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11.12.02, Jezierski, Total St. Gall

11.12.02, Jezierski, Total St. Gall

Total St Gall has an unusual format. The core of the book is an extensive introduction to four articles that were published elsewhere. Jezierski thus places the methodological reflection on his own historical research in the center while presenting the work itself as mere appendices. These appendices consist of four clearly written and inspiring micro-studies that confront narratives of conflicts within monastic communities (mostly taken from the section of the Casus Sancti Galli that was written around the middle of the eleventh century by the monk Ekkehard IV) with well-established theoretical models, such as Erving Goffman's notion of deviance and paranoia, and his concept of a total institution; Ian Hacking's concept of human kinds; and Michel Foucault's panopticon and theories on pastoral discipline. It makes sense to read these studies first and to start with the last one, which is the most sophisticated. Having them grouped together makes Jezierski's book worthwhile, even though I have some reservations about his introduction.

Article Four discusses the role of the distinction between public (öffentlich) and not public (nichtöffentlich) and the discursive techniques of crossing (or rather not crossing) the boundaries between these two spheres. The author starts with Ekkehard's description of the scandal regarding the royal envoy Sandrad who had been sent to St. Gallen for implementing reforms that were vigorously resisted by the monks. Conflicts are, as the author shows on the basis of other examples from St. Gallen, Fulda and Bury St. Edmunds, not resolved along the line of truth but by choosing the right audience and keeping conflicts within the boundaries of the monastic community. This forces us to read the publication of conflicts in our textual witnesses against the grain. Creating a scandalum never helps one to prevail in a conflict. Jezierski considers this discipline of silence as a necessary extension of Goffman's concept of a total institution. His third article confronts the same dramatic episode in the history of St. Gallen with yet another of Goffman's concepts, that of the construction of deviance and paranoia by a collective assessment of behavior that in itself may or may not be considered deviant. Jezierski reads the textual vilification of Sandrad in the Casus Sancti Galli against the grain and shows, with the aid of Goffman's model, how both discursively and practically an undesired intruder with royal authority was transformed into a ruthless villain and hypocrite whose acts are clear symptoms of deviance. As a reader one can hardly avoid feeling sympathy for poor Sandrad, but also admiration for Ekkehard's subtle yet effective instruction on how to commit a Charaktermord, both practically and textually. Jezierski convinces that Goffman's paranoia is indeed a useful tool for reading monastic conflicts and their textual representation. His second article investigates how the Casus Sancti Galli handles the tension between the external habitus (the monastic garb) and the internal habitus (the status of the monk and its implementation) with Ian Hacking's concept of human kind as its theoretical backbone. The first study combines notions of control and surveillance as they were developed by Foucault and Goffman and reads them against instances of active mutual surveillance and, more importantly, instances where the monastic apparatus of power does not require total surveillance any more because the individual monk has already sufficiently internalized the notion of being under perpetual control. The historiographic cornerstones for these studies on Ekkehard and the monastic community of St. Gallen are Mayke de Jong's publications on the Casus Sancti Galli, especially her work on child oblation, and Seffen Patzold's studies on conflicts in the monastery. I cannot follow Jezierski's critique of their work as lacking the appropriate theoretical foundation since they fail to acknowledge Goffman's concept of a total institution. If there are historians in need of being reminded of placing their observations and analyses within wider theoretical frameworks, De Jong and Patzold certainly do not belong to this group. We can safely assume that both are versed perfectly well in the classics of social theory even though they decided, for good reason, to analyze sources rather than discussing theory.

I have problems with Jezierski's introduction, which at times rather reads like an apology and a somewhat forced attempt to make his admittedly well-crafted work relevant within a wider framework of sociological theories. One of his objectives is using Goffman's model of a total institution to gain insights into the workings of discipline and power of medieval monasteries, early medieval monasteries or at least the monastery of St. Gallen. His other objective is to show on the basis of Ekkehard's Casus Sancti Galli that Goffman's model really works. The fact that medieval monasteries are total institutions seems to be both the starting point and the result of his investigation. Caught between these two objectives, Jezierski does exactly what is often so annoying about the forays of sociologists, anthropologists and practitioners of various forms of critical theory into the field of history. Too many of them ignore that the object of their investigative desire has a history after all and assume that things such as monastic communities or other institutions function on the basis of generally applicable and trans-historical principles. Jezierski states that "the overall purpose of this study is to render explicit and analyze relations of power and modes of social control comprising the social tissue of early medieval monasteries" (18). That is too much for two hundred pages dependant on a handful of narrative sources. The history of monasticism would be excruciatingly dull if this would work. The mischievous fun of the Middle Ages is that they resist all attempts to make them coherent. Moreover, monastic sources are too interesting to use them merely for the purpose of proving or disproving some theoretical concept or another.

At the end of his book Jezierski comes to the insight that that "there is therefore no single theory or concept that accounts for all these different phenomena and, as the preceding articles have shown, one is forced to fabricate analytical collages to rein in the multifaced reality." I daresay that reality probably does not like to be reined in and that (monastic) life is too stubbornly complicated to submit itself to the rules put up by Foucault, Goffman or any collage of theories. More convincing are Jezierski's reflections on the problem that the material he uses for his analyses (a product of a monk's vivid imagination based on gossip, anecdotes and a fading collective memory) cannot be treated as an historical account at all. The fact that Ekkehard describes a world that is entirely plausible to him (and presumably to his monastic audience) makes it an even more valuable source than any narrative that is disturbed by historical factualness. I would use this section for teaching students how to move beyond the question of factual truth and the trustworthiness of texts.

Jezierski's astute mastery of the sociological, anthropological and philosophical canon (modern social theories, as he calls them), which he very successfully applied in his four micro-studies becomes a bit of a steamroller in the first part of his book. I hope that he will eventually choose the medievalists' side and continue using his skills, especially his impressive theoretical arsenal, at the point where his fourth article ended by trying out his ideas on a wider swath of source material and turning the question of how power works into a story. This might mean, however, that he has to leave his cherished Goffman behind on the road.