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20.08.23 Shaw, Celestine Monks of France, c.1350-1450

20.08.23 Shaw, Celestine Monks of France, c.1350-1450

The study of late medieval observant religious life has enjoyed a boom in recent years, with notable (English-language) contributions by James Mixson, Bert Roest, and Alison More, among others. [1] These works have shed new light on the practices, ambitions, relationships, conflicts, influence and wider appeal of observant religious communities, and moved this subject helpfully away from older paradigms of crisis and decline. With his perceptive, meticulous and engaging study of the Celestine monks of France in the century after the Black Death, Robert L. J. Shaw has provided a distinguished addition to this flourishing historiography.

Shaw's detailed examination of the French Celestines is welcome for a number of reasons. This congregation of observant and ascetic Benedictines--originating in thirteenth-century Italy through the inspiration and example of St Peter Celestine (Pope Celestine V)--was one of the most popular and dynamic religious groups in late medieval France. Seventeen new houses of Celestine monks were established between 1300 and 1450, with the congregation attracting special interest from the social and political elites of the realm. As Shaw demonstrates, the French Celestines were an important voice in the political controversies of their day, not least attempts to end the Great Schism; and they produced at least one notable religious and devotional writer in Pierre Pocquet. Yet despite its prominence, the French branch of the congregation has not been the subject of a monograph until now.

The French Celestines also afford a fascinating case study of a particular kind of observant monastic reform. Unlike other "reformed" Benedictine congregations of the later Middle Ages, their expansion proceeded almost entirely through new foundations, rather than the absorption of existing institutions. This state of affairs generated challenges for the congregation, in that the endowments with which they were provided--consisting largely of rental income--were not always sufficiently sizeable or sustainable to support their communities. But it also freed the French Celestines from many of the internecine conflicts that characterised the early histories of other observant congregations.

As a result, the source base at Shaw's disposal is not dominated by the strident and self-justifying narratives of victorious reformers and their supporters, from which the history of late medieval European monasticism has often been drawn (and distorted). Instead, he guides us through a range of materials which reveal a more conflicted and dialogical side of observant reform. This includes a series of questions, submitted to Jean Gerson, concerning moral quandaries encountered by monks of the congregation striving to put its strict constitutions into practice; the painstaking attempts of communities to justify, both to their lay supporters and to themselves, the amalgamation of masses owed to specific benefactors whose endowments had seriously decayed; and the devotional writings of Pierre Pocquet, which presented Celestine spirituality to a wider audience in an accessible and moderate form intended to stimulate the reform of church and society.

It is in his skilful and sensitive handling of the highly varied genres of evidence which survive for the French Celestines that Shaw particularly excels. Each of the book's five chapters is built around one or more key sources (many of which remain unedited) for the history of the congregation. Chapter 1 focuses on the Vita of Jean Bassand, one of a small group of prominent Celestines who dominated the congregation's affairs during the first half of the fifteenth century. Shaw deploys this text to delineate key features of the self-image and observant ideals of the French Celestines. Chapter 2 analyses the development of the congregation's constitutions, strict observance of which was the hallmark of the (self-governing) French province. Shaw contends that these constitutions should not be seen as an exercise in arid legalism. Rather, they were "heavily influenced by an underlying theology in which exacting, scrupulous practice and the veneration of law as a path of reformist perfection were seen as key to the spiritual progress of their communities" (115).

Chapter 3 handles a number of texts which illustrate "[t]he challenges of adaptation of regular observance." This includes the fifteenth-century chronicle of the Celestine priory of Metz, which details patterns of monastic recruitment, and also various instances where brothers left (or were expelled from) the community because they could not live up to its stringent requirements. Shaw juxtaposes this text with the "Celestine Quodlibeta": the aforementioned questions submitted to Gerson, apparently by provincial prior Pierre Pocquet, concerning how the congregation's rigorous constitutions could best be applied in a spirit of peace and charity. Along with the popularity of Gerson's own writings in the book collections of the French Celestines, this source implies the presence of what Shaw describes as a "moderating strain" within the congregation's observance.

The chapter concludes with an insightful and important discussion of Pocquet's two key devotional works--the Orationarium in vita Domini nostri Jesu Christi et de suffragiis sanctorum, and his Dictamen de laudibus Joseph. Both works, Shaw argues, reflect and seek to resolve tensions inherent in French Celestine practice. The Orationarium, with its emphasis on cleanliness of heart and peace, highlights the need for both rigour and mercy in Christian life. Pocquet's novel handling of St Joseph--which, Shaw argues, strongly influenced Jean Gerson and others--provided a model which blended fatherly authority with humility. This helped to square a circle faced by the French Celestines, and other observant groups, who sought to dilute the power of monastic superiors while also relying upon forceful leadership to instigate and sustain the reform of communities.

The book's final two chapters turn from internal Celestine life and observance to an exploration of the congregation's (intimate) relations with the outside world. In chapter 4, Shaw provides an illuminating reading of the foundation charters of French Celestine priories, many of which were urban establishments. Judging from the wording of these documents, the monks' patrons were interested not solely in masses for their souls, but also in sharing the spiritual benefits of ascetic Celestine observance, and augmenting divine service for the well-being of the realm. He also analyses obituary records to discuss the profile of Celestine benefactors--with kings and princes, high-ranking ecclesiastics, and bourgeois professionals (including lawyers) featuring prominently. A final section of the chapter examines evidence for the decay of anniversary and foundation masses, highlighting the serious economic dislocation faced by the French Celestines in this era of destructive warfare: a backdrop which makes the rapid expansion of the congregation all the more remarkable.

Chapter 5 provides an analysis of "[t]he cultural outreach of the French Celestines." This emphasises the value of the congregation as a political symbol, exploring the reasons why Valois and Lancastrian kings and princes, and at times the Avignon papacy, were so strongly drawn to the Celestines in the years between 1350 and 1450. Shaw argues that the congregation's popularity was partly tied to the Great Schism, with the monks serving as a potent source of hope for renewal. The example of the congregation's eponymous founder in laying down the papal office for the benefit of the church arguably gave the Celestines a particular resonance and relevance at this time of schism. Shaw also makes an intriguing case for Pierre Pocquet as a key influence on Gerson's conciliarist thought. In this and other chapters, the juxtaposition of a number of diverse sources--each handled with rigour and care--provides a rounded and satisfying evocation of Celestine life.

The book's epilogue briefly considers the history of the French Celestines in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, which Shaw presents as a gradual waning of intensity and influence as the flow of new foundations dried up. This depiction may be unduly pessimistic. A comparison with the English Carthusians--who enjoyed a comparable expansion to the French Celestines in (but not beyond) the two generations following the Black Death, yet remained a popular and dynamic force into the sixteenth century--indicates that the cessation of new foundations need not signify stagnation. Indeed, the addition of a little more comparative material, particularly relating to other observant Benedictine congregations, might have drawn out more fully what is special or typical about the French Celestines. The volume concludes with a series of useful appendices, although the absence of a bibliography makes it difficult for the reader to track down full references to the works cited (usually in abbreviated form) in the book's footnotes. In most respects, however, this is an exemplary study, which undoubtedly succeeds in its aim of demonstrating the importance, influence and interest of the Celestine congregation as a spiritual and political force in late medieval France. In doing so, Shaw has made a valuable contribution to our knowledge of monasticism and observant reform in the later middle ages.



1. James Mixson, Poverty's Proprietors: Ownership and Mortal Sin at the Orders of the Observant Movement (Leiden: Brill, 2009); Bert Roest, Order and Disorder: the Poor Clares between Foundation and Reform (Leiden: Brill, 2013); Companion to Observant Reform in the Late Middle Ages and Beyond, ed. James Mixson and Bert Roest (Leiden: Brill, 2015); Alison More, Fictive Orders and Feminine Religious Identities, 1200-1600 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).​