- Renaissance Monks: Monastic Humanism in Six Biographical Sketches
Having identified a lacuna in scholarly exploration of Renaissance humanism, Renaissance Monks: Monastic Humanism in Six Biographical Sketches provides mini portraits in English of six German monks. Scholars, Posset notes, have examined humanism at some length, but have not drawn sufficient attention to monastic humanism, which was incubated in the monasteries of Northern Europe and exported elsewhere. Monastic humanism is thus not entirely distinct from Renaissance humanism in general, and should be construed as a movement that engaged with, depended upon, and even influenced the humanist enterprise that was to revolutionize Europe. Posset chronologically describes the lives of Benedictine and Cistercian monks who lived in Germany, as they are represented in their correspondence and work.
Beginning with Conradus Leontorius, born near Stuttgart, Renaissance Monks excavates its subjects' histories, and attempts to highlight humanist landmarks in their lives. Leontorius became a Cistercian monk (a stricter branch of the Benedictines), traveled extensively, and most importantly for this collection of sketches, edited Bibles and patristic works, lamenting in the process the many errors committed by medieval scholastics. Benedictus [End Page 303] Chelidonius, Wolfgang Mayr, Henricus Urbanus, Vitus Acropolitanus, and Nikolaus Ellenbog are each the subject of subsequent chapters dealing with monastic humanism's engagement with poetry, history, and the Reformation. These chapters allow Posset to reiterate and underscore the far-reaching contacts of the monks in this volume. Each monk can be seen to contribute individually, however indirectly, to the climax of biblical humanism, and to civic humanism in general. Posset is sensitive to his subjects' relationships—actual and possible—with better-known figures of the Renaissance. Albrecht Düurer, for example, illustrated one monk's work; Luther appealed to another monk; and Erasmus knew of another of Posset's subjects. The Benedictine monks under consideration in this volume worked tirelessly for the humanist cause. Therefore, to the extent that he wishes to bring "obscure" monastic humanists to light, Posset is successful. Scholars exploring the broader epistemological and theological concerns of the European Renaissance will find useful material from which to draw. However, there are lacunae in Posset's own text that will limit Renaissance Monks' overall appeal.
While his introduction shows him invested in presenting his subjects to an English-speaking audience, Posset often cites Latin sources at length and offers no translation. The reader is given extracts from poems dedicated to Leontorius (33), and from a "literary monument in honor of Leontorius" (61), whose allusions we are told "only a humanist could understand," and no English translation is provided. Similarly, in Chapter Five, Posset indicates that the monk Vitus Acropolitanus is "all the more inspiring to study" since he is relatively unknown. And yet, when Posset might illuminate the obscurity of his subject, he cites him at length in Latin (152–53) without translation. Paradoxically, Posset does offer an English translation of Acropolitanus's correspondence earlier in the chapter, making one wonder why some passages are translated and others are not. Granted, passages left in the original Latin may be a minor point, and may only indicate that the text is written for a specialized English-speaking audience. Yet even a specialized audience might find it hard to evaluate some of the claims Posset makes about his subjects, sometimes without accompanying evidence. "He should also be recognized," Posset says of Chelidonus in Chapter Two, "as an important figure in the history of pastoral care for the intellectuals of the Renaissance," one who had "such a command of classic studies that he was able to produce a marvelous correlation between ancient pagan mythological concepts and biblical and devotional themes" (91–92). Yet Posset cites very little to justify these claims. Since Renaissance Monks also shies away from situating its poets, historians, and budding hagiographers within the greater currents of Renaissance poetry, historiography, and hagiography, Posset also frustrates [End Page 304] any attempt to evaluate some of his other claims. One wants to believe that the biographical subjects presented here are essential to one's understanding of humanism...