The Medieval Review 10.11.11

Müller, Anne and Karen Stöber. Self-Representation of Medieval Religious Communities: The British Isles in Context. Vita Regularis. Berlin: Verlag Dr. W. Hopf, 2009. Pp. 412. . $60 pb ISBN 978-3-8258-1758-9.

Reviewed by:

Robert Swanson
University of Birmingham

The series Vita regularis is now firmly established as a vehicle for scholarship on the medieval religious orders. This collection of eighteen essays (plus a conclusion), written in English by a group of British and continental scholars are derived from the proceedings of a conference held at Aberystwyth University in December 2008, is a worthy addition to its volumes, and a valuable reflection of the vitality and variety of current work in the field. Its sub-title suggests a focus on Britain, and England is certainly prominent, with several of the essays based exclusively on English case studies. However, the contents range more widely, and some of the contributions avoid Britain completely. Indeed, there are few comparative assessments which formally address the sub-title's implicit promise to set "The British Isles in context;" but that absence does not significantly detract from the utility of the volume as a whole.

The first two essays are set apart from the rest, being labeled as dealing with "Fundamentals." Gert Melville offers a fairly intense but wide-ranging consideration of the "Construction and deconstruction of religious symbols in the Middle Ages," while Jens Röhrkasten, confining his analysis to the period up to c. 1323, provides a more focused assessment of "Reality and symbolic meaning among the early Franciscans." The succeeding contributions to the collection, treated as "Case Studies," are split into four groups, headed in turn as "Rituals in internal organisation" (three essays), "Symbolism in the use of space, architecture and art" (four articles), "Symbolism in social interaction" (four pieces), and "Symbolic constructions of the past" (five articles, plus Martial Staub's overall "Conclusion").

The titles of the first two essays, and the headings for three of the four groupings, point to an issue with the volume which may only be apparent when obliged to read the whole collection for the purposes of review. The book's title stresses "self-representation," a word which reappears in the titles of four of the articles. Yet Melville, Röhrkasten, three of the section headings, and two essay titles, place the emphasis on "symbolism." Symbolism and self-representation may indeed overlap (Jörg Sonntag manages to incorporate both terms into his title), but they also pull in different directions. A tension between the two seems to run through the volume, present even from the opening sentences of the editorial preface, but it is probably perceptible only with a full read-through. Indeed, some of the articles seem unconcerned with either--or do not see them as their explicit central concern. This makes the overall coherence of the collection problematic; but need not be a major issue: in general the essays must be assessed as individual works, which is most probably how they will be exploited by readers. They may ultimately be agglomerated elsewhere into a comprehensive synthetic survey; but here they stand as single pieces, validated very much on their own terms.

A sense of differing concerns and self-validations is apparent in the first group of case studies, on ritual and internal organization. Jörg Sonntag looks at "Welcoming high guests to the paradise of the monks: social interactions and symbolic moments of monastic self-representation according to Lanfranc's constitutions." He dissects Lanfranc's instructions for the reception of major guests, especially ecclesiastical visitors, to the Benedictine houses, examining the message conveyed by the choreography of reception and limitations on external participation in the internal routines of the communities. Guests were to be welcomed, and impressed, but were not to be allowed to be disruptive. Annette Kehnel and Mirjam Mencej then turn to issues of "Representing eternity: circular movement in the cloister, round dancing, winding-staircases and dancing angels." The analysis is as eclectic as the article's title suggests, with hints of confusion between "circulation" as movement through any space, and the specific sense of rotation required of "circular movement." This is also a contribution which seems to rub against the main concerns of the volume: with its examination of folkloric attitudes to circles, its rejection of geographical focus, and its limited attention to monastic contexts, it seems somewhat out of place here. By contrast, Martin Heale's discussion of "Mitres and arms: aspects of the self-representation of the monastic superior in late medieval England" is firmly on target, and provides another component in his emerging reconfiguration of the social role and significance of monastic structures and activities in pre-Reformation England.

The second group of case studies deals with the use of space. Julie Kerr examines "The symbolic significance of hospitality," a discussion which complements Sonntag's but directs attention primarily to Carthusian practice. Margit Mersch turns to "Programme, pragmatism and symbolism in mendicant architecture," looking at Franciscan and Dominican construction in the thirteenth century. Anne Müller ponders the problem of "Presenting identity in the cloister: remarks on Benedictine and mendicant concepts of space," but actually says little about the mendicants beyond pointing to the need for further work. As the last of this group, Peter Dänhardt examines "Building (on) the church: craftsmanship and practical skills in the life of English abbots," ranging from the Anglo-Saxon period through to the thirteenth century.

The essays in the third group, gathered under the heading of "Symbolism in social interaction, bring to the fore the issue of the geographical focus of the volume which seems to be implied by the sub-title. At first glance, Emilia Jamroziak is one of the few to face up to the challenge to put "The British Isles in Context", with her consideration of "Cistercian identities on the northern peripheries of medieval Europe from the twelfth to the late fourteenth century." However, she actually offers little by way of real contextualisation. Instead, as a case study, her article becomes a comparison of the Cistercian houses of Melrose in Scotland (making this the only essay to move meaningfully beyond England when drawing on "British" material) and Kołbacz in Pomerania. She contrasts the Annales Colbazienses and Melrose's Chronicle to assess the two houses' contacts with the Cistercian structures and awareness of developments within the order. Frances Andrews makes no attempt to integrate a British dimension into her contribution, but that is not a point for valid criticism. Her examination of "Self-representation in times of crisis: the case of the early Humiliati" looks at a religious order which remained firmly and exclusively Italian. The article makes significant points about attitudes to the group which congealed as the Humiliati, as a religious movement which, labeled as heretical in a papal decree of 1184, was brought back into the fold of Catholicism by Pope Innocent III, but still had to grapple with the problem of the earlier condemnation and the need to reclaim an acceptable identity--basically having to confront the challenge of ensuring that the taint of the suspicion of heresy was eventually dissipated (a cleansing confirmed only after 1214). The last two pieces grouped here are wholly Anglocentric: here it is not the British but the continental contextualisation which is missing. Andrew Abram looks at "Identity and remembrance: interaction between Augustinian houses and their benefactors in an English context." Basing his analysis on a few selected houses (primarily Stone in Staffordshire and Norton in Cheshire), he considers interactions between benefactors and communities from the twelfth to the early fourteenth centuries. Finally James G. Clark, in an article which is one of the longest in the volume, adds to his efforts to rehabilitate late medieval English monasticism and demonstrate that it made a vibrant contribution to pre-Reformation scholarly culture. His assessment of "The self-image of the scholar monk in late medieval England" is concerned primarily with the Benedictines, and with the period after the Black Death. He convincingly delineates the tensions between a desire for study and the obligations of religion, the difficulties of reintegrating monks returning from university, and their distinctive career paths within the order.

The fourth group of essays, looking at constructions of the past, opens with Julian Luxford's essay on "Texts and images of Carthusian foundation." He traces the dissemination within the Order through to the sixteenth century of two core pictorial traditions in Carthusian iconography: one of the Order's foundation (the "Bruno cycle"), and one of a kind of family tree of spiritual affiliation (what Luxford calls "the Tree of St Bruno"). Using Italian material, Antonio Sennis considers "The power of time: looking at the past in medieval monasteries." He offers a fascinating discussion of their varying construction, retention, destruction, and disregard for their written past, and the resulting uncertainties of institutional memory. Despite the limitations of the article, imposed by brevity and the consequent restrictions on what can be tackled, this is an important piece, with implications for any understanding of medieval religious houses as "textual communities." Janet Burton continues her detailed work on the monastic houses on eleventh- and twelfth-century Yorkshire, further nuancing her analyses of the early history of two of the county's major houses in "Constructing a corporate identity: the Historia fundationis of the Cistercian abbeys of Byland and Jervaulx." Michael Robson likewise adds to his previous work on the Franciscans in England with a regional treatment of "The Franciscans in the custody of York: evidence drawn from chronicles and annals." He provides an exhaustive accumulation of material gleaned from a wide range of sources, most of them necessarily non-mendicant--which tends to move the depictions away from self-representations. The material is thematically organized to show how the sources reflect issues like relations between the friars and the crown, or their pastoral concerns. Finally, in this group, Karen Stöber rounds things off with a consideration of the "Self-representation of medieval religious communities in their writing of history." Her broad title promises more than her article actually offers; it in fact becomes a focused analysis of one house's written self-representation. Examining the chronicle maintained by the Cistercian abbey of Croxden in Staffordshire, she discusses the relations between the house and its secular patrons, with particular reference to the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries.

Martial Staub ends the volume with a brief "Conclusion"--although its brevity (385-8) allows him room neither to provide an effective summary of the volume, nor to draw out the major themes. He clearly wants to produce a theoretical overview, invoking semiotics to aid analysis of symbolism and representation, and calling up Foucault, Derrida, and others; but the failure to develop his remarks is ultimately unhelpful. Maybe no conclusion could adequately bring together the disparate concerns of this collection: the case studies are simply too varied for that. Few of the contributors take refuge in Theory, and their pieces stand or fall on their own merits, regardless of the umbrella provided by the volume's title. With the varying concerns of the individual essays, and the attendant difficulty of maintaining a coherent unifying theme throughout them, this is a volume which still merits and repays attention. It will immediately appeal to scholars working on religious houses and their inmates in Britain and the continent, across a broad swathe of the late medieval centuries. Several of the articles should also have a wider impact, with resonances and implications for broader analyses of British and European cultural history in the late middle ages.