Rik VAN NIEUWENHOVE, Robert FAESEN, SJ, and Helen ROLFSON, editors, Late Medieval Mysticism of the Low Countries. New York: Paulist, 2008. pp. xvi+399. $29.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8091-0569-4.
Reviewed by Christopher DENNY, St. John’s University, Queens, NY 11439

This recent addition to the Classics of Western Spirituality series published by Paulist Press travels off the beaten path to introduce English readers to lesser-known Middle Dutch mystical texts here translated into English for the first time. The editors have included previously unpublished manuscripts among their selections, and so this anthology provides an even broader contribution to scholarship on medieval spirituality than a mere collection of translations.

The three co-editors each have established credentials as experts on Jan van Ruusbroec. Van Nieuwenhove’s 2003 monograph, Jan van Ruusbroec: Mystical Theologian of the Trinity, has established a new standard for studies of Ruusbroec’s thought. Faesen has published a critical edition of Ruusbroec’s Seven Rungs in the Ladder of Spiritual Love as part of the recently completed eleven volumes of Ruusbroec’s Opera Omnia in the Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis. Rolfson was the principal translator for the English translation included in that new edition of Ruusbroec’s complete works. The lesser-known authors in this present volume write in Ruusbroec’s shadow, and the editors state in their general introduction that this dependence on Ruusbroec’s thought, particularly its trinitarian dimension, is the distinguishing mark of medieval spirituality in the Low Countries.

The authors included in this anthology span more than two centuries, ranging from associates and translators of Ruusbroec such as Groenendaal canon Willem Jordaens (c. 1321-72) to the beguine Claesinne van Nieuwlant (c. 1550-1611). Ambitiously attempting to cover a diverse collection of material in roughly chronological order, the editors have included texts from eleven identified authors along with eight anonymous works. Over one hundred pages from the third book of The Evangelical Pearl, a text of beguine spirituality published in Antwerp in the late 1530s, are included. The length of this selection is not representative of the rest of the selections. Only the Pearl chapter and the chapters from Jordaens’s The Kiss of Mouth, Franciscan Hendrik Herp’s (d. 1477) The Mirror of Perfection, canoness Alijt Bake’s (1415-55) Four Ways of the Cross, and the Pearl author’s The Temple of Our Soul exceed twenty pages in length.

These selections provide more evidence of the wide influence of Ruusbroec in the later devotio moderna, and will introduce readers to some of his spiritual heirs—Jordaens and Hendrik Herp (d. 1477) being the most notable. As the editors note, an anti-quietist theme runs through several of the selections, and the two treatises from the Groenendaal reactionary Jan van Leeuwen (d. 1378) exemplify the backlash against Meister Eckhart after Eckhart’s posthumous censure in 1329. Van Leeuwen’s treatises, however, with their promotion of “being God with God” and the “superessential rest in God,” also demonstrate Eckhart’s constructive influence upon the thought of his opponents. The editors include an anonymous and untitled 15th century treatise on Ruusbroec’s writing, intended to counter the criticisms made by Jean Gerson that Ruusbroec, like Eckhart, failed to heed the inevitable distinction between God and the human soul in Christian mystical experience. Eckhart too casts an influential shadow over the Dutch works collected in this volume.

The theological debates contained in this collection regarding the orthodox understanding of mystical Augustinian interiority, and the proper relationship between grace and human effort, are balanced by more devotional compositions, such as the gloss on the Our Father from Gerard Appelmans (c. 1250-c. 1325) and an anonymous 15th century commentary on the first five chapters of the Song of Songs that draws upon an older Latin gloss indebted to authorities from Augustine to Bernard of Clairvaux. Passion-centered Franciscan spirituality is exemplified by the anonymous treatises A Ladder of Eight Rungs and the 15th-century Nine Little Flowers of the Passion. Bridal mysticism is represented by A Sweet Meditation, the most intriguing and idiosyncratic of the selections, featuring the Son of God’s descent to earth to seek his long-lost bride, the human soul.

Women are prominent in the collection, which includes van Nieuwlant, Bake, anchoress Berta Jacobs (i.e. Sister Bertken, 1426/27-1514), the anonymous author of the Pearl and the Temple, and beguine Maria van Hout (d. 1547). The selection from Sister Bertken includes four of her songs. The Evangelical Pearl represents the heart of Late Medieval Mysticism of the Low Countries, and the Pearl’s relentless promotion of union with the essential ground present to human interiority, rather than immersion in the fruitless quest for “outward” things, will be familiar to readers of both Eckhart and Thomas à Kempis.

This collection allows English-language scholars who do not read Dutch to branch out beyond Ruusbroec, Beatrice of Nazareth, and Hadewijich of Antwerp in developing a broader comprehension of medieval spiritualities in the Low Countries. Late Medieval Mysticism of the Low Countries should certainly be purchased by librarians, but what uses does it have for researchers beginning their studies in this area and for professors in the classroom? For the former, this book is only a preliminary tome that will have to be supplemented with Kurt Ruh’s volume on mysticism in the Low Countries in Ruh’s multi-volume history of Western mysticism. For the latter, the prescription is more difficult. The effort to include such a wide swath of primary material appears to have come at the expense of the critical apparatus that professors admire in the Classics of Western Spirituality series. The introductions to the individual works in this collection are of varying quality, and the quantity and quality of reference notes also varies greatly among selections. Students who are not already familiar with late medieval spirituality will need additional material for historical and literary context. Perhaps the editors would have been better served by excising some selections in order to provide deeper coverage to fewer texts such as The Evangelical Pearl, The Temple of Our Soul, and Jordaens’s The Kiss of Mouth.

With the appearance of this recent volume in the Paulist series, one hopes that some of these authors will receive more scholarly attention in English-language countries, and the day will possibly come when more selections from these Dutch writers receive the deeper study and critical editions they so richly deserve.


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