18.09.22, Jones, Ruling the Spirit

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Bruce Holsinger

The Medieval Review 18.09.22

Jones, Claire Taylor. Ruling the Spirit: Women, Liturgy and Dominican Reform in Late Medieval Germany. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. pp. 224. ISBN: 978-0-81224-955-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Bruce Holsinger
University of Virginia

The Divine Office, the unceasing cycle of sung prayer that formed the beating heart of medieval monastic life, shaped the culture of the premodern Christian world in fundamental ways. In this erudite and original study, Claire Taylor Jones shows convincingly the changing and often surprisingly imaginative role of the Office in the spiritual and institutional lives of Dominican nuns. Revising longstanding assumptions about the declining interest in liturgical protocol among Dominican Observants over the course of the later Middle Ages, she shows that fraternal investment in the ritual culture of convents found creative ways of renewing liturgical life for nuns--though not toward the ends of some poorly defined "resistance," nor a mystical transgression of theological norms. Rather, Jones suggests, the careful study of liturgy and reform among the Dominicans shows us "a continuous devotional history of ordered liturgical piety" (3) with important bearing on our understanding of liturgical culture more broadly. Such regulated piety, as Jones shows, allowed for immense variation and creativity within the boundaries of orthodox spirituality and practice; in this respect her book resonates with the work of Susan Boynton, Eamon Duffy, Margot Fassler, Miri Rubin, Katherine Zieman, and others who have transformed our understanding of medieval liturgy in recent years. Through a series of thoughtfully organized and carefully conceived studies of key figures and texts in the institutional history of the German Dominicans, Jones shows how the lives and preoccupations of the order's nuns emerge within and across an array of Latin and vernacular sources (regulations, treatises, visionary tracts, chronicles, and others) written, compiled, and collected over nearly two centuries. The archive on which Ruling the Spirit draws is a remarkable testament in itself to Jones's achievement in this book, which blazes new ground in the study of the liturgical cultures of the medieval West.

The book begins with an informative and wide-ranging introduction laying out some of the historiographical and methodological stakes of the study. The six remaining chapters proceed more or less chronologically from the founding of the order in the early thirteenth century up to the eve of the Reformation in the late fifteenth. It may seem odd to kick off a book on the creative dimensions of liturgical piety with an in-depth study of institutional regulation, though as Jones shows in Chapter 1, "The Office in Dominican Legislation, 1216-1303," it was through their careful attention to liturgical rule and the nature of obedience that the earliest Dominican writers on liturgy sought to establish some of the "ground rules" for the sisters' piety at the moment of the order's founding. Jones makes the illuminating point in this chapter that many of the subtlest modifications to the Observants' liturgical life are to be found in what she calls "normative documents": the various genres of institutional prose in both Latin and vernacular that sought to lay down rules for obedience and observance while leaving space for creativity and even improvisation in spiritual life. This same attention to the oscillation between the normative and the exceptional informs the book's second chapter, "Detachment, Order, and Observance in Johannes Tauler and Heinrich Seusse," which pairs the Rhineland visionary and preacher Tauler (ca. 1300-1361) with the better-known Seusse (1295-1366) to show the implications of the Dominican preoccupation with the proper ordering of religious life. In different ways but with ultimately complementary results, Tauler and Seusse work through and theorize the inextricability of ordenunge and underscheid, order and discernment, a religious dynamic that will prove crucial in liturgical practice over the ensuing decades of Dominican history.

If the work of Tauler and Seusse "provide the groundwork for a spirituality rooted in the order and its Office," the sisterbooks produced in the fourteenth century "illustrate the blossoming of this liturgical devotion" (56), as Jones shows in chapter 3, "Liturgical Devotion and Visionary Order in the Fourteenth-Century Sisterbooks." The chapter focuses on a number of examples of this remarkable collaborative genre drawn from a variety of institutions, including Underlinden, Adelhausen, Weiler, Töss, and St. Katharinental, written in both Latin and German. The sister-books combine local miracle stories, founding narratives of institutions, incidents drawn from daily life, and so on, but one of their most salient features, as Jones sees it, is their preoccupation with liturgical life: "Far from celebrating extra-ordinary exceptionalism, the narratives in the sister-books continually privilege observance of the Rule and Constitutions, as well as devotion to the Divine Office" (59). Reading numerous representations of liturgical ritual as it shapes the lives of the Observants, Jones brings out the continuing centrality of the Rule to even the most extraordinary moments of devotional fervor among the era's Dominican nuns: "The Rule, the order, and the Office are not restrictive bonds to be broken but living wellsprings from which the sisters drink" (85).

Jones returns to the theme of the second chapter in "The Office in Dominican Legislation, 1388-1475," a brief chapter that tracks the remarkable consistency of the order's attitude toward the Divine Office from the era of its founding, despite numerous institutional and spiritual reforms among the Dominicans more broadly. Here she most directly challenges traditional views of Dominican liturgy, particularly William Bonniwell's contention in his classic History of the Dominican Liturgy (1944) that the order's "liturgy had fallen from its proud place" by the late fourteenth century. Questioning this narrative of liturgical decline, Jones shows through careful examination of regulatory documents, the acts of the General Chapters, and visitation letters that Dominican liturgical culture was alive and well in the fifteenth century.

This historiographical argument sets Jones up well for the book's final chapters, which turn to the work of two prominent reformers of the later Middle Ages. Chapter 5, "Contemplative Visualization Versus Liturgical Piety in Johannes Nider," examines the work of Nider (ca. 1380-1438), a Swabian theologian and reformer who played an important role in Dominican reform in the early decades of the fifteenth century. Jones focuses here on two very different translations of John Cassian's Conferences, influential spiritual dialogues from the patristic era. Nider played a role in both versions, and Jones's exacting treatment of their differences reveals subtly distinctive approaches to the role of the Office in conventual life. The book's final chapter, "Liturgical Community and Observant Spirituality in the Work of Johannes Meyer," takes up the writings of Johannes Meyer (1422/23-1485), author of numerous historical chronicles, an accomplished translator, and a compiler and editor of several sister-books and other material central to the order's self-fashioning in late-medieval Germany. Meyer was also an influential reformer as well as a mentor of Observant women; his industrious devotion to the written life of the order is evident in the remarkable range of sources he bequeathed to later generations of Dominicans (as Jones puts it, "we have Meyer to thank that some of the material I have examined survives at all" [127]). Jones focuses primarily on two of Meyer's works, the Amptbuch (or Book of Duties), a substantially reworked translation of Humbert of Romans's Liber de officiis ordinis, a descriptive catalogue of the various duties taken on by nuns in women's religious communities; and the Buch der Reformacio Predigerordens (or Book of the Reformation of the Order of Preachers), completed in 1468. Both works limn detailed accounts of the virtues and ethics of spiritual bureaucracy and fraternal organization; as Jones puts it, paraphrasing the Amptbuch, "these duties were considered an obstacle to a sister's individual devotion but could become a source of grace through the virtue of obedience" (144)--a sentiment with which any well-meaning university administrator will sympathize.

The concluding pages of Ruling the Spirit bring us full circle to what Jones has shown to be the paradoxical role of regulation and legislation to spark new and vibrant forms of devotional life within a historical arc defined by a kind of punctuated continuity rather than radical rupture. Like the subjects of her study themselves, Jones has rewritten the history of Observant religious to give us "a vision of the order's forma vitae, its legislation, and its liturgy, as a wellspring of spiritual devotion" (160). The study of medieval liturgy as a creative cultural practice has reached a new level of maturity with this bracing study, which will be of great interest to scholars working in medieval literary and religious studies, institutional history, gender studies, and the new liturgical studies as it resonates across the disciplines.

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