- High Way to Heaven: The Augustinian Platform between Reform and Reformation, 1292–1524
About the late medieval Augustinian friars, a few things have remained constant. First, most scholarship on the OESA has been conducted in the overwhelming shadow of the order's most (in)famous brother, a.k.a. Frater Martin Luther. Never mind what the Augustinians were up to, in their own terms and from their own perspectives. The question has been: what was it about a particularly late medieval Augustinianism, or the Augustine Renaissance, or the specific thought of standouts like Gregory of Rimini or Johann von Staupitz that produced The Reformer? Hence the second constant: scholars have focused almost exclusively on the high echelons of the order's theologians, all with a view towards OESA university theology and its relationship to the reformation.
Eric L. Saak has made a radical (and yet simply historical) departure in his High Way to Heaven, examining the OESA in terms of its self-understanding, self-representation, ideological platform, and function in late medieval society without reference to the runaway monk from Wittenberg. Until a final chapter, that is, in which Saak locates Luther's late medieval inheritance within the context of the Great Schism and the apocalyptic forces it unleashed. There, Saak demonstrates that Luther's "breakthrough" was that of an Augustinian magister intent on protecting "the honor and dignity of the Mother Church and of Christ's vicar, the pope" (584–675; 625). The climax and turning point in this development was neither a treatise nor one of the scattered marginal comments Luther scholars love to point out; it came later, with Luther's self-defrocking in October 1524. As impressive as Saak's treatment of Luther is, however, even more valuable are the [End Page 623] first 600 pages in which he presents the Augustinian platform in its totality (ideals, institutions, programs, structures) as it encompassed religion and society, theology and piety, lapses and reforms, successes and failures over more than two centuries. The result is a return of the Augustinian theological tradition to its historical context, the Augustinian religious tradition.
Given their length, thoroughness, and precision, the book's six chapters may rightfully be considered a series of short, intertwined monographs. By "high way" Saak refers to the specifically Augustinian, hierocratic ideology that not only produced the most extreme theoretical expressions of medieval papal sovereignty, but also provided the legitimizing basis for the OESA's corporate identity and religious mission. The fate of the Augustinians, it seems, was always closely linked to that of the papacy. Ironically, Saak demonstrates that the OESA's most comprehensive expressions of papal supremacy could attempt to limit papal power, here in the context of a specifically Augustinian (as in the Bishop of Hippo's) notion of episcopacy: "For all the papal pavement, the Augustinian high way to heaven was fundamentally an episcopal road" (142).
John XXII handed over Augustine's body to the OESA in 1327. From there it was a matter, with increasingly less subtlety, of rewriting the saint's vita so as to incorporate and simultaneously fashion OESA identity. "The accounts of the OESA's origins became increasingly mythicized as they became increasingly textualized" (233). Augustine's hermits, it turns out, were urban dwellers who studied the scriptures in order to serve the populace. In short, these ancient monastic brethren had taken on the personae of medieval mendicants.
Perhaps none of Saak's many contributions are more significant than those of the two chapters that follow ("Precepts and Practice: Jordan of Quedlinburg and the Defining of Augustinian Life" and "Ethics and Erudition: The Theological Endeavor of the Augustinian Studia"). Saak takes "average" Augustinians and explores the theology of the order from the ground up via its studia. Whereas very few achieved the heights of the university, most were trained in these schools. Here, too, the historical Augustine was reinvented to reinforce the order...