18.05.15, Vanderputten, Medieval Liège at the Crossroads of Europe

Main Article Content

Scott Bruce

The Medieval Review 18.05.15

Vanderputten, Steven, TjamkeSnijders, and Jay Diehl (eds.). Medieval Liège at the Crossroads of Europe Monastic Society and Culture, 1000–1300. Medieval Church Studies (MCS 37). Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2017. pp. xxiv, 381. ISBN: 978-2-503-54540-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Scott Bruce
University of Colorado at Boulder

This well-curated volume of essays successfully sheds light on the dynamic and little understood history of monastic communities in the bishopric of Liège in the central Middle Ages. Like a small moon tugged by the competing gravity of two neighboring planets, Liège has typically been viewed by historians as a region defined by its relationship either to the German Empire to the east or to the French lordships (and later the Capetians) to the west. When considered on its own terms, however, Liège exhibits "a complex, regional identity...produced by the intersection of French and German cultural influences without ever being a mere mixture of them" (xii). The eleven papers that comprise this volume (ten in English, one in French) each succeed in delineating specific aspects of this regional identity. In doing so, they admirably open up for English speakers an area of medieval monastic history that has until now primarily been the domain of Belgian scholars.

Unlike the usual hodgepodge of contributions that one finds in an edited collection, the editors have been attentive to presenting the contents of their volume with strands of thematic unity. The first two essays concern abbots and the secular world. Helena Vanommeslaeghe explores the seeming paradox of monastic leaders who travelled beyond their communities for reasons of business or devotion, despite the vow of stabilitas loci mandated by the Rule of Benedict. She investigates the rhetorical strategies of contemporary hagiographical narratives that attempted to legitimize abbatial mobility. Only abbots who imitated Christ in their personal virtue, she finds, could credibly retain their stabilitas mentis and thus be free from suspicion when they were active in the world outside their cloisters. Likewise, Nicolas Schroeder finds the abbots of Stavelot-Malmedy involved in the management of the familia of their monastery, including the peasants who worked on the demesne and the manorial officers who oversaw the collection of rents. Common in Lotharingian Reichsabtei, these traditions of interaction were in place until the late twelfth century, when Count Thibaut of Bar and his wife Ermesinde introduced new French customs that eroded the personal relationships that governed the socio-economic relations among the monastic familia.

The second thematic unit focuses on hagiographical production in and around medieval Liège. In a short article, Klaus Krönert shows how hagiographers in Trier contructed a sacred past for their community reaching back to the apostolic age. Their claims were contested, however, by hagiographers in Liège and Cologne, whose communities stood in rivalry with Trier, thereby demonstrating that "there was a constant exchange of ideas, legends, and histories" between these cities in the tenth and eleventh centuries (63). Cultural exchange is also a key theme of Tjamke Snijders's article on the "intra-monastic" contacts in the Southern Low Countries between 900 and 1200 CE. By examining the presence of local saints in the manuscripts produced in this region, Snijders reconstructs "the timing and intensity with which monasteries started to show interest in interregional saints" (73), thus providing evidence of contact and communication between these communities. While her results are impressionistic, Snijders's article highlights the wealth of hagiographical materials surviving from the Low Countries in this period. [1]

Manuscripts provide the third thematic unit in the volume. Diane Reilly investigates the impetus behind the creation of several large, decorated manuscripts of Flavius Josephus' Antiquitates in Liège and Reims in the decades around 1100 CE. She postulates that monks read Josephus' historical works as the equivalent to biblical commentaries. This is surely correct, to an extent, but it overlooks the critical role played by Cassiodorus (d. 585) in repurposing Josephus for a western audience. His widely read Institutiones sanctioned this Roman Jewish author as an historian useful to Christian readers, calling him "almost a second Livy" (paene secundus Livius) and recommending him alongside the triumphalist ecclesiastical historians of late antiquity (Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen, and others). [2] Jay Diehl wrings a humble source--an early twelfth-century book list (Brussels, Bibliothèque royale, MS 9668)--to draw inferences about the early career of Rupert of Deutz. He makes the convincing case that the book list recorded manuscripts at the abbey of St-Laurent and reflected the curriculum for a school organized by Rupert, whose early career as a teacher has, up to now, been difficult to reconstruct.

Three papers tackle problems related to the understanding of the impact of the Investiture Controversy in the Low Countries, with a focus on the Cantatorium, a chronicle of the abbey of St-Hubert written around 1106 by a monk known as Lambert the Younger, which serves as our main source for the history of Liège in the decades around 1100. The Investiture Controversy has dominated the historiography concerning the bishopric of Liège in this period. Over the past hundred years, scholars have conveniently and misleadingly attributed motives in a conflict between Bishop Otbert of Liège (r. 1091-1121) and the two Benedictine abbeys of St-Hubert and St-Laurent in terms of their allegiance to the Empire or the Pope, respectively. Articles by Ortwin Huysmans, Brigitte Meijns, and Michel Margue each offer more nuanced interpretations of this conflict by insisting that the actors in question--the monks and their allies, the bishop and his allies, and the author of the Cantatorium himself--were motivated less by ideology and more by pragmatism and historical contingencies. Their essays successfully erode the false dichotomies perpetuated by earlier scholars by presenting the conflicts between the bishop and the monks in local terms.

The volume closes with two articles about religious women. Thirteenth-century Liège has long been associated with the emergence of new kinds of female piety associated with visions and mysticism. Sara Moens reconsiders the influence of Hildegard of Bingen on this religious movement, focusing on her epistolary network in Liège with special attention to the abbey of Villers. She concludes that Hildegard "never functioned directly as a model for imitation by mulieres religiosae" (328), but nonetheless served as a forerunner for "the acceptance of female visionary agency" (332). In a rich and nuanced contribution, John Van Engen investigates the context and historical significance of an exceptional cluster of accounts of the lives of religious women surviving from thirteenth-century Liège. To be sure, as the work of Anne E. Lester and others has shown, we find women embracing autonomous spiritual and pastoral roles in Champagne, Italy, and elsewhere in this period, but nowhere else is there evidence of this kind of hagiographical industry on their behalf. [3] Van Engen walks the reader through the surviving accounts, explains their transmission and readership in the thirteenth century and beyond, and remarks on "what may be inferred from them about these women and the religious energies that inspired them" (354). Many of them belonged to independent communities that later became part of the Cistercian order under the wing of Villers, but a dominant aspect of their spirituality was pastoral and their vitae "recount stories of these women acting in what can only be called sacerdotal roles" (362).

The volume's editors have succeeded admirably in their aim "to present Liège as a hub of monasticism that has not received sufficient attention...and to provide an entry point for scholars seeking to delve into the region for the first time" (xviii). These eleven essays provide positive proof that the sources for medieval Liège are fertile ground for research in many different aspects of medieval monasticism. Each contribution boasts its own bibliography, which inevitably results in some redundancy, but this makes it somewhat easier for the reader to follow up on references than a general bibliography at the back of the volume. I highly recommend this stimulating and cohesive volume of essays to historians of medieval monasticism and their students.

-------- Notes:

1. See also Tjamke Snijders, Manuscript Communication: Visual and Textual Mechanics of Communication in Hagiographic Texts from the Southern Low Countries, 900-1200 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2014).

2. Cassiodorus, Institutiones 1.17, ed. R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford, 1937), pp. 55-57.

3. See, for example, Anne E. Lester, Creating Cistercian Nuns: The Women's Religious Movement and its Reform in Thirteenth-Century Champagne (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011).

Article Details