Sarah R. I. Foot

title.none: Gretsch, The Intellectual Foundations of the English Benedictine Reform (Foot)

identifier.other: baj9928.0104.006 01.04.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Sarah R. I. Foot, University of Sheffield,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Gretsch, Mechthild. The Intellectual Foundations of the English Benedictine Reform. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, Vol 25. Cambridge: Camabridge University Press, 1999. Pp. xii, 471. $74.95. ISBN: 0-521-58155-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.04.06

Gretsch, Mechthild. The Intellectual Foundations of the English Benedictine Reform. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, Vol 25. Cambridge: Camabridge University Press, 1999. Pp. xii, 471. $74.95. ISBN: 0-521-58155-9.

Reviewed by:

Sarah R. I. Foot
University of Sheffield

The background to the tenth-century monastic revolution in England has been explored in a number of studies published over the last twenty-five years, predominantly in volumes published to mark the millennial anniversaries of the high point of the revolution--the promulgation of the Regularis concordia- -or the deaths of the leading protagonists in this movement, Dunstan, Aethelwold and Oswald. These papers have focussed particularly on the continental influences behind the reform (notably Donald Bullough's paper in Tenth-Century Studies, ed. D. Parsons, London, 1975; and Patrick Wormald's essay in Bishop Aethelwold. His Career and Influence, ed. B. Yorke, Woodbridge, 1988), but attention has also been paid to the long-lasting effects of King Alfred's programme for reform. Here the focus has been not just on the promotion of the vernacular as an educational medium through the king's sponsorship of the translation of key texts from Latin into Old English, but also on the development of new script-types for the writing of Old English (particularly the work of David Dumville, Wessex and England from Alfred to Edgar, Woodbridge, 1992, and his English Caroline Script and Monastic History, Woodbridge, 1993). That the roots of the monastic revolution lay predominantly in the reign of King Aethelstan (924-939) was first, brilliantly, shown by J Armitage Robinson (The Times of St. Dunstan, Oxford, 1923), a work that laid the essential foundations for all subsequent study.

The title of Mechthild Gretsch's book may lead the unwary reader to anticipate a broad study, drawing on the foundations laid by Armitage Robinson and moving beyond the narrower scope of the shorter pieces published more recently, in order to provide the wide-ranging reappraisal of the background to the monastic reform of King Edgar's reign that is now long overdue. But this book is much more restricted in scope than its title suggests and than is claimed by the dust-jacket blurb. There is stated that the volume explores the foundations of the intellectual renaissance in tenth-century England, which is marked by the Benedictine reform and the establishment of the most influential school in late Anglo-Saxon England by Aethelwold, bishop of Winchester 963-84. A better clue to the volume's contents and line of argument may be found in the author's ascription on the title page: she is a member of the Institute for English Philology at the University of Munich. In which case it is less surprising to discover here little more than a close-focussed examination of two Old English texts from the circle of Bishop Aethelwold: an interlineal vernacular translation of the Psalter and a collection of Old English glosses to Aldhelm's prose treatise De virginitate. This is not a book for the faint-hearted. Nor, lamentably, like so many others of the volumes in this ambitious series, does it seek to answer historical questions. It does shed important light on the evolution and transmission of these two sets of vernacular glosses and on the developing role of Old English as a language for scholarly interchange; from the analysis of these glosses Gretsch can demonstrate that the promotion of the vernacular was an essential component of the reform movement from its initiation. However, the work appears to be written predominantly for fellow experts in the field of Old English philology and only succeeds tangentially in addressing areas of interest to a wider audience.

The structure of the volume makes its narrow focus explicit. Framed by brief introductory and concluding chapters, the work falls into two sections: a description and linguistic and palaeographical analysis of the two corpora of Old English glosses (the continuous interlinear version of the Psalter in Royal 2. B. V and the interlineal and marginal glosses to a group of manuscripts of Aldhelm's De virginitate); and the demonstration that both glosses can be associated with the circle of Aethewold, as can the Old English translation of the Rule of St Benedict (explored in ch. 7). Word-usage is an area of notable focus; the first section concludes (ch. 6) with a comparative study of word usage in the Royal Psalter, the Old English the Rule of St Benedict (also to be attributed to Aethelwold), and the second with a study of French and German loan words in these vernacular translations (ch. 10). The degree to which attention is paid to such specialist areas of philology does nothing to improve the accessibility of this volume to the general reader. It cries out for a longer and more ambitious conclusion drawing together the threads of the linguistic study and showing where this exercise has served to illuminate the intellectual background to the monastic reform.

To historians it has long been clear that it was Aethelwold, abbot of Abingdon from ?954 to 963 and thereafter bishop of Winchester until his death in 984, who was the driving force behind the revolution in English monastic organisation that reached its apogee in the reign of King Edgar (959-975). He was by far the most energetic of the reforming abbots, driving out indolent and degenerate clerks from the unreformed cloisters of southern England (notably Winchester, Chertsey and Milton as reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for AD 964 and in the Life of Aethelwold written by Wulfstan of Winchester, chs 16-16 and ch. 22) and enjoining strict observation of the stipulations of the Rule of St Benedict, made readily accessible to the recruits to this new way of living through the vernacular translation the bishop had made of the rule: "let the unlearned natives have the knowledge of this holy rule by the exposition of their own language, that they may the more zealously serve God and have no excuse that they were driven by ignorance to err" (discussed by Gretsch, pp. 235-41). It was Aethelwold who persuaded King Edgar and Queen Aelfthryth to act as patrons to the reformed male and female communities, supporting both with generous benefactions of land and moveable wealth. Further, when the ideals of reform were starting to take hold among West Saxon and Mercian monasteries, it was at Bishop Aethelwold's suggestion that a general council was held at Winchester at which England's first monastic customary, the Regularis concordia was promulgated, a text designed to ensure conformity of observance in all monasteries throughout Edgar's lands. Although he was archbishop of Canterbury throughout the central period of reform, St Dunstan has always been a more elusive figure in this movement, offering muted support for the passion of his more fervent younger colleague; it is striking that the archiepiscopal community at Canterbury was not brought into conformity with the new Benedictine norms until after Dunstan's death in 988. In Gretsch's study, too, Dunstan occupies a backseat; indeed after a careful summary of all the rather bitty evidence that points to Dunstan's interest in reformed monasticism Gretsch is forced to conclude that "the sum of this various evidence does not amount to much". (375) Yet this volume does offer the most compelling evidence accumulated to date that the foundations for the Benedictine revolution really were laid in Glastonbury in the time when Dunstan was abbot and Aethelwold monk there in the 940s.

In the preface to the Old English version of the Rule of St Benedict (attributed to Aethelwold), it is said that before King Edgar established monasteries in England the monastic life flourished "in no more places than one, namely at Glastonbury" where Dunstan was abbot. Quite why this centre should have sown the seeds for the later reform is not clear, whether it was because the abbey had a unique experience during Danish wars of second half of ninth century, evading destruction or serious economic hardship, whether because of the possible influence of Irish scholars among the community, or a closer than average connection with reformed Carolingian monasticism in the earlier tenth century. Some have questioned the reliability of Aethelwold's testimony on this issue wondering if it were possible that either Dunstan or his younger protege could have had any direct contact with the ideals of the continental reform movement before the period of Dunstan's exile in Flanders (after he fell out with the young king, Eadwig, in 956 and was "driven across the sea") and before Aethelwold was able to acquire first-hand information about the reform from Fleury. However, Mechthild Gretsch is able to show how crucial was the environment at the court of Aethelstan where both Dunstan and Aethelwold were young members of the king's entourage in fostering an intellectual climate in which certain reforming ideals were paramount. In focussing on three vernacular texts--the Psalter and Aldhelmian glosses and the Old English RSB--Gretsch demonstrates that the ideological framework for the reform was already being articulated in the time of Aethelstan. Not only was the vernacular language placed at the centre of this intellectual endeavour, as indeed Aethelwold's biographer has told us: his master always "found it agreeable to teach young men and the more mature students, translating Latin texts into English for them" (Wulfstan, Life of Aethelwold, ch. 31). The vernacular language was being manipulated to some highly-explicit political and religious ends. The Old English glosses to the Psalter promote one of the central ideological conceptions of the reform, an emphasis on the kingship of Christ and a Christological percepetion of temporal rulership. (304-10) The later Anglo-Saxon fascination with Aldhelm and the hermeneutic Latin style is here shown first to have become apparent in King Aethelstan's reign and to have been a key component of study at Glastonbury in the time of Dunstan and Aethelwold, where Gretsch even hypothesises there was an "Aldhelm seminar". (382) Gretsch explores King Aethelstan's known interest in the religious community at Malmesbury (where Aldhelm had been abbot and where the dead king was to be buried) and speculates that it may have been the king himself who initiated interest in this author. Further, she raises the interesting possibility that the deluxe, but incomplete, manuscript of Aldhelm's De virginitate, Royal 7. D. XXIV, containing the Old English interlinear gloss that she associates with Aethelwold, might originally have been intended to be given by the king to Chester-le-Street, only later to be replaced by the manuscript of the lives of St Cuthbert, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, that famously bears a frontispiece depicting the king donating the book to St Cuthbert (ch. 9).

Amidst the close-focussed philological and palaeographical detail, there is buried much invaluable material of substantial interest to all students of the intellectual climate of the tenth-century Church. Of notable importance is the information Gretsch provides about the academic milieu of the court of King Aethelstan, although it is not easy to find even with the help of the index (once more driven by other than historical questions). Tantalisingly brief mention is made of the career of Archbishop Oda (941-958) whose role in the background to the reform warrants much more serious attention. The perspective of the whole is court- based and monastic. As in so much of the literature about the church in this period, religious women are virtually invisible (Gretsch notes for example, p. 235, that the Nunnaminster at Winchester was not seen to be in need of reform, but never speculates as to why it was not). Nor is there any consideration of the accessibility or appropriateness of these glosses to those beyond the ambit of reformed monasticism. The Aldhelmian texts were clearly of specialist interest, and the audience for a translation of Benedict's rule is similarly obvious, but the Psalter has a more universal readership, being the focus of devotion for secular priests and for vowesses living beyond the cloister as well as for enclosed nuns and monks. The intellectual climate outside the rarified atmosphere of Aethelwold's circle is not explored in this volume. Mechthild Gretsch has done much to confirm the status of the bishop of Winchester at the heart of the Benedictine revolution and to demonstrate the significance of the community at Glastonbury in the 940s and 950s as a seedbed for the ideas- -and translations--that were to bear such promising fruit in the 970s. But the wider intellectual foundations of the reform still await a new study of equivalent scope and imagination to Armitage Robinson's Ford Lectures.