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13.09.42, Melville, ed., Aspects of Charity

13.09.42, Melville, ed., Aspects of Charity

According to some of the most important monastic texts of the Middle Ages, concern was first and foremost for the love of God (viii-ix). Second only to love for God was love for your Christian neighbour. As paramount as love for one's neighbour appeared to be, what seemed to be "an axiom of monastic vita communis was anything but of unified meaning or homogeneous orientation" (viii). The phrase and the terminology surrounding the concept of vita communis were thus not consistent, while "love" and "charity," somewhat interchangeable concepts themselves, were also complex phenomena (viii). Nevertheless, from these convoluted terms and phrases we get the amalgamated concept of monastic charity--the focus of this work, Aspects of Charity: Concern for One's Neighbour in Medieval Vita Religiosa.

According to editor Gert Melville, the definition of monastic charity in the Middle Ages is problematic, as it "could refer to the own community and/or to all people" (x). Moreover, the definition itself evolved as monastic orders changed. In the High Middle Ages many people only found care through the cloisters. Some orders, though, such as the Carthusians, went into solitude for the sake of their own salvation, thereby cutting themselves off from the poor and thus depriving themselves of the ability to participate in monastic charity. The arrival of the mendicant orders revived care for one's neighbour (x-xi). In short, understanding monastic charity in the Middle Ages proves difficult. This is not to say that we should ignore these concepts, as they can contribute much to our understanding of the monastic community in particular and charitable donation/love overall. Since "there exists no depiction offering a historically comparative overall analysis of this," this project thus seeks to fill the void (xi).

While we could argue that research for the sake of understanding these phenomena in the Middle Ages is important enough, the volume in question moves beyond the Middle Ages to add to our understanding of the modern period as well. Melville argues that "this way of dealing with charity had subjected this behaviour pattern, which naturally is affectively charged in an especially high degree, to rational configurations and systematic allocations and, thus--as is to be assumed--had created sustainable foundations for variable adjustments that are still of importance up to the social behaviour patters towards fellow men in the modern era" (xi). The volume seeks to enlighten the reader regarding the evolution of monastic charity from the classical era all the way into the early modern period.

In order to solidify these claims and conclusions, work on the topic was conducted through an inter-academic research project titled, "Cloisters in the High Middle Ages: Innovation Laboratories of European Conceptions of Life and Order Models," by the Saxon Academy of Sciences (Leipzig; with its seat at the Dresden Research Centre for the Comparative History of Medieval Religious Orders [FOVOG-Dresden]) and the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (with its seat at the University of Heidelberg). Contributions for this volume came from two sessions titled "Caritas as Ethical Basis in Monasteries and Religious Orders," from the International Medieval Congress in Leeds in July 2010. The volume consists of seven articles--one from the editor and six from other contributors. The variety of the collected essays proves important, as each seeks to approach the subject from a different angle.

The contributions by Lars-Arne Dannenberg, Jörg Sonntag, and Mirko Breitenstein are said to focus on the "older," namely Benedictine and Cistercian, communities, that sought separation from the world (xii). Despite the separation, the inward focus was still charity. For example, Dannenberg's "Charity and Law: The Juristic Implementation of a Core Monastic Principle" begins with Bernard of Clairvaux and his De praecepto et dispensatione. Bernard explains "that [...] spiritualia, charity, humility, and mildness belong to those ordinances of the Benedictine Rule that may not be altered, for they were ordered by God" (11). Thus, ideas of charity were easily integrated into the monastic core. Sonntag ("On the Way to Heaven: Rituals of Caritas in High Medieval Monasteries") considers caritas as a crucial category of monastic life, especially within the spectrum of monastic rituals (29). Through an investigation of the ritualized actions performed by the Cistercians of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Sonntag demonstrates that caritas was an "omnipresent phenomenon that permanently ranged between and linked the spheres of immanence and transcendence" (30). Finally, in "Is there Cistercian Love? Some Considerations on the Virtue of Charity," Breitenstein examines Aelred of Rievaulx's (d. 1167) Speculum caritatis in order to flesh out the meaning of charity for Aelred and his Cistercian companions (56). Through this analysis, Breitenstein demonstrates that the Cistercians imposed "an obligation of charity," from which--in conjunction with Cistercian uniformity of rules and customs--charity became a "'regulative idea' within the order" (96).

Gert Melville, Carlos Ruta, and Rudolf Weigand highlight mendicant communities. The closed-off nature of the older communities is left behind in order to examine monastic groups "interested in interaction with all people" (xii). Melville examines the Franciscans in a piece titled, "What Role did Charity Play in Francis of Assisi's Attitude towards the Poor?". Melville explores how someone could be charitable when he himself wanted to increase his poverty (104), especially since "Francis could never become identical with those who were poor out of sheer adversity as he would never have been able to become poor out of adversity" (112). Francis' actions and beliefs are reconciled thanks to semiotics: the involuntary poor lived in the image of Christ; Christ was voluntarily poor; Francis, therefore, had to strive for voluntary poverty in order to be "cristiforme" (120), even if actions and thoughts could not be reconciled.

Ruta and Weigand turn to the Dominican Order. Ruta, in "Quod est in vita, vita est: The Theology of Charity in Meister Eckhart," studies the tradition of Meister Eckhart and his reflections on charity (123-4). According to Ruta, Eckhart "will re-define his position by instituting or reinforcing as his deep root the metaphysical or ontological plane from the statue which will be his own and his determiner" in regards to charity (126). Similarly, Weigand in "Proclaiming Caritas: The Propagation of a Way of Life in Sermons" considers the work of Eckhart and the sermons of Johannes Tauler, as well as fourteenth-century educational literature on the pastoral care of the Dominican order, in order to see how the concept of charity was proclaimed to the monks and nuns of the group (163). Through this investigation we see the proliferation of Eckhart's views of charity to other Dominicans.

Finally, given no introduction in the preface is Bruce Brasington's "From Charitable Sentences to Amicable Settlements: A Note on the Terminology of Twelfth-Century Canon Law." Brasington conducts a close reading of "several canons preserved by Gratian that refer to caritas or related terms in legal process" (1-2). He then looks backwards to show how classical terminology, both Roman and ecclesiastical, was interpreted during the twelfth century (9).

Overall, the collection of essays in this edited volume proves a success. The essays do examine charity across the evolving monastic spectrum as promised by the editor. Melville does awkwardly note that "not the least attention, however, is given to the pivotal point of charity" (xii). I suspect there is a mistake here since much attention is indeed given to charity. It is the examination of charity within the monastic realm that makes this work exceptional. The division between the old and the new, the cloistered and the mendicant, shows us not only the variety of ideas regarding monastic charity but also how charity evolved according to the changes of monastic traditions. The delineation between the older and newer monastic groups works well and provides the reader with a clear understanding that monastic charity was not simply limited to one group or one time in the Middle Ages. This seems to be why Brasington's essay is not mentioned in the preface.

Melville's claim in the introduction regarding behaviour patterns brings to light some fascinating considerations. While a foray into the understanding of these changes proves important enough to helping us grasp the profound concept of charity among the various monastic groups and the changes that occurred to charitable concepts, the implications of this undertaking could yield greater finds. Melville suggests that the evolutions in monastic charity combined with the social and religious changes of the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries became the basis of the "specific configurations of order of the European modern era" (xi). This is a neat and exciting assertion, yet there is little sense for what exactly these behaviour patterns were or how exactly they were extended.

Moreover, the success of this work moves beyond the work as a whole to the individual essays. The separate pieces force us to reexamine peoples and texts with which we are all quite familiar. Dannenberg, for example, considers Bernard of Clairvaux within the context of the concept of monastic charity. One of the enduring aspects of this article is the contextualization. Dannenberg argues that Bernard was not "an unworldly monk playing intellectual games in the proverbial ivory tower" (13). Instead, he was fully engaged in the events of his day (13). This places Bernard on a level very different from the canon lawyers of Brasington's work and gives a face to the process, making the idea of caritas a little easier to grasp. Through this analysis Dannenberg proves "that caritas was clearly one of the most fundamental ideals of the church and exerted a considerable effect on the implementation of the new religious orders" (22). This idea shows us that the concept was ever-evolving and gives us a new understanding of Bernard.

With Brasington's work we can see these evolutions take place--classical ideas regarding charity were further developed in the twelfth century while the original concepts of monastic charity were seemingly redefined. Fleshed out more, perhaps in an additional volume, one might prove that these ideas were extended into the modern period as Melville suggests. Ironically, we get some sense of this in Brasington's work. In the beginning of the essay Brasington mentions Max Weber and argues that his findings have influenced our own perceptions of charity. Brasington returns to this comment in the conclusion, noting that "Weber has exerted a considerable influence over our understanding of the intellectual and institution changes experienced during the twelfth century. Charismatic leadership eventually yields to the forces of institutionalization" (9). In the end, Brasington argues that even caritas had to be understood and defined by the institution: "for the courts of canon law, caritas yielded to conventio" (9). If these changes were combined more directly with the evolution of monastic charity, we might be able to make a connection in the modern era.

These are but a few highlights of the work. Many more could be emphasized. Clearly, the work is a success. Melville's edited volume expands on the ever-growing field of charitable studies while adding to our understanding of the monastic orders. This is a nice introduction to monastic charity; it is an excellent comparative analysis of the long-term evolutions of monastic change; and most importantly, it leaves the reader wanting more.