The Medieval Review 16.10.25

Sergent, F. Tyler, Aage Rydstrøm-Poulsen, and Marsha L. Dutton, eds. Unity of Spirit: Studies on William Of Saint-Thierry in Honor of E. Rozanne Elder. Cistercian Studies Series, 268. Collegeville: Cistercian Publications / Liturgical Press, 2015. pp. i, 212. $29.95 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-8790-7268-1 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Martha Newman
The University of Texas at Austin

The essays in Unity of Spirit: Studies on William of St. Thierry in Honor of E. Rozanne Elder explore the ideas and writings of an important twelfth-century monastic theologian. Dr. Rozanne Elder's friends, colleagues, and students created this volume as a Festschrift to honor her important scholarship on William of St. Thierry as well as her decades of work as Director of the Institute of Cistercian Studies, Director of the Center for Cistercian and Monastic Studies, and Editorial Director of Cistercian Publications. As Fr. Luke Anderson notes in a letter prefacing this volume, Dr. Elder's scholarship, her administrative work, and her yearly organization of the Cistercian Studies Conference at the International Congress at Kalamazoo has benefited three audiences: Cistercian monks and nuns interested in the history of their order; lay men and women curious about the devotional aspects of Cistercian life; and academics who study and teach medieval religious history and the history of Christianity. These groups also comprise the intended audiences for Unity of Spirit.

William of St. Thierry is best known for his friendship with Bernard of Clairvaux, his opposition to Peter Abelard, and his composition of the first book of Bernard's vita. Born around 1080, he probably studied at Reims before entering the Benedictine monastery of Saint Nicaise; he later became abbot of St. Thierry, also in Reims. He met Bernard around 1118 and the two men remained in contact for the rest of their lives. Although William was immediately attracted to Cistercian life, he did not become a Cistercian until 1135 when he entered the monastery of Signy. He died in 1148. Over the last century, scholars--including Étienne Gilson, Marie-Madeleine Davy, J. M Déchanet, Paul Verdeyen, E. Rozanne Elder, and David Bell--have identified William's treatises that were long confused with Bernard's, provided critical editions of William's texts, and presented William's thought as an expression of an Augustinian outlook and as articulating ideas central to the development of mystical theologies.

The nine essays in Unity of Spirit build on this earlier scholarship. They illuminate William's exegesis, his rhetorical strategies and mystical language, and illustrations of his writings in sixteenth-century stained glass. Some of the essays place William's ideas in conversation with Bernard's while others consider him on his own. Some explore his famous treatises and compositions; others look at lesser-known and even fragmentary works. One chapter provides a new translation of a little-known composition. The essays are organized chronologically according to the date of the texts on which they are based. As a result, they imply but do not fully explore the development of William's ideas over time.

Many of the essays in the volume examine William's theological ideas. Especially noteworthy is William's understanding of the soul's union with God; this has made him an important figure in the development of mystical thought. David Bell's analysis and translation of William's Oratio, for example, emphasizes that William's commitment to an apophatic theology distinguishes him from most other twelfth-century Cistercian authors. Bell argues that the Oratio shows early efforts to work out ideas that William more thoroughly develops in his Meditationes, but he also finds in the Oratio William's adoption of Augustinian ideas about sight, imageless prayer, and the importance of the human intellect as a reflection of God. Emero Stiegman's essay comparing William's Trinitarian image of the soul to Bernard's experiential progression towards the divine makes a similar point. In analyzing William's early treatise De natura et dignitate amoris, once believed to have been written by Bernard, Stiegman also posits a new interpretation of Bernard's De diligendo dei. Stiegman argues that William views the progression of the human soul as an inward realization of its creation in the image and likeness of the Trinity. Bernard, in comparison, focuses on human experience and finds the transformation of love to be the key movement toward the divine. Aage Rydstrøm-Poulsen's chapter on William's Epistola ad fratres de Monte Dei also considers the union of human and divine, arguing that human striving toward the divine is a descent toward humility in imitation of the love shown by a God humbled in Christ. And F. Tyler Sergent surveys the meaning of the phrase "unitas spiritus" by examining the ways in which authors from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries used the term. William, he argues, employs this phrase in a new way; it describes the unity possible between humans and God that stems from the soul's capacity to become one with God.

A second dominant topic in this collection is William's Christology. Aage Rydstrøm-Poulsen and Rosie Marie Tillisch both address William's ideas about the nature of Christ's humility. Tillisch compares William's exegesis of Biblical texts to Bernard's consideration of the same texts. She argues that William distinguishes between Christ's willing humiliation and human humility, whereas Bernard views Christ's humility and human humility on a continuum. Rydstrøm-Poulsen, in comparison, not only discusses William's idea that humans descend towards God through humility, but he also argues that William viewed Christ's humility as a model for humans. He contrasts William's Augustinian position with what William saw as Peter Abelard's Pelagianism. And Mark DelCogliano, while not explicitly discussing Christology, examines the collection of florilegia that William assembled from Ambrose's exegesis on the Song of Songs to show how William modified Ambrose's ideas so as to place more emphasis on the Incarnation of Christ and the human spiritual journey toward the divine.

Since these fine essays on William's theology do not enter into conversations with one another, they raise questions about William's intellectual development but do not answer them. For instance, does William gradually modify his early Augustinian outlook (see Stiegman) to allow for more emphasis on experience (see Rydstrøm-Poulsen)? Does William change his ideas about Christ's humiliation (Tillisch) to find in Christ's humility a model for human spiritual development (Rydstrøm-Poulsen)? Do we see in both these cases the gradual influence of Bernard's ideas? Did William's thought gradually adopt more of a Cistercian texture as he moves from a Benedictine to a Cistercian community? At what point do we consider William a Cistercian theologian? The conjunction of these essays raise such questions but do not provide an answer.

William's ideas about monastic life and sanctity provide a final theme in this volume. Benedicta Ward explores William's references to the monks of Egypt in his Epistola ad fratres de Monte Dei . She argues that William's knowledge of these Desert Fathers did not come from his reading of the Apophthegmata but rather from tropes found in common monastic texts. Interestingly, she shows that Abelard had a broader knowledge of the Sayings, an observation that reminds us of Abelard's continued interest in monastic life. Both William and Abelard referred to these fourth-century monks to justify their contemporary practices; in fact, Ward warns that we should not expect twelfth-century monks to use such texts with a modern concern for historical objectivity. Similar questions about historical accuracy emerge in the two essays about William's vita of Bernard. Marjory Lange suggests that William's vita is neither a conventional saint's life nor an objective biography but rather a text that draws on his own friendship with Bernard. William uses this intimacy to compose a work that reconciles the "fallible man and the emergent saint" (143). Similarly, James France recognizes that the two images of Bernard and William in medieval manuscripts of the vita are not intended to be realistic, but he finds in sixteenth-century stained glass windows from Altenberg a reminder of the power of William's stories about Bernard that, he thinks, stemmed from intimate conversations between the two men. Both Lange and France recognize that many modern readers wish to use William's vita to understand Bernard's life and personality, and they emphasize that William's friendship with Bernard created a portrait that overcomes any use of standard hagiographical tropes.

The essays in this volume present important aspects of William of St. Thierry's thought, demonstrating William's importance for understanding twelfth-century interpretations of Augustine, the development of mystical thought, and the history of monasticism. There are aspects of William's ideas missing in this collection that are covered in other studies--mostly notably, his writings on physiology that show an early incorporation of Greek and Arabic medical texts into Christian theology. Nonetheless, the volume illuminates the important and wide-ranging contributions Dr. Elder has made to our understanding of William's thought. In addressing the varied audience that Dr. Elder too sought to reach, it is a fitting tribute to her distinguished career.

Copyright (c) 2016 Martha G. Newman

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login