This extremely handsome book is part of the series: Citeaux- Commentarii cistercienses, vol. 7 of the Studia et documenta series. At 556 pages, including index, it is a lengthy monograph.
The foreword, Introduction, and the text itself are in French. As the foreword makes clear, the original text written in Latin by Conrad, a Cistercian monk first at Clairvaux and then at Eberbach, was composed at the beginning of the thirteenth century. As Brian McGuire explains in the Introduction, at the time this work was writen, 1190-1210, Conrad was writing not history in the usual sense, not just an outline of how the Cistercian order was founded, but a polemic tract. He wanted to instruct his readers, to illuminate for them the exemplary acts and deeds of the early great Cistercians. He was also attempting to show how their austere habits, their ascetic way of life, was necessary to Cistercian spirituality, trying to demonstrate the one right way for a monk to live. He was embarked on "a war against anyone doubting the legitimacy of the foundation of the order." (xii) This work is essential to anyone unable to read Latin who wants to study the mentalite or thought-processes of early Cistercians.
The source of this translation by Anthelmette Piebourg was the Latin transcription made by Father Bruno Griesser (1889-1965), an Austrian monk, who published the critical edition of the Exordium magnum in 1961. This work itself will be republished, completed, and amended in the Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio mediaevalis, Brepols. On this occasion, the text will include corrections to errors signalled by Father Griesser. It will be completed by microfiches which will provide a concordance to the text. It will also be available on CD-ROM as part of the Library of Christian Texts. Since the best Latin text is not available to me here and now, I will not comment on the quality of this translation. I suspect that given the quality of the other works in this series, the qualifications of those involved, and the checking of this translation before publication, that it is excellent. Any serious Cistercian scholar will consult the new Latin edition in preference to, or along with, this one.
At her death in 1978, Sister Anthelmette's translation remained in type-written form. Thirteen years later, brother Jean- Francois Holthof, prior of Citeaux, thought of the possibility of publishing this translation. He took care of the verification of the translation, the accompanying notes, introductory material and explanations. After brother Holthof left Citeaux for the life of a hermit, he gave the task of bringing this work to completion to Jacques Berlioz who was responsible for this publication in its final phase.
The text itself is explained, in a general way, in the Introduction in which McGuire explains the arrangement of the material. The work is divided into six parts, the first four much longer than the last two. It is thought that the first four were written at Clairvaux, and the shorter sections at Eberbach. The first two-thirds concentrate on the beginnings of the order and its most prominent members. For some unknown reason,the last two sections deal with the world outside the Cistercian ambit and with non-Cistercian personnages. It is in the sixth part that this work comes to terms with the whole church or the entire Christian world. The major preoccupation of this final part is the communication between the living and the dead. This interaction is played out in the recitation of a series of miracles in which the living and the dead come face-to-face. Conrad (or whoever wrote this text) explains his motives at the very end of part six saying that his purpose is not to satisfy "vain and restless curiosity" but amongst other things to fortify the weak, to encite the light-hearted to become serious, to touch hard-hearted persons with compassion. (402) Conrad also stressed here his adherence to the truth: "we have avoided with the greatest care...burdening our conscience with a lie by presenting in the most exhaustive detail nothing other than the way things really happened." (402)
This is not a work which most persons will read straight through. It is a work to be consulted, to be read in sections, to be re-read. A group of scholars including Pl. Vernet, J. Berlioz, P.-Y. Emery, Cl. Carozzi, M.-G. Dubois, D. Choisselet, P. Colomb have provided the reader with some important aids to understanding which include a very thorough index to the names of persons and places (pp.507-16), an index of subject matter (pp.527-47), an alphabetical conceptual index (pp.517-25), and a glossary (pp.493-505) which explains monastic terms, and which is very useful on its own to anyone teaching in the monastic area. Conrad's sources are presented in a systematic form in an initial discussion in the Introduction, and later (pp.405-409). A further aid occurs in the chapter on life in the Cistercian community (pp.411-34). For those requiring an illumination of some of the grand themes found in this work, short chapters exist on "Penitence and confession,""The notion of merit," "Mediators," and "Fate after death". Jacques Berlioz furnished the seventeen illustrations. Some of these are useful, the later ones are of little relevance.
Conrad denied being a historian, yet as McGuire points out, the first part of his work is, nevertheless, a history of the development of the Cisterican Order in its early period. Interestingly, Conrad praised certain non-religious aspects of Cluny: its glory and riches, the number of brothers, its possessions. He stresses the absolute necessity to adhere to every word of the Rule in the smallest detail. Only in this way can the perfect Christian life be achieved. While Conrad used many miracle tales which originated in Cluniac writing, he states in no uncertain terms that the Cluniac Order was negligent in not insisting on full and complete adherence to the Rule. Cistercians at this point, we are told (p.xxi) were 'on the defensive.' Conrad and others felt that their order was no longer living up to the principles of its renowned founders (xxi). He wove a skillful blend between the written monastic histories and stories which appear to have come down through oral tradition. One of his major themes can be seen as the need for unity: "united as one Church, one single order, and finally, one single body in Christ." (xxiv) Although Conrad wrote admiringly of Bernard of Clairvaux, he also admired Stephen Harding. He included Harding's stern words to his brothers on his death-bed: "Be quiet, my brothers, be quiet! What are you saying? In reality, I say to you, I go to God trembling and worried, like someone who has never done anything worthy. . . I am afraid and I tremble." (xxiv-xxv)
The only minor fault I have encountered in this book is that, as is so often the case, some subjects in the index are followed by endless lines of reference with no indication of sub-category which might have made the index more useful. Other entries, on the other hand, do have an alphabetically oriented series of references.
For any scholar interested in monastic history, for theologians, for modern-day mystics, for those interested in spirituality, this edition is a precious translation of a major work. By having it available in French, far more academics and students will be able to read it. I have been unable to locate an English translation but I am certain one would be successful if it existed.