Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Dark Age Bodies: Gender and Monastic Practice in the Early Medieval West

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Dark Age Bodies: Gender and Monastic Practice in the Early Medieval West

Article excerpt

Dark Age Bodies: Gender and Monastic Practice in the Early Medieval West. By Lynda L. Coon. [The Middle Ages Series.] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 201 1. Pp. xii, 390. $65.00. ISBN 978-0-812-24269-0.)

Lynda Coon says that her purpose in this book is to "reconstruct the gender ideology of clerical masculinity through an investigation of early medieval readings of the body" (p. 2). She has chosen for her subject the work of Hrabanus Maurus (780-856), a monk of Fulda who was one of the most prolific and influential Carolingian authors. The text of Hrabanus that is her main focus is the remarkable In Honor of the Holy Cross.

Beyond the writings of Hrabanus, Coon also analyzes some other Carolingian remains- namely, the Westwerk of Corbey, the Michael Rotunda of Fulda, and the Plan of St. Gall. In all these productions, Coon stresses the element of bricolage- that is, the collecting of items from another culture to make a point. Coon claims that the Carolingians liked to display materials from Roman times to emphasize their role as the guardians of the frontier against the barbarian east.

Overall, Coon's analysis of these monuments is interesting and insightful. However, the acrostic poem on the Holy Cross is so complex and esoteric that it leaves the reader gasping. The author admits that even Hrabanus did not fully understand what he was doing. But Coon proposes to read this material through gender theory- a method that poses problems, given that medieval monasticism is heavily patriarchal, and it can be misleading to view any institution through a single analytical lens. Coon applies the theory to the Carolingians and states that, for them, the great thing was proper speech. Whoever could speak proper Latin could lead; he was a "mouth person. …

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