Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.06.16 Hofman et al (eds.), Inwardness, Individualization, and Religious Agency in the Late Medieval Low Countries

The Medieval Review

21.06.16 Hofman et al (eds.), Inwardness, Individualization, and Religious Agency in the Late Medieval Low Countries


The religious culture of the late-medieval Low Countries offers contemporary scholars a wide array of textual evidence for any number of phenomena: it is perhaps little surprise given the sheer profusion of surviving manuscripts (both Latin and vernacular), then, that forms of inwardness, individualization, and agency are richly attested to in the texts associated with the Devotio Moderna. Nevertheless, as the two opening chapters of this volume amply demonstrate, focused attention on these themes has been relatively rare in recent decades; the seven essays collected, following this pair, largely succeed admirably in examining some of the ways in which text, selfhood, and church interact in the records left by the Modern Devout (both in manuscript and in early print). While more careful consideration of the intricacies of the interactions between the late-medieval Low Countries and texts from preceding centuries and neighboring regions would have welcome--that is to say, a more definitive account of the potential novelty of the forms of inwardness and individualization explored in these essays--there is, of course, a limit to what any single volume can hope to accomplish. At its finest moments, the authors in this conference collection uncover significant material substantiating the larger claims put forth in the introduction, as well as employing a range of fruitfully generative methodologies; overall, this collection is an excellent contribution to scholarship on religious and textual history, and deserves to be read widely.

Rijcklof Hofman's introduction, "Inwardness and Individualization in the Late Medieval Low Countries: An Introduction" (1-34), briefly surveys some of the critical literature on this quite vast topic, then employs a variety of sociological and historiographical material to help define some of the key terms at stake in the chapters to follow. Pitting R.W. Southern against Jakob Burckhardt, thus invoking a debate medievalists might think long since settled about the putative origins of selfhood and individuality, is nevertheless quite salutary so long as blatant Burckhardtianism is still somehow allowed to run rampant in certain quarters. From Paul and Saint Augustine to Gregorian Reform and the rise of universities and mendicant orders, this well-trodden ground is still valuable to frame the following discussion (particularly insofar as the contributors will be almost exclusively concerned with later centuries). His description of Berndt Hamm's theory of "devotional theology" (Frömmigkeitstheologie)as "devotional writing with no theology, standing in opposition to scholastic writing" (19) strikes me as quite a severe misunderstanding, although it appears only briefly. Rob Faesen's chapter, "'Individualization' and 'Personalization' in Late Medieval Thought" (35-50), is a useful extension of this discussion, exploring the distinction between these two key terms at the heart of the conference and volume in their wider intellectual history. Faesen begins in the twelfth century, using Peter Abelard and William of Saint-Thierry to explore the fundamentally relational understanding of individualism for the latter. He then turns to Ruusbroec, Ignatius of Loyola, and an early modern Pseudo-Taulerian collection associated with the Cologne Carthusian Laurentius Surius (1523-1578) to demonstrate the ongoing role of the definition of the individual soul in terms of its relationship (sometimes expressed communally, always mediated textually) to God.

The role of biographical and autobiographical information about central religious figures in the late-medieval Low Countries in illuminating the concept of selfhood and interiority unites the next two chapters. Rijcklof Hofman's essay, "Geert Grote's Choice of a Religious Lifestyle Without Vows" (51-66), demonstrates that one of the fundamental moments in the history of the Modern Devout hinged on a particular style of individualization leading to a life of inwardness (along with a rejection of magic). Margarita Logutova takes an interesting methodological approach in "'Ama nesciri': Thomas a Kempis's Autobiography Reconstructed from his Works" (67-86), scouring the texts of this most famous (yet elusively humble) author of the late-medieval Low Countries in an attempt to discover what one can know about him as an individual--despite his belief that one should fundamentally love to be unknown. This thorough examination leads her to explore his attitudes toward learning and religion in his younger years, most especially, as well as the various moments of holiness he mentions having witnessed; she includes some of the earliest biographical references to Kempis as well.

Nigel Palmer's contribution to the volume--"'Antiseusiana': Vita Christi and Passion Meditation before the Devotio Moderna" (87-119)--is especially astute. Noting the tremendous success of the Hundred Meditations on the Passion (ca. 1325-1330) of Henry Suso (or Heinrich Seuse) in the Low Countries, he opposes that text's determined focus on physical suffering to David of Augsburg's somewhat earlier meditation on following Christ which instead provides "a long list of Christ's virtues, human qualities, and his habitual behaviour" (89), with only a brief mention of the Passion. While the Hundred Meditations serve as the most significant example of the dominant discourse of Passion meditation (in which an almost excruciating emphasis is placed on the realities of Christ's body and its torment), Palmer proposes the category of "Antiseusiana" to describe other prominent and widespread texts encouraging meditation on the life of Christ in which a broader understanding of Christ as moral exemplar for the devotee was developed. Chief among these are Bonaventure's Tree of Life, preceding Suso, and the laterJordan of Quedlinburg's Meditations on the Passion of Christ and Ludolph of Saxony's Life of Christ.

Koen Goudriaan's essay, "Modern Devotion and Arrangements for Commemoration: Some Observations" (121-136), provides insightful commentary on evidence for individual preferences expressed in a variety of requests for posthumous prayer. Drawing on the MeMO (Medieval Memorial Online) database--a repository of over three-thousand tombstone inscriptions, hundreds of other art objects, and four-hundred manuscripts--Goudriaan acknowledges that while the standard narrative of steadily increasing individualization cannot be proven, nevertheless the evidence of the fifteenth century demonstrates the power of commemoration of the dead to amplify the relationship between the individual, the collective, and God. The late Anne Bollmann's essay, "Close Enough to Touch: Tension between Inner Devotion and Communal Piety in the Congregations of Sisters of the Devotio Moderna" (137-158), first explores a guide to contemplative life written by Salome Sticken (1369-1449)--originally written in a now-lost vernacular--for the use of communities of Modern Devout Sisters (for an English translation of the text, see John van Engen's 1988 Paulist Press volume, Devotio Moderna: Basic Writings [pp. 176-86]). Bollmann then turns to the sisterbooks of the Modern Devout for further evidence of Salome Sticken's importance as an exemplar of female piety in the fifteenth century, concluding with a brief study of the autobiography of Alijt Bake (1415-1455, a translation of this text is forthcoming from van Engen).

Thom Mertens and Dieuwke van der Poel collaborate in "Individuality and Scripted Role in Devout Song and Prayer" (159-179) to expand on the emotional and visionary resonances of song and prayer on devout readers. Beginning with a study of Zerbolt of Zutphen's The Spiritual Ascents, Mertens and van der Poel investigate the Middle Dutch song cycle The Spiritual Melody to demonstrate how the songs develop a lyric-I-persona who is linked to the individual reader, who is in turn guided through the cycle by interpretive prose introductions. Finally, Anna Dlabačová's chapter, "Illustrated Incunabula as Material Objects: The Case of the Devout Hours on the Life and Passion of Jesus Christ" (181-221) rounds out the volume nicely with a discussion of an early printed edition of a vernacular series of prayers meant to be used by laypeople without sufficient time for a full recitation of the Divine Office. Her attention to the varied coloring added to the seven extant copies of five separate editions of the text, as well as the various marginalia added to some of the editions, elucidates the scope of personalization present at the end of the fifteenth century as books became mass-produced for devout laypeople.

As is often the case in conference proceedings, the chapters at times are slightly more disparate than otherwise might be the case; still, the selection and editing process seems to have yielded a more cogent collection than most. While individual chapters will surely be useful for scholars working on the specific authors or texts discussed therein, the volume as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This diverse team of scholars has produced a series of essays that undoubtedly will reward sustained reading: I hope a good number Anglophone readers will find the title intriguing enough to explore the collection more deeply and benefit from the remarkable fruit of their labors.