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19.04.08 Coomans, Life inside the Cloister

19.04.08 Coomans, Life inside the Cloister

There are several currently available introductions to medieval monasticism and its architecture. For an anglophone readership, however, this volume is to be welcomed for the fact that many of the examples offered will be unfamiliar, while the fuller than usual discussion of the post-Reformation and post-monastic history of some of the sites will provide a fresh perspective for many readers. In adopting this approach Professor Coomans states that his objective has been to provide an introduction to the material for project architects and for the Leuven University students on his Advanced Master's degree course in the Conservation of Monuments and Sites. This will, nevertheless, make the book no less useful for a wider public.

Between an introduction that sets out the aims of the book and a conclusion that aims to summarise the principal threads of the discussion, the text is divided into four main chapters. The first chapter, on origins, which is subtitled "organising sacred space and time," considers the roots and development of monasticism. Starting with communities of hermits in the third century, it discusses how a range of rules took shape as a means of giving structure to communal life, pointing out that the earlier rules gave little attention to appropriate architectural frameworks for monasticism. The buildings that in due course came to be regarded as necessary for the enclosed religious life are then considered, beginning with the church before moving on to the range of necessary functions accommodated in the buildings around and beyond the cloister. Due regard is, of course, paid to the idealised formalisation of planning represented by the early ninth-century St Gall plan and to the Carolingian monastic reforms as defined at Louis the Pious's Council of Aachen of 817.

The second chapter, on building types, is subtitled "identities and reformations." Following a short introduction in which the range of religious orders is touched upon, there are sections on the architecture of the abbey, the charterhouse, the castle, the friary, the beguinage, the hôtel-dieu, the college, the palace, and the house. (There could perhaps have been some initial clarification of what is meant by colleges in this context, since many British readers might have expected discussion of the type of expanded chantry foundation to which the term is more generally applied in accounts of religious life.) There is much that will be less familiar and thus particularly welcome to British readers in this chapter, especially in the discussion of post-medieval developments. Many British readers, for example, are likely to be largely unaware of the impact that the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965 had on monastic life. One aspect of the changed spirit, for example, was the emergence of house-monasteries, albeit this attempt to return to earlier and less rigidly systematised principles of monasticism was something that has been attended with only partial success.

The third chapter, which is subtitled "embodying the sacred," covers what are referred to as "characters." (The present reviewer must admit to some puzzlement as to why it was decided to refer to "characters" rather than "characteristics" as the theme of this chapter, and suspects that this may have been something that emerged in the process of translation.) A wide gamut of topics is covered, under the headings: place and stability; enclosure and gender; liturgy and identity; death and memory; scale and growth; and style. The types of locations that appealed to the different orders, depending on the degree of enclosure and isolation to which they aspired, are discussed: these varied from the sacred mountains and secluded valleys considered appropriate by those who most wished to withdraw from the world, to urban sites for the mendicant orders. Discussion of the requirements of the female orders is helpfully covered, with their greater requirement for strict enclosure; the author also speculates on how far the planning of nunneries was conditioned by female life in secular aristocratic residences.

The fourth chapter, entitled "afterlife, adaptive reuse and heritagisation," is the section in which many anglophone readers already familiar with medieval monastic architecture will find most that is new to them. Having already made the point that reformations, revolutions and other purges resulted in the abandonment of significant numbers of monasteries over the last half-millennium, the author points out that the recent dramatic decline in religious vocations is now placing the future of many others in doubt. The chapter itemises the variety of fates to which abandoned monastic houses have been subjected. First discussed are those that have been conserved or simply abandoned in a ruined state, many of which have been a source of fascination and inspiration to artists, poets, and more recently to archaeologists and historians, and that may now be a magnet for tourists. He then goes on to consider those whose buildings have been adapted to other uses: houses, farms and factories; urban residences and hotels; barracks and prisons; places of education; museums, libraries and bookshops.

It may be suspected that Professor Coomans has had to be very much briefer than he would have wished in his accounts of many of the categories he covers, perhaps because he felt that he could not over-burden his students with information. But, as a consequence, some of his discussion leaves the reader with a sense of the narrative having been regretfully and unwillingly curtailed. Most of his readers, who will have greatly enjoyed what he has to say, will share his presumed regrets that he was unable to be as expansive as he might have wished.

The text is illustrated by an excellent choice of 104 figures. These include reproductions from manuscripts and paintings, architects' drawings and high-quality photographs. There is a full bibliography, albeit in view of the emphasis on post-Reformation history and adaptation, it would have been good to have included the valuable publication that accompanied the 1989 travelling exhibition, Des Abbayes la Revolution (Jacques Demarcq and Bernard Plongeron, Editions Saint Michel). As one final negative point, it is the present reviewer's opinion that unattractive neologisms such as "heritagised" and "excultivated" might have been better avoided in a book of this kind, even if their use is deemed to be justified by being drawn from the international conservation charters with which the author's students must familiarise themselves.

Such minor carpings apart, the book is an attractive and useful addition to the introductory literature on western monasticism and its architectures, and is likely to be particularly welcomed by undergraduate students who are as yet largely unfamiliar with the field. It will provide a helpful grounding for those about to tackle such as Wolfgang Braunfels' Monasteries of Western Europe, and who are preparing to launch themselves into developing some understanding of the principles of architectural conservation and adaptation.