Claude Lucette Evans / Kenneth Paul Evans: Monastères, convergences, échanges et confrontations dans l'Ouest de l'Europe au Moyen Âge. Actes du Colloque Anciennes Abbayes de Bretagne, Université de Toronto 5-6 mai, 2016 (= Collection Haut Moyen Âge; Vol. 45), Turnhout: Brepols 2023, 390 S., 14 Farb-, 13 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-2-503-59985-4, EUR 85,00
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The goal of this excellent collection is principally to include Brittany in the conversation about monasteries, their relations with one another and with society writ large, and instances of ecclesiastical reform during the Middle Ages. It is not that scholarship has wholly neglected Brittany. Certain institutions, like Redon and Landévennec, for example, have been the subject of considerable study. Yet most of the time the context for understanding even these relatively well-documented institutions has been monasticism in the so-called Celtic fringe (Ireland, Wales, and Cornwall) with gestures to Anglo-Saxon England. Underlying this preoccupation has been the indefensible notion that Celtic Christianity in particular functioned within an abbatial rather than episcopal paradigm, that is, that abbots rather than bishops ruled the regional churches, that estrangement from Roman practices was deep and beloved, and so on.
Ancillary to this view was that, as eccentric as Celtic Christianity was supposed to have been, Brittany was even more peculiar, especially in the very early Middle Ages, because it was difficult for scholars, given the sources, to map monastic institutions. Brittany seemed to these researchers to have been severely lacking in the number of monasteries in this period, and the religious communities that scholars could identify were small and apparently poorly endowed. This picture was so bleak as to raise questions about whether in a fundamental sense Brittany was genuinely Christianized in the early Middle Ages.
Nearly every author in the collection challenges one or more of these notions. The keenest indictment occurs in the opening paragraph of Jean-Michel Picard's study of double monasteries and conhospitae, "femmes compagnes de prêtres ou de moines" (212). Thirty years of research, he notes, have not fully dispelled these notions. Yet, this picture of Celtic Christianities (his plural) "perdure. On continue de parler d'une église celte ... immuable du ve au xiie siècle et par consequent archaïque, et finalement différente de - sinon opposée à - l'Église romaine." All this despite the fact that far from antagonism to Rome, Celtic Christianities "n'ont cessé de vouloir de s'intégrer à la chrétienté romaine" (211). He then proceeds elegantly to deconstruct the long-received interpretations of the texts supposedly documenting the eccentricities of the conhospitae.
The collection is divided into three sections. Part I focuses on Brittany per se. Caroline Brett offers an overarching and masterly essay on the history of the early Breton church as well as a plea for more research into still controversial issues. Joseph-Claude Poulin provides the reader with a meticulous study of three lengthy saints' lives produced independently around the year 870. One writer personally knew the holy man, Conwoion, about whom he wrote. The other two authors were writing about men, Malo and Guénolé, who had died centuries before. However, what Poulin shows is that these texts, if closely read, can tell attentive researchers a great deal about the religious life of ninth-century Brittany and indeed about the place of Breton literary production in relation to Carolingian cultural practices. A similar goal - to compare Breton and Carolingian practices - inspires the essay of Yves Gallet on the topography and architecture of abbeys in Brittany and other regions in the west. This section ends with two essays, one by Joëlle Quaghebeur, the other by Julienn Bachelier, on formal friendships or alliances, including shared prayer communities, among various monasteries. What is wonderful about this last pair of essays is that they carefully explore the contingencies of relationships. Friendships can fail, the authors show, and the resulting antagonisms can be terrible. Life in the Breton church comes vividly to light in these splendid pieces of work.
Part II of the collection concentrates on what might be termed the more interior aspects of the monastic experience. The individual essays maintain the high level achieved in the work in Part I. I have already mentioned Picard's article on the conhospitae. Bernard Ardua in his article raises the question of the modes of interaction among abbeys in the same order, either by informal affiliation or, in the twelfth century, by formal affiliation. He chooses to focus on the latter and in particular on the Cistercians and the Premonstratensians, using the lens of the "General Chapters". This relatively short piece, like so many of the essays throughout the book, is also a plea for further research. Guy Jarousseau's essay problematizes the question of reform, or, as he also terms it, restoration in the late tenth and early eleventh century. The period before the Gregorian renewal had its moments of crisis and restoration. Contingencies such as Quaghebeur and Bachelier identify in their essays in Part I are revealed in Jarousseau's study as well. Once more, as in the earlier essays, complexities and contingencies in monks' relations with their abbots and with other monks in factions emerge vividly in these pages.
The last section of the collection is less unified and therefore less easy to characterize thematically than Parts I and II. In her essay, Catherine Vincent, who also wrote the Introduction to the volume, describes many aspects of monastic life and monasteries, contact and interaction with local society, through pilgrimages, for example, in the late Middle Ages, widening her focus beyond Brittany. Marielle Lamy's essay is a bit of an outlier. She concentrates on Benedictine and Cistercian sermons for the feast day of Saint Benedict in the twelfth century, identifying tropes in these homilies, like Benedict as a new Moses, that were common in both the insular and continental west. The essays by Esther Dehoux and Stéphane Lecouteux deal with monasteries allied in prayer communities or in other ways (sharing texts, for example). These essays are therefore addressing themes that overlap with those treated in the essays by Quaghebeur and Bachelier in Part I, but they move temporally to the later Middle Ages and/or widen the focus beyond Brittany. The closing essay may strike some readers as out of place in this volume. It is a fascinating and provocative piece by Sébastien Barret on Cluniac diplomatics and the power that is associated with formulaic writing. If the other articles in the volume are the delicious main dishes in a multi-course banquet, Barret's essay is an excellent and most welcome dessert.
William Chester Jordan