03.02.30, Freeman, Narratives of a New Order

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Brian Patrick McGuire

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.030


Freeman, Elizabeth. Narratives of a New Order: Cistercian Historical Writing in England, 1150-1220. Series: Medieval Church Studies, Vol. 2. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2002. Pp. x, 245. ISBN: 2-503-51090-6.

Reviewed by:
Brian Patrick McGuire
Univ. of Roskilde

This is an important study that will be of interest both to Cistercian scholars and to medievalists concerned with the history of narrative, especially in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Elizabeth Freeman, now at the University of Tasmania, has converted her doctoral thesis from the University of Melbourne into a readable and thoughtful monograph.

She points out in her introduction that the Cistercians have been overlooked in English historical writing, because of overinterpretation of one of the Order's statutes seemingly requiring the writing of new works to be approved by the General Chapter. This provision, together with a general conception about "anti-intellectualism" among the early Cistercians, has made it possible for classic accounts of English history writing, such as that by Antonia Gransden, to look upon Cistercian narratives as an insignificant rivulet in comparison with the great Benedictine river of twelfth- and early thirteenth-century history writing in England. Cistercian scholars at the same time have been for the most part content to extract from these chronicles information about the monasteries and their contacts with the rest of society. But few such scholars have bothered with asking how such sources are connected to other works of history. Thanks to the linguistic turn in our perception of historical sources, Freeman sees it as her task to move from "studying histories as quarries of information to accepting that so-called documentary histories are primarily literary texts" (3).

Theoretical considerations of this type return intermittently through this book, which begins with Aelred of Rievaulx's historical works, first the Relatio de standardo, dated to 1155-57, concerning a battle between the English and the Scots in 1138. Freeman considers what she finds to be different layers of meaning in the text, intended both for lay and monastic audiences. Walter Espec, the founder of Rievaulx, is a key figure in the narrative. Aelred places him at the center of a myth illustrating "the Normans' fighting prowess" (41) and here provides "the link between the Relatio's two audiences, monastic and noble" (40). Freeman uses "nationalism" as one of the work's central themes, and she tries to define this difficult term, which many historians would exclude from the Middle Ages. She also studies the manuscript diffusion of the work, in an attempt to show that monastic history in the period got beyond the cloister (53).

The second of Aelred's works Freeman analyzes is his Genealogia regum Anglorum, written after it in 1153 had become apparent that Henry duke of Normandy and count of Anjou would inherit the English throne at the death of King Stephen. Freeman provides a close reading of the Genealogy in terms of how Aelred provided a link from Henry back to the Anglo-Saxon kings. Here the female line was more significant than the male, and so Aelred had to consider the role of women. At the same time, he left out a number of kings of England, such as Danish ones, who did not fit into the pattern he wanted to create. Freeman sees the Genealogy as creating "an image of the nation that is premised on a rejection of discontinuities and an emphasis on timeless moral qualities" (86-7).

Part Two of the book bridges the gap between the death of Aelred in 1167 and the period of Cistercian foundation chronicles after 1200. Freeman looks carefully at library collections, with lists of lost and surviving manuscripts, and here it is only the Rievaulx catalogue, probably from the 1190s, that provides her with the kind of information she seeks about the presence of historical works in Cistercian monasteries. The role of Geoffrey of Monmouth's work in Cistercian circles is considered, as well as other borderline works between history, fantasy, and hagiography. Freeman concludes that the Rievaulx monks "simply took over the historical and hagiographical interests of their northern neighbours." Here Durham was the center of activity. Except for Buildwas and Sawley, Rievaulx and its daughter houses provide the only evidence of Cistercian historical interest.

Part Three, "Foundation Histories and Invented Tradition, 1200-1220s," considers foundation chronicles in terms of what was written on the Continent, and especially in relation to Citeaux's Exordium parvum and Clairvaux's Exordium magnum. Chapter 4 deals with the Fundacio abbathie de Kyrkestall for its section covering 1147-1210. Freeman looks at some of the topoi used in the narrative, such as the perception of the setting of the monastery as locus amoenus and as a hermitage in the wilderness. Another way of "mapping institutional history" used in the chronicle is the common one of listing abbots, but the narrative also mentions problems in the community.

Freeman reads Cistercian foundation histories as "classic examples of invented tradition" (131). Chapter Five analyses the narrative on the foundation of Fountains, which is looked upon in terms of central themes and literary devices. The use of exempla is interpreted as a way for presenting the chronicle's main themes. Freeman sees the source as illustrative of how "medieval histories suggested meanings without those meanings necessarily being tied to facts" (165).

Her fullest analysis of a work of history appears in Part Four, "National History Writing, c. 1220," where Ralph of Coggeshall's Chronicon Anglicanum is carefully reviewed in terms of its structure and narrative strategies. She relates Ralph's "emphasis on setting examples and acting as a teacher to one's peers" to Caroline Walker Bynum's understanding of Cistercian spiritual writings (190-91).

Ralph of Coggeshall emerges as a "conservative historian, either unaware of or uninterested" in what Freeman sees as a "new textual debate" (200). She considers his four wonder stories to be an integral part of his text and not second thoughts or trivial additions for curiosity. Ralph's description of a heretical group is contrasted with his praise of the life of Alpaix of Cudot. In his narrative she finds an eagerness "to present the past, in all its randomness, not as a series of discrete episodes but as a broader narrative bound by thematic continuities" (212).

Freeman concludes that she has emphasized "the Cistercians' quest for tradition rather than their quest for continuity, since tradition is a concept that openly accommodates change" (220). This is a fascinating remark, indicative of a book that insists that we take Cistercian history writing seriously, instead of dismissing it as an insignificant aspect of an Order that is worth studying either because of its administrative development or because of its spiritual writings.

My problem with the book is related to the fact that Freeman time and again ventures into the area of hagiography and yet has to stop herself from considering this field together with the writing of history. I understand perfectly that Ph.D. theses and monographs have to be limited in size, but I do not think that the historical interests of Aelred or his successors can be properly understood without including their hagiographical involvements. Aelred's two historical works cannot be isolated from what he wrote about the saints of Hexham.

Freeman's Aelred becomes too one-dimensional not only because of her exclusion of hagiography but also because she sees him as almost exclusively English. His attachment to the Scottish king is not made clear in Freeman's analysis of Aelred on the Battle of the Standard. I tried in my own biography of Aelred, Brother and Lover (1994), which Freeman apparently does not use, to show him as seeking to reconcile two traditions, while she concentrates exclusively on the Norman dimension, without his Scottish sympathies. Freeman concedes at several points that her presentation of Cistercian historiography is primarily northern, but until she gets to the Fountains foundation chronicle, she is almost exclusively dealing with Rievaulx and its daughters. The first two-thirds of the book thus have a narrow focus which may only confirm the general view she opposes, that the Cistercians until about 1200 in England (and the Continent) were not very interested in history.

At times I found her theoretical approach about narrative almost too rich in comparison to the relatively simple and straightforward narrative accounts she was analyzing. Freeman belongs to a new generation today in medieval history that is caught up in theory, especially literary theory, and sometimes her generalizations get in the way of her own insightful presentations and analyses of her sources.

Here her approach and mine differ, for I believe that it is our job as medievalists to make the sources come alive for our readers, rather than trying to explain them in terms of grand theory. The Cistercian narratives that she presents to us are interesting and informative, but they are in comparison to Benedictine history writing secondary and derivative. They are of central concern for the Cistercian scholar, but not for the historian of medieval English society.

This book is an interesting reevaluation of a neglected side of the Cistercians primarily in the North of England. It will be justly mined for its insights and analyses by both literary scholars and by medieval historians.

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Brian Patrick McGuire

Univ. of Roskilde