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17.12.17, Truax, Aelred the Peacemaker

17.12.17, Truax, Aelred the Peacemaker

Aelred, the third abbot of the English Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx, is best known to posterity through Walter Daniel's Vita Aelredi. Written shortly after Aelred's death in 1167, this text paints a portrait of a model medieval abbot: learned and wise, committed to the ascetic life, devoted to the welfare of his spiritual sons, and responsible for numerous healing miracles. There are, however, glimpses of another Aelred: a man who spent his youth at the Scottish court, and whose interests and activities as abbot extended far beyond the secluded Yorkshire valley in which he made his home. In Aelred the Peacemaker: The Public Life of a Cistercian Abbot, Jean Truax uncovers this second Aelred, arguing that he combined his responsibilities as abbot with a significant role as a politician, mediator and negotiator.

The book opens with a trio of contextual chapters. The first ("Introduction: The Three Lives of Aelred of Rievaulx") sets out the abbot's three main roles, as author, monastic administrator, and political operative, and explains Truax's decision to focus on the last of these functions. Chapter 2 ("Precedents: In the Footsteps of Saint Bernard") explores Cistercian precedents for engagement with the world, notably Bernard of Clairvaux's experiences as an intercessor/ mediator. Chapter 3 ("Son of the North: Aelred in Context") sketches the early life of the future Abbot Aelred, along with the key political events of these years.

This lengthy introduction is followed by a pair of chapters which are only tangentially related to Aelred's role as political operative, although they do provide evidence for his engagement with individuals and communities outside Rievaulx. Chapter 4 ("Friends and Rivals: Aelred and His Neighbors") outlines his role in building Rievaulx's endowment, and in building Rievaulx itself, as well as tracing some of his interactions with other monastic communities and leading ecclesiastics. Unfortunately, the evidence for such links is sparse: the attempt to prove a 'friendship' with Peterborough Abbey is ultimately unconvincing, whilst the claim that many northern monasteries 'relied on his advice and mediation' seems to rest on a handful of charter attestations. Chapter 5 ("Brothers and Sisters in Christ: Aelred and the Care of Women") draws on a more substantial body of evidence, being based on a close reading of Aelred's spiritual writings. It argues that "for a man supposedly ignorant of and uninterested in women, an amazing number of them appear in Aelred's works" (129). The lack of evidence for close personal relationships with any women is attributed to a lack of sources, and possible candidates for such a role are proposed. Truax's re-evaluation of this aspect of Aelred's life is certainly intriguing, but given that the man who emerges is virtually a protofeminist, it is hard not to feel that she may have gone a little too far.

The remainder of the book addresses various aspects of Aelred's public life. Chapter 6 ("A Time for Peace: Aelred of Rievaulx and the End of the Anglo-Norman Civil War") re-evaluates his historical writings, and presents the case for their importance as a form of political commentary. Aelred, it is plausibly argued, "intended to be a strong voice for peace and reconciliation at a crucial point in English history" (148). Chapter 7 ("Behind the Scenes: Aelred of Rievaulx, the Lords of Galloway, and the Kings of Scotland") examines his activities north of the border. Truax presents some intriguing evidence for his involvement in Scottish and Galwegian politics, but herself admits that "much speculation and a great deal of reading between the lines has been necessary to build this case for Aelred's sustained political activity in the northern realm" (171).

Chapter 8 ("Trusted Counselor: Aelred of Rievaulx and King Henry II") and Chapter 9 ("The Wrong Side of History: Aelred, Rievaulx, and Thomas Becket") focus on Aelred's relationship with the English crown, and his attitude to the Becket dispute. Truax presents the fragmentary evidence for Aelred's good relationship with Henry II, and argues that his Life of Edward the Confessor (which was dedicated to the young monarch) was both a depiction of, and a defence of, good kingship. Furthermore, Truax argues, Aelred's royalist sympathies led him to support Henry II in his dispute with Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury. It was, Truax suggests, Aelred's support for Henry II which fatally undermined his reputation: Becket's martyrdom placed the abbot (who died in 1167) on the wrong side of history. This is, to my mind, the least plausible theory presented in this volume. The evidence for Aelred's views rests chiefly on circumstantial evidence (many of his contacts supported the crown), and on the analysis of two problematic texts (a sermon delivered at the translation of Edward the Confessor in October 1163, and a letter sent to Becket by an unknown monk of Rievaulx in the mid-1160s). In reality, we don't know what Aelred of Rievaulx thought about Thomas Becket. But even if the abbot was a critic of the archbishop, Becket was a man who had many critics: Aelred's alleged criticisms seem rather mild when considered alongside Gilbert Foliot's "Becket always was a fool and always will be," for example. Surely only the staunchest Becket ally could have viewed Aelred's possible royalist sympathies as grounds to engage in post-mortem attacks criticism serious enough to force the monks of Rievaulx to respond?

Indeed, I wonder whether Truax takes Walter Daniel's allusions to Aelred's critics too seriously: the sceptic is a relatively common figure in twelfth-century hagiography, allowing the Christ-like holy man to prove his sanctity in the face of doubt. If there was serious criticism of Aelred and his "astonishing sanctity," then the reasons summarily dismissed by Truax (favouritism causing rifts within the cloister, and/ or doubts about the extent of his engagement with the outside world) seem to me to be rather more plausible explanations than a post-mortem clash between the reputations of two twelfth-century icons. Whilst "the picture of Aelred that emerges from this study of his public life leaves…[Truax] in awe of his accomplishments" (229), some of his contemporaries were surely more cynical about worldly abbots, especially in the first, somewhat idealistic decades of the Cistercian movement.

Despite my reservations about some of its arguments, this is an interesting volume which provides a readable account of Aelred's public life, and which is clearly based on a deep reading of the relevant sources. Ultimately, however, it is the sources which are its greatest problem, as Truax acknowledges throughout: all too often, there simply isn't enough evidence to know what Aelred did, or why he did it. In particular, the loss of his letters has limited our understanding of his public life; without them, his role in twelfth-century affairs will remain the subject of conjecture. Nevertheless, Truax's study provides a broadly plausible version of events--and her book serves as an important reminder that medieval holy men lived much more complicated lives than their hagiographers would like us to believe.