Aelred the Peacemaker

The Public Life of a Cistercian Abbot

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Jean Truax
Cistercian Studies
  • Collegeville, MN: 
    Liturgical Press
    , March
     2017.
     340 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780879072513.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Jean Truax has written a thorough, yet highly readable study of the Cistercian abbot Aelred of Rievaulx’s role in the public affairs of his day. As the author points out, scholarship on Aelred is abundant, but mainly limited to his spiritual writings and sermons on the one hand and to his tenure at the monastery of Rievaulx on the other; scholars have focused either on Aelred as author or as monastic administrator and much less on Aelred as a political and public figure. With this study, the author aims to give a better appreciation of, in her words, “the true volume and scope of this early Cistercian’s accomplishments” (1). 

This is a clearly conceived and coherently executed project, and the author is well equipped to take on the challenge of writing a complicated historical biography, as she already demonstrated in her 2012 book on the three Archbishops of Canterbury, Ralph d’Escures, William of Corbeil, and Theobald of Bec. The book is very well researched. The chapters are organized thematically, with a loose chronological development that allows the author to shape a narrative over which she displays full control. The appendixes provide useful English translations of some shorter texts by Aelred (or attributed to him) which are discussed by Truax. 

Truax succeeds in placing Aelred’s historical writing in a broader context, for instance in reading Report on the Battle of the StandardLament of David I of Scotland, and Genealogy of the Kings of the English up against the labile political situation at the aftermath of the Anglo-Norman civil wars (chap. 6) and Life of Edward the Confessor up against the escalating conflict between Archbishop Thomas Beckett and King Henry II (chap. 7). 

However, there are reasons for the scholarly inattention to the political and public aspects of Aelred’s career, reasons that make themselves felt also in Truax’s study. The sources are simply quite scarce. Walter Daniel, the author of Aelred’s Vita, is reticent on the subject of the abbot’s public life and Aelred’s own letters are lost. The author herself admits that in order to build a case for Aelred’s sustained political activity in the northern realm “much speculation and a great deal of reading between the lines has been necessary” (171). The same can be said for her readings of Aelred’s activities elsewhere, too. The book is filled with phrasings like “it must have been …” or “it would have been …” and “it is likely that…” (e.g., 46-47). Truax resolves this issue by keeping an admirably transparent tone with the reader, pointing out herself when she offers mere conjecture. 

One might perhaps have wished for a more consistent engagement with the thornier issues of power struggles, conflicts, and contestations in the early Cistercian world. Recent scholarship, especially in the wake of Constance Berman’s 2000 study on the early Cistercian order, has nuanced the image of the early Cistercians as lofty and saintly figures, far removed from human chaos and confusion. Early Cistercians were often controversial figures precisely because of their activity and influence in the world outside their monasteries, a case in point being Bernard of Clairvaux. Aelred of Rievaulx—in David Knowles’s happy phrasing “the Bernard of the North”—was certainly no exception, to judge from his hagiography. Among the merits of Truax’s study is her willingness to explore Aelred as a historical figure who was engaged in the messy, practical world of politics and intrigues. Nevertheless, Aelred emerges in this book as an idealized figure, a “peacemaker,” in contrast to the aging abbot of tarnished reputation that filters through Walter’s Vita. Here, Truax’s lack of engagement with theoretical issues makes itself felt. We find passing references to the duality of vita activa and vita contemplativa, but little in the way of extended discussions. Some readers might miss a wider contextualization of the theme of engagement with versus withdrawal from the world in Cistercian rhetoric and ideology, aspects that have been emphasized in excellent studies by Mette B. Bruun and Martha Newman.

Truax’s discussion of Aelred’s relations with women (chap. 5), while less important to the books central argument than other chapters, sheds significant new light on the abbot’s dealings with female patrons and nuns, thus justly challenging the stereotype of a man ignorant of or indifferent to women (cf. Brian Patrick McGuire and John Boswell). Still, her discussions of Aelred’s “views” on women remain within the confines of an approach taken by scholars before the linguistic and rhetorical turn in the humanities, such as Jean Leclercq’s 1982 study Women and St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Truax is a meticulous and careful reader of Aelred’s writings, although she mostly mines the texts for traces of opinions or for empirical evidence. She is notably more concerned with political history—courts, kings, nobles, alliances, battles—than with theology or intellectual history. This concern is perhaps only natural insofar as it reflects the book’s motivation and original contribution since Aelred has rarely been approached in this way in scholarship. Yet, as noted above, Truax’s assessments might have benefited from more attention to rhetorical devices and ideology in the sources. For example, discussions of LamentGenealogy, and Battle in the context of the civil wars (141-43) do not problematize what seem to be hyperboles and topoi of humility and expressions of ambivalence towards authority and power, so typical of Cistercian rhetoric. 

Finally, some repetitions and some minor stylistic flaws could have been avoided by a more attentive copy-editing (e.g., Walter’s quote on p. 68 is repeated on p. 78; mention of Walter’s few references to Aelred’s extra-monastic activities on p. 8 is repeated on p. 10; the transition period following the Treaty of Winchester is called “uncomfortable” three times in the discussion in chap. 6). 

All in all, and despite these few objections, this book makes for rewarding reading both for medieval and Cistercian scholars and for a more general public. The specialist and the non-specialist alike will appreciate the carefully reconstructed narrative of the events, encounters, personal relations, and shifting allegiances surrounding the abbot of Rievaulx. Aelred is a central character for anyone with an interest in Cistercian studies and English 12th-century history, intertwined as his life was with that of looming figures such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Beckett, and Henry II. But Aelred is interesting in his own right, too, as a complex historical figure: author, abbot, and—as this book makes clear—political player.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Line Cecilie Engh is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art, and Ideas at the University of Oslo.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jean Truax is an independent scholar and the author of a study of three twelfth-century archbishops of Canterbury: Ralph d'Escures, William of Corbeil and Theobald of Bec: Heirs of Anselm and Ancestors of Becket. She comes to her interest in Aelred of Rievaulx and the Cistercians because of the welcome extended to her at the Cistercian and Monastic Studies Conference, which meets every year in conjunction with the International Congress on Medieval Studies held at the University of Western Michigan in Kalamazoo.

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