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18.06.07, Beach, The Trauma of Monastic Reform

The Medieval Review

18.06.07, Beach, The Trauma of Monastic Reform

In this slim but thoughtful volume, Alison Beach takes us into the world of eleventh- and twelfth-century monastic reform. The subject is a well-traversed one, but the angle she approaches it from is new. As the title suggests, Beach's focus is on the trauma engendered by reforming efforts. She takes her lead from modern sociological studies of trauma, which she combines with recent work on tenth-century reform. This speaks of "reform as process," emphasizing the continuities so often obscured by later reformist writings (Vanderputten, Nightingale). Yet it is not just the analytical framework which is new. By focusing on Petershausen in the central Middle Ages, one of the more important centres reformed by Hirsau, Beach brings south-western Germany into a picture all too often dominated by French houses and their dependencies (Cluny, Cîteaux)--at least in Anglophone historiography.

The book itself opens with a brief prologue, describing the foundation of Petershausen by Bishop Gebhard II of Constance in 984, who would later be buried and culted there. The first chapter then introduces Beach's main themes: reform as a traumatic act, both at Petershausen and beyond. The late eleventh and early twelfth centuries truly were a traumatic time in German history. Famously dubbed "The Crisis of Medieval Germany" by Karl Leyser, these years saw two anti-kings, one anti-pope, and two rebellions led by royal progeny (one successful). Partly in response, this was also an era of reform, particularly in Swabia, where influential new monastic movements sprung up at St Blasien, All Saint's, Schaffhausen, and Hirsau. As Beach notes, these movements fundamentally altered the tissue of monastic life: not only were new liturgical practices adopted, but lay conversiand often women too were introduced to the communal scene. This is not all: the impetus to spread reform placed these houses under pressure to expand and colonize--not always to their benefit. It is within this maelstrom of political and religious turmoil that Petershausen emerged as a reformed centre during the episcopate of Gebhard III of Constance (1084–1110).

The remaining chapters examine how reform played out at Petershausen, highlighting the resulting tensions. Though our charter record for the monastery is not especially rich, this is more than made up for by the mid-twelfth-century Petershausen chronicle. This was written over many years by a longstanding monk of the centre (perhaps the later Abbot Gebhard) and survives as an autograph, allowing precious insights into the monks'--or at least this monk's--view of the reform and its aftermath. Using this, Beach initially considers the difficulties posed by liturgical change (Chapter 2), the introduction of non-monastic conversi ("bearded brothers": Chapter 3), and the institution of a female monastic house alongside its male counterpart (Chapter 4). In each case, she places developments within the broader context of the Hirsau reform, noting how the strains experienced at Petershausen are paralleled elsewhere.

The last two chapters take analysis in a somewhat different direction. The first of these (Chapter 5) considers Petershausen's own reforming efforts. As an agent of reform, it was expected that the abbey would help foster similar movements in the Lake Constance region. Yet as Beach demonstrates, its success was decidedly mixed here. Often these undertakings left the monastery sorely overstretched, both materially and spiritually. Building out from this, the final chapter treats the monastery's relations with its lay neighbours and patrons, which were subject to considerable changes and challenges in the rapidly shifting political scene of eleventh- and twelfth-century Swabia. An epilogue and postscript then sketch the abbey's reconstruction following fire in 1159--an event which deeply influenced our chronicler's perspective on the reformist past--and its post-medieval life, ending with its rather absurd present existence as a car park (albeit one that has yet to furnish the remains of a monarch). Finally, an appendix lays out the manuscript evidence behind the Petershausen chronicle, arguing--against certain recent suggestions--that this is indeed a bona fide autograph.

There is much to praise in this book. Though in essence an act of microhistory, constructed largely on the basis of a single source, it places the experiences of Petershausen firmly within the broader context of central medieval religious reform, both in Germany and beyond. In fact, if there is a weakness, it is that Beach's interpretive framework at times threatens to overburden her evidential basis. Thus she speculates intelligently about how liturgical change and the introduction of nuns and "bearded brothers" may have posed challenges for the monks of Petershausen, yet the evidence for the resulting difficulties often amounts to no more than an anecdote or two in the chronicle (itself a later construction). Still, if Beach is at times guilty of straining at every interpretive gnat, this is because she has such a consummate command of the material. And in the end, there can be little doubt that the picture she paints is a broadly accurate one.

It is rare indeed to find Anglophone scholarship on the late eleventh- and twelfth-century German Church--and rarer still to find work of this calibre. This is a book which deserves a place on the shelves of all students of medieval religious life. And, together with the promised (collaborative) translation of the Petershausen chronicle, it will do much introduce a new generation to the fascinating world of the medieval Empire.