Ulrich L. LEHNER. Enlightened Monks: The German Benedictines 1740–1803. Oxford University Press, 2011. pp. 266. $99.00 hc. ISBN: 978-0-19-959512-9.
Reviewed by Jonathan J. YEGGE, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, BE. St. Francis College, 180 Remsen St., Brooklyn, NY, 11201

Lehner’s masterful work of historiography is immediately acknowledged to be a narrowing of Derek Beale’s Prosperity and Plunder: European Catholic Monasteries in the Age of Revolution, 1650–1815 (2003). Accordingly this study focuses on German Benedictines encountering revolutionary ideas and putting them into practice in the early modern era. More specifically Lehner’s aim is to closely investigate the institutional, intellectual, philosophical, theological and social challenges that the monks faced in these changing times. Methodologically this is presented as a series of chapters that provide the context for these new ideas being put to use, interspersed with numerous specific examples of these novel practices.

Structurally the book is laid out in a series of ‘challenges’ to monastic life, namely challenges of historiography, a new lifestyle, new liberties, new modes of intellectual communication, new theories of law, new philosophies and new theologies. A two chapter interlude recounts the dual development of reforming the monastic dungeon prisons and the resulting reformed punishments for runaway monks. Where Lehner shines is in his extended case studies of specific monks in these interlude chapters, as well as in each of the other chapters. Unfortunate narratives unfold of disobedient priests punished in a manner so severe that it results in their eventual madness. Contrast this with the next chapter on runaway monks who are welcomed back into their communities with compassion and genuine humanity after their adventures into secular life, after the enlightened ideas were embraced by the monasteries.

The first section on changes in social and institutional life include quite hilarious accounts regarding the worldly and fashionable products such as coffee, tea, snuff, billiard and card playing entering monastic life. Lehner records accounts of tensions between the older and younger monks concerning these secular products. No less interesting are the loosening of the cloistered status of the monks who demanded to maintain extensive social engagements, to establish scholarly journals and to advance empirical scientific studies within the monasteries. The second section on monastic prisons and runaway monks is no less informative and darkly humorous.

The third section on novel theories of law, philosophy and theology each present very specific influential figures. Law was challenged by new theories of natural law, particularly that the monastery must serve the common good under the direction of the state. The loyalty of the monk is therefore no longer directed to the abbot but to the state sovereign. Philosophically Kant is a major influence, whilst empiricism becomes dominant in the monastic sciences. The fascinatingly radical theologian Jakob Danzer’s work is clearly influenced by Protestant theologians’ thorough demythologization of Christianity. The book ends with a lament that these Modernist and Vatican II presaging ideas were marginalized by a too abrupt secularization that was further exaggerated by the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars. What Lehner describes as a delicate moment in the development of the Church is convincingly presented as an untimely flowering within the German Benedictines that was trampled by politics and war.

Lehner’s work is exquisitely researched and an absolute delight to read if only for its hilarity, which is disarmingly refreshing in scholarly works. This book is perfect for graduate students specializing in either history or the history of theology. Very advanced theology or history undergraduates would also find this to be instructive for continuing on to pursue graduate research. As a primer on research methods alone this work is exemplary, a true guidebook for common and specialized citation methods.

Left unclear was the choice of the dates 1740–1803, as well as the lack of any attempted definition for this particular era. The final date of 1803 is eventually made clear in the conclusion. Apparently on 25 February 1803 the Imperial Committee in Regensberg laid the legal justification for seizing any religious properties. Plunder ensued. Another minor but significant issue is that the text is peppered with references to the Illuminati, Freemasons, Rosicrucians and other enlightened societies, yet there is no clear connection made between the Church and these secular enlighteners. Lehner is working on a forthcoming volume that clarifies these relationships. Any faults with Lehner’s work are difficult to find and perhaps lay in the scholarly weaknesses of the reader, or more precisely the reviewer.

As a model of contemporary historiography and engaging scholarship, Enlightened Monks is about as good as it gets.


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