Monasteries on the Borders--a well-produced, competently edited collection of ten articles related to frontier monasticism--developed out of a 2008 conference at the University of Leeds on "Monasteries on the Borders of Medieval Europe: New Perspectives." Some readers may quibble about how well this book's title actually describes its project. Unlike the more extensive scholarship on the early medieval monastic role in the conversion of Europe, these papers concern the High and Later Middle Ages and treat no subjects earlier than the twelfth century. Here one finds few Benedictines, but far more Cistercians, Augustinians, mendicants, and Teutonic Knights. Houses of women are mentioned on occasion, but the emphasis on borderland communities has led to a focus on "male houses only" in order to avoid attempting to deal adequately with the separate set of issues raised by late medieval claustration (3). Although the introduction contextualizes these papers in terms of frontier scholarship, the title avoids the word "frontier," perhaps because some of the "borders" at issue have less to do with wilderness than with territorial conflicts among developed polities.
In their introduction (1-18), Emila Jamroziak and Karen Stöber follow a long tradition of attempting to apply the "frontier thesis" of Frederick Jackson Turner to things medieval. In doing so they offer the most recent survey of this scholarship. In keeping with this tradition, however, their exact definition of frontier remains somewhat elusive. "Frontiers" and "borders" are not necessarily identical concepts. The editors intend this volume to "illustrate the many-faceted and complex situations religious communities in frontier regions had to face" and "to take some first steps towards expanding our understanding of their operations, mentalities, and motivations" (12-13).
The volume is loosely divided into two halves, with the first five articles grouped under "Conflict and Its Resolution." Brian Golding's "Piety, Politics, and Plunder across the Anglo-Welsh Frontier: Acquiring the Relics of Winifred and Beuno" discusses two translations made 250 years apart by the monastery of Shrewsbury, highlighting the paradox that a relatively ordered process took place in the disordered world of 1137 whereas the chaotic relic theft of 1388 took place in a rigid, ordered society where negotiation was not an issue (19-48). Ana Novak's "Croatia and the Borders of Christianity: The Fortified Cistercian Abbey of Castrum Thopozka" describes how the first Cistercian Abbey in modern Slavonia, founded 1211, was increasingly forced by pressure from Mongols and Turks to ally with noble factions, to acquire defenses and a commendatory abbot, and, after the loss of some estates and many monks, ultimately to transform itself into the seat of a frontier garrison dependent upon Zagreb and on Croatian authorities (49-80). Marie Holmström's "Alvastra in Östergötland, Sweden: A Medieval Political and Religious Centre of Power" reinterprets the archeology of Sweden's Cistercian motherhouse, founded in 1143, treating it not as a royal chapel but as a functioning and productive Cistercian community (81-110). Paul Milliman's "Boundary Narratives and Tales of Teutonic Treachery on the Frontier of Latin Christendom: The Early Fourteenth-Century Disputes between the Kingdom of Poland and the Teutonic Ordensstaat" describes the progress of a boundary dispute over the land of Chelmo, where an initially uncontroversial grant was called into question not only by Polish ambition but also by conflict between "hard boundaries" established by charters and markers and "soft boundaries" of social memories and stories (111-28). Hans Joachim Schmidt's "Mendicant Provinces between Germany and Poland during the Later Middle Ages" notes how mendicants, who as international orders were free to draw their own provincial boundaries, faced difficulties in eastern Europe where developing states and shifting linguistic boundaries injected political issues into boundary choices and resulted in frequent appeals from margraves and princes to reassign houses and their territories (129-45).
The second half, devoted to "Acculturation and Cultural Contacts on the Frontiers" contains the other five articles. Steinunn Kritjánsdóttir's "Skriðuklaustur Monastery in Medieval Iceland: A Colony of Religiosity and Culture" examines medieval Iceland's tenth and most recent religious house, whose existence only during 1493-1554 offers archeological advantages in that everything on site is relatively undisturbed and datable: what emerges is a monastic building complex ten times larger than an Icelandic farmhouse, featuring two-story buildings, a hospital, a cloister garden with exotic medicinals, and an impressive church, all less representative of Icelandic isolation than of adaptations of European institutions into a local context (147-72). Karen Stöber's "Religious and Society on the Borders of Christendom: The Regular Canons in Medieval Catalonia" looks at the Augustinian abbey of Santa Maria de Vilabertran in northern Catalonia, whose importance was less as a military redoubt than as a place of communication, connecting laymen, influential nobles, and even the king into a community that fostered pastoral care and pilgrimages (173-93). Nicky Tsougarakis' "On the Frontier of the Orthodox and Latin World: Religious Patronage in Medieval Frankish Greece" contrasts the failure of the Cistercian establishments in the Latin Empire of Constantinople with the relative success of the mendicant houses which provided pastoral care, a lively non-Greek ecclesiastical focus, and connections with the Italians in the East who had more lasting success than the Franks (193-210). Kathryn Dutton's "Angevin Religious Patronage in the County of Maine: The Assertion of Identity, Authority, and Legitimacy, 1110-51" examines how the counts of Anjou, upon inheriting Maine in 1110, used religious patronage to establish their authority by building some new neighboring houses, patronizing a variety of fashionable institutions, and becoming special patrons of St. Julian in Le Mans (211-35). Kati Ihnat's "Staging the Jew: Liturgical Drama and Frontier-Building in Twelfth Century Laon" deals with the establishment of a religious identity in the liturgy of the cathedral of Notre Dame at Laon that emphasizes Mary and defines itself against a Jewish other, both figurative and real (237-61).
The idea of focusing on frontier monasticism in the late medieval period is meritorious. The insight that late medieval frontiers are different and more complex than early medieval ones is potentially fruitful. However, the assembled papers do not always fulfil this premise's promise inasmuch as the challenges faced by frontier monastic institutions with ample properties and opportunities appear to be significantly different from those faced by orders and institutions trying to negotiate contentious borders among well-developed, heavily populated states. Yet overall this collection does manage to introduce the frontier monasticism of a less known era, treating borders around the northern, eastern, and southern edges of the Latin Church that have been less explored in mainstream English scholarship. The quality of these precise local studies is high, and each conveniently offers its own appended bibliography.