Martin Claussen

title.none: DeJong, In Samuel's Image (Claussen)

identifier.other: baj9928.9802.005 98.02.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Martin Claussen, University of San Francisco,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: De Jong, Mayke. In Samuel's Image: Child Oblation in the Early Medieval West. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996. Pp. xv, 360. $107.50. ISBN: ISBN 9-004-10483-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.02.05

De Jong, Mayke. In Samuel's Image: Child Oblation in the Early Medieval West. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996. Pp. xv, 360. $107.50. ISBN: ISBN 9-004-10483-6.

Reviewed by:

Martin Claussen
University of San Francisco

Mayke de Jong's new book, In Samuel's Image: Child Oblation in the Early Medieval West, offers both much more and a little less than the title indicates. A monograph about oblation, the act by which parents 'donated' their children to monasteries and other religious institutions, has every potential to be a dry and technical text of interest only to specialists. De Jong instead presents one of the most sophisticated, nuanced, and wide-ranging studies of medieval monasticism ro come along in a long time. She has used oblation as a wedge of sorts, and has been able to crack open some interesting and important aspects of early medieval, and particularly Carolingian, culture. De Jong tells us she has been working on and thinking about oblation for almost fifteen years, during which time three major book-length studies have been published (the late John Boswell's The Kindness of Strangers, in 1988; Patricia Quinn's Better than the Sons of Kings the next year; and Maria Lahaye-Geussen's Das Opfer der Kinder in 1991). Among the many accomplishments of this book is an undercutting of Lahaye- Geussen's contrast between ritualism and faith as a means to understanding medieval religion, and a convincing refutation of Boswell's well-known thesis of oblation as abandonment. But some readers should be warned that while she makes occasional forays into the monastic worlds of early medieval Italy and Spain, the book has as its center a close study of the institutions and cultures of Merovingian and Carolingian Francia.

The book is divided into an introduction, eight chapters of material, and an epilogue. The introduction lays out her basic thesis, that oblation in the early middle ages has been overly problematized, that any discussion of it "should start from the assumption that it was precisely what sources claimed: a gift to God," (7), and reviews some of the scholarly debate on the topic, both medieval and modern. She notes in particular the selective Carolingian uses of the Hebrew Bible, which she explains as an "elective affinity" whereby certain Carolingian thinkers found convincing similarities between themselves and the legal, judicial, religious and ritual customs of the people of the Old Testament. Chapter 1 delves into the early history of oblation. After a quick glance at the early history of monasticism, de Jong examines the practice in the Rule of Benedict, and later sixth and seventh century rules. Her masterful reading of RB notes two distinct Benedictine characteristics of oblation. First, she contrasts the impediments and difficulties Benedict places in the way of an adult who seeks entry to the monastic life, detailed in RB 58, with the ease with which parents can commit their child to a monastic life characterized by a complete severance of all ties to the outside world, including kin. Second, she describes the very sacramental nature of oblation in RB: the focus of the whole ritual as Benedict describes it is the altar, and for him, oblatio means not just this donation of a child to the monastery, but also signifies the eucharistic offerings of bread and wine brought by the faithful to a church. It is this radical understanding of the meaning of oblation that separates Benedict from other monastic legislators, for the child given becomes both a sacrifice (a holocaustum, in the words of Carolingian commentators, a sacrifice wholly consumed by fire, and completely given to God), and an orphan of sorts, having cut all ties with his family. After surveying oblation in other parts of the early medieval west, de Jong observes that while it is clear that many sixth- and seventh-century monasteries and nunneries clearly had children in them, neither secular nor ecclesiastical legislation from these places mentions the rituals that got them there: it is a puzzle the answer for which she will not provide until the end of the book.

The centerpiece of Chapter 2, on Carolingian legislation and child oblation, is two case studies of child oblation gone wrong: the ninth-century cause celebre of Gottschalk, and the lesser known case, during the next century, of Lambert of Schienen. Both point to some of the Carolingian dilemmas about oblation. De Jong begins by discussing the legislation -- royal, episcopal, and monastic -- from the Carolingian period that tried to walk a narrow road hedged in on all sides by problems: the ideal of a conversion to the monastic life; the monastic desire for oblates as representing the most pure sort of recruits; the need to protect familial authority; the irrevocability of vows and oaths in the early middle ages; the loving care that at least some monasteries lavished on their oblates; the role of property and gift in establishing relationships in the Carolingian period; and many others. The case of Gottschalk, which the author discusses on pp. 77-91, exemplifies many of these conflicting problems. Chapter 3 shows de Jong at her best, handling such intractable material as Smaragdus' example of an oblation petition, the profession book of St Gall, and the late ninth-century register of charters of new monks from the abbey of St Remi at Rheims. With great skill, de Jong examines the register and discovers much about the place of child oblates at the monastery. She sees that oblates immediately became full members of the abbey, and that there was a high degree of literacy at St Remi. But her sensitivity to documents and texts goes much further. Noting the oddness of the register, she sees that it had more than a simple administrative function: it united all the new members of the house into one codex, just as they were united into one community. And the ritual use of the book, which listed not only the petitions and donation charters of new members, but their witnesses, other donors, and parents, brought this large group of people into contact with the sacred, when it was deposited upon the altar for new oblations and professions.

Chapters 4 and 5 focus on the role of children in Carolingian monasteries, the developing theology of oblation, their education, and daily life, and the rituals that moved a child from belonging to the saeculum to becoming a full member of the monastery.

The last three chapters examine the relationship and context between child oblation, Carolingian monasticism, and the rest of society. Chapter 6 explores some of the basic social institutions in late Merovingian and Carolingian Francia. Scholars have long been interested in the sorts of bonds that the Frankish aristocracy had at their disposal, and that were used to maintain family alliances, aristocratic networks, and royal loyalty. De Jong is particularly interested in the ties between nutritor, the monastic or aristocratic educator, and nutritus, the charge, ties which were created by various sorts of commendationes, but she observes that commendatio was just one of the ways that the world intruded into the cloister. Monks were also sought out, even in the time of Gregory of Tours, as ideal godparents, and this practice continued, despite the ecclesiastical legislation that tried to thwart it. Fosterage, a practice that seems to have been introduced to the continent from the Irish missionaries such as Columbanus, that came to Gaul in seventh century, created yet another sort of tie between the monastery and the world. All these practices created familiaritas, networks of artificial kinship that extended the apparently insufficient bonds of the natural family," (213), and all of these practices allowed a family that had donated its child to a monastery to have some sort of relationship with the child, the monastery, and particularly, with the patron saint of the monastery. But all of these worked in a way almost directly opposed to what Benedict had tried to accomplish. After all, he was interested in severing the ties between monks and the rest of society, and this was particularly true for oblates. This desire was made even stronger with the Aachen legislation from 817-18, which, under the inspiration of Benedict of Aniane, sought to create a much more pronounced distinction between claustrum and saeculum. If earlier practices of oblation were able to allow the child both to become a member of a monastic familia and at the same time allowed him to remain a member of his blood family, de Jong wonders how this new understanding about oblation would effect the institution. She argues that, sometimes despite the theology and regulations, oblates remained mediators between their families and the sacred, that, at least in the eyes of the laity, they retained membership in their own kin group and at the same time gained familiaritas with the religious community they had entered. These relationships, de Jong states, worked the same as a secular commendatio, which established an alliance with a mightier lord. Oblation "opened a channel to the sacred, by placing a member of one's family as closely as possible to the locus of supernatural power," (225). Thus, parents donating children had to keep them, while the religious community had to separate them from their carnal ties. It was this tension that de Jong believes animated early medieval attitudes and pronouncements about oblation.

There are two concerns that Chapter 7, concerned with the role of the state in child oblation, investigates. The first of these has to do with the Carolingian notion of monastic stabilitas. Here de Jong has some important things to say about the vexed question of spoliation. The other important issue in the chapter concerns Carolingian notions of coercion and liberty. By examining various 'political' uses of oblation and entry into the monastic life, including Louis the Pious' forced conversions in 830 and 833, de Jong attempts to place the coercive nature of oblation in the proper historical perspective. Monasteries were used as places of public penance and even as jails for political enemies, and it is clear that a forced conversion to the monastic life was not a controversial issue. Oblation needs to be placed in this context. Monks lavished care and attention on their oblates, in the hope that by educating them properly, they would internalize the proper monastic attitude and behavioral code that would transform their entry through oblation into a true conversion to the life of holiness.

The last chapter tackles one of the trickiest and most disputed issues surrounding oblation: what did those involved get out of it. De Jong argues that monasteries were not used to store supernumerary children, nor did parents give children to abbeys to enter into a sort of "do ut des" relationship with the supernatural. She argues the Carolingians had a number of different attitudes towards sacrifice in general, and these all can be seen in their thinking about oblation. It was at the same time the sort of unconditional sacrifice that God demanded, and it contained an element of a quid pro quo. Children remained a visible reminder of ties between the donating family and the monastery, and thus were ideal channels to the supernatural. And in an era that saw the lay role in actual religious cult increasingly restricted, an oblated child put a family in much closer touch with the divine. Thus, de Jong argues, oblation represents both the desire to sacrifice unconditionally to God as he demanded by giving the best that one had, and a desire to use traditional Frankish techniques, such as commendatio, to create social alliances and familiaritas with the sacred. Both of these intentions were present, because the Carolingian world saw nothing wrong with "a mingling of interest and disinterest," (289).

This brief summary cannot do justice to a book that is filled with insight into the early medieval world. Mayke de Jong is to be commended herself for her subtlety and sophistication in highlighting the importance of oblation and using it to explore so many important aspects of this Carolingian experience. In Samuel's Image should be read not just by those interested in monasticism, but by anyone who wants to understand one of the most important institutions in the medieval world.