The Medieval Review 17.07.01


Smirnova, Victoria, Marie Anne Polo de Beaulieu, and Jacques Berlioz, eds. The Art of Cistercian Persuasion in the Middle Ages and Beyond. Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions, 196. Leiden: Brill, 2015. pp. xviii, 295. ISBN: 9789004304826 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Martha Newman
University of Texas at Austin
newman@austin.utexas.edu

Caesarius of Heisterbach is well known but little studied. Medievalists often mine his early thirteenth-century Dialogue on Miracles for amusing stories to entertain students or for examples to illuminate everyday religious practices and mentalities, but they seldom examine the work as a whole or place it in the context of Caesarius's other compositions. The Art of Cistercian Persuasion in the Middle Ages and Beyond is a rich collection of essays that demonstrates why we should pay more scholarly attention to Caesarius of Heisterbach and his stories. Initially prepared for a 2013 conference in Paris and influenced by the research project on exempla sponsored by the Groupe d'Anthropologie Historique de l'Occident Médiéval, the essays in this volume argue for the importance of the Dialogue on Miracles by analyzing its techniques of persuasion and its role in teaching people to believe. Their authors provide sophisticated analyses of the context, composition, and reception of the Dialogue and in so doing, offer a volume that will interest those working on monastic history, the history of preaching, the study of rhetoric and narrative, and the conceptualization of religion and belief in the European middle ages.

The central question linking these essays concerns the relation of rhetoric and belief. The authors ask how Caesarius's narratives persuade their audiences, instilling faith in the authority of the stories, in doctrines and moral lessons, and ultimately, in God. They analyze the techniques of persuasion that make people believe. By drawing on theoretical frameworks established by the rhetorical turn, they emphasize the importance of rhetoric as a fundamental mode of human thought and stress the role of storytelling in creating meaning. Importantly, they combine an interest in rhetoric with the concept of "faire croire" or "making believe" that medievalists initially explored in the 1981 volume Faire croire: modalités de la diffusion et de la réception des messages religieux du XIIe au XVIe. Unlike that volume, however, The Art of Cistercian Persuasion investigates neither coercive forms of "faire croire" nor a two-tiered model of religious culture. Rather, its authors employ a literary dichotomy between text and audience, and they consider "soft" forms of power--so soft, in fact, that only the anthropological contributions at the end of the volume consider whether rhetorical persuasion could elicit resistance. The focus of this volume is on belief, or rather, on the process of believing. The editors of the volume rely on Michel de Certeau's insight that belief is a social act and Jean-Claude Schmitt's argument that we should replace investigations of static "beliefs" with explorations of the process of "believing." In combining rhetorical analysis with the process of learning to believe, this volume not only brings Caesarius of Heisterbach into focus as an influential medieval author but it also provides methodological models for exploring how people reform themselves and learn to have faith in others and in God.

A subtheme of the volume asks whether there was a particular Cistercian model for effective persuasion. The authors of the first six essays explore this question. Brian Patrick McGuire, whose extensive work on Cistercian storytelling has been foundational, argues that the collecting of "fragments" and didactic stories form an essential component of a Cistercian religiosity that depended on language rather than scholastic argumentation. He suggests that Caesarius's desire to listen to stories illuminates a lively tradition of Cistercian storytelling in which the monks continually "recycled and reshaped and renewed" their histories. Anne-Marie Turcan-Verkerk examines the texts that influenced this Cistercian rhetorical tradition. Novices entered Cistercian monasteries as adults already educated in the rudiments of grammar. As a result, what distinguished Cistercian rhetorical training was not their education but the monks' interest in rhetorical tools as a form of communication. Turcan-Verkerk demonstrates that Clairvaux was an early adopter of manuals of ars dictamini that provided epistolary models for expressing hierarchical social relations. She also suggests that, despite regulations prohibiting embellished speech, other Cistercian houses developed an interest in prosody because they recognized the effectiveness of the music of words. Victoria Smirnova, in the first of her two articles, argues that Caesarius of Heisterbach's simple style was a conscious choice that he adopted to create a semblance of verisimilitude and that fostered an imaginative response in his audiences. And Marie Formarier moves beyond literary devices to explore the ways Caesarius's stories work within an Augustinian framework of image and memory. She argues that the stories blend pre-existing mental conceptions with new images to construct a Cistercian monastic identity. Like Smirnova, Formarier shows how Caesarius uses rhetoric to make his stories seem plausible and visible to their audiences by shaping their imaginative participation in stories as examples.

The last two articles that explore Cistercian persuasion consider rhetorical practices in the context of Cistercian monastic life. In her second article, Victoria Smirnova turns to an examination of belief as a rhetorical production and a social act. She shows how Caesarius's stories about the Eucharist created a narrative theology that both applied doctrine and produced it. The fictional dialogues between novice master and novice summarize the teachings of early scholastic authors such as Peter Lombard and Peter of Poitiers, but their detailed presentation of character also created an affective community whose conversation about intimate experience of the sacred formed a collective Christian identity. In placing Caesarius's stories within the physical and liturgical environment of the monastery, Smirnova shows that his text authorized and systematized knowledge while also drawing on a Cistercian tradition of shaping and controlling emotion. Stefano Mula agrees that Caesarius's stories could be used as tools for spiritual education and persuasion, but he, like McGuire, also argues that the Cistercians used these stories for the retelling of Cistercian history. Mula demonstrates that the thirteenth-century chronicler Alberic of Trois-Fountaines drew on Caesarius's Dialogue on Miracles and placed the tales in a chronological framework that produced a knowledge of the history of his order. The Dialogue's persuasiveness, Mula suggests, depends on this seeming historicity.

The authors of essays in the second half of the volume move away from the Cistercian order to explore Dominican exempla collections and the translation of the Dialogue on Miracles into vernacular languages. Elisa Brili demonstrates that the Dominican Arnold of Liège drew on Caesarius in compiling his Alphabetum Narrationum, an early fourteenth-century Latin collection of exemplary tales. Arnold simplified and condensed Caesarius's tales, but he retained Caesarius's direct speech and his tone. Caesarius's authority, Brili suggests, depended on his combination of entertainment and pedagogy. Marie Anne Polo de Beaulieu also explores Dominican reappropriation of Caesarius's tales, examining the specific techniques Johannes Gobi the Younger employed when re-writing Caesarius's tales for his Scala Coeli. Again, Caesarius became an auctoritas. Jasmin Margarete Hlatky analyzes fifteenth-century translations of Caesarius's Dialogue into Middle Dutch. She shows that Caesarius's stories became recommended reading for lay communities who adopted the devotio moderna. Elena Koroleva similarly analyzes a fifteenth-century German translation that illuminates the interactions between noble, bourgeois and monastic reading practices. In a fascinating essay, Danièle Dehouve demonstrates that eighteenth-century Jesuits in New Spain translated some of Caesarius's stories into Nahuatl to use in their catechism for Amerindians. The Jesuits adapted the stories according to their particular social concerns and teachings while still retaining Caesarius's techniques of persuasion that relied on mental images. In fact, Dehouve suggests that anticlerical parodies maintained similar images, demonstrating the continued power of Caesarius's techniques. In the volume's last major essay, Nathalie Luca also explores questions about the evolution of storytelling and its importance in creating belief, but she does so by examining the synchronic movement of an exemplary story between South Korea, France, and Haiti rather than the diachronic movement of Caesarius's stories. Like many of the authors in this volume, she stresses the importance of rhetorical particulars--stories with humor and twists, with developed characters, and with effective prose--to shape both belief and memory. Finally, Pierre-Antoine Fabre offers a brief closing comment, noting that the transmission of exempla seems to transcend time, presenting other worldly and particular accounts as if they are always present to us.

The excellent essays in this volume offer multiple areas for further research. These include: continued analysis of the Cistercians' techniques of persuasion, explorations of the place of rhetoric in medieval practices of "faire croire," and examination of the role of rhetoric in the formation of belief. Was there a characteristic Cistercian mode of persuasion? The study of one Cistercian author, no matter how sophisticated its methodology, does not yet establish that. What is the relationship between seemingly historical accounts and the rhetorical constructions that establish authenticity and create "an effect of the real?" The authors of these essays do not fully agree about Caesarius's sense of history: it would be useful to bring legal discussions about proof, character, and reliability into the conversion. The processes by which stories are appropriated, reworked, and reorganized is another area for more research, especially the questions of parody and resistance raised by Dehouve's essay. And finally, studies in cognitive poetics and metaphor theory can further enrich our investigations into the connections between rhetoric and belief, as can recent anthropological work on learning to believe. As does much of the best work in medieval studies, this volume combines sophisticated theoretical approaches with a careful analysis of texts; in fact, it caters to medievalists' own love of particulars by reproducing these texts at the end of each essay. It demonstrates how a dichroic study of one text can open up central questions about medieval religious institutions and practices, and it presents Caesarius not just as a collector of tales but as a figure who illuminates the importance of studying vernacular and narrative theologies.



Copyright (c) 2017 Martha Newman



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