The Catholic Historical Review 90.3 (2004) 527-528
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The preacher Robert of Arbrissel is well known to medievalists as the founder of the monastery of Fontevraud, in Anjou in western France, around the year 1100. Although this religious house included both men and women, Robert established the rule of an abbess over all. Fontevraud became a powerful and wealthy house, where Eleanor of Aquitaine was later buried, and it continued to be headed by able abbesses for the next seven centuries. Bruce Venarde, who first studied Fontevraud in the context of a history of medieval nuns,1 here provides for the first time a translation into English (or for that matter into any modern language) of the principal sources for Robert's life. These include the two vitae written within a few years of Robert's death, respectively by Bishop Baudri of Dol and by the chaplain Andreas of Fontevraud, some letters and charters others wrote to Robert, and Robert's own few letters and treatises. All the translations are accompanied by useful annotations, and an introduction puts Robert into his social and cultural context.
This volume should immediately find a place in the classroom, both for courses on the history of monasticism or of medieval Christianity more broadly defined, and also for courses on medieval women. Scholars who know in a general way about Robert of Arbrissel and want to learn more will also find much of value in this very readable translation with its map, notes, and commentary—although they may consider the introduction a bit elementary. The general reader will also find this window into medieval religious life intriguing. Venarde's translation is a pleasure to read, retaining some of the flavor of the original Latin while generally using straightforward English prose.
One of the volume's strengths is that Robert emerges from its pages with all his strangeness intact. He was at various times a student of philosophy, a diocesan [End Page 527] archpriest, a teacher, a hermit, a charismatic preacher who attracted a large group of women followers, and a founder of monasteries. He was often rebellious toward the church hierarchy and was even labeled a heretic; yet those who knew him revered him for his deep religiosity. He reached out to lepers and the destitute, and was honored by both the pope and the French king, the latter of whom helped pay for building Fontevraud. The disparities and difficulties of Robert's activities surely account for Fontevraud's abbess commissioning first one "life" of Robert and then a second, quite different one within a few years of his death, as she and the community tried to come to terms with their founder's legacy.
The Catholic University of America Press has been bringing out a slow but steady stream of medieval sources in translation. This volume continues the high quality and usefulness of the series, which one hopes will continue to flourish, for the sakes of both teachers and scholars. It is disconcerting to realize how many fundamental medieval texts still lack reliable translations.
Constance B. Bouchard
1. Bruce L. Venarde, Women's Monasticism and Medieval Society: Nunneries in France and England, 890-1215 (Ithaca, New York, 1997).