David Bell

title.none: Newman, The Boundaries of Charity (Bell)

identifier.other: baj9928.9703.010 97.03.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David Bell, Memorial University of Newfoundland,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Newman, Martha G. The Boundaries of Charity: Cistercian Culture and Ecclesiastical Reform, 1098-1180. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996. Pp. xx, 387. $49.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-804-72512-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.03.10

Newman, Martha G. The Boundaries of Charity: Cistercian Culture and Ecclesiastical Reform, 1098-1180. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996. Pp. xx, 387. $49.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-804-72512-8.

Reviewed by:

David Bell
Memorial University of Newfoundland

This is an interesting book, but it is not an easy book to review. It is rather like a jigsaw puzzle in which all--or most--of the individual pieces are well designed and well cut, but when fitted together they do not make quite the picture they are intended to make. The essential argument is that what appears to be a paradox is not a paradox. The paradox--or the apparent paradox--is that the twelfth-century Cistercians were a contemplative order whose prime concern was withdrawal from the world, but that side by side with that withdrawal they were extraordinarily active outside their monasteries and played a pivotal role in the world of contemporary politics. The key to the paradox, suggests Dr. Newman, lies in the Cistercian concept of charity/caritas, and charity cannot be charity unless one's love for God is reflected and manifested in the love of one's neighbour. Hence, the Cistercians had no choice but to concern themselves with the world outside the cloister, and the word "caritas" came to involve not just the monks' own individual spiritual development, but their "interests in ordering and controlling their material world and their sense of an ideal Christian society" (p. 9).

There is truth in this. The whole Augustinian/Gregorian concept of the nature of charity does indeed assume that you cannot love God unless you love your neighbour at the same time, and there is not the least doubt that among the Cistercians there was "a dialogue between the monastery and the surrounding society" (p. 5). On the other hand, this dialogue was neither as problematic nor as unusual as the author suggests. No monastery of whatever Order could exist without some contact with the outside world, and since, from an economic point of view, Cistercian monasteries were essentially medieval manors with all the social and legal responsibilities that manorial status demanded, they had no choice but to conduct themselves accordingly. No abbot of any monastic estate could afford to ignore land-hungry neighbours, and no large, wide-spread and powerful institution (and it took remarkably little time for the Order of Citeaux to become such an institution) could ignore or be ignored by the secular and ecclesiastical authorities. Even the enclosed and austere Carthusians were not immune from dealings with the world.

But who was involved with these dealings? The author of the book speaks throughout of "the Cistercians", but in the twelfth century the numbers of Cistercians who were actually actively engaged in the economic and political life outside the cloister were strictly limited. The abbot, certainly, and certain other obedientiaries had no choice but to be so engaged, but the vast majority of Cistercian monks and nuns lived out their lives within the boundaries of their monasteries and pursued the "via monastica" in willing ignorance of what was happening "extra claustrum." Their charity for their neighbours was to be found primarily in their prayers, but also--more practically--in the provision of medical services to the surrounding countryside (a matter which Dr. Newman does not consider). Often, therefore, when the author speaks of "the Cistercians" it would be more accurate to speak of "Cistercian abbots" or "Cistercian writers"--and the two were not uncommonly coterminous. But that Cistercian abbots should be much involved in the society of their times was inevitable. All such superiors were, and even Hugh, the saintly prior of Carthusian Witham, had no choice but to leave--at least in body--his preferred solitude to take up the burden of the bishopric of Lincoln and become an intimate of princes and kings.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that the Cistercians did emphasize charity in a different way--not necessarily to a greater degree--than did their monastic confreres. The Charter of Charity was not idly so titled, and although it is possible to find paeans in praise of charity in writings from all the contemplative Orders, there is a distinctive quality about the Cistercian approach. On this matter the author is perfectly correct. It must be remembered, however, that charity was never regarded as an attitude of generalized affection: charity had to be ordered --the concept of "ordo caritatis" was commonplace--and, according to Baldwin of Forde, it was to be ordered by "estimatio," "emulatio," and "electio" (CCCM 99, p. 334). "In arranging what has to be done," says Baldwin, "charity sometimes uses the order of freedom and dignity, and sometimes the order of judicious selection [dispensatio] and necessity," (CCCM 99, p. 337), and "dispensatio" and "necessitas" may therefore restrict and direct the application of what is ultimately a universal virtue. The situation is therefore more complex than Dr. Newman implies. It was not just a case of a person being either inside or outside a church (and, ideally, a society) bound together by charity rather than law (p. 194), but charity itself neither could nor should be applied with the same quality and quantity to all situations. That, in the Cistercian view, would be "caritas inordinata." Dr. Newman is quite right, therefore, when she points out that the involvement of "the Cistercians"--for which we must read "a small number of Cistercians (usually abbots)"--in the papal schism or the Becket controversy or the attack on heresy is not a denial of the principle of charity, but if her reasoning has a flaw, it lies in the fact that "caritas active on earth" (p. 121) was never intended to be applied indiscriminately.

Almost sixty years ago Dom David Knowles wrote thatThe perfect suitability of the Cistercian way to the social and economic needs of the early twelfth century, and the resounding appeal made by Bernard to the whole of Christendom, changed the gradual and normal increase of a fervent and primitive monastic body into what was in effect a world movement. Under such circumstances it was inevitable that the vast new body should have more kinship to the society around it than to the nucleus of fervour which had been its first inspiration. The Monastic Order in England, p. 689.This is true, and although the concept of charity-in-action undoubtedly played a role, it did not play as large a role as Dr. Newman would have us believe.

But although the author's main argument is not without flaw, the book contains some useful and illuminating individual sections. There is a sound account in Chapter 2 of post- Bernardine Cistercian spirituality; the idea presented in Chapter 3 that "when the Cistercians accepted property, they emphasized the process of stripping away from it the customary layers of land tenures and claims so that they could exploit it using their own techniques and labour", and that "such a process was analogous to their interest in stripping away the layers of misguided love that obscured the image of the divine in their soul" (p. 96) is worthy of careful consideration; much of the historical material in Chapters 6-9 is presented clearly and lucidly; and the cautionary notes in the Conclusion about drawing too great a contrast between monastery and school are much to the point.

On the other hand, there is also a certain exaggeration of the supposed uniqueness of the "via Cisterciensis" which perhaps results from insufficient familiarity with writings from other contemplative Orders, especially the Premonstratensians and the Carthusians. The "image of the monk as soldier" (p. 29), for example, which plays such a significant role in the very first chapter was just as important for the Premonstratensians. And we must also point out that Brian Stock's conception of the Cistercians as a "textual community" centred primarily on the exposition of the Song of Songs--a conception which Dr. Newman shares (p. 18)--is by no means universally accepted, and testifies, some would say, to a misunderstanding of both media and message in the Middle Ages. That, however, is a different book and a different matter.

As I said at the beginning of this review, Dr. Newman's study is not easy to assess. Her idea is interesting, much of what she says is accurate and useful, and some of it is truly stimulating; but overall her thesis fails because the problem which she addresses--the problem of monastic withdrawal v. political involvement--is less of a problem than she supposes, and the factors which explain it are more complex than she suggests.