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13.06.18, France, Separate but Equal

13.06.18, France, Separate but Equal

Cistercian lay brothers have remained very little studied, even though they probably constituted at least half of the men who joined that religious order in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. They were called conversi in medieval Latin because they had converted from the life of the secular world, but they were not truly monks. These brothers took vows as did the choir monks, but they served essentially as auxiliaries, devoting their lives to manual labor or to a monastery's business (such as buying and selling at market), rather than to the liturgical round. They also tended to be of lower social and economic status and to be less well educated than the monks. They appear overall to have joined the order for the same religious reasons that motivated the monks, but for some it was also a way out of the harshness of biting poverty. In this book James France provides the first modern overview in English of the lay brothers, incorporating the "Statutes" of these brothers as recently edited by Chrysogonus Waddell. [1]

The book's purpose is to describe the functions and lives of these lay brothers. They were a part of the monastery yet always somewhat separate, as symbolized, for example, by their concentration on granges away from the main monastic house. The book begins by defining lay brothers' backgrounds, attributes, and activities, then goes on to discuss their appearance in a variety of different sources. For the most part the focus is on the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. In the final chapter, however, France addresses the decline of the institution of lay brothers as Cistercian monasteries began leasing out their lands in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, rather than working them with their conversi, and as the new orders of friars began outcompeting all Benedictines.

The use of varied sources is one of the book's strengths. Part of the reason that lay brothers have remained so little studied is that, other than their "Statutes," very little was directly written about them--and those "Statutes" are short, scarcely a dozen pages in English translation (helpfully provided in Appendix 3). In addition, none of the texts about the lay brothers were written by the brothers themselves, for they were almost always illiterate. France seeks to fill in the gaps by using other kinds of sources, such as the architecture of their quarters ("ranges"), which included dormitories and refectories--some still exist, as at Clairvaux, Pontigny, and Fountains. Their architecture suggests the "separate but equal" of the book's title, for the lay brothers essentially had a separate monastery of their own, including their own choir within the church. In addition, France finds and discusses references to lay brothers in Cistercian miracle stories and sermon exempla, as well as in the rulings of the order's chapter-general. He also reproduces several images of carvings of monastic busts on claustral buildings and granges which he believes represent lay brothers because they have beards; monks did not normally have beards, but lay brothers did.

Although provided with the normal scholarly apparatus of footnotes and bibliography, the book is not really aimed at scholars, but rather at a more general audience, including modern-day Cistercians interested in their order's history. There is no central argument or thesis, other than that the lay brothers need to be better understood. France differs from previous scholars primarily in being able to create a much broader and more nuanced picture of the lay brothers, although he also argues convincingly, against what he characterizes as a "consensus" in the historiography (xvii, 269), that these brothers were not inherently more rebellious or undisciplined than were the choir monks. But scholars of medieval monasticism will find much of interest here, just because the topic has been so widely ignored, and the book would be good for graduate students. France writes clearly and well, although his organization is not always clear, and the twenty-four illustrations are a nice addition, even though the subject-matter of most of them dates to the end of the Middle Ages, after the period of the book's chief focus.

France begins with the paradox of the lay brothers' incorporation into the Cistercian order. On the one hand, the Cistercians insisted that they were adhering more closely to Benedict's original Rule than were the black monks, including its emphasis on manual labor; and yet on the other hand, the use of lay brothers was a novelty, unanticipated by Benedict, and their presence meant that the choir monks were less involved personally in agriculture after the first generation or two of the order. (The Cistercians' other major deviation from Benedict was in not allowing child oblates.)

Although the Cistercians probably ended up with more lay brothers than any other monastic order, they had not originated them initially. As France details, it was not until two or three decades into the order's history that the monks decided that they could not continue celebrating all the canonical hours while acting as full-time agricultural laborers unless they had some help. Conversi, originally a sort of half-way status between a monk and a hired hand, had been found at Camaldoli in Italy since the early eleventh century, and other Italian and German houses had adopted something similar in subsequent years. Perhaps the most important influence on Cistercian practice would have been the Carthusians, who had had lay brothers since the 1080s, and one wishes France had been able to give more space to this influence.

The whole question of the original nature of the Cistercian order is complex, since the monks' own accounts of their foundation were retrospective, often written by men who had not even been there in 1098. Scholars have frequently relied on the narrative provided by Orderic Vitalis, even though he wrote over a generation after the fact and was not a Cistercian himself. It would have been useful for France to address more directly the nature of all these accounts as acts of creative memory, rather than using them simply to try to determine at what point lay brothers became a standard feature of Cistercian houses.

One of the chief values of this book (although not France's chief purpose) is that it counters the old assumption that the Cistercian order fell into decline during the twelfth century--some scholars have assumed from the middle of the century on, others indeed from the 1120s. Even while discussing the role of the lay brothers, France is careful to make clear that their presence did not mean that the monks themselves had abandoned manual labor. Rather, his book treats the lay brothers and their activities in the context of an order attempting to maintain its ideals in the face of often difficult circumstances, numerous temptations toward laxity, and some debate as to what those ideals even entailed.



[1] Chrysogonus Waddell, ed., Cistercian Lay Brothers: Twelfth-Century Usages with Related Texts (Cîteaux: Commentarii cistercienses, 2000).