The Medieval Review 17.05.10

Baudin, Arnaud, and Laurent Morelle, eds. Les pratiques de l'écrit dans les abbayes cisterciennes (XIIe-milieu du XVIe siècle): Produire, échanger, contrôler, conserver. Paris: Somogy éditions d'art , 2016. pp. 375. €28.00 (paperback). ISBN: 978-2-7572-1136-6 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Constance Bouchard
University of Akron

Three conferences were held in 2015 to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the foundation of the Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux, sponsored by the modern département of Aube, where Clairvaux is located, and by the regional cultural association. The present volume is the proceedings of the conference dedicated to Cistercian writing practice and preservation. It contains sixteen articles, all in French except for one (on Fountains Abbey) in English, plus an introduction and conclusion by, respectively, Benoît-Michel Tock and Laurent Morelle. English abstracts of all the articles, provided by Richard Allen, appear in the back, along with the abstracts in French. The articles range from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, and from Yorkshire to Normandy to Champagne to Lorraine to Portugal to southern Italy. Curiously, none actually has Clairvaux as its focus, and most are on regions far from Burgundy. The volume is illustrated throughout with handsome color reproductions of Cistercian documents, used to demonstrate various scribal hands and practices.

The primary emphasis for the articles is documents (diplomas) and cartularies (collections of documents), rather than histories or works of theology or hagiography. Indeed, Tock argues in his Introduction that the Cistercians were much more interested in what he calls indispensable written works, such as documents and liturgical volumes, than it what he calls merely useful works, such as historical accounts or saints' lives. He attempts to draw some generalities about writing at Cistercian houses but ends up instead emphasizing the diversity: some houses still have large numbers of surviving twelfth-century documents, while others have few; some houses had their bishops draw up pancartes whereas others did not (or had a different style of pancartes); and some houses started assembling cartularies in the 1170s, whereas others waited much longer if they ever produced a cartulary at all.

As the introduction suggests, the volume ends up not really providing information on Cistercian writing practice in any broad way but rather publishing in one place a number of narrow, technical articles, setting out details on the archives of a number of different monasteries that all happen to be Cistercian. The close attention to the documents can be considered a strength of the volume, in that the authors know their documents very well, but it is sometimes frustrating that there is no effort to ask bigger questions about the nature of writing and record-keeping, draw comparisons, or even to engage with the extensive Anglophone historiography on twelfth-century monasteries and their records.

Throughout the volume, the authors appear to have been looking for a specifically Cistercian version of record keeping and not finding it. Morelle essentially concedes this point in his brief Conclusion, saying that there were many different sorts of texts produced at Cistercian houses. The one common thread he finds is that the authors all dealt with what he characterizes as pragmatic texts, going back to Tock's distinction between indispensable and useful works, which he notes is a different organizing approach than the typical French distinction between archival and library texts (and any medievalist knows that whether a particular manuscript might end up in Archives départementales or a bibliothèque is fairly random).

The largest number of articles are assembled under the heading "Production," meaning how documents were produced. This section begins with Norman houses. Richard Allen discusses the scriptorium of Savigny, incorporated into the Cistercian order in 1147, and identifies a number of different scribes by their hands, while Thomas Roche examines the composition of Mortemer's late twelfth-century cartulary-chronicle, which both gave a history of the house and included copies of documents. This section continues with a series of narrowly focused and quite disparate articles on houses all over Europe. The strongest is by Anne-Marie Turcan-Verkerk, who suggests that the Cistercians became very interested in the ars dictaminis, the art of rhetoric and letter writing, in the second half of the twelfth century; she argues that their treatises on the subject should be better known. In other pieces, Hubert Flammarion postulates a regional writing school that might have influenced the scribal practices of both the Cistercian monastery of Beaupré and the bishopric of Toul; Maria do Rosário Barbosa Morujâo argues that the nuns at the oldest female Cistercian houses in Portugal employed male scribes and did not witness documents themselves; Ana Suárez González and Ghislain Baury report on an on-going project to analyze the documents and scribal practices of Cistercian houses in northwestern Spain; Chantal Senséby concludes that Cistercian scribes in the Loire valley made few innovations in the use of chirographs; and Jean-Luc Benoît compares the formulas used in the invocation clauses of charters from Pontigny with those at other nearby houses, both Cistercian and non-Cistercian.

The second section of the book groups four articles under the heading "Conservation and Memory." Here the overall topic is how monks preserved, organized, and categorized their archives. All of the authors appear to have been expecting to find a standard practice but instead found variation, over both time and place. Arnaud Baudin compares how five Cistercian houses of the Champagne region categorized their documents and seals; Jean-Baptiste Renault examines how the documents of houses of canons were treated once these houses were "adopted" into the Cistercian order; Mathilde Geley describes how the monks of Vaux-de-Cernay inventoried and organized their archives, especially their use of dorsal notes; and Guido Cariboni examines liturgical manuscripts from Italian houses to see how they incorporated lists of monks and donors, thus combining what he calls memory and administration.

The final section, "Manipulations," includes the strongest article in the volume, that by Annick Peters-Custot, who discusses how the archives of one Calabrian monastery, taken over by the Cistercians in the twelfth century, were used by the monks in the thirteenth century. They manipulated their pre-Cistercian records in order to create a series of plausible forgeries during a "war of documents" with Frederick II. The rest of the section is made up three studies focused on just one late medieval manuscript each. Stéphane Lamasse and Benoît Rouzeau analyze a fifteenth-century inventory from Morimond to see how the monks set about characterizing and organizing their documents; Michael Spence similarly examines a fifteenth-century volume from Fountains Abbey which suggests how the monks organized their archival memory; and finally, in a very interesting article, Eric Delaissé looks at a Danish house where a late medieval narrative of its foundation was supported by copies of earlier diplomas.

One of the more intriguing things to come out of this volume, even though it is not its purpose, is the realization that Cistercian writing is now entering an era of digitization. The archives of Aube, for example, have a goal of putting all of Clairvaux's documents online, as announced on a page curiously slipped in between the list of abbreviations and the introduction. Their website, for the interested, is A group of scholars centered at Dijon have a project now several years old, the CBMA (Chartae Burgundiae Medii Aevi), to make Burgundian cartularies available on-line, and other collections are also being digitized. All of this will make research in the French archives much easier, even though (an issue not raised in this volume) a reproduction is never as good as the original. New editions of cartularies are also underway in many cases, as noted in the footnotes throughout.

In many ways this volume is an indication that medievalists, who once wanted the text of medieval documents but did not particularly care about the context, have come to focus much more on the manuscripts themselves, not just their content. Inventories and dorsal notations have not tended to get the attention they deserve. Good modern editions are indispensable, but one hopes that one will see fewer cartulary editions where individual charters are arranged chronologically, rather than in the order in which medieval scribes put them, as is the case with the 2004 edition of Clairvaux's charters. If studies like those in this volume make medievalists focus less on "what really happened" and more on how medieval monastic scribes tried to shape the memory of their houses, they will have done the field an important service.

Copyright (c) 2017 Constance Bouchard

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login