17.02.20, Howe, Before the Gregorian Reform

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Thomas F. X. Noble

The Medieval Review 17.02.20

Howe, John. Before the Gregorian Reform: The Latin Church at the Turn of the First Millennium. ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016. pp. xiv, 353. ISBN: 978-0-8014-5289-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Thomas F. X. Noble
University of Notre Dame

I enjoyed this book. It is nicely written--often in a colloquial, conversational style, impressively researched, and elegantly presented by Cornell (footnotes in this day and age!). The book reminded me of many things I knew but had never connected in the ways in which Howe assembles them and taught me many things I did not know. But the book also puzzled me in myriad ways. I will come to that below but I shall begin with a summary of what is in the book, turn to a fair accounting of its contributions, and end with the puzzles.

Arrayed in nine chapters plus an Introduction and an Epilogue, the book argues a clear, if not entirely convincing, thesis. "This present book," Howe says, "attempts to reinsert the history of the church into the story of the rise of the West" (6). He argues that the Gregorian reform is traditionally seen as essentially different from the ascetic and cenobitic reforms of the tenth century. Moreover, European take-off began much earlier than the late eleventh century. So, the book studies the Christendom that the Gregorian reformers inherited and, by going beyond traditional political and institutional perspectives, tries to align church history with current fascinations with material culture and social history. Taken together, that makes an ambitious program. But there is a bit more to Howe's argument. He discusses ideas of reform at some length and says that he will hew to Gerhard Ladner's notion of reformatio ad melius. Typically there has been a tension in scholarship on reform between those who argue for "make better" and those who argue for "make over." Howe actually tries to have it both ways. He says that those who reformed what he calls the "millennial church" sought to make it better by making it better conform to late antique and Carolingian models. Some students of reform might find this a little slippery.

Chapter 1 treats the disintegration of the Carolingian order owing to renewed attacks from the outside (Muslims, Magyars, Vikings), political collapse, and "bad Christians" ("local thugs"). But, Howe says, things were not quite as grim in the tenth century as most have traditionally believed. Still, he talks about murdered clerics, destroyed books and libraries, burned buildings, and psychological despair. Howe begins Chapter 2 by looking back from the vantage point of the First Crusade. He says that something fundamental had changed. The rise of the West and the reform of the church are interrelated aspects of the same story. And so, he begins to tell that story. He sees political consolidation everywhere although its pace was uneven. He says there was a widespread desire to reform the church and that, concretely, church reform had three dimensions: 1) Restore patrimonies to procure the material foundation for reform; 2) Restore communities--the logical consequence, he says, of collaborative efforts of kings, nobles, and bishops and not the result of some "monastic general will"; 3) Create new foundations including new monasteries and bishoprics and an extension of the parish system. Most of this story has been told before and I did not see that Howe added anything particularly new except in so far as he pulls all this together as a story of millennial reform.

Chapter 3 inaugurates a series of chapters that actually take up reform themes and issues. It begins with Glaber's famous "White Mantle of Churches." To Howe, white meant stone and "stone's triumph was Rome's triumph" (88). Although mediated by Carolingian models, tenth-century Romanitas was its own evocation of a "timeless, ideal Roman Empire" (89). While emphasizing Ottonian Germany, the chapter moves with a survey of church building in the Romanesque style across Europe which Howe interprets as distinctive more than as a continuation of Carolingian patterns. Howe cites Charles McLendon several times but does not quite keep faith with McLendon's arguments. Europe's "building boom" began well before 1000 and expressed "a more confident and universal Roman identity" (111). Not all readers will embrace that conclusion. Chapter 4 opens a set of three chapters that argue that there was a widespread and largely successful attempt to rouse devotion among Europe's "carnal people." Howe says that the "dazzling packaging of spiritual detritus" (115) made up for material glory's appearing to trump spiritual rewards. He discusses decorated altars and reliquaries, notes the multiplication of shrines that made relics more visible and accessible, and describes the proliferation of crucifixes and statues. Howe pays attention too to liturgical paraphernalia--chalices, censers, and bells, for example. All these things were crafted to bring simple souls to God. That must be true but we will never know how effective it was. Chapter 5 turns to the liturgy which, Howe says, made great progress in practice, not least because of an "avalanche of new liturgical books" (145). That is an assertion that might have merited some empirical demonstration. Private masses, the liturgy of the hours, and liturgical processions expanded. The evidence for all of this is so anecdotal that firm conclusions are elusive. Chapter 6 asks how millennial people approached God. They did so through scriptural and sacramental prayer, holy images, imitation of holy persons, and contemplation of creation. These spiritual routes to God are united by their incarnational character. People attempted to reach the spiritual through the material. This rings true as a set of abstract principles but strikes me as materially difficult to demonstrate. And would all this have been true in the fourth century? In the ninth?

The last three chapters move in somewhat different directions. Chapter 7 argues that learning was important to reform. Schools proliferated, first in Germany and then pretty much everywhere. Howe discusses succinctly who was taught and what they were taught. The chapter moves at a very high level of generalization. For instance, Howe says that in addition to the liberal arts schools taught history, vernacular languages, Greek, law, medicine and, especially, the Bible. One wonders... Chapter 8 takes its lead from Wulfstan's Institutes of Polity and looks at the structure of society with particular emphasis on its leaders. Howe proceeds through kings, bishops, popes, and great secular lords and patrons. He argues, as most would now agree (and Howe himself years ago made contributions to this argument), that these people and groups were more often allies than enemies. He then turns to "hinge people": priests, monks and nuns, and pious lay people. The chapter actually says very little about lay people; I could not quite see the hinge. Chapter 9 quickly surveys the wide array of Christianities that existed in the millennial world. Howe sees some similar themes and concerns across the map. He also sees connections and illustrates them with a discussion of Monte Cassino, Rome, and Jerusalem. Howe believes that the Latin West was aware of best practices in neighboring Christianities but nevertheless developed on its own terms. He does not bring those best practices home. The point of this interesting chapter is not altogether clear.

Howe's Epilogue does two things. It sums up the book: The great generations of reform that commenced in the 1040s "presuppose an earlier ecclesiastical recovery, a reconstruction of ecclesiastical structures after the shock of the Carolingian collapse, barbarian invasions, and societal reorganization. That reformation had been a great success" (313). The Epilogue begins, however, with an account of Leo IX's capture after the Battle of Civitate and his nine or so months of captivity in Benevento. Howe says that Leo's Norman captors treated him much better than Vikings would have done years before. He chose the name Leo because he championed causes similar to those of Leo I (440-461). He says that Leo was able to lead the church from captivity and that Roman primacy was evident in letters to Constantinople and North Africa. Well, North Africa was a lost cause and Constantinople ignored Leo. Leo's letters written in captivity do not show me a pope who was in charge of much of anything. I think it very odd to try to conclude this book, to show how successful the millennial reform had been, by focusing on Leo's humiliation.

As I said, there are puzzling aspects to this book. Howe's sense of the "millennial" is so generous that basic issues of continuity and change vanish. The Carolingian period is much in evidence here and Howe occasionally peeks into the twelfth century. Bearing in mind that the term "Gregorian Reform" can mean many different things, I do not think that anyone seriously argues that it popped up suddenly in the middle of the eleventh century. So is this "earlier reform" something discrete and definable or is it the long working out of the greatest achievements of the Carolingian period? In many ways, Howe is like Richard Southern who saw the Middle Ages being "made" in the 970s. Yet Howe wants very much to have a pre-reform although he cannot pin it down in space or time or theme. The book is also a kind of omnium gatherum. I enjoyed all its anecdotes and stories, and I admired Howe's wide reading and often sparkling observations, but I often had a hard time seeing the threads that connected them. Howe's method is aggregative, not analytical. He heaps up material. That might have worked if he had been able to show that his particular examples were sufficiently distinctive and "millennial" to mark them off from what went before and came after. In the end, the book reminds me a great deal of Henirich Fichtenau's Living in the Tenth Century: Mentalities and Social Orders. [1] But Fichtenau did not have a thesis. I am not at all sure that Howe did in fact connect economic, material, and political issues as he promised to do. The economy is a ghostly presence in the book. Howe does not drive an economic argument the way, say, Chris Wickham would do. Howe notes the paradox that as the church was centralizing incastellamento was decentralizing. So which ball are we supposed to keep our eye on? Finally--for present purposes--what does "Rise of the West" mean? This is one of those sublime clichés that can mean virtually anything. Howe refers to this rise at the beginning and end of his book but never argues out what he means by it or how all his stories relate to it.

I spotted a number of little things too. Rouen was the capital of Normandy, not of Armorica, which was Brittany. The first pope to change his name was John II in 533. Occasional oddities like Sankt Gall are mildly irritating. The footnotes needed another proofreading. Chapters from collective works can be found in the notes but not in the bibliography. It is almost churlish to mention scholarship not cited in a book replete with citations, but Howe would have profited on priests from Carine van Rhijn's Shepherds of the Lord (2007), on canonesses from Thomas Schilp, Norm und Wirklichkeit religiöser Frauengemeinschaften im Frühmittelalter (1998) and on the papacy from Sebastian Scholz, Politik--Selbstverständnis--Selbstdarstellung: Die Päpste in karolingischer und ottonischer Zeit (2006).



1. Translated by Patrick Geary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), originally published as Lebensordnung des 10. Jahrhunderts: Studien über Denkart und Existenz im einstigen Karolingerreich (Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann, 1984).

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