Steven Vanderputten, Monastic Reform as Process: Realities and Representations in Medieval Flanders, 900–1100. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013.

Steven Vanderputten, Monastic Reform as Process: Realities and Representations in Medieval Flanders, 900–1100. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013. $55.00, ISBN 978-0-8014-5171-3 (hardback), pp. xi + 247.


Reviewed by: Bradford Lee Eden, Valparaiso University, April 2015

This book attempts to dispel preconceived and long-held scholarly viewpoints surrounding medieval monastic reform movements. Contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of these reforms, as well as scholarly study of these reforms since the late nineteenth century, are both flawed and biased, according to the author’s extensive research and examination of the primary source materials. Medieval accounts of these monastic reforms were fairly uniform in their description, detailing improvements in leadership and internal discipline, along with too much interaction with the secular world. The charismatic qualities of reforming individuals are then emphasized, similar to hagiographical accounts of saints and martyrs. Modern scholarship, on the other hand, has taken these medieval accounts as accurate historical accounts, failing to examine individual institutional reforms in favor of focusing on major centers of reform such as the Cluniac and Cistercian movements whose leaders instigated a large-scale network of reformist practices that were basically adopted by the rest of Christendom. What the author details here is the breakdown of this scholarly approach in recent years, and the rise of intense scrutiny and examination of individual medieval monastic reform movements based on regional, political, and economic variables.

            As background to the above information, the author focuses his research on the history and reform movements of seven monasteries in Flanders from the tenth to the end of the eleventh century. This region, geographically split between France and the Holy Roman Empire, contained Lower Lotharingia and northeastern France, and in previous scholarship was grouped with the Cluniac reforms. Despite the enormous amount of primary source material on medieval Flemish monasticism, the intricate nature of monastic reform during this time period and in this region has yet to be adequately documented. This book, then, attempts to verify whether medieval monastic reform in this region and time period can be studied as processes worthy of their own scholarship, separate from past and modern underlying preconceptions. The author accomplishes this through three major lines of argument: 1) that the reforms discussed in this book, focused on the early eleventh century, were confrontations between charismatic reformers and individual monastic contexts, which shaped the reformers’ approach at the local level; 2) that this original confrontation resulted in a long-term process which set up a second generation of reformers; and 3) that these reforms were cumulative in nature and evolved over time, and were not “flashpoint” events that just happened spontaneously or instantaneously. The seven Flemish monasteries examined (Saint-Bertin, Bergues-Saint-Winnoc, Marchiennes, Saint-Amand, Saint-Bavo, Saint-Peter, and Saint-Vaast), then, become examples of how this new approach towards medieval monastic reform scholarship can be applied.

            The term ‘social forgetting’ is used as the basis for discourse in Chapter 1, where the author documents eleventh-century reformist accounts of contemporary and near-contemporary historiography in medieval monasticism. Modern scholarship, then, because of this ‘social forgetting,’ has itself forgotten the incremental nature of monastic reform and how reformers worked with individual monasteries and their legacies. Chapters 2 and 3 are used by Vanderputten to document Flemish monastic development in the tenth and early eleventh centuries. Because current scholarship views these initial attempts at monastic reform as failures, later tenth-century reformist practices appear to be ‘flashpoint’ events when they are not. These inconsistencies in interpretation and misconceptions of historical reality, according to the author, have generalized the representation of medieval monastic reform into a discursive trap. Looking backwards from one reformist movement to the earlier one, and labelling the latter as a success and the earlier one a failure, is to ignore the contemporary evidence from the individual monasteries themselves.

Chapter 4 begins the examination of the evidence surrounding the seven Flemish monasteries during the monastic reforms of the early eleventh century, and how the first reformers respected the historical and economic realities of the institutions they reformed. Because of this foundational work and cumulative process, the real reforms to these monasteries was done by the successors of these reformers, in order to minimize the stress of political and cultural uniqueness for each monastery. This is contrary to current published scholarship on these reforms, which record these early attempts at reform as failures. Chapter 5 examines the historical reality of post-reform efforts, how they built on previous achievements, and centered around abbatial leadership. Examples of these efforts from the seven Flemish monasteries help to illustrate this cumulative reform effort as one that focused on minimizing political, cultural, and economic strain on both the monasteries and the regional authorities. Chapter 6 discusses a particular reformer: Leduin (d. 1047), abbot of Saint-Vaast and Marchiennes, his early efforts at reform, how his successors built on his reformist foundations, and how manuscript production and library management assisted in this process. Finally, Chapter 7 is a compilation and elucidation of all of the previous evidence, along with the author’s examination of the challenges faced by the reformed communities in the latter eleventh century. What the evidence shows is that the sustained, cumulative (and successful) reform process had difficulty sustaining itself against numerous changes in the political and religious landscape. Vanderputten argues that these later eleventh-century reformers were the trailblazers for the more extensive reforms of the Clunaic reformers of the early twelfth century, and I think that he argues this viewpoint quite successfully.

            Two appendices are included, which help to illustrate and chart some of the discussion within the text. Appendix A is an overview of the leadership of Benedictine monasteries in Flanders reformed in the tenth and early eleventh centuries between c. 900 and c. 1120. It includes a map and table listing the various Abbots at the seven Flemish monasteries during this time period. Appendix B is a booklist of the Abbey of Marchiennes c. 1025–1050. The author has been working on this particular topic since 2005, and he has received a number of fellowships and research awards to assist in the writing of this book. Much of the preliminary research for this book has appeared as previous articles and presentations; these are listed in the ‘Acknowledgements’ section. An extensive bibliography and index are also included, and there are occasional black-and-white manuscript reproductions situated within the text.

            I found the author’s presentation of his critiques and objectives quite clear. He has been working on this topic for well over a decade, and his writing style and methodology were sound. The arguments and explanations of why this study is needed, and why previous historical methods and scholarship in this area of study are flawed and need to be revised, were well presented in the ‘Introduction’. This book is geared towards higher-level undergraduate study, graduate study, and specialists in the field of monastic studies, medieval historical studies, and medieval monastic studies.