James FRANCE. Separate but Equal: Cistercian Lay Brothers 1120 – 1350. Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2012. Cistercian Studies 246. xxviii + 372 pages. $39.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-87907-246-9. Reviewed by Robert P. RUSSO, Lourdes University, Sylvania, OH 43560
Historian James France has previously contributed volumes dedicated to Medieval Cistercian art, and the Cistercian Order in Scandinavia. His latest work is a fascinating, and non-partisan, look at the vast contributions (“both materially and spiritually,” xiv) made by the Cistercian conversi, or lay brotherhood. France’s thesis is a refutation of the misconception that disciplinary problems, attributed to the lay brothers, was the main cause of the near demise of the Order. He effectively argues “that the disciplinary problem was no greater among lay brothers than among monks and that the increase in the number of incidents in the course of the late twelfth and early thirteenth century points to a general crisis in the Order rather than to lay brother resentment and that therefore the decline is attributable to other causes, chiefly social and economic factors outside the control of the Cistercians” (xviii).
France has synthesized the extant documents (e.g. various Liber miraculorum and the Usus conversum) from Cistercian Orders in different countries (e.g. England, France, and Germany) to weave a fascinating narrative. He counters the claim that the lay brothers were an illiterate class of society by reminding the reader that “[i]t is important to bear in mind that there was no derogatory connotation attached to the idea of illiteracy in the Middle Ages as there is today: all books were in Latin, almost all of them of interest only to clerics, and there was no need for people to acquire the skill” (58).
Numerous legends of visions (e.g. of demons, and the Blessed Virgin) draw the reader into a deeper appreciation of the vast research involved in crafting this volume. In the chapter entitled “Assigned to Plows and Mattocks,” France relates the story of Henry, grange master of Himmerod in the Rhineland, who “successfully interceded on behalf of one of the Himmerod monks, and this led to the visions…of the Virgin and two female saints and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove at the profession of a novice” (145). This incident, one of many such accounts used by the author, serves to further illustrate that the conversi were much more than kept “farm workers.”