The ‘Tegernsee Debate’ and the Theological Reform Movement of the 15th Century

By Prof. Dr. Christian Schäfer, University of Bamberg

In the mid-15th century, Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1461), the renowned German cardinal, philosopher, and mathematician, maintained a close relationship and exchanged ideas with the Benedictine monks of the Tegernsee monastery that was located in upper Bavaria. The monastery, at the foothills of the Alps, was at the time one of the centres of learning in southern Germany being famous for its well-appointed library. A second such centre of Benedictine erudition was the nearby monastery at Melk in Austria, which was in close contact with the Tegernsee community (Bischof – Thurner 2013). Together, the two convents formed the nucleus of what has been called the ‘Melk reform movement’ which had the venerable Benedictine Abbey of Subiaco in Italy as its model and was closely associated with the theological innovations proposed by the doctors of the University of Vienna in the wake of the Council of Florence (Groiß 1999). In many ways, the monastic reform practiced and perfected at Melk and Tegernsee resembled the devotio moderna movement that was contemporaneously sweeping through the Low German territories, but it was lacking its anticlerical and excessively individualistic features.

Nicholas of Cusa. Contemporary donor image from the high altar of the chapel of St. Nicholas Hospital, Bernkastel-Kues

In the face of this, the Roman Cardinal Cusanus was relieved and gratified to find, in the friars of the Bavarian convent, reliable allies and followers for his tireless efforts to achieve monastic reform. In 1453, Nicholas of Cusa’s text De visione Dei sive De icona was sent to the Tegernsee monks and was dedicated to them as a meditational instruction in remembrance of their common discussions and devotions during his stay at the monastery – which is only one proof among many for the tight bonds between the Bavarian convent and the intellectual world of the philosopher (Schmidt 1989). It is interesting to see how Cusanus’s visits to Tegernsee and his exchange of letters with the monks promoted the already existing reform movement and had two effects that are well documented in the extant manuscripts of the former Tegernsee library – which was dissolved during secularisation in Bavaria at the beginning of the 19th century. These manuscripts are nowadays preserved in different libraries around the globe.

The first effect was a fervent approval of the philosopher’s theories on the glories and limitations of human knowledge, especially of his thoughts about the dialectics of rational understanding, spiritual openness, and mystical insight, as put forward in what is perhaps his most notable book De docta ignorantia (On learned ignorance). The Tegernsee monks seem to have enthusiastically embraced the idea of the mystical union that Cusanus endeavored to posit in a new fashion, albeit relying on the father of Christian Mysticism, namely Dionysius the Areopagite (early 6th century), and especially his treatise On Mystical Theology (Περὶ μυστικῆς θεολογίας). Cusanus’s theological philosophy chimed well with the reform movement of the time, with its emphasis on personal saintliness and individual forms of devoutness (Meier-Oeser 2003). But the philosophical views and ensuing pastoral and liturgical ratiocinations of the Tegernsee group were fiercely opposed by other intellectuals, in particular by the Carthusian Vincent of Aggsbach (ca. 1389-1464), who disliked the ‘intellectualism’ of Cusanus and accused his followers of betraying the true doctrine of Dionysius. Vincent also disapproved of Cusanus’s church policy, seeing in him as a typical representative of the Roman hierarchy and a betrayer of the conciliarist cause – as a matter of fact, Nicholas of Cusa had moved to the side of papal supremacy in the late 1430s after he defended conciliarism by employing the logic of Dionysius’s works on hierarchical order (Trottmann 2003). When the prior of the Tegernsee cloister, Bernhard of Waging (ca. 1400-1472), wrote a laudatorium doctae ignorantiae (‘laudatory treatise’) on Cusanus’s Learned Ignorance, Vincent was quick to counter it with a refutation (impugnatorium doctae ignorantiae) whose voluntaristic dismissal of intellectual effort prompted Bernhard to issue a written defense (defensorium laudatorii doctae ignorantiae) which, in turn, was verbosely dismissed by Vincent with an impatient invective (scriptum invectivum contra defensorium laudatorii doctae ignoratiae) that was followed by yet another ill-tempered retort, and so on (Vansteenberghe 1915; Treusch 2011; Ziebart 2013). Other authors joined in. As result, an unrelenting debate broke out that conspicuously foreshadowed the front lines of the 16th-century Protestant and Catholic positions. The controversy was both intricate and fierce, with each side accusing the other of insanity and dangerous heresy, manifestly falsifying Meister Eckhart’s all too docile observation that ‘theologians may quarrel, but the mystics of the world speak the same language’. The controversy came to nothing, but it later made its way into standard works on medieval philosophy where it is presented as the ‘mystics’ dispute’ (‘Mystikerstreit’) or the ‘Tegernsee debate’ (Ziebart 2013).

Tegernsee Monastery, first known image from around 1560, woodcut by Jost Amann. Published in the land tables of Philipp Apian

The second effect of Cusanus’s encouragement and theoretical underpinning of the reform path was the concomitant incentive of personal devotion, along with a renewal of monastic communal life and liturgical practices. These practices drew their inspiration and vigor from the theology of Cusanus and his followers who did not want to be outperformed in inwardness and spiritual soul-searching by their proto-Protestant adversaries. The Tegernsee circle was serious in its attempts to renew Christian ideals and practices in the face of the alarming symptoms of their decline in the 15th century and it, therefore, engaged in prolific activity that is documented in prayer books, sermons, exhortations, and pastoral letters. Again, it was Bernhard of Waging who, in his adherence to Nicholas of Cusa, was one of the foremost theorists, mediators, and proponents of this reform process concerning worship, the monastic mode of life, and liturgy (Treusch 2011).

In 2013, a long-term project entitled ‘Diskurs und Gemeinschaft’ ( was initiated by the Martin Grabmann Forschungsinstitut at the University of Munich. It is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and is implemented by experts in Medieval Latin, Ecclesiastical History and the History of Philosophy from the Universities of Munich and Bamberg. The project brings together scholars who are working on a complete critical edition of the writings of Bernhard of Waging. The edition will comprise the following works: sermons and letters that testify to the liturgical and spiritual reform process promoted by the Benedictine monasteries of Tegernsee and Melk; polemic treatises on the mystical question; and voluminous complications on affective and intellectual powers in theological epistemology. Some of Bernard’s other texts include pastoral exhortations and writings on fasting, the eucharist, and the meditatio mortis, as well as instructions for confessions and an ordinary of the mass that is based on a modernized concept of religious fervour. All these works reflect the undertaken reform efforts and revived spirituality as related to Cusanus’s tenets.


Bischof, Franz Xaver, and Martin Thurner (eds.), Die benediktinische Klosterreform im 15. Jahrhundert im deutschsprachigen Raum, Veröffentlichungen des Grabmann-Institutes zur Erforschung der mittelalterlichen Theologie und Philosophie 56 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2013).

Groiß, Albert Spätmittelalterliche Lebensformen der Benediktiner von der Melker Observanz vor dem Hintergrund ihrer Bräuche, Beiträge zur Geschichte des alten Mönchtums und des Benediktinertums 46 (Münster: Aschendorff, 1999).

Meier­Oeser, Stephan, Die Präsenz des Vergessenen: Zur Rezeption der Philosophie des Nicolaus Cusanus vom 15. bis zum 18. Jahrhundert (Münster: Aschendorff, 1989).

Schmidt, Margot, ‘Nikolaus von Kues im Gespräch mit den Tegernseer Mönchen über Wesen und Sinn der Mystik’, Mitteilungen und Forschungsbeiträge der Cusanus-Gesellschaft 18 (1989), 25–47.

Treusch, Ulrike, Bernhard von Waging (†1472), ein Theologe der Melker Reformbewegung (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011).

Trottmann, Christian, ‘Sic in vi affectiva: Note sur De theologia mystica III, 27, sa réception par Vincent d’Aggsbach, son depassement par Gerson et quelques auteurs ulterieurs’, Bulletin de philosophie médiévale 45 (2003), 167–188.

Vasteenberghe, Edmond, Autour de la docte ignorance: Une controverse sur la théologie mystique au XVe siècle (Münster: Aschendorff, 1915).

Ziebart, Meredith K., Nicolaus Cusanus on Faith and the Intellect: A Case Study in 15th-Century Fides-Ratio Controversy, Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History 225 (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

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