Steven Vanderputten / Brigitte Meijns (eds.): Ecclesia in medio nationis. Reflections on the study of monasticism in the central middle ages. Réflexions sur l'étude du monachisme au moyen age age central (= Mediaevalia Lovaniensia. Series I; XLII), Leuven: Leuven University Press 2011, 215 S., ISBN 978-90-5867-887-4, EUR 45,00
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This collection of papers reviews recent historiographical trends and points the way to new research directions on problems of religious communal life in the central middle ages. The volume captures in written record a valuable moment of reflection, a meeting of specialist scholars at the University of Leuven in 2009. A question of paramount concern to the conference participants was the relationship between an idealized monastic separation from the world and the regular intercourse monks had with lay society. The editors wrap the seven essays, five studies in French and two in English, around thin introductory and concluding statements in English that impose some order upon the whole by reiterating words used throughout such as "paradox," "complexity," and "bipolarity."
Each of the first five essays surveys the historiographic course of a particular problem of monastic history. Several authors begin by assessing longstanding debates about shifts in seigniorial power. In total they share a general discomfort with talk about "feudal revolution" in favor of the more flexible term "mutation." They remind us that, even after the devolution of Carolingian authority and the concentration of ecclesial powers in the hands of local lords, monastic leaders continued to look to Benedict of Aniane for reform inspiration. Nonetheless, they agree that such continuities should not be seen to run counter to efforts by lay elites, bishops and abbots, and even monastic communities to discover their own novel responses, spiritual or discursive, to the admired past.
In her review of research on monastic communal life, Isabel Rosé sees a range of enriching developments since the 1980s: publications commemorating significant monastic foundations and leaders; an increased output of translations; interdisciplinary contributions drawing from sociology and anthropology; an institutional focus; new analytical methods and prosopographical work. Themes she discerns as recurrent in the research of recent decades include the following: a heightened sensitivity to rule-making and bureaucratic tendencies; an intensified interest in recruitment patterns and internal operational/organizational hierarchies; a regard for communal practices not explicitly proscribed by rules. Other contributors to the collection insightfully consider one or more of these directions.
A theme of great importance to the collective is a sensitivity to social competition. This competition takes the form of conflict within monastic establishments as well as conflict between monastic communities and the world beyond their walls. Florian Mazel offers a survey of trends in the study of monastic relations with aristocratic neighbors and patrons. Nicolas Ruffini-Ronzani and Jean-François Nieus proffer a "révision historiographique" on the intersection of seigniorial society and monastic reform. Taken together, these two offerings highlight the importance of identity, especially the attention that scholars now give to uncovering conflicted identities inside monasteries and conflicts arising from the intersection of personal identity and church reform.
Alexis Wilkin, reviewing research on the economic relations of monastic communities, and Harald Selner, focusing on research on monastic reforms in Germany, insist that it was incumbent upon monastic communities in the central middle ages to negotiate and renegotiate the terms of their relations with neighbors. This may seem a rather obvious point to specialists. Still, it is very much worth recalling for those unfamiliar with the deeply entrenched idealization of monastic life that is plainly readable in the religious histories of decades past. In as much as some recent scholarship deemphasizes spiritual matters in order to highlight the economic and institutional constraints upon monastic communities, it becomes more apparent that monastic life gave rise to conflicts over use of resources. These conflicts required careful management and thoughtful resolution, and sometimes even a measure of sacred violence.
Two additional essays take the new ground identified for them in the historiographical surveys; although they do so in disparate ways. Gert Melville looks to diminish what scholars have come to deem the characteristic contradiction of the medieval vita religiosa: the monks' regular 'give' and 'take' with an outside world that seems so "diametrically opposed" to monastic principles. His argument is convincing, if not entirely satisfactory. We have it wrong, he suggests, when we see permeable boundaries between monastic inside and secular outside. Longstanding monastic discourse, emphasized even in the physical design of monasteries, worked to assure monks that any test to their integrity could be defined as something external. Encroachment upon the core values of monastic life was impossible. From this perspective, scholars who measure the deficiencies and failings of monks and monastic communities are only studying something outside the monastic core. Melville is right. Nonetheless, so is Diane Reilly, whose closing essay identifies the unavoidable pressures of institutionalization. Moves to institutionalize the work of principled reformers required cooperation with those outside forces, especially lay elites, who controlled the financial and other resources that monastic leaders required for the long term stability of their organizations. Important generational factors are at work here, with a discernible gap between founders and second-generation followers.
It is a great gift of the collection that it gives attention both to monastic spiritual prerogatives and to the untidy worldly realities in which monks took part. Readers might come away from the volume wishing that the several authors had found a corporate synthesis more convincing than that monks suffered from a kind of bipolar disorder. Still, in their effort to reconcile the tendencies of Martha and Mary, the authors survey some very vivid evidence of robust monastic change. These essays offer rich bibliographies, especially in reference to recent scholarship in French. Their insights and provocations should draw attention for a long time.
Michael A. Vargas