norman f cantor - the crisis of western monasticism 1050-1030

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The Crisis of Western Monasticism, 1050-1130 Author(s): Norman F. Cantor Source: The American Historical Review, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Oct., 1960), pp. 47-67 Published by: American Historical Association Stable URL: Accessed: 01/12/2009 14:54Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

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The Crisisof Western Monasticism, 1050-1130NORMANF. CANTOR*

THE second half of the eleventh century and the first three decades of the twelfth have long been regarded as an extremely critical period in the development of Western monasticism. Generally speaking, these eight decades witnessed the ending of the Benedictine centuries, that long period of early medieval history, stretching over half a millenium, in which the fate not only of religion but also of culture and civilization in Western Europe was in large part determined by the work of the black monks. Several great scholars, among them Hauck, Sackut, Knowles, and Hallinger,' have made clear this central theme in early medieval history. It has been shown that St. Benedict intended to create a religious institution which would be a refuge for the more devout Latin Christians who "have lost faith in civilization but will not give up faith in God," as Dean Inge said of the early medieval mystics.2 In the midst of a falling world, a widespread pessimism encouraged the conviction that the promised salvation could only be attained by withdrawal from society. But in succeeding centuries it became evident that the walls of the monastery could not effectively cut off the monks from the life of the surrounding society, as St. Benedict had intended. Early medieval society, so pitifully lacking in adequate leadership and effective institutions, could not afford to lose the labor and talents of the monks, nor could it fail to enlist in its service an institution that exhibited remarkable powers of survival in the midst of political disorganization. Consequently by the Carolingian period the Benedictine monastery had, as it were, come to be absorbed into society. By the ninth century its mem* Mr. Cantor is an associateprofessorat Columbia University and the author of Church, Kingship, and Lay Investiturein England, o089-1z35 (Princeton, N. J., 1958). This article is a slightly revised version of a paper read at the Anglo-American Conferenceof Historians at the University of London, July I0, I959. 1 Albert Hauck, Kirchengeschichte Deutschlands 4th ed., 5 vols., Leipzig, 1906); Ernst Sackur, Die Cluniacenser (z vols., Halle, I892-94); David Knowles, The Monastic Order in England (Cambridge, Eng., I940); Kassius Hallinger, Gorze-Kluny (2 vols., Rome, I950). Also of importance are Max Heimbucher, Die Orden und Kongregationen der Katholischen Kirche (3d ed., 2 vols., Paderborn, I933); Georg Schreiber, Gemeinschaften des Mittelalters (Munster, I948); L. M. Smith, Cluny in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Oxford, Eng., R. W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages (New Haven, Conn., I953). 1930); 2 W. R. Inge, Christian Mysticism (London, I899; reprinted New York, I956), 115.



Norman F. Cantor

bers were drawn extensively, if not exclusively, from the nobility3 and it had become a social institution of the greatest importance. First of all, the monastery had become a religious center for the ignorant and frequently barbaric inhabitants of the surrounding countryside serving, through an increasingly elaborate liturgy, as the intercessor for lay society with the Savior and the saints favored in the local area. In frontier regions like Germany in the time of St. Boniface, the Benedictine monastery was the most effective missionary center in the arduous work of imposing Latin Christianity upon a savage and heathen environment. Only a few decades after Benedict's death, that far-seeing leader of Christian Europe, Gregory the Great, realized that the Christianization of Europe could only be accomplished by enlisting the monks in the service of the whole Church, for within the monastic establishments were to be found the most learned and zealous churchmen of the age. But strictly religious endeavors were only one part of the obligations and duties that early medieval society was impelled to impose upon the Benedictine monks. It is well known that the only really effective successors to the municipal schools of the late Roman Empire were the schools which grew up in several of the greater monasteries in various parts of Western Europe between the time of Cassiodorus in the early sixth century and that of Alcuin at the end of the eighth century. For only the greater monasteries could provide the teaching staff, the library, and the continuity that successful educational institutions require. Upon the monks indeed fell most of the burden of preserving a literate Church, and hence a literate civilization, through the study of the Latin language, selections from classical literature, and the Latin patristic writings. In addition to these educational tasks there were, with ever greater importance especially from the eighth century on, heavy secular burdens for the monks. Despite their individual vows of poverty, the monks collectively, as religious communities, played great roles in early medieval economy. The monastic houses became great landlords and supervised the work of the serfs on their manorial estates. From the eighth century the monasteries were also slowly brought into the institutional nexus of the developing feudal order, and the abbots became the tenants-in-chief and vassals of kings and dukes with attendant political, judicial, and military responsibilities. In the growth3 Although it is impossible to give any statistics on the social background of the monks, the fragmentary evidence does indicate a heavy preponderance of nobility among them from the ninth century on. Cf. Aloys Schulte, Der Adel und die deutsche Kirche (Stuttgart, I9IO); Hauck, Kirchengeschichte Deutschlands, III, 490-9I; Heinrich Fichtenau, The Carolingian Empire, tr. Peter Munz (Oxford, Eng., I957), I67, n. 5.

The Crisis of Western Monasticism,



of the most successful feudal states of medieval Europe, the duchy of Normandy and Anglo-Norman England, the military importance of the monasteries at first sight would appear to be small because by the middle decades of the twelfth century the knight service that monasteries owed to the king or duke was greatly surpassed by the service owed by lay barons. Furthermore many monasteries owed no service at all.4 But it is necessary to recall the situation in the earlier, formative periods of the Norman and AngloNorman feudal states. The nine Norman monasteries which owed knight service to the duke before I050 could be relied upon to provide a contingent of over forty knights at a time when the duke was still struggling against the lay barons. Similarly, knight service was imposed upon only those monasteries existing in England in the decade or so after the Conquest, but the approximately three hundred knights whom these monasteries sent to the royal army were of great value to the Conqueror during the most critical decade of his reign. It is well known that monasteries on the Continent as well, from the eighth to the eleventh century, helped the development of the most powerful kingdoms. The Anglo-Saxon monasteries founded in Friesland and Germany in the eighth century were vanguards of Carolingian expansion.5 By the end of the tenth century, through use of the institutions of the advocacy and immunity, eighty-five German monasteries were brought directly under the control of the Ottonian house. Their abbots were granted the power of counts in many cases and given the onerous tasks of local administration on behalf of the monarch, and the knights enfiefed on monastic estates formed an important contingent of the royal army.6 The German abbeys sent 4I0 knights to Otto II's army in 98I as against 508 provided by all lay vassals.7 The German monasteries became so accustomed to such secular duties that in the second decade of the eleventh century they bitterly resented the attempts made by Henry II to reduce their worldly obligations.8 Nor could the monks avoid being recruited as royal chancellors or chaplains at a time when such a high proportion of literate men in Western Europe were members of the regular clergy, and kings chronically lackedRecueil des Historiens des Gaules et de la France, ed. Martin Bouquet (24 vols., Paris, XXIII, 693-99; Red Book of the Exchequer, ed. Hubert Hall (2 vols., London, I896), I, i86 ff.; Charles H. Haskins, Norman Institutions (Cambridge, Mass., I9I8), 8-Io; Helena M. Chew, Ecclesiastical Tenants-in-Chief and K