|Autumn 1986 Vol. 38 Supplement|
Fifteenth-Century Dominican Spirituality, 4
We need not delve deeply into the writings of fifteenth-century German Dominicans to
discover that, instead of discussing the mystical aspects of prayer as fourteenth-century
writers did, they expended their efforts on practical problems of the spiritual life. (1)
Fourteenth-century writers such as Eckhart, Tauler, and Suso encouraged, both in
theory and practice, the closest possible intimacy with God attainable in the present life.
They asked the question: “How can I attain unto God?” And they answered: “Look
within yourself, there you will find him.” By mystical prayer they looked within; by
mystical experience they found God.
But the outstanding fifteenth-century writers, John Nider (º 1438), John Herold (º
1468), John Meyer (º 1458), Mark von Weida (º c. 1516), rarely mention such
subjects as rapture in the present life and vision in everlasting bliss. They treat of
simpler, more immediate matters, and encourage their readers to strive for those goals
which are attainable by all souls even before death. By developing a devotional system
based on practical charity they intended to help the faithful reach union with God.
Whereas the mystics approach God through abnegation of self in all its powers and
senses, fifteenth-century German Dominican writers point out the road of an actively
virtuous life. When the mystics set off on a lofty flight, they frequently soar into
rarefied, uncharted regions. But the fifteenth-century Dominicans, eager that their
words and requirements do not exceed the capability of ordinary mortals, never pass
beyond the borders of the imitable. In reading the writings of the mystics, many
statements and formulas elude our comprehension. Fifteenth-century Dominicans of the
practical school set forth an ordinary doctrine comprehensible and useful for ordinary
Mystical prayer shows us man as he should ideally be and act. John Nider and his
contemporaries speak of man in concrete situations and direct their teaching and
preaching to morality, the care of souls. In short, mystics describe the spirituality of
feast days, whereas fifteenth-century writers present the spirituality of everyday life.
Mystical preaching aims at a few select and well-disposed souls, able to comprehend
these sublime thoughts. But the practical, less elevated literature of fifteenth-century
Dominicans attracted and influenced the wider radius of the common people.
Merely to read fourteenth-century treatises on devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
brings one into contact with the essence of mysticism. Although this devotion was still
very popular in the fifteenth century, it had been stripped of its depth and grandeur, and
its hold on the people proved the eloquence and persuasion of Eckhart, Tauler, and
Suso. Nider and his contemporaries sometimes used mystical terminology, but a study
of the context shows that although they used the same words as their predecessors,
they watered down the meaning. One gets the feeling that the writers are trying to
explain something they do not understand themselves. They seem to be echoing
mystical thoughts from the past, while they themselves are absorbed in ethical,
theological questions. They are more interested in the here-and-now problems of
everyday living than in sublime mystical flights. We look in vain for such heart-warming
fourteenth-century expressions as: mystical union of the soul with God in the present
life, God’s birth in the soul of man, the doctrine of the soul’s abyss, the condition of
complete resignation in which the soul is stripped of all images.
INFLUENCE OF THE FRIARS ON THE GERMAN NUNS
The same change occurred in sisters’ convents. The mysticism which flourished there
during the fourteenth century was the result of the teaching, guidance, and
encouragement of the Friar Preachers. When the Friars lowered their doctrine and
inculcated a more prosaic, realistic spirituality, the sisters put the change into practice.
And so “we read little of mysticism in the lives of fifteenth-century German nuns.”(2)
On this subject, Jostes says: “The mystic-ecstatic life decreased in depth, originality,
and sublimity in proportion to its extension among more people. What hagiographers
relate about the lives of these pious people is for the most part shallow, mediocre,
monotonous, stereotyped, with very rarely one individual who dared leave the common
road and wander into the lush pastures of high spirituality. (3)
We have detailed accounts of the intellectual and spiritual life of various nuns in
Dominican convents during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The reform of
religious orders then in vogue demanded that both male and female religious be
satisfied with a practical sort of spirituality and desist from mystical aspirations. This
accounts for the paucity of such extraordinary phenomena as visions, ecstasies, private
revelations, and similar occurrences. But we do see shining forth from these staid
chronicles glimmers of the delights flooding a soul in the state of grace that cultivates
divine union and divine love. The renewal of strict discipline in convents was not
limited to such external, but necessary, regulations as conventual silence and attendance
at community exercises, but functioned in the deeper realms of interior renewal by
detaching the religious from the distractions of worldly interests and possessions.
Among the nuns, the usual ascetical practices of vigils, fastings, scourgings, and
hairshirts were combined with prayer and work in order to lead the whole person, soul
and body, to God. But the emphasis was more on a change of heart than on
mortification of the body. Spiritual directors tried to guide the nuns in the paths of
“divine love and fidelity to their vows, toward humble resignation in true patience and
obedience to all the demands of community life, rather than in the ways of excessive
severity which often are contrary to the rule of the Order. (4)
We are given a deep insight into the religious discipline observed in St. Catherine’s
Convent at Nürnberg by the fact that the fairest treasures of German mysticism were
preserved there. They possessed at least the principal works of Eckhart, Tauler, and
Suso, as well as other fourteenth-century mystical literature. Of one of Eckhart’s
sermons we read: “This should be read in the refectory on Our Lady’s feast in Lent.”
(5) Around the middle of the fifteenth century, the works of Tauler and Suso were
transcribed along with those of Eckhart. But one of the sisters felt ill at ease in this
rarefied atmosphere and described the doctrine as “heavy and obscure.”(6) No doubt,
this mystical literature was supplemented with the writings of contemporary authors,
such as Nider and Herold, with whom the sisters were personally acquainted.
The spiritual life of fifteenth-century nuns followed a different course from that of their
predecessors. Even the isolated examples of mystic-minded religious strengthens our
conviction that they were the exception, not the rule as formerly. We may say that
these pre-reformation German nuns strove to do the right thing in the right way. This
shifting from mystical union with God to practical asceticism is exemplified in a booklet
written by Sister Catherine Eder in 1515: A Pattern and Rule for Novices. (7) The
novices are taught sound principles concerning the purpose of religious life, their
conduct towards superiors and equals, their behavior at table, in choir, in the cell, and
at work. They are told to prove their appreciation of spiritual values by their adherence
to perfect poverty, humble obedience, continual prayer, strict mortification, and zeal in
the liturgical offices. These lessons are exemplified in John Meyer’s account of nineteen
reformed Dominican convents. Because of the force of example, these reformed
convents suffered no dearth of vocations. New convents were constructed; abandoned
ones were reopened.
Meyer describes the effect of spiritual resurgence on the laity and on non-reformed
convents: “These convents (of strict observance) have a surplus of vocations; ladies beg
and plead to be admitted. As soon as a community adopts the reform, ladies of
the world vie with sisters from relaxed communities for admission, which is often
refused because of crowded conditions. All this proves that the desire to love and serve
God in religious life is innate in the female sex.”(8)
THE MODERN DEVOTION
The altered spirituality of both men and women religious of fifteenth-century Germany
followed the change from mystical prayer to a practical, petitionary form of prayer. As
was to be expected, there appeared at the same time and in the same country many
doctrinal treatises concerned more with the concrete and particular than with the
abstract and universal. Perhaps the foremost among these writers was Henry von
Langenstein (º 1397), professor of theology at Paris and Vienna, who composed many
books on philosophy, science, exegetics, dogma, church history, and asceticism, and
was renowned as a preacher throughout Austria and southern Germany. Another
outstanding preacher was Matthew of Cracow (º 1410), professor, diplomat, and
preacher at Prague, Paris, and Heidelberg who died as Bishop of Cracow. And
Münster gave to the Church Dietrich Coelde (º 1515), renowned Franciscan writer and
missionary. These three men may be said to have joined forces with the contemporary
German Dominicans in fostering the spiritual movement inaugurated in the
Netherlands, the Devotio moderna, which had profound repercussions on the religious
life of the century. (9) The popularity of this spirituality is proved by the fact that even
contemporary writers styled it “the modern devotion.” Although the Devotio moderna
claimed to follow Ruysbroeck’s teaching, it was a very practical, down-to-earth sort of
spirituality. It dealt with “applied mysticism … contemplation applied to life.” (10) It’s
purpose was sanctification of the individual in his ordinary secular life. The Imitation of
Christ by Thomas à Kempis exemplifies this doctrine. Devotio moderna sought “to
transplant the spirit of the cloister into secular life . . . to strive for evangelical
perfection while living in worldly surroundings.”(11) Far from being extraordinary, this
is an ordinary and wholesome condition, attainable by all. And so we may justly
consider this offshoot of Devotio moderna, a deep, simple, sincere sort of piety, as the
religious ideal of medieval layfolk. Its champions were practical men.
We find a similar adherence to practical principles among contemporary German
Dominicans. But some differences are distinguishable. While the Devotio moderna,
exemplified by the Imitation of Christ, held on to some mystical principles even though
in practice active asceticism guided the conduct, the German Dominicans were out-and-out practical activists. As preachers and missionaries to the laity, their outlook on
life was wholly practical.
Henry Suso had summarized mysticism in the aphorism: “A recollected person must be
unformed of the creature, become informed with Christ, and transformed into
God.”(12) But John Nider and his contemporaries directed their attention elsewhere, to
something equally important but closer at hand. They prepared men for the daily
struggle, to live a truly Christian life while buffeted by temptation and distractions from
within and without. Only from this standpoint do the fifteenth-century Dominicans
make sense. True, they are no longer mystics, but this does not qualify us to condemn
them as heretics. Not to have a mystical attitude does not make a person anti-mystical
or spiritually relaxed. Those who desert mysticism are not apostates, but realists.
We must remember that man does not live in a vacuum or on a barren mountain top,
but in human society, surrounded by other human beings. And although human needs
are basically the same in every century, yet in accidental matters these needs vary.
Therefore, if man lives in an age of tension, dissolution, and transition, he can best
serve his contemporaries by adapting his teachings to their needs. This is a sign of
salutary, inexhaustible vitality. He combines what is new with what is old and
introduces a fresh era.
ALTERED SPIRITUAL OUTLOOK
Various reasons have been adduced for the transition from mysticism to practical
spirituality among fifteenth-century German Dominicans and the nuns whom they
directed. We have already touched upon one reason: the tendency among religious
persons of the later Middle Ages to leave the universal in favor of the specific, the
abstract in favor of the concrete. Among German Dominicans this inclination took the
form of discouraging mystical union with God, and of encouraging the perfection of
good ethical conduct.
Alongside these spiritual and historical factors we detect certain internal and external
causes. The most important of the internal causes is a certain psychological impetus
inherent in the very term “mysticism.” To be a mystic, a man must dedicate all his
faculties to God. The Augustinian neo-Platonic system demanded that a mystic remain
constantly on this superior plane. But in actual life, no man can live permanently in this
rarefied atmosphere of the spiritual mountain peak. Even a mystic’s zeal and enthusiasm
have limits. Man’s faculties, especially the physical, cannot long endure under severe
strain. Therefore, mystical nuptials are summits where man can live for a time, but then
he must descend to the valley and inhale the normal air of ordinary spiritual life.
Although theoretically the summit of mystical contemplation is a peak within the reach
of every individual, yet in reality only a few, the elite, attain it. Mystics are always in
the minority, the silent, unknown ones. The majority never scale the mystical mountain
peak, much less feel at ease there.
A second factor to be considered is that mysticism, because its assumptions are not
always in accord with a healthy rational attitude, bears within itself the seeds of
disintegration. A mystic is prone to confuse he products of his imagination and
subjective experience with mystical revelation and divine contemplation, to be guided
by personal emotions rather than by theological knowledge, to drift into the sphere of
purely personal experience, and to forget the distinction between the human and the
divine, between true revelation and imaginative fancy. Th is was sadly exemplified in
certain fourteenth-century women mystics who were guided by theologians of the
Augustinian neo-Platonic school. Affective, enthusiastic, spontaneous, and arbitrary
aspirations frequently took precedence over spiritual zeal, guided and enlightened by
faith. This resulted in the unbalanced and exaggerated digressions which made an
unfavorable impression on contemporary Christians as well as on modern, more critical
and prosaic readers, and sometimes turned the mystics into antisocial beings.
Although it is true that man’s entire being, heart included, worships God, yet the
emotions must be kept in check. Stability results when the intellect holds the reins and
governs the individual’s spirituality according to sound rational principles.
Consequently, we can point out two tendencies in mysticism: one based on reason
enlightened by faith, the other on experience dominated by emotions. Mysticism based
on emotion strays into dangerous heresies, a rational, practical attitude toward piety
guards the mystic from aberration.
We must remember that mystics, being athirst for lofty theological truths, are always in
need of encouragement, instruction, and direction. In the fourteenth century,
Dominican masters and lectors of theology exercised great influence on the spiritual life
of the nuns and so were responsible for the rare flowers of mysticism. But the decline
of scholasticism, accompanied by a lack of theological instruction and spiritual vigor,
had sad repercussions in the realm of fifteenth-century piety. As spiritual directors
became more engrossed in practical problems, they became less concerned about divine
To understand the decline of mysticism we must remember that not all Germans had
become mystic-minded; the mystical preachers had only spoken to and influenced a
small minority. These preachers appealed to a select audience, capable of following
their lofty flights of speculation and their stringent demands for self-discipline. Because
this audience was usually composed of nuns, members of the Dominican or other
orders, we may say that in the fourteenth century mysticism was preached in cloisters,
whereas in the thirteenth and fifteenth, preachers addressed popular sermons to
Catholics at large.
When reading the writings of fifteenth-century German Dominicans we are struck by
the numerous quotations from Tauler and Suso, but few from Eckhart. What is the
reason for this? It is attributable to the condemnation of certain of Eckhart’s propositions, and to the abstract character of his speculations, comprehensible only to those
who had been previously prepared for his doctrine. Even the natural attraction of the
human mind, especially woman’s, towards occult secrets, did not overcome this
obstacle. (13) But the practical, realistic piety of the fifteenth century departed from
this mystical vein. No doubt, the condemnation of Eckhart scared people away from his
line of thinking. The very terminology which he used in describing the sublime degrees
of mystical union with God exposed the reader to the danger of misinterpretation.
Sometimes he used a word in its strict literal meaning, then again in a metaphorical
sense. Such vague expressions as “In God there is neither good, nor better, nor best,”
(14) “God is all things,” (15) “God is neither being nor intellect,” (16) are perplexing in
context, but absolutely disconcerting out of context. Even Eckhart’s defender, Cardinal
Nicholas of Cues, expressed the wish “that Eckhart’s writings be removed from general
circulation because what he had written for the use and instruction of the intellectual
class was incomprehensible to the common people.”(17) Denifle remarks pertinently:
“Even the intellectuals preferred those writings wherein they found more wholesome
nourishment for their souls.” (18) It is not surprising that they avoided Eckhart’s
writings (19) and preferred Tauler’s and Suso’s so as not to endanger their own
To these internal causes for the decline of German mysticism we must add certain
external factors, incapable in themselves of bringing about a change, but potent when
acting in connection with the internal: (1) the reform movement in religious orders
occasioned by the relaxation of discipline; (2) the shortage of vocations and the
acceptance of aspirants of inferior character or spirituality.
The spirit instilled into the orders by their founders cooled because of human weakness
and worldly considerations. Even Suso, who lived in the golden age of monasticism,
paints a depressing picture in his Horologium sapientiae. He depicts many religious
who pursued distinctions, posts of honor, and unnecessary dispensations, neglected
their sacred duties, and ridiculed their zealous companions. But the supreme evil
infecting religious houses was the “private life.” (20) Masters general and general
chapters repeatedly urged universal reform movements, (21) but only a few isolated
convents returned to the primitive observance of the rule.
The real internal reform of the Dominican Order began with the election of Raymond of
Capua as Master General at the General Chapter of Bologna in 1380. He ordained that
in every province at least one convent of primitive observance be established. For this
project, Raymond found an energetic supporter in Conrad of Prussia, whom he
appointed prior of the convent of Kolmar in Alsace where with thirty friars he adopted
the primitive rule in all its rigor. A few years later he established a monastery of strict
observance for the nuns of the Order at Schönensteinbach near Kolmar. A salutary
reform current flowed from these two sources across Germany, Switzerland, and the
Netherlands. Thirty-four convents of men and many monasteries of nuns of the German
province adopted the reform by 1483 (Nürnberg in 1397 and Bern in 1419). This
reform movement was propelled by many saintly fifteenth-century German Dominicans.
So busy were they in this struggle to revive the ideals of the early brethren that they
had no time to encourage the aspirations of any individual who may have been led on
mystical paths. They devoted all their energies to one purpose: to prevent the
disintegration of the whole Order by laxity of discipline. In his book Concerning the
Reform of Religious, Nider pleads with religious to fight against relaxation, to return to
the ideals of their founder, to cherish their vows and customs. He made no mention of
mystical union with God, because this was not his purpose in writing. He restricted
himself to the essentials. This basic tendency explains why all the writings of fifteenth-century Dominicans, whether directed to the laity or to religious, are primarily
practical, educational, reformative.
Other circumstances also played a part in the diminution of mysticism in the latter part
of the fourteenth century. A terrible earthquake at the beginning of 1348 killed many
people. In Asia, the Black Death began its ravages. Italian ships carried the contagious
germs to Sicily, Pisa, Genoa, and Marseilles. From there the epidemic spread across the
Alps and invaded all of Europe. Primitive hygienic conditions encouraged the rapid
spread of infection wherever people lived in close proximity. So we can see how in
convents the plague had devastating effects. Contemporary records reveal that the
Black Death claimed 60,000 victims in Florence, 100,000 in Venice, 50,000 in Paris,
16,000 in Strasbourg, 16,000 in Erfurt, 12,000 in Basel, 9,000 in Lübeck, and 5,000 in
Weimar. (22) Granted that these numbers are probably exaggerated, the casualties were
undoubtedly very high.
The Dominican Order was not spared its high quota of deaths, and of those religious
who survived, men and women, many returned to secular life. The resulting scarcity of
religious left behind to carry on the work of large convents was in itself an obstacle to
the development of the mystical spirit. Many years would pass before an atmosphere
conducive to contemplation could be renewed. And by then the age of mystical fervor
Another important factor must be noted. Because of the many men who died in the
constant wars and feuds of the period, there did not seem to be enough husbands to go
around. So parents practically forced their daughters to enter the convent against their
natural inclination. Convenience was considered more important than piety. This
custom, a serious threat to exterior discipline and interior prayer, required stern
Many factors contributed to the decline of medieval German mysticism. Among these
we have mentioned those which lie in mysticism itself and those which arise from
external causes. We should also consider that the fifteenth century was poles removed
from the fourteenth in the major areas of life: political, economic, cultural, and
religious. And fifteenth-century German Dominicans did recognize and fulfill their
Christian obligation to make Christ’s spirit and teaching attractive to their
contemporaries. German mysticism had passed its apex. Practicality in spiritual matters
superseded the former lofty perspective. Only from this viewpoint can we appreciate
the life and work of fifteenth-century German Dominicans. However, we should not
consider this altered outlook as a sign of spiritual retrogression and decadence, but as a
proof of religious health and vigor.
1 See G. M. Gieraths, Die Lehre vom Gebet bei der deutschen Dominikanern des 15
Jahrhunderts (Bonn: 1950); John Nider, O.P., and “Deutsche Mystik” des 14
Jahrhunderts, Divus Thomas, 30 (1952).
2 G. Schnürer, Kirche und Kultur im Mittelatter, Bd. 3 (Padenborn: 1929), p. 184.
3 F. Jostes, Meister Eckhart und seine Jünger. Ungedruckfe Texte sur Geschichte der
deutschen Mystik. Collectanes Fribugensia, Fasc. IV (Freiburg in Schw.: 1895), p. 17.
4 Quellen v. Forschungen z. Gesch. d. Dominicanerordens in Deutschland (Leipzig:
1907), 2, 36.
5 Cited by Jostes, 107, note 25. Reference to the Annunciation.
6 Jostes, 24, note 2.
7 Published by K. Rieder in Alemannia, XXV, S. 166 ff.
8 Quellen u. Forschungen (Leipzig: 1908) 3, 94.
9 This is an example of how the Dominicans and the proponents of the Devotio
moderna utilized the spirit of the age. Because the purpose of Devotio moderna was to
spread the monastic spirit among the laity, the Dominicans were at first opposed to the
idea. So we find the Dominican Matthew Grabow asking the Bishop of Utrecht and the
Council of Constance to condemn the movement. But his efforts failed. See J.
Hollnsteiner, Die Kirche im Ringen um die christliche Gemeinschalt (Vol. II, 2 of the
Church history ed. by J. P. Kirsch) (Freiburg: 1940), p. 443; R. Langenberg, Quellen
und Forschungen zur Geschichte der deutschen Mystik (Bonn: 1902), p. 179f.
10 J. Kuckhoff, Johannes von Rysbroeck (Munich: 1938), p. 25.
11 W. Neuss, Die Kirche des Mittelalters, 2 Aufl. (Bonn: 1950), p. 364.
12 Suso, Leben, c. 49, ed. K. Bihlmeyer, 168, 9.
13 See H. Denifle, Die Deutschen Schriften des H. Seuse (München: 1880), I. p. 143.
Concerning Elsbeth Stagel we read: “In her first beginning someone had diverted her
thoughts to lofty metaphysical subjects: the naked Godhead, the nullity of all creatures,
the submersion of oneself into the nothingness, and the extrication of oneself from all
sensible images. She found much pleasure in these and similar ideas, all clothed in
dazzling, extravagant terms. Although good in itself, this doctrine proved to be a
hindrance to her because lack of education and experience disqualified her for making
the necessary distinctions between sense and spirit.”
14 F. Pfeiffer, Deutsch Mystiker des vierzehnten Jahrhunderts, Bd. 2 (Leipzig: 1857),
15 Ibid., 282, 31.
16 Ibid., 29.
17 Cited by H. Denifle in Archiv, II, 522, note 1.
19 Even though his writings were widely disseminated in Germany and had far-reaching
effects in certain spheres.
20 See Henry Suso, O.P., Horologiurn sapientiae, ed. C. (Paris: 1903-1914),
(Richstitter, Taurini: 1929), p. 43 ff.
21 See F. D. Mortier, Histoire des Maitres Généraux de l’Ordre des Frères Precheurs,
22 See J. B. von Weiss, Weltgeschichte, (Graz-Leipzig: 1894), VI.