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13.06.26, Berlioz and Polo de Beaulieu, eds., Collectio exemplorum Cisterciensis

13.06.26, Berlioz and Polo de Beaulieu, eds., Collectio exemplorum Cisterciensis

The Cistercians were the great story-tellers of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, in no small part because they were the most active preachers in western Europe before the advent of the mendicants and drew from a deep well of shared anecdotes to adorn and illuminate the moral message of their sermons. Moreso than any other monastic order, the white monks collected and compiled hundreds of exempla, pithy didactic tales about the virtues and failings of religious men and women and laypeople alike modeled on the Lives of the Desert Fathers and the Dialogues of Gregory the Great. [1] This genre is as tantalizing for historians as it is frustrating. Couched in a colloquial Latin, often playful in their humor and vivid in the details that they offer about daily life in the decades around 1200, exempla are very enjoyable to read, especially with students who have a few semesters of Latin behind them. But the stories are almost always anonymous and stripped of the historical details that would allow us to isolate their specific context, so they are at best impressionistic sources for monastic history. For example, some exempla may give us a broad sense about how Cistercians felt about Jews and their place in Christian society, but they will almost never tell us how real Cistercians interacted with real Jews in the late twelfth century. Moreover, compilations of exempla have a protean character; the stories change both in their content and in their organization from manuscript to manuscript, making it very difficult to identify authoritative textual witnesses and create modern critical editions of these collections.

Despite these difficulties, this genre has attracted considerable attention in recent decades, in no small part due to the industry of Brian Patrick McGuire, who has written many long articles about Cistercian story-telling in the high Middle Ages. [2] In a ground-breaking study published in 1983, McGuire provided a sympathetic introduction to Cistercian exempla collections. [3] He identified four different stages of the genre's development, some of which overlapped chronologically: a "primitive" stage in the twelfth century, when the stories were first set down in writing from an oral source; a "structured" stage around 1200, when the stories were put into a particular order in written collections; a "submerged" stage evident in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when the stories were stripped down and generalized in the service of moral theology; and a "purely literary" stage in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when the stories are again collected in writing, but far removed from the oral context of their inception. In this same article, McGuire also introduced readers to a little-known, yet vitally important, exempla collection: Paris BN MS lat. 15912, a sprawling compilation of over 900 stories most likely created at the Cistercian house of Beaupré in the first quarter of the thirteenth century. On the strength of this article, which provided a thorough description of the manuscript, its organization and the value of its contents, many monastic historians (myself included) have made the pilgrimage to the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris to pour over this treasure trove of Cistercian stories.

Now, thanks to Jacques Berlioz and Marie Anne Polo De Beaulieu, you can consult the contents of this fascinating manuscript in the comfort of your very own study or university library, for these two fine scholars, the reigning experts on the exemplum genre in Europe, have published a transcription of Paris BN MS lat. 15912 in the series Corpus Christianorum: Continuatio Mediaevalis (hereafter CCCM). The volume opens with a useful introduction that situates this manuscript among the other known examples of early Cistercian exempla collections, relates the history of its ownership, and reaffirms the accepted date of its composition (c. 1200–1220). Most of this information draws heavily on the observations of McGuire, but Berlioz and Polo De Beaulieu disagree with his arguments that the compilation was composed at Beaupré, calling them "trop hypothètiques" (xxiii). The introduction concludes with a brief discussion of the intended monastic audience, the didactic goals and the literary sources of the compilation. Typical of many medieval exempla collections, we know nothing of the compiler, but the consistency of the manuscript hand suggests that one scribe copied out the entire collection. The virtues and the vices provide the loose organizing principles that unite the stories in Paris BN MS lat. 15912, which earned the manuscript its seventeenth-century title: Summa virtutum et vitiorum incerti authoris (fol. 6r). Many of these tales are drawn from early monastic and patristic sources (Gregory the Great, Sulpicius Severus, Jerome, etc.) as well as from the works of eleventh- and twelfth-century authors like Sigebert of Gembloux, William of Malmsebury and Anselm's biographer Eadmer. Cistercian hagiography, particularly stories about Bernard, are also important sources for the author. Moreover, the last third of the manuscript contains long excerpts from a twelfth-century Cistercian exempla collection, the Liber miraculorum of Herbert of Clairvaux.

Unlike most other volumes in CCCM, this is a transcription of a unique, composite manuscript rather than a critical edition of a specific text. Nonetheless, it includes many of the valuable instruments of reference that one expects from this series. There are four comprehensive indices to scriptural citations, authors and works cited, people and places mentioned in the exempla, and topics treated therein (such as animals, church buildings, social ranks, the liturgy, individual virtues and vices, etc.). Even more useful is a massive appendix (Fontes exemplorum, 355-564) that traces the sources for every story preserved in this manuscript. Here Berlioz and Polo De Beaulieu present a précis of each individual exemplum, identify its literary source, and provide a reference to the modern critical edition of that source. All told, this volume is a very welcome addition to CCCM's medieval catalogue and a boon for religious and literary scholars in general and Cistercian historians in particular. It is sure to draw renewed attention to this compelling yet vexing genre of medieval monastic literature.



[1] For a useful introduction to this genre, see Stefano Mula, "Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Cistercian Exempla Collections: Role, Diffusion, and Evolution," History Compass 8 (2010): 903–912.

[2] Most of these articles have been collected in Brian Patrick McGuire, Friendship and Faith: Cistercian Men, Women and their Stories, 1100–1250 (Aldershot-Burlington: Ashgate, 2002).

[3] Brian Patrick McGuire, "The Cistercians and the Rise of the Exemplum in Early Thirteenth-Century France: A Reevaluation of Paris BN ms. Lat. 15912," Classica et Mediaevalia 34 (1983): 211–267; reprinted in idem, Friendship and Faith, no. V.