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19.09.04 Salzer, Vaucelles Abbey

19.09.04 Salzer, Vaucelles Abbey

Vaucelles abbey was founded just south of the city of Cambrai in 1131. At that time, and for a long time thereafter, it was the only male Cistercian house in the Cambrésis. As Kathryn Salzer notes in this fine study of the abbey, Vaucelles' relative isolation from other Cistercian houses was an important factor in its institutional development, necessitating a search for allies and relationships beyond the Cistercian order. Salzer's goal is to examine the social, economic, and political development of Vaucelles, primarily by using its surviving charters to reconstruct the patterns of patronage and social networks within which the abbey built its patrimony. In framing this investigation, Salzer argues that the history of Vaucelles can best be understood by treating it as an abbey in a "borderland" region that straddled a number of different boundaries: royal, comital, episcopal, and linguistic. In so doing, Salzer calls for greater attention to be paid to the "geopolitical context" (xix) of monastic communities.

Chapter 1 sets the stage for the study of Vaucelles. Although titled "Historiographical Context," it provides nearly as much historical information as it does historiographical. It opens by summarizing the foundation of Vaucelles and surveying the extant sources related to its history. Salzer then offers three historiographical themes within which to situate the history of Vaucelles: the nature of power in borderland regions, the history of the Cistercian order, and the nature of economic development in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. With respect to the first theme, Salzer offers an interesting discussion of the terms used to designate various types of borders in the sources related to Vaucelles. She then considers several modern approaches to borderlands as a way to understand the position of the Cambrésis between the French kingdom and the German empire, its varied economic connections, and its linguistic borders. Some of the theories Salzer discusses are surprising, such as Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis (which led this reviewer to wonder about the relationship between "borderlands" and "frontiers"). The Cistercian context of Vaucelles may be the most thorny historiographical problem with which Salzer contends. At this stage, she simply notes that the key question remains the relative level of uniformity and individuality of Cistercian abbeys, which can only be solved by further study of individual houses and their relationship to the broader order. While the content of this chapter is interesting, it also felt fragmentary; it may have served the overall study better if it had been broken up and integrated into the relevant chapters that follow.

Chapter 2 provides a political and economic history of the Cambrésis from the Roman period to the high Middle Ages, focusing particularly on the formation of the diocese of Cambrai; the bishop's emergence as the feudal lord of the region; the region's position at the intersection of French royal, German imperial, and Flemish comital interests; as well as the local influence of the castellan of Cambrai, the primary rival for the bishop in local politics. All of this provides context for the story of Vaucelles' foundation by Hugh II of Oisy, which Salzer argues represented a strategic act intended to counter episcopal power in the area. Chapter 3 studies the development of Vaucelles' agricultural economy, seen largely within the context of the history of Cistercian economic practices. It focuses on three practices generally seen as central to the economic success of the Cistercians: direct cultivation of land, the use of lay brothers to work the land, and the consolidation of land into granges. Salzer suggests that Vaucelles generally conforms to all three of these trends. She also charts important changes in the thirteenth century, including the (sometimes contentious) acquisition of tithes, the use of wage-labor, and an increased interest in leasing out property. While this chapter presents plenty of evidence from Vaucelles, it also includes considerable comparative material from other Cistercian abbeys and, as a result, sometimes reads as a general history of Cistercian economics.

Chapters 4 through 6 are the heart of the study. The fourth chapter examines the many different patrons who gave gifts of land to Vaucelles as well as the "authorial patrons" in whose name and authority the charters were issued and gifts confirmed. Chief among the gift-giving patrons of Vaucelles was the founding family of Oisy (and later the Montmirail family, eventual heirs of the Oisy lands and lordship). Salzer also tracks gift-giving and growing relationships with other local lay lords, the Flemish comital family, other monastic communities, and the bishop of Cambrai, as well as gifts of protection and confirmation of gifts by the emperor. Vaucelles was thus part of a complex and continuously expanding social network that ensured its long-term success. Chapter 5 looks at the ways in which Vaucelles grew from a recipient of gifts to an active solicitor of them and began to pursue other forms of transactions, such as purchases and exchanges. These strategies allowed the abbey to consolidate its lands, particularly around three key granges. It also led to cultivation of important long-term relationships, often represented among the figures who issued the charters and confirmed the lands possessed by Vaucelles. Examining these figures allows Salzer to note the process by which Cambrai was gradually oriented away from the empire and toward the French kingdom. This same process of consolidation, however, led to conflicts with local landowners, monasteries, and bishops.

Chapter 6 investigates Vaucelles' Cistercian relationships, including both connections to other abbeys and to the order as a whole, represented mainly by the General Chapter. Salzer's interest here is less in the liturgical and devotional practices that connected Vaucelles to other Cistercian houses and more in the extent to which they interacted socially and economically. Salzer suggests that the abbey's "Cistercian identity" during its first several decades of existence was, at best, "individual and developing" (264). It was only during the closing decade of the twelfth century and into the thirteenth that Vaucelles' affilidation with the Cistercian order became a notable aspect of its institutional life, partially through the incorporation of a daughter house in England, partially through increased connections to its own mother house of Clairvaux, and partially through increased interaction with the General Chapter. Salzer handles the implications of the case of Vaucelles for the problem of the nature of the Cistercian order with a light touch, rightly calling for further studies of individual abbeys to expand the evidentiary base for answering this question. But the key point remains: for much of its early existence, Vaucelles was largely isolated from other Cistercian abbeys and its social and economic connections with local lay families and ecclesiastical institutions were more determinative of its institutional life than was its Cistercian identity.

The picture that emerges from Salzer's careful study of Vaucelles' economic and social history is one of a monastery negotiating a particularly complicated region of overlapping interests and influences. Its unusual position as the only men's Cistercian house in Cambrai meant that its local connections were fundamental to its early success and its links to the Cistercian order only strengthened after it was a stable and prosperous abbey. Future studies might help clarify whether Vaucelles' experience was the result of its position in a "borderland" region or reflected a common trajectory among Cistercian houses. Even in this study, for instance, the chapters that focus most concretely on Vaucelles' social networks and economic development are those in which the concept of "borderlands" tends to recede into the background. Regardless, this book demonstrates the extent to which studies of individual abbeys beyond the most famed houses can help clarify the monastic history of the high Middle Ages.