Steven Vanderputten, Medieval Monasticisms: Forms and Experiences of the Monastic Life in the Latin West, De Gruyter, Berlin, 2020

Steven Vanderputten. Medieval Monasticisms: Forms and Experiences of the Monastic Life in the Latin West. De Gruyter: Berlin, 2020. £27.00.  ISBN: 978-3-11-054377-3 (paperback); pp. 304, with index.

Reviewed by: Kimm Curran, Independent Researcher, Glasgow, August 2021

Medieval Monasticisms is part of the ‘Outlines in History’ series by De Gruyter. This series provides surveys of the current research, the past and present debates, as well as extensive bibliographies on each subject. Designed with students and educators in mind, it is equally a good series for archivists, librarians, archaeologists, and other related fields. This offering endeavours to provide an outline of monastic life in the Middle Ages covering the period ca. 300 to the beginnings of the sixteenth century across western Christendom.

The book is divided into three parts: Historical Survey (140 pages), State of the Art (89 pages), and Bibliography (48 pages). The opening survey is the largest – and rightly so – with Parts 2 and 3 embracing the task of understanding forty years of scholarship in medieval monastic studies across regions and time periods. Sections are then subdivided into periods of monastic and religious life, with further subdivisions reflecting on themes and important points. The subdivisions are mirrored in each section, the layout simple and easy to follow, with marginal notes throughout to assist in signposting developments in each section. The parts are consistently ordered, which allows for straightforward cross-checking within each period or subdivision to assist in mining for information needed on themes or points.

The author, Steven Vanderputten, introduces the subject and notes that the focus of the book is stimulated by sociological and anthropological views whilst dealing with how scholars ‘preoccupy themselves with particular narratives of the monastic past and how this distorts the reality of it.’ (p. 4) By addressing a longitudinal view of monastic and religious life, the author provides an outline of the diversity, and sometimes ‘messy’ narratives that come with medieval monasticism, e.g., non-linear developments, categorisation, and classification of order for women religious for example.

Part 1: Historical Survey

The first part provides the background to the subject of western monasticism and covers the very beginnings of monasticism in the west and its transformation from early cenobitism (ca. 300s), the formation of ‘Rules’, and the attractions of this lifestyle across Christendom. It moves to the discussion of the Rule of Benedict, its legacy across Ireland and the west, the rise of communities of women religious and its impact in England, for example. This is followed by an outline related to the increasing diversity of monastic life, its impact on secular society, and the influence of ecclesiastics in monastic life, as well as how societal collapse had a real and lasting impact (e.g., Viking raids). Moving forward, Vanderputten highlights the complexity of the developments of Benedictine reform and the wider picture of the complexity of changes between 800-1000. By the early 1000s, monasticism ‘shaped and redesigned the landscape’ (p. 59) with institutions cropping up all over western Christendom. There were many institutions with diverse practices, and identities, moulding to local experiences which showed how ‘ambiguity and diversity played out in real life’. (p. 67) The author then highlights how conversion to Christianity and the increase of individuals entering monastic life, ‘literally and metaphorically’ transformed monastic houses into places of solace. (p. 72) This transformation was also present in the ‘sacralization’ of sites, with the explosive growth of the number of religious communities on or near rural sites of settlement or fortified villages. (p. 79) This is then followed by a discussion about why lay or secular society may have been drawn to support monasteries; the level of interaction between secular and religious communities; the rise of new orders such as the Cistercians, Premonstratensians, and military orders in the early twelfth century; the shift in monastic governance from individual leadership to authority from office (p. 89); the complexity of the role of the head of a religious house; and institutional monasticism. Later medieval monasticism takes up the final pages of this section including topics such as the ‘long twelfth century’, women’s communities, the rise of the mendicant orders, and discussions of anchorites, beguines, third orders, and semi-religious or ‘flexible identities’ within religious life. The challenges present in the later period are also highlighted: papal involvement in religious life, a decline in recruitment, disruptions to religious life, warfare, plague, and dissolution of medieval monastic communities.

Part 2: State of Play

The second part begins with a discussion on the state of the field for monastic studies, with a focus on new research. Here Vanderputten lays out the impact of the field from the 1980s, in particular, and how certain areas have shaped monastic scholarship to date, e.g. gendered perspectives, manuscripts studies. This part summarises the current weaknesses in the field, how it has become ‘fractured due to methodological strands, thematic and period bound discussions, national and linguistic traditions’, and provides suggestions what needs further investigation. (p. 142)  Suggestions include (but are not limited to): how communities dealt with the shift in the institutional monasticism of the early eleventh century; early Cistercian narratives and realities; the rise of the Canons Regular and their role in society; outsiders’ views of military orders; the identity or affiliation of men’s and women’s communities outside of defined institutional orders; the contribution of women to Church reform; how mendicant communities operated in their environment; and the influence of the Modern Devotion movement within monastic life. The only quibble with this section relates to the discussion of the later medieval period, ‘Challenges and Experiences’, as it is short on suggestions as to what needs further investigation and I wonder if this is down to what the author proposes as how ‘narratives rely on questionable assumptions of decline’. (p. 224)

Part 3: Bibliography

The final part pulls together references and sources that reflect each section or theme, focusing on current trends from Part 2. Vanderputten lays out what is absent from the bibliography – e.g., handbooks, translations of primary sources – as well as what is included. The author notes the limitations of the bibliography, as well as how the field is constantly changing and any omissions in this section are not a reflection of ‘constantly evolving research interests’. (p. 231) It is ordered by primary sources, surveys, discussion of the state of monastic studies, followed by primary and secondary sources for each period or thematic area discussed above.

This book should be commended. Vanderputten accomplished a task in covering the whole of the Middle Ages, and all manner of religious and monastic life across regional variations, which is no easy feat. The areas of focus and thematic trends are broad and vast, wide in both depth and breadth and the author outlines any caveats and omissions carefully. A further strength of this text is how women’s monasticism is not isolated or treated differently because of gender but rather it is placed alongside trends and development for all time periods and regions.  There are sections that address particular women religious as important and this is done with care, e.g., the Beguines. This volume is a welcome addition to monastic studies and for educators and students alike.