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Gender, Knighthood, and Spiritual Imagination in Henry Suso's Life of the Servant

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 May 2022

Jacob Randolph*
Department of Religion, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, United States


Twenty-first-century scholarship on the late medieval Dominican mystic Henry Suso has seen a marked interest in gendered explorations of his Vita in the realms of authorship, authority, and social and religious prescriptions. In particular, the position of the nun Elsbeth Stagel, Suso's longtime friend, mentee, and narrative subject in the Vita, has come to the forefront as a site of contestation. Moreover, Suso's portrayal of the monastic life as one of a knightly contest has challenged the meaning and function of his work as a didactic text for women religious, as chivalric themes typically carry certain gendered presuppositions. I argue that, contrary to the interpretation of the Vita as opposed to female emulation of the Servant, a close reading of the work suggests that the Servant not only allowed but encouraged Stagel and, by extension, Dominican nuns in Suso's care, to don the persona of a knight for Christ, thus broadening the spiritual imaginations of his readers beyond traditional gendered conventions.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of American Society of Church History

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1 Henry Suso, Leben, in Karl Bihlmeyer (ed.), Heinrich Seuse Deutsche Schriften im Auftrag der Württembergischen Komission für Landesgeschichte (Frankfurt am Main: Minerva, 1961), 44.152; trans. Frank J. Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, with Two German Sermons (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 171. All references to Suso's Vita and letters are taken from Karl Bihlmeyer, hereafter Bihlmeyer. The Vita is noted with chapter number and page (e.g., Bihlmeyer, 3.12), while Suso's letters are noted by letter number and page as they appear in Bihlmeyer. As this essay primarily examines Suso on a conceptual rather than semantic level, all English quotations are taken from Frank Tobin's excellent translation, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, with Two German Sermons. Where the German is necessary or particularly helpful, it is provided in the note.

2 Tobin, Frank, “Henry Suso and Elsbeth Stagel: Was the Leben a Cooperative Effort?,” in Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters, ed. Mooney, Catherine M. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 121Google Scholar.

3 Tinsley, David F., “The Spiritual Friendship of Henry Suso and Elsbeth Stagel,” in Friendship in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age: Explorations of a Fundamental Ethical Discourse, ed. Classen, Albrecht and Sandidge, Marilyn (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2011)Google Scholar.

4 Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 43.

5 Williams-Krapp, Werner, “Henry Suso's Vita between Mystagogy and Hagiography,” in Seeing and Knowing: Women and Learning in Medieval Europe, 1200–1550, ed. Mulder-Bakker, Anneke B. (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), 4041Google Scholar.

6 Heinonen, Meri, “Henry Suso and the Divine Knighthood,” in Holiness and Masculinity in the Middle Ages, ed. Cullum, P. H. and Lewis, Katherine J. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2005), 88Google Scholar.

7 Altrock, Stephanie, “got wil, daz du nu riter siest.’ Geistliche und weltliche Ritterschaft in Tex und Bild der Vita Heinrich Sueses,” in Encomia-Deutsch. Sonderheft der Deutschen Sektion der ICLS (Tübingen: Internationale Gesellschaft für höfische Literatur, 2002), 120–21Google Scholar.

8 Tobin, “Henry Suso and Elsbeth Stagel,” 118.

9 “Henry Suso, Bl,” in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

10 Hamburger, Jeffrey F., “Medieval Self-Fashioning: Authorship, Authority, and Autobiography in Suso's Exemplar,” in The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Female Spirituality in Late Medieval Germany (Cambridge, MA: Zone Books; MIT Press, 1998), 243Google Scholar.

11 See Tobin, “Henry Suso and Elsbeth Stagel,” 134.

12 See Kieckhefer, Richard, Unquiet Souls: Fourteenth-Century Saints and Their Religious Milieu (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 68Google Scholar.

13 Greenspan, Kate, “Autohagiography,” in Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia, ed. Schaus, Margaret (New York: Routledge, 2006), 54Google Scholar.

14 Susanne Bernhardt, Figur im Vollzug. Narrative Strukturen im religiösen Selbstentwurf der Vita Heinrich Seuses (Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto, 2016), 13–14.

15 Bernhardt, Figur im Vollzug, 18 (my translation).

16 Bernhardt, Figur im Vollzug, 18.

17 Bihlmeyer, 3.12; trans. Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 67–68.

18 Bihlmeyer, 3.12; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 68.

19 Bihlmeyer, chs. 15–19; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 87–97.

20 Bihlmeyer, 19.54; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 98.

21 Bihlmeyer, 20.56–57; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 99.

22 “bis riter! Du bist unz her gneht gesin, und got wil, daz du nu riter siest.” Bihlmeyer, 55.25; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 99.

23 Bihlmeyer, 56.2–6; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 100.

24 Bihlmeyer, 57.3–9; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 100–101.

25 Bihlmeyer, 44.149; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 170.

26 Bihlmeyer, 44.152; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 171.

27 Bernhardt, Figur im Vollzug, 93 (my translation).

28 The Servant is characterized variously as an infant in his mother's arms (Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 70), as a young girl picking roses (102), and as the husband of Wisdom (69), as well as a tattered doormat in the mouth of a dog (101).

29 Altrock, “‘got wil, daz du nu riter siest,’” 116–17.

30 Schwietering, Julius, “Zur Autorschaft von Seuses ‘Leben,’Altdeutsche und aliniederländische Mystik, ed. Ruh, Kurt (1953; reprint Darmstadt: Wissenschaftlische Buchgesellschaft, 1964), 309–23Google Scholar; Binschedler, Maria, “Sueses Begriff der Ritterschaft,” Heinrich Suese; Studien zum 600. Todestag, 1366–1966, ed. Filthaut, Ephrem (Cologne: Albertus Magnus Verlag, 1966), 233–39Google Scholar. See Rose-Lefmann, Deborah, “Lady Love, King, Minstrel: Courtly Depictions of Jesus or God in Late-Medieval Vernacular Mystical Literature,” in Arthurian Literature and Christianity: Notes from the Twentieth Century, ed. Meister, Peter (New York: Garland, 1999), 143Google Scholar. See also Tobin, “Henry Suso and Elsbeth Stagel,” 129.

31 Heinonen, “Henry Suso and the Divine Knighthood,” 88.

32 Heinonen argues that in other, more mystical writings, Suso is content to allow more gender bending than in the Vita, which Heinonen characterizes as didactic. Heinonen, “Henry Suso and the Divine Knighthood,” 88. It is granted that the Vita serves a largely didactic purpose, but such a sharp distinction between the didactic and mystical literature is questionable. Moreover, it is clear from Suso's letters that he sought to instill chivalric virtues in the sisters under his care through didactic language as well. See the discussion of Suso's letter to a Dominican nun, Letter 17 in Heinrich Suese: Deutsche Schriften, later in the article.

33 It is not surprising that Suso applies the universal principle of spiritual warfare in terms of knighthood, since the medieval fashioning of spiritual warfare into chivalric language is driven in part by what Katherine Allen Smith identifies as a threat to the “monastic monopoly on spiritual warfare” in the wake of the rise of the Crusades. Even as knights pledged their swords to Jesus and Rome, monks insisted that theirs was the true vocation of war. See Katherine Allen Smith, War and the Making of Medieval Monastic Culture (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2011), 112.

34 This is a prescriptive statement, but clearly did not reflect reality in every case. The Crusades, in particular, saw a marked rise in women combatants, although their existence was problematic and thus relegated to the margins by medieval chroniclers. See Michael R. Evans, “‘Unfit to Bear Arms’: The Gendering of Arms and Armour in Accounts of Women on Crusade,” in Gendering the Crusades, ed. Susan Edgington and Sarah Lambert (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 45–58.

35 Katherine Allen Smith, War and the Making of Medieval Monastic Culture, 83–84.

36 Jerome, “Letter to Laeta,” in The Principal Works of St. Jerome, trans. W. H. Fremantle, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. 6 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1893), 190 (emphasis my own).

37 Gregory of Tours: Life of the Fathers, trans. Edward James, 2nd ed., (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1991), 118. Lydia Coon also argues that, in addition to the characterization as a warrior, Monegund embodies another male-exclusive persona in Gregory's Vita, that of a priest. In her pilgrimage to Martin, Monegund drinks from a “priestly well,” as it were, and is thereby able to “throw open the door to the grove of paradise.” Gregory of Tours, 118. Coon posits that by the close association of Monegund to the “stable of celestial medicine,” Gregory sees her as “a Christ-like dispenser of celestial medicine, for like a priest, she distributes grace to the Franks.” In addition to her eucharistic allusions, Monegund also blesses oil and salt, “two elements used by the male priesthood to perform exorcisms and baptisms.” Lynda L. Coon, Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 124.

38 Lynda L. Coon, Sacred Fictions, 124, 195 n. 26.

39 John Kitchen, Saints’ Lives and the Rhetoric of Gender: Male and Female in Merovingian Hagiography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 104.

40 It is questionable whether Suso, Stagel, or the Dominican sisters at Töss were familiar with Hildegard. However, the purpose here is not to trace a tight intellectual genealogy but rather to identify the presence of the female miles Christi in medieval literature leading up to Suso's Vita. Leonard Hindsley argues that Hildegard may have indeed influenced Dominican nuns through the teaching of John Tauler, the well-known preacher and contemporary of Suso. Although Hindsley finds ample evidence of Hildegard's direct influence on Tauler, how much that influence permeated the writings of the sisters under his care remains in question. See Leonard P. Hindsley, “Rhenish Confluences: Hildegard and the Fourteenth-Century Dominicans,” in Hildegard of Bingen: A Book of Essays, ed. Maud Burnett McInerney (New York: Garland, 1998), 177–90.

41 Hildegard, Scivias, trans. Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), 112.

42 Jan Emerson notes that Hildegard gave special emphasis to the eschatological nature of human gendering, affirming first the soul-body reunification at the last day, and second, that the renewed bodies will retain their earthly gender. Jan S. Emerson, “A Poetry of Science: Relating Body and Soul in the Scivias,” in Hildegard of Bingen: A Book of Essays, ed. Maud Burnett McInerney (New York: Garland, 1998), 77–101. Moreover, the clerical station was itself typified by battle. Knowing this, Hildegard enjoined those she counseled through letters (usually men) to arm themselves, while she too interpreted her own struggle through the monastic life in terms of a warrior-knight. See letters 262, 277, and 299 in Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman, eds., The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, vol. 3 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

43 For a summary of St. Katherine's influence in the early medieval period, see Christine Walsh, The Cult of St. Katherine of Alexandria in Early Medieval Europe (New York: Routledge, 2007).

44 Anne Simon, The Cult of St. Katherine of Alexandria in Late-Medieval Nuremberg (Burlington: Ashgate, 2012), 47–48.

45 Simon, The Cult of St. Katherine, 47.

46 Betinna Jung and Werner Williams-Krapp, eds., Der Heiligen Leben Band II: Der Winterteil (Tübingen: De Gruyter, 2004), 206; trans. Simon, The Cult of St. Katherine, 80 n. 136.

47 Simon, The Cult of St. Katherine, 81–82.

48 Jung and Williams-Krapp, Der Heiligen Leben, 208; trans. Simon, The Cult of St. Katherine, 94.

49 Bihlmeyer, 1.7; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 63.

50 Tobin, “Henry Suso and Elsbeth Stagel,” 122–23.

51 For the widespread use of the vernacular in Dominican convents, see Marie-Luise Ehrenschwendtner, “Puellae Litteratae: The Use of the Vernacular in the Dominican Convents of Southern Germany,” in Medieval Women in Their Communities, ed. Diane Watt (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 49–71.

52 Ulrike Wiethaus, “Thieves and Carnivals: Gender in German Dominican Literature of the Fourteenth Century,” in The Vernacular Spirit: Essays on Medieval Religious Literature, ed. R. Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Nancy Bradley Warren, and Duncan Robertson (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002), 226.

53 Hamburger, “Medieval Self-Fashioning,” 245. Additionally, the primacy of Elsbeth Stagel—if not as author, then as subject—suggests that Suso expected a significant female readership. To Hamburger, Stagel's presence in the text represents not only Suso's spiritual daughter—a relationship explicit in the narration itself—but also “the exemplary imitator and interpreter of Suso's text.” Hamburger, “Medieval Self-Fashioning,” 243. With Stagel as both collaborator and patron, the Vita relativizes any hard-and-fast gender tropes by making the representative receptor feminine, while at the same time making the text immanently relatable to Suso's most immediate audience: the nuns of Töss.

54 See R. N. Swanson, “Angels Incarnate: Clergy and Masculinity from Gregorian Reform to Reformation,” in Masculinity in Medieval Europe, ed. Dawn M. Hadley (London: Longman, 1999), 160–77.

55 See Ruth Mazo Karras, “Thomas Aquinas's Chastity Belt: Clerical Masculinity in Medieval Europe,” in Gender and Christianity in Medieval Europe: New Perspectives, ed. Lisa M. Bitel and Felice Lifshitz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 52–67; Jennifer D. Thibodeaux, The Manly Priest: Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity, and Reform in England and Normandy, 1066–1300 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

56 Heinonen, “Henry Suso and the Divine Knighthood,” 83–84.

57 J. Christian Straubhaar-Jones, “The Rivalry of the Secular and the Spiritual in the Masculine Personae of Henry Suso's The Life of the Servant,” in Rivalrous Masculinities: New Directions in Medieval Gender Studies, ed. Ann Marie Rasmussen (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019).

58 Bihlmeyer, 35.107; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 139.

59 Bihlmeyer; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 139–40 (emphasis original to Tobin).

60 Williams-Krapp, “Henry Suso's Vita,” 40–41.

61 Bernhardt, Figur im Vollzug, 18.

62 Bihlmeyer, 35.107; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 140; Tinsley, “The Spiritual Friendship,” 484.

63 Cf. John 21:18–23.

64 Bihlmeyer, 35.108; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 140.

65 Bihlmeyer; 35.108; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 141. This point is noted by Claire Taylor Jones: “Imprudent asceticism can only bring Elsbeth's well-ordered soul into disorder, and the Servant must direct her down a different, prudent path.” Claire Taylor Jones, Ruling the Spirit: Women, Liturgy, and Dominican Reform in Late Medieval Germany (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). See n. 35 for Suso's identification of Stagel's cross with prolonged illness.

66 David F. Tinsley, “The Spiritual Friendship,” 484. See also Jeffrey F. Hamburger, “The Use of Images in the Pastoral Care of Nuns: The Case of Heinrich Suso and the Dominicans,” The Art Bulletin 71 (1989): 22. See also Steven Rozenski, “Authority and Exemplarity in Henry Suso and Richard Rolle,” in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England: Exeter Symposium VIII : Papers Read at Charney Manor, July 2011, ed. Edward A Jones, Exeter Symposium 8 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2013), 103–104.

67 Bihlmeyer, 35.107; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 139.

68 Jones, Ruling the Spirit, 32.

69 Bernhardt, Figur im Vollzug, 93, 98. Following her examination of Job, Bernhardt argues that the suffering of both Job and the Servant (and, by extension, those who take up the Servant's mantle) are images that point to the suffering of Christ. The suffering of both is fulfilled in the Passion of Christ—Job's by means of typology looking forward, and the Servant's by means of emulating Christ looking backward.

70 Bihlmeyer, 35.108; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 141.

71 See Heinonen, who argues that Suso believed that “to be God's knight entailed strength and masculinity” and that “[e]nduring physical and other forms of suffering was thus part of Suso's conception of the knight of God.” In the context of her argument, Heinonen makes clear that self-inflicted suffering is an essential, if not complete, part of Suso's program of knighthood. Heinonen, “Henry Suso and the Divine Knighthood,” 83–84.

72 Richard W. Kaeuper, Medieval Chivalry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 33–35.

73 Kaeuper, Medieval Chivalry, 33.

74 Bihlmeyer, 44.149; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 171–72.

75 Heinonen, “Henry Suso and the Divine Knighthood,” 88. Conversely, Eric Jager argues that the monogram story plays to the feminine, not masculine, for the benefit of his audience. He “blurs the boundaries” of gender by “‘feminizing’ his heart under the imagery of wounding, inscription, and penetration.” This blurring “reflects his frequent identification with the feminine, as well as the mystical or contemplative persona as Christ's (female) ‘spouse,’ qualities that would have appealed to his local audience of nuns.” See Eric Jager, The Book of the Heart (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 100.

76 Bihlmeyer, 42.143; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 168.

77 “wer den namen also bi im trüge un im teglich ze eren ein Pater noster sprech, dem wölte got hie gütlich tün und wölti in begnaden an siner jungsten hinvart.” Bihlmeyer, 46.155; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 174.

78 Don C. Skemer, Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages (University Park: Penn State Press, 2006), 110–11. The most well-known use of the religious warrior moniker is the fabric cross that was applied to crusading knights (referred to as crucesignati) upon taking their vows, beginning with the First Crusade proclaimed by Urban II in 1095. Moreover, crusader identity echoes throughout this passage in the divine promise given in the spiritual pilgrimage: “God would give him grace on his final journey.”

79 It is also possible that the distributed monograms may have functioned as aids in imagination. Ross Gilbert Arthur notes such a function in the visual images constructed by Nicholas of Cusa. See Ross Gilbert Arthur, Medieval Sign Theory and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), 74–76. Suso may have included the sewn monograms as an aid to his readers in their chivalric-shaped piety.

80 Heinonen, “Henry Suso and the Divine Knighthood,” 87–88.

81 Depictions of Suso in medieval manuscripts almost always portray the monk with his monogram, making the IHS (along with the crown of roses) a unique badge of identification. In most manuscripts, others who bear the monogram either hold it in their hands or carry it on parchment, but none bear the symbol on their chest as does Suso.

82 Functional questions are also at play in the differences between the two monograms. Given the importance of Suso's monogram as an object of devotion and the ways in which the monogram functioned (e.g., physical contact with the symbol), it is apparent that any attempt by Stagel to follow suit by physical mutilation would present serious practical challenges as a functional object of devotion. Suso's display required a level of physical exposure that would have been improper for Stagel.

83 Ingrid Falque argues, “The constant transmission of the visual program of the Exemplar during the fourteenth, fifteenth, and early sixteenth centuries reveals its value and its importance in the eyes of its successive readers, while . . . [t]he large number of illustrated copies, the presence of the cycle in the oldest version, the relative stability of its transmission, the complexity of the iconography, and its close link to the textual content of the book strongly suggest that this cycle was designed by Suso himself or was at least created under his direction, although this cannot be proven with certainty. Furthermore, several passages of the text also suggest that the drawings were an integral part of Suso's original project.” Ingrid Falque, “‘Daz Man Bild Mit Bilde Us Tribe’: Imagery and Knowledge of God in Henry Suso's Exemplar,” Speculum 92 (2017): 451. Falque follows Bihlmeyer, 45–46, and others in this assertion. See Falque, 451 n. 19, for a survey of scholarship on Suso's creation of the images. See also Hamburger, “The Use of Images in the Pastoral Care of Nuns,” 25.

84 Falque, “‘Daz Man Bild Mit Bilde Us Tribe,’” 470.

85 Falque notices the gendered ambiguity of the scene, commenting that the divine figure, Eternal Wisdom, is depicted as a female monarch protector, while the divine statement is pronounced by Christ, who bids people take his name. Falque, “‘Daz Man Bild Mit Bilde Us Tribe,’” 470.

86 The semantic range of the German adel (nobility) offers possible avenues into more subtle expressions of the knighthood motif. However, Joan Robinson warns that the ambiguity of nobility language presents a nearly insurmountable challenge for the historian, and this challenge is made all the more apparent by the malleability of social concepts in mystical language. See Joanne Maguire Robinson, Nobility and Annihilation in Marguerite Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 2.

87 Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 37–38. Tobin likens Suso's letters to Seneca's Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium.

88 Bihlmeyer, Letter 17, in Heinrich Suese: Deutsche Schriften, 457; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 342.

89 Bihlmeyer, Letter 17, 459; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 343. Frank Tobin's translation of this exhortation as “be brave” leaves something to be desired, especially given the remarkably explicit gender transgression that occurs in this letter. In including the Latin in his vernacular letter, Suso was alluding to the Vulgate's 1 Cor. 16:13, vigilate state in fide viriliter agite et confortamini.

90 Bihlmeyer, Letter 17, 459.

91 Bihlmeyer, Letter 17, 459; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 343.

92 Bihlmeyer, Letter 17, 459–460; Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, 343.

93 Grace Jantzen, Power, Gender, and Christian Mysticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 50–53.

94 Heinonen, “Henry Suso and the Divine Knighthood,” 88.