12.05.19, Vanderputten, Understanding Monastic Practies of Oral Communication

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Alex J. Novikoff

The Medieval Review 12.05.19

Vanderputten, Steven. Understanding Monastic Practices of Oral Communication (Western Europe, Tenth-Thirteenth Centuries). Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers n.v., 2011. Pp. 390. ISBN: 978-2-503-53482-4.

Reviewed by:
Alex J. Novikoff
Rhodes College

A useful point of entry for this intelligent and original volume of essays is to recall The Name of the Rose (1980), Umberto Eco's semiotic murder mystery set in a medieval monastery. Speech, dialogue, and linguistic ambiguity are recurrent themes of the plot, such as when William of Baskerville argues with Venerable Jorge over whether the Bible permits laughter, or when the hunchback Salvatore babbles cryptically in many tongues and none. When Brother William reminds his disciple Adso to "recognize the evidence through which the world speaks to us like a great book," he is uttering a methodology not unlike the one adopted by the contributors to this volume. And yet, despite important advances in the study of literacy and orality, it is puzzling that medievalists have not investigated more rigorously the rough boundary between written and oral forms of communication in the source-rich setting of monastic life. Neither the editor nor the contributors engage explicitly with Eco's fiction (or non-fiction), but they might well have, for what is on offer is a rich and diverse set of investigations on a fundamental but elusive theme of the medieval world: monastic practices of oral communication.

The volume originates in a conference at Ghent University in 2008 and comprises sixteen essays grouped into five thematic sections. An introductory essay by the editor and a concluding essay by Marco Mostert (general editor of the series in which this volume appears) bring the total number of contributions to eighteen. Essays vary slightly in length, clarity, and language (English, French, and German are represented), but all adhere admirably to the purpose and period announced in the volume's title. The first section, "The Politics of Non-Written Communication," is concerned with the ways in which orality and non-written communication played a determining role in monastic strategies of power and social identity. Gerd Althoff reads Ekkehard of St. Gall's eleventh-century Casus St. Galli against the normative monasticism prescribed by the Rule of St. Benedict, uncovering habits of oral communication of "rare force" (14) in Ekkehard's account. Althoff highlights the friendships as well as enmities that resulted from individual personalities, behavioral elements that contrast with the Rule's instructions on selfless and equal brotherly love. Wojtek Jezierski takes a more theoretical approach to monastic politics and looks at the boundaries between privacy and publicity (Öffentlichkeit) in three separate instances of dispute: St. Gall in the 990s, Fulda in 1063, and Bury St. Edmunds in 1199. Despite some stylistic infelicities (i.e. "my somewhat entangled argumentation" [25]), the article is grounded in a thick reading of primary and secondary sources and provides a welcome corrective to Habermas's diminutive understanding of a medieval public sphere. Steven Vanderputten examines the role of orality and non- written communication in twelfth-century Flanders, a period and place he knows perhaps better than anyone else, and uses the cartulary of the priory of Saint George of Hesdin to look at how monks challenged their lay opponents' understanding of social order. [1] Collectively, these opening essays provide valuable conceptual frameworks for teasing orality out of an inherently scribal and assumedly silent environment.

Section Two, "Traces of Orality in Liturgy, Customs and Material Culture," offers a remarkably coherent trio of investigations from three different disciplines. Musicologist Susan Boynton considers aspects of oral communication in the liturgy in the eleventh-century customaries of Cluny while art historian Diane J. Reilly explores the intersection between the earliest surviving manuscripts and the liturgical and educational life of the Cistercian order. Historian Tjamke Snijders takes up the function of matins celebrations in several high medieval Benedictine houses of the southern Low Countries and northern France and what they tell us about Benedictine visions of sanctity. Central to all three essays is not only what manuscripts and their textual communities record, but also the day-to-day performance elements of monastic life that they do not. Learned and original, these essays should be read in tandem with the excellent recent volume edited by Boynton and Reilly. [2]

Section Three, "Traces of Orality in the Transmission of Memory," introduces critical thinking about remembering and forgetting into the discussion, although Marie-Anne Polo de Beaulieu's informed discussion of Cistercian exempla would have fit more naturally alongside Mirko Breitenstein's discussion of student-teacher dialogues in Section Four, particularly as both authors pay close attention to Caesarius of Heisterbach's Dialogus miraculorum. Geoffrey Koziol examines an anonymous genealogy of the West Frankish Carolingians composed at the end of the tenth century by the canons of Saint-Corneille. He labels it a commemoratio on account of the fact that it explicitly celebrates some of Charles the Simple's benefactions while omitting others. Koziol's broader implication, recognizable to scholars familiar with his earlier work on ritual and memory, is that "diplomas that had been issued during significant events or to commemorate such events became mnemonics for stories told about those events, allowing local histories to be passed on [orally] to new generations" (165). Edina Bozky likewise looks at the fabrication of hagiographic legends, looking at not one but a multitude of instances. She highlights three categories of the oral transmission of knowledge within this genre: the perpetuation of the deeds of recent or contemporary saints, the fabrication of the saintliness of ancient or unknown people, and the invention of sainthood based upon visionary accounts. These are then examined sequentially, if somewhat cursorily.

Section Four, "Talking Shop: Educating the Monastic Mind," and Section Five, "Talking Shop: Voicing the Monastic Mind," are really two sides of the same coin and can profitably be discussed together. In the first grouping, Breitenstein deals with the pedagogical and oral dimensions of monastic learning as reflected in a number of dialogues, while Albrecht Classen and Peter Dinzelbacher look in more general terms at the various means used in convents to ensure the permanent education of its members. Classen's reflections on the performative nature of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim's plays echo themes of Section Two, although he oscillates somewhat unclearly between "public performance" (242) and "oral performance in a close-knit community" (243). Part of the confusion may arise from the unnecessarily hasty declaration that "the terms 'communication' and 'performance' are mostly interchangeable" (232), and the accompanying elision of the communicative interaction within the convent which he describes and the broader extra-convent intellectual public to which he only alludes. In the second grouping, Elisabeth Van Houts explores the central problem of how to study monks and nuns conversing in the monastery and what to think about the relationship between the limits of monastic regulation and the realities of daily life. "Small talk," she concludes, "is the most cohesive force in communities that keeps them from falling apart" (291). Julie Barrau ("Did Medieval Monks Actually Speak Latin?") considers the language spoken by monks in conversation with one another and with the outside world, concluding that vernacular usage was more prevalent than is often believed and that fluency in Latin cannot always be assumed. Finally, Wim Verbaal and Mette Bruun each explore elements of Bernard of Clairvaux's orality. Verbaal, who has written prolifically about other elements of Bernard's rhetoric and oratory, looks at how Bernard broke a certain form of monastic silence in order to simultaneously affirm a "poetics of silence," while Bruun employs historical-anthropological models in examining the "implications of gesture" in Bernard's works. [3] As such, it constitutes a useful follow-up to her earlier study of Bernard's mapping of spiritual topography. [4]

A volume such as this one repays close attention. More themes are raised than are settled, as any good study will do, but when placed on the horizon of recent scholarship, the volume also points to innovative new ways of thinking about monastic life and practice. Indeed, for all the reflections on the various dimensions of "oral communication," and how it is (or can be) captured in written documents, more might have been said about the "practices" announced in the title and alluded to in many of the chapters. If the speech act is understood as a formal method of monastic communication, then does it betoken a cultural practice distinct from the scribal culture that records and subordinates it? This seems worthy of further inquiry. Collectively, and perhaps unwittingly, the essays make a compelling case for treating not just monastic orality, but performance as a category of historical analysis. If these documents- -liturgical, pedagogical, hagiographical, commemorative--are the residue of situated, lively, and embodied interactions among specific actors, then is there not a larger theatre of documentation that, perforce, needs to be considered alongside oral communication? The essays by Vanderputten, Koziol, Boynton, and Classen suggest that this is so, and thus offer useful additions to the so-called "performative turn" in modern scholarship. Finally, the importance of dialogue as a literary genre and as an oral practice of communication is not to be underestimated, particularly as they preserve important indications of the habits of monastic thought and behavior. The essays by de Beaulieu and Breitenstein move decidedly in the right direction, although for selfish reasons I would have liked to see more efforts to connect oral dialogue with its corresponding superlative: disputation. [5]

Admirably conceived, the volume presents a few minor shortfalls. The geographical focus is exclusively western and heavily northern. There is nothing on Spain, for instance. A number of essays could have benefited from better editing, especially those that do not reflect the author's native language. Typographical errors are uncomfortably frequent. A general index of some sort would have been helpful, particularly given the fruitful overlap among many essays. Also lacking is the customary list of contributors indicating fields, current research, institutional affiliation, and the like. There is always Google.



1. Vanderputten's essay, translated into French for this volume, is by the author's stated admission largely identical to an essay of his that previously appeared in English: "A Compromised Inheritance: Monastic Discourse and the Politics of Property Exchange in Early Twelfth-Century Flanders," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 61, 2 (April 2010): 229-251.

2. Susan Boynton and Diane Reilly, eds., The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages: Production, Reception, and Performance in Western Christianity (New York, 2011).

3. See, for instance, W. Verbaal, "Réalités quotidiennes et fiction littéraire dans les sermons sur le Cantique de Bernard de Clairvaux," Citeaux 51 (2000): 201-218; idem, "The preaching of community: Bernard of Clairvaux's Sermons and the school of experience," Medieval Sermon Studies 48 (2004): 75-90; and idem, "Bernard of Clairvaux's school of oblivion," in Negotiating Heritage: Memories of the Middle Ages, ed. M. B. Bruun and S. Glaser (Turnhout, 2008), 221-37.

4. Mette B. Bruun, Parables: Bernard of Clairvaux's Mapping of Spiritual Topography (Leiden, 2007).

5. I explore these connections in two recent articles: "Anselm, Dialogue, and the Rise of Scholastic Disputation, " Speculum 86, 2 (April 2011): 387-418; and "Toward a Cultural History of Scholastic Disputation, " American Historical Review, 117, 2 (April 2012): 331-364. See also the important study of the literary genre by Carmen Cardelle de Hartmann, Lateinische Dialoge 1200 1400. Literaturhistorische Studie und Repertorium (Leiden, 2007).

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Alex J. Novikoff

Rhodes College