- Separate but Equal: Cistercian Lay Brothers, 1120–1350 by James France
In this study James France has brought together a variety of references to medieval Cistercian lay brothers. Especially useful is his analysis of the exemplum literature’s stories about lay brothers and the variation and development of stories about them in the writings of such authors as Conrad of Eberbach and Caesarius of Heisterbach, but also in more obscure exemplum collections and in lives of abbots and saints. In this, it is a guide to the opinions about lay brothers among Cistercian monks who wrote or read these stories, but it also reveals how much more often it is lay brothers rather than monks who are the vehicle for the discussion of sin and salvation. Indeed, although France does not say this outright, it appears that using lay brothers for such discussion is evidence of their unequal status—that it was acceptable for monks to describe lay brothers as sinning, because those lay brothers were lesser beings, powerless to debate or respond to such characterizations.
The volume contains several other very helpful clarifications to our understanding of the distinctions that Cistercians made between monks and lay brothers. France describes how and where lay brothers’ quarters were added to standard monastery ground plans in Cistercian abbey architecture. He also discusses lay brothers in art, suggesting how beards, hairstyle, and clothing distinguish lay brothers from monks, secular clergy, and the laity. He plausibly suggests that laybrother revolts have been overemphasized by earlier historians in explaining the decline of the Cistercian granges worked by lay brothers. In his view, much more of that decline has to do with the unequal status of lay brothers recruited from the very land that would become Cistercian granges.
France questions very appropriately whether there was real equality among Cistercian monks and lay brothers even at the outset. The earliest charters provide some indication of a primitive equality when donations are described as being made to brothers who are not yet distinguished as monachi and conversi (concesserunt [End Page 121] eisdem fratribus), but it was soon lost. Unfortunately, in his discussion of the dating and introduction of lay brothers, France does not take into account the fact that the Latin term for the lay brother, conversus, was evolving in its connotations over the course of the twelfth century, perhaps especially among the Cistercians; it was only gradually used exclusively for laborers as opposed to choir monks. Thus the cited earliest reference to conversi at Clairvaux, found in a pancarte-like document from 1135, was likely applied to converts to the religious life rather than laborers per se.