Constant Mews

title.none: Constable, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century (Mews)

identifier.other: baj9928.9809.018 98.09.18

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Constant Mews, Monash University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Constable, Giles. The Reformation of the Twelfth Century. . New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp.. $69.95 (hb) ISBN 0-521-30514-4. ISBN: $24.95 (pb) ISBN: 0-521-63871-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.09.18

Constable, Giles. The Reformation of the Twelfth Century. . New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp.. $69.95 (hb) ISBN 0-521-30514-4. ISBN: $24.95 (pb) ISBN: 0-521-63871-2.

Reviewed by:

Constant Mews
Monash University

Giles Constable is probably the most distinguished living authority on medieval monasticism. For over forty years he has produced a continuous stream of publications relating to movements of religious reform in the twelfth century, each one a jewel of fresh and original scholarship on some aspect of the period, whether about some piece of monastic legislation, ascetic extremism or social theory. The erudition which supports such scholarship, so evident for example in his annotated edition (1964) to the letters of Peter the Venerable, is sure and confident, founded both on meticulous attention to detail and shrewd awareness of the social pressures shaping religious life. Its methodological foundations may be traditional, but they set a standard by which any newer interpretative model has to measure itself.

Competitive pressure to publish makes it most unusual for a scholar to wait forty years before producing a major work of synthesis. Like a grand seigneur of the old school, Constable has never had to blow with the wind. In 1995 Constable published a book modestly titled Three Studies in Medieval and Religious and Social Thought (Cambridge University Press) in which he takes what he calls a "horizontal" approach to medieval culture, tracing fundamental themes across the centuries, such as the relationship between action and contemplation or ideas of social order. In The Reformation of the Twelfth Century Constable takes a complementary "vertical" perspective, by providing a detailed analysis of the period he knows best. Not only does he know even the most obscure twelfth-century texts, but his knowledge of contemporary historical scholarship is itself formidable. The footnotes and bibliography alone to The Reformation of the Twelfth Century make it a worthwhile acquisition for any bookshelf.

There is much substance in its chapters, originally presented as the Trevelyan Lectures at the University of Cambridge in 1985. As Constable himself admits in his preface, there is a tendency for each chapter to be sufficient in itself rather than steps in a continuous argument. The central thread is never lost, however, of his understanding of Latin Christianity as undergoing powerful changes in self understanding between the eleventh and twelfth centuries, at least as important as those of the sixteenth century. His fascination is with the impact of a heightened sense of interiority in religious life, manifest in the multiplicity of attempts both to reform monasticism in the twelfth century as well as to establish alternative structures in which to pursue a religious life.

The opening chapter provides an outstandingly useful introduction to the bewilderingly complex vocabulary of medieval religious culture. Just what is the difference between a monk and a canon, a canon regular and a secular cleric? Constable demonstrates that the confusion might be just as much in twelfth-century sources as in our own minds. While theorists of any age might like to construct tidy organizational patterns, a phase of creative expansion inevitably means that individuals might not even be sure what label if any to apply to oneself.

Constable naturally feels most at home with an irenic vision of the religious life, manifest for example in the treatise which he once edited, Libellus de diversis ordinibus et professionibus qui sunt in aecclesia (Oxford Medieval Texts, 1972). In a sense The Reformation of the Twelfth Century enlarges upon that treatise by demonstrating the sheer diversity of structures and practices which make their appearance in the twelfth century. The pages which he devotes to the involvement of women in religious life (pp. 64-74) provide just one example of how valuable erudition can be in uncovering little known detail of great potential significance. His attention goes not to famous figures, like Heloise or Hildegard, but to little known women. He mentions for example a report by Gerhoch of Reichersberg in 1148 that holy women in monasteries and married women whose husbands are away on Crusade composed new religious songs in the vernacular (p. 66). There are so many details that the reader is often itching to explore just a few of them in more detail. How are we to interpret this rare comment of Gerhoch about a part of humanity normally excluded from the historical record? Before we can think about this question the next example is presented as an example of monastic openness to women, a comment of Rupert of Deutz that could be the subject of a whole book: "The substance of a woman differs from the substance of a man in nothing except sex."

The book carries on in this vein, a dazzling mosaic of significant detail about the variety of religious practices reported in out of the way texts, many of which have never made their way into standard repertories. He considers the circumstances and types of reform, the rhetoric of reform as well as the realities of its implementation within community life and society at large. He has an eye for the strange and bizarre, reminding us that public displays of mortification often incurred suspicion, even from such celebrated ascetics as Bernard of Clairvaux. The diversity of religious behaviour in the twelfth century recorded by contemporaries (all of whom belonged to the educated elite of society) was indeed astonishing. Constable mentions in passing the case of a priest called Engibaldus, founder of a community of canons at Herival, who "judged that he was unworthy of the sacraments of the church and was determined, against the custom of the church, never to communicate, and not to sing the psalmody according to the rite of the church" (p. 204). What are we to make of such behaviour? How close was it to behaviour deemed by others to be heretical?

The difficulty with this tolerant vision of the twelfth century as a time when many flowers bloom is that it paints a canvas of fascinating detail, while avoiding reflection on the social and political tensions which shape the attitudes of the pious. Constable avoids entering into theoretical speculation about the significance of conflict in this society. He also tends to underplay the seriousness of criticism of monasticism in the twelfth century, perhaps influenced by the monastic origins of so much of our knowledge of the period. There is no particular section on the contribution of scholastics to religious reform in the twelfth century. A comment he makes on St. Bernard typifies this tendency: "When Bernard behaved in a way that seems high-handed and self-righteous, it should be remembered that his influence was entirely personal and that in spite of his faults he was held in almost universal esteem by his contemporaries, who saw in him precisely the combination that they admired of an intense inner life with outward concern" (p. 25). What did admirers of Abelard or Arnold of Brescia have to say about the abbot of Clairvaux? There is no hint here of the controversy which Bernard's actions aroused in the twelfth century, even in the eyes of careful observers like John of Salisbury and Otto of Freising. Monasticism may not have been as central to medieval society as monks liked to imagine. One of the most satisfying aspects of Constable's scholarship is his grasp of the zeal of monks to protect their institutional privileges. How this zeal came across to those who were not monks is another question. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that the ideology of reform was more often mouthed than put into practice.

Constable is perhaps at his finest in his exposition of the spirituality of reform. He conveys to the reader something of the intensity of personal experience which forced so many individuals in the twelfth century to change their lives. His argument is that the period witnessed a new sense of interiority and personal exploration. While these ideas are not new, they are rarely presented in such a way that we can imagine how it felt to be confronted by a spiritual challenge. In his final chapter, "The Broader Setting," Constable raises precisely those methodological questions which the reader might have wondered about in previous chapters, so full of detail. Are we able to understand anything about the motivations of people in the past? What relationship is there between religious change and the other great storms agitating society in the twelfth century? The gap between rich and poor in society was as evident to a number of preachers in the twelfth century as it was to St Francis of Assisi. Constable raises these sociological interpretations without committing himself to any particular explanation. One could have wished for more attention to have been given to the urban context of religious reform as well as to the significance of aristocratic patronage of new religious orders. Perhaps just as important as the ideology of reform is the process, very evident from the mid twelfth century, whereby powerful elites in society took advantage of the rhetoric of reform to re-assert their authority. Simply speaking about "reform" and "reformation" blurs us to the sheer diversity of visions of the social order being put forward. Personal piety towards Jesus can be manifested in very different ways, as much to do with class, gender and education as anything else.

There is so much meat in this book for scholars to chew on that it is churlish to complain that he should have gone into more analysis of fewer examples or engaged in interpretative analyses beyond its scope. The book that he has provided is a goldmine, from which many of us can find the gold we seek. He dedicates it to the memory of three distinguished Benedictine scholars, David Knowles, Kassius Hallinger and Jean Leclercq. Constable stands tall in their company. His great mastery lies in his ability to uncover intricate historical details while at the same time sketching out their broader significance. We might sometimes differ on the interpretation of those details, but we have to respect the magnitude of the achievement which has brought them to our attention.