Monastic Reform in the 12th Century

Kevin Lord on Alison Beach

The Trauma of Monastic Reform
Allison Beach. The Trauma of Monastic Reform: Community and Conflict in Twelfth Century Germany. Cambridge University Press, 2017. $99 (hardback)
The late eleventh and early twelfth centuries in the Holy Roman Empire were a period of dynamism and turbulence. The titular leaders of Latin Christendom, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, spent much of the period struggling for supremacy in the Empire and, by extension, over Christendom itself. The resultant chaos, discord, and violence in central Europe was such that Karl Leyser saw fit to dub this period the “Crisis of Medieval Germany.” At the moment when kingdoms in Iberia, France, and Britain began to exhibit increasing institutional and administrative stability and coherence under their rulers, the territories of the Holy Roman Empire witnessed repeated waves of disorder and turbulence sweeping forth from the explosive rift between emperor and pope at the end of the eleventh century. Local lords aggrandized themselves, often violently, at the expense of existing power arrangements in the Empire.

Part-and-parcel of these troubled times were energetic preachers, bishops, popes, and others who worked to reform the Latin Christian church and its constituent parts, striving to insulate the church against the sinfulness of the world through efforts to abolish priestly marriage; end the practice of the buying and selling church offices ­– whether overtly or implicitly – known as simony; and inoculate the clergy from the polluting influence of lay politics. Alongside these broad reform goals, which sought to impose something of monastic rigor upon the church as a whole, came attempts to reinvigorate or reform Christian cenobitic life itself, which some reformers saw as having strayed away from religious discipline and into profane laxity.

Charismatic founders spearheaded the foundation of the Cistercian, Praemonstratensian, and Carthusian religious orders in quick succession at the end of the eleventh and beginning of the twelfth century. These new orders quickly began to transform the cenobitic religious landscape that the traditional monasteries had so long dominated. For their part, traditional monasteries – perhaps most prominently among them the great monastic houses of Cluny in Burgundy and Hirsau in the Black Forest – were not quiescent on their own behalf. They likewise pursued reforms aimed at ending the perceived laxity of monastic discipline and restoring the rigor of traditional monastic practice as the founder of the western Benedictine tradition, Benedict of Nursia († 547), had described it centuries before. This was all part of a process that reformers undertook in order to, in the classic formulation of Giles Constable in his Reformation of the Twelfth Century, “monasticize first the clergy, by imposing on them a standard of life previously reserved for monks, and then the entire world.” Indeed, regardless of their variances, a common thread uniting monastic reformers was the belief of each that their modes of reformed monastic life offered the best and purest return to the ideals of the early church and the first apostolic community.

Rather than addressing the topic of monastic reform from the usual perspective of the reformers, who have often thereby acquired an aura of sanctified heroism because of their commitment to revitalizing or reinterpreting spiritual and disciplinary practices, Alison I. Beach invites readers of her book, The Trauma of Monastic Reform: Community and Conflict in Twelfth Century Germany, to consider those monks considered in need of reform. To frame her study, Beach draws upon recent work suggesting that medieval monastic reform was a process – often lengthy and on-going – and combines this insight with social scientific theories concerning trauma to suggest that monastic reform could have long-lasting and traumatic effects upon those selected for improvement. The center of her investigation is the monastery of Petershausen, located on the north bank of the mouth of the Rhine River as it flows out of Lake Constance in what is now the far southern edge of Baden-Württemberg in Germany.

Beach begins her study with a helpful orientation to the landscape of the Lake Constance region; the city and bishopric of Constance and its important bishops; and the monastery of Peterhausen itself, founded in 983 by Bishop of Constance Gebhard II as part of the bishops’ plans to mirror the spiritual geography of Rome, the center of the western church. Gebhard’s predecessors had already provided churches that intentionally reflected Roman counterparts: St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, St. Paul, and St. Lawrence. Now Gebhard completed the spiritual landscape by creating and endowing his new Benedictine monastery north of Constance in reflection of St. Peter’s in Rome, deliberately choosing a location north of the river – and on the other side of the river from Constance itself – in reflection of St. Peter’s position on the north bank of the Tiber in Rome. Gebhard would himself be buried in Petershausen and subsequently venerated there as holy patron and protector of the monastery and its monks.

The community needed protection, for the confrontation between Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII over the issue of the lay investiture of imperial bishops in the 1070s led to generations of political instability and violence in the Empire. This confrontation, itself the result of the papacy’s capture by monastic reformers who sought to purify the church through the exclusion of worldly influences, in turn generated and spurred on monastic reform movements such as the influential one associated with the monastery of Hirsau in the Black Forest. Beach explains that the process of reform at Petershausen began when Bishop Gebhard III (1084-1110) visited the monastery and discovered that, at least as far as he was concerned, its spiritual life verged on moribund. The bishop, who had himself been a monk at Hirsau prior to his election, asked the abbot there to send a group of Hirsau monks to revitalize Petershausen. Under the thirty-year abbacy of Theodoric, who became abbot upon his arrival from Hirsau in 1086, Petershausen thrived, engaging in a thorough-going renovation and expansion of the monastery fueled in part by increased donations from patrons whom the reformers had impressed.

Theodoric’s abbacy was a golden age according to the anonymous monk who authored the chronicle at the core of Beach’s book. Over decades stretching into the mid-twelfth century, this monk recorded the history of the monastery. His account of the reform process at Petershausen affords Beach rich material for analysis and she takes full advantage as she links the chronicler’s account with the broader religious reforms and political transformations occurring elsewhere in the region.

Beach’s central contention is that monastic reform was not necessarily an unmitigated positive and that those considered “unreformed” could – and indeed, often did – experience the process of reformation as a traumatic one. At Petershausen, in a scene widely repeated elsewhere, reform threatened long cherished customs, rituals, and traditions that lost out to the practices introduced from Hirsau. The rhythms of daily life, the liturgy, and even the power hierarchy of the monastery itself experienced a tectonic shift that resulted in what Beach, drawing on sociology, terms “cultural trauma,” a case when “affirmed values and norms are threatened, patterns and rules disrupted, and the accepted ideals and beliefs of the target culture are challenged, damaged or even destroyed.”

The anxiety within Petershausen is suggested by the fact that more than half of the monks, including the old abbot, fled the monastery before the arrival of the reformers from Hirsau, seeking refuge at the nearby imperial monastery of Reichenau or becoming secular clergy. Those who remained found themselves subjected to the rigorous lifestyle of Hirsau reformers as recorded in their customary, the Constitutiones Hirsaugienses, which replaced their own written and oral customs with prescriptive rules on topics ranging from the performance of the liturgy and the governance of the monastery to how monks ought to bathe and shave. These were not the only changes that the reformers brought with them, however. For alongside the novel regulations for the monks, the Hirsau reformers introduced new members to the monastic community who were not themselves monks and whose very presence threatened the monks’ efforts to seclude themselves from the sinfulness of a dangerous world.

One of these new groups was known as the fratres barbati (bearded brothers), fratres exteriores (outer or external brothers), or conversi (the converted). They were an innovation of the Hirsau reformers: lay brothers – typically drawn from the regional nobility – who lived a religious life without, however, taking vows and becoming full monks. These lay brothers were partially inspired by the monastic reformers’ notion that the imitation of Jesus’s apostles could serve as a means of salvation, and attracted to the models of apostolic purity proclaimed by reforming monasteries. The particular enthusiasm for becoming a lay brother at this time, however, also stemmed from the chaos and warfare that descended on Swabia (largely, but not wholly geographically synonymous with modern-day Baden-Württemberg) and the Empire at large as the papal-imperial conflict escalated.  Escaping violence and chaos in favor of a spiritual path had a certain appeal.

The barbati, therefore, spread swiftly, with lay brothers significantly outnumbering actual monks at reforming monasteries; at Petershausen, forty avowed monks lived alongside fifty barbati brethren by Abbot Theodoric’s death in 1116. There was no hiding, however, the reality that the lay brothers formed a kind of second-class monk. At Petershausen, the lay brothers lived apart from the monks and prayed separately as well, with a simplified version of the liturgy. They served as laborers, herding livestock, working in the kitchen, or engaging in other jobs that the chronicler Bernold of Constance (c. 1054-1100) referred to with approval as “the more contemptible offices.”

In the vision of Abbot William of Hirsau, the originator of the Hirsau reform, lay brothers could take on the menial and worldly tasks associated with running the monastery while the monks could further devote themselves to prayer and the liturgy. In practice, however, the barbati proved to be a complicated presence in the monastic landscape – disobedient, rebellious, and violent. At the Saxon monastery of Bosau, a lay brother violently stabbed to death the bishop who rebuked him for his refusal to obey the monastic rule. In 1122, lay brothers at Petershausen beat the cellarer almost to death after he spoke harshly to them. That these barbati would escape expulsion because of the intercession of Countess Bertha of Bregenz, an important lay patron of the monastery, hints at the threat that these figures could pose to the stability of the community. These lay brothers swore no vows and thus retained their properties in the world, managing them for their families or for their monastic communities. They were free to leave the community if they chose and even when they gave the proceeds of their lands to the monastery, they often took on the troublesome simultaneous status of lay brother, subject to the monastery’s discipline, and that of patron, in control of their lands. Although these lay brothers were inferior in the hierarchy of the monastery, they were often not only the social equals of the monks, but also men who came of age in a world marked by the exercise of violence and coercion. Seeking escape from the turbulence beyond the monastery, the barbati could also bring turmoil and complications from outside with them into the cloister. Far from insulating the monks from the external affairs of the world, the barbati often rendered the boundaries between monastery and world porous and made monasteries occasional sites for the violence sweeping the Empire.

Women were the other significant group that sparked anxieties for the monks of Petershausen. With the Hirsau movement came not only the barbati, so too did their arrival entail the presence of but also religiously-inclined women seeking reform communities. These women were not necessarily nuns; as Beach notes, texts refer to women associated with the Hirsau reforms using a variety of Latinate terms, including matrona (matron or noble woman), conversa (convert), soror (sister), sanctimonialis (religious person or nun), and inclusa (enclosed). The sources that discuss these women are imprecise or ambiguous about the nature of their profession and relationship to the monastery, reflecting the experimental quality of the early Hirsau reforms. In this period, lay women could embrace quasi-religious modes of life at home or on the margins of the monastic community, and only later became incorporated into formal groupings of religious or semi-religious women.

While the Petershausen chronicler stressed the purity of men and women living in a dual-sex community, he could not conceal the existence of complaints and suspicions about the practice. The “proximity anxiety” that monks harbored for women is reflected in sources of the time as well as archaeological remnants, which provide material proof for monastic accounts of religious women enclosed behind elaborately locked doors rarely opened to the outside world or even to the male part of the monastery. The Petershausen chronicler praised the presence of religious women at Petershausen in what Beach terms a “positive, even apostolic, light.” Women nevertheless remained both physically and spiritually relegated to the margins of the monastic community. They were segregated from the monks, who labeled them with terms like “exceedingly religious woman.” Monks feared the prospect and consequences of contact with women so much that this separation even extended to the celebration of the Mass and Divine Office.

If women and the barbati served as sources of internal anxiety for the monks, the vagaries of lay aristocratic support also proved to be a wellspring of distress. Until the twelfth century, the Counts of Bregenz were important dynastic supporters of Petershausen. Their patronage in the form of donations and secular protection formed part of the support network that enabled Petershausen, like any other monastery, to survive. In return, the monks and nuns engaged in prayer cycles for their patrons’ families and served as repositories for noble sons and daughters and places of burial for their dead, and granted patrons a spot in the “imagined community” of the monastery. Count Ulrich X of Bregenz altered this relationship with Petershausen, however, when he requested of Abbot Theodoric that the community support the foundation of a new monastery nearer to the counts themselves. Petershausen was on the far western end of Lake Constance, while the Bregenzer counts lived on its eastern shores, a full day’s journey away. Therefore, Theodoric agreed to the plan under the condition that the new monastery remain under the management of Petershausen. By the end of the 1120s, however, relations between Count Rudolf of Bregenz and Petershausen’s episcopal overlord, Bishop Ulrich II, deteriorated to the point of warfare and the bishop was forced to flee to St. Blasien in the Black Forest, leaving Petershausen and the rest of the bishop’s see at the mercy of the count.

The new Bregenzer monastery, known as Mehrerau, escaped from the jurisdiction of its motherhouse in 1136 when Count Rudolf arranged for the monastery’s liberation from Petershausen and placed it under direct papal protection. In practical terms, this change left the count with decisive influence over daily monastic affairs, as the distant pope could not intervene quickly on behalf of the community. The Bregenzer counts now favored Mehrerau, for this new, closer monastery was de facto under their authority unlike Petershausen, which was still ultimately subject to the Bishop of Constance. Mehrerau became the new site for the Bregenzer counts’ patronage and monastic memorialization. Not only had Petershausen lost control of a monastery into which they had invested considerable time and resources, they had also lost their most important lay supporters, which left them exposed: “both economically and physically vulnerable within a violent landscape.”

On the one hand, the Petershausen chronicler offers an unequivocally positive narrative of reform. He praised the success of the Hirsau reform at Petershausen, credited it with rescuing the monastery from moribundity, and reported that the monastery’s founder, Gebhard II, had performed many miracles and appeared in visions designed to signal his approval of the reform. Nevertheless, Beach identifies a “narrative of the trauma of reform” in the chronicle as well. The death of Abbot Theodoric in 1116 led to a series of serious problems. In addition to the violence found both outside and within the monastery, incompetent financial management threatened to ruin the monastery. The Petershausen chronicler reports that abbots had to sell off precious gold and silver from objects that the monastery’s founder had donated, while greedy monks engaged in covert theft. The end result, according to the chronicler, was that the founder Gebhard II revoked the protection that his saintly body had provided the monastery and allowed the community to experience destruction in 1159. A cataclysmic fire destroyed most of the monastery’s buildings, forcing the monks to attempt to rebuild in the wake of this powerful expression of saintly dissatisfaction with the monastic community’s inept or corrupt membership.

In this concise book of six chapters, a prologue, epilogue, postscript, and two appendices, Alison Beach provides an exceptional history of the “shock to the cultural tissue” of the monastery that reform wrought at Petershausen, along with its ambivalent results in an age and landscape marred by political chaos and violence. For medievalists in the English-speaking world, Beach offers up a study showcasing the benefits of microhistorical or Landesgeschichte (regional history) approaches to medieval monastic history. Her physical understanding of Petershausen and its surroundings enriches and enlivens her skillful and sensitive reading of the sources, giving the Petershausen chronicle a rich sense of time and place that is not always at hand in such studies. Her decision to move the technical discussion of the Heidelberg manuscript containing the original Petershausen chronicle to the first appendix bears fruit in the main body of the text, which manages splendid clarity and evocativeness throughout. This book is extremely well-written, vivid, clear– a valuable resource for specialists, historians and anyone seeking to learn more about religious, medieval history.

Kevin Lucas Lord is a historian of the religious, cultural, and intellectual history of the European Middle Ages. His current research is focused on the last in a series of conflicts between the medieval Holy Roman Emperor and the papacy. Originally from Denver, Colorado, he holds degrees from Yale University (Ph.D.), the University of Colorado (M.A. & B.A.), and the Community College of Aurora (A.A.).