Van Engen Wins John Gilmary Shea Prize

January 20, 2010
John Van Engen, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, and the 2009 John Gilmary Shea Prize

John Van Engen, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, and the 2009 John Gilmary Shea Prize

Dr. John Van Engen, professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, has received the John Gilmary Shea Prize for his book, Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life: The Devotio Moderna and the World of the Later Middle Ages from the American Catholic Historical Association. The work has been recently published the University of Pennsylvania Press. The decision of the judges was announced at the Association’s Ninetieth annual meeting. In the committee’s judgment, Dr. Van Engen’s book is the best of this year’s works on the history of the Catholic Church broadly considered, from a field of 27 entries.

The citation reads in part as follows:

Those who adhered to the devotio moderna – a group Van Engen refers to throughout his book as “the Modern-Day Devout” – made a profound impression on the late medieval world. Beginning in the 1380s, they set up households organized as communes in various towns throughout northern continental Europe. They pursued a celibate life, held their property in common, and lived under a common discipline that demanded not only prayer but work. All that led some contemporaries to see them as a form of religious order, but they were not. They took no vows, preferring to see their obedience to leaders and common standards as a matter of adherence to gospel law, the law of love, which could be kept meritoriously only in liberty of spirit. Many of their contemporaries thought them strange, and more than a few thought them heretical; yet they proved successful enough at defending their movement to insure its flourishing right into the Reformation period. Luther spoke well of them.

Van Engen is successful because his tool-kit includes a strong interest in institutional history. He notes at one point that “recent approaches to medieval religious life have focused less on matters of socioecclesiastical status, more on religiocultural authority.” He then provides a succinct and accurate explanation of why this has been true and the values that have accrued from such a focus; but in the final analysis he feels that “institution-building was central to the later medieval experience” and it behooves us to pay renewed attention to it. His study of the Devout and their ecclesiastical permutations reveals the wisdom of this advice.

The work is full of similar conscious attempts to shift away from perspectives that have become so natural to us as to seem unquestionable, all with the aim of throwing new light on the Devout. While discussing the connections between Latin schools and the Brothers of the Common Life, he remarks that “what comes into view is a circle of like-minded schoolmasterly comrades,” then he observes that “this world of late medieval minor clergy has tended to get either overlooked or caricatured.” In less than four lines, he then proceeds to suggest why we should give it more respect.

In short, 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 prize is named in memory of the famous historian of American Catholicism, John Gilmary Shea (1824-1892), and is partially funded by a bequest of the Reverend Dr. John Whitney Evans of the College of Saint Scholastica, Duluth, Minnesota. It is given each year to the American or Canadian author who, in the opinion of a committee, has made the most original and significant contribution to the historiography of the Catholic Church in the form of a book published during the previous twelve-month period ending June 30.

The Committee on the John Gilmary Shea Prize is composed of three mature scholars who represent different fields of history. This year they were:

  • Professor David D. Burr, Chairman, (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University), 3352 Indian Meadow Drive, Blacksburg,Virginia 24060-8842
  • Professor Peter C. Kent, Department of History, University of New Brunswick, P.O. Box 4400, Fredericton, NB E3B 5A3, Canada
  • Professor Thomas C. Reeves (The University of Wisconsin, Parkside), 15725 Two Mile Road, Franksville, WI 53126.

Professor John Von Engen graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids Michigan and received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1976. He has taught at the University of Notre Dame since 1977. He served as the President of the American Society of Church History from 2005 to 2007 and has received multiple awards including Fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Humanities.