wâ sint diu werc?
wâ sint diu werc? – The power of Suso’s love-filled tongue to sway unloving hearts.
The theme of this paper is the contrast between words and deeds. Three instances of Love drawn from literary sources provide the structure. The first instance is quite brief – a sort of hors d’oeuvre: it evokes a love-relationship between a knight and a lady at the royal court of France. The second instance – the soup course, as it were – is one of medieval Germany’s most famous crusading songs. The third (and main course) is the witness of Blessed Henry Suso, as recorded principally in his Little Book of Eternal Wisdom and his 'auto-hagiography'(fn1), The Life of the Servant.
Starting, then, with the hors d’oeuvre. It is an anecdote from the Essais historiques sur Paris by Saint-Foix from the year 1766 (fn2). Those of you who know Schiller’s dramatic ballad Der Handschuh, or Robert Browning’s reflective ballad The Glove, will recognise this anecdote as the source for those two poems. – In translation:
One day when François Ier was whiling away the time watching his lions fight, a lady dropped her glove into the pit and said to De Lorges: "If you want me to believe you love me as much as you daily swear you do, go and fetch my glove." De Lorges climbed down, picked up the glove from amongst those frightful animals, climbed back up again, flung it in the lady’s face, and from that day on, despite all flirtatiousness and entreaties on her part, he refused to see her again.
Why start with that anecdote? – Because, in the context of this paper which is primarily about divine love, it provides a teasing perspective on the love between men and women. Specific to the subject of this paper, furthermore, is the Lady’s challenge "If you really love me as you say you do, prove it!"
That challenge provides a convenient bridge to the title of this paper:
"wâ sint diu werc? The power of Suso’s love-filled tongue to sway unloving hearts."
This title contains, in fact, two quotations. The first is direct: wâ sint diu werc? – ‘where are the deeds?’ – and it will be recognised by Minnesang aficionados as a memorably forceful line from the most celebrated of Hartmann von Aue’s crusading songs.(fn3)
The second quotation is an indirect one, echoing a weary remark by Suso himself about ‘love-filled speakers’ and ‘unloving hearts’.
An unloving heart can no more understand a love-filled speaker than a German an Italian.(fn4)
The irony of this simile is charming. Manifestly spoken from the heart, it reflects (we may assume) the everyday experience of medieval German travellers to Italy. They will have loved the countryside and the climate, but they clearly did not find it easy to communicate with the natives. Paralleling this, Suso gives us many an anecdote in his vita about the way his own well-intentioned words and actions fell not so much on deaf ears as collided with incomprehension and rejection. So much so indeed that, as a German, he might just as well have been addressing Italians. But was Suso being fair to himself by claiming that only like-minded people, in other words people with love-filled hearts, would understand him? Was this claim no more than a modesty-formula? More generally, what sort of conviction do Suso’s writings convey? And what sort of an audience would be convinced by them?
These questions indicate the purpose of this paper which is to explore the dynamics of rhetoric relating to Love, concentrating on the words and deeds of one particular German mystic, Heinrich Seuse, and attempting to gauge their resonance for an audience today.
The prospect in Suso’s case, at least amongst scholars, is not particularly encouraging. For example, a recent and friendly scholar, the church historian and translator of Meister Eckhart, Oliver Davies, does endorse Suso’s writings but with reservations. Discussing the quality of rigorousness in Suso’s philosophical and theological writing, Davies places him well behind those other two great contemporary German Dominicans who were the subject of yesterday’s Medieval Academy Lecture by Professor McGinn and with whom his name is always associated, Meister Eckhart and Johannes Tauler. Davies concludes:
As for his relevance today, it has to be said that Suso’s undeniable achievement within the cultural traditions of his own age does not translate easily into our own. Although he will continue to excite scholars tutored in the style of the medieval Minnesang, his message for the modern age is much less accessible than that of Eckhart and Tauler. (fn5)
The main purpose of this paper is to explore the reasoning behind that and similarly guarded endorsements.
But let us start with the first quotation in our title, Hartmann von Aue’s wâ sint diu werc?, in order to highlight some parallels and contrasts.
Hartmann was famous in his own time as an inspired story-teller in the new French vogue for King Arthur and his Knights, pioneered by Chrétien de Troyes. The main subject-matter of his Arthurian epics and Minnelieder was therefore Minne, or Love. This meant principally the love between men and women, but, since Hartmann was also a skilled writer on religious themes, he wrote with equally compelling insight about divine love. With regard to Suso, we may also remind ourselves that, since Hartmann was the most famous Swabian writer of the recent past (he flourished a century before Suso was born), we can be confident that Hartmann’s stories and songs provided the core material in Seuse’s own literary education as a boy.
Now, the challenge to match words with deeds is a timeless one. It not only characterises the way lovers test each other (witness De Lorges and his lady), but at the profoundest level it confronts our integrity as human beings. Added to that: of all the aspects of our human condition, it is Love (with its antonym, Fear) that moves us most profoundly. Philosophers as well as mystics down the centuries have declared that Love is what gives life its meaning; that Love is both the goal of life and also what sustains it. Furthermore, whilst there may be a vital gulf between human and divine love, nonetheless mystics do not shy away from using the language of sexual love to convey the spiritual intensity of mystical union. — But how does anybody confirm that those philosophers and mystics speak the truth? And who, anyway, dare claim to speak about Love with authority? How can we listeners tell that they know what they’re talking about? When it comes to Love, the challenge to match words with deeds goes to the heart of our human condition.
And that universal fact underlies Hartmann's Minnelied which provides our opening quotation.(fn6) This song is widely admired as a successful piece of special pleading, aimed at a particular Court audience which its author knew well and in which he, in return, was well-known.
Its opening is arrestingly dramatic: a journey is announced, and with it the need to take leave of loved-ones. Within a couple of lines the resplendently magnetic and endlessly absorbing persona of Love is evoked, and, for an audience familiar with Hartmann’s stories about the travels of Erec and of Iwein, there is thus the beguiling prospect of amazing adventures in the service of Love – the patient love of a wronged but devoted Enite perhaps, or maybe the wounded love of a proud and passionate Queen Laudine. But no. The poet embarks on generalities – about journeying, about not breaking one’s oath of submission, about matching words with deeds, about the demands of love-service – and then he delivers an ironically personal admission: if it were up to him, he says, there is nothing at all – not even Saladdin and all his troops – that could drag him a single step outside the bounds of Franconia. By this point at the latest Hartmann’s audience would understand that this song is not about the journeying of an imaginary Arthurian Knight-errant, but about the travels of one of their own real-life contemporaries, a ministerialis preparing to go on Crusade.
When Hartmann proceeds to accuse his fellow-Minnesinger of pursuing an illusion – a liep that will not love them in return – we can readily imagine the situation of a De Lorges. Hartmann declares: ‘Many a man boasts of his commitment in Love’s service’, and then asks: ‘but where are the deeds?’ As we think of De Lorges, we are ready to admit that he did prove his courage, but we also see from the sequel that his daily protestations of undying love had indeed been empty. Should we admire De Lorges’s courage? Should we feel contempt for his lady? Those questions fascinated the poets Schiller and Browning – and many an enquirer into the human heart ever since. Now by contrast, when we turn to the Minnesänger Hartmann, we learn that he, personally, is committed in the service of a different and incomparably more reliable Minne. ‘That is a true act of minne’, he declares, ‘when a man actually goes into exile for her sake’. Hartmann does not define this minne, but the announcement of his decision to join the Crusade makes his allegiance clear. So, let us now ask: how persuasive is it?
Of course the song displays masterly rhetorical skill, and to the like-minded it must certainly have been persuasive. But for a 21st century audience the very idea of going on crusade (or jihad) in the name of Love is repugnant. Therefore, despite all its special pleading, Hartmann’s recipe for the demonstration of Love is implausible. If it is limited to its 12th century context, of course, it can be understood in the light of Church priorities and the expectations of a serving knight of Hartmann’s generation. But, to justify attitudes and ideas in terms of a long-gone historical period runs full against the purpose of this paper. So, all we can do here is admire Hartmann’s compositional skill, and pick out his challenge to match words with deeds as expressing a timeless truth.
For myself — as both reader and teacher an admirer of Hartmann’s writings — it is a matter of much regret that we shall never know whether his rhetorical skills and personal example persuaded any of his listeners to emulate him in some way. I like to imagine they did, and Gottfried von Strassburg’s praise in later years certainly makes clear that his literary influence was great.(fn7) We can also attest that Hartmann’s inventive and playful story-telling, his profundity, his clarity and his searching witness to the power of love continue to inspire admiration and affection. However, when we compare Hartmann’s and Suso’s overall influence on posterity, there is a quantum difference. Hartmann may still be known and honoured amongst scholars, but Suso has been beatified by the Church(fn8), and a cult of Blessed Henry Suso flourishes to this day.
It is time now to concentrate on Suso. Why is it that, notwithstanding the reservations of modern scholars, Suso’s witness does continue to have such power to persuade – at least amongst people of a devout frame of mind?
Elsewhere I have argued that Suso’s rhetorical method often follows the fourfold structure which Walter Nash reveals, in his entertaining study Rhetoric: the Wit of Persuasion, as the strategy used by well-practised modern persuaders. This structure is: 1. the Teasing Question, followed by 2. the Robust Assurance, reinforced by 3. the Authority, and rounded off with 4. the Guarantee.(fn9) This was amply illustrated with salient passages — either a beginning or an ending — from each of the Little Book of Truth, the Little Book of Eternal Wisdom and the Life of the Servant.
The ‘teasing question’ plus ‘robust assurance’ are always there — or, at least the question is always there, though it may frequently be earnest, or sometimes innocent, rather than 'teasing'. This question is then invariably followed by a robust assurance. Here is one example (from the Little Book of Truth), on the subject of true self-surrender or ‘detachment’ [Tobin], i.e. gelâzenheit:
earnest question: [Once a person has reached
this state of gelâzenheit] does he spend his time in idleness,
or what sort of activity does he pursue?
a couple of exchanges later:
If it were not for the fact that the Little Book of Truth’s context is so very serious, I would have to say that Suso's tongue was in his cheek.
The question-and-answer method is, of course, the time-honoured Socratic method. The fact that Suso adopted it as the structural principle for both the Little Book of Truth and the Little Book of Eternal Wisdom and also for the final sections of his Life (a conversation with his spiritual daughter), proves just how good his instinct was for effective communication.
His ‘robust assurances’ are always, as one would expect, supported by an appropriate authority. After all, his principal interlocutors were themselves the highest possible Authorities: ‘Truth’, no less, and ‘Eternal Wisdom’ (alias Christ), and sometimes Mother Mary herself. His written authorities were often biblical. And where these are not sourced directly, they are indirect quotations from the Psalms or from some other familiar liturgical reading.
The persuasive power of quoting an authority is, and always has been, a central feature of good rhetorical method. For Suso, the need to supply authorities was particularly necessary in the case of his Little Book of Truth. As all commentators acknowledge, this book was Suso’s attempt to defend the writings of his much loved teacher, Meister Eckhart, which in the year 1327 were undergoing forensic scrutiny leading eventually to a conviction for heresy. Cunningly, when discussing God’s unknowableness – which was the element most under suspicion in Eckhart’s writings – Suso chose as his principal authority the ideas of pseudo-Dionysius, because Dionysius’s apophatic theology had the great advantage of being canonical and therefore beyond the stigma of heresy. On the other hand, as we also know, Suso’s effort at clarification or exoneration of Eckhartian ideas was in vain, but it did have the benefit of ensuring that Suso’s own writing would not be condemned along with that of his revered teacher’s.
As to the fourth stage in the strategy of would-be persuaders, ‘the guarantee’: whilst Suso always offered the Church’s time-honoured assurances, he also turned again and again for confirmation to experiences of his own. And this fact lies at the heart of this paper’s argument. "wâ sint diu werc? – where are the deeds?" Any assurance given by Suso is guaranteed by some deed or experience or condition cured in his own life. This fact of lived-out experience is what (to my mind) should be set against the resolute scepticism of those who think like William James:
 No authority emanates from [mystical states] which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically.(fn10)
Suso lived out the truth of what he taught. Famously, as a young man he subjected himself to extreme physical tortures, but equally famously, at the age of 40 he abandoned those ascetic practices, throwing the torture-instruments into the Rhine. So if anyone needed advice about self-discipline, Suso could speak with unchallengeable personal authority. Just as famously, using the point of his stylus Suso tattooed the name of Christ onto his chest above his heart; – nobody could possibly challenge his devotion to the Holy Name.
As one more particularly vivid example of Suso’s witness to Love, I pick out his emblematic toe-rag. The German word is ‘fuosstuoch’. (Tobin translates it as ‘boot rag’, but I prefer the more dismissive ‘toe-rag’.) The name which Suso gave to his vita was ‘Das Leben des Dieners’ – ‘the Life of the Servant’ –, but frequently within the text itself he refers to himself as ‘der lider / der lidende’ – ‘the sufferer’. And he interprets his sufferings – both outward and inward – as a sharing in the Passion of Christ. One source of suffering was the backbiting remarks of his brethren. This experience became transfigured in his treasured toe-rag:
it became daylight following mass and he was sitting miserably in his
cell thinking about these things and freezing because it was winter, then
somehow a voice within him spoke: "Open the window of your cell; look
out and learn!" So he opened it and looked out. There he saw a dog running
through the cloister carrying a worn-out toe-rag in its jaws and treating
it in a remarkable way. He threw it up, he threw it down, then he tore
holes in it. So he raised up his eyes and sighed deeply, and the voice
within him said: "That is just how you are in the mouths of your
brethren." He thought to himself: "Since it cannot be otherwise, just
reconcile yourself and look how the rag lets itself be mishandled in silence.
Go and do likewise!" So he went out and fetched the rag, and kept it as
a treasured jewel for many years. And whenever he wanted to burst out
with impatience in public, he took it out so that he might recognise himself
in it, and thus he held his tongue.
Now, returning to the question of rhetorical method, since the fourfold strategy used by modern persuaders is mirrored in Suso’s writings, why, I ask myself, are modern scholars so lukewarm about Suso’s power to persuade?
The answer must be: "because of the subject-matter", and perhaps also "because of Suso’s affective style". Apart from the fact that his subject-matter is centred on that infinitely controversial subject, God (or Godhead), Suso’s religious experiences are also perceived as ‘too medieval’. And when it comes to medieval preconceptions, even I — a big admirer of the rhetorical skill of Hartmann’s crusading song — even I am not prepared to be persuaded about Hartmann’s crusading goal. Why should it be any different for Suso’s religious goals? Furthermore, any halfway unprejudiced modern reader who picks up a book which consists of dialogues with such personages as Eternal Wisdom or Truth, is likely to react with scepticism. What sort of presumptuousness, after all, would move anybody to write down conversations held with Wisdom and Truth, and yet expect to be taken seriously?
In that spirit, there are many deeply serious-minded people today whose perception of the mystery and, indeed, unknowableness of Truth leads them to adopt the position characterised by David Tracy:
Silence may be the most appropriate kind of speech for evoking this necessary sense of the radical mystery – as mystics insist when they say, "Those who know, do not speak; those who speak, do not know." (fn11)
Well, there are of course mystics who do speak, and Suso was one of them. Did Suso know what he was talking about? To my mind, yes. So I am glad that, despite his own misgivings, he was moved to commit quill to parchment in order to record his encounters with Truth and Eternal Wisdom. For a Dominican priest charged with responsibility for the spiritual health of those under his care, the goal of his writing was wholly commendable. The bigger challenge he faced was to speak to the hearts of people outside his care in such a way as to convince them, too, to change their lives for the better. He knew extremely well from experience (which was often bitter) just how difficult that is. Frequent episodes in his autobiography reveal the opposition he had to cope with.
He also knew what a positive difference it makes to hear live testimony, as distinct from words read in a book. The context in which he produced that regretful simile about the difficulty Germans face when speaking to foreigners, expresses this preaching challenge with wonderful eloquence. It comes in the last paragraph of the Prologue to his Little Book of Eternal Wisdom:
thing you must know: Just as there is no comparison between actually hearing
the sound of harp-strings sweetly plucked and listening to someone talking
about it, so too there is no comparison between words which are received
in pure grace, issuing from a living heart, spoken by living lips, and
those self-same words committed to dry parchment — especially words
in German. For these somehow grow chill, losing their vitality like roses
cut. For the enchanting melody which, more than anything else, moves human
hearts, then fades away, so that the words are received now into the dryness
of dry hearts. No harp-strings were ever so sweet but, when stretched
across dry timber, they fall silent. An unloving heart can no more understand
a love-filled speaker than a German an Italian. Therefore, an eager enquirer
should hasten to the out-flowing streams of these sweet teachings so that
s/he may see and observe them at their source in all its living and wondrous
beauty – that is, the in-flowing of present grace which is able to restore
dead hearts to life.
– How (I wonder) did this Little Book not remain the classic of Christian spirituality which it certainly was for two centuries and more after Suso’s death?
To conclude this paper let me quote the summarising judgment offered by the scholar who, along with Bernard McGinn, is perhaps the most effective modern interpreter of Suso in the anglophone world, his translator into modern English, Frank Tobin. This brief summary seems to me to satisfy nicely the response to Suso both of like-minded devotees on the one hand and, on the other, of scholars who find Suso’s mystical experiences too exotically medieval:
While Suso’s way of experiencing God and the world remains undeniably medieval, his devotional practices point to future centuries and his literary talents give his writings universal appeal.(fn12)
German writings are available in the edition by Karl Bihlmeyer, Heinrich
Seuse: Deutsche Schriften, Stuttgart 1907, repr.1960.
1. see Richard Kieckhefer, Unquiet Souls. […] Chicago, 1984 (quoted in Frank Tobin Henry Suso [...], p.40 & Notes; see below fn12).(Back to text)
2. Quoted from the Notes to Schiller. Selected Poems, ed. Frank M. Fowler, MacMillan, London 1969, p.118.(Back to text)
3. Sich rüemet maniger, waz er dur die minne taete. // wâ sint diu werc? die rede hoere ich wol. (Des Minnesangs Frühling 218, 13f.)(Back to text)
4. ein minnerichen zungen ein unminnerichez herze enkan als wenic verstan, als ein tútscher einen walhen (Karl Bihlmeyer, Heinrich Seuse. Deutsche Schriften, Stuttgart 1907, p.199).(Back to text)
5. Oliver Davies, God Within. The Mystical Tradition of Northern Europe, London, DLT, 1988, p.108.(Back to text)
This song is generally regarded by literary historians and critics as
the last and finest that Hartmann wrote. For a summary of relevant secondary
literature and an analysis of the song, see R.J.Davies Rhetorical and
Musical Features in the lyric poems of Hartmann von Aue, (PhD thesis,
Leeds, 1998, pp.230-248).
7. In the literary excursus to Tristan.(Back to text)
8. In 1831, with his ferial day in the Dominican Order as 2nd (?11th) March.(Back to text)
9. Walter Nash, Rhetoric: The Wit of Persuasion, p.2.(Back to text)
10. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. A Study in Human Nature (orig. 1902; Penguin 1982) p.422.(Back to text)
11. Quoted from David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity, 1987, p.108.(Back to text)
12. Frank Tobin, Henry Suso. [...], p.1.(Back to text)
Paper delivered at the International Medieval Congress, July 2003. Webversion: 24-Mar-2010