Manuscripts and Monastic Culture: Reform and Renewal in Twelfth-Century Germany

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Manuscripts and Monastic Culture: Reform and Renewal in Twelfth-Century Germany. Edited by Alison I. Beach. [Medieval Church Studies, 13.] (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers. 2007. Pp. xiv, 347. euro60,00.)

This collection of essays, highlighting the intellectual and spiritual vitality of monastic culture in Germany during the twelfth century, provide s eloquent testimony to the growing interest in medieval German culture and society among contemporary English-language scholars. Fueled by such figures as Caroline Walker Bynum, Jeffrey Hamburger, and Barbara Newman, this interest has swelled in recent years. Nevertheless, attention to Germany has continued to lag behind other parts of Western Europe, particularly during the twelfth century, a period generally characterized by cultural and intellectual renaissance, but one during which Germany has been seen as "rather backward or inconveniently different" (p. 3). Measured against the yardstick of northern France-the presumed epicenter of renaissance-Germany has tended to come up rather short.

One purpose of the collected essays is, therefore, to reconsider Germany's place in the cultural and intellectual landscape of the twelfth century, a topic thoughtfully explored by Rodney Thomson in his opening essay. The language of "renaissance" is, however, largely absent from the volume, which favors instead vocabulary borrowed from the book's subtitle: "reform" and "renewal." The decision to highlight reform reflects the prominence of religious rather than secular concerns among the collected essays and marks the volume's contribution to debates concerning the intellectual dimensions of spirituality and devotion. As the various authors demonstrate, reformed monasticism in Germany provided the conditions necessary for both an intellectual and a religious revival.

In addition to the volume's emphasis on German intellectual vitality (which is, paradoxically defended primarily in terms of access to French texts and ideas), the essays share a common focus on the material culture of monasticism, using manuscript studies as a window into such broader questions as monastic devotion, education, and community formation. Here again, the link between religious reform and intellectual activity emerges as a central theme. From the late eleventh century, newly reformed monasteries began to build monastic libraries, copying or commissioning manuscripts and, in some cases, promoting in-house authors and artists to write or embellish them. The fact that many of these monastic libraries survive fairly intact makes them particularly valuable as evidence for monastic intellectual and devotional culture. …