07.11.17, Beach, Manuscripts

Main Article Content

Richard Gameson

The Medieval Review baj9928.0711.017


Beach, Alison I.. Manuscripts and Monastic Culture: Reform and Renewal in Twelfth-Century Germany. Series: Medieval Church Studies, vol. 13. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. xiv, 347. ISBN: 978-2-503-51528-1 (hb).

Reviewed by:
Richard Gameson
University of Durham

The present volume is the proceedings of a conference that was held in the Benedictine monastery of Admont in Steiermark, Austria, in 2002. The theme of the occasion was "the place of Germany, and particularly of Admont, in the monastic reform movements that swept across German-speaking lands during the twelfth century" (ix); and, we are told, the "careful reader will see reflected in both text and footnote an intellectual network, and within that network evidence of fruitful collaboration" (x). With its spectacular eighteenth-century library building and its substantial manuscript collection, rich in twelfth-century material, Admont was a fine setting for such an event: does the published volume live up to it?

In the first of two preliminary chapters, Nigel Palmer outlines the progress of monastic reform in Germany, summarises the individual articles that follow, and offers some brief thoughts on the place of the vernacular and of the liturgy in contemporary culture; readers are likely to wish that he had been able to devote more space to these last issues, otherwise almost unrepresented in the collection. Rodney Thomson then provides general reflections on "The place of Germany in the twelfth-century Renaissance", deconstructing the perception that it lagged behind northern France in terms of intellectual culture. The different educational circumstances of its cathedral clergy are identified as a key factor here; however, if the education of canons in Germany tended to be local and traditional, its monasteries were more open to 'modern' theology and biblical study. Equally, if Germany had no major scholastic writer whom she could call her own, her written vernacular enjoyed a more precocious development than that of France.

The main body of the book is divided into three groups of three papers, though the links between the members of each triad are fairly tenuous. Part I ("Seeing, Hearing, Believing") opens with Adam Cohen's study of a series of diagrammatic images (a labyrinth in the Admont copy of Cassiodorus' Historia tripartita, the Speculum virginum tradition, and a related treatise "In Praise of the Cross" in a book from Regensburg or Prüfening). The conclusion that these demonstrate the interpenetration of intellectual and affective piety in twelfth-century German monastic contexts seems sound in relation to the last two. The meaning and significance of the labyrinth with Theseus killing the minotaur--here expounded as a type for Christ, and presumably included because it was at Admont--is a harder nut to crack. Then, in a rather leisurely piece, Ellen Joyce considers the "rhetoric of reform" in the Liber visionum of Otloh of Saint Emmeram (d. c. 1070), articulating the values that it shared with the Gregorian and Hirsau reforms. Perceived to hover "at the ill-defined boundary between oral and literate cultures that often seems to run through the heart of the eleventh-century cloister" (95) the work, it is speculated, might have been designed for "that very specific monastic context of reading aloud for instruction" or even as a "source book for preachers" (93). Finally in this section, Stefanie Seeberg offers a tight consideration of the purpose of imagery in the books of the Admont nuns: with a preponderance of specifically female personae and concerns, it could support and complement the texts, thereby inspiring meditation--as one might expect.

Part II ("Preaching, Education, and Reform") opens with Alison Beach's study of the commentary on Ruth by Irimbert, abbot of Admont. Surviving only in four manuscripts, all made at Admont, the work is admitted to be of local importance. Echoing Rupert of Deutz (d. 1127) rather than the Victorines, the broader themes it articulates are the unremarkable ones of pursuing the careful study of scripture and of the need to balance action and contemplation. Next comes Julie Hotchin's outstanding exposiiton of the library of the nuns of Lippoldberg, based on the twelfth-century library catalogue. In comparison to some of the other contributions, this is a comprehensive treatment of its subject which sets the catalogue in the context of the history of the foundation, considers the implications of the library holdings, and compares them with those of other houses, notably Lamspringe. Predictably Lippoldberg seems to have tried to acquire commentaries on all the books of the Bible; perhaps less predictably, nearly half of the listed works were recent compositions, including the writings of such authors as Hugh of St-Victor and Honorius Augustodunensis as well as the more "traditionally monastic" Rupert of Deutz.

Finally in this section, Christina Lutter sets out to tackle an ambitiously long series of subtle and complicated issues concerning gender and education; merely formulating the questions--a small but typical part of which is: "what authority and consequences did these concepts [of gender] have for the lives of women and men in twelfth-century reform monasteries, for their access to literacy, their uses of texts and the possibilities of spiritual and intellectual collaboration between monks and nuns?" (195)--occupies a whole page. Interrogating a range of Admont sources--above all Irimbert's account of the fire of 1152, and the Vita of an unnamed woman--the enquiry highlights interesting practical details about local arrangements but leads to the predictably bland conclusion that "Religious men and women in Admont seem to have sought for and found ways to both live up to the religious rules and also to the needs of the day. By doing so they at least temporarily created spaces for agency [sic] that were not envisaged by rules and concepts while still not contradicting them explicitly" (213).

In the first paper of the final triad (a group of manuscript-based studies presented under the unrepresentative heading of "Changing Intellectual Landscapes"), Constant Mews considers the place of theology (or at least theological reading) in twelfth-century Admont. Based on an overview of its library, he highlights the interpenetration of "scholastic" and "monastic" texts in such collections. Ralf Stammberger then looks more particularly at Admont's holdings of the writings of Hugh of Saint-Victor, and puts the case for it having a copy of the earliest version of Hugh's commentary "Diligens scrutator". Finally, Lisa Fagin Davis collates the twelfth-century "Austrian" manuscripts of Bernard of Clairvaux's Sermones super Cantica Canticorum, elucidating their family relationships. The sharing of exemplars to which they attest indicates, unsurprisingly, that "abbeys with differing monastic ideals continued to communicate on an intellectual level" (296).

Such summaries cannot, of course, do justice to the individual articles, most of which are learned and subtle, not to mention readable, but they do signal both the range and the limitations of the volume as a whole. Bringing valuable advances in knowledge, the individual authors offer a range of different approaches to their material which collectively--if indirectly--illustrate the multifarious nature of twelfth-century southern German reformed monasticism, its intellectual interests, and its interactions with a wider world. Yet many of the chapters, distilled from grander research projects and agendas, are almost too closely-focused for a book of essays (as opposed to a journal): the general historical contexts and the broader cultural implications of their material are not always sufficiently explicated. Conversely, the introductory chapters by Palmer and Thomson are too broad in conception to fill this gap. Hotchin's contribution--a thorough, well-rounded study within a fully-explained context that sets its findings in a broad perspective--is the outstanding exception and highlights the limitations of some of the others. Why, one is left to wonder, did Cohen chose these particular images to explore and how typical are they? Why did Joyce offer a lengthy exploration of this one aspect of Otloh when others--his prodigious scribal work, or his relationship to new learning--might have been more directly relevant to the declared theme of the collection? And so on.

Certain themes inevitably recur in several of the contributions--notably the reception and influence of the writings of Rupert of Deutz, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Hugh of Saint-Victor for instance; yet nowhere will the reader find an extended treatment of their (possibly conflicting) implications. Hugh's "Germanic dimension", incidentally, has complementarily been stressed Dominique Poirel ("Hugo Saxo: les origines germanique de la pense d'Hugues de Saint-Victor," Francia 33/1 [2006]), who partly squares the circle of the strong representation of his work in some German monastic libraries by stressing Hugh's German training (at Hamersleben) and his correspondingly greater interest in the work of such writers as Isidore, Bede and the Carolingians--things that may have recommended him to German monastic culture. Rightly or wrongly, one gets the sense from the present volume that communities such as Admont were untroubled by the differences in outlook of Rupert and Hugh; only in relation to Abelard's De unitate et trinitate divinae are we told that an Admont scribe or reader flagged problematic passages (126). Equally, ex silencio one deduces that twelfth-century German monastics--whether by accident or design is rarely clear--collected and hence presumably read much the same cross-section of writings as their counterparts in France and England. The intellectual and bibliographical dichotomy is less one between Germany on the one hand and France and England on the other (the view that a couple of these writers seem to presume that their readers will have), than between a few centres in northern France on the one hand and most monastic foundations on the other. Thus the holdings and presumed interests of twelfth-century Admont are broadly comparable to those of contemporary Anchin, Canterbury, Durham, and Saint-Amand (to mention but a couple of the well-preserved English and French/Flemish Benedictine fonds), and considerably superior to those of less intellectually active northern French cathedrals such as Arras and Beauvais.

Overall then, this is a collection of good but loosely-affiliated studies which does not, despite the auspicious context evoked in the Preface, amount to more than the sum of its parts. The lack of coherence is exacerbated by an unintelligent (?computer- or individual contributor-generated) index that is linked to words not concepts. Thus under scriptrix one finds only the reference to the page where this very word appears, not to the various occasions when female scribes are discussed, even mentioned by name. The previous entry "scribes, female" only partly fills the gap as it omits those that are treated in the notes however fully (e.g. Adelhait and Sophia on p. 31) along with some major discussion in the main text (e.g. p. 34); and there is no corresponding "scribes, male" notwithstanding the treatment of, for instance, Otloh, who is defined in his own index entry as "scribe of St Emmeram". Religious houses are generally indexed under their saint/dedication, rarely under their town, and not always correctly: "Saint-Omer, monastery" transpires to mean not the monastery of Saint-Omer (which was Saint-Bertin) but its cathedral, a college of canons. Shamefully for a volume entitled Manuscripts and Monastic Culture there is no index of manuscripts: rather, those volumes that are cited by shelf-mark in the main text appear under the name of the town or collection in question; if a "common name" is used in the text, then only this name appears in the index (e.g. "Wiener Genesis" [not incidentally the codex that most scholars would consider to be the Vienna Genesis] or, even less helpful, "Millstätter Handschrift"); and if the shelf-mark of a manuscript is given in the notes, it generally does not feature at all (thus the important run of Wolfenbüttel codices discussed on pp. 168-9 is wholly ignored, though bizarrely the single Wolfenbüttel manuscript that is cited in a note on p. 34 appears all by itself).

A couple of the essays should henceforth feature on any serious consideration of twelfth-century culture and monasticism; the others are more likely to be consulted individually than collectively.

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Author Biography

Richard Gameson

University of Durham