Some Notes on Tauler's Life
The historical criticism of the nineteenth century did not leave Tauler undisturbed. When Miss Winkworth published her "History and Life of the Reverend Doctor John Tauler" in 1857, no one had questioned, save on grounds of religious sentiment, that he was the "Master in Holy Scripture" who was converted by the "Friend of God from the Oberland," as is narrated in that quaint and edifying legend. The story in question had, in fact, been printed in every edition of Tauler's Sermons, and was regarded as an authentic and almost contemporary document. Quetif and Echard, in their Scriptures Ordinis Praedicatorum, had suggested, early in the eighteenth century, that the legend should be regarded as an allegory; [5] and this view was supported by Weiss, in his article on Tauler in the Biographie universelle (1826) already referred to. But it was reserved to H.S. Denifle, a learned Dominican of our own day, to point out that the story, as applied to Tauler, involves grave historical difficulties, and is barely reconcilable with certain matters of ascertained fact. [6] His criticisms would seem to have settled the question; but to him Preger, a Protestant, whose life has been largely devoted to the study of the German mystics, and who was selected to be the biographer of Tauler in the "Universal German Biography," has made a detailed reply in the third volume of his Deutsche Mystik (1893); and many will hold that he has succeeded in rebuilding the edifice which Denifle was thought to have destroyed. The latter's criticisms are however ably reinforced in the article on Tauler by Von Loe, also a Dominican, in the eleventh volume (1899) of the new edition of the Kirchenlexicon; and it would be impossible for anyone who had not made a prolonged and independent study of the question to decide between the disputants.

Moreover, the controversy is mixed up with a further question, as to whether Tauler did or did not submit to the Papal interdict, under which Strasburg (and other cities that espoused the cause of the Emperor Louis the Bavarian) lay for many years after 1329. The evidence certainly seems to point to the conclusion that Tauler, and the Dominican house at Strasburg, did submit. But Preger holds it as proved that a certain Merswin, a layman who had withdrawn from a distinguished civic position and led a penitential life as one of the "Friends of God," received the sacraments from Tauler during the interdict. Specklin, however, the Strasburg chronicler, on whom Preger relies for this assertion, also says that Tauler wrote a book (or two books) in which he protested against people being allowed to die without the sacraments during the interdict, and in obedience to it; and that his book was condemned as heretical. To this his Catholic apologists reply that such a thing was impossible, since such administration of the sacraments during an interdict was not prohibited by the ecclesiastical law at that date. It is a pity that so admirable a legend should have proved the occasion for so keen a controversy.

Proceeding now to sketch the undisputed facts of Tauler's life, we note that he was born at Strasburg, about the year 1300, of a respectable citizen family, dwelling in a house "near the Miller's Bridge." At an early age (Preger says at fifteen) he entered the Dominican convent at Strasburg as a novice; and he was through life a brother of that "Order of Preachers," known in England as the "Black Friars." He passed the two years of his novitiate and the eight years of his preliminary study in his native city; and then, as a brother of much promise, he was sent to the studium Generale at Cologne for a further period of four years. It is interesting to note that, during those early years at Strasburg, the nave of the Cathedral, as we now see it, was fresh and white from the mason's chisel, while the great western facade was in process of erection. There he would have heard the sermons of his master, Eckhart, usually reckoned the most intellectual of the German mystics and the founder of German philosophy. He would have heard him again at Cologne, where Eckhart had the misfortune to be accused of Pantheism, but was acquitted after trial by the Inquisition. At Strasburg Tauler would also have known the mystic, John of Sternengassen, and the theologian, John of Dambach; and he would have studied the authors he most frequently quotes, Augustine, Gregory, Bernard, Hugo and Richard of St Victor, Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus. Logic, Scripture, and the Sentences of Peter Lombard formed part of the regular curriculum of his preliminary training; and it is supposed that, when he proceeded to Cologne at the age of twenty-five, he had already been ordained priest, and had definitely adopted that mystical standpoint in religion by which he will always be distinguished.

At this date the Dominican order occupied a position similar to that of the Jesuits two or three centuries later. It was the nursery of great preachers and theologians, and royal confessors were usually chosen from it. At Cologne Tauler would come to know several of the more learned men of his order; and it was there that his training was probably completed. From a passage in one of his sermons: it has been inferred that he proceeded to Paris; but there is no certain trace of him in the Acta of that University; and it is more likely that he returned direct from Cologne to Strasburg. Neither is there any evidence that at Cologne he took the degree of "Master in holy Scripture," (a degree equivalent to that of "Doctor in Theology"); and this he could only have done either at Paris or Cologne. In all the MSS. previous to the fifteenth century he is described simply as "Brother John Tauler"; and this is evidence against his being the anonymous "Master of Holy Scripture" whom the lay "Friend of God" converted. Only in virtue of that indification has he been described as "Dr. John Tauler."

He would have returned to Strasburg about the year 1329, when the city was laid under an interdict by John XXII. The validity of the interdict was disputed among the city clergy, great pressure being put upon them by the municipal authorities not to observe it. Even among the regulars (Dominicans and Franciscans) there was a party that contended for its non-observance. The General Chapter of the Dominicans admitted its validity; but, according to Preger, not all the German houses -- there were about 100 -- accepted the decision. The Strasburg convent, he maintains, did not submit to it until 1339; and the friars were thereupon expelled for three years by the City Council. But before this date Tauler appears to have been sent to Basle, where, though the city was imperialist, the clergy were not called upon by the civil authorities to defy the interdict, and where, moreover, the Pope relaxed its observance from time to time. Here Tauler made a considerable stay, and presumably delivered some, at least, of those sermons which were included in the Basle edition of 1521. Here, too, he met Henry of Nordingen, a secular priest who had come to Basle from Constance for the same reason that Tauler had come there from Strasburg. He was a man of much piety and influence, and he numbered many regulars among his spiritual children, one of them being Margaret Ebner, a Dominican nun and an ecstatica, with whom Tauler had later some correspondence, now lost. [7] He returned to Strasburg not much later than 1346; and it was in the years following that his sermons there attracted general attention and admiration. In 1357 he again visited Cologne, and addressed a series of discourses to the nuns at St Gertrude's in that city. Some of these were presumably the originals of the sermons added to the Cologne edition of 1543. Four years later he died in Strasburg (the date on his tomb is June 16, 1361), and was buried in the convent of his order. He had died, however, outside the convent, in the guest-house of an adjoining nunnery, over which his sister presided. A manuscript at Colmar, giving an account of Tauler by one who had known him personally, describes him as "a gifted and holy Friend of God"; but adds that he was detained six years in purgatory for sundry faults, one of these being that on his death-bed he allowed himself to receive too much attention from his sister, "in whose guest-house he died." Other faults ascribed to him are that he was irritable, that he was wanting in submission to his superiors, and that he extolled too highly the "Friends of God," while towards others he was harsh. According to the legend already referred to, the lay "Friend of God," to whom he had owed his conversion, was with him again at his death-bed, and received from "the Master" the notes of his conversion, to be published after his death, describing him as "the Master," without any other name.

I have failed to obtain any portrait of Tauler, and I am doubtful whether any vera effigies of him exists. But I have heard of a conventional likeness, in which he is represented in the Dominican habit, holding in his left hand the Holy Bible, stamped with the Agnus Dei, while he points to it with his right. On his breast are the letters I H S and beneath them a T, an allusion perhaps to his name or to his preaching of the Cross.


[5] Tom I. p. 677. Paris 1719.

[6] See his article in the Hist. Pol. Blatter, lxxv., 18 sq. (1875), and Tauler's Bekehrung kritisch untersucht, forming Pt. 36 of Quellen und Forschungen zur Sprach und Culturgeschichte der Germanischen Volker (Strasburg, 1879).

[7] Margaret Ebner believed that in her ecstasies she received special revelations about our Lord's life and especially about His childhood. She followed with the deepest attention the strife betwen the Pope and the Emperor Louis, having great loyalty and affection for the latter, as her own countryman. In 1346, Clement VI. renewed the excommunication of Louis - Dei ira is hoc et in futuro saeculo exardescat in ipsum - and in the year following the Emperor died suddenly out hunting. But, none the less, Margaret (who died in 1351, aged sixty) believed that in one of her visions the Child Jesus assured her of his predestination to eternal life. Her diary and her correspondence with Henry of Nordlingen were edited by Strauch in 1882.

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