Thursday, July 30, 2009

Christopher Brooke's "The Monastic World": Book Review

A renowned professor joins his concise survey with Wim Swaan's expansive photos. The result's an ideal portal to enter cloisters, view naves, and walk via your armchair, for this is a heavy book worthy of a scriptorium, into ruins that comprise many abbeys today. The popularity of this academically grounded yet accessibly told narrative remains through three versions, reissued as "Monasteries of the World 1000-1300" in 1982 and with slight updating, "The Age of the Cloister" in 2002.

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 humor. He sees the impossibility 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 high-minded 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 inquisitors 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.

(Posted to Amazon US under each of its three titles, 6-27-2009; cover photo scanned by Ken W. Deaver to Amazon: Swaan's typically magisterial view-- of St.-Martin-de-Canigou, French Pyrenees, founded 1001 by the Benedictines.)

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