09.02.15, Cabaniss, trans., Benedict of Aniane

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Marilyn Dunn

The Medieval Review baj9928.0902.015


Cabaniss, Allen (trans.) Forward by Annette Grabowsky and Clemens Radl. Benedict of Aniane: The Emperor's Monk, Ardo's Life. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2008. Pp. 112. ISBN: 978-0-87907-320-6.

Reviewed by:
Marilyn Dunn
University of Glasgow

The core of this book first appeared in Britain in 1979, as the late Allen Cabaniss's: The Emperor's Monk, a translation of Ardo's Life of Benedict of Aniane, accompanied by a detailed introduction. Since then, Professor Cabaniss's translation has also appeared in T. F. X. Noble and T. Head (eds.), Soldiers of Christ. Saints and Saints' Lives From Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995). Now, Cistercian Publications have taken the decision to re-issue both text and introduction, prefaced by a new introduction by Annette Grabowsky and Clemens Radl, and some minor changes have been made to bring the work into line with their editorial conventions.

Certainly, the importance of Ardo's text might be thought to justify the re-packaging and up-dating of the earlier translation. Benedict of Aniane is a significant enough figure in the history of western monasticism to be distinguished from Benedict of Nursia by being known as Benedict II. He stands at a crucial juncture in that history by being associated with the monastic policies of the Carolingian dynasty and the rulings, made early in the ninth century, which turned the Rule of the first Benedict into the normative rule of the western Empire.

Many elements of the story of Benedict II--austerity and rejection, followed by gradual acceptance and success--are familiar from the Lives of other monastic saints, both earlier and later. His mortifications and humility, his miraculous powers, and his decision to leave the first monastery where he was chosen as abbot also find their pre-figurations or echoes elsewhere. Presented as an austere and unpopular cellarer, who refuses to indulge his brethren freely with drink, Benedict is nevertheless chosen as head of the community on his abbot's death. Alarmed, he beats a retreat to his family estates, creating his own monastic foundation of Aniane, which eventually gathers recruits and grows in prosperity and significance, until Benedict is in a position to offer spiritual guidance to other monasteries that have sprung up in the region and his house is regarded as their head. His sanctity is conveyed through a recital of miraculous events and Benedict now devotes himself to the study of the Benedictine Rule, which he had initially viewed very much as its own writer presented it--a 'little rule for beginners'. He is given control of more monasteries, first by Charlemagne, then by Louis the Pious. He spends much time at court, 'wearing away the palace floors' and helps establish the Benedictine Rule as the standard of monastic observance in the Carolingian Empire. He composes theCodex Regularum and the Concordia Regularum, at the same time convincing the Emperor that monasteries should be free not only from secular abuses, but even from the control of secular clergy. TheLife concludes with an account of the austerities of his last years, his death and some of his letters.

In the 1970s, Cabaniss's translation and introduction highlighted many of the problems surrounding the text as it has come down to us, in particular the possibility of interpolation. He characterized chapter 30, which is devoted to the career of William of Gellone, perhaps a Jewish convert to Christianity and then to monasticism, as a later interpolation. He also highlighted differences of opinion about the extent of Benedict's involvement in monastic reform. Both of these areas have been revisited in the new introduction. Grabowsky and Radl highlight recent approaches, which suggest that Benedict's actual role in the Aachen reforms of the second decade of the ninth century cannot be explicitly gleaned from the official documents and that other distinguished abbots, who did not have devoted hagiographers to memorialize their work in writing, also played their part in the reforms. They also give prominence to Bonnerue's suggestion that chapters 18.3 to 29 of the Life as it stands are interpolations. While these are very useful summaries, other areas of Grabowsky and Radl's discussion are less helpful. Their support for the idea that chapter 30 is not, as Cabaniss thought, a later interpolation, but actually represents Ardo's own work, may be well-founded; but their apparent downplaying of the idea that William of Gellone was a convert in the first place from Judaism to Christianity, rather than simply to the monastic life, is perhaps more questionable.

There are major problems with the introduction's discussion of Benedict of Nursia and his Rule. Noting some verbal resemblances between the Life of Benedict of Nursia (Book II of the Dialogues) and Ardo's Life--they cite their opening words--Grabowsky and Radl claim that the parallels between the two texts are pronounced and that the basic framework of what they call the stations of the first Benedict's life applies to Benedict of Aniane equally well. They adduce in support of this argument the noble birth of both men and the fact that both are sent away for their education; that both begin religious life as anchorites, until they are taken on by monks; that both experience a period of failure before establishing their own monasteries; and that both are elected abbot and both reject the office because their lifestyles are different from that of their brethren. This is less than accurate. Benedict of Aniane (educated at court and in military service, not in urban schools, like Benedict of Nursia) did not enter the religious life as an anchorite, but as a member of the community of Saint Seine. Grabowsky and Radl suggest that he lived as what they term an anchorite amongst cenobites: a meaningless description, as it is quite clear that although Benedict goes to extremes of austerity and is sometimes jeered at by his brethren, he lives as a member of the community, cleaning their shoes and eventually being appointed to the key office of cellarer. Benedict of Nursia dwells first beside a church, with his old nurse, and then in a cave, watched over at a distance by the monk Romanus; Benedict of Aniane leaves his monastery, sets up his own monastic group on his paternal lands, near a church, and consults Attilio, who may be a hermit, but may equally be part of a group himself, especially as their discussions, and the tenor of this section of the Life, centre on cenobitic monasticism, its observance and the foundation of new communities. And unlike his later namesake, Benedict of Nursia does not reject the office of abbot: on the contrary, he becomes head of a nearby community when invited by its monks. This ends in debacle, as his monks resent his virtuous rectitude and attempt to poison him, so he goes back to the hermit life for a time; gradually, he begins to attract disciples of his own, creating first his own community and then establishing other monasteries. These are hardly similar career patterns. Some resemblances between Book Two of the Dialogues and the Life might be argued to exist in the series of short narratives concerning Benedict and the Aniane community which occupy chapters 7 to 16 of the Life and contain a number of miracle stories, but there are significant differences of emphasis between the two texts. While the overall format of the mini-narratives both in Ardo's text and the putatively interpolated sections--which arguably sometimes bear a slightly closer likeness to those of the Dialogues--is indeed likely to have been suggested by Book Two of the Dialogues, Grabowsky and Radl ignore the different discourses operating in the two works. While the later text is principally concerned to delineate its hero's ascetic feats and his relationship to existing monastic rules, to the development of monastic communities and organization, and to the Carolingian court, Benedict of Nursia's Life mentions his Rule almost as an afterthought to its recital of his miracles and spiritual discernment. In addition to an approach to monasticism different to that of Ardo, Book Two shares in the discourses which dominate the three remaining books of the Dialogues: the virtutes of the Christian holy man, the power of the Christian God, the overcoming of pagan practice and belief, and the relationship between body, soul and afterlife. In addition, the authors' discussion of the recent literature surrounding the genesis of the Dialogues is less than comprehensive. They seem unaware of the present writer's support for the main thrust of Francis Clark's argument--that the text is not the work of Gregory the Great, but a later creation--and her alternative suggestions as to its place of origin. Instead, they are content to give prominence to the suggestion by a German scholar that Benedict of Nursia might not have been a real person. This thesis is partly based on the older idea that no-one in Italy had heard of Benedict before the eighth century. No-one in Rome: but Rome is not northern Italy, and a case has been made for knowledge of the Benedictine Rule and the name of Benedict, too, in seventh- century Bobbio, a possibility which should have been discussed in the section of the introduction on 'The Age of the Combined Rule'.

This is billed as the first volume in an on-going series in reforming monks in the European Middle Ages. Given its importance as an advertisement for future volumes, and the fact that Cabaniss's translation has already appeared twice, we might have expected the new introduction to be more balanced and thorough.

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Marilyn Dunn

University of Glasgow