Ruling the Spirit: Women, Liturgy, and Dominican Reform in Late Medieval Germany

Ruling the Spirit: Women, Liturgy, and Dominican Reform in Late Medieval Germany

Ruling the Spirit: Women, Liturgy, and Dominican Reform in Late Medieval Germany

Ruling the Spirit: Women, Liturgy, and Dominican Reform in Late Medieval Germany


Histories of the German Dominican order have long presented a grand narrative of its origin, fall, and renewal: a Golden Age at the order's founding in the thirteenth century, a decline of Dominican learning and spirituality in the fourteenth, and a vibrant renewal of monastic devotion by Dominican "Observants" in the fifteenth. Dominican nuns are presumed to have moved through a parallel arc, losing their high level of literacy in Latin over the course of the fourteenth century. However, unlike the male Dominican friars, the nuns are thought never to have regained their Latinity, instead channeling their spiritual renewal into mystical experiences and vernacular devotional literature. In Ruling the Spirit, Claire Taylor Jones revises this conventional narrative by arguing for a continuous history of the nuns' liturgical piety. Dominican women did not lose their piety and literacy in the fifteenth century, as is commonly believed, but instead were urged to reframe their devotion around the observance of the Divine Office.

Jones grounds her research in the fifteenth-century liturgical library of St. Katherine's in Nuremberg, which was reformed to Observance in 1428 and grew to be one of the most significant convents in Germany, not least for its library. Many of the manuscripts owned by the convent are didactic texts, written by friars for Dominican sisters from the fourteenth through the fifteenth century. With remarkable continuity across genres and centuries, this literature urges the Dominican nuns to resume enclosure in their convents and the strict observance of the Divine Office, and posits ecstatic experience as an incentive for such devotion. Jones thus rereads the "sisterbooks," vernacular narratives of Dominican women, long interpreted as evidence of mystical hysteria, as encouragement for nuns to maintain obedience to liturgical practice. She concludes that Observant friars viewed the Divine Office as the means by which Observant women would define their communities, reform the terms of Observant devotion, and carry the order into the future.


Mitt wie grosser minnender begird sy geflissen wer den orden an
allen stuken ze haltend, da von wer fil ze sagen [Of the great and
loving desire with which she zealously observed the order in every
detail there would be much to tell].

—Töss Sisterbook, Life of Margret Fink

Toward the beginning of her Büchlein der Gnaden Überlast (Book of the Burden of Grace, c. 1345), Christina Ebner illustrates the power of the Dominican liturgy with a tale about Sister Hailrat, the Engelthal convent’s first choir mistress. the event occurred in the early days of the convent, during the first Advent in which they performed the Office according to the Dominican Rite.

In dem ersten advent da sie nach dem orden sungen … da sie nu
komen zu dem virden suntag im advent, da sie sungen die metin,
da sie nu komen hintz dem funften respons “Virgo Israel,” und der
vers “In caritate perpetua,” daz sank sie teutsch und sank so un
menschlichen wol, daz man brufet, sie sunge mit engelischer
stimme…. Diser heilig covent wart von grozer andaht sinnelos und
vilen nider als die toten und lagen also biz sie alle wider zu in selber
komen: do sungen sie ir metin mit grozer andaht auz.

During the first Advent that they sang according to the order …
when they came to the fourth Sunday in Advent, while they were
singing matins and had come to the fifth responsory “Virgo Israel”
and the verse “In caritate perpetua,” she sang it in German and with
such inhuman beauty that one thought she was singing with an
angel’s voice…. This holy convent became senseless from great

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