14.10.16, Paxton, The Death Ritual at Cluny

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Lucy K. Pick

The Medieval Review 14.10.16

Paxton, Frederick S., with Isabelle Cochelin. The Death Ritual at Cluny in the Central Middle Ages / Le rituel de la mort à Cluny au Moyen Âge central. Disciplina Monastica, 9. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. 283. ISBN: 9782503550107 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Lucy K. Pick
University of Chicago

For medieval monks working on the project of their own salvation, death marked a crucial moment of passage that required preparation and attention, then memory or commemoration. With the publication of this study and translation of the death ritual at Cluny as it was practiced in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, Frederick Paxton has brought to full fruition a project that began over thirty years ago, in his master's thesis, to explore this central moment. In this volume, Paxton builds on his translation in that thesis of the ritual as it appeared in the monastic customaries of Cluny to provide a full reconstruction of the rite that incorporates the complete texts of the chants and prayers used in the ritual with the directions for the rite preserved in the customaries.

The book opens with an introduction that acquaints neophytes with the monastery of Cluny, and talks about the place of its death ritual in the history of Christian approaches to death. It discusses the relationship between our two main sources for this ritual, Udalrich and Bernard's customaries, following the consensus that now sees Bernard's version as correcting and amplifying Udalrich's. Paxton also situates the ritual as we have it during a moment of growth and transformation for the monastery at Cluny, and discusses how increase in the number of monks and changes to the architecture of the monastery affected the performance of the ritual.

Paxton bases his translation on a transcription of the ritual De obitu fratris et sepultum, chapter 26 of Bernard's customary, as it appears in the late eleventh-century manuscript Paris, BNF, latin 13875. His aim is not however simply to present an accurate print version of a manuscript text. His goal is rather a reconstruction of the rite itself that will provide a sense of it as a dramatic event. The use of gesture, and movement through the space of the monastery--through cloister, chapter house, infirmary, chapter house, cloister, church and cemetery--prescribed in Bernard's customary was designed to accompany spoken and chanted texts, chosen to elicit particular emotions and create dispositions, and sometimes repeated in order to reinforce specific messages. In order to reconstruct more of the fullness of this rite, Paxton expands the text of the customary to include these prayers and chants by using other ritual sources with Cluniac connections.

To those who are not liturgists but want to use liturgical materials as part of a study of medieval culture, Paxton's work provides both a guide for interpreting manuscript sources, and a model. His study, with its lucid descriptions of the parts of the ritual and its glossary of technical terms, will serve as a primer for scholars who wish to learn how to use liturgical sources. He provides legible plates of the section of the manuscript he uses, and supplies notes in his transcription explaining the source of every addition and expansion, and justifying every reordering he makes of his material such that a reader who wishes to emulate his work can see exactly what he had to do to turn manuscript source into expanded text. Paxton acknowledges his debt to Isabelle Cochelin's earlier draft of this transcription. His debt to both her work, and to that of Susan Boynton on the liturgy of Cluny, greatly expands the volume's audience by including Cochelin's French translation beneath Paxton's English version, both facing the Latin transcription on the left hand page. Cochelin has also provided an abridged French translation of Paxton's introduction.

Paxton follows the transcription and translations with a commentary that walks the reader through the ritual step by step, focusing on the spoken and sung elements of the ritual that he has added in his reconstruction, paying special attention to their sources, and on Bernard's own description of the ritual. Unlike many other aspects of liturgical life at Cluny, the death ritual posed special challenges that were essential for the monks to accommodate, given the importance of this ritual to their lives as monks. Death interrupts life and thus also the steady rhythms of the monastic day and year. Paxton shows how Bernard accounts for its interruptions, and sets the death ritual within a monastic hierarchy of the sacred that placed it below only the most solemn times and feasts (like the Mass, the divine office, and the Triduum) and the most elaborately-prepared rituals (like certain processions and the Maundy).

Bernard's ideal of a monastery in which all attend each death was less and less possible over the years as Cluny grows. One has the sense over the course of Paxton's book of Bernard as a man struggling against the tide in his customary, reacting to the consequences of Cluny's enormous expansion in the eleventh century. Bernard seems to be outlining a ritual that has already become almost impossible to perform exactly as written by the time he sets it down. And while Bernard can accommodate the monastic liturgy to the fact of death, he cannot and does not try to account for those deaths that themselves do not follow the prescribed pattern. Bernard's ideal is that of the monk who recognizes his own imminent death and sets in motion a ritual process that is then taken up by the community as he slips from life. But what of the monk who dies suddenly, through disease or accident? Bernard has no words for him, but perhaps the ritual in the customary itself, which outlines a perfect death, was intended to stand in for the many times when real deaths must have fallen far from the ideal.

This is a volume that has much to offer everyone from to beginning students of religion, interested in ritual performance, to advanced scholars of liturgical life at Cluny. Paxton is to be commended for finding a way to speak to both extremes of his audience without losing either. In the end, perhaps the greatest strength of this volume is the way Paxton is able to convey through his translation and its commentary something of the stakes of the death ritual for the monks, the sense of anxiety mixed with hope, the balance between the promise of heaven and the fear of hell in which they lived their lives, and their nostalgia for an earlier time when perfect deaths, attended by all, seemed possible. In this way, he is able to make the death liturgy of Cluny live for the modern reader.

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Lucy K. Pick

University of Chicago