The Medieval Review 11.11.20

Thornton, Andrew, OSB, ed. and trans. Grimlaicus: Rule for Solitaries. Cistercian Studies Series. Colligeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011. Pp. 181. . . $24.95. ISBN 978-0-87907-200-1.

Reviewed by:

Scott G. Bruce
University of Colorado at Boulder

Most western Europeans of the later Roman Empire did not encounter the great ascetics of Egypt and Syria face to face. Like the imperial agents in Trier who converted to a life of religion in 381 after reading Evagrius' Latin translation of the Life of Anthony, they relied primarily on projected images of the character of Christian asceticism rather than firsthand engagement with its practitioners. [1] These images of monastic expression--in the form of letters from aspiring ascetics like Jerome, collections of sayings uttered by holy men and women, rules of conduct written for their burgeoning koinonia, and the earliest examples of Christian hagiography--distilled the unruly religious landscape of the eastern Mediterranean into a simple principle: monks should live together in communities in obedience to a rule and an abbot. By the sixth century, only a handful of ascetic virtuosos who "[had] been trained by a lengthy period of probation in the monastery with the support of many others and [had] learned to fight against the devil" practiced the art of living alone in western Europe. [2] Fraught with temptations of the body and the mind, the vocation of the anchorite or hermit was not for the light-hearted or ill-prepared, but the rewards of this calling were commensurate with its risks. In the words of Abbot Peter the Venerable, writing to a Cluniac recluse in the 1120s, the narrow confines of the hermit's cell earned for him "the width of Heaven." [3] In reality, early medieval ascetic practice was much broader and far more complicated than the simple dichotomy between cloistered monks and uncloistered recluses. In the Rule of Solitaries (regula solitariorum), a self-styled inclusus (literally, "one closed off") named Grimlaicus provides a model for ascetic retreat within the confines of a monastery that weds the principles of the Rule of Benedict (hereafter RB) to the ideals of the abandonment of one's community that traditionally characterized the hermit's vocation. The volume under review presents the first English translation of this text accompanied by notes, appendices, and a short introduction.

Little is known about Grimlaicus and his historical context, but scholars going back to Mabillon have made the most of very little evidence to situate him around the year 900 in the diocese of Metz with possible connections to the abbey of Gorze. This is plausible and not worth contesting without the discovery of new information. His Rule for Solitaries is less an original composition and more a work of compilation that draws very heavily from the sixth-century RB and, to a lesser degree, from Defensor of Ligugé's Book of Sparks (Liber scintillarum), a popular collection of sayings from the Bible and the Church Fathers compiled in the seventh or eighth century. The goal of Grimlaicus' work is to present a handbook for those who desire to live in isolation within the walls of a monastic enclosure. This was no light undertaking: "Those in the contemplative life have already given up their possessions for the use of the poor and go on to divest themselves of the world and with all their strength withdraw themselves to heaven" (45). After a probationary period lasting two years and with the sanction of a bishop or an abbot, the solitary--who may or may not have already been a monk of the community--withdrew to a special cell within the monastic precinct. The description of this cell recommends that it have a small oratory adjoining the church, if the recluse is a priest, and a garden that will allow him to plant and harvest vegetables and get some fresh air. It is expected that the recluse will have disciples to look after his needs. They should live in little dwellings contiguous with his cell. It seems more common than not to have multiple solitaries living in several adjacent cells in the same monastic community. Grimlaicus presents a picture of intense scrutiny and competition between them: "We are all bound, therefore, to examine and scrutinize each other's deeds every day to see who of us is more eager to perform the work of God, who is more fervent in prayer, more careful in reading, purer in chastity, more profuse in shedding tears, more decorous in body, more sincere in heart; who is kinder in anger, more modest in gentleness, less ready with laughter, more fervent in compunction, more steadfast in seriousness, more joyful in charity. In this way, let us daily render an account to one another of our way of living" (76-7). In addition to the cultivation of virtue, solitaries should be well versed in scripture in order to offer spiritual advice to those who visit them at the window of their cells. They should also be learned in doctrine so that they can offer rebuttal to the false arguments of heretics and Jews, which threaten to lead Christians astray. As was often the case with Christian hermits, true isolation was very difficult to achieve, even when individuals followed strict rules of enclosure. Nonetheless, despite the many visitors who came to converse with them, it was seldom that anyone entered the cells of the solitaries except for their disciples. According to Grimlaicus, they could only receive individuals in their cells when they were sick, but "as soon as they begin to recover from their illness, the door to the cell should be sealed in the customary manner, and they should dwell alone once more" (133). In most other aspects of their enclosed lives, however, these solitaries lived very much like cloistered monks, a fact underscored by Grimlaicus' indebtedness to the text of the RB in almost every chapter of his rule.

Andrew Thornton's translation of Grimlaicus' Rule for Solitaries is for the most part very competent and even has moments of lucidity. There are very few instances where the translation sounds awkward or inappropriate, one exception being the rendering of the phrase "ad publicum actionis" as "to the public sphere of action" (43), which sounds a bit too much like an anachronistic application of Habermas to the tenth century. But on the whole the translation is solid; I will not hesitate to recommend it to my students and have every intention is using it in my course on the history of medieval monasticism. I do not agree, however, with Thornton's decision to relegate Grimlaicus' copious borrowings from the RB to an appendix. The author's indebtedness to this sixth-century rule is so thorough and profound that it was a mistake not to include a more explicit system of reference to indicate the frequency of its use within the body of the translation itself. The employment of italics to signal direct quotations and casual borrowings alike would have served this purpose well without distracting the reader from the text or cluttering the page with footnotes.

While Thornton's translation of Grimlaicus' Rule for Solitaries is commendable, readers should be forewarned that the introduction of the book leaves much to be desired. Every historian owes a debt of gratitude to those scholars who labor over the translation of important texts like this one, but it is very disappointing to see it accompanied by such a tepid and shallow introduction. The phenomenon of medieval monks living in a state of isolation from their brethren within the same building complex is not well known even among specialists in monastic history and raises a myriad of fundamental questions that the introduction to this translation does not even begin to address. Instead, surprisingly, Thornton insists that Grimlaicus' text has a transparency that renders an introduction all but superfluous: "Because Grimlaicus' rule has a clear message framed in straight-forward language, it needs no lengthy introduction" (2) and again: "There is no need to summarize Grimlaicus' teaching. His own words are the best guide" (14). I must demur. A translation on its own makes a text accessible, but a well-researched introduction makes it eminently more useful, especially to students. So it is very surprising to find in Thornton's introduction almost no discussion of the manuscript tradition of Grimlaicus' rule and the contexts in which surviving copies were copied and read (except as an aside on p. 15, n. 46); no sustained commentary of the history of solitaries living in medieval abbeys (except for some examples from the works of Gregory of Tours, with no indication of the relationship of these sixth-century anecdotes with Grimlaicus' work); and no treatment of archaeological evidence for the practice of this form of asceticism or its antecedents in eastern Mediterranean religious traditions. These are missed opportunities that prevent this very good translation from being the best possible introduction in English to the history of an obscure yet important expression of Christian asceticism in the Middle Ages.



[1] Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, Revised Edition with a New Epilogue (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2000), 99.

[2] The Rule of St Benedict, trans. Carolinne White (New York, 2008), 11.

[3] Peter the Venerable, Epistola 20 (to Gilbert): "pro angustia cellae, latitudinem caeli," ed. Giles Constable, in The Letters of Peter the Venerable (Cambridge, MA, 1967), 1:27-41 at 27.