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22.03.17 Chinca, Meditating Death in Medieval and Early Modern Devotional Writing

22.03.17 Chinca, Meditating Death in Medieval and Early Modern Devotional Writing

We’ve all been thinking about death more than usual over the past two years, unfortunately. Mark Chinca, however, has had a prescient head-start: he has crafted a truly learned 2020 monograph on medieval and early modern approaches to meditating on death which I found both erudite and thoughtful, elegantly written and richly documented. Moving temporally from the thirteenth-century milieu of the Franciscan revolution to the Reformations of the sixteenth century would itself be quite challenging enough for one author; Chinca, however, also works deftly between Latin and the vernaculars of France, Germany, and the Low Countries. The extensive footnotes and bibliography bear witness to his command of the literature of several periods and nations, as well as the past century of literary-theological scholarship surrounding these works. Especially admirable is his in-text citation of primary sources (Latin, French, German, and Dutch), allowing the interested reader to easily engage more deeply with the text rather than relying on his translations (excellent though they are) alone; footnotes, too, amply demonstrate here their superiority to endnotes.

After a succinct introduction (1-14), Chinca begins his argument with an examination of Bonaventure’s “transformation of monastic orthopraxis” (10), contrasting the Seraphic Doctor’s development of a programmatic series of exercises designed to focus devout readers’ attention on their death with an earlier Benedictine (and Anselmian) meditative tradition that trusted a reader’s ability to construct a pious series of meditations out of more disparate scriptural and contemplative material (“Monastic Meditation Transformed: The Spiritual Exercises of Bonaventure,” 15-65). The distinction between earlier common metaphors for spiritual progress--steps along a path, for instance--and Bonaventure’s graduated series of rungs on an ascending ladder is central to the further development of Chinca’s argument; this hierarchical systematization of contemplation on death is portrayed as the key to understanding one of the most significant changes wrought by thirteenth-century Franciscan devotional theology.

Chapter Two (“Out of This World: Seeing the Afterlife in the Somme le Roi,”66-108) turns to one of the most widely-circulated vernacular Dominican texts of late thirteenth-century France, Friar Laurent’s Somme le Roi (extant in Middle English in dozens of manuscripts as the Speculum Vitae). A text particularly effective in guiding the reader into a series of focused meditations on death, judgement, heaven, and hell, its translation into Dutch and English is also touched upon. Chinca examines the text’s use of both manuscript illuminations and metaphorical language to create, in the reader’s mind, the most vivid possible images of things fundamentally beyond the horizon of human knowledge.

On first learning of Chinca’s work, I was most eager to delve into his third chapter, “Touching Eternity: The Practice of Death in Heinrich Seuse” (109-153). The literature on Suso’s dissemination, translation, and influence across Europe is massive; the excerpted chapter of his one Latin work, the Horologium Sapientiae, instructing the reader on the art of dying well (Book II, Chapter 2) was especially widely read in the later Middle Ages (most famously in the Anglophone world, it was translated into verse by Thomas Hoccleve in the early fifteenth century as part of his Series). The chapter was no disappointment, even for this fairly avid Susophile: Chinca addresses both the Latin and Middle High German texts dealing with preparation for death (for the latter he departs from the standard translation by Frank Tobin [Classics of Western Spirituality, 1989], although his citations of the Middle High German in footnotes are keyed to the page numbers of Tobin’s translation for ease of cross-reference). Suso, Chinca argues, provided Latinate and vernacular readers alike with a dialogic mode of imagining death as they encountered a narrator conversing with an “unprepared dying man.” Suso’s elaborately-crafted rhetoric and complex interweaving of the sensory and the affective led, in this reckoning, to a uniquely powerful meditation on the need to prepare for sudden death. Although the potential bibliography for each chapter in this volume is so vast--and the author covers so much ground so very effectively--that lamenting the absence of one or another possibly relevant secondary works would seem at least moderately obnoxious, I nevertheless would have enjoyed seeing Chinca engage with Ashby Kinch’s excellent Imago Mortis: Mediating Images of Death in Late Medieval Culture (Brill, 2013), particularly given Kinch’s illuminating discussion of the French Suso manuscript tradition and its depictions of death and dying.

Chapter Four moves the argument forward into the late-fourteenth- and early-fifteenth-century Low Countries with a skillfully-wrought exposition on “Rewriting the Text of the Soul: In and Around the Devotio Moderna” (154-205). Here, the practices of textual production employed by communities of the New Devout are especially crucial: the spiritual notebooks or commonplace books (rapiaria)kept by many of its members engaged each reader-scribe in a literary quest for texts aiding in the contemplation of death, judgement, heaven, and hell. Guides to these “four last things” depended on a rhetorical strategy of repetition which shaped the reader’s own understanding of meditation--especially apt for a movement in which “the itself a text to be worked on” (159).

After engaging with literary and theological traditions firmly in the hands of medievalists for 200 pages, Chinca ends his study by examining “Grace, Faith, Scripture, Spirit: Lutheran Transformations” (Chapter Five, 206-252). The vast array of relevant Lutheran texts designed to assist worshippers in preparing for a Christian death is impressively condensed and systematized; matters linguistic, scriptural, and theological are all treated with customary aplomb. Given the apocryphal status of Sirach-Ecclesiasticus, I was surprised to see the book’s leitmotiv, Sirach 7:40, invoked with such approval by so many Lutheran authors. Avoiding the pitfalls of so much trans-Reformation scholarship, Chinca steers the reader between the Scylla of teleological triumphalism and the Charybdis of seeing nothing new under the sixteenth-century sun. Mark Chinca has drawn our attention to a fascinating, changing psycho-spiritual medieval and early modern tradition of contemplation, and his work deserves to be widely read. Synthesizing the scholarship of previous generations in at least a half-dozen distinct fields, his expansive argument on the development of modes of meditation on the inevitability of death across five centuries and as many languages is indeed a remarkable accomplishment.