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15.12.03, Adamo, New Monks in Old Habits

15.12.03, Adamo, New Monks in Old Habits

How many historians have the opportunity to christen a religious order? This is one of Philip Adamo's several achievements in his useful and timely volume tracing the history of the monks of Val-des-Choux, renamed here the "Caulite" Order. Adamo's new name for the order has an assonance and aptness which probably will ensure its permanence. Early on, Adamo offers a succinct summary of the order's history:

The Caulites founded their first monastery in 1193. The order was named for the site of this first monastery in a 'valley of cabbages' located in the Châtillon forest, some twelve kilometers southeast of the town of Châtillon- sur-Seine in northwest Burgundy. The most important benefactor of the order was the duke of Burgundy, Odo III. The order's spiritual founder was a certain Viard, sometimes called Guy or Guido, who, according to eighteenth-century mémoires of the order, was a former Carthusian lay brother. The Caulite Order received papal approval in 1205. It expanded in the first half of the thirteenth century, growing to some seventeen houses in France (mostly Burgundy), three in Scotland, one in what is today the Netherlands--some historian have even suggested Spain and Portugal--founding its last monastery in 1267. The order lasted almost six centuries, but reduced numbers (both of monks and properties) forced the Caulites to unite with, and be governed by, the Cistercians abbey of Sept-Fons, in the Bourdonnais region of France. They experience a brief revival in the late eighteenth century, but disappeared, nonetheless, in the wake of the French Revolution" (3).

One of the most useful contributions of Adamo's book, which recommends its use in advanced courses and for scholars contemplating a similar study, is the clear initial presentation of the available sources. The reader can thereby easily understand how the completed work took on the shape it has, especially how the extant evidence determines its strengths and problems.

First and foremost, extant Caulite records contain no vita of the founder, Viard, and very few documents describing the early character of the order. There are also no writings from the founder himself nor any documents of a spiritual character from the order in its subsequent history. The monastery also produced no chronicle, which could show its relationship to the events of the surrounding world. Thus Adamo's attempts to trace the earliest history of the order, or its religious impulses, are of necessity speculative and rest on sometimes thin evidence. On the other hand, the order's extant records contain three versions of the Caulite customary from different houses, the earliest from the mid-thirteenth century. These also contain several statutes of the order's General Chapter and papal documents dealing with the internal affairs of the houses. Thus Adamo is able to discuss in detail the internal organization of the order's houses and, to some extent, their relationships with each other. Moreover, because the customaries differ significantly from each other and come from different houses, one might explore the possibility of different usages in different houses, or over time, though Adamo does not take up this issue in any detail. Finally, the extant manuscript record includes over 400 charters and no fewer than five cartularies, as well as other collections of transactions between the Caulites and their neighbors. Thus Adamo had at his disposal a rich trove of documents concerning transactions of various sorts, gifts to the monastery, lawsuits, and the like, and his study reflects this in its detailed discussions of such issues.

As noted above, little evidence exists regarding the order's birth and the life and character of its "spiritual founder," a certain Brother Viard. Neither a vita nor writings from the founder have survived, so Adamo is reduced to assessing legends from Val-des-Choux recorded by scholars visiting there in the seventeenth century, and their interpretation of two inscriptions, since lost, along with a few early charters from the monastery, as well as Pope Innocent III's confirmation of the order in 1205. From these Adamo constructs a narrative of the foundation of the monastery. Sometime in the late 1100s, Brother Viard, a former Carthusian conversus (lay-brother) and priest, likely from the Carthusian priory of Lugny, left to seek a stricter life. He lived for a time with other hermits in the forests just to the west of that monastery. These men were then brought together and a church and monastery built for them at Val-des Choux by the pious duke of Burgundy in the mid-1190s. Viard became the first prior and gave his community a set of customs (not extant) largely derived from his Carthusian background, and the officials of nearby Lugny had limited oversight of the new house in its early years.

There are some problems with this admittedly somewhat hypothetical account. First, is it difficult to understand Viard' s desire for a stricter life than was offered by the Carthusians, with their reputation as the most rigorous form of organized monasticism. Of course, the life of Carthusian lay-brother was arguably less intense than that of the choir monks, but as a priest, Viard could surely have joined the choir, a clerical status he held from the beginning of his later career as prior of Val-des-Choux. Indeed, the evidence that Viard was in fact a lay-brother at Lugny seems thin, resting in part on the use of the termfrater in several documents to describe Viard; however around this time, the term was commonly used to refer to all the members of a particular monastery or order, whether clerical or lay. Moreover, Viard seems to have immediately become prior at Val-des-Choux, a somewhat puzzling development in view of his desire for the obscurity of a lay-brother's status at Lugny. Finally, when the customs of the Caulites come into view in the thirteenth century, they appear to be less strict than contemporary Carthusian usages and even these were mitigated by Pope Honorius in 1247, less than fifty years after the order's emergence. So, significant questions remain regarding Viard' s evolution from a dissatisfied Carthusian lay-brother to the "spiritual founder" and first governor of the Caulites.

The earliest Caulites appear to have constituted a variation of Carthusian usages. They adopted the Carthusian tunic of undyed wool and a cowled scapular, attached at the sides by a wide strip of cloth. They wore a hair shirt, a Carthusian practice and observed the Carthusians' rigorous fasts. The distinctive Carthusian architecture, featuring individual cells for each monk, was also adopted. Like the Carthusians, the Caulites were strict contemplatives, spending the day reading and praying in individual cells, except for chanting the Office together and with a short period for "work" in the afternoon, more likely intellectual activity on the Carthusian model rather than any sort of manual labor. Also following the Carthusian model, Viard limited the size of the community to thirteen choir monks and seven lay-brothers (Carthusian statutes allowed for sixteen lay-brothers). There were thus fewer lay-brothers relative to choir monks at Val-des-choux, at least in the beginning, since the founders, in order to limit economic activity (a Carthusian goal as well) confined their income to "rents", that is, revenues donated in perpetuity to the abbey by the original owners of various income-producing assets (a procedure that Adamo does not make sufficiently clear until late in the book). There was to be no agricultural activity to distract the community and even the lay-brothers were forbidden to leave the precincts of the monastery. Adamo argues convincingly that Viard had a distinctive view of the role of lay-brothers in monastic life: he attempted to create a more homogenous spiritual community than was envisaged by other orders, who exploited the lay-brothers' labor in return for membership in the monastic familia.

The Caulite monks' cells appear to have been much more modest than the two-story Carthusian cottage, with its workshop and garden, being perhaps merely cordoned-off sections of a long hall. These cells, unlike those of the Carthusians, were not used for sleeping. The Caulites monks and lay brothers all slept in a common dormitory, more in the Benedictine and Cistercian tradition. This combination of individual cells and dormitory was also a feature of Grandmontine houses, as well as was the Caulite limitation on size and its integration of lay-brothers with the choir monks. These similarities and others suggest possible influences from Grandmont which might be worth investigation.

Again, unlike the Carthusians, the Caulites said the entire Office in common (the Carthusians usually celebrated only the Night Office and Vespers in choir together). It would be useful to know more about the content of the Caulite liturgy, considering its usefulness in reflecting changing customs. Did they originally use the distinctive Carthusian liturgy? Did they later adopt Cistercian rite from the latter's Ecclesiastica Officia? Another significant departure from Carthusian usage occurred in the Caulite customaries about speaking. While Carthusian monks were limited to a weekly spatiamentum of walking and conversation, the Caulite customaries suggest the more moderate Benedictine approach of simply discouraging unnecessary talk.

The above details suggest that, early in their history, the Caulites were blending Carthusian eremitism with the more communal practices of the Benedictines and more specifically the usages of the Cistercians. By the mid-1220s, if not earlier, the Caulites had formally adopted the Rule of Benedict and the Cistercian customary-cum-rituale known as the Ecclesiastica Officia (the nature of which Adamo might have more fully discussed, given its importance to the emerging Caulite identity in the thirteenth century). In 1224 the Caulites obtained from Pope Honorius III the right to mitigate their practices as their General Chapter saw fit. All this suggests an important question: Was the blend of eremitism and coenobitism which becomes the distinctive Caulite charism the result of a decades-long evolution away from a fundamentally Carthusian-inspired eremitism towards an "easier" Benedictine model, or was it from early on a blend of the two? The confirmation bull of Innocent III makes clear that by 1205 the Caulites already ate in a common refectory and not in their cells as the Carthusians usually did. The bull also suggests that the Caulites said the entire Office in common and slept in a common dormitory, all departures from Carthusian practice. If these and other communal practices in fact date to the beginning of the foundation, Viard's foundation was, in fact, in the words of Innocent's bull, "a new way of life." The question does not seem definitively answerable, for lack of foundational documents and the late date of the Caulite customaries, but it is one that perhaps invites more speculation than our author offers.

Whatever the case may be, Val-des-Choux's creative mixture of the two most popular forms of twelfth- and thirteenth-century monasticism clearly had appeal. The Caulites established at least twenty filiations before the end of the 1200s. Most were in Burgundy, but three were founded in far-off Scotland. All these were held together by a customary, a General Chapter and the oversight of the prior primus of Val-des-Choux. The last such foundation, however, was made in 1267, after which the order fell into a long decline, common to so many medieval monastic experiments, ending in its destruction at the hands of the French Revolution.

Such expansion was a sign of prosperity and the abundant evidence of the surviving Caulite charters and cartularies bears witness to this. The Caulites' early determination to embrace poverty was abandoned, as was so often the case with successful monastic enterprises, in the face of generous patrons and the growing acquisitiveness of the monks. Adamo presents abundant examples of the wide variety of gifts, exchanges, frauds and vitriolic legal disputes that attended the order's growing prosperity in the thirteenth century and later.

The Caulites began their long decline in the fourteenth century and most of the houses of the now extinct order, including Val-des-Choux, lie in various states of ruin; but two former Caulite houses have been revived by other orders, while retaining ghostly elements of their origins. The current Benedictine monks of Pluscarden abbey in Scotland wear the distinctive white of the Caulites. The nuns of the Family of Bethlehem, who now inhabit the former Caulite monastery at Val-de-Benoît, are affiliated with la Grande Chartreuse and wear the Carthusian-style habits of their Caulite forebears.

Professor Adamo has presented us with a carefully researched, clearly written study of the Caulites, which also provides opportunities for further research into the adaptations of existing monastic practices by new monastic ventures. His wide-ranging notes and the analysis of the Caulite records, in an appendix, are particularly helpful in this regard.