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23.03.09 Venarde (ed./trans.), Aelred of Rievaulx, Writings on Body and Soul

23.03.09 Venarde (ed./trans.), Aelred of Rievaulx, Writings on Body and Soul

Aelred, a native of the Scottish border regions of Northumbria, entered Rievaulx abbey north of York in 1134, just two years after its founding by French Cistercians. After a trip to Rome in 1142, Aelred became the third abbot of Rievaulx in 1147. His connections to secular and to other monastic leaders are documented by the life written by his contemporary, Walter Daniel, who defends Aelred’s pious reputation against accusations that he was a lax sensualist. He was a powerful abbot who lived in the perilous times of the anarchy, when Stephen and Mathilda contended for the throne. Aelred chronicled these struggles; he wrote a life of Edward the Confessor and also a quantity of biblical and devotional works. Four in that category are expertly translated in this volume: A Pastoral Prayer, Spiritual Friendship, A Certain Marvelous Miracle, and Teachings for Recluses. As is customary with the handsome Dumbarton Oaks volumes, the Latin and English are on facing pages.

In A Pastoral Prayer Aelred invokes the principle of contraria contrariis in that the greater his sin the more manifest is the Lord’s forgiveness. Echoing Augustine, Aelred reveals moral failings and insists on his unworthiness to lead. The Prayer moves from bewailing his own wickedness (quoting Psalms, Paul’s Epistles, and comparing himself to Solomon) to beseeching that he may be made a conduit for God’s grace to his own flock. Thus one sees that the logic of the title pertains to a prayer that enables pastoral care.

Spiritual Friendship, his most popular work in the Middle Ages, is a three-part dialogue between Aelred and fellow monks, including Walter, author of his biography. Aelred describes how, as a schoolboy tossed by juvenile affections, “there came into my hands the book Cicero wrote about friendship” (21) and much later, when a monk, he set himself the challenge of combining the “salt of the scriptures” (23) with Cicero’s text to produce a treatise on “spiritual friendship.” Salt, honey, and light are common metaphors for scripture (sal, mel, lumen). Aelred confronts the semantic challenges of understanding what a pagan like Cicero or a Jew like Solomon would have meant by the terms amicitia and caritas. Other Latin words, Venarde points out, contain plays on the word spiritus as “breath” and “spirit” that cannot be replicated in English. Throughout the text there is some logic chopping and recapitulations of definitions. Classical (35; Pylades and Orestes) and early Christian examples such as the martyrdom of the girl at Antioch (37; Theodora of Alexandria) foreshadow and confirm the Christian model: a friend must love at all times, “even if he is nailed to a cross” (33). Christian love is larger than any form of friendship because “we are obliged by the law of loving-kindness to receive not only our friends but also our enemies into the bosom of love” (37; sinu dilectionis). Even stones, trees, animals, and the angels manifest “love of company” (47), a love enabled for mankind when God created Eve for Adam. Adam, however, should have denounced Eve’s “presumption” (75, with the etymological depth of prae-sumere).

There are positive examples--David and Barzillai the Gileadite, David and Jonathan (85)--and negative examples of those not informed by the love of God: Saul, Doeg, Jonadab, Ammon, Absalom. There is also a foray into current papal politics following the death of Hadrian IV in 1159 (75). Section two praises the benefits of friendship, with more proverbs, classical examples, and scriptural citations, conveniently cited by Venarde in his notes. Themes from John 15 are prominent in this section--e.g. “No man has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13)--and one of Aelred’s most compelling treatments of a biblical book begins with an anatomy of types of kisses, from carnal to spiritual, quoting Song of Songs 1.1 (67).

The longest part, part three, foregroundsamor, “the source and origin of friendship” (91). The practical question arises of how to reconcile friendship with irascible behavior, and we learn that betraying a secret is the most serious offense against friendship: vide the negative examples of Ahasuerus (Xerxes), Haman, Sisera and Jael, et al. Aelred further advises that friendship with a poor man is more trustworthy than with a rich one (127). It is possible to detect growth in the understanding of his interlocutors when Walter recommends that one “season many agreements with the occasional disagreement” (137; ipsa rarissima dissensione condire consensiones plurimas). The book ends with the longest treatment yet of David and Jonathan (141-43) and of Boaz and Ruth (147), both pairs being examples of how the exalted can befriend the humble. Whereas dissimulation is sometimes acceptable among friends, hypocrisy never is (155; simulatio). There is more practical advice when we are told to admonish friends after some delay (157) just as Nathan tactfully rebukes David. Because Christ can rebuke Peter and favor John, we see how friendship allows for judicious differentiation (159).

A Certain Marvelous Miracle concerns events at a Yorkshire monastery, Watton, housing men and women in the Gilbertine order. Venarde notes that Gilbert of Sempringham (d. 1189) founded the only monastic order to originate in England. After a brief account of how a dead nun appears to devoted followers in a ray of sun at communion, we hear of the graphic castration of a young novice by the nun whom he impregnated (191). Even Aelred is uncomfortable, as he “praise[s] not the act but the zeal” (193). The nun is placed in a cell and during the night in a dream (197; in somnis) the baby is delivered by a bishop and two women. The nun’s body and beauty are immediately restored such that there are no signs of pregnancy or labor. Her shackles release spontaneously, but remain intact. At Gilbert’s request Aelred visits the monastery and confirms the miracles but there is no further word on the father, who returns to the monastery, and nothing more on the baby, which disappears. Submission to the will of God is the overt moral of the story. The forgiveness of the mother is assumed.

Aelred begins Teachings for Recluses with negative examples of supposed recluses who indulge in gossip and worldly thoughts. Thus one must keep an old woman to restrict access and a young girl to fetch water and cook. All contact with men should be avoided, just like the nun who refused to entertain even Saint Martin (219, a story from Sulpicius Severus). Conventional warnings, such as guarding one’s tongue and avoiding physical touch, are tempered by some concessions. A recluse should “sleep until she guesses it is past midnight” (227) and “be careful that extended prayer not give rise to tedium” (229). It is not assumed that a recluse necessarily knows all the psalms: “the recluse who cannot read should apply herself more conscientiously to manual labor” (229). Strike the happy medium to “stave off hunger and yet not satisfy her appetite” (235). “A virgin’s flesh is a clay vessel in which gold is put to be tested” (241) with the devil pumping the bellows. These temptations include same-sex temptations. Anticipating a possible misreading of Revelation 14:4, Aelred warns that one “should not take this to mean that a man cannot be defiled without a woman or a woman without a man” (243). Remember who your spouse is to be, and recall paradigmatic virgin martyrs such as Agnes and Cecilia when tempted by the heat of your body (245; calor corporis). “Nocturnal fantasies” (251) delude even the old.

The book builds towards its conclusion with a theology of the Incarnation: “the Father sanctified, the Son made fertile, the Holy Spirit overshadowed” (271). Aelred then supplies a life of Christ with recollections of events from the Gospels up to the Crucifixion. With a mild caution, Aelred includes only one apocryphal story, how on the Flight to Egypt the Holy Family was rescued from thieves by a young man who became the Good Thief on the Cross (275). Venarde cites the Syriac or Arabic Infancy Gospel but gives no references. [1] There is also an allusion to the doctrine of the pia fraus when the Devil uses Pilate’s wife as a ploy--“too late” (290)--to prevent the Crucifixion. When Joseph of Arimathea deposes Christ’s body Aelred speculates that the “most holy man could say My beloved is to me like a bundle of myrrh, he will remain between my breasts” (293, quoting Song of Songs 1.12). Aelred enjoins the virgin to witness these events as if physically present. He returns to former laments concerning his unworthy and outcast status, like Cain (299), and he contrasts his depravity with the purity of his virgin auditor. The book builds to a crescendo of the Last Judgment and a description of Heaven reminiscent of the Land of Cockayne (315). These final sections, superbly translated by Venarde, feature Aelred’s scriptural virtuosity as he melds a range of Hebrew and Christian verses into a vision of the afterlife and an injunction to virtuous living. Song of Songs 1.16 supplies the final words: “My beloved is mine and I am his” (319).

Venarde’s translations are skillful and vivid: ne videamur in inani pingere becomes “so we don’t seem to write on the wind” (29). The striking use of the verb evaporare in the phrase cui evaporet becomes “to whom he can vent [his mind]” (59), honoring the metaphor. The translation of cotidianis opprobriis saturatur as “stuffed with daily scolding” (189) is perhaps not as good. There are eight pages of notes on variant readings from the extant manuscripts, 23 pages of helpful annotations, a short bibliography, and a two-page index of people and places. It would be advantageous to have an index of biblical quotations since Aelred often quotes and blends the same verses in different contexts. In every regard Venarde meets the high standards of the Dumbarton Oaks series.



1. See J. K. Elliott, The Apocryphal Jesus: Legends of the Early Church (Oxford: Oxford University Pres, 1996), 29.