14.03.12, Vanderputen, Monastic Reform as Process

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Bruce Venarde

The Medieval Review 14.03.12

Vanderputten, Steven. Monastic Reform as Process: Realities and Representations in Medieval Flanders, 900–1100. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013. Pp. xi, 247. ISBN: 978-0-8014-5171-3.

Reviewed by:
Bruce Venarde
University of Pittsburgh

The title is exact. Steven Vanderputten provides a detailed account of change in one corner of Christendom across two centuries. The monastic reform he narrates is not the result of "exogenous shocks" (10), but a long series of interventions that by necessity operated within the confines of existing situations, in particular institutional decisions in the past, what political scientist Paul Pierson calls "accumulated investments" (11). Agents of reform, Vanderputten finds, regarded such investments not as backdrop but as central to their mission. Hence reform was always shaped by the past and by contexts, continuous and not discontinuous: a process. Instead of a series of waves crashing onto the shore, reform in this model is more like a long river with many tributaries.

The representations are medieval gesta abbatum, chronicles, and hagiographical materials including biography, miracle collections, and accounts of discovery and movement of the bodies of the holy dead. Reliance on such "apologetic narratives" (186) has too often led scholars to take medieval perspectives and conclusions literally and to imagine uniform and competing "movements," originating in the period examined here from centers at Cluny and Gorze. In Flanders, the style was, in the work of Kassius Hallinger and many who followed him, a "Lotharingian Mixed Observance" that incorporated customs from both Cluny and Gorze. [1] Rejecting the unity such models purport to uncover, Vanderputten attends to realities, not only the accumulated investments of any given institution, but the political and economic changes and aspirations that accompany and indeed often shaped monastic change. The argument relies on internal documents from the monasteries themselves, in particular charters that tell us about material conditions and the patrons who helped shape them, and detailed reconstruction of the political context, especially the fortunes of the counts of Flanders in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The approach is not new. Almost twenty years ago, a young medievalist wondered, "In focusing on 'reform,' do we miss out on a more comprehensive understanding of the textures and meanings of medieval monasticism?" [2] In his conclusion, Vanderputten similarly puts quotation marks around "reform" and compares it to a black hole: "Like the astronomical phenomenon, the reform of a monastery is often perceived as a single event of huge consequence, which can be used as a reference point to both interpret and evaluate that institution's long-term development" (186). In retrospect, we should have known that once Hallinger started to break down his model of the competing networks emanating from Gorze and Cluny into smaller movements like "Lotharingian Mixed Observance," matters were considerably more complicated than (to caricature) a question of Gorze vs. Cluny. Vanderputten acknowledges previous criticisms of Hallinger's model and, especially in his footnotes, generously credits an array of scholars who have moved beyond it. But he does take seriously Hallinger's insistence that politics and political change play a central role in the evolution of monastic practice while offering a sustained narrative that stresses continuities. Without denying the importance of such figures as Richard of Saint-Vannes (d. 1046), Vanderputten shows that Richard's approach, like that of many other monastic reform "stars," was deeply conscious of the institutional past, those accumulated investments, and that less celebrated individuals mattered too.

After an introduction, Vanderputten proceeds to a chapter called "Corporate Memories of Reform." Its centerpiece is a chronicle of the ancient abbey of Saint-Bertin written the monk Simon of Ghent in the early twelfth century. Abbot Lambert of Saint-Bertin charged Simon to update a tenth-century cartulary-chronicle that left off in the 960s. Simon, however, did not pick up the story until the time of Abbot Roderic (1021-1042), explicitly stating that he had found "nothing memorable" about the six abbots who preceded Roderic. It is not as if there was no information available to Simon; sources for the history of the house in those decades have survived and a fourteenth-century chronicler of Saint-Bertin used them. Vanderputten probes the reasons for this purposeful omission, a case of "social forgetting" (15). Simon's purpose, he concludes, was not an objective chronicle but a justification for leadership in his time that could be best made by framing it as a continuous process that originated in the times of Abbot Roderic. This made Simon's patron Abbot Lambert another in a succession of abbots intent on reform on Benedictine life begun about a century earlier. Yet Simon, however briefly and grudgingly, conceded that Roderic's predecessors had done their (unmemorable) best. In Simon's tactic Vanderputten finds historiographic tension between the themes of continuity and rupture and a key to his larger argument.

Chapters 2 through 7 offer a chronological narrative of Flemish monasticism before, during, and after the extensively documented monastic reforms of the early eleventh century. It features the stories of seven monasteries--Saint-Bertin, Bergues-Saint-Winnoc, Saint-Vaast, Marchiennes, Saint-Amand, and the houses of Saint-Bavo and Saint-Peter in Ghent--but refers to a score of others in the county of Flanders and near its borders. (There are helpful maps on pp. 191-192.) The nature of each chapter is similar: Vanderputten presents painstaking, densely argued, and extremely persuasive accounts of the evolution of monastic life that illustrate the aspirations and accomplishments of abbots and communities set against the political history of Flanders. Because Vanderputten is writing a contrarian history of continuity and process, the chapter titles are sometime ironic correctives. Chapter Three is called "The 'Dark' Age of Flemish Monasticism." Here, the period from the late 960s to the first years of the eleventh century emerges not as a merely as a time between eras of momentous change, but an era of restoration that featured increased independence of monasteries from comital authority, the development of new networks of patrons, consolidation of properties, new building projects, the cultivation of cults of saints, and links to England and the Empire that included artistic influences evident in manuscript illustration. Chapter 7, "The 'Waning' of Reformed Monasticism," finds, along lines suggested by John Van Engen's seminal 1986 article "The 'Crisis of Cenobitism' Reconsidered," [3] that the late eleventh century was not a period of stasis or decay awaiting exogenous shocks but, as one subheading calls it, "reform before reform," an era characterized by consolidation, restoration, and renewal or, to quote another subhead, quiet resilience.

So instead of relying on the work of medieval hagiographers and historians like Simon of Ghent and the modern historians who have followed them, Vanderputten reviews property management, patronage, and manuscript production. Here we see abbots gathering new material resources and asserting their rights to those in control of lay people or clerics (including individual monks), creating networks of secular and ecclesiastical allies, and cultivating intellectual and cultural life through the creation and exchange of books. The minute examination of property and patronage in this era is the now-familiar social history of monasticism in keeping with scholarship that dates to the 1980s in the work of Constance B. Bouchard and Barbara Rosenwein, to name only two pioneers Vanderputten cites. Concerning book production, Vanderputten offers fascinating discussions of how illustrations are designed to shape institutional identities and justify change. Chapter 5, "Shaping Reformed Identities," includes one example. A tenth-century account written at the behest of the nuns and clerics of Marchiennes claims that the first superior of the house in the seventh century was Abbot Jonat, who added a female community. The widow Rictrudis entered Marchiennes not long afterwards and was soon abbess, succeeded in that role by her daughter Eusebia. In the tenth century, by which time Marchiennes, having survived Viking attacks that spelled the end for many monasteries, had evolved into a house of nuns assisted by a few canons, the elevation of the bodies of both Eusebia and Jonat signaled new interest in the past. This historical consciousness presented a challenge in the eleventh century, since the nuns and canons were expelled in 1024, replaced by Benedictine monks. Forgetting the founding mothers Rictrudis and Eusebia and the monastery's past as a women's house was not an option. Instead, a new manuscript gathering all previous hagiographical writing concerning Marchiennes presented new visual and textual material. Illustrations emphasized the importance of its male patrons Jonat, who is shown presenting a key to Rictrudis, and the abbess's son Mauront, within an architectural frame. On the opposite page are illustrations of Eusebia and two of her sisters, who are smaller than the figures of Rictrudis and have no architectural frame suggesting institutional context. The monks further added new written material on Mauront, claiming he succeeded his mother as leader of Marchiennes. Readers saw a visual program that presented old and new perspectives on the holy people in the early history of Marchiennes, highlighting, as appropriate for a "reformed" monastery in which men had replaced women, the male figures of Jonat and Mauront.

The preceding, a compact summary of only a few pages (135-140) of Monastic Reform as Process, is meant to offer a taste of its style of argument and use of evidence. Despite use of models from the social sciences, this is not a highly theoretical study. It proceeds from thorough knowledge of the written record and mastery of the political vicissitudes so important to Flemish monasticism in this period. My only reservation is that one theoretical perspective is somewhat confusing. Vanderputten introduces the idea of "equifinality," the idea that in open social systems, the same endpoint may be reached by many routes. The endpoint in this case is the introduction of the Cluniac customary at the seven monasteries listed above in the first two decades of the twelfth century (165). Vanderputten does not go into detail about that process here, having ended the narration by demonstrating that works of abbots and their monks in last decades of the eleventh cannot be described as pre- reform or static. But "equifinality" by its very name stresses results in a way that, for historians, risks simple teleology. Were the initiatives of the late eleventh century--and earlier, since the stress here is on continuities--bound to lead to one common reform? The rest of the book makes claims in a different register that "allow us to question the relevance of the centrality of reform in accounts of monastic history in the tenth and eleventh centuries, as well as current ideas regarding the impact of reforms on the development of individual monastic institutions" (189).

This is an important book, a sustained discussion about the nature and meaning of monastic reform in one time and place that should encourage other, similar studies. Vanderputten acknowledges that his account, less dramatic than the story of waves rolling onshore, risks descent into trivia and a certain flattening out of the narrative of monastic history (187). Simon of Ghent's hero Abbot Roderic, it turns out, faced significant challenges toward the end of his abbacy, including epidemic and the destruction by fire of the abbey church that meant the disappearance of a place where pilgrims had came to revere relics of the founder-saint Bertin, a blow to prestige and the shutting off of a significant source of income. (In fact, Roderic's successor commented that these events turned the venerable abbey of Saint-Bertin into an undisciplined den of thieves!) But modification of the heroic narrative is vital, stressing as it does the importance of cumulative change and the need for institutions to work with their "accumulated investments." It also offers some new figures of real interest, like Abbot Leduin of Saint-Vaast, the successor of the much better-known Richard of Saint-Vannes. Among other things, Leduin recognized that the city of Arras to which his abbey was adjacent was becoming a site of manufacture and trade in the early eleventh century. In response, he issued a charter about the monastery's claims to tolls and urban markets. This abbot maneuvered carefully around the interests of his bishop and count to make, participated significantly in regional promulgation of the Peace of God, and collected books. It was Leduin who installed Benedictine monks at Marchiennes and guided via manuscript production the creation of the new vision of its past outlined above.

I hope Vanderputten's study finds readership not only among those interested in Flanders or monasticism in the central Middle Ages or even ecclesiastical reform more generally. For this is a book about how institutions change, the opportunities available to those who want to change them, and the limits they face in the attempt. It is history as process.



1. Kassius Hallinger, Gorze-Kluny: Studien zu den monastischen Lebensformen und Gegensätzen im Hochmittelalter, 2 volumes (Rome: Herder, 1950-1951).

2. Bruce L. Venarde, Women's Monasticism and Medieval Society: Nunneries in France and England, 890-1215 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997), xiv.

3. John Van Engen, "The 'Crisis of Cenobitism' Reconsidered: Benedictine Monasticism in the Years 1050-1150," Speculum 61 (1986): 269-304.

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Author Biography

Bruce Venarde

University of Pittsburgh