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19.08.25 Huijbers, Zealots for Souls

19.08.25 Huijbers, Zealots for Souls

Anne Huijbers's study of Dominican order historiography in the era of the Observant reform is a veritable gold mine. She examines well-known and well-studied chronicles by friars as well as nuns, most composed in Latin but also German and Italian, and presents dramatic new insights into these texts. These new arguments are largely possible because she has also identified and analyzed a number of previously unedited and unstudied chronicles preserved in autograph manuscripts. She is thus able to trace both the working habits of individual chroniclers, as well as the genealogy of Dominican order historians as they borrowed, copied, edited, and augmented each other's texts throughout the long fifteenth century. Her study not only makes these chronicles more accessible for future research, but also makes important interventions into our current understanding of late medieval Dominicans, of humanist literate culture, and of the afterlife of these works in modern historiography.

The book comprises nine chapters split into three uneven parts. Part 1 proceeds generically in a series of chapters that work towards a typology of Dominican historiography, taking into account structure, aims, and method. After chapter 1 establishes the purpose of these texts (edification and promotion of the order), chapter 2 shows that Dominican writers--friars and nuns alike--valued the textual process of compilation and redaction. They heavily "borrowed" from earlier writers while expecting successors to augment and continue what they had done. Chapters 3 through 5 address in turn order chronicles, convent chronicles, and collective biographies. Huijbers describes broad characteristics and organizing principles: order chronicles, for example, are structured according to the succession of masters general, whereas collective biographies group vitae by classes such as prelates, doctors, and saints. Huijbers is careful not to make these categories rigid but rather acknowledges how a work might slip into another mode or become attached to a text from another genre. She also emphasizes that the anticipated audience governed choices about organization and representation.

Part 2 explores the representation of the Observant movement. In chapter 6, Huijbers uses treatises to establish the specifically Observant concept of reform before showing that chroniclers incorporated these ideas, and sometimes the words, directly into their writing. However, by 1517, many chronicles were printed, outward-facing representations and no longer portrayed the internal order division caused by the reform movement. In chapter 7, Huijbers lays out the topoi and themes that Observant chroniclers used to legitimize their status as the true heirs to Dominic, including a rhetoric of decline, metaphors of new light, and a dramatization of suffering on behalf of the Observance. Chapter 8 further explores the ideal qualities of an Observant Dominican. Huijbers shows that friars were most commonly praised for their Marian piety and their commitment to pastoral care; Observant chroniclers were not interested in the activities of inquisitors. Nuns modelled patience in suffering and devotion to enclosure, while tertiaries exemplified active service. In all cases, exemplary virtues are emphasized at the expense of miracles and visionary accounts.

Part 3 contains only chapter 9, which extensively discusses how humanism changed the rhetoric and practice of Dominican historiography.

The book's primary aim is ostensibly to investigate the qualities that were important to Dominicans in describing their own order identity during the Observant reforms. To my mind, however, the most important take-away from this book is Huijbers's discussion of writing process. Her careful comparisons of the chronicles both on the textual level and with regard to the material form in which the manuscripts have survived lead her to conclude that across this period all writers employed the same basic method. From the late fourteenth through the early sixteenth century, all chroniclers relied heavily on pre-existing texts, which they often copied almost verbatim only "cleaning up" the language and supplementing or updating the material with personal accounts or new sources. Identifying this broad similarity has huge repercussions in two major areas of scholarship: renaissance humanism and women's writing.

Huijbers's analysis of humanist writings corroborates recent scholarship, which has debunked renaissance humanists' own claims to novelty and rigor. For centuries, Dominican chroniclers had been silently borrowing each other's work while also suppressing their own names. When renaissance humanists began to celebrate their own endeavors while (in keeping with medieval tradition) suppressing the names of their sources, they conveyed an impression of original authorship strong enough to dupe readers without access to the manuscript sources. To be sure, the advent of humanism introduced a radically new set of values to Dominican friars (justice and civic service as opposed to piety and obedience) as well as to Dominican historiography (authorial self-celebration replacing the humility topos). However, the new values for writing largely pertained to aesthetics and rhetoric, not source criticism. Huijbers shows that humanist "research" hardly differed from that of their medieval predecessors, since humanists, too, mostly copied and rewrote earlier texts that were available to them.

In fact, humanist histories tended to be less rigorously accurate than the medieval chronicles on which they drew, because the stylistic demands of humanist Latin encouraged them to invent orations and classical references not found in their sources. These additional references were not limited to framing material (prologues, dedicatory letters, and frontispieces) but even infected core moments of Dominican narrative: Giovanni Garzoni's 'Vita Divi Dominici' portrays the order's founder invoking Cicero at the moment of his death. (312) Whereas medieval authors such as Johannes Meyer and Girolamo Borselli mention perusing convent archives when they traveled, humanists valued rhetoric to the extent that it was more important for a text to be convincing than that it actually be accurate. Humanist historiography, Huijbers argues, has been accepted as authoritative "because it was printed and widely diffused--not because the authors employed more critical historical methods than their medieval predecessors" (319). The persistent notion that renaissance scholars broke with their medieval forebears by confronting multiple sources with a critical eye cannot be substantiated in these texts.

Huijbers's conclusions concerning texts for women in relation to texts for men are (to me) more exciting, because they explode an idea of Observant writing that has been assumed for decades. Scholars of Observant vernacular literature have noticed the reluctance to portray visions and miracles and have argued that friars suppressed these accounts in an active attempt to rein in women's spiritual excesses and to deprive them of their self-expression and independence. Others have noted that women's writings tend to be rather messy works in progress that pull together a wide variety of generic forms (letters, charters, biographical anecdotes) in contrast to the more polished works of men. Huijbers shows that these conclusions were drawn from insufficient data and incomplete manuscript study. When one takes into account the many surviving manuscripts of Latin chronicles and vitae that friars wrote for friars about friars, the differences fade.

Even when friars wrote in Latin for other friars, they emphasized virtues over miracles. For example, each successive iteration of Vincent Ferrer's vita slashed the section on miracles eventually down to nothing. And in literature for and about women, fifteenth-century nuns exhibit the same reluctance to record visions and miracles as friars. With regard to the form and style of the writing, Huijbers points out that previous scholarship was comparing apples and oranges--unplanned, in-house, collaborative works-in-progress versus second-hand revisions of preexisting work. The structured, smooth narrative organized into chapters that was seen as characterizing men's writing reveals itself to be editorial work. When one finds the original source or the autograph manuscript of a friar's chronicle, it is equally messy, rambling, and miscellaneous. As Huijbers states strongly, "the main gender difference was that men wrote their chronicles in Latin, whereas women predominantly used the vernacular" (141). This discovery ought to provoke a fundamental reevaluation of the ways in which women religious participated in male literate culture, focusing on methodology and writing process instead of Latin literacy.

I opened this review by calling the book a gold mine. This strength is also the work's greatest weakness. Long passages of each chapter list features and characteristics of the chronicles, explaining their content and organizing principles. I was fascinated by these discussions, which offer up much more than I am able to summarize in this review, but readers without my deep investment in the Dominican Observance may find these sections a slog. The last section of each chapter is a summarizing conclusion that does an excellent job of summing up each chapter's main points and a reader could easily navigate to peruse selectively.

The ancillary materials at the end of the book are also quite useful. The color illustrations of relevant manuscript pages drive home Huijbers's arguments about writing process, censorship, and shifting self-representation. The extensive list of primary works is also quite handy, although Huijbers only lists manuscripts that she was able to consult. It would have been a real service to the field to include all known manuscripts and indicate the ones consulted with an asterisk, for example. Nevertheless, this work demands further research into late medieval historiography, and everyone interested in the literary cultures of the long fifteenth century among men and women on both sides of the Alps should read this book.