17.04.04, Pansters and Plunkett-Latimer, eds., Shaping Stability

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Lauren Mancia

The Medieval Review 17.04.04

Pansters, Eds Krijn and Abraham Plunkett-Latimer, eds. Shaping Stability: The Normation and Formation of Religious Life in the Middle Ages. Disciplina Monastica, 11. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016. pp. 285. ISBN: 978-2-503-56695-5 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Lauren Mancia
Brooklyn College, City University of New York

Shaping Stability: The Normation and Formation of Religious Life in the Middle Ages is essential reading for scholars of monasticism. The essays which constitute this volume were originally delivered at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds in 2012, in sessions on "Regulating Monastic Life" as part of the special thematic strand "Rules to Follow (or Not)"; thankfully, though, the resulting volume does not read as a motley pastiche. Focusing on the production and use of normative documents made by religious communities and monastic orders, Pansters and Plunkett-Latimer have curated a collection of masterful essays. Individually, these essays showcase the best of today's scholarly thinking on monastic life; as a whole, the collection produces a satisfying picture of how the norms enforced by medieval religious were established to shape the social ideals, the spiritual programs, and the historical record of the medieval monastic landscape.

The volume begins with an introductory essay, "Normation in Formation: The Regulation of Religious Life and the Shape of Stability," in which Krijn Pansters presents the theme of the volume: that medieval religious communities created normative regulations to "control their own process of formation" and "overcome (potential) problems of spiritual and organizational instability" (13). Pansters then reviews the three major source types examined in the volume (rules/regulae, customaries/consuetudines, and constitutions/statuta), providing a useful review of the chief normative sources available to scholars of monastic orders during the Middle Ages. The collection's essays are thereafter divided into five different "perspectives" on the results of such normalization: "spirituality," "communality," "validity," "rationality," and "historicity" (47).

Three essays form the first sub-section, "Shaping Sanctity." Albrecht Diem's "The Stolen Glove: On the Hierarchy and Power of Objects in Columbanian Monasteries" reveals that Jonas of Bobbio's Vita of the Irish monk Columbanus is a "monastic regula presented in narrative disguise" (52). The animal miracles in the Vita, Diem claims, are glosses on the Regula Columbani, emphasizing the sacred nature of monastic property down to the most seemingly mundane of objects (like gloves) in the face of threats by the Merovingian royal family. In his essay, Diem burrows into the rules written for Columbanian monasteries (particularly the Regula cuiusdam ad virgines and the Regula coenobialis), highlighting object-oriented transgressions which, in combination with Jonas' Vita, define changing notions of sacred material and space during the transition from the "radical asceticism" of the desert fathers to the "collective richness" of the newly coenobitic monastic communities of the seventh century (67). In the section's second essay, "Praying by the Rules: Legislating Intercessory Prayer in Carolingian Monastic Reform," Renie Choy expands on Peter Brown's notion of the "holy man" by focusing on prayer, showing that, as monastic life became more and more regulated, the nature of intercessory prayer was redefined. Whereas desert ascetics evidenced their holiness through the charismatic "power" of their prayer, Carolingian monks were expected to pray for others not as evidence of their community's holy "power" but instead as a salubrious step towards acquiring spiritual refinement. Choy thereby explodes the scholarly misapprehension that monastic communities perceived themselves as "powerful" and already-holy, proving that prayer was not a monastic gift bestowed upon sinful society, but was rather a medicament for a sinful monk's own spiritual welfare. The final essay in this section, "The Imitation of Christ and Regular Flogging: A Form of Lay Brother Spirituality in the Twelfth-Century Cistercian and Carthusian Customaries," questions the "subaltern" status of lay brothers that seems to dominate the narrative of monastic customaries (99). Using those same customaries, Abraham Plunkett-Latimer shows how lay brothers were granted premiere access to the divine by participating in rigorous spiritual practices akin to those performed by the most ascetic monks. Each of these three articles shatters scholarly misconceptions about monastic property, intercessory prayer, and lay brothers' status, nuancing their ideas with insightful readings of normative monastic sources.

The next three articles in the volume speak to "Shaping Community." While less revolutionary in their conclusions than the previous three, these studies still surprise the reader by revealing the extensive information available in these normative monastic sources. Mariël Urbanus unpacks Hildemar of Corbie's commentary on the Rule of Saint Benedict in "'The Abbot Shall Decide out of Necessity': Changing the Order of the Congregation in the Hildemar Commentary (c. 845-50)." Focusing on his chapter regulating the order of the congregation, Urbanus shows that Hildemar adapted the Rule to the practical concerns of Frankish monks in the ninth century. In "Usquemodo, Aliquomodo, Quoquomodo: An Early Cistercian Pronunciation Guide," Phillip C. Adamo shows how customaries instructed monks in proper pronunciation for reading texts aloud. And Jennifer E. De Vries' "The Proper Beguine's Interaction with the Outside World: Some Beguine Rules from the Late Medieval Low Countries" highlights how late medieval beguinages did not completely cut themselves off from the outside world, instead controlling "proper" interactions with the public, particularly men, through both physical space and written regulation.

The third section, "Shaping the Norm," begins with another ground-breaking study akin to the first three of the volume. Isabelle Cochelin builds upon her previous work on monastic customaries in "Downplayed or Silenced: Authorial Voices Behind Customaries and Customs (Eighth to Eleventh Centuries)." In her article, Cochelin observes that early customaries (written before the 1080s for external monastic audiences) eschewed an authoritative voice, because they were supposed to be an "emanation of the community," not of an authority on high (170). (In an enchanting observation, Cochelin observes that the Cluniac customaries even went so far as to have new customs proclaimed in "the least authoritative voice possible in the cloister": the voice of a child.) After the 1080s, when customaries began to be written for a monk's own internal community, they were written in the authoritative voice of an abbot or bishop. Poetically, Cochelin traces this transformation from anonymous customs read for inspiration "as one would read the vita of a great saint" (155), to customs written as instructions by abbots or bishops, "an authoritative voice for a difficult and sometimes distant goal" (173). Her ultimate conclusion is as insightful as it is sensitive: that later customs required an authoritative voice to whip the new adult converts of the twelfth century into line, but that earlier customs embraced anonymity to lend "some form of agency and breathing space" to oblates who had not chosen to "forsake their freedom" (173). The next two articles in the "Norm" section perform much-needed manuscript analyses of two medieval sources. The first, by Ursula Vones-Liebenstein, "The Liber ecclesiastici et canonici ordinis of Lietbert of Saint-Ruf" carefully examines the manuscripts of the Liber ecclesiastici et canonici ordinis and questions the previously-held assumption that Anselm of Lucca authored these customs. The second, by Alexis Grélois ("Tradition and Transmission: What is the Significance of the Cistercian General Chapters' Statutes? [Twelfth to Fourteenth Centuries]"), interrogates what can be known of the statutes of the Cistercian general chapters, arguing that scholars should place each statute in its wider context to ascertain its validity and place in Cistercian history.

Guido Cariboni's "The Relationship between Abbots and Bishops and the Origins of the Cistercian Carta caritatis" begins the volume's fourth section, "Shaping the Form." Cariboni's short study argues that, in the Carta caritatis, the Cistercians modified the monastic relationship between abbeys and their dependent cells and between abbots and bishops, transforming these previously tumultuous relationships to work to their advantage. In "The Living Rule: Monastic Exemplarity in Mendicant Hagiography," Donald S. Prudlo contends that the exempla of preeminent medieval mendicants (Francis, Anthony, Clare, Dominic, Peter of Verona, and Thomas Aquinas) functioned as regulatory models akin to rules, constitutions, and other founding documents. Prudlo's article helpfully argues that mendicants modeled themselves on the monastics more than they and their followers might have acknowledged. In this way, Prudlo, like Diem, Choy, and Plunkett-Latimer before him, questions scholarly assumptions that have taken medieval sources at their word, refreshing the scholarly narrative with his careful source cross-readings. Coralie Zermatten closes the fourth section with her "Reform Endeavors and the Development of Congregations: Regulating Diversity Within the Carmelite Order," expertly tracing the evolution of the Carmelite order using its various rules and constitutions to show how the order accommodated innovation and diversity within its particular framework.

The volume ends with Bert Roest's "Order Matters, Exceptions Rule: The Poor Clares as a Historiographical Problem," the lone article in the final section "The Shape of Reality," which serves almost a closing postscript for the entire volume. Roest reminds the reader that, even though one can study the nature of many medieval religious lives by examining the rules, customaries, and constitutions that orders lived by, there are exceptions. The Poor Clares, for example, cannot be understood solely by their regulatory documents, which do not account for local variations, benefactor relations, constitutions, and practices. While undoubtedly true for the Poor Clares, Roest's argument in some ways encourages the very cynicism that has prevented many scholars from employing normative monastic documents fruitfully, and which this volume seems to successfully combat. This makes it an aptly cautious, though somewhat pessimistic, final warning, especially in view of the volume's accomplished essays.

In the end, Shaping Stability shows that normative monastic sources can be fascinating, fruitful, and at moments revelatory, especially when read against the rest of the primary source record and the generalized assumptions of historiography. By reading monastic rules, customs, and legislation, Shaping Stability argues, scholars can open windows unknown, discerning more accurate, nuanced, and original insights about medieval religious life.

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