Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Robert of Arbrissel: A Medieval Religious Life

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Robert of Arbrissel: A Medieval Religious Life

Article excerpt

Robert of Arbrissel: A Medieval Religious Life, documents translated and annotated by Bruce L. Venarde (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2003). xiv +155 pp. ISBN 0-8132-1354-1. $21.95.

The twelfth century has its fair share of colourful and charismatic wandering preachers but even in this company Robert of Arbrissel stands out for the alleged extravagance of his behaviour; as his critic Marbode, Bishop of Rennes, complained in a letter included in this very useful collection of documents, the 'novel eccentricity' of his 'appearance and deportment' (p. 92) was enough to arouse suspicions of madness: 'you lack only a club to complete the outfit of a lunatic' (pp. gof.). Particularly alarming to a prelate such as Marbode was Robert's predilection for women disciples, not least because Robert was said to have revived the practice of syneisactism, having taken to sharing his bed with women as a mark of moral fortitude. Marbode was not alone in his complaints. Venarde includes also a letter from Geoffrey, Abbot of Vendôme, to Robert that echoes the Bishop of Rennes's concerns: 'so long as we lack angelic perfection', warns Geoffrey tartly, 'let us by no means share the devil's presumption' (p. 103).

Sexual misconduct or at the least suspicion of it made Robert an easy target for his critics; it is all the more important therefore to try to see what lay behind such rumours, especially since, notwithstanding a certain flamboyance, Robert in many ways was a model of orthodoxy. His career as a preacher had begun at the request of Urban II; his foundation of Fontevraud, though startlingly original in its organization as a double community grouped under the authority of an abbess, very soon became the choice of fashionable women. …

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