Ruusbroec’s Legacy

Mystical Writings and Charismatic Teaching in the Fourteenth Century

Jan van Ruusbroec (1293-1381) served as a chaplain in the collegiate Church of Saint Gudula in Brussels for twenty-five years (c. 1318-1343). Then he moved to the former hermitage of Groenendaal near Brussels as the co-founder of a new religious community of priests and laymen. In 1350 the Groenendaal community was reorganised as a convent of Augustinian canons, with Ruusbroec as prior.

Ruusbroec is the author of eleven mystical treatises in Dutch, including The Spiritual Espousals (Die geestelike brulocht), which is among the international classics of contemplative literature. Ruusbroec wrote the Espousals and some of his other works while still in Brussels for a small group of followers in the urban religious elite. After moving to Groenendaal, from where his texts were disseminated and translated into Latin to reach a wider audience, Ruusbroec gained a reputation as a great mystical teacher. Despite previous efforts shortly after his death and again in the first decades of the seventeenth century, not until 1908 was the Ruusbroec cultus acknowledged by the Roman Catholic Church when the mystic and writer was beatified as the Blessed Jan van Ruusbroec.

In the beginning of the World and of Holy Scripture, the prophet Moses teaches us that God made heaven and earth, in order to serve us, so that we should serve Him here on earth outwardly in good works and in honourable conduct, and in heaven inwardly in spiritual virtues, in holy life, in spiritual exercises; and in the highest heaven, in contemplative life, united with God in enjoyment, and in love. This is why all things were made. This is what nature, example, and prefiguration, and Holy Scripture, and the eternal truth, that is God himself, testify to us.
(On the Twelve Beguines (Vanden twaalf begijnen). Translation by Diane Webb)

Around 1360 the Carthusian monk Brother Gerard of Herne wrote that the mystic Jan van Ruusbroec (1293-1381) had sought to reveal his God-given grace not only in his words and deeds, but also in his writings, so that long after his death all those who wanted to would be able to follow his example. Six and a half centuries later, we may now safely predict that Ruusbroec’s teaching and thought will indeed be preserved for all eternity. After philological exertions spanning a quarter of a century, the critical edition of Ruusbroec’s treatises and letters has finally been completed.

The philological challenge

The consummation of this monument to the best-known Dutch author of the Middle Ages came on 23 September 2006 with the launch of the new two-volume edition of Ruusbroec’s longest work, On the Spiritual Tabernacle (Vanden geesteliken tabernakel), thus completing the mystic’s Opera Omnia, published as part of the Continuatio Medievalis series in the prestigious Corpus christianorum. The first of what would become an eleven-volume publication (containing the texts of Ruusbroec’s ten treatises and seven letters) appeared in 1981, the year in which the 600th anniversary of the mystic’s death was commemorated with an exhibition devoted to the author and his works. That occasion brought together more medieval manuscripts containing Ruusbroec’s writings than ever before, ranging from slender miscellanies on thin, inexpensive parchment to magnificent codices with full-page miniatures of the author.

In the following years the editors of the Opera Omnia, led by Guido De Baere, studied all the manuscripts anew to determine which copies of Ruusbroec’s texts most closely reflected his language. The magnitude of this task must not be underestimated. In the manuscript culture of the Middle Ages there was no standard version of a text, approved (and corrected down to the last comma) by the author. Scribes acted at their own discretion and in accordance with individual needs. However much respect a scribe had for the author whose work he was copying, it did not guarantee a faithful copy of his writings.

The problems facing Ruusbroec’s editors reached their peak during the preparation of the last volume, On the Spiritual Tabernacle, which was not only Ruusbroec’s longest work by far (comprising approximately one-quarter of his entire oeuvre), but also the most popular in the Middle Ages. The edition lists no fewer than forty-two manuscripts, thirteen of which contain the complete text. Moreover, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries two versions of the work were in circulation: one that could be traced directly to the author, the other adapted and supplied with a commentary.

Similar problems were posed by Ruusbroec’s other works. There are also two versions of the Spiritual Espousals (Geestelike brulocht), which is generally recognised as Ruusbroec’s masterpiece. Over time this work was translated into various Dutch and German dialects, and Latin versions were circulating before 1400. Furthermore, the Espousals was adapted, edited, excerpted and used as material for sermons. Ruusbroec’s editors had to wade through a staggeringly complex textual history in their search for the mystic’s own words.

They were certainly not the first to assume this task. If Ruusbroec’s pupils at the monastery of Groenendaal had not already collected his texts into a large manuscript, present-day philologists would probably never have been able to determine so precisely which texts belonged to Ruusbroec’s oeuvre. Unfortunately, only one-half of this Groenendaal manuscript, whose famous miniature of the author raises the book almost to the status of a holy relic, has survived. Nevertheless, there are medieval sources – early forerunners of the recently published ‘complete works’ – which do contain all of Ruusbroec’s writings.

Telling texts and silent authors

At first glance, none of this seems exceptional. We are accustomed to seeing works now considered Dutch classics – by writers ranging from Joost van den Vondel to Willem Frederik Hermans – published in uniform editions as ‘Complete Works’ under the author’s name. That author is thus acknowledged as the originator of a body of work that would not exist without him. In the medieval tradition, however, where anonymous texts abound, authors existed only in their books. Even when we can assign an author’s name to a text, that text is often all that is known of him or – in extremely rare cases – her. This is not only the result of the fragmentary and mutilated transmission of medieval texts. A great many medieval authors – Ruusbroec among them – chose to let their writings speak for themselves. Anyone searching the eleven volumes of the Opera Omnia for the author’s name will find it only in the headings, introductions and colophons of the manuscripts. Not once does Ruusbroec mention his own name.

This makes it all the more extraordinary that the assessment of Ruusbroec’s writings was based almost from the beginning on his reputation. This has to do primarily with the mystical nature of those writings, which – according to Brother Gerard – were the result of the author’s divine inspiration. Significantly, too, Brother Gerard actually regards Ruusbroec’s writings as secondary to his teaching. Of primary importance was his living presence, his charismatic example in word and deed. What clearly emerges from the stories about and by Ruusbroec’s disciples and followers is that they sought out the mystic in order to bask in his presence. Geert Grote, the famous founder of the religious reform movement of the Devotio Moderna, journeyed to Groenendaal from the Northern Netherlands to hear from the mystic’s own lips his sermons and lessons. Grote was less enthusiastic about Ruusbroec’s books, however, which in his view overstepped the bounds of official theology. The German preacher Johannes Tauler, a highly educated Dominican, also visited Ruusbroec in the hope of finding true wisdom.

An absence of ‘vainglory’

The most eloquent and also most reliable testimony to Ruusbroec’s special charisma is to be found in Brother Gerard’s personal recollections of him, which he recorded in the introduction to his compilation of five of the mystic’s treatises. In his prologue, Brother Gerard gives an account of Ruusbroec’s three-day visit to his monastery; he tells of the conversations he had with him, and stresses his amiability. Deeply impressed, Brother Gerard declared that ‘there were many religious sentiments worthy of emulation’ (‘daer waren veel religioesheden af te scriven’). He was amazed in particular by Ruusbroec’s modesty with respect to his writings. When the Carthusians proudly reported that they had managed to obtain copies of his works, Ruusbroec appeared to be totally without ‘vainglory’, as though he was not the author of those writings (‘scheen hijs in sinen geest alsoe ledich staende van ydelre glorien alsoe ofte hise nie ghemaect en hadde’). Brother Gerard was not the only one who wondered about the connection between the author and his writings. The lay brother Jan van Leeuwen – the cook at Ruusbroec’s monastery and by far his most faithful disciple – was convinced that the books written by his revered teacher were merely a pale reflection of the richness of his inner life.

This distance – not to say tension – between the author’s person and his work is still palpable after all these centuries. Those who read any of the imposing volumes of the new edition will seldom feel that they are standing face to face with Ruusbroec. Disclosures of a personal nature can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Ruusbroec’s great works can be classified as theological treatises, heavily dependent on the medieval tradition of biblical commentary and exegesis. To ‘expound, clarify, explain’ (‘dieden, verclaren, ontbinden’) – these are key concepts in Ruusbroec’s approach. In his writings he attempted to the best of his ability to lay bare – or at least to indicate – the most profound truths deriving from his faith. At the heart of his authorship was the idea that he could evoke the truth of his spiritual reality by finding proof of it in Creation and Holy Scripture. In his treatises Ruusbroec is a thinker and teacher rather than a visionary, but this in no way means that he was less intent on fathoming the secrets of religious life. Instead of putting his own experience first, however, which is what mystics usually do in their writings, Ruusbroec apparently sought to introduce order and objectivity to a life ‘in the spirit’. He uses this expression – to live in the spirit – in one of the most explicit utterances he ever addressed to his prospective readers: ‘you who want to live in the spirit, for I speak to no one else’ (‘ghi die inden gheeste leven wilt, want nieman anders en sprekic toe’). This definition of his readership is at once sweeping and specific: Ruusbroec’s books do not require the reader to have a certain station in life (that of a monk or nun, for example, or a lay brother or sister), but rather a certain state of mind, albeit of a considerable intellectual calibre. For Ruusbroec the spirit is that part of the soul where the higher faculties of will, reason and memory reside.

There was no discrepancy, therefore, between the intellectual Ruusbroec, as he addresses the reader in his writings, and the impassioned mystic, for whom people flocked to Groenendaal from far and wide. The wondrous – and essential – ingredient of Ruusbroec’s medieval and possibly also his modern appeal was precisely the combination of intellectual and charismatic authority in one and the same person. Theologians in the upper reaches of the University of Paris debated Ruusbroec’s theories of unity with God, but his admirers saw the author of the Espousals as, above all, a man suffused with divine inspiration.

Let us once again recall the words of Brother Gerard. According to this pious Carthusian, Ruusbroec recorded his teachings to serve as an example to others. That notion is typical of medieval ideas about instruction, writings and charismatic authority. The teacher’s presence is at least as important as his lessons. Medieval readers must have sought in Ruusbroec’s writings first and foremost the reflection of an exemplary figure. That is a surprising thought, especially now, when the majestic Opera Omnia implicitly invites us to focus on this body of writing as Ruusbroec’s great legacy.

By Geert Warnar
Translated by Diane Webb

First published in The Low Countries, 2008


The works of Ruusbroec have been edited by Prof. G. De Baere et al. in the Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Medievalis, vols. CI-CX and also as vol. XX of the series Studiën en tekstuitgave of Ons Geestelijk Erf. Each volume offers the Middle Dutch text with a parallel translation in modern English and the text of the Latin translation made of Ruusbroec’s works in 1552 by the Carthusian monk Laurentius Surius of Cologne. Geert Warnar’s study of Ruusbroec (published in Dutch in 2003) appeared in 2007 as Ruusbroec: Literature and Mysticism in the Fourteenth Century (translated by Diane Webb), as volume 150 of Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History (Leiden, 2007).