William R. Day, Jr.

title.none: Howe, Church Reform & Social Change (Day)

identifier.other: baj9928.9809.009 98.09.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: William R. Day, Jr., London School of Economics and Political Science,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Howe, John. Church Reform & Social Change in Eleventh-Century Italy: Dominic of Sora and His Patrons. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. Pp. xxiii, 220. $37.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-812-23412-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.09.09

Howe, John. Church Reform & Social Change in Eleventh-Century Italy: Dominic of Sora and His Patrons. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. Pp. xxiii, 220. $37.50. ISBN: ISBN 0-812-23412-X.

Reviewed by:

William R. Day, Jr.
London School of Economics and Political Science

The antecedents and ramifications of church reform in Italy beyond Rome and deep in the Apennine highlands along the frontier between southern Lazio and Abruzzi during the eleventh century constitute the broader tapestry against which John Howe has set his recent consideration of the life of Dominic of Sora (d. 1032), published handsomely last year by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Howe's recent work, entitled Church Reform and Social Change in Eleventh-Century Italy: Dominic of Sora and His Patrons, will be a welcome addition to many libraries, especially those supporting interests in church history, Benedictine monasticism, and the investiture controversy. It explores the background of the Gregorian reform in early eleventh century Italy, a topic that seems immediately obvious as a possible avenue of research, but it is also one that has received surprisingly little attention. Howe's central argument is that the study of the early stages of church reform demands a more careful consideration of events taking place in early eleventh century Italy below the highest levels of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Charismatic figures such as Dominic helped to generate enthusiasm for reform at the local level in the early eleventh century that would be necessary to sustain reform at the highest levels later in the century.

Church Reform and Social Change is comprised of two overlapping parts, even if it is not organized as such. The first part, consisting of the first four chapters, is essentially a biographical essay on the life of Dominic of Sora. The second part, chapters 5 through 7, attempts to place the life of Dominic in the broader context of church reform in the early eleventh century, focusing mostly on patronage and the increasing tendency among patrons to favor large religious establishments over smaller ones. The work as a whole is based mostly on a wide variety of published evidence, both narrative and documentary, evidently supplemented by the consultation of original manuscript versions of certain of what the author has regarded to be the most important published narrative texts. Narrative sources figure more prominently, and those most consulted are four hagiographical texts on the life of Dominic of Sora, which the author has designated as the Monte Cassino Life, the Sora Life, the Trisulti Life, and the Valva Life. The use of hagiographical texts as sources for history involves considerable methodological difficulties, but it also presents myriad possibilities. Recourse to hagiography for historical reconstructions is certainly nothing new, but it is probably fair to say that the vast potential of hagiography as a source for history has not yet been fully realized. Howe's work may not go any great distance towards breaking new ground in the use of hagiographical sources, but his management of the evidence for the most part is both creative and responsible, and he is clearly very well aware of the problems inherent in the interpretation of hagiographical texts. The introduction of the concept of what he calls 'hagiographic light' (pp. 66-67) is nevertheless somewhat troublesome, and at the very least the choice of terminology is unfortunate. Howe uses the concept of 'hagiographic light' to refer to the particular allusions to sacred images and models used by Dominic's hagiographers to portray his sanctity. According to Howe, hagiographers were compelled to represent the holiness of their subjects in terms that their audiences would have found congruous, and hagiographical stereotypes and paradigms in the various texts are thus seen to reflect certain concrete realities in some way. Some of the discussion is convincing, especially when the images and models employed in the source texts are seen to have their referents in the physical world of the central Apennine highlands. Beyond that, however, the notion that 'hagiographic light' expresses 'objective historical information' is problematic. This is nevertheless a relatively minor criticism, and the author handles the biographical section as well as might be expected in consideration of the evidence at his disposal.

Howe is perhaps on less solid footing when he is discussing the nature of settlement and what he calls 'encastellation'. English-speaking historians of medieval Italy have tended to prefer the Italian word incastellamento, rather than its awkward English translation, to describe a phenomenon that emerges in Italy around the turn of the millennium. This is because incastellamento means not only 'encastellation' but also entails other processes, which differ substantially from region to region and may not even involve the actual construction of a castle, or castello. The classical model of the incastellamento was articulated by the French scholar Pierre Toubert in his magisterial work on southern Lazio and the Sabini in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, entitled Les structures du Latium meridional et la Sabine du IXe siecle a la fin du XIIe siecle (Rome, 1973). For Toubert, the incastellamento was characterized mainly by the concentration of previously dispersed settlements and services into newly fortified centres, land clearance, political decentralisation, the extension of seigneurial power, and economic contraction. Perhaps not without some justification, Howe goes to considerable length to take issue with Toubert's model of the incastellamento, arguing that certain of the castelli in the parts of southern Lazio and southern Abruzzi in which Dominic was active do not match Toubert's characterization. Elsewhere, however, Howe's insistence on the singularity of this Apennine region tends to undermine his own argument while lending weight to Toubert's characterization of the foundations of itinerant hermits such as those of Dominic as aberrations that remained aloof from the circuits of seigneurial power. It must be granted that the tendency of Dominic to situate his foundations just beyond the area that fell under the tight control of new castelli may indeed suggest 'a more calculated relationship' between these foundations and the castelli whose ambit of influence they carefully avoided (p. 111). In view of peculiarity of the highland landscape along the frontier between southern Lazio and Abruzzi, a deviation from Toubert's model is not at all surprising. A more important consideration perhaps rests not so much in the degree to which Dominic's Apennine foundations deviated from the model suggested by Toubert, but in the degree to which Dominic's foundations differed from others in Lazio that adhered more to 'castral discipline'.

Perhaps the single most significant shortcoming in the book has to do with its structure and with its original design. It is not at all clear, for example, that Howe's work really achieves what it sets out to accomplish. The connection between the reforms initiated by pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) and earlier movements in the direction of reform exercised on a more local scale in Italy is never really firmly established. At least part of the reason for this shortcoming may be owing to the fact that Howe understates the economic and demographic dimensions of church reform in the eleventh century. Howe's work often suggests that the Gregorian reform and its antecedents were possessed of an economic aspect, but he fails to develop fully the intuition. The economic background to church reform in the eleventh century was first discussed in an insightful article by Demevrius B. Zema published in the Catholic Historical Review in 1941 and entitled 'Reform legislation in the eleventh century and its economic import' (vol. 27, pp. 16-38). Zema, whose article is absent from Howe's bibliography, understood church reform at least partly as a matter of economic necessity, and indeed the successful restoration of church lands that had fallen out of ecclesiastical control also entailed the recovery of an important source of revenue. Elsewhere in Italy, on the episcopal level, the restoration to the church of lands that earlier had fallen out of episcopal control very clearly marked something of a turning point in the fortunes of certain bishops. Growing demographic pressure throughout much of Italy and western Europe had increased the value of real estate sufficiently that the costs of restoring lost properties were offset by the potential of these lands to generate revenue in rents or agricultural products. The connection between the efforts to restore church lands and the economic exigencies that lay behind the reform movement is still largely unstudied, but it may be the most important point of contact between the Gregorian reform and lesser reform movements such as that of Dominic.

The absence of a comparative dimension also compromises somewhat the argument presented by Howe. Dominic is a single example, and it is necessary to establish the degree to which he can be understood to be representative of some broader trend that was fundamentally different from what had come before. Howe briefly considers the reappearance of hermitism in the Italy after the beginning of the eleventh century and the role of hermitism in the Italian church, but he ultimately neglects to examine fully the extent to which such figures as Dominic himself, Giovanni Gualberto in Tuscany, and Romuald of Ravenna, to name a few, constituted any sort of a break with the past. The reader is also left wondering whether Dominic was merely an aberration in early eleventh century Italy or if the vignette of Dominic drawn by Howe serves to encapsulate more far- reaching developments that can also be discerned in the activities of similar figures in the early eleventh century. Other examples come to mind, and indeed the author is not exactly silent on the matter, but his discussion is limited to a few introductory paragraphs and a handful of footnotes. Howe's persistent emphasis on the peculiarities of the physical environment in southern Lazio and Abruzzi render these considerations especially important.

On the whole, however, Professor Howe's book is a welcome addition to the literature on church reform in the eleventh century, if for no other reason than to reiterate that there may have been important developments occurring below the highest levels of the church hierarchy that were leading in the direction of reform even before the papacy of Leo IX (1049- 1054). It traverses a little worn path by asking infrequently posed questions of old sources, and it suggests a number of possible future avenues of research. Perhaps the most interesting chapter comes in the second part of the book and describes the shift in patronage practices in the course of the eleventh century, and there is clearly more room for work in this area. Initially, wealthy benefactors favored patronage in the sort of relatively small religious foundations established by Dominic, but large 'international' monasteries began to garner an increasing proportion of the largess bestowed by rich patrons as the century continued. According to Howe, the small and essentially private foundations simply could not compete with larger monasteries such as Farfa, Monte Cassino, San Vincenzo al Volturno, and Subiaco, because these 'great monasteries had become conspicuously superior in their amenities, culture, and spirituality' (p. 145). Perhaps more importantly, donations to large monasteries also afforded a means of access to power. In southern Lazio and Abruzzi, for example, the counts of Marsica transfered their patronage to Monte Cassino, in effect trading 'smaller monasteries for shares in greater enterprises' (p. 148). In return for their investment, the Marsican counts became 'the most influential part of Monte Cassino's monastic community' by about 1070 (p. 138). From 1087 and for nearly eighty years with only a brief interruption between 1105 and 1111, the abbots of Monte Cassino possessed close ties with Marsican line. Howe is not the first scholar to recognize the connection between beneficence to Monte Cassino and the consolidation of power at the monastery by the counts of Marsica, but his research has demonstrated more clearly than before the extent of Marsican influence at Monte Cassino. The connection between charity to church and the accumulation of power within the church hierarchy is of course obvious, but it is nevertheless a subject that deserves further investigation, as this chapter aptly illustrates.

There are other reasons to welcome the publication of Church Reform and Social Change. Many of the people and places that occupy the pages of this work are by no means well known even to seasoned scholars of medieval Italy, but the author for the most part has managed to avoid losing the reader in the succession of such details. The two maps provided are adequate, though only barely, and even though they help the reader to negotiate the landscape somewhat, they fail to convey a notion of the character of the terrain in the areas in which Dominic was active. Throughout the text, the author frequently reminds the reader of the peculiarity of the region in which the life of Dominic unfolded, and Dominic's religious establishments are described as 'awesomely sighted' (p. 74). It was a relatively remote world of mountains and forests, and another map or two showing relief and covering a smaller area than the two given, while not exactly essential, certainly would have been appreciated. The six genealogical charts for the lineages that figure most prominently in the text go much farther in easing the burden of following such a large cast of characters, and they also highlight the author's agility in matters of prosopography. Three appendices concerning the sources, the patrons of Dominic's enterprises, and the growth of large monasteries towards the end of the eleventh century at the expense of the sort of small religious establishments pioneered by Dominic certainly facilitate a better understanding of these three fundamental aspects of the research. The footnotes are at the bottom of the page to permit easy consultation, and a bibliography of nearly twenty pages, despite some conspicuous omissions, will nevertheless assist students undertaking research on related topics. The exposition moreover is sufficiently clear that even advanced undergraduates should have little trouble with the text, although the book probably would be more suited for graduate students.