Edeltraud Klueting's Monasteria semper reformanda seeks to offer its readership a brief yet representative overview of the reform of religious life in the middle ages--in the author's words, "to represent the reform of the orders as a general phenomenon, without observing individual orders or particular reform movements in isolation." It is an admirable aim, and one that, taken on its own terms, the book achieves with reasonable success.
Klueting's book is divided in to six chapters. A general introduction frames the history of reform as a transcendent ideal whose history is grounded (in good medieval fashion) as a series of twenty specific propositions. The remainder of the introduction frames that same history within specific institutional contexts, focusing on its key stakeholders beyond the cloister--the papacy, church councils, territorial princes and city magistrates. A second chapter surveys Benedictine reform from Cluny and Hirsau to the reforms of Kastl, Melk and Bursfeld in the later middle ages. Chapter three highlights a few of the most well-known innovations of the twelfth century: the story of Cistercian reform, with emphasis on Bernard, and the rise of the Praemonstratensians. Chapters four and five discuss the Carthusians and the "New Piety" of the Modern Devout and Windesheim. The final chapter surveys the history of the four major mendicant orders--the Franciscans and Dominicans, the Carmelites and the Augustinian Hermits. For the introduction and each of the major subsections of each chapter, the author also provides a bibliography of printed primary sources and key literature.
The author's overall approach to the orders in this survey is commendable in certain respects. Our textbooks and handbooks still often focus on one order, and on an ostensible "golden age" of the orders between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. This book's chapters move comfortably across those institutional boundaries. They also thankfully take seriously the story of the later Middle Ages--the Benedictine reforms of the fifteenth century, the Modern Devotion, even Cistercian reform all find their place in this account. The final chapter, in particular, provides detailed accounts of both Dominican reform, and the story of the Carmelites through the sixteenth century. Each bibliography is reliably up to date (with the exception of some key Anglophone works, to be discussed below) and each is particularly well-anchored in the best studies of the last decades in German--the work of Kaspar Elm, Franz Felten, Gert Melville, and Klaus Schreiner, among others. Beginning students may thus find this volume a useful brief introduction to the basic narratives and essential literature in the field.
For all of its concision and utility, however, readers will want to approach this survey of the orders with caution, for at least three reasons. First, its treatments are at times uneven. Chapter four somewhat oddly devotes a mere three pages to the Carthusians, for example, while chapter six covers all four of the major mendicant orders in fifty. Second, the book's commitment to an institutionally- oriented narrative comes at a price. While its chapters collectively juxtapose the various histories of the orders, each institutional story is bound to its own diachronic script. The result is a tendency to elide crucial differences between early and later centuries. We miss some of the ways in which the reforms of tenth-century Cluny and fifteenth-century Melk inhabited radically different worlds, for example, or a sense of how much more common ground Observant reformers shared with the Modern Devotion than with their twelfth- and thirteenth-century predecessors. A third point concerns the concept of reform itself. A number of scholars (Steven Vanderputten for monastic reform in Lotharingia, for example) have recently shown how the ideal of reform, though seemingly timeless, was in fact deeply entangled in and shaped by local social, political and institutional contexts particular to time and place, and the product of contest, resistance, (re) negotiation and failure, in ways traditional institutional narratives fail to capture. Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, the book's commitment to an institutional narrative crowds out key themes and topics that have long enjoyed a hard-earned place in our standard accounts of religious life. While chapter two engages the history of the Cistercians and Praemonstratensians, for example, it provides little sense of the wider complexity of the twelfth-century's critical changes, both within and beyond the orders. There could be more here of the energy, diversity and turmoil of what Giles Constable has called an era of "Reformation." And while the discussion of the Carmelites touches briefly on the second and third orders, there could be much more here, and throughout, on the complex ties between the mendicant vita religiosa, laity, and "semi-religious" women and men generally, as well as between heresy and orthodoxy, that have been central to our accounts of religious life since Grundmann. So too with the Observants. The survey offers laudably concise and useful discussions of their main reform movements, but little reflection on how they intersected with and shaped a range of broader themes-- preaching and lay piety, heresy and witchcraft, economic thought and practice, textual and artistic production.
We might bring focus to these issues by tracing some of the ways this account misses an opportunity to engage recent English-language scholarship. In part the omissions may reflect a lingering disconnect between Anglo-American and Continental scholarship on the medieval religious life. They may also reflect bad timing: some of the most important work seems to have appeared too late to be included in this survey (or at least in its first edition, published in 2005). In any event, Constance Berman's work on the origins of the Cistercians, for example, while disputed, seems too important to have been left out. So too with the work of Anne Lester on Cistercian nuns, or Walter Simons for the Beguines. Also essential, for the late middle ages, is the work John Van Engen on the Modern Devotion (and on the fifteenth century generally), Erik Saak on the Augustinian Hermits, Michael Bailey and Tamar Herzig on Dominican reform. There is more at stake here than merely enhancing an already solid bibliography. These are works whose models and arguments challenge and complicate the narrative of reform and religious life at stake in this survey. Readers will want to find their own ways to account for the tensions.
This book surveys centuries of reform's history within the religious orders with an even hand, and it captures in a brief volume many of the highlights of a traditional institutional narrative. It can thus provide beginning students and outsiders with a valuable basic orientation. It also provides an opportunity to discuss the shapes, and the limits, of traditional reform historiography, particularly as these are shaped by the tension between history and historical theology. In both respects, it is a welcome addition to a long tradition of historiography of religious life and its reform.