is scholarship of the very highest order. It is unfortunate that, like so many contemporary examples of academic writing, it can be recommended only to an extremely small group of readers. There is no reader-friendly storyline, no narrative arc, no denouement. Those with a keen interest in the transmission of medieval travel writings will find much in this book to engage them, as will those who study texts for what they reveal about audience, reception, and readership. As a contribution to studies of late medieval reform, the book will draw less attention.

The introduction and first chapter establish a broad range of contexts and engage the historiography. As a German-speaker from Zurich, Fabri may have had a heightened outsider's sensitivity to the politics and religious choices available to residents in Swabian Ulm where he resided in a Dominican convent. He keenly appreciated his Dominican responsibility to gain religious experience and to teach what he learned. The disappointments of his first pilgrimage drove him to gather up and read the travel guides written by others so that he might make best use, for others, of a second excursion. Ulm's dense network of religious houses and familial associations connected religious life to the political and economic life of the region's merchants and patricians. Fabri and his brothers at the Ulm convent also implicated themselves in the ongoing struggles between empire and papacy. Fabri participated in efforts to extend the reach of Observant reforms. After drawing out these various circles of his personal development, Professor Beebe posits Fabri's travels and travel texts within the various contexts of research on pilgrims and pilgrimage, including previous study of his work as well as the pilgrimage literature antecedents upon which he drew. The first chapter also reviews the key terminal locations of major pilgrimage routes, the genres of late medieval travel writing, and the audiences for travel literature. Readers unfamiliar with the many details here may find it difficult to appreciate their relevance.

In chapter two we learn more about Fabri's training and career in the Dominican Order, his participation in the cultures of writing and reading in Ulm, and his reading of travel texts in advance of his pilgrimages. Fabri joined the Dominican convent in Basle in 1453, at the age of fourteen or fifteen. He ascended the order's educational and promotional ladders, although the details of when and how are unclear. He was sent to Ulm to promote reform efforts there in 1465. He attended church councils and Dominican provincial chapter meetings. He served as spiritual adviser to reforming women's Dominican convents and he was well known, probably for serving various reformist and pastoral roles, at men's and women's convents of the Cistercian, Augustinian, and Carthusian orders in and around Ulm. He traveled with Franciscans and the leaders of local noble and merchant families. He was learned, well connected, and politically astute; the book sometimes generalizes these as Dominican attributes.

Chapter two moves next to describing Fabri's literary output. Several manuscripts and printed texts contain Fabri's sermons and sermon collections, his history of the Swabian region, and his miscellaneous writings. His literary honors were secure even before he wrote the pilgrimage accounts for which he is now best known. Of these, the Gereimtes Pilgerbüchlein is a short poem describing Fabri's first pilgrimage. He probably had it as his purpose to offer praise to Georg von Stein, a patron and co-traveler. It is available in only one extant manuscript. The Evagatorium, produced in Latin, describes both the 1480 and 1483-4 pilgrimages, and it includes much more. Fabri described the book's contents as confused and diverse and the composition as disorganized and difficult. It includes sermons, the history of his inherited homeland of Ulm, and a number of long disconnected discursions and asides. It is available in whole and in parts in several manuscripts and printed copies. Fabri wrote the Pilgerbuch before the Evagatorium, probably soon after returning from his 1483-4 journey. Written in Swabian and dedicated to the several noble patrons who funded his second journey, the circulation of the Pilgerbuch served broader reader interests than the more complicated Latin text. Finally, the Sionpilger appears to have been written specifically to offer nuns in his care a virtual travel experience. One can read the text as a day-by-day guide, not only to the Holy Land but to Rome, and also to Compostela, which Fabri never visited. It is key to Professor Beebe's argument that these various writings and rewritings, in prose and verse, long and short form, ordered and disordered in their parts, are testimony to the workings of a careful Dominican intellect. Fabri knew that he served multiple audiences and knew how to write for each.

Chapter three turns to the distinctiveness of each text, attempting to elicit how and why Fabri created each for its specific audience. What Beebe has suggested in previous pages she now doggedly pursues here: while Fabri transmitted all of his texts within a network of enthusiasts of Observant reform, each is directed at meeting the needs of a particular subset of his clientele. Fabri intended the Evagatorium to serve as profitable leisure reading for the clerical elite that included his own Dominican brothers, the students in his charge when he served as the Ulm convent's lector, and members of other religious orders. The text, in the Latin that appealed to clerical self-identity, employed the technical tricks of Fabri's own Dominican training such as attention-grabbing exempla, tangential side-stories and remarks, and changing frames of reference. Fabri drew upon and then moved away from the well-worn genres of the books used in Dominican schools to create something that was not only edifying and smart but also entertaining. The Pilgerbuch, written in the vernacular and dedicated to the patrons of Fabri's second pilgrimage, served a very different audience. Beebe describes it as a fireside and memory book and argues that it would have been read aloud in the households of nobles and merchants, Fabri's patrons first among them. Knowing that the text would be transformed into an auditory experience, Fabri could honor and praise his patrons within earshot of their families, friends, and attendants while also drawing these listening audiences into the pastoral project of elucidating the values of spiritual reform. The text records not only Fabri's personal travel experiences but also includes material about the travels he did not participate in, for example his patrons' return trip from the Holy Land to Ulm. Beebe argues that Fabri thus transformed travel writing, moving away from the template by which personal experience, whether real or invented, is recorded and explored, to a collection and intermingling of several travelers' experiences that in their variety offer more possibilities for engaging readers and listeners. Fabri's Sionpilger had the narrow purpose of addressing the spiritual needs of the nuns in his charge. Beebe asserts that the objective here was to permit virtual pilgrimage as a devotional exercise for those whose enclosure prevented them from traveling. She further suggests that Fabri may have had it as a goal of this work to provide a spiritual exercise that was less abstract and more colorfully written than other edifying travel texts written by mendicant authors, such as Bonaventure's Itinerarium mentis in Deum. To draw out the differences in style and purpose among these works, Beebe examines the way that Fabri rewrites several recurring passages. These include, for instance, his presentation of the moment that he and other seafaring pilgrims first gained sight of the Holy Land.

Chapter four considers what may have been the difference between Fabri's intended readers and the actual audiences for his works. To undertake this consideration Beebe returns to the manuscripts, which leave open questions including why Fabri's texts remained for so long in manuscript form rather than being printed, why so few manuscripts have been found in the houses to whose residents they were dedicated, why the Pilgerbuch did not, until the mid-sixteenth century, have as wide a distribution as the Evagatorium. The chapter, which will be especially useful to careful students of text transmission, illustrates the migration of texts from one context into another, as for example how the Pilgerbuch, originally devised to be read among clerics as a spiritual text, became one among a broad number of travel texts read by secular audiences for what information could be gleaned about travel, travel experience, distinctions of place and time, etc. Put broadly, with changes in the expression of religion came changes in how the texts were read.

Chapter five extends the reading of Fabri's texts as personal experience, Dominican experiment, spiritual exercise, and local history, moving into arenas that include their readings as German national texts. Its focus is particularly on the Sionpilger, especially the way it has presented itself to readers past and present as a pilgrim's tale and a contemplative exercise, practical guide and mental journey, real world entertainment and esoteric puzzle.

Preacher & Pilgrim is laced with comments, reflections, and assertions about Fabri as a reformer, about Dominican reform, the Observant reform movement active in many orders, among both men and women, religious and secular, and about late medieval reform aspirations particular to Swabia and the German lands. However, beyond adopting John Van Engen's recognition that reform drew multiple audiences to multiple options, Professor Beebe leaves us knowing little about what novelties she learned about what reform meant in fifteenth-century Germany. Recent writing on the internal politics of late medieval reform (James Mixson's Property's Proprietors is especially important as regards Observant reforms in Germany) requires that we abandon notions of reform as tidy and unifying and instead see it as contentious, multivariant, and conflicted. In this context, Beebe's rendering of reform remains a bit flat.

Pilgrim & Preacher is packed with ideas, suggestions, and demonstrations. I found these inviting, although ultimately frustrating in two ways. First, the author's creative writing often gets ahead of argument and evidence. References to "virtual pilgrimage" and "pilgrimage transformed," to the author's own "revolutionary methods," to "contextual reading of pilgrimage accounts as cultural documents," to unpeeling concentric circles of Fabri's experience with the result of "collapsing each identity upon itself," often added up to more words than meaning. Second, it would appear that the author, perhaps lacking confidence in the monographic potential of a careful reading of a few texts, tried to pack in and around the core analysis every conceivable bit of contextualizing material. The end result makes it too easy for readers to lose their focus on the important central arguments. I'll leave to readers whether these amount to serious flaws, and whether as flaws they belong only to the author or have become normative features of professional academic historical writing.

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