Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Enlightened Monks: The German Benedictines, 1740-1803

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Enlightened Monks: The German Benedictines, 1740-1803

Article excerpt

Enlightened Monks: The German Benedictines, 1740-1803. By Ulrich L. Lehner. (New York: Oxford University Press. 2011. Pp. viii, 266. $99-00. ISBN 978-0-199-59512-9).

Ulrich Lehner has written a book that anyone with an interest in eighteenth-century Catholicism and the more general phenomenon of religious Enlightenment will want to read. Focused on the roughly 150 monasteries (composed of some 3500-4000 professed monks) in the German-speaking Benedictine communities of southern and Middle Germany, Austria, and Switzerland over the course of the eighteenth century, the book draws on extensive primary research in local and regional archives as well as the very best of contemporary scholarship in German and English. Lehner is nothing if not a thorough and industrious scholar, and the wealth of information he has amassed alone makes this book a valuable resource. But he is also a fluid writer, with an eye for piquant details and arresting stories, ensuring that the narrative is enlivened along the way by a great number of vivid and sensitive portraits of individuals, like the "Catholic Werther" (p. 1 18), Nonnosus Gschall, whose theological struggles and depressive illness led to his self-inflicted demise; the scholar and notorious convert to Protestantism Gregorius Rothfischer; and the Scottish Benedictine Andrew Gordon, whose residence at the Abbey in Regensberg and keen interest in contemporary philosophy (above all, the thought of Christian Wolff) made him a central eighteenth-century intermediary between the Anglophone and German worlds.

Lehner organizes his study around a series of "challenges" that beset the Benedictines in the age of Enlightenment. These ranged from the need to grapple with new philosophies, theologies, and understandings of history and natural law to responses to cultural and "lifestyle" changes common to many parts of eighteenth-century Europe. Thus, Lehner traces how changing conceptions of leisure time and the introduction of new luxury items like coffee, tea, and tobacco led some monks to demand greater freedom and independence in which to play cards or billiards or smoke. So, too, did evolving understandings of personal privacy and self-expression lead to conflicts over space and appearance. …

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