19.05.08. Alciati, Norm and Exercise

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Philip Rousseau

The Medieval Review 19.05.08

Alciati, Roberto, ed. Norm and Exercise: Christian asceticism between late antiquity and early middle ages. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge 65. Stuttgaart, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2018. pp. 202. ISBN: 978-3-515-12154-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Philip Rousseau
Catholic University of America

The papers collected here originated at a conference held in Turin in June 2015. The title of the conference is not revealed, nor is it entirely clear what proportion of the presentations is reproduced in this volume, although it seems implied that others have been or will be published elsewhere. That probably does not matter, but it does affect the coherence that the editor has attempted to create and makes invaluable the final contribution by Conrad Leyser, which with characteristic skill summarizes the book and constitutes itself a virtual review.

The coherence espoused by Roberto Alciati in his Introduction is rooted in his welcome insistence that asceticism is much broader than monasticism. This immediately complicates the impact of the title, for "norm and exercise" prove to be more than "a useful pair of lenses" (13) through which to examine the asceticism of the period. We are dealing with something more like "principles and behaviour," where the justification of various (including non-monastic) ascetic ventures is often challenged or contradicted by their practitioners, even when the latter can pass for "monks" under a rule.

Alciati (whose published work proves his longstanding attention to such matters) appeals here to an endemic human hankering after some principle that a group can agree to submit to. An issue of power is at once introduced, at least in the guise of recognized authority; but the equally persistent inclination of the ascetic to anomie, in flight from the world, means that authority--the authority to define and enforce the principle--has to be constantly re-negotiated and re-affirmed. Hence the inevitable raggedness of what people actually do. Any "rule," however enforced, is never more than a means, and its effectiveness in helping anyone to reach the ascetic goal, "which is always the union with the divine, the overcoming of one's human limits" (20), is open to debate and variable in form.

This setting of the scene, as it were, or identification of a framework, opens the way for a tripartite treatment: consideration of what "asceticism" might mean (especially necessary if the discussion is going to reach beyond monasteries), of how "norms" might be shaped and applied, and of varieties of behaviour in the ascetic field.

This apparent dependence on logical steps does not entirely work: there are (probably inevitable) overlaps. That does not undermine, however, the high quality of the individual chapters. The series begins with a clear focus on the body--very salutary; but the illustration of this particular inquiry quickly homes in on the bodies of stylites: the pillar saints, the signature eccentrics of late antique Syria. Gian Antonio Gilli's sense of a useful "body map," and his detailed descriptions of the stylites' muscular and vestibular discipline, developed and maintained over decades, had never quite seized my attention in this way. Stylites do not, however, strike me as obvious models of the ascetic life (especially as described in the surviving texts), and I shall return to that difficulty shortly.

Emiliano Rubens Urciuoli's chapter on Franz Overbeck (1837-1905) is comparably gripping, but also comparably odd as a contribution to a more general analysis. I have to say, nevertheless, that I would not be without it. We are dealing here with the post-Kantian arc from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche, with Freud, William James and Durkheim not yet fully on the scene. What is at stake, therefore, is the crucial question of whether asceticism has much to do with religion at all; with Christianity, anyway, not to mention monasticism, which, even in its revived form, might be no more than just another symptom of that religion's increasingly archaic irrelevance. Is there such a thing as secular asceticism? Not that Urciuoli is taking sides here; but he gives a splendid account of those who did.

Once we venture forward in the book, it is striking how many of the chapters are about the stylites. Gilli I have mentioned; but, of the remaining seven studies (not counting Leyser's envoi), three retain that fascination (one a little more than en passant by the late Veit Rosenberger, and two others exhaustively by Chiara Cremonesi and jointly by Almut-Barbara Renger and Alexandra Stellmacher). I began to wonder whether we were not being presented here with an asceticism of the periphery. Rosenberger on diet is the only general treatment of "exercise." Otherwise, we find ourselves regaled with accounts of Priscillian, Circumcellions, and Visigothic Spain. To be fair, this last piece, by Pablo C. Díaz, is the only one that takes a hard look at monasteries, and deliberately asks whether some of their "exercises" might not have been deemed useful to the non-monastic laity (Isidore of Seville and Fructuosus of Braga--both bishops; both post-Chalcedon and orthodox--being compared as ascetic disciplinarians), and draws us to read again the wonderful volume on Spain in Adalbert de Vogüé's Histoire littéraire du mouvement monastique (2007). Sylvain Jean Gabriel Sanchez and Alessandro Rossi move meanwhile in remoter fields.

I suppose the impression of a relatively empty centre may spring from the material available for the editor to choose from. Adele Monaco Castagno's chapter on the Life of Antony is the only other one that can claim a more central character. Her argument, however, that the Life might be read as a rule in disguise is not entirely convincing. True, Antony does not come across in the text as an isolated figure. He has a following, a proportion of it for some time quite settled close by, and many of his dicta are prescriptive. I am perfectly prepared to acknowledge that narrative recollections could function, especially with the passing of time, as normative legacies. The Life, however, is not--I think it is safe to believe--written by a disciple or successor; and that sets it apart. As the author admits, it "diverges widely from the literary form of the oldest monastic rules" (79), and to lose touch with that is to place too much weight on Gregory of Nazianzus' use of νομοθεσία (80) in Oration 21 (interesting though that may be as a reflection on Gregory).

That is why the Renger/Stellmacher chapter has a special virtue: it raises more fully the question of how we know and whether we reliably know. No other authors are quite so open to the possibility of our being "misled"--in the sense that we hear more the voice of the artist than we do of the person portrayed. And "artist" means not only the writer of a text but also the moulder of an image, or the builder of a structure now in ruins (though perhaps restored) or buried beneath the present-day surface. These windows through which we look at the past--at times distorting, whether by accident or design--are really the only evidence we have by which to judge events. We historians are interpreters of signs, not observers of the signified--a truism almost boring in its familiarity, yet so often allowed to slip by. So, in this last chapter but one, we have a rich series of images, mainly of Simeon Stylites, showing how the saint was "sold" among those who perhaps never saw him, with every chance given and taken to misremember or invent.

So, what do we end with? Alciati's distinction between asceticism and monasticism is helpfully made and useful to remember. The book is full of materiality, either implied or described--an increasing desideratum. The individual chapters are polished and conclusive. The bibliographies are extensive and invite other explorations. A hidden history is embedded in the book and an abundance of provocation. The absence of a general index is a slight disappointment, but encourages a slow attentive perusal of the whole. There is much to learn, much to enjoy and much to follow further.

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