19.08.27 Mulder-Bakker, The Dedicated Spiritual Life of Upper Rhine Noble Women

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Shelley Amiste Wolbrink

The Medieval Review 19.08.27

Mulder-Bakker, Anneke B., Gertrude Jaron Lewis and Tilman Lewis (trans.), and Michael Hopf and Freimut Löser (eds.). The Dedicated Spiritual Life of Upper Rhine Noble Women A Study and Translation of a Fourteenth-Century Spiritual Biography of Gertrude Rickeldey of Ortenberg and Heilke of Staufenberg. Sanctimoniales . Turnhout Belgium: Brepols, 2017. pp. xiv, 271. ISBN: 978-2-503-57431-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Shelley Wolbrink
Drury University
swolbrin@drury.edu

In a fifteenth-century treatise Johannes Nider brought special attention to the domus animarum, the so-called houses of souls where widowed women and their companions practiced the holy life, especially in Germany. These urban women lived religiously in their own homes through association with spiritual poverty, inspired by the mendicants who often served as their confessors. Discovered in the 1980s, the Brussels Royal Library holds an important female-authored Middle High German text that confirms Nider's account. The Saintly Life of the Blessed Lady Rickeldey contains the spiritual biography of the widowed noble woman Gertrude who sought independent holy living first in Offenberg and then Strasbourg. Gertrude served religion, politics, and society with the help of her more educated companion Heilke of Staufenberg. Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker's The Dedicated Spiritual Life of Upper Rhine Noble Womenoffers this text in English translation, situating Gertrude's active asceticism within the urban milieu. Written around 1340, The Saintly Life provides a useful reminder of the doubts, fear, and struggles that practicing urban religiosity entails. The text also highlights the reciprocal relationship between two financially independent women, their domestic household, and urban communities, and the textual community of female hagiographer and her readership. Examining the inner spiritual life fused with a program of doing, Mulder-Bakker suggests that Gertrude and Heilke became "pioneers for a new social justice in a community of Christian solidarity" (62).

Although the Bollandists considered Gertrude for inclusion among the saintly pantheon, she was overlooked with no dramatic death or sanctioned cult. However, by documenting the epitaph on her 1335 gravestone, the Bollandists left clear historical evidence of her remembrance as a lay religious woman. In addition, the anonymous female author of The Saintly Life not only refers to herself as the legend's composer, but also includes how she obtained information from personal knowledge and conversation with Heilke after Gertrude's death (173). A collaboration of several scholars, The Saintly Life's English translation is featured in part two of the book, and includes numerous footnotes and clearly marked references to the Brussels manuscript such as folio numbers. Scholars should note, however, that the consulted transcript for translation is an unpublished 1990 dissertation (5, fn. 8). Nevertheless, The Saintly Life offers a vivid spiritual biography of a widowed woman who chose the holy life, yet maintained her own political and financial power without guardianship.

The text offers a model for practicing virtue and holiness for other female religious, and invites the reader to consider Gertrude's mental engagement with purgatory and the Last Judgment in an intimate way; we read, for instance, of how Gertrude, after eighteen years of widowhood, eventually sought to free her despicable husband from purgatory. The end of The Saintly Life demonstrates connections to Meister Eckhart, placing the relatively unknown Gertrude and Heilke in his circle. Indeed, the text indicates familiarity with Eckhart, allowing Mulder-Bakker to pose the question about who really influenced whom (62).

Throughout the text, Gertrud and Heilke are depicted as loyal companions, bouncing ideas off of each other and sternly reprimanding the other when needed. The conversational tone that the author brings to the text allows inner conversations to be revealed, frequently filled with debate over issues such as penance or how much wealth should be given away. Their independence was guided by Franciscan confessors, including a Spiritual Franciscan, Heinrich of Talheim, who impacted Gertrude's rigorous embrace of poverty. Acting continually in her role as religious concierge, Heilke balanced these religious extremes and mediated urban life on behalf of Gertrude. The text exposes Gertrude's quest to live a saintly life, including frequent communions, rosary recitations, and penance. Gertrude and Heilke offered their home to other women in Offenburg, and later founded a Franciscan tertiary house. In the midst of famine, they gave meat, gruel, and pennies to the poor. They lived a blessed life together, although only Gertrude received her inspiration directly from God and considered herself an ascetic. Although extant in only a single text from the fifteenth century, The Saintly Life will be ripe for pairing Gertrude of Rickeldey with Margery Kempe, Yvette of Huy, and Ida of Louvain, among others, as women interested in spiritual asceticism outside of monastic walls. However, this text stands alone for its originality, written by a woman about women for other women.

Mulder-Bakker, whose oeuvrehas already contributed to a more nuanced understanding of religious women outside of monasticism, richly contextualizes the English translation, offering a detailed historical background with special consideration of the ascetic domestic household and houses of souls, in six chapters. Mulder-Bakker views Gertrude and Heilke as formidable companions who performed contemplation in action and earned social-religious prestige. Mulder-Bakker argues for a clear distinction between Beguines, who were recognized by cities and did not own homes, and lay religious women. In fact, the author of The Saintly Life describes Gertrude's niece as a "poor Beguine" (44), but placed Gertrude within the secular sphere, wearing a grey cloak as a poor sister (45). Mulder-Bakker, and her collaborative team, offer a highly original text filled with vivid social history and a rare entryway to a noblewoman struggling to practice the holy life amidst political intrigue and noble lineage, especially precarious given the assault on Beguines.

Emphasizing the overlooked ascetic domestic household, this book is a remarkable contribution. Fulfilling the goals of the Sanctimoniales series from Brepols Press to foster dialogue between German and English-speaking scholars, the bibliography, annotations, as well as the collaborative effort in translation, brings a tangible excitement for future collaborations. High price and lengthy academic title aside, several chapters are ideal for the classroom. However, the footnotes, and sometimes the text, could be edited better. Some assumptions particularly about nuns seem over-drawn, particularly that they lived sequestered without decision-making power (2). Likewise considering how Gertrude and Heilke's experiences were constrained, for instance, by gossip or ascetic ideals, might provide a more complex evaluation of their independence. More scholarship on social class, especially the ministeriales would be helpful (61). Overall, this book contributes ably to studies of community and religious women in late medieval Germany. Mulder-Bakker succeeds in placing Gertrude among other medieval superheroes such as Elizabeth of Thuringia, Catherine of Siena, and Meister Eckhart. The Saintly Life is a fascinating woman-authored text that documents female companionship, spiritual growth, and advocacy for the poor amidst the tumult of urban life, wealth, and family.

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