09.03.09, Kerr, Monastic Hospitality

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Dr. Emilia Jamroziak

The Medieval Review baj9928.0903.009


Kerr, Julie. Monastic Hospitality: The Benedictines in England, c. 1070-1250. Studies in the History of Medieval Religion 32. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2007. Pp. xii, 244. ISBN: 9781843833260.

Reviewed by:
Dr. Emilia Jamroziak
University of Leeds

This book is a much-needed addition to the historiography of an important area of the monastic practice and a very good example of how to turn a PhD dissertation into a valuable and highly readable book. It should be particularly commended for a very skilful interpretation of the sources--both normative and narrative as well as new readings of texts that seem to be so familiar to the monastic historians--such as The Chronicle of Jocelin of Brakelond with a new set of questions. Julie Kerr discusses the nature of hospitality in the high middle ages on the background of the wider changes in the traditional monasticism--transforms in the internal organisation of the communities and the emergence of the "new monastic orders" for whom the re-definition of the relationships with patrons, benefactors and laity at large was an important part of their programme. In her interpretation, hospitality is neither a symptom of "corrupting" realities inflicted on the religious houses nor an expensive activity significant only because of its cost, but is firmly rooted in both monastic spirituality and strategies of interaction with the wider world.

Monastic hospitality, especially in its Benedictine tradition, is surprisingly little studied subject. It might be explained by the fact that it was a routine part of monastic practice and as such was often not recorded, or recorded in a very functional and transitory way, for example in the accounts therefore its practice, beyond normative level little know. Historians often described the presence of the guests in the monasteries as a "side story" to more central activities of the communities. Guests were after all outsiders and not always congenial to what were the core activities of the monastic communities. A large number of scattered details about practice of Cistercian hospitality were gathered by D.H. Williams, but without posing or answering any questions, whilst more recent study by Jutta Maria Beger focuses on the theory and theological underpinnings of monastic hospitality, especially in Cluniac and Cistercian context, but less so on the practice. [1]

Kerr's focus is on the "golden age" of the rural-based monasticism from the late eleventh to the mid-thirteenth century, whilst the comparative angle between the original Benedictine practice and Cistercian modifications makes a useful addition to the wider debate on the nature of the Cistercian reform especially how the white monks re-designed their connections with the outside world. The focus on the English context allowed the author to reach a degree of depth--as the hospitality practice differ greatly between individual houses--which would not be possible if the volume covered a wider geographical area.

The book is divided into six thematic chapters. The first one, "The impulse: what prompted monastic hospitality?" carefully analyses key texts and influences that formed Benedictine approach to welcoming outsiders into their monasteries. Apart from the prescriptions of the New Testament, the Rule of the Saint Benedict itself which linked kindness to strangers with the process of salvation, there were also more worldly consideration at play-- upholding prestige of the monastic houses and material benefits that a community could derive from hosting important guests and providing venue for significant ecclesiastical and secular meetings.

The guests were never "let loose" within the monastic space and there was a lot of care given to making sure that the different categories of guest were provided for appropriately as well as there was no free mixing between the community and the outsiders. In order to do deal with the guests (and other demands of large and complex monastic organizations) a special administrative structure of offices emerged in the twelfth century. Kerr links it with wider changes in the system of government of the monasteries-- Benedictines, but also among the "new orders"--Cistercians and Augustinians. Not only did the office of the abbot become more removed from the community, which was manifested by a separate residence, separate budget, and frequent abbatial absences when the prior was left in charge of the monastery. The monastic budgets were divided into different streams supporting different monastic offices responsible for various aspect of communities' life. The fairly fluid structure sketched in the Rule of St Benedict of rotating offices of cellarer, guest-master, and brother responsible for the ill members of the community and another one in charge of the property was not enough for the complex and large structures of rural monasteries in the high middle ages. Not only new offices developed, but also the existing ones acquired assistants and become more managerial in their shape. The office of the guest- master became divided among several guest-masters responsible for different categories of guests. The guest-house arrangements also became far more complex and divided between buildings aimed at different categories of guests. The scope, number and character of the guest-master offices and practical arrangement differ greatly between different monastic houses. A number of possible scenarios is presented by the author using case studies of Abingdon Abbey and Bury St Edmunds.

In the third chapter--"The reception of guests," Kerr makes a very effective use of several normative texts--among them the Rule of St Benedict, Eynsham, Westminster Customary and Ecclesiastica Officia of the Cistercian Order. The form of the prescribed method of welcoming and receiving guests by the Benedictine and Cistercian monks exemplified close connection between the practical and spiritual meanings of hospitality for the monastic community. This theme continues in the next two chapters "Provision for guests: body and soul" and "Provision for guests: entertainment and interaction," which pose an interesting question of the scale and character of interaction between the guest and the community. Outsiders were housed separately from the monks and, if important enough, invited to dine with the abbot whose table moved out of the communal refectory by the twelfth century. Spiritual services given to the guests were integral to the notion of monastic hospitality. Participation in the mass was the most common form, but it is unclear if the guests were expected to follow monastic routine of canonical hours. A more permanent link of spiritual nature might have been established as a part a lay visit to the monastery. Admission to the confraternity, preformed in the chapter house, was usually awarded to these with the existing links to the house such as benefactors of important lay and ecclesiastical figures, but also important guests, whose friendship and support monastery might have particularly sought.

The final chapter "The financial implications of hospitality," deals with the aspect most commonly mentioned in the literature in relation to the lay guests in the monastic precincts. The surviving account rolls, even if fragmentary, indicate that the guests, especially these important and these who stayed for a considerable length of time were a significant strain on the monastic budgets. The recognition of this fact was a routine exemption from accepting guests for the monasteries, which were under considerable financial and economic strain.

Although Kerr's book focuses on England many of the observation and conclusions are relevant to much wider geographical remit and can be used as a useful model for approving issue of monastic hospitality across Europe. Having said this, a chronological continuation of the present book would be much welcomed in exploration of very little chartered territory of late medieval hospitality. As scattered evidence suggests, there was a significant lay presence on the monastic precincts in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries spanning different categories of short and long-term guests, friends, associates, corrodians and many others, whilst the material remains, especially changes in the form and function of many monastic buildings also suggest pressure of accommodating growing groups of laity.

-------- Notes:

1. D.H. Williams, "Layfolk within Cistercian precincts," Monastic Studies, vol. 2, ed. Judith Loades (Bangor: Headstart History, 1991), pp. 87-117; Jutta Maria Berger, Die Geschichte der Gastfreundschaft im Hochmittelalterlichen Mnchtum: Die Cistercienser (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1999)

Article Details

Author Biography

Dr. Emilia Jamroziak

University of Leeds