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  • Sensual Encounters: Monastic Women and Spirituality in Medieval Germany
  • Marie-Luise Ehrenschwendtner
Sensual Encounters: Monastic Women and Spirituality in Medieval Germany. By Erika Lauren Lindgren. [Gutenberg-e Online History Series.] (New York: Columbia University Press. 2009. Pp. xvi, 190. $60.00. ISBN 978-0-231-14238-0).

Erika Lindgren's Sensual Encounters has a very interesting scope: The author tries to unravel the interaction between environment and experience of Dominican sisters in the upper Rhine area; she chooses six convents from a wide range of possibilities (Unterlinden in Colmar, St. Katharinenthal, Diessenhofen, and three convents in Freiburg/Breisgau: Adelhausen, St. Agnes, and the Penitents of St. Mary Magdalene). These houses offer her a broad variety of sources; three of them left so-called Sisterbooks to posterity (which Lindgren, unfortunately, uses quite uncritically). The author includes liturgical and other manuscripts, economic and legal documents, materials related to architecture, and artwork. However, Lindgren does not provide a reason why she refers to these particular convents. She does not justify her inclusion of [End Page 778] the Freiburg Penitents, which, strictly speaking, were not part of the Second Order of St. Dominic at its inception, despite its close links to the Dominicans. On the other hand, she excludes, for example, Töss and Oetenbach, the Strasbourg houses. Her decision to concentrate on the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries prevents her from using the rich source material extant from the reformed convents since the end of the fourteenth century. In the first chapter Lindgren turns to the "spatial environment" (p. 27), moving from the center (church and choir) to the—arguably—less spiritually charged areas (such as kitchen, dormitory, and garden); here, she detects a tension between the legally prescribed uses of these spaces and "the female Dominicans subverting the specific officially designated functions of monastic spaces"(p. 50). The second chapter explores the visual environment that has already received wide-ranging scholarly attention, especially through the groundbreaking research of Jeffrey Hamburger; Lindgren relies predominantly on remains of St. Katharinenthal and the Freiburg convents and correlates the material sources with the written testimonies, giving a valuable insight into the sisters' spiritual interaction with and practical, hands-on use of the objects in their environment. The next chapter scrutinizes the acoustic environment, and appropriately Lindgren does equally refer to silence and sound in the sisters' environment. Silence was as much part of the official regulations as it was part of the women's spirituality; but, as Lindgren points out, the sisters could be quite noisy at times: they did not only sing the prescribed divine services but also incorporated sounds of joy and suffering into their devotion and, Lindgren argues, so defied the official regulations. The last chapter refers to the "textual environment"(p. 142); the multiple tasks fulfilled by the sisters required the daily use of written material. Since Lindgren restricts herself to the prereform period she has to rely mainly on liturgical manuscripts that were, of course, written in Latin. The author stresses the bilingual culture within the Dominican convents and concedes that "the individual devotions were often in the vernacular," but does this not contradict her earlier statement of the "prevalence of . . . [the Latin] language in their conception of spirituality"? (p. 148).

On the whole, Lindgren provides an interesting insight into the lively spirituality of Dominican sisters in the context of their material environment. However, at times she overstates the antagonism of male/official regulation and female/spontaneous spirituality. Additionally, the book would have profited if Lindgren had referred to the large number of more recent publications on her subject; the omission of Andrew Spicer and Sarah Hamilton's Defining the Holy: Sacred Space in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Burlington, VT, 2006) is especially regrettable. [End Page 779]

Marie-Luise Ehrenschwendtner
King's College, University of Aberdeen


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