Gert MELVILLE. The World of Medieval Monasticism: Its History and Forms of Life. Translated by James D. Mixson. Foreword by Giles Constable. Cistercian Studies vol. 263. Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2016. Pp. xvii + 444. $44.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-87907-263-6. Reviewed by Patrick F. O’CONNELL, Gannon University, Erie, PA 16541.


The title of this book (Die Welt der Mittelalterlichen Klöster in the original German) is a bit of a misnomer, as it discusses in great detail not only monasticism proper but the entire spectrum of religious life in the West from before the sixth through the mid-fifteenth century, including regular canons, various forms of eremitical life, the mendicants, even lay movements such as the beguines, as well as monks and nuns. The focus throughout most of the book is predominantly institutional rather than theological or spiritual. Thus St. Bernard appears as the author of the Apologia, his polemical critique of Cluniac monasticism, and of the De Praecepto et Dispensatione, his discussion of the provisions of the Benedictine Rule (154), rather than of the great series of sermons on the Canticle or of his treatise De Diligendo Deo (though The Steps of Humility and Pride does receive passing notice). Likewise his friend and contemporary Guigo, prior of the Carthusians, is mentioned as the compiler of his order’s Consuetudines (106) but not as author of the collection of meditations that its modern editor has called “the most original work of the period.” Even the Testament of St. Francis, one of the great texts of the Christian spiritual life, is considered largely in the context of the question of its binding character on subsequent generations of Franciscans (217ff.). Perhaps the document that receives the most detailed attention in the entire volume is the Constitutiones of the Dominicans, described as “a masterpiece of rational legislation” (239) that exemplifies to a unique degree what  the author refers to as “system rationality”: “the functional alignment of all elements . . . to a single goal” with its “resulting weave of relationships” creating “a coherent, self-contained system – something that no other order had yet managed to achieve, at least to this degree, and something that rendered the organization of the Dominicans superior to every other order” (247).

Such an approach might be expected to result in a dry assemblage and analysis of historical data that would require a laborious effort on the part of its audience to persevere to its conclusion. And in fact, despite the fluid translation, it does not have the readability of, for example, Marilyn Dunn’s The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages (2000) or the compelling engagement with key texts found in William Harmless’ Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (2004). But its very comprehensiveness, its clarity of organization and integration of all the various dimensions of the development of medieval religious life not only chronologically but in their complex interactions, makes for a compelling narrative with its own virtues and attractions.

The major events of the history of medieval religious life are of course treated in detail: the seminal influence of Benedict and his Rule; the predominance of Cluny over the course of more than three centuries, the Cistercian return to a stricter and more balanced interpretation of the Rule of Benedict at the beginning of the twelfth century, and the rise of the mendicant movement with Francis and Dominic a little over a century later. But it is perhaps in the lesser known figures and the developments of religious life they inspired that the volume makes its most valuable contribution. The chapter on eleventh-century and early twelfth-century eremitical movements considers not only the better-known figures of Romuald and Bruno, founders of the Camaldolese and Carthusians, respectively, along with Peter Damian, but the wandering preachers Bernard of Tiron, Vitalis of Savigny, Robert of Arbrissel and Norbert of Xanten, each of whom followed a similar path from individual quest for salvation outside the current structures of religious life, to the spontaneous development of a collective religious movement of those attracted to the vision of the charismatic leader, to the regularization of the movement as an order within the overall structure of the institutional church (and in Norbert’s case to the Archbishopric of Magdeburg). The development of various groups of regular canons, clerical communities engaged in pastoral work, often associated with cathedral chapters, and based both on the example and the rule of St. Augustine, is presented not merely as a less radical alternative to monastic separation from the world but as a valid and valuable form of religious life in its own right. Here Norbert’s Premonstratensians play a particularly interesting role, an order of canons that in many ways takes on the pattern of regular life and of formal organization modeled on that of his close friend Bernard of Clairvaux’ Cistercians. A similarly diffuse and creative period follows the mendicant revolution of the early thirteenth century, when originally eremitical groups like the Carmelites and the Augustinian Hermits, the former through an interior evolution and the latter through active papal efforts to amalgamate various small bands of solitaries, become transformed into mendicant preaching orders. The author goes on to contest the impression that the later middle ages are simply a period of “overgrown stagnation” (266). A figure such as Peter of Morrone (d. 1296), famous, or infamous, as Celestine V, the only medieval pope to abdicate his office – Dante’s “grand refusal” – appears here as the founder and guide of an influential order of thirty-five eremitically oriented abbeys. Birgitta of Sweden (d 1373), famed for her revelations critiquing ecclesial abuses, is presented primarily as foundress of an order of double monasteries of monks and nuns approved by the Holy See after her death. The preaching of the charismatic Geert Groote (d. 1384) is shown to be the inspiration for the devotio moderna that gives rise both to the more informal association of the Brothers (and Sisters) of the Common Life and eventually to the Congregation of Windesheim, another influential order of canons. The final phase of the history details the various conflicts and reform efforts with which the established orders, Cistercians and Franciscans in particular, struggle to remain faithful to, or to recover, their founding vision in significantly different circumstances as the middle ages draw to their close in the mid-fifteenth century.

Though the presentation is impressively detailed, occasionally there are points that could be more precise, or more developed, or are even in need of revision. John Cassian is not, strictly speaking, the author of a rule (see 17, 32), though a so-called “Rule of Cassian” was later cobbled together from his authentic works. St. Oswald died in 992, not 972, and was not only Bishop of Worcester but subsequently Archbishop of York (54) (details that perhaps suggest less familiarity with English monastic developments than with those on the continent, particularly in Germany). The notoriously anti-eremitic St. Basil (“If you live alone, whose feet will you wash?”) is associated without further explanation with the tradition of anchoritic life in the Greek monasteries of southern Italy (see 89, 181). The description of Stephen of Muret (or Thiers) as an “uncompromising representative” of the eleventh-century eremitic movement who engaged in a “bold polemic” with established monasticism (99) suggests a tone quite different from the proto-Franciscan gentleness of much of Stephen’s Maxims. The great French Abbey of St. Victor, certainly the most significant single house of regular canons in terms of spiritual and theological achievement, is mentioned only in passing (132), with no attention given to the circumstances of its foundation by William of Champeaux, the Parisian master who withdrew from his teaching position after relentless attacks by his former student Peter Abelard – only to attract a circle of disciples in his solitary new home – a pattern that corresponds quite closely to that of many other founding figures Melville does discuss. Robert of Molesme, the founder of Cîteaux, had briefly withdrawn not to the hermitage of Aulps, begun by monks from Molesme in the Diocese of Geneva around 1090, but to the much closer settlement at Aures (Auch or Aux) (140). Thomas à Kempis is described as “achiev[ing] deep mystical contemplation” (280) – not a characteristic generally associated with the author of the devotional classic The Imitation of Christ. In presenting the various developments of women’s religious houses, mention is made of Jully and Tart, foundations of Molesme and Cîteaux, respectively (156), but not of the celebrated convent of Marsigny, established by Cluny, or of Las Huelgas, the royal foundation in Castile where the first general chapter of Cistercian abbesses took place in 1189, or of the convent of Helfta, spiritually but not juridically linked to the Cistercians, the home of the eminent mystics Gertrude the Great and Gertrude of Hackborn, Mechtilde of Hackborn and Mechtilde of Magdeburg.  

    The long concluding chapter (318-72), though titled “Fundamental Structures of the Vita Religiosa in the Middle Ages,” widens the perspective, emphasizing the “ways in which religious communities were something larger than their institutional framework” (317) – pointing out both the individual interiority of personal encounter with God, “grounded in the love of the heart” (318), and the transcendent, eschatological character of religious life that could not be fully embodied in intrinsically transitory structures and rules. Nevertheless, as Melville goes on to describe in a synthetic rather than the previous chronological framework, religious life, however much oriented to “renunciation of the external world” (319), was necessarily embedded in concrete social processes and forms that were inseparable from that world. He discusses the relations of the individual to the community (318-32); the role of law, of rule, custom and official decrees, in establishing and sustaining these connections (332-42); the importance of both a “normative text” and a recognized organizational system in establishing the basis for the ongoing vitality of a particular form of religious life (342-49); the development of a coherent foundational narrative as a source of identity and legitimacy (349-53); the monastery and its analogues as both an alternative to and paradoxically an integral dimension of prevalent medieval social arrangements (353-58); the consequent development of economic models and technical innovations that allowed religious orders to operate, at least at times, autonomously and self-sufficiently (359-64); and finally the crucial role of education, of intellectual as well as spiritual formation, for religious in the search for God both beyond and within the established order (364-72). Melville contends that while individual religious served as models for the wider society of a way of life directed toward service of and unity with God, religious communities also were exemplary in areas of “technology, medicine, agricultural exploitation, architecture, study, and writing,” that they regularly took the lead in geographical exploration as well as in “the rationality of planning, setting norms, division of labor, asset allocation, and economic efficiency,” that their “rational construction of social systems . . . opened the way to formation of statehood,” that “Indeed medieval religious communities were ‘laboratories of innovation’ that laid down essential foundations for modernity” (372). While these claims might strike some as perhaps rather grandiose, they are rooted in his detailed presentation of the impact of this profoundly “otherworldly” movement, or interrelated series of movements, on the environment in which they developed through almost a millennium of history, and provide a persuasive rationale for his largely structural and institutional approach to the history of religious life in the medieval West that is nonetheless non-reductive in its recognition of the primacy of the spiritual dimension for the individual religious themselves, for the communities they formed, and ultimately for medieval society at large. This is the basis for the narrative momentum that carries the reader along what might otherwise be a rather turgid succession of events, a dynamic investigation of what is too often considered a largely static period.

  A final note on sources: most of the extensive bibliography, not surprisingly, is German-language (an impressive portion of it written or edited by Melville himself), along with substantial citation of works in other continental European languages. A collaborative effort was undertaken by author and translator to incorporate additional English-language resources, but it is unclear how much these works contributed to the text itself, and there are notable lacunae: for example Bede Lackner’s richly detailed The Eleventh-Century Background of Cîteaux, which actually covers the Carolingian reforms of Benedict of Aniane and the rise and influence of Cluny as well as the century of unrest and reform that preceded the founding of the Cistercians in 1098, is not found in notes or bibliography. In at least one instance there is evidence of a rather hazy acquaintance with a cited English source, as a reference (17; see also 415) to the first volume of Thomas Merton’s monastic conferences, Cassian and the Fathers, identifies Merton not as author but as co-editor, along with the present reviewer (would that it were so!).