The sheer size and weight—that is, physical manifestation—of this huge publication encourages one to imagine that large-scale, extensive (and expensive), manuscript-oriented projects may yet receive the necessary resources to appear as hard-cover printed books, even though the topic may not seem either particularly far-reaching or of immediate or obvious importance. It is an extraordinarily imposing two-volume work, not least with respect to the sponsorship secured to fund its publication: the Suzanne and James Mellor Prize of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation; the Anne and Jim Rothenberg Fund for Humanities Research, Harvard University; the Department of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University; the Department of Philosophy, Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf; and the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, College of Arts and Letters, University of Notre Dame.
Liturgical Life and Latin Learning at Paradies bei Soest is a laudable fundraising project to be sure; and certainly one needed to make the case that the convent of Paradies, near Soest in Westphalia, Germany, had reason to receive so much attention.1 As explained concisely on the back cover, the manuscripts from the Dominican convent at Paradies provide evidence of erudition, sustained intellectual activity, and exceptionality that flies in the face of a generally accepted conception of the Middle Ages as a period that went into decline as it neared its close. “Decline” is not borne out by the apparent vitality evidenced by the nuns within these manuscript witnesses, at least within the principal source, upon which most of the discussion turns—Düsseldorf, Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Cod. D 11.
The study thoroughly examines as many dimensions of this monastic culture as possible, as displayed in the titles of the six parts of Volume 1: “The Foundation and Growth of the Monastery,” “The Extant Manuscripts from Paradies,” “The Sequences of Paradies bei Soest,” “The Shape of the Liturgy in the Gradual D 11,” “The Cult of the Saints at Paradies bei Soest,” and “The Art of Inscription in the Gradual D 11.” Volume 2 supplies appendices (including an edition and translation of the foundation legend, a library catalog, and sequences), indices, a bibliography, and over four hundred full-page, beautifully reproduced illustrations of the main sources. Although the authors frequently refer to “manuscripts” or “corpus of manuscripts,” the publication primarily concerns one source, the gradual Düsseldorf D 11. The other manuscripts associated with Paradies are as follows: a two-part antiphonary, Düsseldorf D 7/9; an early fifteenth-century gradual, Düsseldorf D 12, probably linked through its decoration to Paradies but in an “atrophied state” (vol. 1, p. 1); a gradual apparently copied by a nun of Paradies, Elisabeth von Lünen, for the Dominicans of Dortmund, now Dortmund, Archiv der Propsteigemeinde, Propsteikirche B 6; and three fragments, among them manuscript leaves now at Harvard University, Houghton Library MS Typ 1095. Together, these manuscripts are referred to as an “explosion of creativity” (vol. 1, p. 1).
It is impossible within a short review to do justice to the immense amount of detail contained in this publication,2 or to the marvelous reproductions of illuminations and initials. With such a wealth of information, however, it is surprising that the contents are not individually attributed to the various members of the scholarly team. While there must of course have been a degree of editorial collaboration, a certain level of scholarly seriousness would surely require that each author take responsibility for what has been offered as hypothesis, opinion, or evidence. Perhaps this is not so much the case where a work is in the first instance a compilation and rearrangement of what has previously been advanced.
The sequence as a liturgical category was selected by the authors for a good deal of attention, on the grounds that it could well serve as a marker for what is described as “local liturgical flavors,” the arrangement of pieces “according to tradition and taste,” and the evolution of style (vol. 1, p. 211). Sequences at the twelfth-century Augustinian Abbey of Saint-Victor, outside Paris, as well as at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, are also mentioned in several contexts as referents for comparison, citing the “late sequence” of the twelfth century,3 in accordance with the classifications of the editors of Volume 54 of the Analecta hymnica.4 Part 3, “The Sequences of Paradies bei Soest,” reiterates what has already been written about the sequence, namely that it is a gloss to the Alleluia leading to the Gospel reading, and that it was sung by the community in contradistinction to the other “chants” of the Proper of the Mass, among other observations. Neither of these assertions, however, is supported by the presentation of the sequence in hundreds of manuscripts. First, although commentaries on sequences, as on the Psalms, exist, glosses are nearly always differentiated graphically in manuscripts, and so are clearly identified as such. Secondly, only in the rarest circumstances among the 3,500 major collections of sequences that I have cataloged is there any indication that the “community” sang the sequence; when this is the case—again, in the rarest of examples—I believe that it gives evidence of the exception rather than the rule.
More importantly, the sequences at Soest in no way serve as an indication of locality, taste, or Dominican persuasion, since they almost all belong to a group of sequences that could be considered to be “common property”—sequences that can be found in literally hundreds of examples throughout Europe, and for six centuries. Statements that, for example, “Rex Salomonis” is a “Victorine Sequence,” that this is significant as an identity marker, and that it was established by the Dominicans for the dedication of the church are misleading, since this particular text/melodic framework can be found with its dedicatory role throughout the continent of Europe.5 Further, “local flavor,” “popularity,” “style,” and “taste,” as well as the role of the “poet,” all refer to what might be intuitively grasped today as desirable features but would need to be rigorously scrutinized when applied to the historical situation of a convent in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In addition, it would seem to be an irony to suggest in a study that focuses on manuscripts that one can learn a good deal from the study of manuscripts—from the visual statement that they project within a large number of test cases. To attribute “form” to the medieval sequence, for example, is a twentieth-century anachronism, since in literally thousands of notated sequences from approximately 1000–1600 the medieval sensitivity to sound (not only of the single tone but of the syllable) led copyists to write out each repetition of the melody together with the different line of the text, since the tone was perceived to be changed by the sound of the different syllable. This is my interpretation; but what is clear is that the entire melody was written out each time, in spite of repetition, and in spite of the high cost and relative scarcity of materials.
The sequence provided a conceptual bridge between the Old Testament and the New, between the melismatic Alleluia and the Gospel reading, with its incipit “Sequentia sancti Evangelii secundum Iohannem.”6 Sequences within the alternating system of interpretational modes—that is, literal/historical, allegorical, tropological, and eschatological—provided an important completion to this modal system by contributing allegories, followed in conclusion by two eschatological lines dealing with the Christian's presence before God in company with the ecclesia. After continuous alternation between Old and New Testament, between Eve and Maria, between the synagoga and the ecclesia, between David, the Root of Jesse, and Christ, between Adam, the “Old Man,” and Christ, the “New Man,” the participant finally leaves the province of time to contemplate eternity prior to the reading of the Gospel, within which the way of salvation is delineated. Both elements of each pair are not immediately perceived in a review of, for example, the sequences of a region, or of a single monastic situation.7 Rather, they appear only once we observe the sequence in its manifold manifestation within thousands of manuscripts.8
Liturgical Life and Latin Learning at Paradies bei Soest is important in many ways, and the volumes themselves are beautiful and impressive. Nonetheless, the reader is left with various questions and concerns. The book does address topics of current interest—women in religion/conventual life, female monastic culture, manuscripts produced by or directed by women, women's intellectual life in the Middle Ages, female illuminators and manuscript decorators—but it still occupies a highly specialized niche, even within medieval studies. In addition, the claim on the back cover of Volume 1 that the era was in “decline” by the late fourteenth century harks back to Johan Huizinga's The Waning of the Middle Ages, which was first published in English in 1924. One would have thought that we had gotten beyond that, especially in light of recent attention to the contemporaneous reform movement known as the devotio moderna. Further, it is hard to imagine being surprised by the flourishing of women's monastic life and interiority. Finally, the meticulous focus on manuscript initials and illumination would have benefitted from a comparative context. In short, the immense effort that went into this production is evident and admirable, but it is less clear what purpose or readership it is ultimately intended to serve.