Nor did contemporary observers seem to think the Cistercians were defined by their economic activities – either used or eschewed.[i]
And indeed, even the document considered to have been written in 1134 didn’t single out “pawning, leasing, sales, and exchanges” for censure.[ii] (196)
She concludes that the Cistercians “participated vigorously in the economic changes of the twelfth century while retaining the solitude of their houses and granges and the simplicity of the food, clothing, and liturgy that made them appear so intensely holy to their neighbors.” (196)
By this example of simplicity and austerity, Bouchard argues, the knights were attracted to them “psychologically,” as they were “reaching a level of social prominence . . . at the beginning of the twelfth century,” thus “just reach[ing] the point both of being able to enjoy [the] comforts [of the aristocracy] and of recognizing that the soul’s salvation might lie in the rejection of them.” (197)
But at the same time, there was a “social” appeal of the Cistercians to the knights as well, “because the Cistercians were integrated into the rural knightly system of ‘give-and-take,’ where property transactions were used not only to transfer ownership of property but also to bind people together.” (197)
Here’s a new way I’m thinking of for developing the faculty seminar on Christian humanism I’m doing for my friend the Think Tank Director. I like this one better than the more chronological one shared earlier. I’ll share this in a couple of chunks because I went a little crazy with editorializing on it.
This reworking suggests that we use the seminar to explore the hypothesis that Christian humanism has found ways to keep together key dyads: divine-human, faith-reason, virtue-grace, heavenly-earthly, reason-imagination (or truth-beauty). And that the REASON the tradition has been able to do that is its strong grounding in the Incarnation.* We could look at each of those dyads through readings across the different periods, in a way that could attend to historic development without bogging down in the chronology/history.
* Arguably it’s not just the Incarnation but the almost shocking organic unity of the God-human relationship in early soteriology that grounds this whole thing: that is, the theosis understanding of salvation. But interestingly, both Luther and Calvin were similarly quite mystical and organic about the human-God relationship – there are great readings from both that show this.
NOTE: Stupid WordPress has no idea how to deal with the automatic numbering in MS Word, and I don’t have time to go in and change it. So please ignore the plethora of “1s” in the following!
Bouchard’s book shows that the longstanding scholarly claim that “the ideals of Cistercian monasticism and the rapidly developing economy of the twelfth century were incompatible” does not survive close analysis of the economic and religious records. So why was it made in the first place?
Another key reason for the scholarly claims about decline due to economic engagement is the existence of “The ‘legislation of 1134,’ setting out what types of property were and were not suitable for Cistercian monks.” Scholars have assumed this to be “a reiteration of what the monks had believed and practiced since Citeaux’s foundation in 1098.” The document raises up farming over other economic activities, so “scholars have treated the early Cistercians as exclusively farmers, who concentrated on opening up uncultivated lands and who were economic innovators only in their pioneering use of draining methods.” They have therefore taken the evidence for other kinds of economic transactions as de facto evidence of declension.[i]
Then the dissection of the paradigm begins. First Bouchard notes that it has had to be modified and re-modified in recent years, as evidence for non-farming economic transactions has pushed earlier and earlier,[ii] and as scholars have had to wrestle with a lack of any kind of numerical decline that would imply that the monks’ secular neighbors no longer valued them as holy men – quite the contrary, as the order continued to gain members and resources at a rapid rate. This has caused scholars to back away from harsher language of “decadence,” preferring instead to state that their “ideals” had not survived the encounter with certain “realities.”[iii]
Now we turn to a more direct example of the supposed conflict between economic work and spiritual health. This is from the fascinating study of Cistercian economic activities penned by Constance Bouchard.[i] Bouchard states the crux of her argument like this:
“Whereas modern scholars usually contrast spirituality and economic success, the Cistercian order in Burgundy, in its first century of development and expansion, was able to participate in the multiplying economic activities of the period and at the same time continue to be considered by its secular neighbors an intensely holy order whose monks had the ear of God.” (ix-x)
I note again that “secular” used above means what it has meant to older generations and still means to the Roman Catholic Church: those Christians who, in contrast to the “regular” (rule-following) monastics whose daily round focused on eternity, engage in the business of the world and of “this age” (the saeculum). Thus even priests were considered seculars. And certainly knights, peasants, and craftsmen as well – most of whom would have been trying to live as Christians, and had at least elementary understanding of, and agreement with, key theological sources such as the creeds.
Bouchard “use[d] the rich but largely untapped Cistercian archives to study economic exchanges between the monasteries and their secular, primarily knightly, neighbors,” reviewing records of over 2,000 economic exchanges, nearly two-thirds of them never having seen print, and only accessible in Burgundian archives. (ix)
In the first part of this essay, I offer three potential medieval objections to the compatibility of spiritual and economic work–the “busyness thesis,” the “mammon thesis,” and the “worldliness thesis”; then I continue:
Of course, one thing we can say to these three theses is “Yes, at some points in some places in the vast and complex thousand-year landscape of medieval Europe, all three of them have been argued by Christians.”
But, I suggest two further responses to this observation:
First, remember that what we are trying to do is not to prove that these theories were absent everywhere and always in the Middle Ages. It is rather to select countervailing historical instances that challenge the oft-encountered modern scholarly assumption that medievals always or as a rule found economic and spiritual work incompatible – thus either explicitly proscribing economic activity for the spiritually serious (whether monastic or lay), or judging those serious folks who do engage in economic work as derelict in their self-sworn spiritual duties and principles.
Second, we will attend to the very significant social and economic changes in the so-called “high medieval period” in the West (roughly 1050 – 1300) that began to broaden the spiritual life – the via apostolica – from the monastic cloister to the marketplace. This was a period of “increasing population, land reclamation, urban growth, expansion of education opportunities, new trade routes, [and] an emerging merchant class.”[i] So we will be recognizing, if not much geographical variation, at least temporal variation.
However, we should be careful – these social changes do not mean (as some have interpreted) that monasticism and its disciplines was either (1) fully retrenched and retracted into itself, as might be assumed from looking at the austere reforms of the Cistercians and of monastically trained Gregory VII or (2) discarded as a model for the spiritual life of the laity, as one might assume toward the end of the era. Even in the expansion of lay spirituality from the high through the late medieval period – that is, the 500 years before Luther – monasticism continues to be a central character in the story of the relationship between economic and spiritual work.
A few years ago I was invited to present a paper at a colloquium of scholars gathered to discuss topics related to the intersection of faith and economic work in the history of the church. What I presented was a first stab at a research agenda: 2/3 of a larger idea about a certain theme in medieval Christianity. Since the paper was never published, I intend to blog it here in sections. So, to begin:
The question of this paper is this: Was there, in the Middle Ages, an understanding of economic labor as inherently inimical to the spiritual life – especially as modeled by monasticism?
It is certainly true, as the great medievalist R. W. Southern says, that through its 1,200+ late ancient and medieval years of activity, monasticism was often involved in and compromised by the world. R. W. Southern talks about this complexity:
“Everywhere in the history of the religious Orders we find that associations which were founded as a protest against the world and all its ways had their destinies shaped for them by the society in which they had their being. There were many forces which shaped them, even against their will: their property, their family connexions, their secular functions, and the opportunity which they offered their members for advancement to the highest places in the social order. The ‘worldliness’ of medieval religious communities has often been remarked and generally criticized, and it is true that anyone who looks at these communities for a pure expression of the aims of their founders must very often be disappointed. The states of mind and aspirations expressed in the Rules and Foundation deeds of the various Orders were not realized in any large measure. The driving forces in their development were quite different from those of the original founders.”[i]
But the question is, would medievals themselves share the underlying assumption of this analysis: the supposed “fact” that economic work must, by its very nature, hamper spiritual formation?
The Abbey is called Kirkstall, founded in 1152, and you can get a small taste of how amazing it is from the following images. They reveal buildings largely unchanged from their first construction in the 1150s, though some sections are “late” (i.e. later 12th or 13th c.) and there are minor Victorian and later restorations of a few sections damaged in the vicissitudes of subsequent centuries.You’ll get a sense of why the 19th-century romantics flipped over this place, painting it repeatedly (sez Wikipedia: “The picturesque ruins have been drawn and painted by artists such as J.M.W. Turner, Thomas Girtin and John Sell Cotman.”)
A few reflections on my experience at Medieval Congress 2010, dictated as I drove from Kalamazoo to Midway Airport (through Michigan Wine Country–and stopping at a few tastings!) to return to the Twin Cities:
Sitting in that last session [where I heard the paper “The Beauty of the Person in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas,” by Margaret I. Hughes of Fordham Univ] reminds me again of the apparent integrity and usefulness of Thomistic moral categories and moral analysis (this first came across me at the conference in Rebecca DeYoung’s session on vainglory).
I’m aware always of David Steinmetz’s off-handed dismissal, in a class one day, of virtue ethics as something, as I understood him, inherently Pelagian. But I think again that there’s a high value in an anatomizing of the heart as an ultimately spiritual as well as intellectual discipline, and I think Aquinas works in that mode do many other ethical thinkers in the medieval period . . . and as do the penitential manuals and so on and so forth.
Do they always do it well or in ways we can appropriate today? I’m sure they don’t. But to examine closely our personalities, who we are as moral beings, how we are tempted, how we sin, and how we recover from sins and become purified through a life-long process of sanctification—there is great value in this; it’s a value that was captured in the Methodist movement, has been captured by the Pietists, the Puritans . . . It seems it’s inherently and faithfully biblical and worthy of further study. Continue reading →
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) Continue reading →
My forthcoming book Medieval Wisdom for Today’s Christians will use C S Lewis and “the Inklings” (including Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, and by extension others such as G K Chesterton) as guides to a usable medieval past. This is a good thing, because I myself am not a medievalist! So I’m having to do a LOT of reading on the period, and it’s good to have guides on this sort of journey. I’ve also traveled to the gargantuan Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo (and hope to do so soon again). Yesterday I re-posted my anticipatory Christianity Today history blog post on my first trip to that conference (“The monks did it: Mining medieval resources“). This is my follow-up to that post.
Oh, and, in case you’re interested, here are some other posts dealing with the same theme of “the Inklings and the medieval”: A piece on how Lewis, Charles Williams, and Dorothy Sayers were all inspired (in very different ways) by the great medieval poet Dante Alighieri. A piece on the medievalist work and thought of G K Chesterton. A posting of the summary of the introductory chapter from my Medieval Wisdom book proposal. A consideration of how the “Inklings” hated modernity and used medieval ideas against modern malaises. A summary of the medieval historian Norman Cantor’s assessment of C. S. Lewis as medievalist.
Now to the post at hand . . .
Getting an “Inkling” of the Medieval World
How to excavate a usable medieval past.
by Chris Armstrong | June 3, 2009
Well, I promised to report back on the Kalamazoo Congress on Medieval Studies, and so I will, at least for a moment before turning to another set of lenses on a “usable medieval past.”
In a word, the congress was overwhelming. With over 3,000 scholars and over 600 sessions (averaging 3+ papers each) stuffed into a few days, many of them on topics very esoteric and technical, my head was swimming. Navigating the sessions became an exercise in close reading and careful exegesis of the program-book. Fortunately, more often than not I did manage to hit pay-dirt. Continue reading →
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