The Medieval Review 12.04.09

Deflou-Leca, Noëlle and Yves Sassier. Les gestes des abbés de Saint-Germain d'Auxerre. Les classiques de l'histoire au Moyen Âge. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2011. Pp. lxii, 178. 43 EUR. ISBN: 978-2-251-34061-6.

Reviewed by:

Constance Bouchard
University of Akron

The Burgundian city of Auxerre was a notable center of writing and scholarship in the Carolingian era, the home both of a "school" of philosophy and of the Gesta of the bishops of the city, one of the earliest and fullest examples of this genre. The episcopal Gesta, continued during subsequent centuries, have recently been edited and translated in an admirable three-volume set under the direction of Michel Sot. Now, the much less well known Gesta of the abbots of St.-Germain of Auxerre, directly inspired by those of the bishops and dating to the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries, have also been edited and translated, the first complete edition since that of Philippe Labbe in the seventeenth century.

The monastery of St.-Germain was dedicated to Germanus, bishop of Auxerre in the fifth century and the region's first historically attested saint. Originally a basilica, it acquired monks at some point during the Merovingian era, but it was ruled by laymen during much of the Carolingian era--even during the period of its intellectual height, the same period in which the edifice was rebuilt and expanded--and fell into disrepute in the tenth century, only to be reformed to Cluny's ordo in the 980s. A century later, monks from Cluny had to reform the house a second time. From then on, however, the monastery flourished, acquiring a great deal of property and prestige. In the thirteenth century, the present-day Gothic church was built over the Carolingian crypt, and both the cartulary of St.-Germain and the Gesta of its abbots were put together. Indeed, Abbot Gui de Munois, the abbot who composed the Gesta of his predecessors at the very end of the thirteenth century, had earlier been responsible for creating the very large and handsome (and as of yet never fully edited) cartulary of the monastery (now Auxerre, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 161).

The new edition of the Gesta is very welcome, especially as it has been done so meticulously by two scholars--one senior and one just beginning to make a mark--who know the history of medieval Auxerre very well. They worked from the unique manuscript, now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (MS lat. 10940) and almost certainly the autograph of Gui de Munois, to which two continuations were added in the first half of the fourteenth century, his own vita and that of his successor. The two most informative entries are that of Jean, Gui's predecessor, whom he knew personally, and that of Gui himself, written by Aymo of Bordes, who professed himself unequal to the task of describing Gui's deeds but tried his best. As well as the text of the Gesta with facing French translation, the editors provide an extensive introduction putting the work into its historical context, three useful maps, and an index of place names cross-referenced by the Latin version.

Gui de Munois's account began with Heldric, the reforming Cluniac abbot of the end of the tenth century. He started there because, as Gui admits in his prologue, he could find only scattered information about Heldric's predecessors, in spite of his own research in histories, chronicles, accounts of royal deeds, his monastery's archives, the Liber pontificalis of the popes, and the Gesta of the bishops of Auxerre. For each abbot, he gave whatever information he had on his ecclesiastical and family background, his election, his principal deeds, and his death (or, in a few cases, deposition or resignation). Reflecting his sources, he provided a good deal of information on property that the abbots acquired, in comments based on charters copied into the cartulary. The editors note that, wherever the charters he used survive, he reported their contents conscientiously, giving credence to his account even when charters have been lost.

Thus Gui clearly attempted to be what would now be called scholarly, basing his accounts on the evidence he could find, but he also shaped his version of three hundred years of monastic history to put St.-Germain in the best light. Although most of the information he gave on the eleventh and twelfth centuries is derivative, the way he constructed his account reveals what was important to an abbot of the thirteenth century. Interestingly, he made no effort to conceal the deplorable difficulties into which his house had fallen before its two reforms by monks from Cluny. Rather, his real concern was emphasizing that, even with a Cluniac abbot at its head, St.-Germain was never subject to rule from Cluny itself (as the editors note, Cluny's own version of the events, as well as several contemporary charters, are not nearly as explicit as was Gui that St.-Germain was free of any tie to that great monastery).

One striking detail that emerges from the Gesta is how many of the abbots of St.-Germain were related to each other or to other abbots. Abbot Hugh of St.-Germain (1099-1115) was nephew of Abbot Hugh of Cluny (1049-1109). At St.-Germain, Hugh was succeeded by Gervais (1115-1147), his cousin, and his successor, Harduin (1148-1174), was another cousin. Abbot Regnaud (1226-1238) was uncle of Abbot Jean (1243-1277); Jean in turn was cousin of Abbot Gui (1285-1309), the author of the Gesta. Without improper influence from laymen, the monks (and with them the bishops and even the pope) routinely advanced to the office of abbot relatives of men who had previously proved themselves in that position.

These Gesta give the account of a monastery of the sort that could too easily fall out of the narrative of religious history in the High Middle Ages. The history of monasticism in the twelfth century usually focuses on the Cistercians, and the thirteenth century is usually described as dominated by the friars. But Gui de Munois never thought that his monastery was being overshadowed by new forms of the religious life. The monasteries of Cteaux and Clairvaux and Saints Francis and Dominic never appear in his pages. He described a flourishing house that negotiated its relationship to the bishops and to the regional secular lords and that constructed a new and elegant church, not a house slipping out of relevance. Western Europe was thick with long-established monastic houses with close ties to their neighbors, houses that continued to define the religious life for their regions even while new forms of that life rose to prominence.

Just as well-run but not very well-known houses like St.-Germain need to be recognized for their impact on the religious life of the Middle Ages, so works like the abbots' Gesta deserve to be studied. The editors are to be commended for producing such a handsome and useful volume. The more such chronicles and narratives are available, the more we will know about the medieval period.

Copyright (c) 2012 Constance Bouchard

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