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23.10.18 Harrison, Thousands and Thousands of Lovers

23.10.18 Harrison, Thousands and Thousands of Lovers

It is a rare gift to engage with a scholarly work that thoroughly immerses the reader in the life of a medieval monastic community--its sights, sounds, smells, and tastes; its hopes, joys, doubts, and struggles; its daily administration, intellectual fervor, liturgical creativity, and spiritual aspiration. Such is the gift that Anna Harrison gives her reader in Thousands and Thousands of Lovers: Sense of Community among the Nuns of Helfta. She brings this community of Cistercian nuns to life chiefly through three of its surviving works: theSpiritual Exercises of Gertrude of Helfta (1256-ca. 1301/2), and the collaboratively composed Herald and Book of Special Grace associated with Gertrude of Helfta and Mechtild of Hackeborn (1241-ca. 1298/9), respectively. Harrison notes: “Taken together, these texts run close to 1,250 printed pages, making this the century’s largest body of religious writing by women” (xvi). Certainly the extent of these texts is just cause for celebration--and wonder, among those of us who study religious women’s communities with far less evidence--but what makes the texts remarkable in Harrison’s estimation is their “unyielding, nuanced, and wide-ranging” concern for the Helfta community (xvi). The Herald and the Book of Special Grace are especially revealing of the community that inspired, authored, and preserved them. These texts recount the visions, teachings, prayers, and deeds of Gertrude and Mechthild, as well as those of Abbess Gertrude of Hackeborn (1223-1292), but they were not authored by these women, nor did they feature them exclusively. One or several nuns in the community, working for many years unbeknownst to their subjects, authored these texts, perhaps with the oversight of Gertrude and Mechtild later in their compositions. Harrison insists that these writings were the fruit of a corporate, all-women endeavor, “with almost no discernible male involvement,” even from the clerics who said masses and heard confessions in the community (xvi). Harrison frequently refers to the Herald and the Book of Special Grace as “the Helfta writings,” and rightly so because they are best read as the work of the community, not any single individual. Harrison proves that these texts are “among our richest resources for understanding the significance of community to late medieval people” (xvi).

At the outset of her study, Harrison claims to make a threefold contribution to “the history of ideas about the function of the collective in forming the self, the study of female authorship and intellectual achievement, and to investigations into monastic spirituality in the later Middle Ages” (xxi). She succeeds on all counts. In tackling the first, she clearly evinces her intellectual formation under Caroline Walker Bynum, ultimately arguing that the Helfta nuns’ “conception of community and individuality [were] mutually complementary” (435). Through daily exercising their love for God, each other, and the wider world, and receiving love in return, the nuns came to understand themselves both as individuals treasured for their differences and as members of a community that encouraged greater interdependence and permeability among the selves that constituted it. Thus, the nuns could give their lives wholly to the love of God and others and remain a recognizable self. More truly, it was only through such self-gift that they could fully become themselves.

Harrison divides her study into three parts focusing on the nuns’ sense of community among each other, with the wider world, and with the dead in purgatory and in heaven. The first part is comprised of four chapters that, in turn, examine the collaborative composition of the Helfta writings and the spiritual significance of such work to the community (chapter 1), the relationships among the nuns and the centrality of conversation to their life together (chapter 2), their shared experiences of illness, death, and grief (chapter 3), and the communal bonds joining the living and the dead that were forged and celebrated in their public communal worship (chapter 4). With rich and lengthy quotations from the Helfta writings, Harrison shows how and why the nuns supported each other in attaining great intellectual and spiritual heights, but she does not refrain from discussing passages in the texts that mention the challenges the nuns faced in living together: needy or unpleasant personalities, divergent or misguided practices, distracting or burdensome responsibilities, and much else besides. Such challenges were not unique to Helfta--they deviled every monastic community--but the nuns’ writings give readers keen insight into the various ways they addressed and endured them.

In the second part of Harrison’s study, she takes a wider view of the Helfta nuns’ sense of community, including attendant clergy (chapter 5), and members of their household and outside laity (chapter 6). The nuns respected and depended on the priesthood, especially their power to confect the Eucharist, but they did not pursue one-on-one relationships with priests as confessors or spiritual directors. This “lack of discernible interest” in clerical supervision and authorization distinguishes the Helfta nuns from many other late medieval religious women whose lives are still known to us (228). The Helfta nuns relied instead on each other as spiritual guides; “Gertrude even assumed the role of at least a sometime confessor to her sisters” (229). The nuns’ confidence in the significance, even superiority, of their spiritual work, however, was tested in their interactions with laity, particularly those who labored within the community as conversi and administrators or who threatened the convent’s sanctuary from outside with physical violence. In separate visions received by Gertrude and Mechtild, Christ affirmed the equal value of liturgical and non-liturgical work; both could be meritorious not only for those undertaking it, whether vowed religious or laity, but for others, too. Similarly, Christ exhorted the nuns to love and pray for those who persecuted the convent and had been excommunicated from the church, because the possibility of their reconciliation had not yet been foreclosed; they were still members of Christ’s body and could be saved in the end.

The third part of Harrison’s study delineates more fully the vertical axis of the Helfta nuns’ sense of community, which incorporated the souls in purgatory (chapter 7) and the saints in heaven (chapter 8). This was a community that firmly believed in “the reciprocal bonds of obligation” that united the living and the dead: the nuns assisted the souls in purgatory through their prayers and increased the joy of the saints in heaven through their praises, and the dead helped the nuns in their spiritual progress, particularly at the moment of their passing beyond this life (430). But the Helfta writings admit that praying for the souls in purgatory was not always easy. At one point, Gertrude asked Christ why reciting a psalter for the dead was beneficial when she found this practice so tedious (326). She and others often had to be moved to compassion through encounters with the deceased in visions. By preserving these encounters in a written record, the nuns could aid future sisters to manage better the mixed emotions they felt in their devotions and to renew their commitments to their shared duty. Given the nuns’ determined care for those in purgatory, it is surprising to learn that they unquestioningly accepted God’s damnation of certain souls. Harrison wonders: “Perhaps the Helfta nuns’ security in the correspondence between their institutional commitments, on the one hand, and, on the other, God’s plan for them, their confidence in the central role they played in executing his will to gather into community all those whom he loved, contributed to a hardening of sentiment against those who found themselves outside the communion of saints, set apart from the body of Christ” (339). Harrison repeatedly characterizes the spirituality of the Helfta nuns as “optimistic.” They trusted their ability to attain intimacy with Christ in this life and the next. They never saw one of their own among the souls punished in hell, so they may have deemed it unnecessary to expand their sense of community this far.

As a liturgical historian, I was hoping for more detailed analyses of the chants and prayers recited in many of the visions highlighted by Harrison in her study, primarily in chapters 4 and 8: the timing of the chant or prayer in the liturgical year, its position in the hours of the Divine Office, mass, or other communal rituals, and, when possible, its full text. Because “[t]he liturgy permeated virtually the whole of the nuns’ lives” and “provided the basic chronological structure by which the convent ordered and measured the days and the shifting seasons,” it also permeated and structured their visions and writings (164, 165). Harrison notes that there have been many studies dedicated to “the liturgical content of the Helfta spirituality” (162 n. 2). But all of the studies she cites were written before the development of a number of online tools, such as the Cantus Database and Usuarium, which help scholars to determine the singularity or frequency of a particular chant, prayer, or reading in churches and religious communities of western and central Europe. Much can be made of these resources to build on past studies of the Helfta nuns’ liturgical agency and creativity.

This desideratum, however, should not detract from the achievements of Harrison’s study. She is comprehensive in her coverage of the Helfta writings, making it an excellent resource for those new to this body of literature, including undergraduate and graduate students. She takes seriously the women who wrote these texts and are described in them as intellectuals, visionaries, counselors, leaders of and participants in a community striving to live their vocation as vowed religious faithfully. May her work inspire imitation.