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21.03.07 Cline, The Congregation of Tiron

The Medieval Review

21.03.07 Cline, The Congregation of Tiron


At the end of her study on the economy of the monastery of Tiron in the twelfth century, Ruth Harwood Cline says that one of her purposes in writing the book was to "break ground for future research" on the monastery's history. (179) This is a promise that many of us make for our own work, but the reader will find that Cline fulfills it to an unusual degree in this study of a previously neglected religious order. Although Tiron did establish a group of daughter houses in both England and France, it was tiny in comparison with the much larger congregations of Cluniacs and Cistercians. Also, as time went on, Tiron became more like the traditional Benedictine houses, and consequently less interesting to study. Many of the individual monasteries were absorbed into the Benedictine and Cistercian orders, but the Tironensians did not survive as an order into modern times. However, Cline demonstrates that when good records are available, there is much to be learned from a study of the smaller reformed monastic orders.

The founder of Tiron, Bernard of Abbeville (1050-1116), like many of his contemporaries in the monastic reform movement, was a charismatic itinerant preacher who attracted a group of followers and eventually settled down in a monastery, practicing a simpler lifestyle than traditional monastics, with an emphasis on austerity and manual labor. Unlike the Cistercians, the monks of Tiron accepted donations of all kinds, including tithes, rents, and commercial and urban property. Furthermore, during the great famine of 1109-1112, which almost put an end to the aspirations of Cîteaux, Bernard of Tiron welcomed skilled craftsmen into his monastery and organized the production and marketing of their wares. These are early indications of the importance of trade and commerce to the first monks of Tiron. King Henry I of England thought highly of Bernard, and his grant of an exemption on tolls in England and Normandy was crucial to the success of Tiron's trade with England and the establishment of its alien priories in England, Scotland, and Wales. Bernard and his monastery of Tiron also enjoyed the favor of Kings David I of Scotland and Louis VI of France, Countess Adela of Blois and Chartres, Counts Fulk of Anjou and Rotrou II of Perche, and Bishops Ivo and Geoffrey II of Chartres. Bernard enjoyed what Cline calls "a wave of enormous celebrity" (47) at the end of his life, and he was deluged with gifts from his noble and royal patrons. While much appreciated, these properties were chosen at random by the donors rather than as part of a coordinated acquisition plan.

It was left to Bernard's successor as abbot, William of Poitiers, to weld Tiron's far-flung properties into a centralized network facilitating travel, communications, and exchange of goods and services, benefiting not only the abbey but also the surrounding lay community. Cline illustrates in exhaustive detail how Abbot William acquired additional properties close to original gifts, assuring that each prospective priory had an income sufficient to secure the immediate necessities of life, provide for capital improvements, and make a contribution to the order's overall prosperity.

The largest part of the book describes the network of priories and other properties that Abbot William and his successors established. Ideally, priories were either spaced about a day's journey apart along routes leading to major transportation hubs and market centers or clustered around towns with which the priory could trade goods and services. For each section of Tiron's network, Cline provides a beautifully drawn map, a table listing Tiron's property, and an explanatory text. It is worth making a copy of a map or two and connecting the dots to see how the theory plays out in practice. For example, Map 5.2 (93) of northern France shows a neat line of properties along the route from Tiron's priory at Évreux to the port city of Dieppe. The route from Évreux to Caen shows a cluster of five properties between Lisieux and Caen.

She applies this technique to Tiron's dependencies in England, Scotland, and Wales as well, despite the difference in size and wealth of these properties. The role of politics in Tiron's strategy comes into focus here, especially in Scotland, where William the Lion's disastrous invasion of England in 1174 forced him to surrender several major towns in the south to King Henry II. This caused William to shift his focus to the northern part of his demesne, and the Tironensians followed his example, establishing the priories of Arbroath and Lindores and developing other properties in the area.

The reader may wish that Cline had gone into more detail about her methodology here. Anyone who has ever worked with medieval charters has been frustrated by their shortcomings and omissions. Frequently documents cannot be dated or can be dated only by the years in office of major witnesses. Place names are spelled inconsistently at best; at worst, the places themselves have disappeared entirely, swallowed up by urban sprawl or left deserted by the various calamities that have taken place over the last nine hundred years. Roadways have fallen into disuse and rivers have changed their courses. It is a notable accomplishment for Cline to have produced these maps under these conditions, and it would be helpful to know more about how she dealt with these obstacles.

Cline remains strictly focused throughout on the trade and communications network established by the Tironensians, strongly resisting the temptation to wander off along the tempting byways about which the reader might like more information. One exception to this discipline is her brief foray into a discussion of the economic prowess of the Tironensians in comparison with that of the Cistercians and the related question of the dating of the primitive documents of the Cistercians. Cîteaux was founded in 1098 and Tiron a decade later (1107-1109). The primitive documents of Cîteaux, which define such matters as the types of gifts the monks would accept, the filiation system, and the operation of the general chapter, are generally dated to around 1120 and are attributed at least in part to the third abbot, Saint Stephen Harding. Based on this dating of these documents, the Cistercians receive credit for key innovations in monastic life ranging from the general chapter to their participation in the urban economy, and it is suggested that the other reformed monastic orders copied such things from them. However, Constance Berman has argued that the primitive documents should be dated much later, to the 1160s and 1170s. Cline tends to agree with Berman, suggesting that the Cistercians were relative latecomers to the burgeoning urban economy of the twelfth century and that they copied many of their new ideas from the Tironensians rather than the reverse. The truth probably lies between the two extremes, for leaving aside the issue of the dating of some of Cîteaux's foundational documents, all the reformed religious orders of the twelfth century learned from one another and borrowed practices that seemed useful to them. If nothing else, Cline's brief discussion points to the need for further study of the earliest reformed monasteries.

Cline ends her study with two appendices, the first dealing with the papal confirmations granted to Tiron and the second to the resolution of disputes. Both contain valuable information, and placing this material at the end of the study avoids breaking the book's strict focus on trade and communications. However, I would have welcomed a few more appendices, providing detours to a number of interesting side issues that Cline mentions in passing.

I offer here my own personal list of questions, not as a criticism, but as an indication of the further research which this work should inspire, knowing that each reader's list will be different. For example, Cline quotes Orderic Vitalis on the many craftsmen who flocked to Tiron under Bernard's administration: "So among the men who hastened to share his life were joiners and blacksmiths, sculptors and goldsmiths, painters and masons, vinedressers and husbandmen and skilled artificers of many kinds" (59; OV 8.27) This is a small subset of the list of crafts which Cline has gleaned from the charters. One would like to know if these men became a type of lay brother or did some of them bring their families along? Were their products and services primarily for consumption in the abbey itself or were they traded and sold outside? Were such groups of craftsmen only at Tiron or were they also present at the dependent priories? Did the members of the building trades work solely for the Tironensians, or did they take contracts from the secular community? Even a list of names, professions and locations would make interesting reading. An entire book could be written on this subject, and it is likely that some of these questions cannot be answered from the available data.

Similarly, I was intrigued by Cline's discovery that an unusual number of women lived at Tiron and its dependencies. Prior to the foundation of the abbey of Tiron, Bernard had joined Robert of Arbrissel and Vital of Mortain on a preaching tour emphasizing clerical celibacy, which was met with fierce opposition. Cline suggests that Bernard's early experience made him reluctant to break up clerical families and caused him to offer refuge to the abandoned women and children in his foundations.

Tiron acquired a surprising amount of urban property, especially houses, and because of her focus on trade and transportation, Cline emphasizes the use of these properties as overnight accommodations for monks traveling on business. Were they also used as warehouses, and if so, were sales also made from these facilities? Did the craftspeople who had taken shelter with the Tironensians work out of them? Did those in wine producing areas have wine presses and combine the harvests of multiple vineyards, not just those of Tiron's dependencies? Were some of them simply rental property, having no connection to Tiron's other business interests? One small bit of light is shed on this question by the case of the priory of Corsept, whose holdings included the island of Saint-Nicolas-en-Loire, which is the first Loire island inland from the Atlantic. The monks provided certain services for ocean-going ships on their way to the port of Nantes, including repairs, supplies, medical care, and burial of the dead. This intriguing example testifies to the monks' engagement with the secular community and the lengths to which they would go to provide services for their neighbors. In general, it would be nice to know the types and quantities of the many goods and services produced by Tiron and its dependencies. In the absence of actual business records, it is sometimes possible to guess at the amounts based on tax and toll exemptions issued for a particular amount of product, on the theory that exemptions would be given for a quantity of product somewhere near the actual amount being shipped.

Rounding out my list of things about which I would like more information is the origin of the modern breed of horses called Percherons. Cline states that in the twelfth century Count Rotrou II of Perche brought stallions home from Spain to be bred to the native draft horses, creating the breed we know today. Tiron purchased property in the area where Rotrou was conducting his experiments, and the monks may have been involved in horse breeding as well, for they frequently gave horses as counter gifts.

Everything cannot be done in one book, and Cline is to be commended for keeping her eye on the prize and demonstrating the extent of Tiron's trade and communications network. Future scholars will be benefit from studying the mapping techniques which made this discovery possible, and students searching for dissertation topics will be encouraged to look at the earlier, smaller reformed monastic orders. Meanwhile, the intriguing side issues Cline has raised will inspire those of us who wished the book could have been longer to undertake further research.