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  • Understanding Monastic Practices of Oral Communication (Western Europe, Tenth-Thirteenth Centuries) ed. by Steven Vanderputten
  • James Smith
Vanderputten, Steven , ed., Understanding Monastic Practices of Oral Communication (Western Europe, Tenth-Thirteenth Centuries) (Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, 21), Turnhout, Brepols, 2011; hardback; pp. xii, 390; 7 b/w illustrations, 3 b/w tables; R.R.P. €85.00; ISBN 9782503534824.

In the Introduction to this collection of essays, editor Steven Vanderputten proposes that 'Although traditionally defined as a literate environment, monastic culture depended on a range of communicative media which was just as large, and in some ways more sophisticated in its variety, than that of other sections of society' (p. 4). Originally the proceedings of a 2008 conference at Ghent university, Understanding Monastic practices of Oral Communication delves into the hidden world of non-literary exchanges of information within the monastic orders of eleventh- to thirteenth-century Europe. Within its pages there is much to delight and intrigue medievalists, especially those interested in narrative, monasticism, literacy, and high medieval intellectual culture. [End Page 316] Within many of the essays, a series of common assumptions surrounding the role of the spoken and written word in monastic cultures are critiqued, debunked, or modified. The collection offers a glimpse of a world behind the documentary evidence of monastic life into a world of words, songs, and stories not normally amenable to academic inquiry.

The volume is divided into five sections entitled 'The Politics of Non-Written Communication', 'Traces of Orality in Liturgy, Customs and Material Culture', 'Traces of Orality in the Transmission of Memory', 'Talking Shop: Educating the Monastic Mind' and 'Talking Shop: Voicing the Monastic Mind'. The contents are somewhat raw and unassimilated conference material, albeit excellently edited and presented to best advantage. It has the feeling of a conference to it, with a diverse range of articles in English, French, and German united by a common thread. In a comprehensive and thoughtful Introduction, Vanderputten admits that the volume is part of an ongoing conversation, and hopes that it will not be the last word on the matter (p. 7). In this respect, the volume is a success, for it opens up a topic for interpretation that might otherwise have lacked an outlet.

Certain papers are more clearly representative of the volume theme as a whole than others. In 'Communication at the Abbey of St Gall', Gerd Althoff explores the quotidian monastic politics of speech and silence within the histories of Ekkehard of St Gall. Exposing a world of speech politics, Althoff argues for a distinct gap between monastic rule, concession to non-monastic visitors, and internal feuds and animosities amongst the monks that complicate the serene stereotype of monastic life (p. 22). In her contribution, Diane J. Reilly presents an account of early Cistercianism through documentary analysis which 'suggests that fundamental to the Cistercians' early reform agenda was the education of their new monks on the Scripture and its traditional interpretation, through oral instruction in formal settings' (p. 114), providing a thorough review of the literature in the process.

Edina Bokózy argues for the influence of monastic and popular orality in the construction of hagiography, proposing that the tropes deployed in vitae were powerfully influenced by generations of storytelling. In his article, Geoffrey Koziol explores the role of Carolingian history in the monastic politics of early Capetian monasticism, arguing as a case study that 'Charles the Simple himself told the canons of Saint-Corneille about his family history', transforming the monastery into a memorial of his sense of dynasty and history (pp. 180-81). Albrecht Classen offers an insight into evidence of 'powerful messages contained in the famous tapestries created in the Cistercian women's convent in Weinhausen near Celle', arguing that the visual culture of the nuns represents a non-verbal strategy for convent [End Page 317] members to reach out and communicate with their sisters (p. 243). Although many more studies flesh out this volume, these exemplars give a sense of the metanarrative, the exploration of 'the complex reality of the ways in which monks and nuns communicated both with each other and with the outside world' (p. 5).

If I were to level one major...


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