14.01.06, Parisse, Religieux et religieuses en Empire

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Veronica Ortenberg West-Harling

The Medieval Review 14.01.06

Parisse, Michel. Religieux et religieuses en Empire du Xe au Xiie siècle. Les Médiévistes français, 11. Paris: Èditions Picard, 2011. Pp. 253. ISBN: 978-2-7084-0908-8.

Reviewed by:
Veronica Ortenberg West-Harling
University of Oxford

This collection of essays--reprinted from the author's previous publications between 1982 and 2004--highlights Parisse's continuing interests in monasticism in the Empire during these three centuries while placing his research within the context of a unified book, which is part textbook part reflection on his long-term work. It is divided into two parts on the basis of gender. It sometimes retells a known story. Such are the recounting of the geography and chronology of the monastic reform in Lotharingia, and the study of the mechanisms of reform: the creation of a founding group of figureheads, the process of finding a monastery to be taken over, the reform of discipline, and sometimes the eventual move towards an order, as well as the genesis of the problems posed by increasing wealth, the relaxing of monastic discipline, and the envy of neighbours (Chapter 2). It is followed by the mapping of the Lotharingian axis as an historical area and as a centre for exchanges, and by an analysis of the reasons for the aristocratic interest in monasteries, seen as both places of prayer for salvation but also potential economic sources of wealth and power. As such, they were to be controlled through lay abbacies, with their damaging impact through mismanagement and absentee heads, and only very gradually and reluctantly did the nobility give these up in favour of the less heavy-handed advocacies and precaria. The essence of the monastic reform, Parisse argues, was really a return to the monasteries of their material resources so that they no longer needed to worry about subsistence and could concentrate on prayer. This, in turn, lead to a flurry of new grants and foundations: twenty-nine between 919 and 1030 (30, Chapter 3). Chapter 5 focuses on the importance of the networks of transmission between monasteries through the circulation of people, books, skills, and networks of prayer, and identifies three periods for such network types: a first one of control by the political authority of individual monasteries in the Early Middle Ages, a second one which saw an increasing development of connections and exchanges between monasteries as a result of the reform movement between the 10th and the 12th centuries, and finally a third which saw the regrouping of monasteries under the aegis of religious authorities from the 13th century onwards. The "women's" half of the book similarly recounts the history of Early Medieval female monasticism, whose main function was to provide shelters for the aristocracy, in which to place their daughters to be educated, and their widows to live safely until their deaths, while at the same time expecting in return to benefit from the efficacy of their prayers and preservation of the family's memory (Chapter 8). Next are discussed the complex issue of widows in nunneries, their role as educators and teachers of skills to young girls, but also as managers of the economic wealth, running the monastery as they had previously done the family estates, while at the same time the issue of family pressure and control over the inheritance of these widows are examined, notably through the example of four women, two noblewomen and two empresses, who chose to end their lives in their own or an already existing foundation (Chapter 11). These women could be seen expressing the contrast between the more traditional style of Benedictine monasticism and the new spirituality of asceticism, poverty, charity and service, of the 12th century, an evolution which can also be perceived through the increasingly male-controlled style of authority within monasteries and priories from the 12th and 13th centuries, when these give less and less power to the women and more and more to their male heads, with the notable exception of the order of Fontevraud (Chapter 12). Chapters 13 to 15, examining the history of feminine monasticism in Lorraine and Alsace, trace the overall expansion of nunneries as a result of the 10th-century-reform, from Gorze in Lorraine and from Cluny in Alsace, and concludes that, ultimately, the tradition of noble family monasteries remained very powerful, only partially challenged by the foundation of priories of regular canonesses from the mid-11th century onwards.

These chapters are a fully functional recap of our knowledge of the period. Chapters 4, 6-7, 9-10 and 14 bring in more specific issues, to which the author's work over three decades has given shape, and led to new insights and revisions. Chapter 4 is a study of the Gorze reform, of the men involved, all of them clergy who wished to lead a monastic life, who were also noble, rich and well-educated, and of the means and people who supported them, as well as of the mechanisms for spreading the reform from one monastery to another. Chapters 6 and 7 do the same for the growth of Prémontré in the first place, and of the Cistercians of Morimond in the second. The history of the development of the Premonstratensians in Lotharingia, emerging from the traditions of northern Italian eremitical movements, follows closely the geography of the monastic reform axis of the 10th and early-11th century. The two correspond very closely, which prompts Parisse to wonder why this should be so since by 1050 Lotharingia was no longer the most economically developed region in the West, and leads him to suggests that it was the urban development of the area which explains the desire of regular canons to flee a relatively comfortable Benedictine life for a harsher eremitic life in the country. The study of the implantation of the Cistercians in the area has at its centre the argument that, unlike in France and Italy, it was not Cîteaux but Morimond which had the most important role in the Empire. This is explained by two factors. First is the accidental fact that from the beginning, the abbey had a strong ethnically German component, with major aristocratic figures such as Otto, future bishop of Freising, being monks there, and a tradition of German families as far as Poland attached to it; secondly, Parisse suggests that the Morimond-style was more suited to the Empire, with its looser grouping of houses, of which only a few were under the direct control of Morimond, rather than the more hierarchical and centralized style of government of Cîteaux. This leads to a discussion of the way in which the later history of the order has tended to make Morimond the fourth daughter of Cîteaux, while in fact it was likely to have been a daughter of Clairvaux, thus explaining both Bernard's direct interest in its survival, and perhaps also its later conflicts with Clairvaux, especially during their respective expansion in Spain. Current Cistercian historiography now recognises Parisse's earlier argument about the later construction of Morimond as the fourth daughter, while it also tends to highlight the extent to which, within the early history of the order, it was not only Morimond but the whole of the Cistercian family which was far less hierarchical and filiation-conscious than it would later become; it might have been helpful to include in the bibliography some of the most recent studies of, for example, Berman and Kinder, even if only to disagree with some of their conclusions.

Returning to the female half of the book, Chapters 9 and 10, which in an ideal world would have benefited from being brought together as a study of female monasteries in Saxony, return to the fundamental issue of nunneries founded by aristocratic and royal patrons. In Saxony, especially under the Saxon kings, there were more nunneries than anywhere in Europe (forty-five), though later on the Salians became less interested in protecting such houses. After studying the chronology of foundations and their history in so far as it is possible to do so (only Gandersheim's history can be followed fairly consistently for a long period), the author wonders why there are so many foundations. He reiterates the importance of these nunneries as educational and retirement centres for the women of the aristocracy, but looks more closely this time into the role and function of family memorial. The importance of this function is not only that of prayer, but is clearly perceived through the foundation charters' insistence on the abbatial succession remaining with women of the same blood as the founder's family, only allowing for election if no blood relative is to be found, thus making the blood succession right pre-empt the freedom of election by the nuns.

Perhaps a key issue of the book needs broaching here, an issue as relevant to monks' as to nuns' houses, and already discussed to some extent in the first two chapters. It is that of the difference between monks and nuns, and canons and canonesses. As shown by the case study on the 9th-century Le Mans brothers in Chapter 1, much is made of the difference between the two, with the assumption that secular canons are worldly and far removed from the spirit of real monastic discipline, as opposed to ascetic monks who follow the rule strictly. This topos of 10th-century reformers everywhere in Europe is well exposed by the author as a standard cliché which many historians have followed, without paying sufficient attention to the fluidity of concepts and lifestyles between these two categories, and the intermingling of the two in terms of lifestyle when monks live in a monastery with a rather relaxed attitude to the rule, while canons live in one with a strong ascetic tendency. Among the men, founders were often not terribly interested in the label, but rather in which abbey had people who prayed well. The situation of nuns and canonesses had an added layer, in that it was fully accepted that the noblewomen who were placed in a monastery rather than married off by their families would not necessarily be there through having a religious vocation, and that they would neither want nor expect to live very differently from their peers in the world in terms of comfort and lifestyle. A choice of lifestyle as a canon or canoness would be perfectly acceptable for such noblemen and women, and for the women, it would also facilitate their continuing role in the world as mothers, royal advisers, or managers of family wealth, roles which we have come to associate with such religious women of great influence and career since Karl Leyser. This would explain the continuing role of great female monasteries like Gandersheim, where the rule and lifestyle was that of secular canonesses, with their private wealth of prebends, their servants and their travels; it was only from the 12th century onwards that we see an increase in the new eremitic-style monasticism adopted by regular canonesses, in priories more often controlled by bishops and the new orders rather than by aristocratic and imperial patrons. This new-style monasticism goes hand in hand with an opening of nunneries to a wider social range of recruits than just the highest aristocracy, who become nuns on account of an increasing spiritual need, the same one which leads to an increasing number of professed nuns rather than simple nuns living in a monastery without having taken the veil, an increase made clear in the necrologies of Remiremont and St Pierre aux Nonnains (Chapter 14). One regret is that, in this wide-ranging tour of German nunneries, especially of the great Saxon abbeys, we are told about nuns as educators, and even copyists, but not much on either their educational resources, or indeed on nuns' writing, especially in the context of family memory, and that names of historians like Matilda of Essen and especially Hroswith of Gandersheim should not be mentioned in such a capacity.

This is a book of great interest to students throughout, as well as to scholars in its bringing together of Parisse's long experience and work on the subject in one accessible volume. Its bibliography is, perhaps understandably, mostly concentrated on French and German works, and bringing in some recent English-speaking studies would have added to it. The book is, however, invaluable for its sweep, as well as for its detailed study of the development of monasticism across Lotharingia, Alsace and Saxony in particular.

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Author Biography

Veronica Ortenberg West-Harling

University of Oxford