Johannes Tauler c. 1300-1361
German author of sermons.
Tauler was one of the most important religious figures of late-Medieval Germany. During this time, the Black Death ravaged Europe, and many believed that the Apocalypse was at hand. His influential sermons circulated widely throughout Germany and the Low Countries and were well-received in the Western world for centuries. Luther’s promotion of Tauler’s sermons helped lead to their acceptance among Protestants in the 1500s, when they rejected much of the Catholic tradition. Tauler, a member of the Dominicans, is the most celebrated disciple of the mystic Meister Eckhart. Avoiding much of the controversy surrounding mystics and the charge of heresy that eventually was leveled against Eckhart, Tauler made Eckhart’s mysterious message more practical and easily graspable by the common people, trying to inspire his listeners to realize their own true, religious natures. Tauler was one of the leaders of the very loose-knit, spiritual movement known as the Friends of God. He stressed turning inward, citing Christ’s statement that the kingdom of God is within us. Tauler urged his listeners to try to attain the union of the human and the divine by rooting out all sinful desires and accepting personal suffering, by practicing faith, hope, love, humility, gentleness, and patience.
Less is known of Tauler’s life than was seemingly known in previous centuries. When The History and Life of the Reverend Doctor John Tauler was revealed as almost certainly spurious in the late nineteenth century, much of Tauler’s biography went with it; precious little remains except conjecture. Tauler was born in Strasbourg circa 1300 into a well-off burgher family. Virtually nothing else is known about his family save that his sister became a Dominican nun and was present at Tauler’s death. In 1314 or 1315 Tauler joined the Dominican Order. Although this was the same time that Eckhart visited the Dominicans in Strasbourg, there is no evidence that Eckhart and Tauler ever actually met, although Tauler would certainly have heard the master preach. After one year of introductory studies, Tauler would have spent six to eight years on logic, natural and moral philosophy, and theology. He then would have received more preparation in order to serve as a preacher, which he would not have become before age twenty-five at the earliest. Tauler probably preached in Basel from 1339 to 1343 and also in Cologne, but most of his life was spent in Strasbourg. The Dominicans were entrusted with the pastoral care of nuns and Beguines; Tauler’s sermons are chiefly addressed to them. The sermons began to create interest outside Strasbourg and Tauler’s reputation also grew with his involvement with the Friends of God. The Friends of God stressed inward reflection and praying. As their spiritual director, Tauler appears to have kept the members from becoming overzealous in their mysticism and thus falling victim to the forces who banned and charged Eckhart. Tauler died in 1361.
Between sixty and eighty of the many known sermons credited to Tauler are accepted as genuine; many others are in dispute or deemed fraudulent. Tauler wrote exclusively in German; the belief that he wrote in Latin is a mistaken one. The sermons, which were delivered mostly to Dominican nuns, generally explore biblical texts used for Sundays and feast days. Practical rather than speculative, Tauler’s sermons are generally straightforward and sometimes include examples from ordinary life. The message is to turn inward, away from outward practices and outward things, to become detached and empty so that God may fill the void. Although this way is fraught with pain, suffering, and self-doubt, it is the way to eternity with God. It is thought that Tauler did not write out any of the sermons in the form they now exist. Most likely they were transcribed by the nuns to whom Tauler delivered the sermons, and perhaps were later given final polish or approval by Tauler. As many were published during Tauler’s lifetime, it seems probable that those particular sermons were in authorized form. There are serious scholarly arguments concerning the authenticity of many other sermons sometimes attributed to Tauler. One of the chief unanswered questions is whether the widely differing writings reflect an equally wide range in their author or whether they indicate the sermons were written by more than one author. The problem is further aggravated by the fact that many of the sermons were written down simply by those who heard Tauler preach, and they may have lacked the level of skills and memory necessary to create an accurate transcription. Scribes no doubt added and subtracted over the years as they saw fit. The existing sermons, some incomplete, are scattered throughout the world in libraries and private collections; a critical edition is yet to be realized. Although Luther had edited the Theologia Germanica and highly praised Tauler as the author, this was one of several works that scholars determined in the nineteenth century to have been misattributed to Tauler. The Book of the Poor of Spirit, a highly influential book probably written by a fellow Friend of God, is also now considered not to be the work of Tauler. In like fashion, the treatises The Book of Spiritual Poverty (also known as Imitation of the Poor Life of Christ), The Marrow of the Soul, the Divine Institutions, the Exercises on the Life and Passion of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and the Prophecies of the Enlightened Dr. John Tauler have all been rejected as authentic Tauler.
Although Tauler’s sermons have been highly acclaimed for centuries, interest in them has diminished somewhat in the twentieth century with a corresponding rise in interest in the works of the long-neglected Eckhart. Tauler’s work, however, benefits from the lack of contentiousness that surrounds Eckhart’s. Some critics admit frustration at how little they know of the man himself and others bemoan the lack of definitive texts with which to work. Interestingly, when so many texts once thought to be Tauler’s were rejected as such, this did not hurt his reputation. James M. Clark states: “As a result of this clearance of the literary field, Tauler has gained in stature rather than lost. He is more impressive than the banal ‘Master’ of the ‘Life’ and a truer representation of his Order and his age.” The use of language in authentic Tauler is widely admired. Josef Schmidt, writing in 1985, praises Tauler and his fellow German mystics for raising medieval German vernacular to heights surpassing scholarly Latin: “They expanded the horizons of the vernacular as a social code in theological and psychological dimensions that even today inspire awe in the modern reader. Their heritage is still a living force in German intellectual discourse, whether in theology or in philosophy.” Critics note that Tauler’s true concern for his audience always comes through vividly. Evelyn Underhill writes: “Without the hard intellectualism occasionally noticeable in Eckhart, or the tendency to introspection and the excessive artistic sensibility of Suso, Tauler is the most virile of the German mystics. The breadth of his spirituality is only equalled by the depth of his spirituality.”
The History and Life of the Reverend Doctor John Tauler of Strasbourg (translated by Susanna Winkworth) 1857.
The Inner Way: Being Thirty-Six Sermons for Festivals, by John Tauler (translated by Arthur Wollaston Hutton) 1901.
The Sermons and Conferences of J. Tauler (translated by W. Elliot) 1910.
Signposts to Perfection: A Selection from the Sermons of Johann Tauler (translated by Elizabeth Strakosch) 1958.
Spiritual Conferences (translated by Eric Colledge and M. Jane) 1961.
Johannes Tauler: Sermons (translated by Maria Shrady) 1985.
The Rhineland Mystics (translated by Oliver Davies) 1989.
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SOURCE: “The History and Life of the Reverend Doctor John Tauler” in The History and Life of the Reverend Doctor John Tauler of Strasbourg, translated by Susanna Winkworth, Smith, Elder, and Co., 1857, pp. 1-71.
[The following excerpt, written circa 1340, is from a history first printed in the 1498 edition of Tauler’s sermons. Believed to be genuine by Winkworth when she translated it, the history was shown by Heinrich S. Denifle in 1879 to have grave problems and, although the work is still controversial, scholars now consider it spurious, possibly the work of Rulman Merswin, and treat it as a legend.]
In the year of Our Lord 1340, it came to pass, that a Master in Holy Scripture preached ofttimes in a certain city, and the people loved to hear him, and his teaching were the talk of the country for many leagues round. Now this came to the ears of a layman who was rich in God’s grace, and he was warned three times in his sleep that he should go to the city where the Master dwelt, and hear him preach. Now that city was in another country, more than thirty leagues distant. Then the man thought within himself, “I will go thither and wait to see what God is purposed to do or bring to pass there.” So he came to that city and heard the Master preach five times. Then God gave this man to perceive that the Master was a very loving, gentle, good-hearted man by nature, and had a good understanding of...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Inner Way: Being Thirty-Six Sermons for Festivals by John Tauler, Methuen & Co., 1901, pp. ix-xliii.
[In the following excerpt, Hutton portrays Tauler as both mystical and practical, as more than an allegorist, and as a man influenced by his time. Hutton debunks common misconceptions of mysticism and distinguishes between its different varieties.]
NOTES ON TAULER’S TEACHING
Only to Tauler’s Sermons must recourse be had to ascertain his teaching; and even of these, as has been noted, a critical edition is desirable. The other works once attributed to him, and printed as his in the Latin version of Surius, are now accounted doubtful, if not certainly spurious. These works are:—(1) “The Following of the Poor Life of Christ”; (2) “Exercises on the Life and Passion of our Saviour Jesus Christ”; and (3) “Divine Institutions,” also called “The Marrow of the Soul.” All these are spiritual works of high value, and they deserve a place in any library of devotion; but, as attributed to Tauler, they are not authentic. Such at least is the present verdict of the critics.
Judged then solely by his Sermons, Tauler is described by Von Loë, his latest biographer, as “one of the foremost among the mediæval German mystics and preachers, uniting the intellectual depth of Eckhart with the...
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SOURCE: “The Friends of God” in Studies in Mystical Religion, Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1909, pp. 242-97.
[In the following excerpt, Jones sketches the troubled times in which the Friends of God lived; describes their literature with its vision of Apocalypse and emphasis on renunciation; and profiles Tauler—particularly his insistence on the inner Light.]
One of the most important and remarkable expressions of mystical religion in the history of the Christian Church is that which flowered out in Germany in the fourteenth century, and whose exponents are known under the name of “Friends of God.” The title does not cover a sect, nor even a “Society,” in the strict sense of the word. It, rather, names a fairly definite type of Christianity, which found its best expression in persons of the prophet-class in that century, both men and women, who powerfully moved large groups of Christians by their preaching, their writings, and their extraordinary lives. All the leaders of the movement were profoundly influenced by the teaching of that luminous figure of German mysticism, Meister Eckhart, but they were hardly less definitely influenced by the apocalyptic writings of the great German “prophetesses” of the two preceding centuries—St. Hildegarde, St. Elizabeth of Schoenau, and St. Matilda of Magdeburg. The writings of these famous women are full of incidents,...
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SOURCE: “Johann Tauler” in The Great German Mystics: Eckhart, Tauler, and Suso, Basil Blackwell, 1949, pp. 36-54.
[In the following essay, Clark offers an overview of Tauler’s life and works, describes his use of language, and traces his varying critical reception over the centuries.]
The ascertained facts about Tauler’s life are not as numerous as one could wish, but there is no doubt about his birthplace. He was a native of Strasbourg and was born about 1300. There are various references to the Tauler family in Strasbourg charters between 1312 and 1349, from which it appears that they were prominent citizens and property owners in that city. It has been conjectured that Nikolaus Tauler, described as a citizen and magistrate, who witnessed a deed of gift to the Dominicans in 1319, was the father of Johann. This at least is certain, our friar was the son of a wealthy man; for he tells us himself that he could have lived on his patrimony if he had so desired. The family was evidently religious; Tauler joined the Order of Preachers and his sister became a nun in the Dominican convent of St. Nikolaus in undis, in Strasbourg. He was not forced into the cloisters against his will, but had a genuine sense of vocation. ‘Once when I saw the holy brethren who keep the rules of the Order strictly, I would gladly have done likewise,’ he wrote many years later to Margareta Ebner.
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Book of the Poor in Spirit, by a Friend of God, Longmans Green and Co, 1954, pp. 1-50.
[In the following excerpt, Kelley provides an overview of the Friends of God and discusses factors that led to their formation and rapid disappearance.]
It is an accepted maxim that the more a particular age becomes secular and dead to religious truth, the more marked becomes the line of demarcation between the indifferent and the concerned. The concerned person finds himself bound to abstain from occupations and pleasures which, though not injurious in themselves, have become corrupt. Furthermore, the perils of enthusiasm, the mistaking one’s own natural emotions for divine influence, are greatest when that influence, known by the concerned to be real, is ignored, even denied by the world in general. Yet the world in general always claims to be preoccupied with truth.
When we counsel others: “Know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” what kind of truth do we mean? How often do we confuse truth with a collection of undigested facts, a mere recording of events? We concern ourselves with what has taken place but too frequently fail to ask why. Because no “scientific proof” is possible we tend to ignore real issues. We become indifferent to the realm of opinion and speculation. But intellectuals without conviction are little more than irresponsible...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Spiritual Conferences, by John Tauler, edited by Eric Colledge and M. Jane, B. Herder Book Co., 1961, pp. 1-32.
[In the following essay, Colledge describes some of fourteenth-century Christendom’s scandalous and divisive elements and explains how Tauler advocated dealing with them through the practice of true simplicity and true humility.]
Three great figures dominated German spirituality in the fourteenth century, and all three were members of the Order of Preachers: Eckhart, Tauler and Suso. We cannot rightly appreciate any one of them without knowing and understanding the other two; and although Eckhart and Suso appear to us across the centuries as mysterious and tragic personalities, utterly unlike the genial, sanguine, equable Tauler, we are made to realize, as we learn to know him better, that he had not escaped the mortal sorrows which had afflicted his brethren. He speaks of these sorrows, not with Suso’s violence and self-pity, but with his own characteristic tranquil simplicity, when he says, “What then remains to the man formed after God’s image? There remain to him a soul full of God and a body full of suffering.”
In his Sermon XVI, for the Sunday after Easter, expounding the theme that “sorrow shall be turned into joy” by the Paraclete and Comforter, he shows us, without any special reference to himself, how utterly he had been...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Sermons, by Johannes Tauler, translated by Maria Shrady, Paulist Press, 1985, pp. 1-34.
[In the following essay, Schmidt discusses Tauler’s life, distinctive features of his sermons, and his complex, connotative use of language.]
References to “German medieval mysticism” usually involve a particular triad in this rich and extensive spiritual tradition: Meister Eckhart (around 1260-1328), Henry Suso (Seuse; 1295-1366), and John Tauler (around 1300-1361), all members of a young and dynamic mendicant order, the Dominicans. Tauler and Seuse were disciples of Meister Eckhart, who died in Avignon facing charges of heresy. Although they were spared the calamity of papal accusation, they did have their share of tribulations in a time unsettled and uprooted by ecclesiastical schism, political upheaval, and profound social change.
Before situating John Tauler in this particular context, however, a few distinguishing points should be mentioned, for each one of these three mystics is distinct in his experiences, his teaching, and what tradition made of him and his works. It can safely be said that Tauler’s work—apart from a series of nonauthentic treatises, a collection of some eighty sermons—has found the widest, the most consistent and most continuous favorable reception in Western spirituality. While Eckhart undoubtedly holds the central position in terms...
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Inge, William Ralph. Introduction to Light, Life and Love: Selections from the German Mystics of the Middle Ages. 1904. London: Methuen & Co., 1935 (third ed.), pp. ix-lxiv.
Provides background on Meister Eckhart; his teachings; and the writers of his school, particularly Henry Suso, John of Ruysbroek, and the author of the Theologia Germanica.
———. “Lecture V: Practical and Devotional Mysticism,” in Christian Mysticism. 1899. New York: Meridian Books, 1956, pp. 167-209.
Summarizes Eckhart’s teachings and the beliefs of his chief followers.
Ozment, Steven E. “Johannes Tauler,” in Home Spiritualis: A Comparative Study of the Anthropology of Johannes Tauler, Jean Gerson and Martin Luther (1509-16) in the Context of Their Theological Thought, Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1969, pp. 11-46.
Explores Tauler’s beliefs on the nature of the soul, particularly the distinctions he made between gemueteand grunt; the natural covenant; and man’s ultimate reunion with God.
Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness. 1910. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company,1930 (twelfth ed.), 519 p.
Introduces the general subject of mysticism and analyzes the development of mystical or spiritual...
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