- The Trauma of Monastic Reform: Community and Conflict in Twelfth-Century Germany by Alison I. Beach
There is always the temptation when studying movements across multiple historical time periods to err towards a reductionistic understanding in order to tell the movement's story more cleanly and compactly. For example, within monastic historical studies, it used to be convenient and somewhat common for scholars to oversimplify the beginnings of monasticism by saying that anchoretic monasticism began in the fourth century with Anthony of Egypt and that coenobitic monasticism was the creation of Pachomius. Yet, this is far from the truth. In fact, the origins of monasticism are shrouded, to some extent, in a historical fog, only to be reconstructed in bits and pieces, differing radically by location and time. What might be true for monastic history in Egypt is not necessarily the same story for monasticism on the island of Lérins, for example. Thus, what makes Alison Beach's The Trauma of Monastic Reform such a delightful volume is that it deals mostly with one community (Petershausen in Swabia) in a limited period. This allows her to explore in depth (thanks to the Petershausen Chronicle) a community qua community and, only secondarily, to see how this community may have looked and acted like other communities. This is local monastic history at its best.
Beach concludes by writing that "No matter what the normative sources have to say about the separation between the cloister and the world, the reality of monastic life in the central Middle Ages was much more complex, as recent scholarship has suggested" (138). She reaches this conclusion after meticulously studying the history of Petershausen, primarily in the community's relationship to its patrons and its detractors (both episcopal and imperial). This provides for an interesting history, all dutifully recorded in the community's chronicle. Not only does Beach highlight the community's history, but she also situates the community squarely in its geographical, larger historical, and cultural milieu.
The book contains six chapters, covering the nature of "monastic reform as cultural trauma;" the Hirsau reform of the monastery beginning in 1085 and its traumatic consequences to members of the community; the presence of "bearded" lay brothers in its implications; an examination of Petershausen as a double monastery of both men and women and the challenges this posed for the [End Page 226] community; how Petershausen itself became an "agent of reform" to other local monasteries; and Petershausen's often difficult relationship to her patrons (v). The consistent thread throughout the book that holds the narrative together is the extant Chronicle, which has its own fascinating history.
The Chronicle was begun around 1136 (though it contains reports of events dating back to the eleventh century) and was updated continuously for about thirty years by the same anonymous monk. Thankfully, it survived the devastating fire of 1159 at Petershausen. The text only survives in a single twelfth-century copy, now in the University of Heidelberg Library. One of the most interesting features of the manuscript is how the author decided to record the names of the community's members. Beach writes, "Not long after the fire, the chronicler gathered twenty-five parchment sheets, and using red ink, drew two arcade-topped columns on each folio. Within each of these columns—four across the open manuscript—he began to write names: the names of Petershausen's monks in the first column of each verso, and the names of the community's lay brothers in the second. In the first column of each recto, he wrote the names of the monks and priests from other monasteries, and in the second, the names of the community's patrons, and also of its religious women" (39). What this accomplishes, according to Beach, is the creation of an imagined community across time and place. This then becomes the true Petershausen monastic community, one that is not limited to who lives in the community at any given moment but, rather, a community that includes those monks and nuns...