Kalamazoo 2014 report 2: monks and violence

My second day at Kalamazoo involved me mainly attending sessions on monks and on violence (and in some cases on violent monks). The number of interesting sessions on monks reflects both the commitment by American religious orders to supporting scholarship and a strong US network of secular researchers on early medieval monasticism, embodied in Albrecht Diem’s Network for the Study of Late Antique and Early Medieval Monasticism. But the first session I went to, Panel 207 on Monastic Ways of Life for Women, also revealed some of the tensions between the two approaches: one of the distinguished Benedictine scholars there proved not to be well up on the latest research on his source and gave an embarrassingly weak paper. The two other papers, however, provided an interesting contrast between what you might call the internal and external approaches to monastic texts. First of all, we had Colleen Maura McGrane talking about Caesaria the Younger of Arles’ dicta on abbesses. These comments survive only in c. 21 of Benedict of Aniane’s Concordia regularium from several hundred years later. They all revolve around meditatio, the memorising and continually repeating of Biblical texts. Sister Colleen was arguing that though Caesaria was drawing on the work of both her uncle Caesarius of Arles and John Cassian, she also had her own distinctive “meditative pedagogy”.

This was a neat demonstration of finding a woman’s own words embedded within male discussions, but I also got an interesting sense of how “meditative pedagogy” still made sense in a personal, as well as a scholarly way, to Sister Colleen. Meditatio came across as a familiar practice to her, unlike most of the rest of us, and it was a useful reminder that such routines mattered to those who thought about them in the Middle Ages. It was part of religious women’s job/role/vocation to work with Biblical sayings in this way and to affect themselves psychologically by doing so.

The paper that followed was by Marie Schilling Grogan from St Joseph’s University, talking about the Book of Nunnaminster, a ninth-century Anglo-Latin collection of prayers. This was in female ownership and possibly written by a woman; Marie saw this not as a service book, but one that was nevertheless intended for liturgical performance, in some sense. She argued that the overall theme of the collection was the Body of Christ, and that the aim was that the individual reader should imaginatively read herself into her correct place in the cosmos, via an emotional engagement with the text. In particular, Marie highlighted a sub-group of prayers which seems to be connected to ritual anointing, with parallels to elaborate lists of body parts to be anointed in Anglo-Saxon liturgical texts. Again, I got a sense of the possibilities of monastic reading as active; Sister Colleen in the discussions afterwards talked of liturgy and lectio as a ‘seamless garment’, and meditatio as a way of praying: she compared it to modern ideas of mindfulness meditation.

After lunch, I abandoned monks temporarily and went off to hear some of the big names of American medievalism: specifically, Session 243, with Dyan Elliott, Paul Freedman and Peggy McCracken on “Violence and Vulnerability”. First up was Dyan Elliott talking about what she called “negative translation”: the violence inflicted on corpses as part of damnatio memoriae. She discussed how the urge to punish the dead gradually developed within the church; while the Council of Constantinople in 394 stated that the dead should not be excommunicated, since they were not present to receive their sentence, by the time of the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553, the participants were looking for sources to justify the condemnation of heretics after death, and by 897, we have the notorious Cadaver Council. The Gregorian reforms encouraged such negative translations, with the bodies of simoniac priests being dug up and burned. Most gruesome of all, buriers of heretics could be excommunicated and then only absolved if they publically dug up the corpses with their own hands. Yet despite all this gruesome symbolism, Dyan concluded that negative translation could fail completely in its effect. There was public hostility to exhuming heretics and Formosus’ post-mortem martyrdom helped preserve his memory in a way that ignoring his grave would not have done.

It’s not often where you have a conference session including more grisly stories than the Cadaver Council, but this one managed it. Next up was Paul Freedman, talking about the execution in 1514 of the Hungarian peasant leader Gregory (Georghe) Doja, which included a symbolic vocabulary of horrors to mock peasant pretences to rule. This included putting a red-hot crown of iron on his head; Paul also talked about the “ludic” aspects of his torture, such as Doja’s followers being made to dance around him, with trumpets and bagpipes playing. Although Doja’s torments weren’t particularly new, the terror and pity aroused by this specific execution led to him becoming a hero in modern Hungary. Once again, symbolic violence might fail in its effects.

The final paper had Peggy McCracken talking about Adam and Eve and the animals, looking at Adam’s dominion over animals (as recorded in the account of creation in Genesis). This isn’t explicitly ended by the Fall; after the Flood, God tells Noah (Genesis 9) that the animals will fear and dread man and Noah and his sons may consume their meat. Peggy then went on to look at how later texts discussed human-animal enmity, using both various version of a Greek apocryphal life of Adam and Eve, original written in the fifth century and vernacular moralised bibles. The apocryphal life of Adam and Eve shows them losing peaceful dominion only some time after their expulsion from Eden. At the end of Adam’s life, the animals rebel, symbolised by a venomous snake attacking Seth when he and Eve are seeking oil of mercy from the Angel of Paradise to cure Adam’s pain. When Eve reproaches the snake for this rebellion, the snake chides her for her sin.

In contrast, the moralised Bibles understand the animal-human war as beginning with the Fall, whereas before Adam’s dominion had been peaceful and animals and man had both eaten only herbs and fruit. They depict the “garments of skin” mentioned in some versions of the story as fur tunics with the animal heads still attached, implying that Adam and Eve has hunted and killed them. But according to these texts, although Adam lost his dominion over large and small animals as a result of the Fall, he kept it over medium-size animals, as a comfort to him: thus although man did not control deer or flies, he did control some domesticated animals. Peggy was pointing out how the existence of power relations even in Paradise was used to justify medieval hierarchies. Animals participated in the definition of the sovereign order of nature, and these structures of sovereignty over them were enacted via violence. But as with other subordinate groups, animals could contest this dominance: the violence of the Middle Ages (both actual and symbolic) wasn’t all one way.

After this quick tour of millennia of violence, I went off to hear Session 311, one of several sessions on late antique and early medieval monasticism organised by Albrecht Diem. This session had the intriguing title of “Monks going wild”, and started off with Paul Brazinski from Catholic University of America talking about Constans II’s punishment of Maximus the Confessor, after the Lateran Council of 649. Paul was arguing that some of the details of Maximus’ exile and mutilation (such as him being placed in a cell of a military jail, separate from his companions and later having his hand and tongue amputated) were intended to recall Basil of Caesarea’s monastic rule. Maximus was being symbolically treated as a rebellious monk or unruly abbot, someone who required the “monastic” discipline first of solitary confinement and then of being “cut off”. Because there were four papers in the session, we didn’t really have time to discuss Paul’s, but it might have been interesting to put this into a wider discussion of whether the seventh century was a particularly dangerous time to be a religious leader (given it’s also at the same time that Merovingian bishops were getting murdered).

The next of the four papers was by Ekaterini Mitsiou from the National Hellenic Research Foundation, on the topic of “A criminological approach to early monastic life”. Ekaterini was pointing out that monasteries both contained people who were former criminals and was an enclosed society in which crimes might also be committed. She was then trying to draw parallels between criminology and monastic theology as ways of studying and thinking about crimes. Discourses which in the nineteenth century became part of a new discipline of criminology had previously been part of theology (and medicine). Unfortunately, Ekaterini didn’t really have time to develop this interesting contrast: maybe as well as Foucault’s techniques of the self, we need more long-term studies of “techniques of producing self-control in others”.

After this, John Henry Clay from Durham spoke on “The taming of the Jura wilderness, 435-513”, looking at the late antique monasteries founded by Romanus in around 435 on the French/Swiss border and the subsequent history of the abbots there, as recounted in The Lives of the Jura Fathers written in 520. John was discussing the relation of the monastery to that of Lerins, one of the most significant monasteries in Gaul at the time. Romanus had been trained by a bishop who himself had been trained at Lerins, but John argued that the Jura monasteries weren’t either a reaction to Lerins or a part of it, but instead an attempt to create an Eastern-style monastic life in the West. In particular, although Lerins was a “nursery of bishops”, the Jura fathers appear to have been very reluctant to be priested themselves, to have priests in the community, or to associate with bishops. They didn’t have the “public service ethos” that Lerins had to help reform the wider church.

I was particularly interested by the reference to one of the Jura abbots, Eugendus, who supposedly never left the monastery from the age of seven. I need to follow up on the reference to that, because it’s very relevant to the debate on strict active enclosure for women religious. Could a man who voluntarily accepted such restrictions nevertheless run an abbey effectively? If so, that may tell us something about the problems (or lack of them) that women may have had.

The final paper in that session (and thus the final one of the day) was Albrecht Diem discussing Hildemar of Corbie on sodomy. This paper came out of Albrecht’s wonderful Hildemar Project, translating and analysing Hincmar’s commentary on the Benedictine Rule. Albrecht was arguing for Hildemar as having “a slight obsession with sodomy”, and references appear in a number of different chapters of his. Yet his discussions of it aren’t all in the same tone. At one level, it’s a serious problem to be dealt with by ascetic techniques derived from Cassian and others. On the other hand, Hildemar can also treat the topic casually, and even partly for shock value in teaching his novices, e.g. by saying in the chapter on manual work that idleness leads to sodomy.

A lot of Albrecht’s work has charted a shift in methods for ensuring monastic purity, away from an earlier emphasis on psychological techniques (exemplified by Cassian) towards disciplinary techniques, such as the seventh century development of the common dormitory. Hildemar’s interesting because he combines aspects of the older tradition as well: he cites late antique sources on the unceasing battle for chastity, as well as talking about disciplinary techniques. But Albrecht also had a sense that although Hincmar regarded sodomy as a serious nuisance, it wasn’t an imminent threat to monasticism. And as he pointed out, the reform councils and monastic hagiography don’t focus on sexual pollution.

So does Hincmar’s work suggest that there is a “hidden discourse” on sodomy in the Carolingian period? Some scholars have argued for this, but I’ve been sceptical. I think Hildemar is more evidence for such a discourse than I previously realised (though Albrecht in later discussions said there was very little mention of bodies at all in Smaragdus’ commentary on the Benedictine rule), so the question remains of how much this is a shared discourse and how much this is just Hildemar. Albrecht also suggested that there was a monastic esprit de corps that meant problems tended to be dealt with internally and concealed from outsiders, but it seems unlikely that if it was a major problem that it never got mentioned anywhere. Albrecht pointed out that Gottschalk, for example, never got accused of sodomy, despite writing a (possibly) same-sex erotic poem and being immensely controversial for other reasons. I added in discussions that nobody in the Carolingian period ever got accused of (homosexual) sodomy; there are no specific allegations against anyone, and none of the visitors to hell in dreams even meet “sodomites” there. I still think that John Boswell had a point about the Carolingian period not being that worried about homosexuality. Given my last post, I’m almost tempted to draw analogies to Frankish society’s attitude to wolves: a problem, but not the biggest one around. As ever, our view of the world is not necessarily the one that early medieval people shared.


3 thoughts on “Kalamazoo 2014 report 2: monks and violence

  1. How did you manage to sleep peacefully with that dreadful level of violence being so graphically discussed?

    Your last para seems to suggest that people of the time were likely to have been immune, or maybe sensitized to what we consider depravity and abuse. Thinking about what the morals and norms of the period might have been is rather difficult.

    My thought is that medieval meditative nuns needed to engross themselves in other than biblical, religious, and actual violence and suppression, (this all in the guise of faith) to retain some sense of proportion, stay safe and keep their sanity!


    • Even the most gory seminar I’ve been to tends to be a lot less graphical about violence than what you’d see on TV or read in the papers most nights: it’s words, not photographs/video and normally much less detailed than a novel or a newspaper report. I once fainted during a safety video showing a car crash and have had to turn off TV crime shows before now, but violence discussed at conferences rarely affects me. The one exception was a seminar discussing fatal domestic accidents happening to medieval children, which had more personal resonance: I could imagine my child having scalding water from a cooking pot ending up on her more easily than me being so famished I ate her.

      My views on “meditatio” have changed a bit even since I heard this paper. I mentioned to a friend who’s training to be a priest that I went to an early-morning service at Lincoln cathedral where we read Psalm 68, which included God promising to let the dogs of the Israelites lap the blood of their foes. He said that after a year of the daily office, which involves reading psalms every day, he had consciously to avoid reading some psalms when he was angry (presumably because they would reinforce his anger and self-righteousness). Possibly nuns who meditated on the psalms a lot weren’t so much escaping violence as justifying their desire to have horrible things happen to their fellow nuns!


      • Dare I say it, your inner [medieval] imagination may have been sensitized because of the graphic media nature of modern presentation. It sounds like a useful thing.

        Like you, I too, would be more affected, I believe, by more recognisably evocative events. Yet, I also think about this in relation to the ‘sanitised’ war zone reporting we receive and the descriptions of human rights violations. I am unsure about my own reactions, sometimes, even the apparent lack of one. This becomes a familiar point when thinking about the original one I made


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