Christopher Brooke's The Age of the Cloister: The Story of Monastic Life in the Middle Ages (2003), a revised and updated version of his 1974 work The Monastic World, provides an interesting and informative introduction to monastic life in the central Middle Ages. As his title suggests, Brooke is particularly concerned to show "how the visible remains of medieval monasteries reflect the history, culture, way of life and religious sentiment of the period from 1000 to 1300" (1; cf. 292).
Yet Brooke begins his story of medieval monasticism not at the turn of the eleventh century, or even in the early ninth with the first appearance of the cloister (claustrum, in the medieval sense of a four-square covered walk as the center of the monastic complex) in the famous St. Gall plan. Rather, he begins at the beginning, with the scriptural foundations for the monastic life and their practical implementation, in both anchoritic and coenobitic form, in the early-fourth-century Egyptian desert. After touching on the noteworthy contributions of St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and John Cassian to the burgeoning monastic ideal, Brooke introduces the document that would become the principal charter of medieval monasticism, viz., the Rule of St. Benedict (c. 530). Beginning in the Carolingian Renaissance of the ninth century, Benedict's Rule was copied, recopied, and disseminated widely; this late-antique Rule, in conjunction with the customs promulgated at Aachen in 816/7 by Benedict of Aniane, archabbot of all the monasteries of Francia, constituted the foundation of monastic life in the Middle Ages (51-62). Indeed, Brooke notes that in the first half of the tenth century alone, the Rule of the first Benedict and the customs of the second found practical expression in monastic foundations as widespread as Cluny in Burgundy, Brogne and Gorze in Lorraine, and Glastonbury in England (62-64). Cluny and Gorze constituted the two major streams of traditional monastic influence that flowed from the tenth century into the eleventh and twelfth (64-69).
In Chapter 4, Brooke transitions from this macrolevel historical narrative to the microlevel of everyday life, work, and prayer in the medieval monastery. Here the reader finds ample evidence in support of a (if not the) central theme of The Age of the Cloister, stated thus in its Introduction: Medieval monastic life was "a life devoted to ritual - in worship, eating, reading, sleeping, bathing and shaving; and for this the four-square, ample cloister, ideally suited for ritual and procession from church to refectory, from refectory to dormitory, and so on, may seem well suited to its purpose" (7-8). Brooke explains, for example, that from shortly after midnight until late in the evening, the bell rang every two or three hours to summon the monks to communal worship according to the daily office (70).
Chapter 6 situates the developing monastic tradition squarely in the context of the vast sea changes that characterized western Europe in the central Middle Ages, including rapid population growth, the birth of cities, and the emergence of markets and large-scale commerce. In Chapter 7, Brooke treats the ways in which monasticism shaped and was shaped by the "twelfth-century renaissance," the artistic, literary, and cultural expression of this great epoch of change (126). He maintains that the twelfth-century renaissance "began as an ecclesiastical movement, with the improvement of clerical education and clerical learning at its core" (126). The monks' disciplined copying and reading of the ancient classics on the spiritual life (e.g., Benedict's Rule, Cassian's Collations, and especially Sacred Scripture) provided the occasion for reflection and ultimately controversy concerning what constituted the vita apostolica, out of which several new religious orders emerged.
In Part Two of his work, Brooke provides a helpful overview of these new twelfth-century orders: the Augustinian canons (Ch. 8), the Cistercians (Ch. 9), and the Knights (i.e., Templars and Hospitallers; Ch. 10). He concludes his story of the new forms of monastic life ("monastic" being understood quite broadly; cf. 134) with an illuminating consideration of women and female religious communities (Ch. 11), on the one hand, and the Premonstratensians and the friars in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (Ch. 12), on the other. In short, by virtue of the fact that the twelfth- and thirteenth-century monastic milieu was, according to Brooke, "a cauldron in which so many new flavors of religion were cooking," he finds it not at all surprising that there were "controversies both gentlemanly and bitter between the devotees of rival tastes" (219).
Having traced the history of monasticism from its earliest intimations in the New Testament to the numerous and variegated orders of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Brooke seeks, in Part Three of his work, to "fit . . . [this] narrative together with the visible remains of medieval monasteries" (235), specifically Fountains Abbey (Yorkshire), Mont Saint-Michel (on a hillock of rock at the convergence of Brittany and Normandy), and Sant' Ambrogio (Milan). Brooke's attempt to "sit amid the ruins" of these medieval monasteries and "read both the stones and the books" (243) proves powerfully successful, demonstrating how the site or basic plan of these complexes reveals the presuppositions, purposes, and perspectives of their religious communities and even the larger medieval culture. For example, Brooke explains how the complex at Mont Saint-Michel symbolically represents the spiritual hierarchy of medieval society, ascending from lay guests and pilgrims to knights to monks to their patron, St. Michael, and finally to God Himself (249).
Whereas The Age of the Cloister provides an interesting, informative, and accessible introduction to the varieties of monasticism during the central Middle Ages, the work is, by Brooke's own admission, "selective and incomplete" (292). The reader sees this selectivity most prominently in the author's untiring (and, at times, tiresome) penchant for discussing monastic communities in England and the British Isles, even remote and obscure ones like the Augustinian canons at Llanthony in the south of Wales (about which Brooke himself writes, "No house could have had a site more remote"; 160). Meanwhile, despite his emphasis on the crucial role of the twelfth-century renaissance (particularly, clerical reading and learning) and emerging cities (particularly in France) in the development and growth of new orders (see, e.g., 126-127, 152), Brooke's brief discussion of Augustinian canons in France (only a single paragraph on 158) fails to note the most important and influential community fitting his description and exemplifying his point, viz., the Augustinian canons at the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris. Indeed, neither the famous Parisian abbey nor its greatest teacher, Hugh, one of the most popular and influential masters of the twelfth-century renaissance, is mentioned anywhere in Brooke's book. In spite of such conspicuous omissions, however, The Age of the Cloister remains a work well worth reading.