16.07.11, Melville, trans. by Mixson, foreword by Constable, The World of Medieval Monasticism

Main Article Content

Scott G. Bruce

The Medieval Review 16.07.11

Melville, Gert. Mixson, James D., trans., foreword by Giles Constable. The World of Medieval Monasticism: Its History and Forms of Life. Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2016. pp. . ISBN: 978-0-8790-7263-6 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Scott G. Bruce
University of Colorado at Boulder

This traditional yet thoughtful and insightful survey of the history of premodern Christian monasticism is a welcome translation of Gert Melville's recent book: Die Welt der Mittelalterlichen Klöster: Geschichte und Lebensformen (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2012). Specialists in medieval monastic history are well acquainted with Melville's industry. Since the 1970s, he has published over 100 articles on a wide range topics concerning premodern cloistered life, with an emphasis on the religious orders of the high and later Middle Ages. As the founder of the book series Vita Regularis, he has edited over fifty volumes of monographs and article collections. Moreover, as the director of numerous Sonderforschungsbereiche and most recently as the founder of the Research Center for the Comparative History of the Religious Orders (FOVOG) at the Technische Universität Dresden, he has fostered the careers of numerous fellow researchers and young scholars. While Melville has excelled as a crafter of essays, he has only written two monographs: Die Papstchronistik im Spätmittelalter: Historisches Wissen im Rezeptionsgefüge von Texten und Themen (1983) and the volume under review. For many readers, then, The World of Medieval Monasticism will be their first introduction to the life-long research of one of the foremost historians of premodern cloistered life in Europe.

Surveys of the history of medieval monasticism typically adopt one of two time-honored approaches: a static "life in the cloister" model that reconstructs the daily activities of monks with the aim of providing details about every aspect of their lived experience; or a teleological history of the rise and fall of monastic orders, in which the Rule of Benedict ascends to prominence during the Carolingian period at the expense of earlier customs, and then the Benedictines dominate the stage until the rise of the Cistercians in the twelfth century, who then cede their place to the mendicant orders in the later Middle Ages. Melville's book adopts the latter paradigm with a strong emphasis on the development of monastic legislation and the relationship between charismatic leadership and constitutional governance. In doing so, he inherits some of the pitfalls of this approach (see below), but his treatment of the topic is sophisticated and nuanced, so much so that even specialists in monastic history will benefit from reading the book.

After a laudatory foreword by Giles Constable and a preface by the author, The World of Medieval Monasticism proceeds through seventeen chapters of unequal length. Most of the book is given over to a long narrative of the history of monastic life from the Desert Fathers to the end of the Middle Ages. Melville divides his account into two parts, pausing in the late twelfth century to consider the achievements of the Benedictines and Cistercians (Chapter 8: Diversity and Competition, 180-185) before introducing the new trends in lay piety that had a formative impact on late medieval monasticism (Chapter 9: New Concepts of Belief, 186-205). In the first half of the book, Melville follows the genealogical methodology common in surveys of this kind, moving from the atomized beginnings of the monastic movement with reference to Anthony, Basil, Cassian, and Augustine, to the career of Benedict of Nursia and the success of his rule for monks in the Carolingian period. A long chapter on the "flowering of the Benedictines" reinforces the notion that the Central Middle Ages (ca. 800-1100) were indeed "the Benedictine centuries." The new religious currents of the twelfth century merit several chapters on hermits, regular canons, and the Cistercians. Here the reader benefits from the depth of Melville's knowledge, as he brings to the fore lesser known reformers like Steven of Thiers (1044/45-1124) alongside better known figures like Bernard of Tiron (1046-1117). He shows very clearly how the Cistercian model of organization quickly became the new gold standard in the twelfth century, influencing both the new orders of reformers and eventually the Cluniacs themselves, and how contemporaries embraced the diversity of monastic life in this period as "a guarantor and symbol for the salvation of the world" (184).

While surveys of this kind tend to present the rise of the mendicants and later medieval developments in monastic life as a coda to the achievement of the Benedictines, Melville treats the period from the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) to the Council of Basel (1431-1449) on its own terms. Indeed, his account of these two centuries--Melville's primary champ de recherche--takes up almost half of the book. Over the course of several chapters, he provides detailed treatments not only of the rise of the Franciscans and the Dominicans, but also of the appeal of late medieval hermits like the Carmelites as well as followers of the so-called Devotio moderna. The narrative portion of the book ends not, as one might expect, with the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation of the fifteenth century, but rather a century earlier with the reforms to many forms of religious life--monks, canons, and mendicants--instituted at the Council of Basel. A lengthy final chapter ("Fundamental Structures of the Vita Religiosa in the Middle Ages") adopts a thematic approach that allows Melville to ruminate on a diverse range of abstract topics, many of which are expressed as dichotomies, like the relationship between the individual and the community, the monastery and the law, and the cloister and the world.

There is much to admire about Melville's patient and detailed treatment of the structures of medieval monastic governance and the personalities behind them. Unlike other books of this kind, Melville is particularly attentive to the history of female religious, whose stories he has braided successfully throughout the book rather than sequestering them, as often occurs, in a single chapter. On the other hand, a survey of this kind cannot hope to cover every topic. With its sharp focus on the legislative norms of monastic life, there is very little in this volume about the daily experiences of individual monks, the cultural products of their abbeys (manuscripts, poetry, music, iconography, etc.), or any treatment of other institutions that involved them, particularly the universities. Moreover, true to the "rise and fall" approach to the history of monastic orders, the Benedictines largely drop out of the story at the end of the twelfth century, despite their continued involvement in religious and secular life throughout the later Middle Ages. Lastly, some aspects of the book leave open the question of the intended audience of this English translation. The narrative portions emphasize charismatic leaders and legislative norms, but the text is clear enough that advanced undergraduates could read it with profit. The footnotes are another story; most of them refer to German scholarship and many read as an homage to the twentieth-century scholars on whose foundation Melville has constructed his edifice. Despite its relatively narrow focus, Melville's book offers beginners and specialists alike a highly readable and deeply learned examination of the world of medieval monasticism.

Article Details