The title suggests the genre of the "history of a religious order," the new type of medieval studies already long cultivated in the French Centre Europeén de Recherche sur les Congrégations et les Ordres Religieux at the University of St. Étienne but, most recently and more elaborately, at the Forschungsstelle für Vergleichende Ordensgeschichte under the direction of Gert Melville (Technical University of Dresden), following up on the work of Kaspar Elm (Freie Universität Berlin). However, the Benedictines never wanted to constitute a religious order in the modern sense but were forced to accept this label by the Cistercians, their own reform movement. Thus writing the history of the Benedictines is a real challenge, because of the numerous decisions such a task entails. One question is: How should one treat a religious order that for centuries was the only existing form of monastic life? Monasteries are institutions born out of the surrounding world and society, yet at the same time they serve as a partial contrast to that world and society. Their context encompasses their external relations with the world around; their internal structures based on the principal source of Western monasticism, the Regula Benedicti; and their relationship to the Bible, the exclusive source foundation of the Christian doctrine.
Structuring his work under the sections "The Making of a European Order," "Observance," "Society," "Culture," "The Later Middle Ages," and "Reformations," the author masters with a seldom met richness a wealth of evidence from the infinitude of particular aspects of Benedictine monasticism. This richness not only stems from the broad perspective of the well-read author's tackling the matter, his constant flow of fresh quotations and references to medieval authors of all genres, printed or still in manuscript, but also his discussions and possible explanations carry the note of careful respect for historical truth within reach of historical possibilities. French, Norman, South German, Italian, and English Benedictine history is in focus, which is an adequate historical perspective considering the receptive character of North European monasticism. The fifty-eight pages on "Society" compose a serious discussion of monasticism in its role for European constitutions from feudalism to public service, after the seventy pages of "Observance" had presented numerous aspects of internal monastic life on liturgy, work, discipline, and what finally came out of the notion of Opus Dei. In the sixty-five pages on "Culture," literature is, of course, prominent, and the way from biblical exegesis and spiritual reading to cultural work (including monks as authors and scholars) is drawn with great skill; the writing of history receives its due attention. Frequent references in the three main chapters to degeneration, crisis, and reawakening of a genuine [End Page 539] Benedictine monastic spirit in some places in the fifteenth century bring to mind what the two concluding chapters treat more explicitly; here, the chapter on "Reformations" deserves mention for the more realistic perspective on the events of the early-sixteenth century that is taking shape among scholars today.