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19.06.03 Wranovix, Priests and Their Books in Late Medieval Eichstätt

19.06.03 Wranovix, Priests and Their Books in Late Medieval Eichstätt

As students of medieval Christianity know all too well, traditional scholarship has tended to paint a rather bleak portrait of western society and life in the late Middle Ages. Within this scholarly portrait, as within the society it has sought to depict, the Church holds a prominent place; and within the Church, the parish clergy stand out with a particular conspicuousness, of course. Around the middle of the twentieth century, prominent church historians such as Joseph Lortz, Hubert Jedin, and Jean Delumeau numbered the ignorance and impiety of late-medieval clergy among the causes of the Protestant Reformation. Such clerical failings were understood at least as symptoms of a prevailing societal and ecclesial decadence. Wranovix explains: "This period was long described as an age that careened from crisis to crisis, devastated by the Black Death, torn by the Great Schism, buffeted by the Hundred Years War and Hussite challenge, and finally capsized by the Reformation. With such a backdrop, widespread clerical ignorance was to be expected, a sign of the times" (xi).

Aiming to provide a corrective to this outdated and mistaken depiction, Wranovix offers an illuminating study of the educational opportunities available to parish priests, their bureaucratic responsibilities, and their access to books in the diocese of Eichstätt in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century. Such a focused, regional study of priests and their books is necessary, according to Wranovix, in order to "move beyond unhelpful, generalized stereotypes" (xiii). And the late-medieval diocese of Eichstätt, consisting of approximately 300 parishes, offers several notable advantages for this kind of study. First, the diocese had no large cultural centers (e.g., Nuremberg, Augsburg) that might have skewed the analysis; on the other hand, however, Eichstätt was by no means a cultural backwater. Second, the oldest complete visitation record from German-speaking lands that survives comes from the diocese of Eichstätt: it is the record of the formal diocesan visitation carried out by Johannes Vogt, a canon of the cathedral of Eichstätt, in 1480 at the direction of Bishop Wilhelm von Reichenau (1464-1496). Vogt's sizeable record (the manuscript runs to 150 folios) provides a wealth of information for Wranovix's study, including the names of parish clergy serving in the diocese in 1480, assessments of each cleric's and parish's synodal statutes and liturgical books, and details concerning the financial resources of the clergy. Third, several factors specific to the fifteenth century encouraged greater use of the written word even among the lower clergy, including greater access to education, increasing bureaucratization of parish administration, and the decline in book prices (which is attributable not only to the discovery of the printing press c. 1450 but also to improvements in the production of paper prior to mid-century).

In general, this book provides a fascinating window onto the lives and ministerial work of the clergy of late-medieval Eichstätt in relation to the written word. From beginning to end, Wranovix invites his reader into a richly diverse and highly nuanced world that defies any attempt at monochrome portrayal or blanket description. He notes in the opening chapter ("Education"), for example, that the priesthood itself was far from uniform and included Mass priests, altarists, assistant priests, chaplains of chapels and daughter churches under the jurisdiction of a parish church, and curates, whether rectors or their vicars. Whereas a basic ability to read the liturgical books and celebrate Mass ordinarily would have sufficed for Mass priests and altarists, rectors and vicars assumed other responsibilities that required a greater degree of literacy, including serving as confessors and preachers. Thus, in addition to liturgical books, the "essential tools of their trade" included the synodal statutes, a pastoral handbook, confessional manuals, sermon collections, and postillae on the Gospels and Epistles (17). Thomas Aquinas's treatise De articulis fidei et ecclesiae sacramentis, for instance, was approved as a pastoral manual by the provincial councils of Mainz (1451) and Cologne (1452), after which it was distributed, together with the provincial statutes, in the dioceses of Augsburg, Würzburg, and Eichstätt.

In Chapter 2 ("The Priest in the Parish, Diocese, and Territory") Wranovix fills out this complex picture further, showing how record keeping, facility with documents, practical knowledge of canon law, and the ability to negotiate the demands of bishop and lord were indispensable skills for the fifteenth-century parish priest. For the administration of the sacrament of Penance, for example, a priest was expected to keep updated lists of more serious sins that could be absolved by the bishop, or pope, alone. The penitent sent to the episcopal penitentiary for absolution of these reserved sins was forbidden from receiving Communion unless or until he or she presented written confirmation of such absolution to the priest, which confirmation he would need to be able to read and ratify. Whereas such sacerdotal duties would not have required the learning of a scholar, they would have presupposed a basic education in both German and Latin.

Chapter 3 ("Parish Libraries and Personal Collections") examines the availability of books and their acquisition by priests in the diocese of Eichstätt. The more efficient production of paper in fifteenth-century Europe translated to decreasing prices and rising rates of consumption, both of which led to increased demand for books among the clergy well before the printing press. In an effort to concretize this reality for the reader, Wranovix offers some revealing numbers. For example, whereas the parchment alone needed to copy Nicholas of Lyra's Postilla on the whole Bible, stretching to 1,440 folia in folio format, would have cost 77 gulden--nearly three times the average annual income of a parish priest in the Eichstätt diocese in 1480 (28.5 gulden)--the same amount of paper would have cost between 1.5 and 6 gulden. Although some parish clergy could afford to and did purchase books, copying books for oneself remained an attractive option for many priests throughout the fifteenth century. From 1465 to 1468, for instance, Ulrich Diettersperger, the vicar in Greding, constructed for himself a pastoral and theological handbook that consisted of, inter alia, Johannes Kusin's On the Hearing of Confessions, an abbreviation of Bonaventure's Collations on the Ten Commandments, Vincentius Gruner's Exposition of the Mass, and Thomas Aquinas'sOn the Articles of Faith and the Sacraments of the Church. This volume serves as one extant example of books privately owned or produced by the parish clergy in the diocese of Eichstätt from c. 1440 to c. 1514. Based on such survivors, Wranovix estimates that during this period the clergy of Eichstätt held private ownership of more than 4,600 books, which estimate does not include (a significantly higher number of) volumes in parish libraries. Acquiring, owning, producing, and using books were not, then, "the activities of a small elite," according to Wranovix; rather, the evidence suggests that they were "widespread among priests" in fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century Eichstätt (84-85).

In Chapter 4 ("A Professional Library") Wranovix offers a meticulous and captivating analysis of the largely intact library of one priest and preacher in the diocese during the second half of the fifteenth century, Ulrich Pfeffel. Thirty-five books (containing well over 200 works) that belonged to Pfeffel have come down to us, and the fact that he filled the majority of these books with marginal comments shows that he read them. The printed books that Pfeffel purchased include Nicholas of Lyra's monumental Postilla super totam Bibliam and the Second Part of the Second Part of Aquinas's Summa theologiae. Among the texts of which Pfeffel produced his own copy is Aquinas'sDe articulis fidei, and a note penned at the beginning indicates the priest's recognition of its pastoral utility: "In this little treatise you will find sixty-four distinct heresies about the articles of faith and twenty distinct heresies concerning the seven sacraments" (112). In addition to Lyra's Postilla, Pfeffel owned individual biblical commentaries (on the Gospels, Song of Songs, and Wisdom), a few sermon collections, and tools for crafting sermons, including Distinctiones bibliae, an alphabetical concordance to scenes from the Gospels, a concordance of biblical names, and miracle stories.

Wranovix concludes his study (Ch. 5, "Reading Interests") with a somewhat broader treatment of the contents of the books collected by Pfeffel and his colleagues. The analysis here has four significant foci: the collection of practical legal, homiletic, and instructional texts to aid everyday pastoral work; an interest in contemporary doctrinal issues; the use of texts in the fashioning of a professional priestly identity; and the dabbling of these pastors in the healing arts of the body. Wranovix draws the findings of his five chapters together in a concise conclusion, gesturing at promising avenues of future research. He ends his excellent study with these apt words: "It is perhaps time, therefore, to replace the ignorant cleric with the professionalized one in narratives of the Reformation's early successes and failures. The late medieval parish clergy could and did read books. Further research into what they read and when is necessary if we hope to better our understanding of the religious culture of the late medieval parish" (173).

By means of two appendices, Wranovix very helpfully sets scholars and students on this path of discovering what late-medieval priests read and when. Appendix A lists texts appearing in books owned and/or produced by priests in the diocese of Eichstätt, organized according to nineteen genre/thematic rubrics, including "Biblical Commentaries and Study Aids," "Bibles or Portions of Bibles," "Canon Law, Statutes, and Excerpts," "Confession and Penance," "Liturgy, Mass, and Office," "Pastoralia," "Patristics and Classics," "Sermon Collections," and "Theology and Doctrine." Appendix B similarly lists and organizes works appearing in books belonging to the parish library of Schwabach.

This reviewer's one substantive critique of this excellent monograph is that at times Wranovix seems anachronistically to retroject a modern, anti-scholastic bias onto a very different historical reality. In describing the contents of the parish library at Schwabach, for example, Wranovix writes: "Works by Augustine, Gregory the Great, Jerome, Boethius, Isidore of Seville, and even a few twelfth-century masters such as Hugh of St. Victor, Peter Comestor, and Bernard of Clairvaux provided stylistic relief from an otherwise unrelieved succession of scholastic authors" (79-80). First, it must be noted that Hugh of St. Victor and Peter Comestor are, of course, scholastic authors. More significantly, however, Wranovix provides no evidence that the fifteenth-century priests he studies felt any such need for "stylistic relief" from "scholastic authors." To the contrary, in fact, he explicitly affirms that these priests had "a marked preference...for more recent scholastic works over classical or patristic texts" (131); and he convincingly shows, whether intentionally or not, that late-medieval priests such as Pfeffel tended to distinguish "scholastic" from "pastoral" works far less often and much less clearly than moderns might. Wranovix provides a dramatic example when he offers evidence that Pfeffel seems to have consulted his copy of Heinrich Gotfried's Commentarius in quartum librum sententiarum, quaestio 23 on extreme unction, as he administered last rights to his own mother. "Pfeffel was a person who turned to his books even in moments of pain and grief," Wranovix affirms (123); even his scholastic books, we might add. Relatedly, Pfeffel praised an abbreviation of the Lectura Mellicensis, Nicholas of Dinkelsbühl's commentary on Book IV of the Sentences, as "good and simple for any priest" (114); and he made innumerable references to Aquinas's Summa in the loose sermon outlines and notes scattered throughout his books. Such historical details suggest that the modern categories and classifications according to which we have sought to understand the Middle Ages may, particularly if applied too rigidly, obfuscate as much as they illuminate. In general, though, Wranovix's study admirably illustrates how we might reimagine traditional scholarly categories in order to see late-medieval priests and their books more clearly.