The Medieval Review 10.06.14

von Heusinger, Sabine and Annette Kehnel. Generations in the Cloister: Youth and Age in Medieval Religious Life. Vita regularis - Abhandlungen. ZÜrich: LIT Verlag, 2008. Pp. 194. . 29.90 EUR ISBN 978-3-8258-1173-0.

Reviewed by:

Bert Roest
Radboud University Nijmegen

Since 1996, Professor Gert Melville from the Technische Universität Dresden has been presiding over an important series of publications on medieval religious life, with an emphasis on the institutional and socio-cultural history of medieval monastic and mendicant orders. Thus far, nearly 40 volumes have appeared in this series, published under the banner of Vita regularis: Ordnungen und Deutungen religiosen Lebens im Mittelalter. On the one hand, the Vita Regularis series has become an outlet for reworked doctoral dissertations, therewith providing the scholarly world at large with the latest fruits in German medieval scholarship by young scholars working under the umbrella of large interdisciplinary research projects known as Sonderforschungsbereiche. On the other hand, the series also has become a platform for publishing the results of scholarly collaborations between German scholars and their colleagues in other European countries.

The volume under review falls in the latter category. It is the outcome of a collaboration that started out with a session at the 2005 International Medieval Congress in Leeds, entitled "Generations in the Cloister." Expanding from the presentations held there, this volume provides the reader with seven essays, starting with three that deal with the real and the virtual child within the monastic life on a more theoretical or general level, and following with four more concrete case studies within particular monastic settings or within individual religious orders. The volume is inaugurated by a substantial introduction (in both English and German) by Sabine von Heusinger, which explains the gist of each contribution and follows this up with topics and research questions for further research.

The first essay following the introduction is Hubertus Lutterbach's contribution on the "state" of being a child of God ("Die Mönche-- Besondere Gotteskinder? Die Bedeutung der geistlichen Kindschaft fÜr das christliche Klosterleben," 35-63). Starting off with a discussion of the symbolism of the monk's cap, and its links with the baptismal cloth in the early Church, Lutterbach scrutinizes the representation of the monk as a special child of God, "baptized" as it were for the second time with the entrance in the cloister and the adoption of the monastic habit. Lutterbach reaches back to presence of the "child of God"-motif in the New Testament, and from there charts it as a monastic ideal in a rich variety of sources. In the process, he also touches upon a variety of related issues connected with the monks' chosen celibate life as children of God, including the special connections discerned in Benedictine and Cistercian writings between the pure and ascetic living priest-monks and the Christ child.

The second essay by Tim Gorringe deals more in particular with the idea of the little Child (parvulus) in the New Testament (notably in Matthew 18), and its reception in medieval biblical commentaries and homiletic texts ("Parvulus: The idea of the little child in medieval preaching and commentary," 65-73). Gorringe shows how for Thomas Aquinas, the faithful should aspire to be children in their innocence (or absence of badness), but not in their comprehension of the faith. The state of being a child in the face of Christ's message has furthermore strong connotations of humility that steers away from pride, and allows people to forget and forgive injuries. Comparable issues come to the fore in a sermon by the twelfth-century author Radulphus Ardens, who hammers on the innocence of children and their lack of adult desires through which man is led astray (including the desire for the other sex). The real goal in being "childish" is to strive for the virtue of humility and a sense of worthlessness. Gorringe sees an important shift from humility towards meekness in fifteenth-century representations of proper "childish" virtues, noting in passing that most medieval authors completely glossed over Augustine's much more negative view of children and childhood, therewith preparing the way for the sentimentality of the romantic era, with its fictions of the innocent child.

In the third essay, Tanja Skambraks discusses the functions and liminalities of the boy bishop's feast ("Im Spannungsfeld zwischen Spiel und Ernsthaftigkeit. Einige Bemerkungen zum Kinderbischofsfest in England," 75-99). She starts off by discussing the inevitable conflicts between the generations in a variety of settings (novice masters and novices, teachers and pupils, choir masters and young choir members), to portray the boy bishop's feast as a privileged moment of communication between generations in religious communities, and as a vehicle to reconfirm the exemplary status of the child from a theological and liturgical perspective. Skambraks starts with a description of the first recorded boy bishop's feast in the Casus Sancti Galli (early tenth century). She continues with a discussion of the scholarly engagement with such descriptions, opting to follow the lead of Richard De Molen and Hubertus Lutterbach, both in charting the functions of the boy bishop's feast in England, and in retracing its alleged origins in the Roman Saturnalia, the St. Nicholas cult, and the liturgical adoration of the innocent Children.

The first of the case-studies is Annette Kehnel's evaluation of ecclesiastical dynasties within Irish monasteries ("Fathers and sons in the cloister. Ecclesiastical dynasties in the early Irish Church," 101-122). Whereas clerical celibacy among those in higher ecclesiastical orders was from early onwards to some extent a natural impediment towards the emergence of ecclesiastical dynasties in religious offices, the situation was different in Ireland. Prior to the reforms of the twelfth century, it was far more common in the Irish church to have monastic dynasties. Apparently, the Irish church separated the need for ritual purity for clerics in higher orders from the need of celibacy. Rather than following a general trend to read this as a sign that the Irish church was indeed in need of reform, Kehnel wants to propose another perspective. She puts forward that we can interpret the Irish monastic church with its ecclesiastical dynasties as a serious alternative form of ecclesiastical life with high spiritual and ascetic standards of its own.

This is followed by Gabriela Signori's presentation of specific generation conflicts in female religious houses, predominantly as they rise up from German "Sisterbooks" ("Generationenkonflikte im Kloster? Gedanken zum Mit- und Nebeneinander von Jung und Alt in spätmittelalterlichen Frauenkonventen," 123-143). Rather than interpreting tensions in the monastery from a straightforward generational perspective, Signori signals the presence of a variety of smaller kin groups or "families" in the monastery, either natural (mothers, daughters, nieces in the same community), or artificial (sometimes created on the basis of strong spiritual friendships). In the end, notable generation conflicts notwithstanding, kinship factors divided the monastery into smaller microcosms that could connect generations (and create other rivalries instead).

Mirko Breitenstein, whose large monograph on novice training regulations and treatises among the Cluniacs, the Cistercians and the Franciscans has by now also appeared in the Vita Regularis series (volume 38), contributed to this volume with an essay on the Cistercian novice master ("The novice master in the Cistercian order," 145-155). Breitenstein presents the Cistercian novice master as a trait d'union between young and old, through an analysis of the Cistercian Ecclesiastica Officia. This text gives scholars an inkling of the responsibilities of the novice master, but refrains from stating specific qualifications for the job. In answer to this apparent gap in the sources, Breitenstein makes his own inferences with regard to the qualities and capacities a Cistercian novice master should possess. To underscore his endeavor, he charts the careers of three monks and novice masters during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, namely Achard of Clairvaux, Aelred of Rievaulx, and Adam of Perseigne.

Michael Robson closes with a wide-ranging survey of Franciscan dealings with children and adolescents ("Franciscans, children and the cloister," 157-183). This essay starts off with the pastoral ministry of the Friars Minor and the points of contact between Franciscan preachers and young children in the outside world. This is followed by an investigation of the influence the friars had on children, taking children in for education, and enlisting them in the performance of liturgical tasks. In a third part of his essay, Robson moves on to the connection between children and Franciscan churches, and discusses the appearance of children in Franciscan miracle stories. He concludes with a scrutiny of images of childhood in Franciscan sources, and of the conflicts between the friars and the secular clergy about the intake of young postulants.

The articles differ considerably in size, approach, and to the extent in which they put their topics in a larger perspective. As such, the volume still shows that several of its contributions started out as exploratory conference papers, presenting snapshots of work in progress and specific moments in scholarly analysis that will continue to mature. Other essays, such as Lutterbach's at times nearly metaphysical engagement with "Gotteskindschaft," are clearly reflective of a longstanding scholarly trajectory. Some articles could have profited from a more clearly delineated research question to focus their argument. Nevertheless, all contributions to this volume are well-worth reading, both for the materials they present, and for the questions they raise about the many meanings of childhood, the formulation of and changes in adult authority, and the factors at play in defining age and age groups in the medieval world.