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The Age of the Cloister: The Story of Monastic Life in the Middle Ages Paperback – November 1, 2002
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A learned, comprehensive, and readable text covering all aspects of monastic life in the central Middle Ages. -- Giles Constable, Professor Em., Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
All those interested in monastic history will be well instructed by The Age of the Cloister. -- John R. Sommerfeldt, Professor of History, University of Dallas
It tells the fascinating story of those who fled the world while remaining so constructively engaged with it. -- Louis Dupre, T. Lawrason Riggs Professor Emeritus, Yale University
This beautiful book reads like a historical commentary on Wim Swaan's magnificent photographs of medieval monasteries. --Louis Dupré , Yale University
About the Author
Christopher Brooke, the former Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge University and a life fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, is a leading scholar of medieval history. A fellow of the British Academy and corresponding fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, he has written and edited numerous books.
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1. A Christian
2. Interested in medieval history
3. Interested in Christian Church history
4. Interested in history
5. Interested in the birth of Christian monasticism
6. Interested in monasticism
And that isn't an exhaustive list. Just a wonderful book that seems to this layman to have been written with a combination of frankness, succinctness, and flat out brilliantness that you only get from a long time expert in the field. Highly recommended. Not a 5 due to minor issues that I can't remember right now.
Chapters move efficiently; Brooke chronologically describes the origins in the Middle East briefly before examining Benedict's Rule; Cluniac and related expansion; the daily routine (about 2 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.); eremetical movements such as Carthusians and Camaldolese, secular relations with growing political and mercantile forces 900-1050; and the twelfth-century renaissance of nascent humanism. Part Two looks at new orders: Augustinian canons, Cistercians, military hybrids, abbesses and priories, and birth of the Norbertines and the Franciscan friars.
Part Three takes you to three exemplary abbeys: Fountains in Yorkshire in a remote beauty spot attests to the massive changes wrought on the environment and economy by Cistercians who built austere yet sprawling foundations all over Europe that today witness to their determination and organization. Brooke reminds us that in many rural areas where the White Monks entered, laborers likely lacked steady work outside harvest time, so the strain on resources supposed by critics of medieval monasticism may in fact have provided needed commerce and employment; he admits this topic (as of '74) needs study. Brooke provides endnotes and a bibliography that show the reader where to find out more than a necessarily rather short text within pages given rightly over to sumptuous or severe depictions of medieval art and architecture at their best.
Mont Saint-Michel, memorably explored by Henry Adams, for Brooke shows the collision, literally, of a monastery not isolated from a town that crowded around it on the Norman sandbar coast. Awkwardly, it tries to "keep one's hands within reach of earth and heaven at once" while perched on a rock and stranded by the English Channel's tide today. Sant' Ambrogio in Milan reaches back to monastic roots with Ambrose, who influenced Augustine; the Roman Empire connects with the Roman Church, while showing too as "a palimpsest" the structural and symbolic accretions of Catholicism within its Italian bastion-- and as it spread northerly across the Alps.
Brooke writes with verve for a topic deemed by many today doubtless devoid of h9humor. He sees the impossibilty of separating the gains accrued on earth with the treasures invested in heaven by the vexed Templars and Hospitallers as they tried to combine martial brutality with apostolic mercy in the defense of pilgrims and crusaders. He shows the power of a childhood recollection of weeping as he left his father forever, as in early centuries, many men and women found themselves donated as children to the cloister and its vows for life. And, he shows the contradictions that followed the amassing of so much temporal gain by those who tried to own it not personally but collectively, and the troubles with kings and reformers and popes that accompanied the decline of highminded standards within worldly compromises.
Similarly, Brooke notes how the satires of such as Chaucer could not have hit their broad targets so sharply unless audiences knew not only of unworthy friars and monks, but so many who tried to live up to their lofty ideals among their peers. Today many scoff as they did in 1400 at the Church, its culture, and its clergy, but it's wise to keep Brooke's caution in mind: "It is equally false to judge a religious movement by its notorious failures. Few men have enriched the world more evidently than Francis and Dominic." (198) He also reminds us that students never confuse friars with canons and monks; errors that appear almost inevitably in most books, press coverage, and media today I add. Invariably those less learned than Brooke call Franciscans, the Orders of Friars Minor, persistently as "monks"!
While the legacies of crusades, missionaries, and inquistors may cause some thirty-five years after these words first appeared to differ vehemently with the measured praise afforded by Brooke to the founders of the two greatest orders of friars, the repose, the daring, and the contributions to a better life dreamed of and made real by men and women within their own troubled centuries show in Swaan's photography and Brooke's text their own human attempt to grasp the power of the divine, and within stones, mosaics, parchment, and chronicles to make it real.
As he ends the epilogue skimming the post-medieval fall and rise and fall of the monks, he tells: "In this book I have tried to throw a pebble into the centre of a pond of clear water. As the ripples spread we see the life of medieval monks spreading out into the whole history of an epoch." (251) While acknowledging the failures of the monks, Brooke fairly memorializes-- but does not romanticize-- the still-evident legacy of their monuments, intangible in education and literacy and peace as well as tangible in the arches, buttresses, psalters, and calefactories enshrined within this handsome book.
"The razors for shaving were kept by one of the monks under the chamberlain's jurisdiction, locked in a box in the cloister near the door to the dormitory. At the appointed time he organized a group of monks in two rows in the cloister, one row to shave, the other to be shaven, and the task was performed to the accompaniment of a psalm." (79)
"`As to our baths,'" says a chronicler, "`there is not much that we can say, for we only bath twice a year, before Christmas and before Easter.'" (79)
"Once a month or so all the monks had a blood-letting and a holiday, when they could enjoy the less arduous, more relaxed routine of the infirmary, where meat might be eaten and a briefer round of services attended." (80)
"In every large community the fishponds were vital, providing some relief from the salt fish that seems to have played a heavy role in the monastic diet." (81)
Brooke, an emeritus Cambridge University professor and leading medieval scholar, gives us a sympathetic portrait of monasticism largely between 1000 and 1300, prefaced by a basic narrative of the history of monasticism from its roots in Egypt through the founding of Cluny around 900, and concluding with an epilogue moving the narrative beyond 1300.
I appreciated not only Brooke's clearly careful scholarship, but also his affinity for his subject. The Age of the Cloister provides a welcome antidote, for example, to William Manchester's World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age. The latter book uses the time-honored technique of telling a ripping yarn and along the way confirming readers' worst prejudices about the history of the church. As of this writing, it sat at #720 on the Amazon sales rankings, while Brooke's beautifully and overall accurately written book sat at #72,540. Yet another sign of the collapse of Western civilization.
Despite his essential sympathy with them, Brooke does not always spare the warts and flaws of his subjects. He acknowledges, for example, that both the strength and the weakness of Benedict's Rule lie in his "vision of the abbot, who is assumed to be both a notable spiritual director and a master in handling human relations." Brooke concludes succinctly, "Such men are rare." (49) Bernard of Clairvaux, too, comes in for appropriate critique on his less-than-charitable treatment of various opponents.
Along the way, Brooke corrects stereotypes:
The writings of the early monastics were full, above all, of "pleas for moderation."
Contrary to popular opinion, "learning never became a normal characteristic of any medieval religious order or of any large group of monasteries." However, the monasteries did tend to have some of the best libraries in the West, thus "when men of a scholarly turn of mind grew up in the cloister, they could thus sometimes find the food they needed to hand." (52)
"The attack on worldly distraction in Cassian or Bernard's Puritanism was not coupled with distrust of all human emotions and values. In the most fundamental sense of the term, in their interest and belief in human capacity and human emotions, both were humanists." (42)
Yet though perhaps "humanists" in this sense, despite their program of "heroic effort," the monastic teachers were no Pelagians. They "saw the whole process of man's perfectibility within the economy of divine grace." (43)
The book is also full of important distinctions: the Benedictine traditions such as that at Cluny were not properly speaking "orders," as the mother houses did not hold much legislative or executive authority over their "daughters" (by these lights, the Franciscans and Dominicans were really the first true monastic orders). Though often muddled, the terms "monk," "friar," and "canon" refer to three different realities: The monk is a cloistered individual, almost always in the Benedictine tradition; the friar a non-cloistered, mendicant member of a religious order; the canon a secular (that is non-cloistered, parish) priest who nonetheless lives a "regular" life--that is, lives according to a rule.
The fourth chapter, "Life, Work and Prayer," is alone worth the price of admission. Here we get a clear sense of the monastic routine, in which "from soon after midnight till late in the evening the bell rang every hour or two to summon the monks to the office." We confidently list Matins, Laud, Prime, Terce, None, Vespers, and Compline as "the monastic hours," but Brooke tells us that though medievals had hourglasses and sundials, we don't know to what extent they used them, and it is fairly clear that those offices were rung not on exact clock-hours, but simply at fairly regular intervals. (70-71)
There is much more to discover in this book. Chapter 6 shows us how cloister and world interacted. Chapter 7 details the monastic impact on that intellectual and cultural revival now commonly called "the twelfth-century renaissance." Chapter 8 opens to us a monastic tradition that existed in parallel with the Benedictine one of the cloistered monks: the life of the priestly canons under variations on a Rule originating from Augustine. Chapter 9 is dedicated to the Cistercians, chapter 10 to the crusading religious knights (e.g. the Templars), 11 to the women who headed their own monastic houses ("abbesses" and "prioresses"), and 12 to the rise of the Premonstratensian and Franciscan orders.
Throughout, Brooke shows us fascinating ways in which the plans and ruins of monastic buildings, when taken together with key texts, illuminate many aspects of the monastic life. He brings this material together with particular clarity and insight in the book's third part, which begins with tours of "three of the most evocative monastic sites in Europe" (235): Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, England; Mont Saint-Michel in France; and Sant' Ambrogio, Milan. He concludes this section with a survey of the "monastic map of Europe" as it stood in 1300 and an epilogue tracing monastic developments since that year.
*The Age of the Cloister had two earlier incarnations: as The Monastic World, 1000-1300 in 1974 and as Monasteries of the World 1000-1300 in 1982. In all three versions, it is graced by plates of monastery floor plans and photographs of monasteries by Wim Swaan. This newest edition contains some updates (including, helpfully, new sources in the bibliographic notes section) and an introduction covering advances in monastic history since the first edition.
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This is a richly detailed and insightful adventure into the Middle Ages and its religious relevance.Read more