15.04.14, Thompson, The Monks of Tiron

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Constance B. Bouchard

The Medieval Review 15.04.14

Thompson, Kathleen. The Monks of Tiron: A Monastic Community and Religious Reform in the Twelfth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. x, 270. ISBN: 9781107021242 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Constance B. Bouchard
University of Akron

When historians think of monastic reform in twelfth-century France, they generally think of the Cistercians. But the Cistercian order was not by any means the only group of monks of the time who attempted to lead a purer life or to return to what they saw as monasticism's roots, even if they have received most of the attention. The monks of Fontevraud have attained prominence for modern scholars primarily because their abbey church became the final resting place of several Anglo-Norman kings and queens, and the order of Savigny is generally treated as interesting only because it was absorbed into the Cistercian order. Even less well known than these is the order of Tiron, to which Kathleen Thompson here devotes the first full-length study.

Tiron, located west of Chartres, began like many other reforming houses of the era as a hermitage. Its founder, Bernard of Ponthieu (not to be confused with Bernard of Clairvaux), has just begun to gain some scholarly notice, primarily because of Ruth Cline's solid English translation of his vita some five years ago, in handy format for classroom adoption. Bernard's order was very successful, establishing daughter houses in Great Britain as well as on the Continent--a large number were founded in Scotland. Using especially the monastery's cartulary and the vita of its founder--which Thompson studies through the lens of the monks' construction of a useful past--the book provides the first real account of the foundation and early history of Tiron and its associated houses.

The first three chapters are a close analysis of the twelfth-century sources. Thompson is particularly interested in how the monastery's records were created at least in part to sustain a foundation narrative of wild woods bursting with hermits, a narrative she critiques. The sources themselves have not received decent modern editions--or in some cases been consulted at all for Tiron's history. The records of the order's English houses are now in Winchester and have never been studied in the context of the houses' connection to Tiron. The vita of Bernard of Ponthieu has not been edited since the seventeenth century, when indeed it was done twice, including the Acta Sanctorum version reprinted in the Migne edition that is now always cited. The edition of the mid twelfth-century cartulary was done in the 1880s and, Thompson notes, this edition is quite misleading, because the editor rearranged the documents and added additional ones from sources as late as the eighteenth century. Fortunately, the original manuscript of the cartulary still exists in the archives in Chartres, even though that of the vita is lost and indeed was already disintegrating in the 1640s. Thompson devotes much ingenuity to an almost archaeological reconstruction of the form this vita might have taken.

Bernard's vita purports to have been written early in the twelfth century, no more than a generation after its subject's death, by someone who knew him well and who relied for additional detail on others who had also known him. However, one of Thompson's chief arguments is that the vita instead took its present form only in the thirteenth century, shaped by the monks' desire to portray him in a way that corresponded to the changed needs of their own present. The monastery had evolved, and so did the way that the monks wanted to remember their founder. As she puts in, the vita should be seen "as part of the history of Tiron, as well as a source for it" (33). In an appendix, she goes through the vita chapter by chapter, discussing the probable influences at work, which include vitae of other saints, Cistercian exempla stories, charters now in the cartulary, the Benedictine Rule, and an earlier vita brevis, now being edited by Jacques Dalarun.

The Bernard of the vita devoted himself increasingly to poverty and simplicity in a wilderness setting and also became a noted preacher. These traits have generally been seen as characterizing the ideal of monastic reform from the end of the eleventh century onward, in part on the basis of this account, even though they only became central to the way that sanctity was conceptualized in the thirteenth century. But Thompson suggests that the poverty and barefooted preaching might rather have been characteristics valued in the era of the friars, when she argues the vita took its current form, and that its thirteenth-century compiler projected the concerns of his own time back to the first years of the twelfth century. Here she finds it particularly significant that there are no documents in the cartulary that correspond to the vita's version of the house's original benefactors.

In the last three chapters of the book, Thompson sets out to give a more definitive version of Tiron's history than has been generally accepted. First she analyzes the activities of Bernard himself, then the monastery of Tiron that he founded, and finally the regulation and spread of its daughter houses, through the thirteenth century. Here she relies especially on other contemporary sources (such as Orderic Vitalis) that mention Tiron's origins, rather than just following the vita. Bernard emerges from her analysis as more nuanced and indeed more conflicted than his later biographer wanted to portray him. Yet even if Bernard did not embrace Franciscan-like poverty, Thompson argues, his original foundation of a house imbued with many elements of eremitism would have seemed radically different from the form of monasticism considered normal in the diocese of Chartres at the beginning of the twelfth century--and hence disturbingly strange.

The book is insightful, well argued, and clearly written, in spite of some repetition that the author recognized but found inescapable (6). After reading it, it will be difficult for anyone to take Bernard's vita at face value as a transparent narrative of the deeds of Tiron's founder. One does wish, however, that more could have been done with the Tironian order, which quickly grew to over a hundred daughter-houses and dependencies. Thompson is to be commended for her careful analysis of the manuscript sources, even though (a small point) she appears not to understand that medieval sealing was done by attaching a seal to strings or strips passed through a slit in the folded bottom edge of a charter; instead she appears to have expected to find sealing wax on the documents themselves and erroneously imagines that the slits in the folded edge were used to hang charters on pegs (78).

Overall, the close focus on the sources for Tiron is one of the book's principal strengths, yet it is also one of its weaknesses, because Tiron could have been examined as a case study for a broader issue, the perceived need for later generations of monks in reforming orders to reconceptualize their origins. But those analyzing the malleable nature of medieval memory will find here an excellent example of a monastic order that passed from austerity and a sharp break with what had previously been expected of monks to a more institutionalized life, supported by powerful political figures--and which looked back on its past and regretted what had been lost.

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Author Biography

Constance B. Bouchard

University of Akron