Letters, Publicity, and Religious Thought in High Medieval Germany

Christopher Fletcher

From the middle of the eleventh century through the end of the twelfth, religious thinkers across Europe poured nearly all of their intellectual energy into letters, writing thousands that embodied any and every way to understand or explain the divine. Despite this massive body of evidence, however, scholars tend to downplay the significance of letters in the historical development of high medieval religious thought and intellectual culture. My dissertation examines how letters reflected and determined the practice of religious thought during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. I argue that religious thinkers enthusiastically adopted the letter form because its rhetorical characteristics allowed them to make the divine understandable to their contemporaries in such a way that would convince them to change their behavior.

This past summer, an Agnes and Nathan Janco Travel Award allowed me to undertake a research trip to the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, Germany to conduct the final stages of my archive work before I finish my dissertation. Specifically, I needed to see medieval manuscripts in order to better grasp how the work of eleventh- and twelfth-century religious thinkers reached and influenced its audience. During my stay in Munich, I paid particular attention to manuscripts from the community of Windberg, a chapter of regular canons located near the city of Regensburg. The Windberg canons collected letters from some of the most famous religious thinkers of the day, and so their library shows how epistolary literature grounded their mission to provide spiritual instruction to all people through their words and their actions.

On this final trip I uncovered interesting discoveries that shed light on how the canons received and responded to letters of religious thinkers. Several manuscripts contained copies of letters that were carefully written down in whatever space was available in other manuscripts, which indicates that the brothers were always on the lookout for important pieces of theological correspondence in order to record them for their future use. One manuscript, for instance, consisted mostly of a sermon collection, but the final pages were filled by a copy of a vision of Hildegard of Bingen, a famous prophet and letter-writer from the Rhineland, which helps explain how her visions – many of which were recorded in her letters – spread throughout the German-speaking lands during her life.

Another discovery shed light on how the brothers’ spiritual life was shaped by these epistolary works they received. One manuscript (Clm 22288) contained a host of different texts, in their midst was a letter from a “Brother G.” to his unnamed friend, one that is otherwise unedited, so far as I have found. The letter was somewhat hastily copied into the manuscript, but that it was recorded at all suggests that the scribe felt it could have some use for the community. Moreover, the text is an eloquent call for moral and spiritual reform based on theological study; precisely the same message spread by the famous religious thinkers whose letters the Windberg brothers so carefully collected. Whether this letter was written or received by one of the Windberg canons remains unclear, but at the very least, its existence suggests that the persuasive and urgent mode of religious thought embodied by the vast corpus of letters from the eleventh and twelfth centuries was influential at Windberg, which committed itself to bringing divine truths before others in order to change their lives.

Thanks to the Janco Travel Award, these small yet vital discoveries I made over the summer will help me complete my dissertation this year, but they also raise interesting questions concerning communication and intellectual networks in the Middle Ages, the existence of a “public sphere” in medieval Europe, and the ways in which religious ideas were expected to influence thought and society around them.