Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 29, 2019
Jeffrey F. Hamburger, Eva Schlotheuber, Susan Marti, and Margot E. Fassler, eds. Liturgical Life and Latin Learning at Paradies bei Soest, 1300–1425: Inscription and Illumination in the Choir Books of a North German Dominican Convent 2 vols. Düsseldorf: Aschendorff Verlag, 2016. 1440 pp. Hardcover $229.00 (9783402130728)

Upon first encounter, this book is impressive. The size, weight (nineteen pounds), and price of the two volumes of Liturgical Life and Latin Learning at Paradies bei Soest, 13001425, as well as the reputations of the authors, heighten reader expectation. Using an understudied liturgical manuscript of high quality as their focal point, this multidisciplinary team sets out to describe and analyze manuscript production and use at the Dominican monastery Paradies during the late Middle Ages. The library collection of this house, founded for nuns in the mid-thirteenth century and located close to the town of Soest, Germany, is traced through the dissolution of the monastery (1809–10) to its integration into the Court Library in Düsseldorf (which led to the disposal of portions of the library deemed less valuable) to the current integration of the books in the ULB Düsseldorf (97–109). The gradual D11 and other graduals from the Paradies library allow insights into monastic practices, showing the complexities associated with the expansion of local Mass liturgies. Additionally, this collection demonstrates the monastery’s book production, which also served other monasteries, including the Dominican friars of Dortmund.

The study focuses on the numerous images, including tiny devotees with lettered banderoles, in the margins of D11 (ca. 1375–80). The authors suggest these were developed, designed, and produced by the nuns, showing the nuns’ active role in the exegesis of the liturgy, which necessitated literacy and knowledge of Latin. In her previous debates with Marie-Luise Ehrenschwendtner (2004), Eva Schlotheuber contended that north German Dominican nuns were far more fluent in Latin than their south German counterparts, a position that the authors believe is supported by D11 (e.g., 73539).

The authors assert that this discovery of nuns’ agency will completely revise the scholarly view of gender roles in the Dominican order (xi). In doing so the authors ignore previous scholarship on the authority, learning, expertise, and strategies of nuns striving to control their sphere and exercise spiritual influence on relatives and friends. Nuns often took charge of their own liturgy, administered their own finances, and wrote in Latin as well as in the vernaculars; see, for instance, Nancy Bradley Warren, Spiritual Economies (Penn Press, 2001), Anne Winston Allen, Convent Chronicles (Penn State Press, 2005), and Judith Oliver, Singing with Angels (Brepols, 2007). One of the current book’s authors, Jeffrey F. Hamburger, has often been criticized for his denial of medieval nuns’ agency. He developed what he saw as distinct polarities, contrasting nuns’ reliance on male exegesis and authorship of theological texts with women’s image dependency, which he also saw manifest in their translation of devotion into simple pictures like those that had been denigrated with the term Nonnenarbeit (literally meaning “nuns’ work”) by authors in the early twentieth century (see The Visual and the Visionary, 1998, 13–34). However, such patriarchal attitudes were often countered in reviews, such as Pamela Sheingorn on The Rothschild Canticles (The Art Bulletin 74, no. 4, December 1992), Pia F. Cuneo on Nuns as Artists (Women’s Art Journal 20, no. 1, Summer 1999), and Corine Schleif on Krone und Schleier (Speculum 82, no. 2, April 2007).

To his credit, for the present publication, Hamburger enlisted the collaboration of specialists from the fields of history and musicology (xi). Indeed, as a Gesamtkunstwerk, an illuminated liturgical manuscript demands multidisciplinary treatment. But just as that medieval work must be seen as an integrated homogenous whole, the resulting scholarship should also yield insights that are cumulative and more than the sum of their disciplinary parts. In the introduction, the authors stress that the book is the result of a collaborative writing process but ascribe “primary responsibility” for separate chapters to individual authors (6–8). Unfortunately, the publication seldom achieves the promise of an integrative entity. Redundancies and contradictions are rampant. As those experienced in collaboration know all too well, the expected joint responsibility in such an undertaking is daunting. Every author must assure that the coauthors do not jump to faulty assumptions due to a lack of knowledge in the sister disciplines.

Generally the publication remains surprisingly silent about concrete liturgical performance practices within a female Dominican setting. Many details are left to speculation. The authors posit that two large graduals would have been sufficient, one for each side of the choir (189), which is hard to envision. Seated along the entire length of the two facing groups of choir stalls, most of the nuns could not have read the texts or notation, and even less the tiny lettering of the banderoles in D11. Late-medieval monastics usually relied on individual antiphoners, diurnals, or libelli containing all or part of the office liturgy. One might expect a parallel situation with the Mass liturgy.

What then was the function of the large illuminated graduals from Paradies? I would suggest that they were produced to codify the liturgy of the monastery in magnificent material form, while also serving as master templates relating to questions of performance but not necessarily functioning as copies for “everyday” use. This view is backed by evidence from other houses. These monumental manuscripts needed to be replaced periodically in order to accommodate new liturgical developments, donations, and expanding architectures and to enhance institutional self-presentation.

Indeed, one publication not referenced by the authors sheds light on many of the central questions concerning the performance of the Dominican liturgy by women and the production and use of liturgical manuscripts: Antje Willing’s edition of Das “Konventsbuch” und das “Schwesternbuch” aus St. Katharina in St. Gallen (Erich-Schmidt-Verlag, 2016). Admittedly this edition was published contemporaneously with the Paradies study, but the manuscript has been available online since 2009. This manual, compiled by the nuns of the monastery St. Katharina at St. Gall in the final decades of the fifteenth century, contains elaborate details. To advance the reform in their monastery, the St. Gall sisters had solicited advice from the Katharinenkloster in Nuremberg. The text specifies the location of three lecterns on the nuns’ gallery. During the performance of the offices a large antiphoner rested on one of the lecterns situated between the facing rows of choir stalls. In all likelihood a gradual such as D11 would have occupied the same position when the sisters sang the choir parts of the Mass. Further, the manual discusses the nuns’ seating order in the choir stalls and discloses that a few experienced singers moved around the choir stalls to intervene at the discretion of the cantrix so that both sides of the choir performed the chants adequately. The text makes clear that significant preparation was necessary to participate in the performance of Mass chants and that only those completely fluent in Latin and capable of singing the melodies from their books were qualified. Latin knowledge was required prior to entering the monastery; after professing, nuns underwent further linguistic training. Although these sources are later than the Paradies graduals, the Nuremberg sisters frequently iterate the value of their much-respected reform as a revival of long-standing normative traditions of the order. The manual may therefore help us to imagine how graduals such as those in Paradies were used by Dominican nuns in the fourteenth century.

The scholarly contributions are of varying depth, significance, and reliability. Margot E. Fassler focuses on the repertoire of sequences in graduals D11 and D12 (211–81). Sequences are often complex and generally not based on biblical texts. Relying largely on her previous research, Fassler ties her analysis of the repertoire at Paradies to the overall development of the late sequence. Pointing to sequences for which she finds no parallel transmission, she speculates that this assumed singularity may prove that they originated in Paradies. Unfortunately sources from important Dominican monasteries, such as Nuremberg, were not consulted (e.g., Nuremberg, Stadtbibliothek, vi, 45).

Susan Marti seeks to contour the development of liturgical manuscripts from Paradies (126–27). Recounting prehistory, she writes that initially antiphons for Mass and office were united in one book, a practice that was supposedly kept “well into the 12th century,” and that only subsequently were antiphons divided between “two different types of manuscripts,” graduals for the Mass and “antiphonaries” for the office. The development of the office and Mass liturgies have been thoroughly researched. Very limited numbers of so-called full breviaries exist that combine notated versions of both office and Mass liturgies. These books do not predate antiphoners and graduals. In fact, the form, structure, and content of the monastic office liturgy significantly predates the prevalent Frankish Carolingian model of the Mass liturgy. This passage may stand pars pro toto for accounts that are not grounded in established scholarly knowledge.

The most obvious deficiency of the project is the absence of a liturgical historian. Important information and bibliography on the development of feasts and the creation of characteristic motifs and content are missing, though they are fundamental for the understanding of textual references and the analysis of visual representations. It is symptomatic that in chapter IV, once-reliable but now dated introductory-level texts such as Joseph Pascher, Das liturgische Jahr (1963), and (to a lesser extent) Hansjörg Auf der Mauer, Herrenfeste in Woche und Jahr (1983), are frequently cited. The dominance of art history in investigating the content is understandable in light of the expertise of Hamburger, as the author claiming “primary responsibility,” but the chapter nonetheless fails to recognize relevant resources from other fields.

Hamburger presents an assortment of textual references in order to locate the nuns’ sources for the iconography of the marginal illuminations. These include Rupert of Deutz, Johannes Beleth, Durandus of Mende, Jacobus de Voragine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Sicardus of Cremona, Heinrich Seuse, and Gertrude of Helfta. The selection seems too broad in terms of period, geography, target audience, and monastic background to draw meaningful conclusions for the situation at Paradies. A focused search through writings with relevance to the Dominican order might have been more fruitful. The compilation and standardization of the specific Dominican use was probably influenced less by widely disseminated collections of sermons, hagiographic texts, and manuals explaining the Mass than by specific (often regional) traditions and perceptions already codified in preceding monastic and diocesan liturgies.

For example, the passage analyzing the feast of Epiphany (366–69) does not take into account the complex history of the feast, which encompasses two underlying traditions that influenced regional practices until the Council of Trent. The possibly older Gallican tradition focusing on the tria miracula (Adoration of the Magi, Baptism, and Wedding at Cana) shaped diocesan liturgies in the Frankish West, Spain, and parts of the patchwork of dioceses in northern Italy. The probably younger Roman tradition, with primary focus on the Adoration, supplemented by the secondary motif of the Baptism, spread out to the North and became the dominant use in the eastern portions of Francia, including the Rhineland and Westphalia. For Epiphany, the texts and iconography from Paradies are derived from northern French templates with strong Gallican undercurrents. They thus stand out as isolated occurrences within the dioceses surrounding the monastery.

Perhaps more serious is an apparent lack of expertise in codicology, which becomes evident in the tables of chants that are part of the description and analysis of the individual feasts (chapters IV and V, by Hamburger). In many instances, chants are not identified correctly, as in the formula for the Common of a Confessor (719). The gradual “Os iusti” in D11 is not followed by eight verses as Hamburger claims, but rather by its usual verse, “Lex dei.” Each of the seven additional verses are attached to an alleluia, a context not recognized by the author. Similar errors can be found in the cataloguing of other formulas, such as in the Common of Saints (717). Here the first alleluia is identified correctly with its verse, “Sancti et iusti,” but again the following seven alleluias are labeled as consecutive verses. The second alleluia of the series, “Te martyrum,” begins already on page 477 with its jubilus and not, as stated, on page 478, all of which substantiates the misidentification. Also, for the feasts of Cecilia, Clement, and Catherine of Siena (701), the alleluias are marked as verses of graduals. Even more puzzling is the misidentification of the psalms in the formula for Maundy Thursday (416). In the manuscript, these are preceded by the standard rubric “ps.” Hamburger interprets the abbreviation as “presbyter,” thus incorrectly suggesting an interpolation by the priest. More errors could be listed, but this selection suffices. Most of these mistakes could have been avoided by consulting Humbert of Romans’s Ordinarium (ed. Ludovicus Theissling, 1921), which describes the codified Dominican liturgy. In her table of sequences (II, 49–55), Fassler included such references. In general, the liturgy in the Paradies graduals closely follows Humbert’s model. 

The failure consistently to use standard reference tools is a serious lacuna. Fassler adheres to scholarly standards by linking the (rhymed) sequences to Analecta Hymnica. Her references fortunately also find their way into chapters IV and V. On the other hand, antiphons such as those on Maundy Thursday (416) are not referenced according to Corpus Antiphonalium Officii (CAO). Not even references to all biblical passages are complete, as evident for the antiphon “Cenantibus autem” (CAO 1781), based on Matthew 26:26. A link to CAO would have provided access to a wealth of additional information, such as textual and melodic variants and channels of transmission. The rare variant of the melody of the antiphon “Cenantibus autem,” for example, directly links Paradies to the early twelfth-century Cluniac tradition from Saint-Maur-des-Fossés (Paris, BnF, lat. 12044) in the Île-de-France, thus posing new questions concerning the transmission of the chants in D11.  

One might question the purpose of the extensively but not completely reproduced series of pages from D11 and other Paradies manuscripts in volume II. Manuscript D11 was made available online in 2011 (as mentioned on page 8), thus making it hard to justify the reproduction of a large selection, taking up more than three hundred pages. Study of the illuminations may have been the primary goal. However, the countless missing manuscript pages make it impossible to examine the interaction of texts, chants, and illuminations. The reproductions from gradual D12 prove especially problematic since several of the illuminated initials are protected by opaque textile coverings (e.g., vol. II, 463, 465, 476). In order to document both illuminations and texts, the digital reproduction includes two photographs of these pages, one version with the coverings in place and one with them lifted. The photographs in the book show the protection flipped up, covering portions of the text.

The indexes are restricted in scope, especially when compared to traditional facsimiles and monographs on liturgical manuscripts. The lack of listings of chants by category and incipit makes it difficult to find particular chants in the manuscript. Only the table of sequences comparing the tradition at Paradies with selected Dominican monasteries (vol. II, 49–53) conforms to scholarly practice. Thus unfortunately the publication misses its mark as a reference volume for female Dominican liturgy.

Considering the substantial funding the project received from a variety of sources, part of which financed research, these deficiencies are surprising. In the end, I must conclude that a highly illustrated, heavy, and expensive book does not necessarily a scholarly contribution make. Nonetheless the ponderous volumes and their existence on institutional library shelves will call attention to the substantial roles that nuns played as makers of art and music during the Middle Ages.

Volker Schier
Research Affiliate, Arizona State University, Institute for Humanities Research