Jean TRUAX. Aelred the Peacemaker: The Public Life of a Cistercian Abbot. Cistercian Studies vol. 251. Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2017. Pp. xiv + 325. $34.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-87907-251-3. Reviewed by Patrick F. O’CONNELL, Gannon University, Erie, PA 16541.


Abbot Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167), the most prominent and significant of the early English Cistercians, is traditionally known as “the Bernard of the North,” due to his attractive and insightful spiritual writings such as The Mirror of Charity, commissioned by St. Bernard himself, and his celebrated dialogue On Spiritual Friendship, a medieval Christian re-visioning of Cicero’s De Amicitia. A major difference between the two figures, however, is the powerful influence exercised by the Abbot of Clairvaux on the social, ecclesiastical, political and even military issues of his age that made him the dominant figure in continental European affairs for much of the mid-twelfth century, in contrast to the apparently much more restricted sphere in which Aelred operated, during a period of intense political upheaval in England following the death of King Henry I in 1135. The present volume is the first extended attempt to modify this perception by examining Aelred’s “public life” – understood in a broad sense. It is thorough, meticulously researched, largely plausible, but unavoidably highly speculative and dependent on scanty and often ambiguous evidence, as the author herself repeatedly acknowledges.

Study of Aelred’s role in the major religious, social and political events of his day is particularly handicapped by the loss of what had apparently been a significant corpus of correspondence that had been collected and circulated after his death but was subsequently lost (cf. 2, 8), characterized by his disciple and biographer Walter Daniel as “most lucid in sense and distinguished in style” (58), without his providing much further elaboration as to content. Likewise, though his brief mention of Aelred’s role as peacemaker between King Malcolm of Scotland and Fergus of Galloway provides the title for this book, Walter’s Life of Aelred focuses almost exclusively on his abbot’s personal spiritual life and his role as monastic leader, author and spiritual director. Yet Aelred had grown up in the court of King David I of Scotland and served as steward of the royal household before entering the newly established Yorkshire monastery of Rievaulx in 1134, so he had extensive early awareness of the governing class at the highest levels. Moreover his composition of historical works, highly unusual for a Cistercian, certainly suggests a strong interest and concern for the political situation in greater Britain. They include texts on influential figures known to him personally, including King David and Walter Espec, founder and principal patron of Rievaulx, who fought one another on opposite sides of the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda, daughter and designated successor of Henry I, that would eventually lead to the Treaty of Winchester in 1153 ending the war and bringing Matilda’s son Henry Plantagenet to the throne (which would of course have as one consequence the dispute with Archbishop Thomas Becket, the early stages of which Aelred observed and may have been drawn into to some extent). Nevertheless, the evidence of interest and involvement on Aelred’s part in these wider currents of public affairs is almost completely indirect and circumstantial, intriguing but generally inconclusive.

The first three of the book’s ten chapters provide background material of various sorts. The Introduction (1-13) points to Aelred’s “three lives” as author, monastic administrator and “political operative” (1) and indicates the author’s interest in “redress[ing] the balance” (3) through a focus on the last of these roles, as well as in putting the historical writings in context and considering the mystery of Aelred’s reputation, apparently under some sort of cloud at the time of his death. The following chapter (14-33) looks at Bernard’s public life as a precedent for Cistercian leadership in the wider social and political spheres of the time, with particular attention to his involvement with other religious orders, with episcopal elections and the papal schism of 1130, with court politics in France and beyond, and with the preaching of the Second Crusade. Chapter 3 (34-63) then turns to Aelred’s early life as son of the hereditary priest at Hexham in Northumberland, his residence at the Scottish court from the age of fourteen through twenty-four, and his early years as a Cistercian at Rievaulx. The tentative nature of the evidence for any involvement in public affairs at this stage is repeatedly indicated by the author, who notes that he “must have been keenly interested” (46) in the question of the relation of the Scottish bishops with the Archbishop of York; that “perhaps Aelred even had a small role to play in the ecclesiastical politics of the day” (47) that accounts for his being sent by King David to Archbishop Thurston; that he “may have been more than a bystander” at some of the “tumultuous events” (51) of the civil war in the north. The one event in which Aelred “played at least a small part” (56) was the disputed episcopal election at York, traveling to Rome in 1142 as part of a delegation opposing appointment of William fitz Herbert, though his exact role is unclear and Truax notes that after his return to Rievaulx, “There is no evidence that Aelred played a further role in the York election dispute, but it is likely that he continued to follow the events, at least at a distance” (58). The author summarizes this period by noting: “As a young monk, Aelred had little direct involvement in the stirring events of the mid-twelfth century beyond a possible appearance at the surrender of Wark castle in 1138 and a brief role in the beginning stages of the York election dispute. Nevertheless, these occasions set his feet on the path of increased public responsibility” (62).

The two following chapters investigate Aelred’s involvement in matters that might be considered more a part of his second role as monastic administrator than of his third as public figure. Chapter 4 (64-95) considers his relationships with various patrons and benefactors of Rievaulx itself, as well as his contacts with important church figures at Hexham and Durham, his witnessing of charters for archbishops of York, and his contacts with Savigniac monastic houses both before and after their incorporation into the Cistercian Order in 1147. But again the documentary evidence is somewhat spotty: Truax mentions that Aelred “may also have involved himself in another controversy” (88) involving the foundation of the Abbey of Jervaulx and that his “early assistance to Byland and Jervaulx seems to have endeared him to the Savigniacs” (89). Likewise she notes that “there is no way to know” (92) whether Aelred had contributed material that eventually found its way into the Peterborough Chronicle, where he is mentioned several times. In chapter 5 (96-129) the author considers Aelred’s contacts with women religious, contending that the usual assumption that he had relatively little interest and involvement with women in general and nuns in particular is belied by a careful reading of many of his works. She concludes that “For a man supposedly ignorant of and uninterested in women, an amazing number of them appear” in his writings, that he liked to use women “as praiseworthy examples” and resisted the contemporary tendency to regard women as temptresses, and that while “[w]e do not know if Aelred ever had a close female friend, . . . his portrayal of women in his writings and his acknowledgment of the possibility of such relationships in Spiritual Friendship suggest that he remained open to the possibility” (129).              

The final five chapters turn to what would generally be considered more “public” matters, beginning with the concluding phase of the Anglo-Norman Civil War (130-48). Truax notes that “it is possible that Aelred had a small part to play” (134) following the Battle of the Standard between the invading Scots and supporters of King Stephen, especially Walter Espec, in August 1138, as he may have accompanied his abbot to the parley arranging for the surrender of Walter’s castle after the battle, but the major focus of the chapter is on the three historical works written around the time of the Treaty of Winchester ending the war in 1153. The author admits that Aelred “never explicitly states that he wrote any of these works to influence current events,” but presents a strong case that “it is very likely that Aelred had the political situation on his mind during these critical years” (138) and “that they have something to say about the times in which they were written” (131). Thus his Lament for King David and Battle of the Standard look at the combatants in the northern theater of the war with an emphasis on the need for peace and reconciliation, apparently aimed particularly at the now accepted heir to the throne, and that the Genealogy of the Kings of the English is intended to provide models for Henry from among his illustrious English royal ancestors, as well as providing justification for the new king’s rule. The next chapter (149-71) provides the most concrete evidence for Aelred’s actual involvement in a political matter, as the abbot is presented by his biographer as mediating a quarrel between Fergus, ruler of the province of Galloway in southwest Scotland, and his rebellious sons, and he evidently was influential in bringing about the eventual end to rivalry between Fergus and King Malcolm of Scotland, resulting in Fergus entering the monastery of Holyrood. Still, according to Truax, “it must be admitted that much speculation and a great deal of reading between the lines has been necessary to build this case for Aelred’s sustained political activity in the northern realm” (171).          

The title of chapter 8, “Trusted Counselor: Aelred of Rievaulx and King Henry II” (172-93), seems to go significantly beyond what Truax calls the “[f]ragmentary evidence” actually available that “suggests that Aelred attempted to advise Henry II on several of the controversies of the day” (174), including the papal schism of the early 1160s and the conflict between the bishop of Lincoln and the abbot of the monastery of St. Alban, basically ecclesial issues. She reiterates that “evidence suggests” Aelred was a supporter of the king and “attempted to establish himself as an occasional royal adviser, within the bounds prescribed by his monastic vocation” (179), a considerably more modest claim than that made in the chapter title, and one based largely on his 1163 Life of Edward the Confessor, commissioned by the abbot of Westminster to mark the translation of the saintly king’s relics to the abbey, seen as providing a model for the new king in the old, along with the sermon that Aelred may have preached in person on the occasion, with its explicit parallels of Edward with Moses, and implicit parallels with Henry II, as peacemaker and legislator. Truax sees the sermon as aligning Aelred with the king in the early stages of his controversy with Archbishop Becket, though she goes on to say that with regard to the actual confrontation between the two powerful figures, “there is no evidence to suggest that Aelred played a role in these developments, but at least he would have watched from the sidelines” (193). The following chapter (194-222) takes a further look at this struggle, recognizing that “If Aelred made any attempt to mediate the conflict, spoke out in favor of one side or the other, or even left a record of his opinion in the case, this information has been lost to history. Historians can only speculate and try to reconstruct Aelred’s likely opinion through indirect evidence” (194). Aelred’s friendships with a number of pro-royalist figures “strongly suggest,” according to Truax, “that Aelred would have favored the royal cause, but what, if any, practical effect this preference had remains undocumented” (195); also, an undated letter written to Becket from Rievaulx, largely “vague and meandering, offering little concrete information about the author or his sympathies” (203) but apparently critical of what is seen as Becket’s arrogance, has sometimes been attributed to Aelred, but the evidence of the actual text strongly indicates that it was written by Maurice, himself briefly abbot of Rievaulx preceding Aelred. “As for Aelred himself,” Truax concludes, “he was coming to the end of his life by the time the Becket affair erupted, and there is no direct evidence of his participation in the matter” (221), though the author refers to “bits of evidence” that “point to his probable opinion” favoring the king rather than the archbishop, unlike many of his Cistercian confreres on the continent, who offered Becket both support and sanctuary; of course Aelred had been dead for almost four years when the final act of the tragedy occurred on December 29, 1170 before the high altar of the Canterbury Cathedral, so there is no way of telling what his final verdict on the conflict would have been. In the concluding chapter (223-35), Truax summarizes the material set out in the preceding chapters but also suggests that Aelred’s putative opposition to Becket may have been the precipitating cause of possible disfavor within the Order at the time of his death, but she admits that this, like Aelred’s opinion itself, “remains a matter of conjecture” (235). In her judgment, “In any case, it cannot obscure Aelred’s outstanding career as spiritual writer, historian, monastic administrator, builder, mediator, and royal counselor” (235), though despite her best efforts his endeavors in the first four of these roles remains considerably better attested than in the last two.  

Increased interest in Aelred in the mid-twentieth century spurred research that resulted in the discovery and identification of manuscripts of “lost” writings, including his late, unfinished treatise De Anima as well as numerous sermons. It is not impossible, though quite unlikely, that a copy of the collection of Aelred’s letters might one day come to light as well, in which case knowledge of the details and circumstances of Aelred’s “public life” would almost certainly become much more extensive and precise. Barring such a momentous find, Jean Truax’s thorough investigation and plausible reconstruction as set out in Aelred the Peacemaker will no doubt long remain the definitive treatment of this fascinating yet frustrating dimension of Aelred’s life and work.