3Life in Abundance:
Meister Eckhart & the German
Dominican Mystics of the 14th Century

by Gundolf M. Gieraths, O.P.



Autumn 1986 Vol. 38 Supplement

The Importance of Dominican Sisters in German Mysticism

For some years it has been thought that the reason for the flowering of mysticism in the fourteenth century is to be found principally in the peculiar structure of the period with its bitter conflicts, its political and spiritual crises, its temporal trials and tribulations. Even today there are many authors who give this interpretation. It is said that the tragic conflict between papacy and empire under Louis of Bavaria (1314-1347) and other political disorders as well as destructive natural events, such as earthquakes, floods, famine, and plagues, led more sensitively inclined individuals to renounce the world and withdraw into the innermost sanctuary of the soul in search of a mystical life of grace. To be sure, extraordinary conditions are generally conducive to the growth of mysticism. But this explanation will not do for our period. The political confusion and temporal needs, to which reference is continually made, is first found only toward the end of the golden age of mysticism. The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were years of prosperity for the German people. One of the leading economic historians, Gustav Schmoller, has pointed out that the thirteenth century witnessed a tremendous advance in all areas of technological and cultural life, particularly along the Rhine; these were "genuine advances, which, even toward the end of 1300, provided for a materially comfortable enjoyment of life among the bourgeoisie." (1)

Among the prerequisites for a flowering of mysticism were numerous and flourishing convents of nuns. Here one finds the principal centers of mysticism. Numerous vocations, however, cannot be accounted for merely by saying that women entered convents because of economic and temporal needs. Frequently, an oversupply of women is mentioned, resulting from the many wars, feuds, and especially the crusades. No doubt economic needs or loneliness may have led a good number of women into the nunnery, but one does violence to historical facts when these motives are alleged as the basic force or decisive motive in the flowering of women's convents in this period. Most of the nuns in Dominican convents of southwest Germany came from flourishing cities, from wealthy homes, or at least from good bourgeois environments. (2) Consequently, they could hardly have been motivated to enter the convent by economic necessities.

The real causes of mystical life in the fourteenth century lie deeper. In order to understand "German mysticism," one must begin with the religious movements of the twelfth century. At that time there arose, in reaction to ecclesiastical feudalism and the moral laxity of the clergy, strong religious movements which aspired to a new Christian way of life consisting in voluntary poverty, chastity, apostolic simplicity, and in preaching the gospel. One part of this movement came into conflict with the Church because it evaded or rejected official channels or because it sympathized with the dualistic teaching of Manicheanism. Other parts of this movement led to the founding of new religious orders, which gave organizational stability to the religious movement of the time. Against this background one can understand the religious foundations of Blessed Robert of Arbrissel, St. Norbert of Xanten, and especially of St. Francis and St. Dominic. The mendicant orders spread quickly throughout Germany even at the beginning of the thirteenth century.

Independently, and at a time when mendicant orders were not yet a factor, similar religious movements arose in northwest Germany during the twelfth century, especially in Brabant and Flanders. The fundamental character and ultimate objective of these efforts were very similar to those developing at the same time in southern Europe -- here too was renunciation of worldly honors and wealth, surrender of social and domestic enjoyment, voluntary poverty and chastity. But in the German movement it was principally women who were the representatives of the new ideal, and especially women of the nobility, of the knightly class, and of the ruling patrician families. (3) When this movement came into contact with the mendicant orders spreading from Italy and France, one group of women sought to realize their ideals in conjunction with these orders. Another group wanted association with an order without actually becoming its members; these latter were known as "Beguines." (4) Thus the religious movement among women had as little to do with a "proletarian movement" as did the religious male movement of the twelfth century. It arose not from economic needs, but from religious desire, a longing for a life of Christian renunciation and meditation. That contemporaries noted this change in the world of women is clear, for example, from the Frauenbuch of Ulrich of Lichtenstein, composed in 1257, wherein he complains: "How, then, can we maintain the true spirit of chivalry when women suddenly appear dressed as nuns, veiled, and with the rosary, going to church day and night, and no longer granting us a single glance, a single word, or a single favor?" (5)

SPIRITUAL DIRECTION OF THE SISTERS

The spiritual direction of these women, some living in cloisters, some living together as Beguines, was assumed, after an initial reluctance, by the mendicant orders, particularly by the Dominicans. Clearly the Friars Preachers did not have to awaken the initial desire for the spiritual life in these women; this longing was already present. At that time the ideal of a rich spiritual life dedicated to love of God and spiritual marriage had already captivated thousands, and it led to visions, ecstasies, and preternatural revelations. Much material concerning these manifestations can be found in books written by nuns of German Dominican convents, which date from the fourteenth century but which reflect the life of an earlier period. The Dominicans had to deepen this spiritual life. Consequently, they had the task of organizing the traditional view of Christian mysticism and of bringing it into contact with the newly awakened desire for religious experience and the readiness for a vernacular exposition of the doctrine among these women. (6) This situation provided the Friars Preachers with the opportunity of making theological speculation a real instrument in the spiritual life. It afforded them an occasion of cultivating the more mystical elements in theology, so that what was acquired through study and meditation as an inner fullness and a personal spiritual possession was communicated first and foremost to the sisters who were associated with the fathers in dedication to the same ideal and the same rule.

These spiritual instructions fell on fertile ground in women's orders. German Dominican sisters' convents became the haven and the center of a fervent feminine mysticism. Eloquent testimony of this fervor is to be found in the writings of outstanding individual nuns who were themselves favored with mystical experiences, for example, Margaret Ebner in Medingen, Christina Ebner and Adelheid Langmann in Engelthal. Margaret Ebner has left us her Revelations. Christina Ebner, who bore the same family name as the former, but was not related to her, described her visions in a book written under the direction of her confessor. the Dominican, Conrad of Füssen. She also wrote a little work on the mystical life of deceased nuns, entitled On the Abundance of Grace. Moreover, we also possess chronicles from various Dominican convents in southwest Germany, namely, Medingen near Dillingen, Unterlinden near Kolmar (Catherine Gebweiler),(7)

Adelhausen near Freiburg, Kirchberg in Württemberg, Töss near Winterthur (Elsbeth Stagel), (8) Oetenbach near Zürich, Katharinenthal near Diessenhofen, Engelthal near Nürnberg, and Weiler near Esslingen. In these chronicles biographical sketches are given of several particularly virtuous and holy women of the cloister. The absence of similar accounts for other convents does not necessarily mean that the spiritual life was any less vigorous in those places. Many valuable accounts may have been lost, as the one for the convent of Altenhohenau near Rosenheim. Naturally we must rely only on chronicles which are demonstratively authentic. The chronicle of Unterlinden is certainly the oldest work of this kind and, in contrast to the others, it is written in Latin. In it there is an account of forty-three sisters, describing how they loved God, how they bore the adversities of life with patience and humility, how they took upon themselves voluntary works of penance, and so were rewarded by exceptional favors, visions, and ecstasies. In the chronicle of the convent of Adelhausen there is an account of thirty-four nuns, of their fervent grasp of the truths of faith, of their life of recollection and prayer, of self-denial and mortification, together with a great deal about ecstasies, prophecies, and so forth. Elsbeth Stagel, the disciple and friend of Henry Suso, wrote the chronicle of Töss. In the convent of Oetenbach devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was already fully developed. The chronicle of Kirchberg readily dwells on descriptions of mystical phenomena, especially on the grace of contemplation, where the individual, withdrawn from the outer world, remains in the world as though dead, while its spirit dwells in the contemplation of eternal truths. It also describes the grace of exultation, where the soul bursting with joy can no longer restrain itself, but must express its interior joy of heart through singing and dancing. Many accounts remind one of the later descriptions by the great St. Teresa. The spiritual trials and particular experiences in the lives of fifty-four sisters are handed down in the chronicle of Katharinenthal. Touching forms of mystical devotion to the Passion can be read in the chronicle of Engelthal. And in the chronicle of Weiler, visions play an important role. (9)

These chronicles were written by nuns who were, for the most part, highly educated women, fluent in speech, and profoundly instructed in the spiritual life. There is mention of heroic practices of virtue. But there is also talk of visions and raptures, ecstasies and manifestations, perceptions of the secrets of the heart, prophecies, and wounds in body and soul. Heroic deeds are indeed described, yet one cannot avoid the impression that there is a certain preoccupation with exceptional signs, a concern for extraordinary consolations. The writers seem to hunt out these presumed signs of divine favor, assurances that their love, their devotions are pleasing to the Most High, and that they are worshiping him in the right way. This is not to suggest that phenomena of mystical life in sisters' convents in the fourteenth century are based jointly and singly on imagination. In many reports there is no question of error or exaggeration. Nevertheless, it would have to be admitted that a doctor would be consulted today for an explanation of one or another of these cases, and that some of these might be diagnosed today as hysteria, although the reports in their original form would still retain their mystical and historical value. Fundamentally, they are historical expressions of a sincere striving after perfection. One will have to explain many of these visions by saying "that the mystic projects outwardly his whole spiritual life, even his emotions and imagination expressing religious knowledge and experience." (10) What the mystic "has beheld in contemplation with burning affection, what his imagination has set before him in brilliant colors, can easily be transformed into realities in the still of the night. Most visions are experienced early in the morning after Mass, by a mystic kneeling in choir or in his cell, living entirely in the sphere of the supernatural and expecting extraordinary manifestations. A purely internal process becomes divided, as it were, in conversational duality, and appears to the dramatic inclinations of the poetic soul as an external event, as conversation and communication with the divine." (11) But they cannot be spoken of as deliberate deceptions or conscious exaggeration by the nuns. An Elsbeth Stagel, a Catherine Gebweiler, or a Christian Ebner were far above that. For every Catholic there is no question that God can grant such consolations, and that he sometimes actually does. The pursuit of such manifestations is rejected today as an exaggeration and an excess. They do not pertain to the essence of devotion. Today we have become more sober, more critical, and more sceptical. Nevertheless, it remains a fact that the mysticism of these German women was pre-eminently a religious manifestation in which the supernatural forces of Christianity became active. One can think what one likes about visions, ecstasies, private revelations, and other phenomena of this sort; they did not constitute the essence of piety among these sisters. The ultimate and most profound element which shines forth from all these accounts is intimate union with God, love of God, and friendship with God, which is rooted in sanctifying grace. One act of love is, in fact, of greater value than all extraordinary, miraculous occurrences.

THEIR GRASP OF CONTEMPLATIVE TRUTH

The distinctive feature in the piety of these nuns is not their devotion to the holy Childhood and the bitter Passion of Jesus, for these are to be found in all ages. The unique feature is rather the sensitive, sympathetic grasp of contemplative truths. Further, the contemplation of the highest abstract truths of faith should be noted: The Blessed Trinity with the profoundly mysterious generation of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit; the creation, value, and dignity of the human soul; the Incarnation and union of the soul with Christ through grace; the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the souls of the just, and his cooperation in all meritorious actions.

On the other hand, it would not be true to say that the sisters became so one-sided in their mystical striving and concentration that they lost touch with the world and the practical affairs of life. Such a view would be contrary to historical facts. These nuns were, of course, completely dedicated to God with all their heart and soul. But this in no way impaired their awareness of contemporary affairs. The chronicles show us a strenuous work day; they inform us of many economic anxieties and many economic accomplishments; they reveal a profound concern for the fate of the world and Christianity. Thus, we know from Margaret Ebner that she was in spiritual anguish over the dispute between Emperor and Pope. The Medingen convent showed great loyalty and gratitude to Louis of Bavaria, since he had given many favors to the nuns. In 1350 Charles IV left Nürnberg with a large retinue for the out-of-the-way convent of Engelthal in order to see Christina Ebner and to ask her blessing for himself and the welfare of the Empire.

Judging from the content of the sisters' meditation and from their way of life, one can definitely conclude that their piety did not stem from daydreams or pathological hallucinations. The nuns stood on the solid ground of reality -- even though in some instances there may have been exaggerations and strove realistically for true, genuine perfection. Deeds of selfless love and surrender, severe mortifications of soul and body, constant practices of patience and humility -- all these were possible only because their entire life and strength were supported by the most intimate union with God and love of him.

If we consider the great number of vocations to sisters' convents, (12) the high level of education which women already had in medieval society (13) and which was often a prerequisite for entrance into the convent; (14) if we consider the longing of women, particularly sisters, for a life of religious surrender and joy even in mystical speculation; and if we further consider the fact that the nuns were guided by professors of theology from the Dominican Order who laid the philosophical and theological foundations for a life of mystical love in vernacular language, which had never been done before -- then it is readily apparent that all this had to lead to a sublime cultivation of the mystical life. This produced an organic expression which assured Germany a special place in the history of mysticism, known as "German mysticism."

THE BOND OF DOMINICAN PIETY

Men and women mystics of the fourteenth century were not isolated individuals. Rather, they felt closely bound together in a common striving for union with God, and in view of Christ's words, "You are my friends if you do the things I ask you" (John 15:14), they called themselves "Friends of God." These mystics, who lived not only in cloisters but also in the world, wanted no secret ties with heretical sects, but rather an association of like-minded individuals for mutual encouragement and edification.

The number of Dominicans writing mystical works under the influence of Eckhart was by no means insignificant. Henry of Erfurt, who was held in high esteem as a preacher, wrote a collection of sermons which was very widely known around 1340. (15) John and Gerhard of Sterngassen lived at Cologne at the same time as Eckhart, although we have no certain proof of their personal relationship with Meister Eckhart. (16) We know that Nicholas of Strasbourg, who was visitator of the German Province from 1325 to 1329, came to the defense of his confère in the proceedings against Eckhart. To the Erfurt circle of Meister Eckhart belonged Giselher of Slatheim, lector at Cologne and Erfurt, who assembled an anthology of German sermons on the liturgy of the Mass throughout the ecclesiastical year.

It is quite certain that Henry Suso knew and cherished a number of contemporary mystics, almost all of whom belonged to his order. He mentions only one other person in his writings besides Eckhart: "the holy brother John the Fouterer of Strasbourg," (17) who is known to have been a member of the Dominican priory at Basel. According to Bihlmeyer, (18) it is practically certain that Suso was a friend of Tauler and that their paths crossed more than once in their lifetime. Perhaps they had become acquainted at the general studium in Cologne,(19) and perhaps Suso visited with Tauler When he frequently traveled to Strasbourg "as was his custom." (20) Tauler possessed Suso's Horologium sapientiae a few years after its composition. Of Tattler we also know that he frequently visited Ruysbroeck. (21)

The Dominican sisters' convents offered a welcome opportunity to the Friars Preachers for their spiritual zeal to share with others the inner fullness of mystical ardor, for here the striving for perfection could most readily and surely be fostered. Tauler, as we have already mentioned, delivered his sermons principally in the seven nunneries of Strasbourg. The eleven convents of Dominican sisters in Constance, which were entrusted to the local Dominican priory, undoubtedly heard the voice of Henry Suso, although there is no existing proof of this. The convents of Oetenbach, Adelhausen, and Unterlinden also came under his influence. (22) And it is certain that he was frequently and extensively in Töss, where he found an able disciple and true friend in Elsbeth Stagel.

To this circle of Friends of God belonged the diocesan priest Henry of Nördlingen, who associated not only with Tauler and Suso, but also with many cloistered nuns of the Dominican order. (23) He was privileged to be spiritual director, for a time, of such highly favored nuns as Margaret and Christina Ebner. Particularly intimate bonds associate him with Margaret Ebner. He believed that she was called to the sublimest goal, and he continually encouraged her ever further along the path of mystical union. He spoke of his spiritual daughter to all he met. Through him many persons commended themselves to her prayers. "Thus it happened that this simple, unworldly nun became a pillar of strength and tranquillity for a large circle of men and women in difficult and tempestuous times, a guide amid the dangers and trials of life. Throughout Germany, from the Netherlands to Switzerland, Margaret Ebner gave consolation and hope to all the Friends of God through her prayers and revelations." (24)

More generally, however, we can observe a singular, powerful attraction for mysticism in late medieval piety. "German mysticism," that is, mysticism influenced by Eckhart, Tauler, and Suso, and cultivated particularly by Dominicans, is only one form of mystical life and aspiration in the period. Mysticism in Germany during the fourteenth century took yet another form. Its principal representative was the Carthusian (a former Dominican) Ludolf of Saxony, who died in 1377. In his vividly written and widely read Life of Christ (Vita Christi), which was based on the Meditations on the Life of Christ (Meditationes da vita Christi) composed by the Tuscan Franciscan Giovanni "de Caulibus" around 1300, Ludolf of Saxony is not so much concerned with historical accuracy as he is with going beyond the Gospel narrative by including subjective, mystical fancies and apocryphal accounts. He finds the way to union with God by submerging himself in the details of Christ's life, and so he is "the most successful teacher of Christian meditation in the late Middle Ages." The Life of Christ exerted a remarkable influence far beyond the Middle Ages, even contributing decidedly to the conversion of St. Ignatius Loyola and to his form of spirituality. St. Bridget of Sweden ( 1373), a contemporary of Ludolf, was inclined toward the same type of piety. That her influence was felt early even in Germany is evident from the dates when Brigittine convents were founded in Germany: Maria Brun near Danzig in 1396, Maria Wald near Lübeck in 1455, Gnadenberg near Stralsund in 142 1, Mariaforst near Godesberg in 1450, Maria Baum in the archdiocese of Cologne in 1457, Maria Mai [hingen] near Nördlingen 1472, (Maria) Altomünster in the diocese of Munich-Freising 1497.

Divine Providence blessed the German people abundantly with men and women consumed with mystical aspirations and devotion. In this regard the religious piety of the Middle Ages reached a certain peak in Germany. All these mystics are heralds of one Christian ideal of union between God and man. Although the mysticism of that period is firmly attached to the medieval scene and, in principle, introduced no innovations in doctrine, it is still characterized by distinct elements which go beyond traditional forms of devotion. One need only recall the striving for individual expressions of piety, the partially emotional emphasis together with the sincere concern for the essential elements of religious life, the notable predominance of women (sometimes carried away to the point of fanaticism and exaggeration), and the extensive use of the German language not only in writings of edification, but also in theological expositions of doctrine. Almost all the great representatives of "German mysticism" in the Order of Preachers labored in the western part of Germany. They, too, felt the popular appeal and called themselves Friends of God. A glance at the religious life of the time gives us some idea of the greatness of the German people in the fourteenth century, a time when restlessness had already begun to intrude, and a new era seemed to be dawning.

NOTES

1 G. Schmoller, Strassburgs Blüte und die volkswirtschaftliche Revolution im XIII Jahrhundert (Strassburg 1875), p. 17.

2 See Quellen u. Forschungen z. Gesch. d. Dorninikanerordens in Deutschland, 3 (Leipzig 1908), pp. 45, 56, 66-67; H. Wilms, op. cit., p. 119.

3 See H. Grundmann, "Die Frauen und die Litertatur im Mittelalter," Archiv für Kulturgeschichte, 26/1 (1935), p. 159 f.

4 See Quellen u. Forschungen, 15 (Leipzig 1920), p. 66 ff.

5 Quoted by H. Grundmann, op. cit., p. 159.

6 H. Gründmann (Religiöse Bewegungen im Mittelalter, p. 459 ff., 467 ff.) has shown that even before the thirteenth century women had exercised positive influence on the creation of edifying religious literature in the vernacular. He has shown that this type of literature sprang up first in convents, then generally wherever women wished to read spiritual works, sermons, meditations, prayers, and, of course, Holy Scripture, or wherever women wished to write such works as were formerly written by clerics and monks, but these had to be written in the vernacular, since they were not well versed in Latin. -- F. Maurer ("Studien zur mittelhochdeutschen Bibelübersetzung vor Luther," in Germanische Bibliothek, 26 [1929], 68 ff.) stresses the importance of Dominican sisters' convents in the development of Biblical studies.

7 Catherine Gebweiler, Lebensbeschreibungen der ersten Schwestern des Klosters der Dominikanerinnen zu Unterlinden, ed. by L. Clarus (Regensburg 1863).

8 E. Stagel, Das Leben der Schwestern zu Töss, ed. by F. Vetter in vol. VI of "Deutsche Texte des Mittelalters", Berlin 1906.

9 For a more detailed description of women mystics and their personal experiences, see H. Wilms, Geschichte der deutschen Dominikanerinnen, p. 110 ff.

10 M. Grabmann, Mittelalt. Geistesl., I, 485.

11 K. Bihlmeyer, Heinrich Seuse, Deutsche Schriften (Stuttgart: 1907), p. 123*.

12 At the beginning of the fourteenth century there were about seventy Dominican nunneries in the jurisdiction of the German Dominican Province.

13 "Medieval women, even those not living in cloisters, were for the most part able to read as could the clergy universally, while the male members of the laity who could read were an exception. However, women did not confine themselves to Latin and to spiritual reading, as did clerical institutions; they were capable of reading works in their own spoken language and even secular poetry. Consequently a vernacular literature sprang into existence for them." So speaks H. Grundmann, "Die Frauen und die Literatur im. Mittelalter," loc. cit., p. 133.

14 "Not only individual Dominican nuns of the period arouse our profound admiration, but also do the mystical sermons setting out for the whole convent a height of spirituality that we can visualize clearly only with great difficulty. For admission to those convents a religious motive and aptitude for some kind of occupation were not sufficient; one had also to have a certain level of intelligence and education, which, it would seem, was by no means mediocre." F. Jostes, Meister Eckhart und seine Jünger. Ungedruckte Texte zur Geshichte der deutschen Mystik. Collectanea Friburgensia, 4 (Freiburg i. Schw. 1895), p. xx.

15 Cf. A. Walz, Compendium historiae Ordinis Praedicatorum, 2d ed. (Rome: 1948), pp. 154, 200, n. 1, 241.

16 M. Grabmann, Neuaufgef. Werke, ed. cit., p. 44.

17 Suso, Leben, c. 6, trans. Sister M. Ann Edward, O.P., The Exemplar (Dubuque: Priory Press, 1962), I, 19.

18 K. Bihlmeyer, Heinrich Seuse.

19 See W. Preger, Geschichte der deutschen Mystik im Mittelalter, Vol. III (Leipzig 1893), p. 93 ff.

20 Suso, Leben, c. 27, ed. K. Biblmeyer, 81, 6.

21 See J. Kuckhoff, Johannes von Ruysbroeck (Munich 1938), pp. 30-31; G. Schniirer, op. cit., p. 184.

22 Cf. H. Wilms, op. cit., p. 81.

23 Ibid., p. 83.

24 Ibid., p. 84 -- Concerning Margaret Ebner, see also M. Grabmann, Mittelalt. Geistesl., I, 479 ff.


| BACK | CONTENTS | NEXT | INDEX |