James G. Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2011. 

James G. Clark, The Benedictines in the Middle Ages, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2011.  £26, ISBN 978-1-84383-623-09 (hardback), pp. x + 374 pp.

Reviewed by: Marilyn Dunn, History, School of Humanities, College of Arts, University of Glasgow, August, 2012

This is the latest in a series of volumes onMonastic Orders, indented to provide ‘authoritative and accessible’ guides to the origins of the orders, their expansion and their main characteristics.  It follows in wake of Michael Robson’s Franciscans in the Middle Agesand Frances Andrews’ The Other Friars.  A number of other volumes are projected, including works on the Cistercians, Carthusians and the Augustinian Canons.  The series is designed to fill a very real gap in the field, making it easier for English-reading academics and students to familiarise themselves with detailed treatments of monasticism and monastic life and to assess the direction of modern scholarship.   As such, it is an enterprise that deserves the warmest of welcomes.

After an introduction, Clark divides his book into six chapters: the Making of a European Order; Observance; Society; Culture; the Later Middle Ages; and Reformations.  The last takes it beyond the limits of the ‘Middle Ages’ of the book’s title, but this is a Good Thing.  The author contends that the Benedictines’ medieval history ended not just with the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England but on the Continent with the Catholic (or Counter-) Reformation which, he argues, ‘reinforced the separation of Europe’s surviving Benedictines from their medieval past’ (p. 338).  Such contextualisation furnishes the reader with a valuable perspective on the remainder of the book.

The book’s major strengths lie in its treatment of the post-1215 period.  It passes quickly over older meta-narratives of decline and responses to them, pointing out that between 1150 and 1260 the monasteries of the Benedictine heartland saw a surge in recruitment (p. 262) and it seeks to provide some balance in its account of challenges to Black Monk dominance by new orders on various European frontiers.  It highlights what the author calls the ‘greater homogenisation’ of Benedictine life in England through government by a single chapter after 1336 – but also points out the contribution of the Benedictine Rulein both England and on the Continent to the production of new rules and regulations (pp. 264-267).  Clark guides the reader through the travails experienced by Benedictine monasteries in times of pestilence and warfare as well as the challenges presented by urbanisation in the later Middle Ages.  Other external pressures on the Benedictines discussed include the rise of anticlericalism and the changes in ecclesiastical and secular government in the later Middle Ages. As one would expect from the author of works on Thomas Walsingham and the abbey of St Albans in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and on  the culture of religious orders in  England in the later Middle Ages, there are sections on culture and belief, asceticism and mysticism, the spread of the vernacular and ‘civility’: by the last he means patterns of élite behaviour which penetrated Benedictine monasteries in the pre-Reformation period.

Of the earlier sections of the book, Clark’s treatment of ‘Society’ is perhaps the most successful, at least once he starts dealing with issues such as the development of the so-called ‘obedientary system’ (by which the resources of the monastery were shared out among a chain of administrative officers) and with the with economic, pastoral and social contribution of the Benedictine monastery.  But the other landscape in which the Benedictine monastery should be placed is that of the afterlife. While the chapter on ‘Observance’ does mention the Office for the Dead, it devotes one paragraph (p. 99) to its development over the entire medieval period and one sentence to its extension to patrons and benefactors.  There is an all-too-short section on the monastic contribution to the development of purgatory (pp. 172-4).

In general, the earlier chapters are less successful than the later parts of the book.  Clark offers rather tentative answers to the question of why Benedict of Nursia’s ‘little rule for beginners’ was excerpted in the age of the ‘mixed’ rules.  Looking at the combination of Benedictine and Columbanian rules, he notes that the former was used to create a framework for conventual life, ‘adopting Benedict’s preferences for the principal officers and their rules’ and that it offered a daily office ‘less demanding than the Columbanian scheme’ (p. 28).  This might indeed be the case, but it misses the essential differences between Benedict and Columbanus.  Columbanus was a charismatic whose Rule for Monksonly went into detail on matters of diet and liturgy – for the rest he confined himself mostly to statements of principle, often borrowed from the ‘classics’ of ascetic literature. The leader of his community – that is, Columbanus himself – led from the front, as a charismatic. The consequences attendant on the death of the charismatic leader became all too evident in events at Bobbio under his successor, where the monks rose in revolt. Benedict’ Rule, on the other hand, artfully created a community in which the power of even the least charismatic abbot (or abbess) was paramount and was exercised through a carefully constructed hierarchy of officials.  This is what made the sections of the rule dealing with these matters so attractive to the writers compiling rules for houses established by the new aristocracies of the early Middle Ages, who needed effective blueprints for monastic life. The lack of clarity in discussing such issues arises to a large degree from the way in which Clark constructs a view of Benedict and his context on a partial view of the literature on the subject.  He fails to take full account either of the older controversies of the 1990s (and earlier), or of all the ideas that have appeared over the last decade or so on Benedict and the diffusion of the Benedictine Rule.

Finally, ubi sorores?   Well, there is a map of Benedictine foundations for women, c. 700-c.1349, which provides a literal answer to that question; and women are mentioned from time to time; but a lot more could and should have been said.  In a work that promises, on its cover, a treatment of ‘men and women’, the lack of a chapter specifically devoted to female monasticism is a major disappointment.