Jacques DALARUN, Robert of Arbrissel: Sex, Sin, and Salvation in the Middle Ages. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2006. pp. 188. $29.95 pb. ISBN 0-8132-1439-4.
Reviewed by Georgie Ann WEATHERBY, Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA 99258

In Robert of Arbrissel: Sex, Sin, and Salvation in the Middle Ages, Dalarun starts with an update to this twenty year old piece (regarded as an infant now entering adulthood). He speaks of saints who "never missed an opportunity to challenge the established order" (pg. vii). These were men and women who consistently and "deliberately turned their backs on worldly values" (pg. vii). The introduction depicts Robert as akin to a Rorschach blot, "an intricate silhouette in which different observers might see any number of figures" (pg. xxix). It goes on to speak of one figure even looking different at different times. Two "Lives" (narratives) and two letters bear witness to his existence (pg. 3), hence a rich, complex life story is untangled, and we are the ones who benefit from this undertaking. Two themes emerge: conflict and contradiction (pg. 6).

One learns that in medieval times, a saint's death is their true birth—after earthly exile finally ends. In the 11th century, monks were held to a vow of chastity, but parish clergy were not. Robert's father was a priest. He replaced him upon his death, and married. It was common at this time for priests to leave their churches to their sons and daughters by "hereditary right" (pg. 12). Robert later learned that he was surrounded by sin—from his conception to his marriage to the very depths of his being. He punished himself for years as a result—spending two years in an iron tunic as just one example of the trauma he imposed upon himself—in true Catholic spirit, never allowing anyone but God to know of his sacrifice.

In the sections that follow, much is conjecture about Robert of Arbrissel, and other writings center on various figures of his time, loosely constructed around what was probable in his life. The state of being a hermit is explored, along with the fasting that often accompanies these lengthy periods of absence from the grind of daily life. Descriptions of masochistic torture follow, which would appear brutal to even the least faint-of-heart. But what is concluded is a debunking of this lifestyle as not much below peasantry. Admittedly austere, it is heralded as nothing more.

Hermits are depicted as magical in power—with people seeking them out just for their healing touch. Robert was especially terrifying in his preaching, eloquent, but damning of all sinners. Many converted as a result of witnessing this powerful testimony. He preferred the solitude of the desert, but Robert, encumbered by success, "had a duty to those who saw their salvation in him" (pg. 34).

Robert embraced the "freedom" to roam, so he could preach far and wide. He also embraced "imitation," which he performed in the name of Christ. What is in least dispute, though, is his appreciation for women. He surrounds himself with them, day and night (living among them intimately, speaking with them privately, failing to blush while sleeping among them at night pg. 62). Whether he ever succumbs to temptation is unclear. Great ladies of aristocracy and fallen women alike were all drawn to Robert of Arbrissel. When each female is analyzed with lingering questions as to her status—refined or harlot—it is undetermined as to where she stands, aside from the fact that she takes refuge with Robert of Arbrissel. Those complaining most were the nobility, whom he deliberately involved in everyday routines. "Their pride suffered" (pg. 74).

In Robert's time, women did not have the right to enter the church in many places. "The penalty was simple and radical: death" (pg. 115). Robert disagreed with this rule, and was known to accompany women into places of worship. He demolished the idea of "femininity" as "evil female essence" (pg. 117). Women had been portrayed as temptresses and Eves, thus enemies, all-too-long. He painted them instead as the "infinite, fluid, living composite of Magdalene" (pg. 118). Not considered a feminist himself (though it is not clear as to why this is the case), Robert still elevated women to a status of acceptance and, in his beloved Fontevraud, they were placed in charge (monks were subject to their orders). These women were the brides of Christ. He chose the Martha image (the "busy" one in scriptures) to manage his ongoing worldly affairs (pg. 123), leaving Mary to oversee the heavens. Petronilla of Chemille is his "Martha," designated to carry on his good works after his demise. She declined at first (which is expected ritual), then finally accepted.

Robert wished to be buried in the cemetery at Fontevraud among the commoners in his flock who died there. He worried, though, that those who considered his body a holy relic would steal it along the way, by whatever means necessary. To all of his followers, he instructed them to serve and obey (and the men were to obey the women, "the handmaids of Jesus Christ" pg. 151). Those of Orsan (where Robert actually died) broke in and captured the body... because Robert died there, he was seen as theirs, the one who "would intercede for them in paradise" (pg. 154). Though he was never canonized (he reached the status of "blessed"), they treated him like a saint, and valued his power in the beyond as such. Petronilla, with the strength of a true warrior princess, won the ultimate battle to have Robert honored with a proper funeral and buried at Fontevraud. However, "Robert's heart (literally) was left to the priory in Berry" (pg. 157).

The assumptions are many and the details are sketchy in the final analysis of Dalarun's Robert of Arbrissel. But in the midst of it all, the humility of a hermit called out of the desert to preach the word of God (which, in turn, empowered women at all levels) rings true.


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