16.08.17, Straus, ed., Sigebert de Gembloux

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Thomas Heebøll-Holm

The Medieval Review 16.08.17

Straus, Jean-Paul, ed. Sigebert de Gembloux. Textes et Etudes du Moyen Âge, 79. Turnhout: Brepols , 2015. pp. 210. ISBN: 978-2-503-56519-4 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Thomas Heebøll-Holm
University of Southern Denmark (SDU)

The Benedictine monk and author Sigebert of Gembloux lived from c. 1028 to 1112. In his lifetime he produced dozens of texts on various issues and genres including hagiography, poetry and universal history. His three most important works were the Gesta abbatum Gemblacensium from the last quarter of the eleventh century, the universal history the Chronica finished in 1111 (but continued in several chronicles after his death) and finally the Libellus de viris illustribus from 1111-1112. Despite the volume and scope of his production, his works are somewhat unknown in the English speaking world and have primarily been treated by Belgian, French and German scholars. However, as Mireille Chazan has shown, the influence of his works, especially the Chronica, on French royal historiography in the twelfth and thirteenth century cannot be exaggerated. [1] Accordingly they deserve a wider attention.

The present publication is the result of a seminar held in Brussels and Gembloux 5-6 October 2012 to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the death of Sigebert. The book contains contributions by some of the greatest scholars on Sigebert and it sheds light upon the man and his works as seen through the lens of the academic disciplines of history, literature, philology and archaeology.

The book begins with a brief introduction by the editor followed by a lengthy introductory article by Mireille Chazan on the Sigebert's life and writings from his childhood to his death in 1112. A fundamental characteristic about Sigebert was his close ties to Lotharingia. [2] It was in this region he spent his entire life either at the abbey of Gembloux, which he entered at a very young age, or at the church of Saint-Vincent in Metz where he from 1048-1070/71 served as schoolmaster. This region's history and its relationship with the Carolingian emperors had a profound impact on his writings and worldview. Indeed in his universal history Chronica he began with the year 381 when the Roman Empire split into eight kingdoms and his chronicle essentially concerned the history and indeed recreation of the empire from Christian Rome to his own time. Thus the Lotharingian identity and accordingly pro-imperial proclivities shaped Sigebert's stance in for instance the Investiture Controversy. However, this was less because Sigebert and Gembloux were active partisans of the emperors and more because the abbeys of the region owed their existence to the benefactions of the Carolingian nobility. Furthermore, for eschatological reasons, Sigebert had to support the emperors and oppose the Gregorianism of the popes of the eleventh century. In the article Chazan admirably intertwines events in Sigebert's life with his writings and their topics. She demonstrates how he was a pioneer in chronicle computistics being especially concerned with getting dates and events in their right order. Chazan further highlights his merits in hagiography, letter-writing and poetry. Indeed she does not hesitate to compare him with Bede in terms of the volume and importance of his oeuvre. This article thus sets the stage for the following more specialized articles. This is a somewhat ungrateful task given the number of works by Sigebert and their historical, literary and theological context, but it is carried out with an insuperable erudition. However, it is not entirely successfully resolved. The text is somewhat cumbersome due to the attention to detail, and the reader has to stay focused in order to follow the general progression--especially not if one is not familiar with the scope of Sigebert's authorship. Here (and indeed in general) it would have been a great help to have had a list of Sigebert's works and their approximate dating printed as an appendix.

The next article is by Jean Meyers and it concerns a literary analysis of Sigebert's hagiographical texts and method. These have received scant attention as they have traditionally been considered but blatantly propagandistic sources serving the needs either of Saint-Vincent or Gembloux. Accordingly they do not live up to modern standards of "objective" history writing and have been regarded as inferior works of historiography. In his article, Meyers counters this view. He stresses that though Sigebert in these works seem to go counter to his usual meticulous work of precision and is prone to silence and even forgery when it comes to events that went against the interests of Sigebert patron institutions than modern historiography overlooks that hagiographic texts were not supposed to be correct in the strictest sense of the word. They were not chronicles but rather edifying and exemplary accounts of the pious lives and deeds of the protagonists: bishops and converted warriors.

Wim Verbaal's contribution follows in the same vein. It centers on Sigebert's position in what Verbaal calls the literary storms tempêtes littéraires around 1100. In the article Verbaal examines Sigebert's approach to historical truth in comparison with other contemporary writers such as Anselm of Bec, Marbode of Rennes and Guibert of Nogent. Throughout the article Verbaal demonstrate that Sigebert mostly stood out from his contemporaries as his compustic inclinations clashed with the rising production of historiographic works more inspired by poetry or based on eye-witness accounts. Of particular interest is Verbaal's brief comparison of Sigebert's account of the First Crusade in comparison with contemporaries such as Guibert of Nogent and Fulk of Chartres. Whereas these dutifully reported the sermon of Urban II in Clermont in 1095 as the start of the Crusade, the pro-imperial Sigebert completely omitted this part and presented the crusade as a spontaneous popular movement. This no doubt deliberate omission was not only due to his position in the Investiture Controversy, but also because in Sigebert's viewworld, a pope leading the united armies of Christendom was an unacceptable usurpation of the emperor's divine role as the secular sword of Christendom. To Sigebert, stresses Verbaal, the history of the world were the history of the Christian Roman Empire and the quest to attain the reunification of that empire. In sum, Sigebert appears as a conservative Carolingian writer actively resisting the poetic turn of the late eleventh and the twelfth century historiography, but also the new and more 'objective" history writing relying on eye witness accounts.

The contribution of Michiel Verweij concerns the manuscripts of Sigebert's works kept in the Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique. In total the library contains nine manuscripts or volumes with works of Sigebert, and Verweij shows that a number of circumstances regarding the provenance and dating of these manuscripts questions the usual assumptions about the use of these texts. Thus he critiques modern manuscript cataloging for their separation of textual and descriptive elements, which occludes the connection between the text and the circumstances of its production and conservation. This leads Verweij to conclude that fewer of the texts traditionally assumed to be Sigebert's own edition in fact are. Furthermore, some texts such as the De viris illustribus had limited circulation in terms of geography and time periods: copies of that work only were produced in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century testifying to a momentary resurgence of interest.

Michel De Waha follows in the line of Verweij by focusing on the manuscripts containing Sigebert's works. Specifically he examines the manuscript Civ. Rep. II 69 in the Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig. This manuscript contains the oldest known copies of Sigebert's Gesta abbatum Gemblacensium and the Vita Wicberti. In sum these constituted the official story of the abbey of Gembloux--the story of the abbots and the story of its founder Wicberti (i.e. the Lotharingian nobleman Guibert of Darnau) respectively. De Waha demonstrates that Sigebert's writings permitted the abbey to rise from anonymity. It thus owed to Sigebert a founding myth and eventually the canonization in 1110 of Guibert. The composition and circumstances of the creation of the texts in the manuscript testifies to Gembloux struggles for recognition with its opponents, the Abbey of Lobbes and the bishops of Liège. Accordingly De Waha suggest that these works were perhaps less works of religious devotion and more of a weapon in Gembloux's effort to be recognized as a respectable and important abbey with a prestigious history.

In the penultimate article of the book, Philippe Mignot continues to focus on the abbey proper through studies on the origin of the abbey of Gembloux as evidenced by written as well as archaeological sources. Mignot's research to a certain degree supports the origin story given by Sigebert in the Vita Wicberti since archeological excavations suggest that prior to becoming an abbey, Gembloux was a fortified villa placed at a strategic junction between the English Channel and the Somme leading to the Meuse and ultimately the Rhine. Furthermore, Gembloux seemed to have been the center for local commercial activity and to have had the right to mint coins. Presumably, in the tenth century, Guibert gave the villa to a religious community. However since this raised the ire of Guibert's kinsmen he prudently left the reins to an ecclesiastic. Thereby the abbey was from its foundation endowed with protective walls and the rights to collect tolls, hold market, mint coins and control the traffic. In sum Mignot's studies corroborates Sigebert's account and moreover helps explain why the abbey did initially not dispose of an illustrious saintly founder. As De Waha demonstrates, he had to be "invented".

The final article is written by Paul Tombeur. It is largely addressed to the general public, and through the life and writings of Sigebert Tombeur challenges some of the many medievalisms that characterize public perception of the Middle Ages, namely that it was a period wholly characterized by religious zealots, endless violence and general ignorance. The article takes the shape of a French style essai where Tombeur elegantly refutes these misconceptions through a reading of the texts and life of Sigebert. Although interesting as a whole, what is especially thought-provoking for the medievalist is Tombeur's reflections on Sigebert's critique of the papal condemnation of priestly celibacy and of the quasi-crusade Paschalis II ordered against Liège in the beginning of the twelfth century. In the case of priestly celibacy Sigebert's resistance stems not from a wish for priests to be able to marry but from the notion that the holiness of the sacraments is not diminished even when if they are administered by a morally corrupt clergy. Tombeur argues further that such demands of clerical abstinence in essence were tantamount to Catharism with its repulsion to the holy institution of marriage. As for the pope's crusade against Liège, Sigebert openly criticized this since Liége's only crime was to side with the emperor whom Paschalis termed as a hereticorum caput. However in terms of religious practice Liége had by no means strayed from orthodoxy. Thus, Liège's only crime was guilt by association with a declared heretic, which to Sigebert did not at all permit recourse to war. Futhermore, when the pope took up the secular sword (though by proxy: the count of Flanders) against the emperor, the pope was in fact doing the work of Satan by disturbing the unity of Christendom. His action was thus antithetical to his role as the spiritual protector of the church and the faith. This early opposition to papally instigated war is all too often omitted in crusader studies. [3] Tombeur concludes his essay with reflections on Sigebert as an eleventh century conservative free thinker. On the one hand he was loyal to Carolingian era imperial values, but on the other hand he was not afraid to speak out against any sort of perceived injustice.

The articles are followed by an interesting and useful appendix containing images of pages of Sigebert's works as they appear in various manuscripts, maps and images of the Abbey of Gembloux, an index of authors cited (only medieval and from antiquity) and a list of manuscripts containing works of Sigebert.

In conclusion, this book is an indispensable tool for anyone wishing to study the writings of Sigebert of Gembloux. Furthermore, it brings valuable information about the productive and highly influential scriptoria of Lotharingia in the tenth and the eleventh century and book has an admirably pedagogic progression in topics. Given the number of works and writers cited it could however have benefitted from a more expanded index that included not only authors but also people and works cited in the book. Nevertheless, it is an impressive study of a highly important but somewhat overlooked eleventh century author. I highly recommend it.



1. Chazan, Mireille L'Empire et l'histoire universelle. De Sigebert de Gembloux à Jean de Saint-Victor (XIIe-XIVe siècle) (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1999).

2. The Carolingian kingdom of Lotharingia roughly covered modern day Belgium, Lorraine and parts of northeastern France and northwestern Germany.

3. See though Mia Münster-Swendsen, "How to Prevent a War with a Theologico-Legal Treatise: The Intellectual Strategies of Sigebert of Gembloux and Ralph Niger," in Liber Amicorum Ditlev Tamm, eds. Per Andersen et al. (Copenhagen: DJØF, 2011), 100-116.

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