Traditional monasticism

This period in Western Europe brought about a reform of traditional monas-ticism, with the formation of new orders, both contemplative and pastoral. Military life was combined with the monastic vocation in the foundation of military orders. After 1200 forms of religious life appeared that built on earlier manifestations of pastoral life in community but now reflected the concerns of their founders, especially Dominic and Francis. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries manifest an embarrassment of riches: the number, variety and development of monastic and religious orders in this period is overwhelming, and I will seek only to provide an outline.

Monastic or religious life in the Middle Ages meant living according to a rule of life based on community, prayer and obedience. Traditional monasti-cism required vows of stability, obedience and conversio morum (change in way of life). Practically all those bound to such a life in the West after about 800 followed either the Rule of Saint Benedict or the Rule for Canons adopted at a synod of Aachen in 816. The first was intended for monks or nuns, the second for regular canons or canonesses. After about 1100, however, a new understanding of the monastic life emerged, especially in the genesis of the Cistercian Order. At the same time canons came to interpret their vocation in relation to the Rule of Saint Augustine, which in contrast to the Aachen legislation did not allow for personal property and emphasised more strongly life in community.

Before we consider the changes that came in the twelfth century, it is worthwhile first to look at traditional Benedictine monasticism. Scattered across Europe and especially in or near larger centres of population we find communities of men and women which had been following the Rule of Saint Benedict long before 1100. Benedictine abbeys were distinct entities, independent of each other, and so it would be wrong to speak of a Benedictine Order at this time. The abbot of each house was a sovereign lord, only subject to the diocesan bishop if he were found guilty of immoral behaviour.

Each Benedictine house formed a complete community, with servants, labourers, patrons and, of course, the monks themselves. The monastic liturgy or opus dei was the main concern of such institutions and provided a sense of continuity in the observance of the year's feasts. The monastery was obliged to its patrons and offered prayers to remember their dead. In Christianity from Late Antiquity there had always been a sense of the usefulness of praying for the dead. With an emerging sense of a place of cleansing in purgatory, monastic prayers became all the more valuable. The monks were linked to each other and to their patrons and thus expressed the living reality of the communion of saints: the unity and interdependability of the militant on earth, the suffering in purgatory, and the triumphant in heaven.

When monks of the traditional mould described their concerns, they usually spoke of privileges and properties. The two depended on each other and could not exist without each other. One of the most articulate spokespersons of this mentality is Jocelin of Brakelond, a monk of the great abbey at Bury Saint Edmunds. Writing at the end of the twelfth century, Jocelin provided an unforgettable portrait of Abbot Samson, who became abbot in 1182. On his election Samson promised to respect the customs of the monastery:

the abbot said that he desired to keep our ancient customs concerning the entertainment of guests, to wit, that when the abbot was at home, he should receive all guests of every kind saving the religious and secular priests, and their men who invited themselves to the court-gate under cover of their masters; but if the abbot should be away from home, then all guests of every condition should be received by the cellarer, up to the number of thirteen horses.1

Jocelin's narrative reveals a nagging discussion at Bury concerning the abbot's economy and the monastery's. The two of them had developed in such a way that they were kept separate, but the monks began to feel that Samson was encroaching on their portion. Such a division of resources has no precedent in the Rule of Saint Benedict, but the monks felt they needed the protection of a separate administration so that the abbot did not exploit them.

It would be wrong to reduce the history of monasticism in this period to niggardly disputes, and one must remember that nasty disagreements often

1 H. E. Butler, trans., The Chronicle ofJocelin ofBrakelond (London: Thomas Nelson, 1949), 39.

leave traces in the sources, while the smooth functioning of everyday life does not. To get a sense of what also mattered in traditional monasticism, we can turn to one of the finest monastic historians of our period, Matthew Paris, in his account of the abbots of his monastery, Saint Albans north of London. In summarising the career of William Trumpington, abbot from 1214 to 1235, Matthew Paris described how he decorated the church, obtained a rib of Saint Wulfstan, embellished the altar of Saint Alban, supplied candles for his shrine and for that of Our Lady, established a daily mass to be sung in perpetuity, had an image of Our Lady made, and so on. The list continues with further acquisitions of relics, statues and crosses.2

Matthew Paris also praised William of Trumpington for calming disputes inside and outside the monastery, but he mainly remembered him for his material additions. Such descriptions do not mean there was no interior life, but they indicate that the traditional monastic vocation involved the acquisition of wealth, the defence of hard-won privileges, and the repetition of ritual acts meant to obtain God's favour. In this context the transition from AngloSaxon to Norman abbots in England in Matthew Paris' account is hardly noticeable: monastic institutions carried on as before, under new ownership, as it were. In both England and France firm alliances grew up between the monarchy and great monasteries. Saint Denis outside Paris was, for example, the royal burial place, and its twelfth-century abbot Suger was the advisor of kings and steward of the kingdom while Louis VII was away on crusade.

Women's houses were not usually as well endowed as those of men. In the Anglo-Saxon period in England, abbesses had taken charge of double monasteries, such as Hilda at Whitby (d. 680). Now in the wake of the Gregorian reform such arrangements came under a cloud, and double monasteries began to disappear. Houses for women, however, are to be found all over Europe, leaving behind few written sources, but playing an essential part in the dynastic plans of the aristocracy. At the same time such monasteries gave a few privileged women an opportunity to become literate and live a life unencumbered by the burdens of marriage.3

2 Richard Vaughan, ed., Chronicles of Matthew Paris: Monastic Life in the Thirteenth Century (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1984), 47-55.

3 For a general treatment, see Jo Ann Kay McNamara, Sisters in Arms (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), ch. 3. Also Penelope D. Johnson, Equal in Monastic Profession: Religious Women in Medieval France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) and Sally Thompson, Women Religious: The Founding of English Nunneries after the Norman Conquest (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

A woman's own concerns in monastic life are found in some of the letters Heloise wrote to Abelard. More than a century later we are told how Isabelle of France, sister of King Louis IX, founded a monastery at Longchamp. Her story was told by Agnes of Harcourt, the third abbess (d. 1291).4 Agnes occupied the very summit of medieval society, but even though traditional monasticism was intended for the most part for aristocratic women (and men), we can nevertheless assume that a few women from more ordinary backgrounds were admitted.

Monasticism at the opening of the twelfth century was a conservative institution intended to stabilise society. There were, nevertheless, a number of reform houses spread across Europe. The best known to us today is Cluny, founded in 909 by Duke William of Aquitaine. He had made certain in his foundation charter that neither he nor his successors would have any rights or prerogatives over the monastery. The bond was to be purely spiritual. Cluny specialised in the liturgy to such an extent that some of its monks had little or no time for manual labour. Later forms of monasticism, such as at Citeaux, would seek to re-establish a balance.

Cluny was blessed with able abbots who lived long, ruled well and had time to groom their successors. At the beginning of our period there was one abbot, Pons, who apparently was incapable of shouldering the burden of the house. His successor, Peter the Venerable (d. 1156), was among the most brilliant and capable of all the Cluniac abbots. Peter has left the imprint of his abbacy in the collection of letters he made. Here he endowed posterity with a representative sample of his friendships and commitments across Europe.5

The Cluniac houses formed what we call a congregation: a loose federation of monastic foundations associated in various ways with the abbey. Many, but not all, were priories and considered the abbot of Cluny to be their abbot. There was, however, no Cluniac Order any more than there was a Benedictine Order at the time. Cluny, like other reform houses, exercised greater or lesser influence over other houses, but there was no administrative apparatus to ensure permanent bonds between Cluny and its priories and associated abbeys. Ultimately it was the person and efforts of the abbot of

4 Sean L. Field, ed., The Writings of Agnes of Harcourt (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003).

5 Giles Constable, ed., The Letters of Peter the Venerable (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967), vols. 1-2. For general background for this period, see also Giles Constable, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Cluny alone that bound the congregation together. Formalised bonds in a clear legal structure would not come until the Cistercians.

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