- Ruusbroec. Literature and Mysticism in the Fourteenth Century
In 2003, Geert Warnar, presently a researcher at the University of Leiden, published an insightful work into the life and context of Jan van Ruusbroec (1293–1381), the most important mystical theologian of the Low Countries. This book has now been translated beautifully by Dianne Webb from Dutch into English without incorporating any changes, which therefore implies that it does not draw on any scholarship of the last five years. Also, as the subtitle suggests, the book mainly focuses on literary and biographical aspects: those who want an introduction to the theology of Ruusbroec will have to look elsewhere. Even within those confines this is a useful book. Warnar offers a detailed and creative reading of the existing sources (limited enough as they are), reconstructing and evoking the context in which Ruusbroec was writing.
After the Introduction in which Warnar examines the status of Ruusbroec after the critique offered by the Parisian Chancellor Jean Gerson on Ruusbroec’s works, chapter one discusses Ruusbroec’s ancestry and his early days in Brussels. Investigations into the paternity of Ruusbroec have proved notoriously inconclusive; Warner, however, attempts to open us a new line of enquiry by suggesting that the “Sister” to whom The Seven Enclosures is addressed, namely Margriet van Meerbeke, may actually be Ruusbroec’s half-sister (rather than just a Rich Clare) (13).
Jan Hinckaert, a relative of Ruusbroec, and member of a wealthy family, assumed the role of foster father and provided for his education. Warnar discusses in some detail the education Ruusbroec would have received (17ff) at the Chapter School. He would have enjoyed a solid theological instruction, albeit somewhat conservative in nature (more focused on religious truths linked to the liturgy than on the scholasticism of the University) (29). Ruusbroec left the Chapter School around 1310. He was ordained in 1318 and published his most important work, The Spiritual Espousals, in 1330. His own writings suggest that he must have continued the study of theology although the biographical sources remain silent on the subject (37). Perhaps Ruusbroec benefitted from contacts with the important friary of the Franciscans, which would also explain the Franciscan influence on Ruusbroec’s works, which Warnar, in accordance with other scholars, notices (43–44). This is an important issue because it lends further support to the view that Ruusbroec cannot simply be incorporated into the “Rhineland School” shaped by Meister Eckhart and his followers. Warner briefly discusses the issue of Ruusbroec’s sources in this context, conceding that a monograph on this issue “tops the list of desiderata” (47).
After a discussion of the structure of Ruusbroec’s first work (The Realm of Lovers), which Warnar describes perhaps somewhat unfairly as “a kaleidoscope of [End Page 125] style and genres . . . lacking mature judgement” (60), Warnar turns to The Spiritual Espousals in chapter two. In this chapter we find an excursus on the beguines, and Warnar revives Ruelens’ claim (of 1905) that the heretic Ruusbroec attacked (Heilwig Bloemaerts) should be identified with Hadewijch (71ff). I am not entirely convinced by Warnar’s arguments but it is obviously of major importance for the dating of Hadewijch’s works: we know that Bloemaerts died in 1335 while most other scholars assume that Hadewijch wrote in the middle of the thirteenth century.
Warnar also provides some useful background material to the life and status of a chaplain (such as Ruusbroec) in fourteenth century Brussels. The chapter concludes with an outline of the architectonic structure of The Espousals, and how its literary qualities have been appraised by scholars in the last hundred years. The next chapter continues this theme, looking at the reception of The Espousals, with some useful historical information about the reception of the book amongst the Gottesfreunde around Tauler. This provides the opportunity for another excursus, this time on “heresy” in Ruusbroec’s time, allowing us to contextualise Ruusbroec’s diatribes against heretics throughout his works.
Chapter four considers Ruusbroec’s move to Groenendaal and his entry into the vita apostolica. It is...