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Tauler’s Life and Times
By the Translator.
JOHN TAULER, who appears as “the Master” in the foregoing History, was born at Strasburg in the year 1290. His father was most probably Nicolas Tauler, whose name occurs among those of the senators of Strasburg in 1313. At all events, he belonged to a tolerably wealthy family, and might have lived on his patrimony since he tells us in one of his sermons: “Had I known when I lived as my father’s son, all that I know now, I would have lived on his heritage and not upon alms.” He devoted himself, however, in early years to a clerical life, and entered the Dominican Order in Strasburg, taking up his abode in the handsome, spacious convent belonging to that Order, the church of which was consecrated in the year 1308. A sister of his was a nun in the convent of St. Nicolas at Krautenau, likewise belonging to the Dominican Order. In what year Tauler renounced the world cannot be determined with precision, but there can be little doubt that he did so at the same time with his friend John von Dambach, in 1308. From allusions in his writings, 101it seems probable that he soon after, with the same friend, betook himself to Paris, the great metropolis of Christian learning in that age, in order to study theology in the famous Dominican College of St. Jacques, from which the monks of that Order were called Jacobins in France.
The University concentrated within its precincts representatives of the varied intellectual tendencies of the age. Up to the middle of the thirteenth century, it had been distinguished by the freedom of thought which prevailed among its teachers, unshackled as they were by any episcopal, almost by any regal jurisdiction over their doctrine, and acknowledging only the authority of the Pope himself, directly exercised. The influence of the all-questioning Abelard, the subtle Gilbert de la Porée, the pantheistic Amaury de Bene, and other free-thinking teachers, was not extinct, though they lay under the censure of heresy. The works of Aristotle, condemned in 1209, had been gradually introduced into the schools, with the Arabian commentaries of Avicenna and Averrhoes. The Dominican Order, founded for the extirpation of heresy, early recognised the prime necessity of providing instruction which should purify the streams of human thought at their fountain-head; and in spite of the opposition raised by the heads of the University, succeeded, in 1228, in establishing theological chairs in their convent in Paris, from which to combat the heathenising philosophers of Christendom with their own weapons of reason; and in Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas they may be said to have reconquered philosophy for the Church, and Christianised Aristotle, who thenceforth became the established 102master of philosophy, but was studied through the commentaries of the great Dominican luminary.
But the colossal volumes of the schoolmen, embracing as they did within the vast sweep of their speculation disquisitions upon the nature of the Godhead, upon the universe of superhuman intelligence revealed by the pseudo-Dionysius, and upon the nature of man and matter,—while affording a tremendous gymnastic discipline to the human intellect, were barren in actual practical results, and might well be unsatisfactory to one whose soul craved to be something more than a logical athlete. And it is evident that, in his later life, Tauler did not look back upon the scholastic theology which he studied during his sojourn in Paris as having taught him that which answered to the needs of his spirit. Thus, in one passage of his sermons he says: “These great masters of Paris do read vast books, and turn over the leaves with great diligence, which is a very good thing; but these [spiritually enlightened men] read the true living book, wherein all things live: they turn over the pages of the heavens and the earth, and read therein the mighty and admirable wonders of God.” He seldom cites any of the schoolmen in his writings, with the exception of “Master Thomas;” but he not unfrequently refers to Aristotle, under the title of the “Natural Master,” or the “Master of Nature.” The authors who seem to have had the greatest attraction for him, and whom he must have early made the subject of his study, judging from the acquaintance with them displayed in his writings, and the little leisure which he could have had for such pursuits during the busy activity of his later years, were the more 103mystical and speculative among the ecclesiastical writers, the pseudo-Dionysius, the Monks of the school of St. Victor, St. Bernard, and above all St. Augustine. Neither was he a stranger to the Neo-platonists,—Proclus is referred to several times in his writings.
While the whole bent of Tauler’s mind thus appears to have disposed him to contemplation on the great spiritual questions immediately affecting man’s actual destiny, rather than more purely intellectual theses, he must, on returning from Paris to Strasburg, have come in contact with several of the mystical teachers whom we know to have flourished there about this time, and who certainly cannot have been without influence on the course of his mental development. The most eminent of these was the celebrated Master Eckart, a brother of his own Order, who, after having filled the important offices of Provincial in Saxony and Vicar-General in Bohemia, had returned to Strasburg, where, with the earnestness of profound conviction, he was now discoursing to the people in their native tongue, on lofty philosophical themes, till then only deemed fit to be treated of in Latin before learned assemblies; and which he handled in a way that he himself confesses to be contrary to what any of the Masters had taught hitherto. Yet it is clear, from the accusations afterwards brought against him of misleading the vulgar, that the metaphysical speculations which form the staple of his sermons, though they would seem to us utterly beyond the range of ordinary thinkers, must have touched some chords in the hearts of the multitude, expressed as they are, not only in a sharp, clear, forcible style, but often clothed 104in a thoroughly popular form, and illustrated by metaphors appealing to the eye, and allegorical interpretations of Scripture histories.66I borrow the following note from Schmidt’s “Eckart.” Theolog. Stud. u. Krit. 1839, S. 684, An. 15. “The raising of the widow’s son furnishes him with materials for more than one allegory. In the Second Sermon on the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, the widow is first the soul, and her dead son, the Reason, which our Lord animates with new life; afterwards a widow signifies a forsaken one, and taken in an abstract sense, a state of loneliness, and forthwith Eckart springs to the conclusion, that therefore we also must forsake all things. In the story of the woman of Samaria, the woman is a type of the soul, the five husbands whom she has had are the five senses; with these she had sinned, and therefore are they dead. Christ says: ‘Bring hither thy husband;’ this is Free-will. She replies; ‘I have no husband;’ on which Christ says: ‘Thou hast well said I have no husband;’ that is, her Free-will was not her own, but in bondage to sin, etc.”
The man himself and his doctrines were equally calculated to make a powerful impression on the mind of the youthful Tauler, already dissatisfied with the frigid subtleties of the dialecticians, and arriving at an age when he was called on to exercise his vocation as a preaching friar in times of extraordinary commotion and perplexity.
Eckart’s keen and soaring intellect had been trained by a close study of the Fathers and the Schoolmen before he became a professor in the convent at St. Jacques at Paris, in which position he soon acquired no ordinary fame; being esteemed (according to the statement of the Abbot Trithemius in his great encyclopædia of ecclesiastical writers) “the most learned man of his day in the Aristotelian philosophy.” The vivid remembrance of such a master would be still lingering in the hearts of many pupils when Tauler came to Paris; though Eckart himself must have quitted his professorship some years before, as, on account of the severity of his morals and the firmness of his character, he was 105appointed, in 1304, Provincial of the Dominican Order in Saxony, where he laboured with such success in the restoration of discipline, that three years later he was made Vicar-General of Saxony, with the express commission to undertake any improvements and reforms in the Order that he might judge necessary. In this new sphere of action, likewise, he soon became celebrated as a preacher and metaphysical teacher. From this date, when he was held in reverence by the Church, he disappears from our view for a space of some years; after which we find him in Strasburg, divested of his dignities, but preaching with great effect his peculiar doctrines, now in his mature life elaborated into a system which has been claimed by Hegel and some of his disciples as the parent of the German philosophy.77See Schmidt’s Eckart. Theol. Stud. u. Krit. 1839, S. 663. To say whether this claim is just would require a knowledge of Hegel and his school, which I do not possess.88Neither is my acquaintance with Eckart extensive; but I have made no statement in the text which does not seem to me to be substantiated by what I have read of his writings. That which was the aim of all Eckart’s reasonings, to which all else was but a means, was the perfect repose of a spirit in absolute union with God, and dwelling in a region far above the clouds and tempests of this changeful, barren life of sense. He himself appears to have attained in a high degree to this state of abiding peace; yet his writings are pervaded by a strain of deep lamentation over the imperfections of this earthly sphere, and the misery arising from a sense of separation from God. In fact, he certainly retains a positive and vivid sense of the nature of sin; whether this be consistent with Pantheism or Hegelianism, I 106leave those better qualified to judge. In the passionate endeavour to free himself from the entanglements of the creature, and to enter into living union with God, he, however, undoubtedly does not escape the danger of merging created existence in the one uncreated Essence which alone has true Being, and forgetting the limits that bar our approach to the Infinite. Thus he says; “That word, I am, can none truly speak but God alone.” “He has the Substance of all creatures in Himself; He is a being that has all Being in Himself.” “All things are in God, and all things are God.” “All creatures in themselves are naught; all creatures are a speaking of God.” “Dost thou ask me what was the purpose of the Creator when He made the creatures? I answer, Repose. Dost thou ask again what all creatures seek in their spontaneous aspiration? I answer again, Repose. Dost thou ask a third time what the soul seeks in all her motions? I answer, Repose. Consciously or unconsciously all creatures seek their proper state. The stone cannot cease moving till it touch the earth; the fire rises up to heaven: thus a loving soul can never rest but in God, and so we say God has given to all things their proper place,—to the fish the water, to the bird the air, to the beast the earth, to the soul the Godhead.” “Simple people conceive that we are to see God, as if He stood on that side and we on this. It is not so; God and I are one in the act of my perceiving Him.” “O noble soul, put on these wings to thy feet and rise above all creatures, and above thine own reason, and above the angelic choirs, and above the light that has given thee strength, and throw thyself upon the heart of God; there shalt thou lie hidden from all 107creatures.” But if, in thus denying a separate existence to the creature, he uses expressions which logically conduct to Pantheism, on the other hand his God is clearly a living God; not a mere object of philosophical thought, but an actual and working reality.99The second Sermon in the following collection, which is undoubtedly by him, exhibits the mode in which he presents abstract doctrines clothed in a popular form, and is not an unfavourable specimen of his style, though even more fragmentary than some others of his discourses. So, again, some of his expressions might seem to imply Antinomianism, as when he says: “Whenever a man enters into this union with God, that God is so dear to him that he forgets himself, nor seeks himself either in time or in eternity, so oft does he become free from all his sins and all his purgatory, though he should have committed all the sins of all mankind:” and we can hardly doubt, from what we read of the Brethren of the Free Spirit, that some did abuse Eckart’s doctrine of the inward freedom of the spirit to justify sin in pretenders to piety. But it does not seem that even his enemies ever doubted of his own high morality; while Quétif and Echard, in their Scriptores ordinis Prædicatorum, praise him as a virum moribus et scientia probatissimum, omni laude superiorem, and add that a hundred years after him a brother of his Order says of him, that he was vita purissimus, expedites Doctor Ecclesiæ, suo tempore incomparabilis eruditione, fide, conversatione et moribus insignis.
Eckart always endeavours to bring his speculations into combination with the theology of the Church; but the interpretation which he puts upon the received dogmas often deviates widely from their 108spirit.1010He was, for instance, accused of teaching that Hell did not exist: his real teaching was that it consisted in the absence of God, as appears from the following passage:—“It is a question, what burns in hell? The Masters commonly say, Self-will. But I say of a truth that Nought burns in hell. Whereof mark this likeness. Were you to take a burning coal and lay it on my hand, if I were to say that the coal burnt my hand I should do it a great injustice. Strictly speaking, what burns me is Nought; for the coal has something in it which my hand has not. See, it is that same Not which burns me. If my hand possessed all the essence and qualities of a coal, it would have altogether the nature of fire; and then, if you were to throw all the fire that ever burnt upon my hand, it would not give me pain. In like manner, I say, if God, and those who are in the light of His countenance, have aught of true blessedness which those have not who are separated from God, it is that same Not which tortures the souls that are in hell, more than any fire or than self-will.” He evidently regards, nay, openly proclaims outward rites and observances as not necessary to the essence of piety. Traces of his familiarity with the Schoolmen may be found in his subtile and often purely formal distinctions and syllogisms; but their spirit was utterly repugnant to his. On this point Professor Schmidt says:—“Regarding Neoplatonism as by no means incompatible with Christianity, his philosophical views resemble in their general tendency those of Dionysius Areopagita, combining with them the mystical elements contained in the writings of St. Augustine. The theory of that great Father respecting the total corruption of human nature does not, however, occur in his writings in the sense in which it is understood by the Church. With Plato himself he is not unacquainted, but cites him several times, calling him ‘the great Parson’ (Der grosse Pfaffe). Scotus Erigena, the translator of the Platonizing Dionysius, though not named in his writings, must be regarded as furnishing the starting point for his theories. Of the other mystics of the middle ages he only names St. Bernard. But he has not rested within the systems advanced by any of 109the philosophers he studied; he made all the ideas that he may have derived from them his own, and gave them a further development, so that his position is that of a thoroughly original thinker.”
After preaching some time in Strasburg, Eckart appears to have removed to Cologne. It is not known whether or not he had found it necessary to leave the former city; but it seems not improbable that he may have fallen under accusation of heresy there, from the circumstance that many of the propositions condemned, by the Bishop (John of Ochsenstein) in 1317, as the doctrines of the Strasburg Beghards, agree, often word for word, with propositions to be found in Eckart’s writings. In Cologne he preached publicly for a few years in the church of his convent, and taught in the university; but he was not suffered to remain long unmolested. The way in which his writings were used by the Beghards, who were condemned by the Archbishop of Cologne in 1322, appears to have drawn the attention of the latter to his preaching. He cited Eckart to appear before him, and accused him of heresy; but as Eckart refused to submit to his sentence, and continued to preach, the Archbishop appealed to the Pope. His writings were at length condemned in a bull dated March 1329, from which it appears that he was then no more, as it is stated that he had returned to the Catholic faith before his death. It seems utterly inconsistent with the deep conviction that pervades his writings, and the inflexibility of his character, to suppose that he should have recanted any of his doctrines; but probably he merely expressed his adherence to the doctrines of the Church, which he never seems to 110have intended to impugn, but to place upon what he regarded as their true foundation. He never separated from the communion of the Church, and gathered round him in Cologne a circle of ardent admirers, among whom was probably Tauler1111Tauler quotes Eckart. See the Second Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity. (who seems to have often visited Cologne), and certainly Suso, whose biographer relates: “After these dreadful sufferings (of conscience) had lasted near upon ten years, . . . he came to the holy Master Eckart, and told him of his pain, . . . and the Doctor helped him out of it.”1212See Diepenbrock’s Suso. Regensburg, 1829. S. 71. A very interesting account of Suso’s life, concerning which much more is known than of Tauler’s, is given in Ullmann’s “Reformers before the Reformation.” See p. 190, etc.
Tauler’s influence upon his countrymen has been so much more powerful and enduring than that of Eckart, that he has often been called erroneously the first of the German Mystics, and Eckart represented as his pupil. While, however, in his general cast of thought and language, Tauler bears traces of Eckart’s influence, his views do not appear at any period to have been identical with those of his forerunner. Though inclined to speculation, his whole turn of mind and character was more practical than that of Eckart, and his attention more directed to the application of religious principles to real life. Even the sermon which, as we have read, he preached before the remarkable change wrought in him through the agency of the great Layman, though displaying more formality and subtlety with less of tenderness, unction, and spirituality than generally characterize his later sermons, is yet far 111less abstruse and metaphysical, and has far more bearing upon morals and life, than is the case with Eckart’s discourses.
There was, however, another famous Dominican preacher at Strasburg, in Tauler’s youthful days, Nicolas of Strasburg, who though also a mystic, and possessing a very powerful intellect, was a man of a very different stamp from Eckart, and who appears to have always stood in high favour with the heads of the Church. He was the author of several works, and was appointed by Pope John XXII. Nuncio, with the oversight of all the Dominican convents in the province of Germany. I have not had the opportunity of reading any of his productions; Professor Schmidt describes his preaching as less speculative and much more popular, intelligible, and practical than Eckart’s, and says that “his sermons are rather mystical and ascetic than, strictly speaking, metaphysical; they breathe a profound yearning after inward peace and a glowing love to God, but do not display an intellect so lofty as that of the great mystic.” That he was, however, a man of extraordinary learning is evinced by a work which he wrote on the coming of Anti-Christ, and the second Advent of Our Lord, in order to prove that the numerous legends and prophecies current in that age, as in all times of great calamity and mighty convulsions, were unworthy of credit, and that nothing positive was to be learnt from Holy Scripture respecting the date of future events.1313In the first part of this treatise he cites authorities from the heathen authors to prove the truth of Christianity to those who rejected the Old Testament with the New. In the second, he reviews the writings of the Jews, and refutes their doctrines where they are at variance with Christianity. The third, de Anti-Christo ac fine mundi, contains extracts from the prophecies of Hildegard, Joachim, and other mediæval pseudo-seers, which he treats with contempt. The whole treatise exhibits a vast amount of reading in the ancient classics, as well as the Christian and Jewish writers of the Middle Ages. This work was dedicated to Pope John XXII.112
There were many other mystics in Strasburg at this date, of whom nothing is known beyond their names, but this very fact is sufficient to prove the wide diffusion of such doctrines in that city. The same phenomenon also meets us in a heretical guise, among the fanatical Beghards who since the close of the thirteenth century had filled the Rhenish provinces with their doctrines of the absolute freedom of the spirit, and the abolition of all distinctions between the Creator and the creature. They were denominated (most likely by the title of their own choosing) the Brethren and Sisters of the Free Spirit, and made proselytes equally among the laity and clergy. In the year 1317, Bishop Ochsenstein complains that Alsace was full of them, and in a circular to the clergy of his diocese, he condemns the mystical and pantheistic doctrines of this sect, whose members were given over to the secular authorities, and by them apparently punished with imprisonment. Whether or no Eckart was connected with them, they do not seem to have exercised any influence upon Tauler; for in his sermons he repeatedly inveighs against “The Free Spirits,” who he says, “striving after a false freedom, and on pretext of following the inward light, follow only the inclinations of their own nature.”
But besides the Beghards, there were still lingering in Southern Germany and Italy, remains of the Albigenses and Waldenses and Manichean Cathari,—reverers of the Abbot Joachim’s Eternal Gospel 113of the Holy Ghost (that was to overthrow the Gospel of the Son),—believers in the visions of the Prophetess Hildegard,—adherents of the revolutionary Oliva and Fra Dolcino. There were, indeed, many reasons why heresies and religious divisions should abound in these regions at this period. Not only was the German Empire, as we shall soon see, torn by political dissensions, which in many ways were interwoven with the religious controversies then afloat, but there was variance between the heads of the Church and its most efficient servants,—the devoted, hard-working, enthusiastic Franciscans. The two Mendicant Orders were formed to reclaim for the Papacy her empire over the human mind, which in the twelfth century was threatened on the one hand by the moral purity and elevation of the Albigenses, who almost occupied the fairest provinces of France, on the other by the learning and civilisation no less than the arms of the Mahometan infidels; and faithfully had they accomplished their vocation, by turns refuting heretics by their learning or dazzling them by miracles, outshining them in ascetic purity, crushing them by the Inquisition, or winning them by self-devoted charity. While the higher ecclesiastics, above all the Papal court, were enormously wealthy, and, with few exceptions, absorbed in secular objects and pleasures,—the parochial clergy likewise often worldly and vicious, generally ignorant and inert,—the wandering friars came among the neglected flocks, roused them from the sleep of sin, reclaimed the vicious, convinced the scoffer, brought hope to the wretched, consolation to the sick and dying; and, as a natural result, the people were eager to express their gratitude by 114placing their property in the hands of the Order which had shown such zeal for their souls. And thus, though forbidden by their original constitution to hold property, in a few years the amount of wealth which they accumulated from the bequests of the dying was so large as to excite the jealousy of the regular clergy, already irritated by the friars’ denunciation of worldliness, and the tacit censure of themselves implied in the ascetic lives and burning zeal of their rivals, and they repeatedly demanded the suppression of the two Orders.
But within the Orders themselves had soon sprung up the old strife and division that seems to threaten the life of all spiritual organizations in the second generation, arising from the innate antagonism between the self-indulgence, prudence, and acquisitiveness inherent in human nature, and the pure but unreasoning spiritual impulses to which they have owed their existence. The Dominicans, with their characteristic address, retained the conflicting elements within their own bosom, and equally availed themselves of fervent piety or worldly power. The Franciscans, more enthusiastic and less far-sighted, divided into two parties,—those who consented to hold property in trust for the See of Rome, and those termed Spiritual Franciscans, who adhered rigidly to the literal interpretation of their rule of absolute poverty. From the latter sprang numerous spiritual and mystical sects, differing in their tenets, but all coinciding in their fervid faith and their inculcation of poverty and asceticism, all democratic as regarded hierarchical authority, and many involving all the wealthy and noble in their hatred to wealth and power. Doctrines of this kind were indeed sure to 115find acceptance among the oppressed serfs and lower classes in general; and by their very essence the Franciscans had entirely cast in their lot with the people. Among these sects the Fraticelli, who flourished at the beginning of this century, foretold the overthrow of the corrupt and carnal Papacy, and the establishment of a spiritual kingdom ruled over by “the Perfect.” The eremitical Cœlestines, the charitable Beguines, who originally devoted themselves to works of mercy, the devotional Lollards, nay, probably the brethren and sisters of the Free Spirit, seem also to have been offshoots from these Spiritual Franciscans.
The Pope now ruling had, however, put himself in opposition with those of the Spiritual party who remained within the bounds of their Order, and were guilty of no heresy but that of asserting the absolute poverty of Christ and His Apostles. He deposed the General of the Order, and caused the inmates of many convents to be persecuted for maintaining a doctrine which struck at the root of the Papal authority. In return, they boldly denounced the Pope as a heretic, and became important auxiliaries to the Emperor Louis IV. in that long struggle which occupies the period we are considering. They found powerful coadjutors in the profoundly learned and able politicians,—William of Ockham and Marsilio of Padua, whose writings taught men to investigate the origin of the Papal power. But not only from the princes with whom the Pope interfered, and the miserable populace whose passions were at the mercy of fanatical preachers or demagogues; from the burghers in the cities there also arose a strenuous opposition to the outrageous claims and the arbitrary 116tyranny of the hierarchy. This class had long been rising in wealth and importance; and in the earlier half of this fourteenth century they succeeded in obtaining a share of the government in nearly all the chief cities of Germany; and the men who had emancipated themselves from the temporal rule of the Bishop and his aristocracy, and were rejoicing in the fresh air of freedom and the sense of manhood, were not inclined to follow any longer blindly and unquestioningly their spiritual masters.
With the double election of Frederic of Austria and Louis of Bavaria, who were both crowned on the 25th of November 1314, at Aix-la-Chapelle, began a desolating warfare, which lasted for eight years, till the Battle of Muehldorf in 1322 left Frederic a prisoner in the hands of Louis. Strasburg was divided between the rival Emperors. The Bishop and the important family of the Zorn were adherents of Frederic; but the no less important family of the Muellenheim declared for Louis; and the latter had the greater part of the citizens on their side. Thus, when Frederic ascended the Rhine and arrived in Strasburg in January 1315, he was not received as their sovereign by the citizens, but merely treated as an illustrious guest; while, on the contrary, the Bishop and clergy paid him regal honours, which procured them various proofs of his favour. Louis, on hearing in his camp at Spires the conduct of the citizens, confirmed the liberties and privileges of the city. When, five years later, in August 1320, Louis came with his army to Strasburg, the burghers solemnly tendered him allegiance in the cathedral, in return for which he again confirmed their privileges; but the clergy had suspended the offices of public 117worship, and the greater part of the nobles still sided with them. On the captivity of Frederic, most of the imperial cities of Alsace came over to Louis; but this did not restore concord to the afflicted land: for Pope John XXII., bent upon the humiliation of Louis, whose popularity and power were such as threatened to render him too independent of the Holy See, now interfered in the affairs of the Empire, and by his persistent refusal to acknowledge Louis, brought down unspeakable calamities on Europe, while he stirred up the people to a resistance which could not but in the end prove fatal to their reverence for the Papal Chair. So long as the strife lasted between Frederic and Louis, John XXII., while claiming it as his right to decide between them, had refrained from pronouncing any actual decision for either party; but as soon as the former was subdued, and there was a prospect of peace, he instituted a process against the victorious Louis for assuming the title of King of the Romans before receiving the Papal sanction, admonished him to lay down all his powers, and forbade his subjects to render further fealty to him. But when in the following year it appeared that the real object of the Pope was to depose Louis altogether, and raise the King of France to the throne, the Diet assembled at Frankfurt declared almost unanimously for their brave Emperor, in defiance of the unrighteous claims of the Romish See. The Pope in return laid all who had acknowledged Louis under interdict in July 1324, from which some places were not released for six-and-twenty years. It must not be forgotten what this sentence involved, how intimately its consequences were felt in every parish and every home, when the churches 118stood silent and empty for years, the lawless and wicked were left unwarned, and the pious deprived of the consolation of worship and the holy communion during all this most dark and troubled period. But, in spite of its terrors, the German people, and even the greater part of the clergy, took part with their princes, with the exception, however, of the Bishops of Passau and Strasburg. The city of Strasburg, however, remained faithful to Louis, resisting by force the officers who attempted to proclaim the Papal fulmination against the Emperor, and sending troops to his assistance. The Bishop John von Ochsenstein died in 1338; but his successor, Berthold von Bucheke, trod in his footsteps. Strasburg itself, like most of the German cities, took but little heed of the Interdict and the repeated sentences of excommunication hurled against Louis by the Pope. The internal division still continued, headed by the two families of Zorn and Muellenheim, till in 1332 a sanguinary contest took place, which resulted in the overthrow of the old constitution of the city, and the introduction of the craftsmen into the Senate. But the new magistrates and the Bishop remained as much at variance as ever. In 1338, the latter induced his Metropolitan, the Archbishop of Mayence, to convene an assembly of German Bishops at Spires, from which the prelates despatched an address to the Pope Benedict XII., earnestly beseeching him to be reconciled with Louis, and put an end to this lamentable state of discord. Their petition was supported by envoys from the Estates of the Empire, moved thereto by Louis, who declared himself ready to yield all obedience to the Holy See which was consistent with God’s glory, his own just right, and the weal of 119the Empire. But as, in spite of these and similar efforts, the Pope continued to prescribe conditions which made a reconciliation impossible, the Bishop of Strasburg continued to withstand the Emperor, and do all that lay in his power to injure the imperial cause in Alsace. Louis now resolved to resort to decisive measures against this restless adversary, and in 1329 commanded the Rhenish cities to join the Duke Rudolf of Bavaria and Conrad Lord of Kinkel, in attacking Berthold. The latter, having for allies the Duke of Austria, the Count of Wurtemberg, the Bishop of Basle, and other nobles, took the field, beleaguered several cities of Alsace, and laid waste the surrounding country: his opponents carried reprisals into his territories. Strasburg, wearied out with the misery caused by this never-ceasing contention, at length declared to the Bishop that it would no longer yield him obedience unless he made peace with the Emperor; and the Prelate, whose arms had moreover met with reverses, and whose finances were exhausted, fearing lest the other towns of his diocese should follow the example of Strasburg, resolved to do homage to Louis and receive investiture from him, under the reservation of absolute obedience to the Pope, while he sent an envoy to Benedict XII. representing his desperate condition, and requesting permission to sheathe the sword. Both Emperor and Pope conceded his requests; and from this time forward he did all that he could to maintain tranquillity within his bishopric, which was the more necessary, as the controversy between the Empire and the Papacy grew more envenomed.
After the famous meeting of the Electoral College at Rhense, near Coblenz, in July 1338, had declared 120that the King of the Romans received his dignity and power solely from the free choice of the Electors, and the Imperial Diet, held immediately after, had made it a fundamental law of the Empire, that “the imperial dignity is bestowed directly by God, and he who has been legitimately chosen by the Electoral Princes, becomes thereby King and Emperor without further confirmation by the Pope or any other,”—Louis published a Manifesto to all Christendom, refuting at full length the accusations brought against him by the previous Pope, and proving that the Pope has no authority to sit in judgment on the Emperor. He further commanded that none should observe the papal excommunication and interdict, and sentenced all those, whether individuals or whole cities and communities, who should continue to submit to the bann, to be deprived of their rights and liberties.
Great was the impression made by this bold Edict upon the German people, who rallied more and more universally around the Emperor who thus defended his own rights and the honour of the Empire. But concord was banished further than ever, for the clergy in many cases resisted the Emperor’s command to resume the services which had been so long suspended, while the citizens, who had borne with impatience their terrible deprivation of the sacred rites, now on the strength of the Edict issued orders that all the clergy who refused to perform service should be banished. Many priests left their churches and removed into other provinces, numerous convents stood empty of their inmates; still in most places there remained a sufficient number of priests and monks to fulfil the duties of their vocation. This 121was the case in Strasburg; the city had already suffered all the calamities consequent on the Interdict: the clergy had split into two parties; the larger number obeyed the Pope’s commands; the Augustinians especially had for many years suspended the performance of all religious services. The Dominicans and the Franciscans had availed themselves of the privilege early granted to their Orders of celebrating mass during a time of interdict. But now, when the Emperor so openly set himself in opposition to the Pope, they too, terrified by the sentence of excommunication hanging over them, refused in many instances to say mass, on which the Senate of Strasburg proclaimed:—
“Either let them go on to sing,
Or out of the city let them spring.”
The Dominicans in general quitted the city, and Koenigshofen relates in his Chronicle, that they left their convent standing empty for more than two years; but no doubt many of the democratical Franciscans, who had always supported the Emperor, remained behind. They were, however, as we shall see, exceptions in these Orders to the general rule, which shows to how great an extent the brethren must have been guided by their individual conscience rather than their corporate organization.
Such were the scenes amidst which Tauler was called to labour as a Christian minister and Dominican monk. Of the manner in which he fulfilled his work, and the vicissitudes of his personal career, history has preserved but a small number of facts, but these, though few, are significant. All the testimonies that have come down to us respecting him, 122concur in bearing witness to the universal affection and esteem with which he was regarded. Even so far distant as Italy his name was known as a teacher of high repute, who insisted on inward piety. The famous Brother Venturini, of Bergamo, who was residing at that time under disgrace in a convent at Marveges, names him in a letter which he writes to another Dominican in Strasburg, Egenolph von Ehenheim, calling him his beloved John Tauler, and wishing to enter into correspondence with him, because he perceives that “through him and others the name of Christ will be spread abroad, ever more and more, throughout Germany.” Egenolph himself was one of these “others,” who were fellow-workers with Tauler. His early friend, Johann von Dambach was also here at this time.
But the most remarkable trait in this period of Tauler’s life is that he not only, unlike most of his Order, sided with the Emperor in his whole contest with the Pope, but did not suspend his activity when, in 1338, the great struggle came between the absolutely contradictory commands of his temporal and spiritual lords, and, as we have seen, his brethren quitted the town, and left their convent deserted for two years. By the departure of nearly all the clergy from Strasburg, Tauler found a still wider field of labour; and from allusions to him in letters of his contemporaries, it appears that he did not confine his exertions to that city, but preached from time to time at various places, from Cologne to Basle. Before the close of 1338 he seems to have made a somewhat lengthened visit to the latter city, where the state of things was very similar to that in Strasburg. The Bishop of Basle belonged to the opponents of Louis 123of Bavaria, and made common cause with the Bishop of Strasburg in attacking the adherents of the Emperor in 1339. The citizens again, like those of Strasburg, had remained faithful to Louis, and had even gone so far in their hostility to the Pope, that when, in 1330, John XXII. despatched an envoy to publish his bull against the Emperor, the incensed mob hurled him, although a priest and a dignitary, from the citadel into the river; and, when he tried to save himself by swimming, put out in boats after him and slew him. During the Interdict, however, most of the clergy, and especially the monks, had forsaken the churches, so that in many places the Sacrament had not been administered for fourteen years; and on the magistrates ordering them to resume their functions the greater part had refused to do so. About this time, however, the people of Basle by some means prevailed on the Pope to relax the severity of the Interdict for the space of a year.
In Basle, Tauler met with an old friend, Henry of Nordlingen, from whose letters most of the scanty notices of Tauler during this period are derived. He was a priest from Constance, which city he had been obliged to leave on account of his refusal to preach; for though a Bavarian by birth, and intimately connected with Tauler and others of similar views, he did not recognize Louis as the lawful Emperor. He is principally known by his correspondence with a very remarkable woman, Margaretha Ebner, a nun at the Convent of Maria Medingen, in the diocese of Augsburg. Her sister Christina was Abbess of the Convent of Engenthal, near Nuremberg. Both were distinguished by their mental endowments as well as their earnest piety, and were evidently held 124in great respect by Tauler, Suso, and others of that party. They seem also to have taken up a very decided position amidst the ecclesiastical commotions of their age, and were zealous partizans of Louis. Christina, famous for her visions, in one of her trances sees the Romish Church in the likeness of a magnificent Cathedral, the doors of which are, however, closed by reason of the Interdict. The singing of the priests within is heard; a crowd of people are standing round, but dare not enter. On a sudden a man in the garb of a preaching friar comes up to the nun, and tells her that he will give her words wherewith to console the forsaken multitude; and this man is Christ.
Tauler occasionally visited both these nuns, and was in correspondence with Margaretha1414Only one short letter, however, has been preserved, from having been placed among those of Henry of Nordlingen, and it is too unimportant for insertion., whom he urges to write down her visions respecting the state of Christendom and the friends of God. For him they had a deep veneration, and constantly call him “our dear Father Tauler.” Christina learns, in one of her revelations, that he is “the holiest of God’s children now living on earth,” that “the spirit of God breathes through him, as sweet music through a lute;” Margaret speaks, too, sometimes of the joy that she has had in the presence of this great friend of God, and how hard it has been to part with him. She appears to have stood rather in the relation of a wise Christian friend and counsellor, than of a spiritual child, to Henry of Nordlingen, who from his letters seems to have been a man of gentle, pious spirit, more fitted for a quiet 125contemplative life than for the energetic activity required by the troublous times in which his lot was cast. He, like Tauler, was filled with anguish at the sight of the distress of those around him; but while Tauler’s grief stirred him up to vigorous efforts in their behalf, and his courage and energy rose with the emergency, the timid and hesitating Henry was unable to surmount the difficulties in which he found himself involved, and the greater the pressure of the times, the greater was his perplexity and longing for peace. Yet, when his scrupulous conscience allowed him to preach, his labours appear to have been fruitful in result. This was the case during Tauler’s visit to Basle, where he had previously been sojourning for some time in inactivity, after long wandering and much distress.1515His letters give a lively picture of the real dangers to which his politics exposed him. Thus he says, “I have been called before the princes of this world who have proscribed me, so that there is no place of safety for me in this land, unless I would consent to perform mass.” Again, he would come to Margaretha, but “I may not as yet dare to appear openly in this land.” “If the Emperor should leave the country, perhaps I might be able to see thee, if it were God’s will.” “At Constance and in the neighbouring country the priests have been everywhere ordered to sing mass, so that I do not know where I shall be able to remain.”
When the Pope allowed public worship to be celebrated for a year at Basle, Henry’s friends, without his knowledge, procured him permission to preach, and give a forty days’ indulgence; and he then ventured to appear in public, encouraged by Tauler’s influence and counsel. Thus he says:—“Afterwards I came to Basle, to my and thy dear faithful Father Tauler (who was with me at thy house), and he helped me in every way he could with all fidelity.” He then writes: “The great mercy has been granted us that we may celebrate mass in 126public, with the Pope’s permission; and now do the hungry souls come with great desire to receive the Lord’s body, which they have not been able to enjoy for fourteen years in Christian obedience. And now I entreat you, with special earnestness, that you pray to God for all those whom I feed with His Body, that we may receive His Holy Sacrament in His love, and administer it to His eternal glory, and the consolation of all Christian souls.” He now preached every day, and often twice a day, besides performing mass daily; and so many of all classes streamed to confess to him that he was overwhelmed with his duties, and writes to his friend: “If I could manage it, I would gladly come to you; but I am not my own. I am the property of the whole Chapter, and the most important parishes. The people at Basle are not willing that I should leave them, neither, indeed, should I have courage to travel openly about the country; for I should be at the mercy of any ruffian or thief, and if aught befell me, no complaint would be laid against him. Still I trust in the Lord that He will suffer me to see thee, my heart’s true consolation.” But some months later he writes: “Methought I clung too much and with too carnal feelings to the ease, the luxurious and pleasant society, and the earthly comforts that I enjoyed at Basle. In truth I knew not that I did so while I had them, but felt it fully when I forsook them. Besides, I perceived in my heart, through many suggestions and admonitions, that my labours might be more needed elsewhere than at Basle, and so I ventured my departure for the sake of Christ and his flock, and have exchanged the marvellously holy and pleasant and acceptable society there for all 127manner of discomfort to my inward and outward man, by night and by day; so that now I must perforce retreat into myself, and take refuge in my only consolation, Christ Jesus, if I were unwilling to do so before.”
By the persuasion of Tauler, Henry appears now for a time to have preached even in places which still lay under the Interdict, but afterwards, terrified by the violent censure of the clergy for his conduct, to have submitted again to the papal prohibition, and resumed his wanderings. Tauler, on the contrary, waited for no papal permission to do that which he considered to be the bounden duty of a clergyman, and after his visit to Basle it appears from Henry’s letters that he travelled more than once as far as Cologne. In this city, where Master Eckart had spent the latter years of his life, numerous preachers had gone forth from his school, who continued to promulgate his doctrines with more or less ability and originality. Nicolas of Strasburg, too, was at this time lecturing at Cologne, probably driven from Strasburg by the troubles to which his papal politics would expose him at this period. This was the case also with Tauler’s old friend, Johann von Dambach, who had not only declared that during the Interdict it was the duty of a pious Christian to submit unconditionally to the Church, but even composed several tractates to prove the justifiableness of the Interdict from the Canon Law. Yet, as we have seen Tauler and the Ebners in undisturbed friendship with Henry of Nordlingen, in spite of differences which entered so deeply into the life of those times, so, notwithstanding Dambach’s antagonistic opinions, and his removal to the distant 128Prague1616He was made Professor at the newly-established University there in 1347., the connection between him and Tauler was not broken off, as is proved by the circumstance, that, after 1350 he sent his book, “De sensibilibus deliciis paradisi” to their Alma Mater, the College of St Jacques, in Paris, in their joint names.
We now arrive at the date when that great change was produced in Tauler with which the foregoing “History” has acquainted us. Till recently, little was known of the “History,” beyond the fact that it was found attached to some mss. of Tauler’s sermons, and many have doubted of its genuineness. Quétif and Echard, for instance, have treated it as a mere allegory. By dint of laborious researches among the old mss. of the libraries of Strasburg and Sarnen, and ingenious combinations of the results thence obtained, Professor Schmidt has not only established, in a way that it seems to me must be satisfactory to any one who goes through the evidence, that this Tractate is a perfectly genuine and truthful production, the work of the layman who professes to have written it, but also has succeeded in identifying this layman with a mysterious personage, called the Great Friend of God, in the Oberland, the head of a secret religious association; and the latter again, with a certain Nicolas of Basle, whose name, however, only occurs twice; once in the account of his own martyrdom, once in that of one of his disciples.
The most important of the mss. examined by Professor Schmidt is a large folio volume, only recently discovered in the archives of Strasburg, and formerly belonging to the Convent of the Knights of St John 129in that city, called a Briefbuch [book of letters], and is for the most part a collection of letters and papers left by Rulman Merswin, the founder of the convent. This Rulman Merswin was a friend of Tauler (who was for some time his confessor), and, in the latter part of his life, of the “Layman,” Nicolas, by whose advice he built a house for the Brethren of St John, on an island at Strasburg called the Gruenen-Worth (green meadow), and with whom he was in constant correspondence up to the time of his death in 1382. Several portions of this extremely curious Briefbuch were carefully copied into the archives of the convent, forming what is called its Memorial,1717The documents relating to the founders of the house are so called. Of this Memorial four copies are known to exist. but the codex itself did not belong to the public archives of the house, being kept secret from all but a few, on account of the private letters and notes contained in it, and therefore treasured up with peculiar care. So late as the seventeenth century, this was still the case, and a reader of that period has traced on the outer covering of the Codex the words: “liber iste religiose custodiendus.” The documents of which it consists were arranged, and most of them copied out, by Nicolas von Laufen, who (according to a few notices of himself, which he has inserted at the close of the Briefbuch) seems to have accompanied Rulman Merswin as his secretary, on taking possession of the newly-built Gruenen-Worth in 1366, and a few years later to have become a priest of the order of St John. The codex contains among other less important matter, a ms called “The Book of the Five Men,” being an account of Nicolas and his four companions, in the handwriting of Nicolas himself; twenty-two 130of his letters, apparently copied by Nicolas von Laufen, and the original ms. of Rulman Merswin’s account of the first four years of his religious history, in his own handwriting. Thus, after a lapse of five hundred years, we are able to learn more about this extraordinary half-mythical “Friend of God in the Oberland,” than his very contemporaries knew.
From these documents we are able to obtain a general idea of the character and work of Nicolas, though the actual course of his history, especially during the earlier part of his life, is still almost entirely shrouded from view. All that we can discover respecting the commencement of his career is, that about the year 1328 or 1330, he was a youth of good family at Basle1818The place of his abode is not certain, but inferred from the dialect of the Tractate found in his own handwriting. See Schmidt’s Gottesfreunde, S. 32., wealthy, universally esteemed, and possessed of abilities that ensured him success in all that he undertook. Nevertheless, he was unhappy, from the consciousness of his sinfulness and ignorance of divine things. Being, as a layman, uninstructed in Holy Scripture, he sought to master religious truths by the exercise of his reason; but his efforts to obtain satisfaction were in vain. For years he struggled with his own intellectual difficulties and the temptations of the world. One day, as he was meditating on the transitory nature of all earthly things and the rapid flight of time, the thoughtlessness, sinfulness, and thorough forgetfulness of God in all those around him were presented in such vivid colours to his mind, that it seemed inconceivable to him how man could take any delight in this vain world; and then, as the thought 131of his own wasted time rose to his remembrance, he was filled with such bitter remorse that he resolved from that moment to renounce the world and dedicate his life to God. To this end, as we have seen1919See p. 20., he read the lives of the saints and imitated their austerities. This discipline he had carried on for five years before he found peace in the way he describes in the “History.” He afterwards set himself to study the Scriptures (no doubt in Latin), and says that in a space of thirty weeks he had come to be able to understand it as thoroughly, and “speak as good grammar, as if he had studied all his days in the best Universities;” which extraordinary facility of acquisition he refers to special divine assistance. We know no more of him till we find him at the head of a society of “Friends of God,” who live with him in utter seclusion from the world, and form the secret centre of a wide circle of religious activity, unconnected with any recognized order, but yet not overstepping the pale of the Church.
The title of “Friends of God” is one which meets us continually in the writings of those who are termed mystics in the fourteenth century, and is used in various connections. Sometimes it seems to denote those who were partakers of a spiritual in opposition to a formalistic piety; sometimes to denote the members of a particular body. Among those called “Friends of God” we find the names of individuals widely differing from each other in rank, vocation, opinion, and career; for they counted among their members Dominicans, such as Eckart, Tauler, Suso of Constance, and Henry of Nordlingen, and Franciscans, such as Otto of Passau; Knights married 132and single; nuns like Christina and Margaretha Elmer, and a Queen, Agnes the widow of King Andrew of Hungary; the rich banker, Rulman Merswin, and Conrad, the Abbot of Kaisersheim in Bavaria, who boasts, in a letter to Henry of Nordlingen, that he has not accepted the Bishop of Augsburg’s absolution either for himself or his monastery; Conrad Brunsberg, again, the Grand-Master of the Knights of St John in Germany, besides the layman, Nicolas of Basle, and the great mystical author of the Netherlands, Ruysbroek. The appellation common to all these, with numbers of less distinguished persons, would seem to have been used among themselves to denominate those who could not but feel that they were more alive to the realities of religion and its spiritual nature than was the case with the multitude around them. That those possessing common sympathies on the subjects of highest import, should instinctively seek out and cling to each other, and thus an association should spontaneously grow up, even without any definite plan, is a natural and inevitable process, where a real, deep religious life has arrived at self-consciousness; and from a comparison of the passages in which Tauler and Henry of Nordlingen use the term “Friends of God,” it appears to me that in the first instance the sense of having entered into a living, personal union with God, bringing with it a yearning pity for sinners, and a fervent desire to bring them to the same blessed state, was the sole distinction and bond of the “Friends of God.”
It is at all events clear that their union for common action was utterly independent of the attitude they assumed towards the great conflicting questions of 133the day; for, as we have seen in the Abbot of Kaisersheim, and Henry of Nordlingen, those are called “Friends of God,” and treat each other as brethren, who are as far asunder in their politics as the Chartists and High Tories of our own days. Neither did they form a sect, but, on the contrary, repudiated the idea, as is shown by the following passage from Tauler’s sermon on the twenty-second Sunday after Trinity, which I think, too, confirms this view of their origin. “The prince of this world has nowadays been sowing brambles among the roses in all directions, insomuch that the roses are often choked, or sorely torn by the brambles. Children, there must needs be a flight or a distinction; some sort of a separation, whether within the cloisters or without, and it does not make them into a sect, that the ‘Friends of God’ profess to be unlike the world’s friends.” The remark that the “Friends of God” were not a sect, would seem to prove that this accusation was brought against them; but, indeed, proof of this would seem superfluous, for then, as in all other times, it would infallibly happen that the unworldly and spiritual-minded, who recognized a nobler sort of religion than that comprised in the due observance of religious rites and decent moral conduct, should be charged with sectarianism and suspected of heresy, even if they broached no new dogmas, and went no farther than to bring out in their teaching and practice the real significance of the Church’s ordinances.
But the greater the sinfulness and deadness to religion in a particular age, the more strongly marked must be the line of demarcation between the careless and the earnest; for the religious are thus obliged to 134abstain from pleasures and occupations which, innocent in themselves, have become corrupt. At the same time, too, the danger of enthusiasm, and mistaking one’s own natural emotions for direct Divine influence, will be greatest when such influences known to be real by the pious, are altogether denied by the world in general. Illustrations will instantly suggest themselves to the mind of the reader from the experience of our own Church in the times of Wesley and Whitfield; and in like manner, amidst the universal deadness of the Lutheran Church in the seventeenth century, arose the Pietistic movement of Spener and Franke. Thus the great wickedness, especially of the clergy, the contentions and dreadful catastrophes which mark the first half of the fourteenth century, would impel the pious to come out from the world, and stimulate them to specially earnest and direct efforts to enkindle the religious life of the people. And so, during the terrors of the Interdict, they seem to have formed an association with no declared boundary, yet whose boundaries would be most distinctly recognized by all who were within the line. To the name they adopted, the text John xv. 15 seems to have given occasion; for Tauler says: “Then said our Lord to His disciples, ‘From henceforth I call you not servants, but friends.’ The ‘henceforth’ that he spoke was from the time when they had forsaken all things and followed Him. Then were they his friends, and not servants; and therefore he who will be a true friend of God must leave all things and follow after Him.” From this passage, in the spirit of which many others concur, we see at once in what the right to this title consisted—namely, in the thorough self-surrender 135to God, the forsaking all things to follow God alone.
But while this principle, which surely we must recognize as that which does really constitute the friends of God in all ages, was brought out into peculiar prominence by these German Gottesfreunde, their views could not fail to be coloured by the modes of thought and the circumstances of their age. Thus, in order to this entire devotedness to God, we find a renunciation, so far as may be, of all earthly cares and ties recommended by them; thus, too, we see that their faith in God’s direct, personal dealings with the individual soul is apt to be accompanied by a superstitious regarding of insignificant phenomena, or even the mere effects of an over-active fancy, as a positive intimation of His will. Some of us, too, would be inclined to think that their continual insisting on the duty of passively yielding up the soul to divine influences, and their exhortations to take all outward things as from God, would involve a danger of falling into an indolent quietism. But the fact, far from justifying our expectations, would afford another proof that when we leave off trying to do the work that God will do Himself, we shall find our energies all the more vigorous to accomplish that which He has set us to do; for instead of regarding the events around them with passive indifference, like many of the earlier ascetics, they believed themselves called to exercise a very positive influence on the course of events.
This was in a special sense the case with Nicolas of Basle and his immediate companions, whom we find, from the recently discovered documents, to have entertained plans for the extension of religion and 136the reform of Christendom of a wider nature than it was safe to disclose even to their brethren indiscriminately, at a time when the Dominican inquisitors (who, moreover, were of the Papal, while most of the “Friends of God” were of the Imperial party) were actively engaged in hunting out heretics, especially those who might betray any leaning to the democratic and reformatory tendencies of the Spiritual Franciscans and their cognate sects. Thus the knot of men who gathered round Nicolas as their centre, seem, as compared with the Gottesfreunde at large, to have formed a church within a church, having secret schemes into which the others were not initiated.
From hints of such private schemes scattered in the writings of Rulman Merswin and “the Layman,” it was formerly imagined that the latter at any rate was a secret Waldensian; but this idea is not confirmed by more extended research; on the contrary, the importance which he and his friends attach to the rites of the Church,—to obedience to ecclesiastical superiors,—their belief in transubstantiation and purgatory, &c., are quite inconsistent with it. Indeed, the views of Nicolas seem to have been much more in unison with the doctrine of the Church than those of Eckart and his school. The only peculiarity of his belief, that I can discover, is his strong confidence in the reality of the visions and miraculous revelations imparted to himself and his friends; and it must be remembered that even this peculiarity he not only shares in common with the great Luther, who lived two centuries later, and with the liberal and sagacious Wesley, almost in our own days, but that his spiritual childhood had been nurtured on 137the legends of the saints, with all their marvels; and that we see, from the history of his times, that miracles and revelations were of everyday occurrence, at all events among the Franciscans and sectarians. The secret of the extraordinary sway which Nicolas obtained, not only over laymen less instructed and priests less thinking than himself, but even over a man of such commanding intellect as Tauler, seems to me to lie in the intense glow of his piety, the utter self-devotion of his own life, his force of will, and his real spiritual insight. Not only did he stand immeasurably below Tauler in point of learning, but his letters, while affording many traits of spiritual wisdom and acute practical sense, exhibit neither the reflective nor imaginative power of Tauler’s writings. Yet the accomplished scholar, the experienced pastor, the fearless politician, resigns himself implicitly to the guidance of the obscure layman as his incontestable superior.
The crisis which Nicolas was the means of bringing about in Tauler’s life is commonly termed a conversion; but from all that we have read of his previous life, it seems clear that it cannot be regarded as what is ordinarily meant by that term. Before it took place Tauler was already a sincere, God-fearing, active Christian minister, and recognized as their “Father” and leader by the “Friends of God” scattered up and down Switzerland, Bavaria, and the Rhenish states. Neither can I discover any conversion, properly speaking, in point of doctrinal opinions. Nicolas agrees to all he taught as very good, and blames, not his preaching, but his life. Surely, therefore, this notable change is to be regarded in the light in which Tauler himself regarded 138it; as the coming to a deeper, more real and practical experience of the things of God. It seems, that with all his sincere piety, and hatred of sin, and abhorrence of the evil world around him, Tauler had never come to a clear consciousness of all the depths of sin concealed in his own heart, or an apprehension of the full import of the utter self-surrender to God which he preached. Such a deficiency of self-knowledge is indeed more possible with a conscientious man of Tauler’s character, pure and gentle by nature, than with one of the opposite, or more stormy type. It is true that the task which God lays upon all is the same—the unceasing surrender of their own wishes to the higher aims which He sets successively before them. But with men of passionate temperament and selfish habits, who are therefore at every turn exposed by circumstances to violent temptation, their natural wishes are, for the most part, so obviously sinful that, though the struggle of renouncing them may be hard, the duty of doing so is clear and pressing. And when such turn to God, their falls in attempting the Christian walk are often frequent enough, or at least their battles with temptation severe enough, to teach them the evil and weakness of their own heart. With men, on the other hand, of calm, pure, and affectionate disposition, and trained in conscientious habits, so many of their wishes are for things harmless, or even good in themselves, that it is less easy to see why and how they are to be given up. Such men, just, kindly, and finding much of their own happiness in that of others, live, for the most part, in harmonious relations with those around them, and have little to disturb their consciences, beyond the fear of 139falling short in the path of duty on which they have already entered. But they are exposed to many perils, more insidious, because less startling, than those which beset their more fiercely-tempted brethren. They are in danger of depending too much on the respect and love which others so readily yield them; of valuing themselves on a purity which, if ever one of struggle, has come to be one of taste; of prizing intellectual clearness above moral insight and vigour; of mistaking the pleasure they feel in the performance of duty, for real submission to the will of God; and above all, of shrinking from new truths which would, for the time, confuse their belief, and break up the calm symmetry of their lives. The greater danger to the Christian life arising from those hidden heart-sins, than even from sinful acts which instantly wound the conscience, is a truth which Tauler insists upon in his sermons so strongly and so often, nay, sometimes almost to exaggeration, that one could not but guess that he was speaking from his own experience, even had we not the certainty of it from the “History.” For, as he often declares, different natures require and receive a very different discipline from God. Sometimes it is by outward affliction that God speaks to souls thus sinking into the lethargy of formalism; and the loss of friends, or health, or influence suddenly seems to cut off, as it were, half their means of serving Him, and to rouse long-forgotten temptations to rise up against His will. Sometimes, on the other hand, He speaks to them inwardly, by opening their eyes to heights of holiness, which they had never before steadily contemplated. They now suddenly perceive that many of the fancied duties which have till now occupied 140their lives, and satisfied their consciences, have long ceased to be duties, and have come to be mere habits or pleasures; and that while they have been thus living in self-love, unseen and unrepented-of, they might have been coming to the knowledge of the higher obligations to which they have been so blind, but which were all implied in their first belief, if they had but continued to read it with a single eye. Thus they are weighed down by present temptations to which they have long been strangers. For, in order to follow the new light granted to them, they must give up long-cherished aims; relinquish many opportunities of doing good, and even, it may seem, the very faculties for using them; and sacrifice, not only the good opinion of the world, but the trust and affection of many who are dearest to them. They shrink from such renunciation; and then come doubt and perplexity to add to the bitterness of the struggle. Can it be right to abandon so much that is good and worthy in itself, can it be the voice of God that summons them to do this, or is it not rather a self-willed fancy of their own? No: for conscience cannot be mistaken when it tells us of sin, though it is insufficient to reveal to us duty—and this fierce clinging to their own wishes, what is it but the same obstinate resistance to the will of God, which they have been accustomed to blame, nay, even wonder at, in the vicious and criminal, whom they have perhaps been seeking to reclaim? Such a struggle, it seems, was that which Tauler had to pass through before he could fully apprehend or be fitted for the work which God had for him to do. And surely, without some such struggle, none can keep long in the right path. For the path to life does not stretch across the 141levels of habit, but winds up the heights of aspiration, and at every fresh step in the ascent a wider horizon of duty opens to the view.
I will not mar the impression of the touching narrative given by Tauler himself by translating the story it relates into any weaker words, but leave it to make its own way to the heart of those who have hearts to understand it. There may be some who are unable to find within the range of their own experience and observation any key which can make it sound to them like reality and common sense, yet considering the practical energy and clear judgment of Tauler in other parts of his life, it may surely be worth their pains to study what he considered of so much importance with reverent and self-distrustful diligence, rather than reject it at once as the mere product of a heated fancy.
It seems most likely that the attention of Nicolas had first been drawn to Tauler during the stay of the latter with Henry of Nordlingen, in Basle, in 1338; for, according to one of the best mss. of the “History,” the Layman says, “I have heard much of your doctrine in my own country.” Considering what we know of his previous history, and the accusation of Nicolas that he relied too much on his scholarship, it seems highly probable that Tauler may hitherto have been somewhat influenced by the cast of thought derived from his master Eckart, in whose writings the power of Knowing is so highly exalted that it sometimes is made to take precedence of the faculty of Love. That Nicolas should, after hearing Tauler preach a few times, have been able to penetrate his spiritual condition and detect its great imperfection, would not appear 142to imply anything miraculous, but to be merely a rare, though by no means singular, instance of the fine spiritual instinct sometimes found in men themselves of extraordinary religious attainments. Tauler shows us what he considers to have been the value of Nicolas to himself when he says, “Therefore for such as desire to live for the truth, it is a great assistance to have a Friend of God, to whom they submit themselves, and who guides them by the Spirit of God. . . . It were well worth their while to go a hundred leagues to seek out an experienced Friend of God, who knows the right path and can direct them in it.”2020First Sermon on the Birth of the Virgin [No. 127 of the Frankfort Edition, 1826].
The two years of silence, which must have been such a terrible trial to Tauler’s faith and obedience, were compensated, not only by inward growth, as is always the case with such trials, but by the evident increase of his outward usefulness, so that he found the truth of Nicolas’ assurance, that one of his sermons would bring forth more fruit now than a hundred had before. His preaching is distinguished from that of most of his brethren among the “Friends of God,” by its more searching application of religious principles to the moral questions arising in the various emergencies of inward experience and outward life. How much more widely still must it have differed from that of the ordinary preachers, who sought to captivate the educated by the refinements of scholastic logic, employed on questions of no use but to display their own ingenuity, or to entertain the vulgar by marvellous stories of wonder-working saints or demons,—when in simple earnest language 143he appealed to the consciences of his hearers, and then showed them the way of escape from the wretchedness of their sinful lives to the peace of God, which passeth all understanding. And when he taught them that they must forsake the creature and cleave to God alone, it was no selfish shutting up of the heart within the narrow sphere of its own emotions and experiences which he preached, for he is continually admonishing to works of love, and ever places human duties on their true level, measuring their value not by the nature of the act, but by the obedience and love involved in its performance. “One can spin,” he says, “another can make shoes; and all these are gifts of the Holy Ghost. I tell you, if I were not a priest, I would esteem it a great gift that I was able to make shoes, and would try to make them so well as to be a pattern to all.” “The measure with which we shall be measured, is the faculty of love in the soul,—the will of a man; by this shall all his words and works and life be measured. . . .”
But that which seems to me the most striking characteristic of Tauler’s sermons is his profound sympathy with the spirit of Christ’s life, especially with his infinite sorrow over the sins of others. This is, indeed, a characteristic of the “Friends of God” in general, but is expressed with greater force and beauty in Tauler than in the other writers of the same school. In this sense they specially deserve the title which they assumed; for, more than any other class of religious writers with whom I am acquainted, do they seem to have entered into that intense appreciation of the evil of sin, mingled with endless grief and compassion 144for its slaves, which could overwhelm the Saviour’s mind with agony.
It is true that a large proportion of his sermons are addressed to the inmates of cloisters, and have special reference to their peculiar requirements and dangers. But we must remember that he lived in an age when the social relations were in a state of disorganization; and in those times of general distress and perplexity, when the outward ministrations of the Church and the means of obtaining religious instruction were often cut off for long together, the number of those who retired into convents had become very large. There were great numbers, too, of laymen and women, who, without entering any Order, withdrew from the world and formed communities or unions (called Sammenungen), dwelling together without any monastic rules, yet differing little in their mode of life from the regular monks. Tauler often refers to these communities in his sermons. Their members generally chose Dominicans or Franciscans for their confessors, and a great number of this class appear to have attached themselves to Tauler. They found in him, however, a severe censor of the faults to which their recluse life rendered them peculiarly liable,—the relying on outward acts of piety, despising those who are outside, killing the body, which is God’s instrument, with austerities, or allowing themselves to waste their time and fill their minds with trivialities, while imagining the fact of their being “religious” to make them safe.
He is said by Specklin to have made the reformation of the lives of the clergy a special object of his efforts. The statutes passed for the regulation of 145their conduct by a synod convened by Bishop Berthold in 1335, for the purpose of removing abuses, gives a lively picture of the inordinate covetousness, and utter neglect of the duties of their vocation, which prevailed among the clergy of Strasburg at this time. It is the more remarkable, that the Bishop should have found it necessary to take such strong measures during the solemn period of the Interdict, when the very struggle in which the clergy were engaged with the civil power, might have been expected at least to rouse them to lead a more decorous and sober life. From the statutes of this synod, we see that the clergy not unfrequently alienated the property of the Church to laymen, or borrowed money at high interest from the Jews, in order to gratify their propensity to ostentation and pleasure. There were even some who entered into trade. The younger and more wealthy especially distinguished themselves by their extreme fondness for display, and the Bishop complains that, instead of going about clad with due decorum in the proper priestly garb, they allowed their hair to grow long in order to conceal their tonsure, wore boots of red, yellow, and green, and adorned their coats with gold lace and gay ribbons; that they strutted about in the streets equipped with rapiers and swords, attended tournaments, frequented the public taverns, and were the most jovial of boon-companions at the drinking-bouts of the laymen. In some of the more wealthy nunneries, too, things had come to such a pitch, that the ladies dressed magnificently, took part in the amusements of the tournament, and even danced with laymen in their taverns. In reference to such, Tauler says: “If we look around us, we see that the greater 146part of the world are enemies of God; and among these we must account certain who are servants of God by constraint, who must be forced to do any services for Him, and the little that they do is not done out of love or devotion, but simply out of fear. . . . They are common hired servants of God; and such are all those priests and nuns and the like, who take up a religious life for the sake of revenues and fees, and if they were not secure of these, they would not serve God at all, but turn round altogether, and consort with the enemies of God. Thus they seek their own pleasure in dainty fare, dress, jewels, vanity, and the admiration of others, wherever they can find it. Nay, verily, at last they must have a spouse. ‘Ah, dear Lord,’ they say, ‘it is no harm; it is a spiritual love. We must enjoy ourselves a little; we must have some recreation; we cannot do without it. See, dear Lord, we are spiritual people, we are in an Order.’ But put on as many cowls and hoods as thou wilt, they will help thee nothing, if thou doest not what thou oughtest of right to do. There was once a man who fell into sin, and he put on a cowl, but did not give up his sin. The Devil came and took the man, and tore him into a hundred pieces, and left the cowl whole, but carried off the man, body and soul, to the amazement of all beholders. Therefore take heed to yourselves, knowing how full the world is of such bargainers with God, among monks and nuns.”2121Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity.
Tauler’s denunciations of this class brought him, of course, many enemies among the clergy, who hated the strictness of his principles and conduct; and they strove in various ways to distort his words, in order 147to find grounds for accusation against him. Thus he says,—“Children, I must tell you in love, that I am unjustly accused of having declared that I would hear no one’s confession unless he first promised me to do everything that I wished. That is a very unjust word: ‘what I wished.’ I wish no one to do anything beyond that which is written, and I beg no man to promise me more than that.”2222Sermon on Assumption Day [No. 125 of the Frankfort Edition, 1826.] He had also to defend himself against more serious charges, for his enemies not only ridiculed him for making so much of the inward work, but called him and his followers unorthodox innovators. Thus he says: “But if one come and warn them of the horrible danger in which they are living, and what a fearful death they are like to die, they mock at him, and say he is a Beghard, or belongs to the New Spirit, scoffing at him and slandering him worse than ever was done to the Christians by Jews or heathens. These false Christians contemn us far more, crying out, ‘Here comes one of the New Spirit;’ ‘These are they of the lofty spirits.’”2323Second Sermon for the Third Sunday after Trinity. It is even related that the clergy, enraged at the charges he brought against them, on one occasion forbade his preaching (which undoubtedly was in itself an act of disobedience to the Interdict), but that the magistrates obliged them to rescind their prohibition.
Meanwhile, however, Tauler’s efforts for their amendment were not wholly fruitless, for it is recorded that through him “many priests became quite pious;” while by the people at large he was revered and affectionately beloved, and “whatever weighty matter the people had to do, he was called 148in to settle it with his wisdom . . . and whatever he counselled them was right in their eyes.” The “Friends of God” naturally attached themselves more strongly than ever to him, and about this time he seems to have been the means of adding a notable adherent to their numbers, in the banker, Rulman Merswin, who was at a later period the founder of the Gruenen-Worth, and author of the “Book of the Nine Rocks,” a very remarkable allegorical picture of the then condition and prospects of the Church. Nay, even Bishop Berthold is related to have “heard him preach often and gladly with great admiration” at this time; no doubt rejoicing in so brilliant an exception to the general disgraceful conduct of his clergy, which caused him so much uneasiness; but the Bishop’s favour was not destined to endure long, for political events soon occurred which produced an entire alteration in his views.
After the death of Benedict XII., Clement VI., the most inveterate opponent of Louis IV., was elected Pope, and he had hardly ascended the throne when he renewed hostilities against the Emperor with greater vehemence than his predecessor. The most awful anathemas were launched against Louis, which again proved themselves by no means inefficient weapons of attack. Many ecclesiastics, secular no less than regular, who had been performing divine service in the cities that acknowledged the authority of the Emperor, now turned to their bishops, humbly beseeching them for absolution for their disobedience, which petition was not rejected; for in many places they obtained it without difficulty on payment of one florin! Bishop Berthold, too, whose outward reconciliation with 149Louis had been merely dictated by motives of fear and self-interest, now besought pardon for it from the new Pope in an epistle dated November 9th, 1345, in which he further renounces his allegiance to the Emperor, and promises unconditional obedience to the Romish See for the future. Clement granted his petition, and released him and his diocese from ecclesiastical penalties. Shortly after (1347), Louis died, fairly worn out and broken-hearted with the long struggle in which his reign had been passed, but not until several of the Electors, under the instigation of the Pope, had elected Charles IV. King of Rome (1346). Many of the Estates refused, however, even after Louis’ death, to acknowledge the latter, commonly called the “Parson-King,” because he had been elected in defiance of their wishes. Strasburg was one of these cities, and in consequence was again laid under interdict.
To these political and ecclesiastical disturbances were added still worse miseries. The land was desolated successively by tempests, earthquakes, and famine, and at last, in 1348, the Black Death came to fill up the measure of the people’s woe. This plague continued to rage through Southern Germany and France until the following year, bringing in its train the usual accompaniments of frantic terror, and the dissolution of all social bonds. In Strasburg sixteen thousand persons fell victims to it; and it is calculated that in Southern France two-thirds of the population perished. All these convulsions of the natural and social world struck terror to men’s very hearts; bewildered and beset, they knew not which way to turn. Then appeared the ghastly processions of the Flagellants, who traversed the country half 150naked by hundreds and thousands, walking two and two in white shirts often stained with blood, and holding scourges in their hands. When they entered a town, they broke out into their wild howling chant,
“Nun hebet auf eure Hände
Dass Gott dies grosse Sterben wende,
Nun hebet auf eure Arme
Dass sich Gott über uns erbarme;”
and gathering round them all who would join, after service in a church, threw themselves on the ground, confessing their sins aloud, and then scourged each other till they were exhausted. In some places the popular fanaticism accused the Jews of causing the plague by poisoning the wells; and the multitude, in their fury, setting fire to the Jews’ quarter, burnt thousands of the wretched creatures in their houses. Numbers of the lower classes hoped for a Messiah in the person of the great “Priest-hater,” Frederick II., who, according to an old saying now expanded into a distinct prophecy, was in the latter days to rise again from the dead, to render justice to the widow and orphan, to punish and humble the Clergy, to constrain monks and nuns to marry, and then to sail over to the Holy Land and lay down his crown on the Mount of Olives.2424See Wackernagel’s Beitraege zur Vaterlaendischen Geschichte. Basle. B. ii. S. 122. This was not the only, though it was the wildest prophecy current at this time. Hermann von Fritzlar declares that the time is come that precedes the end of the world:2525In the Preface to his Heiligen-Leben. “This time in which we are now living, is that in which the people’s hearts have waxed cold, for they have forgotten the life of our Lord. Wherefore do arson, and rape, and robbery, and treason, and strife, and 151envy, and hatred, rage now as they never did before; as Christ Himself foretold, that in these times the love of many should wax cold. The third, and coming age, is that of Anti-Christ.” And Tauler too, in his Sermon on Christ’s stilling the Storm, warns his flock: “O that ye knew what anguish and terror shall shortly seize the hearts of all who have not cleaved to God with all their might, . . . and all the evil that shall overtake them, as has been of late revealed to the Friends of God.” In another sermon, preached before the coming of the Black Death, he thus recapitulates the judgments of God that were threatened if the people refused to repent: “horrible things have been foretold, of fire, of water, of great darkness, of hurricanes and drought.” In the midst of these calamities he declaims against the perverted lessons drawn from them by the people; the recklessness and despair of some, the craving of others after marvellous visions and supernatural revelations, finally the sinfulness of those who, seeking only to escape from the world’s evils, gave themselves up to the passive indulgence of their own emotion. The last error was that against which he inveighed most frequently, being the one, no doubt, of which his hearers were most in danger. He himself was not one of those passive mystics. “Works of love,” he says, “are more acceptable to God than lofty contemplation; art thou engaged in devoutest prayer, and God wills that thou go out and preach, or carry broth to a sick brother, thou shouldst do it with joy.”
His own life was consistent with his teachings. When the Black Death
came to Strasburg, he devoted himself to administering the sacraments
152consolation to the sick and dying. The renewal of the ban had
increased the general terror and distress, and at the same time opened
a still larger field for Tauler’s activity. A proclamation had
been issued exhorting the people not to give way to terror, as it would
increase their danger of infection; but what could a proclamation avail,
when they often saw more than fifty corpses carried through the streets in
a day, and there were not priests enough to perform the funeral rites? The
deeper was their gratitude to Tauler for his noble act of disobedience to
the Church that denied them their only remaining consolation. But he did
not stand alone; there were especially two monks who shared his labours,
Thomas of Strasburg, an Augustinian and the Prior-general of his Order in
Strasburg, and Ludolph of Saxony, Prior of the newly-established convent
of the Carthusians.2626Both these were also writers of some note. The
former was the author of some dry but learned commentaries on Peter
Lombard’s Sentences. The latter, who had been a professor
in Paris, wrote a Vita Christi, which was much celebrated in the
Middle Ages, and an Expositio in Psalterium. The three
friends were not content with setting an example of heroic zeal, they
issued in their joint names an Address to the clerical body at large,
showing how iniquitous it was that the poor ignorant people should be
suffered to die excommunicate for no fault of their own, and calling on
the priests to visit the sick and dying, and no longer to refuse them the
consolation of religion, forasmuch as Christ had died for all men,
and the Pope had no power to close heaven against an innocent person who
should die under the Interdict. In a second Letter they went further;
setting forth the doctrine of two Swords and two Powers, the
153temporal and the spiritual, and teaching that the two are
not to be confounded, though they ought not to be set in opposition to
each other; that it is indeed the duty of the spiritual arm to endeavour
to direct the secular in the right course, but that if a great one has
made himself liable to the Interdict, that does not give the spiritual
arm any authority to curse and excommunicate poor people who, perhaps, do
not even know their guilty lord, still less whole cities and countries
without distinction; that it cannot be proved from Holy Scripture,
that a King, chosen in a legal manner by the Electors, is to be called
a heretic if he resist the power of the Church; and that in any case,
it is the Emperor alone who must give an account to God for his acts of
insubordination, and not his poor subjects. Therefore such an unjust
curse as this Interdict shall be turned into a blessing on the heads
which it strikes; and, for their oppression, God shall exalt them on
high. Finally, they proclaimed the principle, that he who professes the
true articles of the Christian faith, and only sins against the power
of the Pope, is by no means to be counted a heretic.2727 The following
extract on this subject is given in Professor Schmidt’s Tauler
(p. 53), from Specklin’s Collectanea:—
“Specially were those two Articles, which were quoted, forbidden and declared to be wholly heretical. The First was, that seeing that many persons, young and old, rich and poor, men and women, innocent and wicked, when they came to their death-beds, lay under the ban on account of the Emperor Louis, they had put forth a Letter to all priests, bidding them, when they should visit the sick and dying, to comfort the sick with the bitter passion and death of Jesus Christ, who had therewith made satisfaction before God, not for their sins only, but for the sins of the whole world, and had opened heaven, and reconciled us all to God. And the Pope had no power to shut heaven against poor sinners who had innocently fallen under the ban. Therefore, when one should confess his sins and desire absolution and the holy sacrament, they ought to give it unto him and comfort him, for heed should be given rather to the Word of Christ and His Apostles than to the ban, which proceeded of envy and lust of worldly power. . . . The Second was, that they put forth a general epistle (not among the common people, but among the clergy and the learned fathers), saying that there be two swords, the spiritual sword, which is the Word of God, and the other, which is the secular government, and the one had nought to do with the other. But since they are both of God, they cannot be contrary the one to the other; but the spiritual shall be diligent in its office and in the Word of God, and defend the Government; and the Government shall defend God’s laws and the pious, and punish the wicked. But since the pious who preach the Word of God ought, by God’s ordinance, to be defended by the secular power against the wicked, wherefore, then, should the Government be condemned by the spiritual power? for then should God condemn His own work. But when a secular Head sins, it behoves the spiritual Head, with great humility, to point out unto the sinner the right way, and with the rest of the clergy to entreat God day and night with tears, that the sinner may turn again from his way, and come to a true knowledge of his sins; for God desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live.
“But Christ, and the Apostles, and the Church command that, if the sinner, after much admonition, will not be turned from his ways, he be excommunicated till such time as he shall be converted and turn again and amend his life; and then he shall be again received unto grace.
“Much less doth it behove a Christian shepherd, if one be deserving of excommunication, to condemn and excommunicate without distinction innocent persons, who perchance have never known or seen the guilty man,—nay, whole lands, cities, and villages; the which is not commanded by Christ, nor the Holy Apostles, nor the Councils, but Cometh of a self-usurped power. For it is the office of the Pope to point sinners unto the true way of salvation.
“But that all those are heretics who will not kiss the Pope’s foot, or that to do so should be an article of faith, and that he is an apostate from the Church who takes the name and fulfils the office of King or Emperor, on being duly appointed thereto by the Electors, or that all who render obedience to him, as to their ruler ordained by God, sin against the Church and are heretics, cannot be proved by Holy Scripture.
“The Government is a power ordained by God, unto which obedience ought to be rendered in worldly things, even by spiritual persons, be they who they may. The Emperor is the highest magistrate, wherefore obedience is due to him; if he doth not govern rightly, he, and not his poor subjects, must give account thereof to God; and even as God will not call the poor innocent subject to account for his evil ruler, so ought not man to condemn and excommunicate the poor innocent subject for the sake of his ruler. Moreover, they who hold the true Christian faith, and sin only against the Pope’s person, are no heretics; but he were a heretic who, after much admonition, should stiffneckedly disobey the Word of God, and would not amend his life; for not even a murderer, a rogue, a thief, or an adulterer, who should ask pardon through Christ with true penitence and contrition, and amend his life, can be cast out of the Church.
“Hence it is concluded, that all those who unjustly and innocently have come under the Ban, are free before God, and their curse will be turned into a blessing, and their ban and yoke of oppression will God lift off; even as Christ did not set Himself against the secular power when He said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world,’ even as He was obedient to the Government, though He was the Son of God, commanding men to render to God the things that be God’s, and to Cæsar the things that be Cæsar’s. Now our souls belong to God; our bodies and goods unto Cæsar. All this was much better set forth in more words.”
What impression these free-spoken writings made upon the clergy is not known: it is only recorded that, through the exertions of Tauler 155and his friends, the people were enabled to die in peace, and no longer feared the ban, whereas before many thousands had died without shrift, in the agonies of despair; whence we must conclude that some of the other priests were brought to see the truth of the principles enunciated by the three monks. But it was not likely that such doctrine would long be suffered to work unchecked in the public mind. The Pope soon interfered, and commanded the Bishop of Strasburg to burn the books of the three friends, and forbid their perusal, whether by priests or laymen, on pain of excommunication. Berthold, anxious to prove his devotion to the Pope, without delay proceeded to take stringent measures against Tauler and the two high dignitaries who had done such good service in his diocese; their writings were everywhere searched for and destroyed, and they themselves were expelled from the city. It is not to be wondered at, that Henry of Nordlingen should write word that his “Brother Tauler is now constantly in great sorrow,” when he was thus driven from the field of faithful labours at the very moment of their greatest necessity. But he did not lose courage; with his two friends he retired into the 156neighbouring Carthusian convent, of which Ludolph was Prior, whence they continued to diffuse their writings.
During the time of their seclusion, Strasburg was visited by the Emperor Charles IV., who was making the circuit of the Rhenish cities, to induce the citizens to acknowledge him as King of Rome. Bishop Berthold had already conjured the members of the Rhenish Estates assembled at Strasburg, for the sake of the public peace, to do allegiance to the Emperor whom they despised. Charles was therefore received with royal honours, and invested the Bishop with the imperial fief, after receiving his solemn homage; but he was obliged to promise the citizens that he would procure the removal of the Interdict, for only on this condition would they acknowledge him. From Strasburg Charles proceeded to Basle, where he met the Pope’s Envoy bringing a commission to the Bishop of Bamberg to absolve the cities that should acknowledge the Emperor. But the terms of the Bull to this effect, in which Louis was called a heretic, and the cities were required to express their contrition for their fidelity to him, irritated the burghers to the highest degree, and they refused to swear to the formula of absolution when it was read to them. Nevertheless, as the Emperor stood in need of their services, the Interdict was removed. The Bishop of Bamberg next repaired, in his quality of Papal Legate, to Strasburg, to proclaim the Absolution there. The citizens were assembled before the Cathedral, then rising in its new glories. From the steps of the western door the Legate read the Bull in their ears, and then asked the Senate and commoners if they 157desired absolution? Peter Schwarber, the Mayor, replied, “Yes,” in the name of all; and the Bishop immediately pronounced the Absolution. On this the Bishop Berthold, turning to the Mayor, said, “Master Schwarber, once you helped to force us to pay homage to the heretic Louis; and now that he is dead you yourself hold him to be a heretic.” But the Mayor replied, “My Lord Bishop, I have never accounted the Emperor Louis a heretic.” “How!” exclaimed Berthold, “have you not just declared him such?” “No,” said Schwarber: “the Bishop of Bamberg asked if we desired absolution, and to this I said, ‘Yes,’ in the name of all. Had he asked whether we believed and would observe all the articles he read to us, we should have given him a very different answer.”
During the visit of the Emperor to Strasburg he heard much talk of Tauler and his friends, and their free opinions, and sent for them to hear their defence. They read before him their confession of faith, and unshrinkingly declared their adherence to all that they had hitherto taught. Tauler, especially, was not a man to quail before a temporal sovereign after he had braved the more formidable terrors of the spiritual power; moreover, we find that he did not scruple occasionally in his sermons to rebuke the oppression of the people by their rulers2828Thus, he says in his Sermon on the Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity:—“Now the Apostle tells us to contend against princes and powers, and the rulers of the darkness of this world. This means the devils; but it means also the princes of this world, who ought to be the best of all, and are nevertheless the very horses on which the devils ride to sow discord and treason, and who torment their subjects by their pride and unjust tyranny and manifold oppressions, as we now see throughout the world.”; and he openly told the Emperor wherefore he was banished. The arguments 158of the three monks produced such an impression upon Charles, that he is said to have declared himself “sheer of their opinion,” and expressed his desire that no further proceedings should be taken against them. Nevertheless the Bishops present condemned, as heretical, the doctrines we have already mentioned as contained in their writings, commanded them no longer so wickedly to withstand the Church and her Interdict, enjoined them to issue a public recantation, and for the future to write nothing more of the like nature on pain of excommunication. Specklin declares that they went on and wrote still better than before; but nothing more is known of the matter beyond this meagre statement of his.
From this time forward, Tauler disappears from the history of his
native city, until a short time before his death. It is said that, since
the Emperor and Bishops forbade him to write, he forsook Strasburg, after
having spread much good doctrine abroad in Alsace, His name was held in
grateful remembrance, not only by the “Friends of God,” but by all his
fellow-citizens, for whom he had faithfully laboured and suffered during
the whole period of their troubles; but he needed a sphere of greater
freedom, and therefore took up his residence in Cologne, a city already
familiar to him, and where he found numerous brethren in spirit. Here he
commonly preached in the church of St. Gertrude, belonging to a convent
of Dominican nuns, whose numbers were much increased by the desire
of having Tauler for a preacher and confessor. Among these sisters,
however, their original strictness of manners no longer prevailed,
and Tauler often found occasion in his sermons to
159lament the decay of conventual discipline. The younger
sisters too often brought with them from the world their love of society
and amusements, and were strengthened in these tastes by their intercourse
with the older nuns; for most of them thought more of dress and trinkets
than of devout exercises and self-denial, so that Tauler tells them that
all their piety is a mere outward semblance, and that many laywomen are
much farther advanced in holiness than they. Tauler not only displayed
his customary zeal in restoring a severer discipline, but endeavoured to
substitute for these mere outward works of piety the spiritual, which
he regarded as the only true service of God. He sought also, while in
Cologne, to combat the pantheistic enthusiasm of the Beghards, who had
been extremely numerous in this city ever since the commencement of the
century, and, notwithstanding, or perhaps rather favoured by, frequent
persecutions, in which many of their members were burnt at the stake,
were continuing to make progress during this age of anarchy.2929 I
give the following passage from his Sermon on the First Sunday in Lent
[No. 31, Frankfort Edition, 1826], as showing, more distinctly than any
other I have found, the position in which he stood towards the antinomian
doctrines of the Beghards, and as furnishing the most complete refutation
of the charge of antinomian tendencies sometimes brought against his
“From these two errors proceedeth the third, which is the worst of all; the persons who are entangled therein call themselves beholders of God, and they may be known by the carnal peace which they have through their emptiness. They think that they are free from sin, and are united to God without any means whatsoever, and that they have got above all subjection to the Holy Church, and above the commandments of God, and above all works of virtue; for they think this emptiness to be so noble a thing that it may not be hindered by aught else, whatsoever it be. Hence they stand empty of all subjection, and do no works either towards them who are above or below them, even as an instrument is empty, and waiteth on the master when he shall choose to work therewith; for they deem that if they work, it hindereth the work of God, and therefore they empty themselves of all virtue. Nay, they would be so empty, that they would not give praise or thanks to God, nor have, nor confess, nor love, nor desire, nor pray for anything; for they have already, as they suppose, all that they could pray for; and think that they are poor in spirit, for that they are, as they dream, without all self-will, and have renounced all ownership wholly and without reserve. For they believe that they have risen above it, and that they possess all those things for the sake of which the ordinances and precepts of the Church were appointed and established, and that none can give or take from them, not even God Himself, since they think that they have suffered all exercises and all virtues, and have attained to pure emptiness of spirit; and they say it requireth more pains to become empty of virtue than to attain unto virtue. For the sake of this emptiness of spirit, they desire to be free, and obedient to none, neither the Pope, nor the Bishop, nor the Pastor; and though they may seem outwardly to be so at times, yet are they inwardly obedient to none, neither in will nor deed. For they would fain be free from all those things wherewith the Holy Church is concerned; and they say openly that a man, so long as he strives after virtue, is still imperfect, and knows nought of spiritual poverty and spiritual freedom. And they deem themselves exalted above the angels, and above all human merit and faith, so that they can neither increase in virtue nor commit sin; for they live, as they suppose, without will, and possess their spirits in peace and emptiness, and have become nought in themselves and one with God. They believe that they may do freely, without sin, whatsoever nature desireth, because they have attained to the highest innocence, and there is no law or commandment for them, and therefore they follow all the lusts of the flesh, that the emptiness of the spirit may remain unhindered. They care not for fasts, nor feasts, nor precepts, except so far as they may observe them for the sake of others, because they live without conscience in all things. Let each man examine himself whether he be not one of these. But a murderer, or any open sinner, is better than such spiritual men, for he confesses his misdeed that it is evil; but these confess it not. Hardly are they to be converted; and at times they are verily possessed by the Devil. They are, moreover, so ingenious that it is scarcely possible to overcome them in discourse, save by the life of Christ and Holy Scripture: through these may one well discern that they are deceived. “Now cometh the fourth error. Many be also called beholders of God who are yet different in some points from what we have just said. These also think that they are empty of all works, and are tools of God by whom God works whatsoever he will, and they merely suffer Him, without working themselves; and they say that the works wrought of God through them are more noble and of greater merit than those of a man who worketh his own works in the grace of God; and declare that they are God-suffering men, or they do but suffer the works that God worketh in them. But although they are empty of the works, and do nought, yet will they not be empty of and miss the reward; and whatever they do is no sin, for God worketh their works, as they say, and whatsoever He wills is wrought in them, and nought else, and, as we said, inwardly they are wholly passive, and live without care for anything; and they have a humble, submissive manner, and can bear well whatsoever befalls them, for they think themselves to be an instrument through which God worketh as He will. These people are, in many points, like unto the true men; but in this are they false, that they hold everything whereunto they are inwardly impelled, whether good or bad, to proceed from the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit worketh never unprofitable things in a man, such as be contrary to the life of Christ or Holy Scripture, and therefore are they deceived. These men are very hard to discover, for they can give good reasons for, and put a fair face on all they do; but they may be known by their stubborn self-will, that they would rather die than give up one tittle of their own way. These are contrary to them who say that they cannot increase in virtue; but they deserve the same measure. Behold all such errors are messengers of Antichrist, preparing the way before him unto unbelief and damnation.
“Now it concerns us somewhat to know how we may escape these cunning snares. No man may be free from keeping the commandments of God, and from the practice of virtue. No man can unite himself to God in emptiness of spirit, without loving and longing after God. No man can be or become holy without good works. No man can rest in God without the love of God. No man may empty himself of godly works that he may not hinder God in His works, but must work with Him in thankfulness. No man may serve God without praising and thanking Him; for He is the Maker of all creatures, and He alone can give and take, for of His riches and might there is no end. And a man may increase in virtue and goodness, and may exercise himself therein as long as he lives; and no man deserveth more reward, though he think that he merely suffer the works of God to be wrought in him. The works of God are eternal and unchangeable; for He worketh according to His own nature, and not otherwise; and in these works of God there can be no merit and adding thereunto of any creature, for there is none but God who cannot become more or higher; but through the power of God the creatures have their own work to perform, in nature, and in grace, and in glory.” In the year 1357 160(therefore during Tauler’s residence in Cologne), the Archbishop, William of Gennep, instituted a fresh search after them, and commanded the clergy of his 161diocese strictly to enforce the statutes of his predecessors against them. Tauler, however, though a Dominican, never took part in any act of persecution; the profound spiritual struggles through which he had had to pass, had taught him how deep the roots of belief lay beneath those regions of the soul that can be reached by outward weapons; and when he speaks of the “Free Spirits,” it is to show the error of their doctrines, not to demand their extirpation. 162Indeed, his writings, and those of his disciple Rulman Merswin, exhibit in this respect a Christian largeness of heart in great contrast to the prevailing spirit of his Order. They more than once maintain the salvation of those who are in error from ignorance, and declare that their desire to believe what is true is accepted by God in place of a correct belief, and that thus many heathen and Jews are saved now as well as before the coming of Christ. Rulman Merswin ascribes the terrible persecution of the Jews, then raging, to the covetousness of the Christians.3030 The following curious passage is extracted from Rulman Merswin’s Book of the Nine Rocks; but many passages in Tauler’s sermons show that his sentiments were quite in harmony with those here expressed:—
“The Man said: ‘Ah, my Beloved, have mercy upon poor Christendom, and remember how that the wicked Jewish people and the wicked heathen folk are all striving against thee with all their might, and shall all be lost.’ The Answer said: ‘I tell thee thou art right when thou prayest God to have mercy upon poor Christendom; for know that for many hundred years Christendom has never been so poor or so wicked as in these times; but I tell thee, whereas thou sayest that the wicked Jews and heathen are all lost, that is not true: I tell thee, in these days, there is a portion of the heathen and the Jews whom God preferreth greatly to many who bear the Christian name, and yet live contrary to all Christian order.’ The Man: ‘ . . . What strange speech is this that I hear, and what may it mean?’ The Answer: ‘ . . . The meaning is, that where a Jew or heathen, in any part of the world, hath a good, God-fearing mind in him, in simplicity and honesty, and in his reason and judgment knoweth no better faith than that in which he was born, but were minded and willing to cast that off, if he were given to know any other faith that were more acceptable to God, and would obey God, if he ventured body and goods therefor;—I tell thee, where there is a Jew or heathen thus earnest in his life—say, ought he not to be much dearer to God than the evil, false Christian men who have received baptism, and act contrary to God, knowing that they do so?’ . . . The Man: . . . ‘This seemeth to me most strange, . . . for it is written in the Scripture, and is also a part of our Christian creed, that no one can enter into the Kingdom of Heaven unless he first receive holy baptism.’ The Answer: ‘That is true, and the right Christian faith. . . . When God findeth such a righteous heathen or Jew, what doth He do? Of His free love and fathomless mercy, He cometh to his help: I tell thee God findeth many secret ways that such a man be not lost, wherever he may be in this wide world.’ . . . The Man: ‘Say! how are these unbaptized men saved from perdition?’ The Answer: ‘God doth it by many secret ways, which are unknown to most Christians in these days. . . . One way, which Christendom may well believe and does believe, is, that when one of these good heathens or Jews cometh to his end, God cometh and enlighteneth him with the Christian faith; . . . and if he may not be baptized, God baptizes him in his good desires and will, and in his miserable death. Thou shalt know that there be many of these good heathens and Jews in eternal life, who have entered thereon in this wise.’ . . .”
Tauler continued to correspond with Nicolas of Basle. In the year
1356 the latter sent him a pamphlet, in which, on the strength of a
warning vision, he bewails the sinfulness of the times, and foretells the
coming of fresh calamities, of which the great earthquake that destroyed
Basle in the same year was regarded as the commencement. No details
of Tauler’s work in Cologne have been preserved to us. It is not
even known whether the composition of his chief work, the “Imitation of
Christ’s life of Poverty,” is to be referred to this period or to
that of his seclusion in the Carthusian Convent at Strasburg. In this
work he sets forth the theory and practice of self-renunciation in order
to union with God. In point of language and composition, it is superior to
his Sermons, nearly all of which seem to be derived from mere notes taken
by his hearers with more or less correctness.3131 It has been
often questioned whether the Latin or the German form in which
we possess Tauler’s sermons be the original. On this point I
transcribe Professor Schmidt’s arguments, which seem to me quite
“There can be no question that Tauler delivered his sermons in German, and that this language is the original one of all the sermons of his which we still possess. After his connection with Nicolas of Basle, he had himself declared that he did not intend henceforward to speak so much Latin in his sermons. The greater part of those still extant are, indeed, addressed in the first instance to the brethren or sisters in whose convent-chapels he used to preach, but also have a reference to the laity, who usually assembled in great numbers in these churches to hear him; and to be intelligible to such an audience he must have spoken in the vernacular: it was only in the School attached to his own convent that he spoke in Latin. The language itself of Tauler’s sermons and writings is, besides, a sufficient proof that they were composed in German; for they exhibit the most complete adaptation of the thought to the form in which it is conveyed; a form, moreover, that Tauler had to a considerable extent to create for himself. Up to his day, the German language had been little used for theological and metaphysical subjects, and was poor in terms to express any notions beyond those living in the popular mind, so that the writers of his school (in bringing the higher and more spiritual truths of religion down to the level of popular apprehension) had to frame for themselves a terminology of their own, whose constituents they borrowed partly from the Latin of the Schools, partly from figurative, mostly biblical, forms of speech. Tauler often avails himself of such German scholastic terms to express abstract notions: as, for instance, Istckeit (essentia), Eigenshaftlicheit, Creaturlicheit, Unserheit, Sinsheit, Holtzheit. So, too, be often speaks by images, in order to express spiritual facts or metaphysical ideas, for which the language either possessed no words as yet, or which in themselves were too vague to be expressed in a clear and distinct mode. All this indicates a laborious wrestling of the thought with the language. . . . Hence, also, the partial obscurity of Tauler’s style, which is incurred by the pains he took to attain a terse purity by forming substantives made up of whole propositions: as, for instance, ‘ein einvaltiges grüntlich-uf-got-sich-lossen.’ . . . Tauler and his school have, however, the merit of having given to their nation a philosophical language.” (See Schmidt’s Tauler, S. 78.) It is interesting to 164compare his view of poverty with that of the Spiritual Franciscans, who taught that, to any high attainment in the Christian life, a literal renunciation of all property was absolutely necessary. Tauler, while assuming the excellence of this external poverty, as releasing the Christian from many cares and temptations to anxiety, shows that the essence of the poverty of Christ did not, as they taught, lie in this privation of earthly wealth, but in the poorness of the spirit that calls nothing its own, because itself and all that it has are God’s, and held in trust for Him.
Of Tauler’s history we know no more till we find him at Strasburg, in 1361, already labouring under the illness which closed his life. There are no indications of the date or the reason of his return to his old home. We are only told that, after a long life of toilsome yet fruitful labour, he was attacked, 165at seventy years of age, by a lingering disease, attended with great suffering. During his illness he caused himself to be removed to the convent where his aged sister was a nun, that she might be with him and tend him to the last,—an act which is enumerated as one of his faults, by one of the writers of his school, who calls it seeking for too much natural help and comfort.
After twenty weeks of pain, he sent for his mysterious friend, and begged him to visit him once more, for he perceived that his end was nigh. The man was obedient, and came to the Master, who received him full lovingly; and the man was glad that he found him yet alive, and said, “Dear Master, how fares it with thee?” Then said the Master, “Dear son, I believe the time is near when God is minded to take me from this world; therefore, dear son, it is a great comfort to me that thou shouldst be here at my departure.” On this, Tauler gave him some papers, in which he had written down the discourse which they had had together twenty years before, and begged Nicolas to make a little book of it, which the latter promised him to do. But Tauler earnestly enjoined him to conceal both their names; “for,” he says, “thou must surely know that the life and words and works which God hath wrought through me, a poor unworthy sinner, are not mine, but wrought by the power of the Almighty God, to whom they eternally belong. Therefore, dear son, if thou art minded to write them for the benefit of our fellow-Christians, do it in such a manner that neither my name nor thine be mentioned therein. Thou mayst say, ‘The Master and the Man.’ Neither shalt thou let any one in this city see the book, else people will mark 166that it was I; but take it with thee into thine own country, so that it do not come out during my life.” For yet eleven days, it is said that they held much discourse together; and then, under circumstances of extraordinary suffering, the faithful servant yielded up his spirit to God, on the 16th of June 1361. He was buried in his own convent. The stone which formerly covered his grave has been recently set up by the Protestants in the church in which he warned and consoled his brethren more than five hundred years ago by word of mouth, as he teaches us, who are now living, by the written record of those words.
Here ends our proper task; but it can hardly, I think, be without interest to the reader to learn a few more particulars about the remarkable set of men to which Tauler belonged, especially concerning the great Layman who had so powerful an influence on his career, and the disciple and bosom friend of both successively, Rulman Merswin, who appears to stand third in rank in this group of “Friends of God.” From the account of him given in the “Memorial” of the Gruenen-Worth Convent, it appears that he was originally a wealthy merchant and money-changer, “but always conducted his business with great fear of God before his eyes, and with scrupulous probity, and stood well with the world, and was of a very merry and pleasant temper, so that many esteemed and loved him, and sought his society, which was to himself also very agreeable in those days. And he had at the first an exceeding beautiful and sweet young wife; but when they had lived but a short time together, she died; and after that, he 167took another wife, the daughter of a pious knight. And when they had lived many years together according to Christian ordinances, and he was now forty years old, and God saw not fit to give him a child by either wife, he turned with his whole heart to God, and gave up his trade, and forsook the world, and led a single life henceforward, with the will and consent of his wife, who was an honourable simple-minded Christian woman.”
His own account of the next four years of his life, now printed for the first time from the ms. in his own handwriting, is a very curious and interesting document, in the vivid picture it gives of the inward struggles which this determination brought upon him; and however clearly we may perceive that many of his difficulties arose from the mistaken view of his social duties derived from the teachings of his church, it is impossible not to admire the simple directness of purpose and intense earnestness with which he strove to follow every indication he could perceive of the will of God. I give a few passages from it, taking the liberty to omit the perpetual repetitions, which would render an absolutely literal translation quite unreadable. Indeed, Rulman’s style, both in this and his other productions, has all the awkwardness, circumlocution, and tautology, which usually characterize the efforts of an utterly unlearned person to express himself.
“In the name of God, Amen! All ye dear Christian men, I give you truly to know that in the year of our Lord, 1347, it came to pass that I, Rulman Merswin, renounced all my traffic and gains, and moreover all natural pleasant companionship; the which I did with good courage for God’s sake, to 168the sole end that I might atone for my sins. Now, though I had taken this first step with good courage, and of my own free choice had given myself to God, yet it was with great sorrow to my nature afterwards; for I had enjoyed great happiness in the good things of this world.” After describing the dreadful anguish of mind he had to endure on account of his sins, and the spiritual joys with which it alternated, he continues: “And I came utterly to hate the world and all belonging to it, and also my own flesh, wherefore during this first year I chastised my body with very sore and manifold exercises, so that I more than once became so weak, that I thought I should die. But about this time I took Tauler for my confessor, who discovered somewhat of these exercises, for he perceived that I had become very sickly; and he feared for my head, and commanded me to exercise myself no more in such wise, and set me a certain time; and I must needs obey him, but my obedience went very much against the grain, for I had set my heart upon bringing my body into subjection. But as soon as the term was out, I said nothing, but began again to do as I had done before. . . . But our Lord was pleased, during this first year, to give me a true discernment in many things, so that whenever I commended any matter with great earnestness to God, He gave me to perceive what I must do and leave undone. Moreover, our Lord also suffered me to be ofttimes tormented with grievous and horrible temptations, both by day and night; but it was given to me, by the grace of God, to receive them with humble and cheerful submission, so that I could say with heart and mouth, ‘My Lord and my God, my nature hates and loathes this 169suffering; wherefore I pray thee to take no account thereof, and do not as my poor nature would desire and entreat of thee, but fulfil thy most blessed will, whether it be sweet or bitter to my weak nature.’ . . . And when God saw that it was the proper time, He came to my help with his merciful grace. . . . Now, during the second and the third years (this last was the jubilee, when all men went on pilgrimage to Rome), did God work many great and supernatural works with me, a poor sinner, through great sorrow and spiritual assaults, and withal unspeakable temptations, of which it were a sin to write. But one which I may write is, that God suffered me to be assailed with unbelief: to wit, that the devil put it into my head to ask: ‘How may it be, that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit may consist in one nature?’ And this unbelief remained upon me for a long space, and all that time I thought nothing else but that I must certainly burn for ever in hell; and yet I felt within myself that nevertheless my will was set to love God. And after a good while, I grew so infirm, through this continual pain, that it was all I could do, when Assumption day came, to venture to go and sit down to hear a sermon. And as I put my hat before my eyes, I fell into a swoon from very weakness; but while I was thus in a trance, there appeared unto me a great stone, wherein were carved the likeness of three men’s countenances. . . . And it was as though a voice said to me, ‘Now mayest thou well believe, since thou hast seen how in one stone may be three persons, and yet it is one stone, and the three persons have the nature of one rock.’ And hereupon I came to myself, and was seized with fear when I found myself 170sitting among the crowd. . . . So I rose up and went out into the aisle, and found that my faith had been enlightened, insomuch that I never again was assailed with unbelief; but the other terrible temptations I had to endure for two years longer . . . insomuch that I often thought I knew the pains of hell. And I was so ill that my friends would not suffer me to go on pilgrimage to Rome; neither could I scourge myself nor wear a hair shirt, nor a sharp crucifix, nor endure any other hardship . . . but feared that I should die, and was somewhat troubled thereat, for I could not but love my natural life. . . . And in all those two years God would not suffer me to speak of my pain to any man, however great it might be . . . I must bear and endure to the end alone, that I might have no help or consolation. . . . But in the fourth year, my Lord and God showed his great mercy upon me, and looked upon my affliction, and came to my help with such great and superhuman joy, that in that moment I forgot all my woe and pain that ever I had suffered, and became also in all my natural powers quite strong and lively, as though I had never known what sickness was. . . . And he gave me, moreover, much gracious discernment, so that, when I looked narrowly at a man, I could ofttimes perceive pretty well how it stood with him inwardly. And I was further constrained, however unwilling, to write a little book for the benefit of my fellow Christians.” From a comparison of dates, it appears that this “little book” must be the Book of the Nine Rocks, already mentioned. In the opening of this work, Rulman, under the allegorical form of visions, gives a much more detailed account of the mental conflicts 171he passed through, arising partly from reluctance to contemplate the wretchedness around him, partly from the dread of being condemned by the church as unauthorized to teach and heretical,—before he could resolve to write. Finally, seeing no escape from what appeared to him a positive duty, he sets to work. The first part contains a description of the terrible condition of Christendom; all classes are passed under review, and their particular sins exposed,—those of the clergy with especial freedom.3232Thus, in speaking of the Popes, he says, “Look around thee, and see what sort of lives the Popes have led and do lead in these our times; we may not name any one in particular. Look . . . if they have not taken more thought for themselves and for the maintenance of their own dignity than for the promotion of God’s glory. . . . Look around thee, and behold the lives of the bishops in these days, whether they are not more busied in scraping together earthly wealth for the enriching of their relatives than in seeing to it that men are taught to walk in righteous, godly ways. . . . Behold and see how many doctors and teachers are to be found in these days, who utter God’s word from their chairs, and dare publicly to proclaim the real truth, and publicly to speak of the great and murderous crimes that prevail in the Christian world, and to warn men; and are willing by so doing to risk their lives for God’s honour.” The second part is a description of nine rocks which symbolize nine stages in the progress of the soul towards a higher life; each more difficult of ascent, and more glorious than the preceding. From the summit, he obtains a momentary glimpse into the abyss of Deity; then, looking back to earth, sees two men, the one bright and shining as an angel, the other black as Satan. The latter was one who, having reached the summit of the nine rocks, had desired to be somewhat for himself, and had thereupon fallen step by step back into the abyss; the former, one who having gazed at the Godhead, filled with love and compassion, descended voluntarily to save his brethren from their sins.172
In his autobiography, Rulman further tells us, among other things: “In this fourth year, the three powers of faith, hope, and love were greatly strengthened in me. . . . Moreover, nothing in time or eternity could give me content but God Himself; but when He came to my soul, I knew not whether I were in time or eternity. . . . And in my heart I felt a great yearning, and wished it were the will of God that I might go to the heathen and tell them of the Christian faith. . . . And I would gladly have suffered death and martyrdom at their hands, in honour of our Lord’s sufferings and bitter death. But of all this I was not suffered to speak a word to any, until there came a time when God gave a man in the Oberland to understand that he should come down to me. And when he came, God gave me to tell him of all these things. And this man was altogether unknown to the world, but he became my secret friend, and I gave myself up to his guiding in God’s stead, and told him all my hidden life in these four years. . . . Then he said to me: ‘Behold, dear friend, here is a book in which stand written the first five years of my life in God; give me the history of thy first four years in exchange for it.’ But I answered: ‘It would grieve me much if my history should come to the knowledge of any.’ Then he said: ‘Now see, I have given thee my book, and I know full well that thou wilt tell none of it. No more will I tell any of thee. I will take thy book up into my own land far away, where thou art as unknown as I am in Strasburg. And so begin to write thy history in two books, and the one I will take and the other thou shalt keep, and shalt hang thy seal thereto, and lock it up where none shall find it during thy lifetime.’ . . .173
“Now, notwithstanding all the gifts and enlightenment that God bestowed on me in this fourth year, there was yet a secret spot in my soul, the which was altogether unknown to myself. . . . And it was, that, when I looked upon my fellow-men, I esteemed them as they were in this present time, and stood before God in their sins; and this was a hidden spot, for I ought, through grace, to have regarded them, not as they now were, but as they might well become. . . .” In seeing a waste piece of ground cumbered with rubbish, and giving it as his judgment that it might be reclaimed and made a garden of, an inward voice reveals his sin to him, and rebukes him, saying: “O thou poor miserable creature! how strange art thou . . . how darest thou, then, to esteem, according to what he now is, thy fellow-man, who is made in the image of God, and whom Christ has made his brother in his human nature, and not rather deem that God may make of him a comely and excellent garden, wherein He himself may dwell? . . .” The rest of Rulman’s narrative refers to his views of the condition of the Christian world, and he tells us: “It was revealed to me that I should no longer be so greatly exercised by the temptations from which I had hitherto suffered . . . but that my affliction henceforth should be to behold how the sheep were wandering abroad among the proud, unclean, ravening wolves . . . this should be my trial and my cross. . . .”
Rulman, however, not only sought “to benefit his fellow-Christians” by his writings, but also by his deeds of active benevolence. His name occurs about this time as one of the managers of a hospital; he is mentioned as Provost of the convent of 174St. Argobast, and in the 16th century a house of Beguines in Strasburg still bears his name; but he is best known as the founder of the convent belonging to the Knights of St. John at Strasburg. After long deliberation with Nicolas, whether it would not be better to “devote the money to the help of poor people, that they might not die of hunger,” Rulman, with some pecuniary assistance from Nicolas, bought and repaired the half-ruined convent of Gruenen-Worth, which he then endowed and made over to the Order of St. John, on condition that its worldly affairs should be managed by three lay trustees, and that it should be a refuge for any good men, whether priests or laymen, rich or poor, who might wish to retire there for their spiritual benefit, and were willing, during their stay, to conform to the customs of the house. His principal motive seems indeed to have been the desire to provide a permanent asylum for pious persons like himself, whose free opinions might at any moment bring them into trouble. He entered on possession of it in 1366, and continued to live there till his death in July 1382, having, however, two years before, built himself a solitary cell close to the church, because he thought that he took too much earthly delight in the society of his brethren of the convent. He was buried, with his wife, who had also retired to a convent, and had died twelve years before, in the choir of the church he built.
It is much to be regretted that the autobiography of Nicolas should not have been preserved, like that of his disciple, or at least has not as yet been found. Though, however, we are thus deprived of the secret history of his mind, we are able to learn 175a good deal respecting his work and mode of life from his Story of the Four Men who lived with him, and the recently discovered letters. Still these notices are very fragmentary, and his history is mixed up with so much of a marvellous and half-legendary character, that in many cases it is difficult to make out the actual facts. He appears at all events to have been the leader and centre of a distinct association of “Friends of God.” That, even before the date at which he began to collect associates round him, he was regarded as a remarkably holy and enlightened man, is proved by the circumstance that two of the four men whose inward history he relates, having known him in their youth, came to him for help when they found themselves in spiritual perplexity. At an early period he began to cast his eye upon those whom he thought he could influence for good. In 1340, when, as he lived till the beginning of the following century, he must have been still comparatively a young man, he went on his mission to Tauler: about 1350, when the latter had left Strasburg, began his connexion with Rulman Merswin and probably with Berthold von Rohrbach, who was burnt at Spire, in 1356, for preaching that a layman enlightened by God was as competent to teach others as the most learned priest. About the same time he was in Hungary, and appears also to have sojourned in Italy. The four men already mentioned joined themselves to him one after the other. The second of them had been an intimate friend of Nicolas from his youth; he was a man of large property, and early married to a beautiful wife, by whom he had two children. After a few years of happiness, however, he began to suffer from 176the scruples by which pious Catholics have been so often tormented, and to doubt whether he ought not to renounce his domestic joys in order to do penance for his sins; but Nicolas, to whom he came for counsel, enjoined him to remain true to his duties as a husband and father; and it was not until after the death of his wife and both his children that he took up his abode with his friend, and became a priest. The two brothers who seem to have stood next to Nicolas in consideration, were a learned jurist, who had been also a lay-prebend, and a converted Jew, named John, who both afterwards became priests.
The little company lived together on equal terms. Nicolas tells the priest, when deliberating whether or not to enter a monastic Order, and enquiring as to his brethren’s mode of life; “They observe no rules but such as are common to secular priests, as indeed they are, but we live together in common as simply as we can, and have as little to do with the world as we may.” The priests among them seem to have had no peculiar vocation, except that of celebrating mass; the laymen never took part in the administration of the sacraments, but in all other respects there was no distinction between them. As all stood in a direct and individual relation to God, they required no priestly mediation; nay, the priests themselves submitted to the layman Nicolas, because they regarded him as the most enlightened of their number. Not counsel from men ought we to seek after, writes Nicolas in 1356, but that which proceeds from the Holy Spirit; and, so long as we have it from that source, it is indifferent whether it flow to us through priest or layman. In 177their religious services and fasts they did not strictly observe stated hours, for they regarded external observances as unimportant in themselves, and only excellent as a means of improvement, or a sign of obedience. Thus, while they admitted ascetic exercises and painful penances to be useful in the commencement of a religious life, in order to mortify the sensual inclinations, they declared them to be afterwards a matter of indifference, nay, sometimes positively contrary to the Divine will. According to Nicolas, if a man have attained to a certain degree of mastery over nature, then fasting, scourging, the wearing of iron girdles, &c., is a self-sought pain, and as such a sign that he does not yet allow God to work alone. Moreover, such tormentings may be very detrimental to the body; for though it must needs be brought into subjection to the spirit, yet it ought not to be robbed of its strength; for how else should a man support the fatigue of the labours and travels that the “Friends of God” are so often called to undertake?
Their doctrine on this point would seem to us more judicious than their practice, for it is evident from their writings that they frequently, in fact, carried their austerities so far as to endanger life or reason. But Nicolas admirably draws the line between suffering that is self-imposed, and that which God lays upon us. The latter, whether it consist in outward affliction or inward temptation, we are to take joyfully, for it is a proof that God’s grace is at work within us; Christ, who has endured to the last extremity for man, loves pain, and will not spare it to his friends. The main thing is that we should find all things good in God, and look at things not 178as they appear to the world, but as they are in God’s sight. When some of the Strasburg brethren of St. John argue that singing and reading in the chapel at fixed hours will hinder them in contemplation, they are censured for it by Nicolas, who tells them that these acts are prescribed by the rules of their Order, and though they have in themselves no merit, yet, if done from obedience, they cannot hinder the motions of grace; even while outwardly busy, God may be worshipped by us in spirit and in truth, if we put no selfish, carnal thoughts between our souls and Him. And when Nicolas von Laufen takes umbrage at the secular manners of some of his brethren who ride about on horseback clad in short coats, the Layman remarks that he has not yet learnt to find all things right in God, but clings too much to outward distinctions. So, again, the renunciation of the world does not in his opinion involve the absolute giving up of earthly possessions, as was taught in his day by the Franciscan Spiritualists and others, nor the violent rending asunder of social ties. Let him who is in an Order that makes poverty a rule, obey that rule; but he who can rightfully hold property is at liberty to retain it, if only he do not seek his own ends in the use thereof, but God alone. Thus these “Friends of God” do not appear to have renounced all control over their property, but merely to have thrown what they regarded as superfluous into a common stock, which was applied to the building of their house and church, to purposes of charity, to defray the expenses of their missionary journeys, &c. This common stock was managed by their trustworthy steward Ruprecht, who was the chief if not sole medium of 179communication between Nicolas and his Strasburg friends.
From their seclusion, however, they kept a watchful eye upon all that was passing in the world around them, went out to those whom there seemed a prospect of winning over, and exercised no inconsiderable influence upon those who had put themselves under their spiritual guidance. This was the case with many who did not even know Nicolas by name. Thus, Henry von Wolfach, the Master of the Brethren of St. John in Strasburg, and even the Grand Master of the Order in Germany, Conrad von Brunsberg, and many others, desire his counsel to solve their doubts and direct their proceedings. Messengers from Nicolas seem to have been perpetually travelling about, who brought him letters from the “Friends of God,” so that he kept up a constant communication, not only with those in the neighbouring regions but also with the brethren on the Rhine, in Lorraine, in Italy, and in Hungary. In this manner he became acquainted both with public events and likewise with the private affairs of individuals; so, for instance, he made very remarkable revelations to an Augustinian monk in Strasburg respecting one of his penitents. These messengers had certain secret signs by which they recognized each other. Thus, Rulman Merswin was made aware of the presence of Ruprecht, by hearing a peculiar cough when he was in church. Nicolas himself took extraordinary precautions to remain undiscovered, and with such success, that, after Rulman’s death, the brethren at the Gruenen-Worth, who had previously received many letters from him, were never able to discover his retreat. 180When those with whom he corresponded desired to enter into personal communication with him, he usually refused it, simply saying that it could not be. This was the case with the vicar of the Bishop of Strasburg, John von Schaftolsheim, with the Master of the Brethren of St. John, in Strasburg, and even with Conrad von Brunsberg. In 1363, he writes that for twenty years he had only been able to reveal himself to one person, and not until God should take this one from him would he seek another; which probably signifies that in each city he had but one confidential person, through whom he corresponded with all who desired his counsel. Meanwhile he was active by means of his pen: in 1356, as we have seen, Tauler received from him a tractate on the decay of true religion. The alphabetical list of rules which he had given to Tauler in 1340, he sent in 1369 to the priests at Gruenen-Worth, and in 1371 to Rulman’s secretary, Nicolas von Laufen; to the same priests he sent the History of Tauler; and in 1377, to the Brethren of St. John, he sends the book containing the History of the Five Brethren. It is to these circumstances that we owe the proof of the authenticity of Tauler’s life, and the possibility of identifying the “man” there mentioned with “the secret friend,” who meets us in the writings relating to Rulman Merswin.
Up to 1367, Nicolas and his companions dwelt in a “city in the Oberland,” most likely Basle; but in that year, finding it “not helpful” “to live among the common people,” they determined on retiring into utter seclusion; principally, no doubt, in order to carry on their work unwatched and undisturbed. In accordance with a dream, as they tell us, which 181commanded them to take their black dog for a guide, they fixed on a site high up on a mountain, far away from any human habitation. This mountain was situated in the dominions of the Duke of Austria, and for two leagues round there was no town. A messenger whom they sent to the Duke, to request his permission to settle here, was taken prisoner in the wars then raging in those countries, and a year had elapsed before they were able to obtain his release. He, however, then brought back the required permission, and they began to build their house, in which each was to have his own spacious apartment, and there were also to be chambers for the reception of foreign brethren as guests; but they were prevented from finishing the edifice, by the political disturbances in the neighbourhood, so that it remained at a standstill for seven years, and the “Friends” gave up all idea of completing it.
The political and ecclesiastical feuds by which the Papal court was distracted excited a lively but melancholy interest in Nicolas, who constantly predicts in his letters that they must bring down still heavier judgments at God’s hand than even those which had already visited the world; but when, after his long residence in Avignon, Gregory XI. returned to Rome in 1376, a ray of hope that it might yet be possible to restore unity and concord to the afflicted Church seems to have dawned upon his mind, and he felt called on to make a personal effort to influence the Pope himself. Accordingly, as we learn from a letter to Henry von Wolfach, in the February of 1377 it was resolved by the “Friends” that Nicolas and the Jurist should repair to Rome; the Jew, John, offered to raise funds to defray the 182expenses of the journey from among his relatives,—Jews who harboured a secret inclination towards Christianity. The severity of the Alpine winter and an attack of illness which befell Nicolas, now above seventy years of age, caused the journey to be postponed till the end of March. I extract from the account of the “Friends of God” given in Rulman Merswin’s Briefbuch3333The account itself says, “As the Layman wrote to Rulman Merswin and Brother Nicolas von Laufen;” but these letters are not among those preserved. the following narrative of their mission and its results: “And when they came to Rome, the Layman (Rulman’s secret friend)3434The name by which Nicolas is always designated, except where he is called “the Dear Friend of God in the Oberland.” made inquiry after a Roman whom he had known a long time before, and found him yet living. And this Roman received the two ‘Friends of God’ in a very friendly fashion, and would take no denial, but they, with their servants, and horses, and carriages, must lodge with him so long as their affairs kept them in Rome; and he entertained them most courteously with all manner of good cheer. Then he said to the Layman: ‘Methinks it is somewhat strange that thou in thine old age shouldst come to court from such a distant land, unless it be upon some urgent occasion.’ Then the Layman answered: ‘So it is: we must speak to our Holy Father upon very weighty affairs.’ Then said the Roman: ‘I shall be able to bring you into his presence, for I am very familiar with him, and often dine at his table.’ And he procured that the Pope should give them a privy hearing on the third day after. . . So they came into the presence of Pope Gregory, and the Jurist spoke to him in Latin, and the Layman in 183Italian, since he could not speak Latin, and said, among much other discourse: ‘Holy Father, there be many grievous and heinous crimes wrought throughout Christendom by all degrees of men, whereby God’s anger is greatly provoked; thou oughtest to consider how to put an end to these evils.’ But he answered: ‘I have no power to amend matters.’ Then they told him of his own secret faults, which had been revealed to them of God by certain evident tokens, and said, ‘Holy Father, know of a truth, that if you do not put away your evil doings and utterly amend your ways, you shall die within a year,’ as also came to pass. When the Pope heard these words of rebuke, he was enraged beyond measure; but they answered and said: ‘Holy Father, take us captive, and if we cannot give you evident tokens, then kill us and do what you will with us.’ . . . And when they declared to him these tokens, he rose up from his throne, and embraced them and kissed them on the mouth, and said to the Layman, ‘Let us talk together in Italian, since thou canst not speak Latin.’ And they had much loving discourse together; and among other things the Pope said, ‘Could you tell the Emperor as much as you have told me, you would indeed do a good service to Christendom.’ And afterwards the Pope prayed the two ‘Friends of God’ that they should stay with him in Rome, and he offered to provide them all things needful, and also to follow their counsel. But they answered, ‘Holy Father, suffer us to return home; and we will be at all times obedient to come if you send for us. For we seek no earthly gain, nor have we come hither for the sake of such; we seek only God’s glory and the welfare 184of Christendom above all the perishable gifts of this present time.’ Then he inquired of them where their home might be; and when they said, ‘We have long dwelt in such a town,’ he marvelled that such ‘Friends of God’ should dwell among the common people. Thereupon they told him [all that had happened], and how they had been hindered in their building. Then the Pope would have given them a bishopric and other revenues and grants, but they would not have them. . . . [But the Pope gave them letters recommending their cause to the Bishop and clergy of their diocese.] Now when these two dear ‘Friends of God’ had settled their affairs with the Pope, and desired to depart from Rome, their host would not suffer them to pay for anything that they had had in his house . . . and moreover gave the layman a good ambling horse instead of the heavy carriage in which he had come, saying that a soft-paced horse would be much easier for him to ride over the high mountains than the carriage, seeing that he was old and weakly. Now afterward the Pope was unmindful of God’s message, and obeyed it not, and died that same year as they had prophesied—to wit, about the fourth week in Lent, 1378.”
On returning to their mountain, they found that the Bishop of their diocese was sojourning in a city thirteen leagues distant. It was resolved that the two who had been with the Pope should ride with his letter to the Bishop to entreat aid for the completion of their house. The prelate received them favourably, and gave them letters to the clergy of the town that lay nearest to their estate. On this, all the five brethren repaired thither, where the 185priests read from the pulpit the letters of recommendation which they had brought from the Pope and the Bishop. The magistrates also took up their cause, promising to send them armed men to protect their settlement in time of disturbance, and offering them besides a house in the town for a temporary abode, and in which they could also take refuge if necessary; and further sent them on leaving a complimentary present of fish and wine by the hand of their officers. Three foreign brethren, who had for some time cherished the wish to be received into their society, made over to them the whole of their property, in order to finish the house and erect the church. Thus aided, the little band were at length able to settle down in the home they had chosen. But, as far as we can gather from the obscure traces of their subsequent history, it does not appear that they were allowed to enjoy for more than a few years the retreat for which they had sighed so long.
In the same year (1377), Nicolas learns from several foreign “Friends of God” that the Church is on the point of falling into great peril, doubtless from the growing discord which threatened all the convulsions of anarchy; and he foresees that things may come to pass which would constrain the “Friends of God” to separate and divide themselves over the world; but in the meantime their part is to remain in concealment till “God shall do something, we know not what as yet.” Meanwhile he entreats the prayers of his friends, for they are greatly troubled in mind, and know not what will come of it. It is evident from such dark hints as these that Nicolas and his friends now began to 186contemplate the possibility of their duty calling them to use more public means of influence than the private, though by no means inactive or inefficient, line of conduct they had hitherto pursued. They must have foreseen the painful collision that was impending between their deep reverence for the outward authority of the Church and the inward authority of the indwelling light. Neither can they have been without forebodings of the martyr’s doom, which actually befell all those of whose fate any traces are left; though we may well believe, from all we know of them, that this would occasion them far less anxiety and distress than the question whether they were acting most for the interests of the Church by continuing their present silent and therefore undisturbed efforts to influence the spiritual leaders of the people; or by going out among the people themselves, to call them to repentance, and proclaim doctrines which, however true, might unsettle the foundations of their traditional belief;—the difficulty and perplexity which in many ages meets and torments minds of the prophetic order.
In the following year, the great schism that had been dimly foretold, broke out, and for forty years the church was divided between two heads; Urban VI. was elected at Rome, under the influence of terror at the violence of the insurgent mob; and soon after, in subservience to the French party, Clement VII. et Fondi, who immediately hastened to Avignon. When these tidings reached the “Friends of God,” it seemed to them that the time was come when the threatened judgments of God were about to burst over the world. It was, indeed, intelligence fitted to shake all hearts, for, as the brethren of Gruenen-Worth 187write: “After God has been warning the world for these forty years past, by deadly diseases and earthquakes, famines, and a wild, masterless folk,3535The hordes known by the name of “Englishmen,” who for several years after 1361 ravaged France, Lorraine, and Alsace. laying waste many lands, He is now sending us a plague that is worse than all the rest, because it attacks our faith; namely, the dissensions of Christendom, in which all the wisdom of nature, of Scripture, and of the grace of the Holy Spirit is so utterly dried up and extinct, that all our learned doctors and wise priests have lost their way, and know not which to choose of these two Popes, that they may help to bring back unity to Christendom, and peace to the See of Rome.” Their Master wished in this perplexity to repair for counsel to the “Friends of God,” but Nicolas forbade him, saying: “Have you not the Holy Scripture? Are you not a professor in the chair? Why should you ask counsel from the creature? Stop, and wait till God Himself shall constrain you to come to us. It is not yet time for us to reveal ourselves; but it may soon come to pass that we slip from our covert, to be scattered abroad over the world, and if so, I shall come to Strasburg and make myself known to you.”
It is, however, evident that the “Friends of God,” though concealed, were by no means passive at this time; what special plans they cherished are unknown, but that they had such is clear from all their proceedings. So early as November 1377, Nicolas had been with the priest, John, in Metz, on some business with which we are not acquainted. During 1378, much consultation by means of messengers and 188letters must have taken place, for on the 17th of March, in the following year, Nicolas (as he relates in a letter to Henry von Wolfach), with seven other brethren, met in some wild place high up among the mountains, near a chapel hewn out in a rock, close to which a priest dwelt with two young brethren in a little hermitage. Four out of the seven were laymen, the other three ordained priests. Nicolas, whether from humility or not, speaks of himself as one of the least among them. From his letter it would seem that the chief purpose of this meeting was united prayer to God, to avert the “dreadful storm” that was menacing the Christian world, that there might be space left for amendment. A week was devoted to these supplications; every afternoon the brethren went out into the forest, and sat down “beside a fair brook,” to converse upon the matters on which they had come hither. At length, on the last day, while thus assembled, a storm of wind came on, followed by a thick darkness, which they took for a work of the evil spirits. After the storm had lasted an hour, there came a pleasant light, and the sweet voice of an invisible angel announced to them that God had heard their prayer, and stayed his chastisements for a year; but when this was ended, they should entreat Him no more, for the Father would no longer delay to take vengeance on the despisers of His Son. After this the “Friends of God” returned back again each to his own place. Respecting the course they resolved to pursue, all that we can make out from the vague hints in the letters of Nicolas is, that they interpreted the promise of the angel to mean that they were to wait a year longer before quitting their concealment and taking 189an open and active part in the affairs of the world; the only thing that is distinctly stated is, that it was resolved once more to try the effect of personal remonstrances with the Pope. Nicolas himself was entrusted with this mission, which, however, from some unknown cause, was not carried out. Meanwhile, according to the intelligence received from the brethren in foreign parts respecting the progress of the schism, affairs were assuming a more and more gloomy aspect; the confusion and perplexity occasioned by the presence of two Popes was continually increasing; the Christian world was splitting into two parties; even the secular authority was in danger of disruption and subversion. The time drew nearer and nearer when Nicolas believed himself called on to begin to work among the common people; already, in June 1379, he calls on the Strasburg Master to warn the people in his sermons, and hold up before them the testimonies of Scripture concerning their duties in such a crisis.
As the end of the year approached, during which the “Friends of God” were to wait, they agreed to hold another meeting. All the accounts relating to this conference (the latest distinctly recorded intelligence we have respecting this extraordinary band of associates), are so mixed up with the symbolical and the marvellous, that it is extremely difficult to make out the real facts of the case. According to the narrative given by Nicolas to Rulman Merswin, he, with twelve other “Friends of God,” were at Christmas 1379 warned by dreams to assemble together on the following Holy Thursday, at the same place where the seven brethren had met the year before. So early as February some of the 190foreign brethren arrived at the abode of Nicolas: one from the country of the “Lords of Meiglon,” (probably Milan); two from Hungary, whom he had known thirty years before; one from Genoa, a rich burgher, with whom Nicolas was not previously acquainted. On Holy Thursday, the 22nd of March, they met at the little chapel in the rock, and, after receiving the sacrament on Good Friday morning, repaired, as before, to the wood, and sat down beside the stream to begin their deliberations. What passed during these conferences is only related in the form of marvellous visions and fantastic occurrences. After tempests and diabolical apparitions, a bright light surrounds the place, and an invisible speaker tells them that the impending plagues shall be stayed for three years longer, on condition of their obeying the injunctions contained in a letter which thereupon drops down in their midst. These commands are somewhat mysterious: the “Friends of God” are to withdraw from their ordinary communications with the world, except in the case of those who desire their counsel; to receive the sacrament three times a week, &c.; and after three years they shall receive further commands from God. After they have declared their readiness to obey the letter, they are told by the same voice to light a fire, and throw it in. Instead of burning, it rises up in the fire, a flash of lightning meets the flame, and catches up fire and letter together to heaven, after which there is nothing more to be seen; and the brethren depart to their respective homes. The brethren in the Oberland commence their period of retreat at Whitsuntide, after a high mass has been performed by the priest John in their 191newly-finished church. Nicolas writes beforehand to Rulman Merswin releasing him from his obedience, and recommending him to take the Master Henry von Wolfach for a confessor in his stead. To the latter, who had again applied to know what course the “Friends of God” meant to take with regard to the rival Popes, Nicolas replies with his usual caution, that the Brethren of St. John could not regulate their conduct in these matters by that of the “Friends of God;” for they were bound to obey the dictates of their superiors in the Order, while the latter had received many privileges from Pope Gregory, and were, moreover, only subject to their Bishop, who did not press them for a decision.
It is certainly very difficult to know in what light to regard the marvellous accounts that meet us in the writings of Rulman and Nicolas. Some of them seem to be simply symbolical; for it is clear that they were in the habit of presenting their views of human affairs under the form of an allegory, supposed to be seen in a vision or dream, just as Bunyan does in his “Pilgrim’s Progress.” This is the case with Rulman’s Book of the Nine Rocks, Christiana Ebner’s vision of the Closed Cathedral, and some unimportant visions occurring in the letters of Nicolas.3636See, for instance, his vision of the Three Birds. (Schmidt’s Gottesfreunde, S. 147.) But the case is different when wonders are related, as far as we can see, as simple matters of fact. That, however, the “Friends of God” expected, and so were ready to receive without much hesitation as to their reality, not only direct spiritual communications from the Divine Being, but also miraculous interpositions in physical things, is perfectly 192clear; and thus they were undoubtedly open to all the self-deception in these matters which may arise from intense emotion and mental excitement acting on frames disordered by asceticism. Swoons under the pressure of religious emotion are with them, as with the Methodists of the last century, a matter of continual occurrence; and with them, as with the early Methodists, seem to have been not unfrequently the crisis of a state of overwrought physical and mental excitement, after which they regained a calmer and healthier condition both of body and mind, with an addition of spiritual experience and enlightenment. Such an occurrence as a letter falling from heaven presents much greater difficulties. It is possible that Nicolas may have intended the whole story rather as an allegory than as matter of fact; if he regarded it in the latter light, it must have been the result either of a terribly over-strained imagination, or of fraud on the part of some unknown person. But to suppose that a man of so much simple holiness and practical wisdom as Nicolas appears to us, should have taken part in juggling tricks of such dreadful impiety in order to persuade his associates that the course he judged best was prescribed to them by Heaven, is, I confess, a larger demand upon my powers of credence than they are able to meet. Moreover, we must judge these accounts by the age in which they were produced,—an age when the mental food of the pious laity was the life of St. Francis with his five wounds and blasphemous “conformities” to the life of our Lord, and other works of a similar nature. And it must be remembered that the leaders of this party—Nicolas, Rulman, John,—were laymen whose not 193large stock of erudition was self-acquired, comparatively late in life. In the writings of the scholar Tauler (though, in common with all his contemporaries, he believes in ghosts and heavenly visions) we find scarcely a trace of the fanatical credulity that meets us in the letters of these lay friends of his, if we are to take their statements as literal and not symbolical representations of fact. Even so doing, however, if we compare them with the stories contained in the staple religious literature of the day, or even in the life of Suso, Tauler’s companion and friend, Nicolas and his friends, wild as they may seem to us rational Protestants, will appear scarcely to leave the regions of sober common sense;3737This will, I think, seem no exaggerated expression to any reader who will take the pains to consult only Diepenbrock’s Life of Suso (Ratisbon, 1829), with Gorres’ Introduction to it, and so see for himself the space that separates the Romish from our Protestant point of view in these matters; not forgetting, meanwhile, that the Editor Diepenbrock was the secretary of the learned Bishop Sailer, the leader of the most liberal party among the Catholics of almost our own day. and it is remarkable that, in most of the practical questions that arise with regard to self-discipline, he takes the moderate and judicious side.
Whatever interpretation, however, we may be inclined to put upon the
marvellous circumstances attending the above-mentioned conference, it
seems tolerably clear that the three years’ so-called seclusion
of the “Friends of God” was regarded by them as a time of
preparation for their public work, when they should be “scattered
abroad over Christendom;” and that by their retirement, they were
breaking the ties that bound them to those who had hitherto depended on
them for guidance, and accustoming them to act for themselves against
a time when they should no longer have their wonted
194counsellors at hand. Probably, too, the brethren took this
course partly from the desire that their spiritual children should not be
involved in the persecutions which they could not but perceive to threaten
themselves, but might continue to work for the cause of true religion in
their respective spheres, unhindered by the suspicions of heresy, which
any known connexion with the “Friends of God” would have
brought upon them. Not that there is any sign of the “Friends of
God” having been heretical in point of dogma; it was rather the
remarkable freedom with which they criticized the conduct both of the
spiritual and temporal authorities that was likely to bring them into
trouble. Thus, in one of their meetings just before their retreat, the
brother who had been a Jurist says, that if offices in Church and State
were conferred in accordance with God’s law, neither Urban nor
Clement deserved to be Pope; the former had been appointed by the Roman
mob through violent means, and the latter was now defending himself by
similar acts of violence, which was contrary to justice and God’s
order. So likewise, the King of Rome had obtained the crown after a
shameful fashion (1376), for his father had bought the votes of the
electors with gold; how the electors could reconcile it with their oath
to choose an inexperienced boy for their king, God only knew; with the
subjects matters did not stand much better: they obeyed their rulers
only so long as it served their own interests to do so; a godly life
was almost extinct, everywhere prevailed nought but the striving after
riches and pleasures.3838See Schmidt’s Gottesfreunde,
S. 170. This passage throws much light on the views and
aims of the “Friends of God,”
195and enables us to form an idea of what must have been
the frequent topics of discussion among them. With the cessation of
the correspondence between Nicolas and Rulman Merswin, ceases our only
source of information about the “Friends of God.” Their
term of waiting expired on the 25th March 1383; and since we know, from
contemporary history, that the course of events, instead of bringing
brighter prospects, grew ever darker and more threatening, we seem
justified in concluding that they now believed the time to have arrived
for them “to go out into the five ends of the world,” and
work for Christ. Most likely they went forth as preachers of repentance,
for there occur in the letters of Nicolas frequent comparisons of the
present state of the world to that of Nineveh, and hints that they may
have to act the part of Jonah. But where, and how long they did so, is
wrapt in utter darkness. As far as we can learn, Providence did not see
fit to bless their preaching like that of Jonah, and, to human eyes,
their enterprise was a failure. For all we actually know respecting
their subsequent history is, that in 1393 a certain Martin von Mayence,
a Benedictine monk of Reichenau, in the diocese of Constance, who is
called in the acts of his trial a disciple of Nicolas of Basle and a
“Friend of God,” was burnt at Cologne, after the same fate
had befallen some other “Friends of God,” a short time
before, at Heidelberg. Active researches were made after Nicolas, but
as he had concealed himself from his friends, so for a long time he was
able to elude the efforts of his persecutors. At length, on a journey
which he had undertaken into France, in order to diffuse his doctrines,
accompanied by two of his
196disciples, James and John (the latter most likely the
converted Jew who always appears as his bosom friend), he fell into the
hands of the Inquisitors at Vienne, in the diocese of Poitiers. He was
brought to trial, and persisted firmly and publicly in his heresies,
the most “audacious” of which seems to have been that he
pretended to “know that he was in Christ, and Christ in him.”
He was therefore delivered over to the secular power, and perished in the
flames, together with his two disciples, who refused to be parted from
him.3939 The following note, inserted by Schmidt in his Tauler,
S. 205, is, I believe, the only source of information we have
respecting the end of the Layman:—
“Johan Niederus, formicarius, Arg. 1517, 4to. F. 40, &c.: Vivebat paulo ante [the Council of Pisa] quidam purum laicus, Nycholaus nomine. Hic in linea Rheni circa Basiliam et infra, primum velut Beghardus ambulans, a multis qui persequebantur hereticos, de eorundem hereticorum numero quasi unus habebatur suspectissimus. Acutissimus enim erat, et verbis errores coloratissime velare novit. Ideireo etiam manus inquisitorum dudum evaserat et multo tempore. Discipulos igitur quosdam in suam sectam collegit. Fuit enim professione et habitu de damnatis Beghardis unus, qui visiones et revelationes in praedicto damnato habitu multas habuit quas infallibiles esse credidit. Se scire affirmabat audacter quod Christus in eo esset actu, et ipse in Christo, et plura alia, quae omnia, captus tandem Wiennae in Pictaviensi diocesi, inquisitus fatebatur publice. Sed cum Jacobum et Joannem suspectos in fide, et sibi conscios sues speciales discipulos, ad jussum ecclesiae eum inquirenti nollet dimittere nisi per ignem, et reportis in multis a vera fide devius et impersuasibilis, secularium potestati juste traditus est qui eum incinerarunt.
Since, in the trial of Martin of Mayence, Nicolas is spoken of as still living, his death most likely occurred subsequently to that date, but cannot have taken place much later, as he must then have been near ninety years of age. Even before this time, the Strasburg brethren had lost all trace of the “Friends of God,” and their frequent attempts to discover them had proved utterly unavailing;4040A detailed account of these attempts is given in Schmidt’s Gottesfreunde, S. 29. 197no doubt, because the convent which they sought to find was already deserted, and its inmates, whose names they had never known, were scattered abroad in fulfilment of their vocation. That which appears to have formed the chief ground of their persecution, was their effort to free the people from the tyranny of the clergy, and their claiming for every one enlightened by God the right to teach,—a claim antagonistic to the inmost essence of the Romish Church. And if their teaching failed to effect a wide reformation because it was mingled with some of the great errors of Rome, and in place of priestly authority over men’s consciences set up that of their brethren, whose inspiration was often not less doubtful, yet we cannot but recognize in it the germs of the true freedom of the Gospel, as well as the great and all-essential truth that the Christian life does not consist in outward works, but in the inward union of the spirit with God.198
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