16.07.12, Vanderputten, Imagining Religious Leadership in the Middle Ages

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Kathleen Cushing

The Medieval Review 16.07.12

Vanderputten, Steven. Imagining Religious Leadership in the Middle Ages: Richard of Saint-Vanne and the Politics of Reform. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015. pp. xiii, 244. ISBN: 978-0-801-45377-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Kathleen Cushing
Keele University

Throughout much of the twentieth century, medieval historians have grappled to understand the phenomenon of monastic reform in the tenth and early eleventh centuries. The classic narratives suggested that after the imperially-inspired reforms of Benedict of Aniane in 817, when the Rule of St Benedict generally became the standard observance (with local variations) not just in the Carolingian world but beyond, disruption caused by Magyar, Saracen and Norse invasions left many religious houses either vacant, even derelict, or simply unable to impose the necessary discipline. Monastic reform "movements" were seen to develop independently in a number of places in the tenth century, for example in Brogne near Namur in the 920s, in Gorze near Metz in the 930s, in England under Dunstan, Aethelwold and Oswald in the late 950s and 9560s, as well, of course, at Cluny after its foundation by Duke William of Aquitaine in 910. Influenced (quite rightly) by contemporary vitae, monastic consuetudines, chronicles, charters and other hagiographical sources with their inherent tendencies to attribute reform success to a series of abbots who combined intense religiosity and exceptional political and administrative skills, which enabled them to extricate their monasteries from episcopal and lay lords' control, a homogenous narrative of a "reform monasticism," indeed, even a reform mentality was perhaps inescapable. That said, historians such as Sackur, Hallinger, Cowdrey and others recognised that while dependent on a coherent ideology derived not just from the Rule but also from the works great monastic forbearers notably John Cassian, Augustine, Gregory I, Smaragdus and others, reform monasticism in the tenth and early eleventh centuries was far from unified. Although such historiography has been challenged and rectified in recent years by studies such as John Nightingale's work on Gorze, Vanderputten's earlier Monastic Reform as Process and Ecclesia in medio nationis co-authored with Brigitte Meijns among others, there is a still a need to problematize our understanding of the socio-political realities and individuals animating monastic life during this period. Steven Vanderputten's new book, Imagining Religious Leadership in the Middle Ages: Richard of Saint-Vanne and the Politics of Reform, is a welcome contribution to this trend.

After an introduction in which Vanderputten sets out his two-tiered approach to understanding the contradictory characterizations of Richard of Saint-Vanne by examining first how the different discourses originated and secondly, the significance of Richard's own self-construction and representation, there are five chapters and a conclusion. In chapter 1, on imaging Richard in contemporary and modern historiography, Vanderputten seeks to reconstruct the origins (and the perpetuation) of the conflicting characterizations of Richard as: a saintly abbot promoting religious conversion; a creator of a network of reformed monastic institutions; and as a traditional abbot who cooperated with secular and religious elites. In chapter 2, Vanderputten challenges these contradictory representations by underlining the extent to which Richard himself developed "strategies of self-imagination" that Vanderputten understands as the ways in which Richard utilized literary models, especially Gregory I's Regula pastoralis, which reflected his ideas about ecclesiastical office and the ascetic life, adopting them to inform particular aspects of his career, a process begun during his training as a cleric at Rheims. Here, the rich analysis of the Life of Roding, written either by Richard or an author very close to him, reveals a model of monastic leadership that could be a blueprint for his own career at Saint-Vanne. In chapter 3, Vanderputten focuses on Richard's role as the abbot of Saint-Vanne and his participation in "re-imagining" the community, that is, its transformation from a poor episcopal monastery in 1004 into a monastery--both figuratively literally--at his death in 1046 that was one of the defining features of the town of Saint-Vanne and the burial site of its patrons, the family of Verdun-Ardennes. Richard's policy of enriching the community and aligning the interests of its patrons with those of the community made for a policy, however, that set the community at odds with its historical allies, the bishops of Verdun. Chapter 4 addresses the issue of how Richard's historical reputation, as noted by Hugh of Flavigny as an institutor et rector beyond Saint-Vanne, was gradually transformed into the idea that he was responsible for creating a Lotharingian network of reformed monasteries. Instead Vanderputten argues that Richard's ambitions in involving himself with other monasteries often for shorter periods was not part of a desire to create a Cluniac-style network but rather to contribute to the creation of appropriate communities devoted to the ascetic ideals he saw as vital for such communities and above all to influence ecclesiastical and secular lords to support that mission. In chapter 5, on converting the world, Vanderputten argues that Richard's involvement in the pursuit of salvation for society beyond the cloister was motivated not simply for the salvation of lay society or responding to the interests of his lay patrons; rather, it was part of Richard's attempt to create and project a model for religious leadership intimately connected with his self-conception of being a religious virtuoso. There is a brief conclusion, which is followed by a series of appendices: A. chronology of Richard's life; B. a critical edition and English translation of the Life of Roding; C. Monastic reading at Saint-Vanne which discusses the library and its use during Richard's abbacy; D. an overview of Richard's abbacies outside Saint-Vanne; E. a list of Richard's priors; and F. a list of Richard's successors. The volume also includes an extremely rich bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Vanderputten's attempt to understand, indeed to imagine, religious leadership via the prism of Richard of Saint-Vanne takes as its starting point Max Weber's idea of virtuoso religiosity in which certain individuals form a spiritual elite devoted to the methodical pursuit of salvation. Vanderputten's chief argument is that Richard fits such a category "in that he saw himself as a man of exceptional ascetic qualities that entitled--and obliged--him both to take up ecclesiastical office and to use his personal energies to help organize the church and laity in such a way as to reflect the ideal Christian society" (11). While such a statement might equally be applied to many others, perhaps most especially Gregory VII, Vanderputten deftly uses this approach to not just to "re-imagine" but also re-read Richard in a different light, less from the perspective of his motives and achievements but more so from his education, from his reading of Gregory I's Rule of the Pastor, from the model of virtuoso leadership found in the Life of Roding, all of which enable us to understand the extent to which Richard of Saint-Vanne's thinking was aimed above all to influence the ideology and practice of ecclesiastical and secular elites; a right and an obligation that he derived from his religious virtuosity. While Richard was not alone in this, as the writings of John of F├ęcamp, Otloh of St Emmeram and Peter Damian, among others bear witness, Vanderputten is to be both thanked and congratulated on such a stimulating book that challenges us to re-think other visions of religious leadership in the medieval West.

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