Johannes Tauler Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”