History Professor's Book Wins Three Major Prizes

Author: Lisa Walenceus and Joanna Basile

John Van Engen

John Van Engen, Andrew V. Tackes Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, garnered three major book prizes for his latest work: Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life: The Devotio Moderna and the World of the Later Middle Ages. The volume won the John Gilmary Shea and Philip Schaff prizes in 2009, as well as the 2010 Otto Gründler Book Prize.

These multiple and distinguished honors come as no surprise to Thomas Noble, chair of the Department of History. “These prizes,” he says, “signal John Van Engen’s preeminence as a historian of the medieval church.”

Researching a Religious People

Beginning in the 1380s in market towns in the heart of the Netherlands, the devotio moderna, or Modern Devout, formed households organized as communes and took up lives of private devotion. They refused to profess vows as members of any religious order or to acquire spouses and personal property as lay citizens. The movement grew in spite of opposition, spreading outward toward Münster, Flanders, and Cologne.

Drawing upon an unrivaled knowledge of writings by and about the Modern Devout, Van Engen succeeds in giving context to the humanity, the urban and religious community, even the spiritual longings of this vanished experiment in communal living, set amid the rich complexity of Dutch urban life,” the Gründler prize citation notes.

Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life

The prize is awarded each year to an author whose work in any area of medieval studies is judged to be an outstanding contribution to the field. Diether Haenicke, former president of Western Michigan University, established the prize in 1997 in honor of Otto Gründler and his commitment to the field of medieval studies.

In presenting the award, the judging committee declared, “Van Engen’s book succeeds admirably at showing us why the devotio moderna was important, presenting what has been done on it to date, then exploring new paths to a fuller understanding of the subject.”

The American Catholic Historical Association’s John Gilmary Shea Prize is an annual award given to a book judged by a committee of scholars to have made the most original and distinguished contribution to knowledge of the history of the Catholic Church.

The American Society for Church History (ACSH) awards the Philip Schaff Prize to the author of the best scholarly book that presents original research on any period in the history of Christianity or makes a significant synthesizing scholarly contribution.

“Exceptionally erudite, well researched, and clearly written, this book will surely become the definitive work on the devotio moderna,” says the ACSH Research Committee.

A Scholar of Medieval Histories

In addition to his study of the Modern Devout and of religious and intellectual life during the Middle Ages, Van Engen’s research focuses on other areas of importance in medieval history. Some of his previous books and essays have centered on women’s writing, schools and universities, canon law, and notions of reform.

Van Engen is currently translating from Middle Dutch the works of Alijt Bake, a previously unknown female mystic, and has also begun a work on 12th–century reform and renewal tentatively titled The Spirit of the Twelfth Century. He also plans to publish a second book on the devotio moderna in late 2010.

A member of the Notre Dame faculty since 1977, Van Engen has been a visiting professor at Harvard University and has held research fellowships at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. From 1986 to 1998, he also served as director of Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute, the largest contingent of medievalists of any North American University.

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