03.09.25, Keefe, Water and the Word

Main Article Content

Martin Claussen

The Medieval Review baj9928.0309.025


Keefe, Susan A.. Water and the Word: Baptism and the Education of the Clergy in the Carolingian Empire, 2 vols.. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002. Pp. xiii, 202; vi, 661. ISBN: 0-268-01965-7.
ISBN: 0-268-01969-x.

Reviewed by:
Martin Claussen
University of San Francisco

Like its Italian counterpart, the Carolingian Renaissance of the eighth and ninth centuries has long been the subject of historians' interests. But like its early modern namesake, we are not sure what it exactly is. Francia, under its Carolingian kings, clearly witnessed a revival of learning, though dating the beginning of this has proven problematic: some believe that it started in the reign of Charlemagne (+814), but others have sought the origin as far back as the time of Charles Martel, sixty years earlier. Equally disputed are the characteristics of this renewal: is its essential nature the high culture we find at the court at Aachen, with its classicizing poetry? Is it the quest to restore the classical style of Cicero, which so interested Lupus of Ferrières? Is it a renewed interest in secular history, such as we find in the biographies of Einhard, Thegan, and others, or the new style of history writing that marks the work of Nithard? Many find the essence of the Carolingian Renaissance in the reform of the church that was such a great concern for the Carolingian kings themselves, but again, the same sorts of questions dog the historian. It has been suggested that at the heart of ecclesiastical reform was the desire to create new and standardized texts that would be available throughout the kingdom and empire. Those who advocate this position look to the production of the new, 'critical' versions of the Bible produced by Alcuin and Theodulf of Orléans, the quest for the 'pure' version of the Rule of St Benedict, and the promulgation of the Dionysio-Hadriana code of canon law. Others posit that the great production of religious texts in the late eighth and ninth centuries really sought to bring liturgical practices throughout the areas controlled by the Frankish kings in line with the traditions of the Roman church. Thus the Carolingians were hailed, for centuries, as the first great orthopractic kings of the west, whose efforts led to the creation of western Christendom. In the end, the historian who seeks to understand this complex of developments must throw up her hands in despair, and, paraphrasing Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, acknowledge that although defining it is difficult, we know the Carolingian Renaissance when we see it.

Into the fray now comes Susan A. Keefe, whose new study of Carolingian baptismal instructions offers far more than its title suggests. The text, in two volumes (one a monograph, and the second a handlist and description of manuscripts she has used or examined, and an edition of sixty one Carolingian baptismal instructions, twenty five of which have never been edited before), ostensibly seeks only modest goals: she says in her introduction that her study has three major objectives: to describe the codices in which the baptismal instructions are found, and to show with which materials they were associated; to study the baptismal instructions systematically, and to examine their differences and similarities; and finally, to interpret the Carolingian Reform (as she calls it) in light of these texts and their manuscripts. In fact, Keefe argues far more than this. First, she relocates the Carolingian Reform: instead of being concerned with a 'rebirth' of classical learning, she argues persuasively that the main concern of the Carolingian effort was to foster education, first of the clergy (and by clergy, she means diocesan priests), and through them, of the ordinary residents of eighth and ninth century Francia. Second, she argues that as a result of this educational concern, diversity of every kind, especially in terms of liturgical practices, was in fact fostered. Although her book was in press when Yitzhak Hen's important study, The Royal Patronage of Liturgy in Frankish Gaul, to the Death of Charles the Bald (877) [Henry Bradshaw Society Subsidia 3 (London, 2001)] on whether the Carolingians in fact did seek liturgical uniformity was published, her findings are in concord with his, and she offers a most detailed examination of evidence that Hen did not use.

The first volume is divided into an introduction and ten chapters. The introduction is perhaps the weakest section of the book. While she might have used this to highlight her own findings and place them in the context of the historiographical debates on the Carolingian Renaissance, she instead offers a few definitions, and states that the chief concern of the Carolingians was the christianization of the peoples under their rule. Because this was their main concern, baptism was key, introducing as it did individuals into this new and Christian society. Needed here is some examination of the changing norms and notions of baptism during the early Middle Ages, something which Peter Cramer offered in Baptism and Change in the Early Middle Ages, c. 200-c.1150 [Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought (Cambridge, 1993)], and which does not appear in her bibliography, or, as far as I could tell, in her notes.

Chapter One begins with Keefe describing her methodology. She says she will keep her study grounded in the actual physical evidence offered by the baptismal instructions: her study will focus on the manuscript context of the texts in which she is interested. It is this focus on the manuscripts themselves which sets Keefe's work apart from most others on the Carolingian Renaissance, and in this, she is following an important trend, perhaps best set out by John Dagenais in The Ethics of Reading in Manuscript Culture: Glossing the Libro de Buen Amor [(Princeton, 1994)] on the centrality of the manuscript for a new appreciation of medieval texts and culture. While Dagenais is concerned with literature, Keefe shows how essential such attentiveness to context is for far less literary texts. She argues in this chapter that the production of Carolingian florilegia, collections of what might appear as a series of unrelated texts, was purposeful, and that each was planned by a compiler or an overseer with a particular purpose and a specific recipient in mind. These florilegia, which often include such diverse material as capitularies, sermons, and instructional, disciplinary, penitential and liturgical texts, have an essentially instructional intent according to Keefe. They were meant to provide their specific recipients with educational material, and were used as a source for the moral instruction and edification of the clergy. In Chapter Two, she divides the manuscripts she has used into four categories: instruction-readers for priests; episcopal pastoral manuals; episcopal reference books; and schoolbooks. Regarding the first, the readers for pastors, she notes that this genre was created in the Carolingian period, and that such a genre was produced shows the real concern bishops had to insure the education of their clergy. Each of these books -books that we have lumped into the florilegium category -was designed, Keefe says, for specific individuals by bishops who knew them and their educational levels. Schoolbooks, Keefe's fourth category, were generally produced in monasteries. Thus they suggest the central role played by monastic schools in the formation and education of the secular clergy, this despite the well-known attempts by Benedict of Aniane to limit access to such schools. Keefe concludes that despite our own historiographical ambivalence, the manuscript evidence shows that monasteries played a central role in "instructing men for active parish priesthood," (33). While such schools might not have been involved in the apparently much needed remediation of contemporary parish priests, the Carolingians were using them to prepare a solid formation of the next generation of the clergy, and thus they were clearly looking to the future.

Chapters Three and Four take on the vexed question of liturgical standardization during the Carolingian period. It has long been a historiographical conceit that Charlemagne and Louis the Pious sought to impose a standard form of liturgical performance in their kingdom. This conviction has come under fire in the last generation, and Keefe might put the final nail in the coffin of this long-held belief. She demonstrates how the baptismal instructions point to a wide variety of baptismal practices, some derived from indigenous practices, some from Roman ordines, some from a combination of the two. She seeks to illuminate what the Carolingians might have meant when they stated they sought to follow Roman practices, and shows that this could entail everything from following Roman Ordo XI as literally as possible, to adding scrutinies to the program of preparation for baptism, to simply using a triple immersion. All in all, she concludes that the Carolingian Reform was not a program of standardization that sought liturgical conformity; rather its goal was to incorporate some Roman practices into pre-existing rites, instead of replacing them wholesale.

Chapter Five examines how four different Carolingian texts, all based on a baptismal florilegium of sixth-century Roman John the Deacon, were adapted for specific circumstances. The first version (Text One, in Keefe's second volume) sought to bring John's version more into line with contemporary Roman practices; the second (Text Two), hailing from the same northern Italian or Swiss milieu as Text One, transforms John's florilegium into something more practical and useful for a typical parish priest; Text Three, from a scholarly monastic center that Keefe identifies as Tours, points to the way learned monks contributed to the education of the secular clergy; and Text Four shows the need for specific texts to perform specific rites. The authors of all four texts were clearly aware that educating the clergy called for more than a rote copying of patristic sources, and Keefe demonstrates how the same text could be modified for the specific needs of specific priests. She argues that this reveals how the leaders of the Carolingian Reform -mainly bishops, but also monks and others -realized that educational reform would only work if it pertained to the needs of those whom it targeted. Thus, she concludes, the Reform was inherently local, and was by necessity diverse. Chapter Six uses a similar methodology, this time examining how texts written by leading Carolingians were subject to a comparable modification. Here she examines the vagaries undergone by Alcuin's baptismal instructions (Text Nine), Charlemagne's well-known baptismal circular of c.812, and Hrabanus Maurus' baptismal instructions.

Chapter Seven examines the persistence of traditional (Keefe calls them indigenous) rites of baptism in Spain, northern Italy, and southern Gaul. Such rites, which contained blatantly non-Roman elements, continued to be used throughout the Carolingian period. She argues that the requirements, originating at the court at Aachen, which demanded a single ordo be used for baptism conflicted with calls from the same source for clerical education. When it came to educating the secular clergy, the composers of the baptismal instructions based their work on the liturgical books available in their own areas. In fact, Keefe argues that the educational goals of the Carolingian Reform encouraged the maintenance of liturgical diversity, because the Reform was a locally implemented phenomenon. The education the treatises offered was based on the local clergy's knowledge and experience of the local liturgy. Since the central imperial administration at Aachen did not direct the educational reform of the clergy (they simply directed that it be done), a single program from the center would not have met the diverse needs across the empire. All of this, Keefe concludes, should change our notions of "Romanity, centralism, and liturgical conformity as the achievements, or even the chief aims, of the Reform," (115). Chapter Eight looks at some Carolingian interpretation of the ceremonies of baptism, and concludes that while the instructions do show a concern with the rite, their main focus is the "general education of the cleric," (123). But they show more than that as well: their overriding concern was not that individual priests all say the same thing about baptism to their parishioners, but rather that they have something to say. This, Keefe says, sheds an important light on the leaders of the Carolingian Reform: less concerned that there be a consensus or a fixed canon of teaching, they were more anxious that the clergy have some knowledge about baptism, to whatever degree they were able.

Chapter Nine examines the manuscript context of the instructions once again. Keefe notes the care that went into each compilation. Finally, Chapter Ten offers a general conclusion. She says that her study has shown that the principle aim of the Carolingian Reform in the eyes of the Carolingians themselves was the education of the clergy, and its greatest accomplishment was to revive a widespread love of learning and to create a sense that a system of education that reached down to the grassroots level of the church was necessary. To this end, Keefe shows that monasteries were deeply implicated in the education of the secular clergy, and that bishops had a significant impact on the monastic educational practices in their dioceses. Keefe in the end dismisses the idea of Carolingian unity in liturgy and even theology as insignificant, and concludes that the baptismal literature was not intended to promote standardization. The goal of the Carolingian Reform was to create effective pastors, who could lead their people into the city of God, but Keefe, mixing biblical images, cautions that for the Carolingians, God's mansion had many rooms.

Volume Two of the study presents the texts, which form the basis of Keefe's evidentiary base. It begins with a description of the sixty-three manuscripts, which Keefe has examined. She, very usefully, describes the contents of each manuscript, and presents a topical survey of their contents, divided into twenty-four categories. There follows an edition of sixty-one texts, a list of about 145 manuscripts, which she has consulted, and an inventory of the incipits of Carolingian baptismal instructions. Because of the quick turn-around time this Review seeks, I have not been able to check her editions against the manuscripts she uses: compared to the handful that have been published in the Patrologia, they seem to offer much better texts.

For this reader, the texts themselves provoke a number of questions that Keefe does not address. She describes her editorial practice in her introduction to the edition, and notes the sometimes rather difficult Latinity that the texts offer. One wonders how such incorrect, and sometimes plain old bad, Latin would further the education of the clergy. What might this tell us about the use of these texts as tools of a more general education? If they are texts that were often specifically composed for specific individuals, do they offer us information on the literacy of the clergy or on the always problematic transition from Latin to the various vernaculars?

While I believe Water and the Word is a new and important contribution to early medieval history, there are some problems in the text, and Keefe has not been served well by her editors and press. Her introduction offers only a cursory glance at the historiography of the both the Carolingians, their liturgical and educational reforms, and of baptism itself. Thus much of the book does not work in the rich context that might have made it even more impressive. Likewise, her conclusion draws on the very dated work of Imbart de la Tour on early medieval parishes. Most maddening for this reader was the sloppy presentation in the notes and the bibliography. When Keefe cites Gregory of Tours (on p. 3, n.6), she uses the Penguin translation, and not the Monumenta edition. In the bibliography, the citation for Gregory is as follows: "Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe, Penguin, Middlesex (England)/Baltimore/etc., 1974." While all the necessary information is there, it seems oddly presented in a number of ways: for instance, counties are usually not used as places of publication. She occasionally uses odd editions for primary sources (see, for instance, p. 23, n.4, and p.24, n.5). She cites articles by John Contreni in a Variorum collection, rather than from their original place of publication; typographical errors in some of the notes render them at times useless (Giles Constable's article on early medieval cura animarum is to be found in a volume known as Settimane di studio devo 28!), or sometimes merely humorous (Rosamond McKitterick's The Carolingians and the Written Word was published in Cambridge, English, p. 14, n.5). It is a shame that Keefe, who has been working with these texts for over twenty years, should have that work marred to some extent by such slipshod production.

But it is important to conclude not with such critical remarks. Susan Keefe has produced a book that will go a long way towards changing our received understanding of the Carolingians and their reforms. It should be read by all liturgists (or as Keefe calls them, liturgiologists), theologians and historians whose interests touch in the greatest intellectual and spiritual revival of the early Middle Ages.

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Author Biography

Martin Claussen

University of San Francisco