Elizabeth Freeman

title.none: Fergusson and Stuart, eds., Rievaulx Abbey (Freeman)

identifier.other: baj9928.0101.010 01.01.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Elizabeth Freeman, University of Melbourne,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Fergussion, Peter and Stuart Harrison, eds. Rievaulx Abbey: Community, Architecture, Memory. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. Pp. xi, 282. $85.00. ISBN: 0-300-07831-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.01.10

Fergussion, Peter and Stuart Harrison, eds. Rievaulx Abbey: Community, Architecture, Memory. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. Pp. xi, 282. $85.00. ISBN: 0-300-07831-5.

Reviewed by:

Elizabeth Freeman
University of Melbourne

This handsome large format book succeeds in presenting both a thorough architectural and archaeological survey of Rievaulx abbey and an insightful addition to our knowledge of the Cistercian order's liturgy, institutional development and, for want of a better term, corporate identity. Using evidence from the built environment to inform their understanding of legislative, hagiographic, and homiletic sources (to name a few), and vice versa, Fergusson and Harrison have produced an excellent monograph which has much to teach commentators on both architecture and Cisterciana. It is in this dual focus that the book makes it greatest contribution. In the first nine chapters the authors cover the chronology from the twelfth century to the Suppression, indicating the ways in which building campaigns, innovations and renovations can inform our understanding of Cistercian life. The final three chapters take the story through to the present day, demonstrating that the ways in which the abbey has been in turn dismantled, romanticised and studied can tell us a great deal about changing perceptions of history, economics, the aesthetic principle of spectatorship, not to mention religion, over the past 450 years.

Ch. 1 provides a good overview of the Order's origins in Burgundy, expansion to England, and the foundation of Rievaulx in 1132. The tale of Cistercian expansion has been told before but, even for readers familiar with the Cistercian story, this chapter has a lot to offer, particularly in its admirably concise discussions of Cistercian economics, liturgy and government. Another strength of this chapter, which continues throughout the book, is the way in which well known sources are used in original ways, with original and instructive comparisons drawn. The 32 colour plates inserted in ch. 1 mainly focus on the abbey buildings. Some wider shots of the monastic precinct (much of it now covered over by village buildings) are included, but essentially the plates provide excellent images of the buildings in the claustral nucleus. The plates' notes provide historical detail (eg how a certain building was modified over the centuries) that complements the text in the later chapters. Thus, while reading ch. 1, the reader can consult the plates as a form of visual orientation with the abbey. And while reading the later chapters, the reader can turn back to the plates and appreciate better the arguments presented in the relevant notes.

From ch. 2 onwards, each chapter focuses on separate buildings / separate areas of the monastic precinct. The main studies include the early Romanesque church, the chapter house, the other rooms of the east range, the infirmary and abbot's house, the refectory and warming room, and the new Gothic church, followed by the later chapters on the post-medieval histories of the abbey. The respective chapters commence with detailed physical investigations of the areas in question, before proceeding to commentaries on what all this means for Cistercian life more broadly. Occasional colour sketches of what the various buildings may once have looked like are very helpful, particularly in reminding us that today's honey- coloured Rievaulx is not the image that a thirteenth-century monk would have known (the exterior was white-washed, and the interior of the refectory was a glorious pink). A wealth of black and white figures is included--photos, architectural plans, sketches, tables. And these are not just modern plans and sketches. Rather, the authors have hunted out nineteenth- century plans, eighteenth-century sketches, and 1920s photos-- all of which show the living history of the 'bricks and mortar', the different ways in which the buildings and landscape have been interpreted over the centuries. Throughout the book there is strong attention to the models that the Rievallian architecture may or may not have followed, and here the plans of continental Cistercian abbeys and northern English houses from other orders are a welcome inclusion.

The architectural and archaeological surveys are important. In chapter after chapter we read that certain phases of construction have only recently been identified (the early buildings under abbot William in the late 1130s-40s, pp. 47-48) or that other ruins or buildings still remain unexcavated (the area beyond William's west range, today covered by the village, p. 54; a previously unrecognised southern building, p. 109). And even many long-studied areas such as the Romanesque church remain incompletely understood. As the authors remind us, there is still much that we don't know about Rievaulx. Given this, Fergusson, Harrison and the geophysicist, surveying and other specialist colleagues they have worked with have all played invaluable roles in the exploration and interpretation of the physical material from Rievaulx.

The book wears its scholarship easily, particularly when the authors suggest the broader implications of their findings for our knowledge of the Order overall. Included throughout the book are some very thoughtful, original and admirably concise responses to current debates in Cistercian scholarship. For example, the architectural discussion of the early west range (where lay brothers were housed) commences with the physical details of the building's size and then uses this physical information to produce a thoughtful examination of the role of lay brothers and servants in the Cistercian enterprise (pp. 55- 57). This is a topic on which much remains to be known but the authors manage to give a highly useful commentary, employing physical evidence where other Cistercian scholars have traditionally employed written evidence. Whereas under abbot William the lay brothers enjoyed easy access to the cloister through a connecting archway, by the 1180s this opening had been blocked. This mirrors the increasing restrictions on lay brothers that we read of in legislative sources, thus confirming the authors' key point: that architecture both reflects and informs wider institutional practices and, hence, that 'reading' architecture is as important as reading law collections and sermon collections.

Other contributions to contemporary Cistercian debates are many (see p. 98 on the connection drawn between the physical details of seats in the chapter house and the liturgical and homiletic priorities of the order; pp. 98-99 on the link between the physical details of William's shrine in the chapter house and broader Aelredian and Cistercian practices of veneration). To focus on just one part of the book, chapters 3 to 5 on the buildings and rebuildings commissioned by Aelred are instructive. A strong case is made that in all of Aelred's buildings he replicated in a physical sense the same conceptions of communal relations and monastic reform that he was also preaching in his sermons and writing in his spiritual treatises. See, for example, the variety of ways in which Aelred's abbatial residence reflected in physical terms his adherence to the precepts of the Benedictine Rule (ch. 3). Likewise, the unusual location of the novitiate close to Aelred's residence is seen as physical evidence of Aelred's principle of abbatial care--physical proximity between abbot and novices mirroring spiritual proximity (ch. 3).

In arguing for Aelred's strong and highly individual role in commissioning architecture, the book challenges the old chestnut about Cistercian centralisation and uniformity. By including an insightful biography of Aelred which stresses what others have missed (especially concerning Aelred's trip to Rome, and the particular buildings he may have seen and been influenced by, pp. 60-64), the authors emphasise Aelred's strong devotion to antiquarian history. This devotion is manifest architecturally in the Romanesque church (ch. 4) and in the famous chapter house (ch. 5). Thus it seems that the identification of Rome with monastic reform was an idea that had particular currency at Rievaulx, a point that Cistercian scholars could do well to explore more widely in other contexts (Aelredian history-writing for example).

Every chapter in this book provides important social readings of physical material. Ch. 8 discusses the refectory, rebuilt in the 1180s and well known for being swung around at right angles to the south range. In examining why Rievaulx adopted this model when many other Cistercian houses did not (there were precedents both ways), the authors return once again to the Benedictine Rule. Turning the refectory around created more space for the kitchen and warming-room to be placed directly on the cloister, rather than outside it as they had been previously. Locating all these rooms on the cloister meant that the monks were able to live up to the letter of the Rule: no leaving the cloister except for manual work in the afternoon.

As well as indicating Cistercian devotion to the Benedictine Rule, the physical details of the refectory also confirm the Order's love of the vita apostolica . Here we read that the double-story refectory was modelled on the cenaculum (pp. 148-49), the building in Jerusalem in which the Last Supper was held and in which, traditionally, the disciples lived together in the first apostolic community. Not only did Cistercians see the apostolic community in general as an antecedent of their own calling, but they also focused on specific events in apostolic history as models for their own life. The mandatum , or foot washing, was one such event. And significantly, the Cistercians conducted the mandatum at the door to the refectory, unlike the Cluniacs who used the chapter house. In drawing together all these points Fergusson and Harrison make some important interpretations. They present the refectory as a site in which the monk was continually 'reformed', nourished spiritually just as he was nourished physically. By eating every day inside a hall which modelled the architecture of the cenaculum , and given the fact that just outside the hall the weekly mandatum took place, then it is likely that the Rievallian monk would have experienced the refectory overall as a site in which biblical models of the vita apostolica were constantly presented and re-presented, day after day of his vocation.

The final three chapters provide a fascinating study of the continuous and living history of the abbey. Here we learn how the architectural, aesthetic and memorial fashions of the post- medieval centuries have in a sense created the 'medieval' Rievaulx that we think we know today. As well as being a genuinely interesting tale in itself, the story of how the 1920s clearance modified Rievaulx is essential knowledge for all commentators on the 'medieval' abbey. Here we learn that twentieth-century alterations changed the Rievallian landscape dramatically, hence we can only 'get at' the medieval abbey through the modifications of the modern. Here the authors are to be congratulated for their even-handed discussion; while we can clearly detect regret that so much has been lost, altered and consigned to rubbish dumps, the study also gives us a thoroughly contextualised understanding of why these changes were considered acceptable and indeed desirable at the time.

Readers interested in Nora's sites of memory will find a lot that is interesting in these last chapters. Having lost our spontaneous memory, we in the west have become increasingly dependent on the tangible trace, on evidence, on the collection and preservation of the physical. And we modify, rearrange and display those traces with unconscious urgency, creating sites that lie somewhere between history and memory, sites that both link us to the past yet remind us of our loss of connection with that past. Modern-day Rievaulx, with its nave of neatly tended yet incongruous grass, is one such site. But, as Fergusson and Harrison remind us, Rievaulx has always been a site of memory. In the late twelfth century just as much as the twentieth century, community memories were self-consciously facilitated and encouraged through the means of architecture. In this sense, the transformation of Rievaulx abbey into a modern day museum and leisure site bears more similarities to the medieval experiences of the abbey than we might imagine. In both contexts, the physical places and buildings are the catalysts of community memories.

There are four appendices. These include a survey of the different types of stone used throughout the buildings, a discussion of tiles and floor decoration (the 1920s clearance was a mixed blessing for the tiles--they were all collected yet reset in areas that may or may not be correct), a table of abbots and, finally, a series of Suppression documents, including the Earl of Rutland's inventory taken in 1539 soon after acquisition but before the buildings were defaced.