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Dark Age Bodies

Gender and Monastic Practice in the Early Medieval West

By Lynda L. Coon

Publication Year: 2011

In Dark Age Bodies Lynda L. Coon reconstructs the gender ideology of monastic masculinity through an investigation of early medieval readings of the body. Focusing on the Carolingian era, Coon evaluates the ritual and liturgical performances of monastic bodies within the imaginative landscapes of same-sex ascetic communities in northern Europe. She demonstrates how the priestly body plays a significant role in shaping major aspects of Carolingian history, such as the revival of classicism, movements for clerical reform, and church-state relations. In the political realm, Carolingian churchmen consistently exploited monastic constructions of gender to assert the power of the monastery. Stressing the superior qualities of priestly virility, clerical elites forged a model of gender that sought to feminize lay male bodies through a variety of textual, ritual, and spatial means.

Focusing on three central themes—the body, architecture, and ritual practice—the book draws from a variety of visual and textual materials, including poetry, grammar manuals, rhetorical treatises, biblical exegesis, monastic regulations, hagiographies, illuminated manuscripts, building plans, and cloister design. Interdisciplinary in scope, Dark Age Bodies brings together scholarship in architectural history and cultural anthropology with recent works in religion, classics, and gender to present a significant reconsideration of Carolingian culture.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. vii-vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. viii-xi

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Introduction: Dark Age Bodies

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pp. 1-12

An image of an early medieval monk dressed in humble attire and kneeling under a vibrant red cross appears in Plate 1 of this book. The hands of the monk, graceful and eloquent, are extended in a gesture of supplication, and his tonsure signifies his world-renouncing status. Subjugated by the weight of the cross, the monk’s body appears to lean on the words running left to right across the page...

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Chapter 1: ‘‘Hrabanus Is My Name’’

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pp. 13-41

Hrabanus Maurus was once a celebrated name. During his own time, contemporaries hailed him as the foremost biblical scholar in the Carolingian Empire. In a letter (ca. 854) written by Lothar I to Hrabanus, the ruler acclaims the monk as ranking with Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great.1 Nor was Hrabanus forgotten as generations passed. In the early fourteenth century, Dante, who longed for restoration of the Carolingian...

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Chapter 2: A Carolingian Aesthetic of Bricolage

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pp. 42-68

Carolingian royal and monastic leaders collected texts and artifacts from different eras and locales: architectural designs, ancient statuary, relics, poetry, foreign alphabets, exotic animals, musical instruments, patristic writings, liturgical texts, and, of course, monastic rules.1 The geographic and imaginative range of their collections embrace...

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Chapter 3: Gendering the Benedictine Rule

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pp. 69-97

Chapter 38 of the Benedictine Rule draws the audience’s attention to the special skills required of the weekly reader (the lector) as well as the spiritual dangers associated with the practice of public reading (the lectio) performed during meals taken in the monastery’s refectory. When eating, monks are to remain absolutely silent—no whispering, no speaking of any kind is to occur...

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Chapter 4: Carolingian Practices of the Rule

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pp. 98-133

The medieval cloister is a brilliant example of how an emblematic, religious space succeeds in ‘‘mooring a mental space—a space of contemplation and theological abstraction—to the earth, thus allowing it to express itself symbolically and to become a part of a practice, the practice of a well-defined group within a well-defined society.’’...

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Chapter 5. Inscribing the Rule onto Carolingian Sacred Space

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pp. 134-172

Architectural historian Charles McClendon looks to a singular monumental type, the so-called Frankish westwork, as indicative of the innovative nature of Carolingian building. At the same time, early medieval westworks are notoriously problematic architectural creations. In fact, scholars remain divided as to their precise structural attributes because extant westworks evidence great diversity in form, scale, and function. A general typology for the...

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Chapter 6: Gendering the Plan of Saint Gall

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pp. 165-215

The Corvey westwork and the Michael Rotunda at Fulda provide an excellent context for analyzing the gendered dimensions of another important artifact of the early medieval era, the so-called Plan of Saint Gall (ca. 830). Etched in red lead, the Plan is composed of five sheets of calfskin stitched together to form a rectangle of 301/2 by 44 inches (Figure 6.1).1 The manuscript...

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Chapter 7: Foursquare Power

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pp. 216-246

Hrabanus Maurus’s acrostic poem In Honor of the Holy Cross invites the viewer’s gaze to move along the contours of the body of the Crucified One, from the base of the right foot, up to the middle of the thigh, and ending at the left heel (figura 1; see Plate 4).1 The route is not accidental...

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pp. 247-253

In a homily written for the dedication of a church, Hrabanus Maurus makes a direct connection between bodies and buildings. He exhorts his fellow monks (fratres charissimi) to transform the interior spaces of their bodies into temples of God complete with all the trappings and rituals associated with Carolingian sacred space: wall paintings, candelabra, voices stirred by the power of chant, and holy readings. Hrabanus reasons that the internal nature...


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pp. 255-340


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pp. 341-373


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pp. 375-387

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pp. 389-390

Dark Age Bodies was made possible by a generous grant from the National Humanities Center (2004–5), the academy’s best monastery. Special thanks go to the prior of the NHC, Kent R. Mullikin, who has a secret fondness for Hrabanus Maurus and his liturgical style. This Arkansas ascetic would not have survived the year without the extraordinary labors of the monks of the Research Triangle, especially Marie Brubaker and Sarah Payne. The custodians...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812204919
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812242690

Page Count: 416
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 794700589
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Dark Age Bodies

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Human body -- Religious aspects -- Catholic Church -- History of doctrines -- Middle Ages, 600-1500.
  • Rabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz, 784?-856.
  • Benedict, Saint, Abbot of Monte Cassino. Regula.
  • Men (Christian theology) -- History of doctrines -- Middle Ages, 600-1500.
  • Monastic and religious life -- History -- Middle Ages, 600-1500.
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