Intercessory Prayer and the Monastic Ideal in the Time of the Carolingian Reforms

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Renie S. Choy
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     2017.
     272 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198790518.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Intercessory Prayer and the Monastic Ideal in the Time of the Carolingian Reforms, Renie S. Chow deftly weaves together liturgical studies, the institutionalization of Western monasticism, and the theological and ecclesial concerns of Carolingian reformers in order to show how Carolingian reformers, in particular Benedict of Aniane (d. 821), were driven by pastoral concerns for the spiritual progression of both individual monks and the monastic community to develop what Marilynn Dunn has called the “intercessory superstructure” that would come to dominate medieval monasticism (199). In engaging with a wide range of sources, Choy has produced a delightful piece of scholarship that takes a serious approach to early medieval spirituality and will certainly be a necessary read for any future scholarship on the social and theological meanings of prayer in the Carolingian world.

As she notes in her introduction, traditional narratives of the early medieval period have suggested that “monks generally lost their understanding of the monastic life as a spiritual combat and began to rely, rather, on the ascription of holiness given to them by society, a fact which made their institutions rich and powerful” (9). By placing Benedict of Aniane at the center of her study, Choy is able to show that monasticism in the 8th and 9th centuries continued to be understood as a life of struggle against human temptation; that struggle, though, was one that was mitigated through the corporate body of the monastery via the medium of intercessory prayer.

Choy’s monograph breaks down the social and spiritual meanings of intercessory prayer across six chapters that display an impressive familiarity with many types of sources and several historiographical debates. In her first chapter, she effectively shows how traditional arguments on intercessory prayer rooted in Maussian gift exchange or forms of institutional power fail to take seriously the “overtly pastoral concerns” undergirding the transformation of “the function of intercessory prayer from a display of one’s holiness to an activity prescribed to further progress in the way of holiness” (26). Monastic legislation, which by the 9th century began to include more specific regulations for liturgical prayer, was preoccupied with providing tools to counter sin. The institutionalization of intercessory prayer under the Carolingians arose from a desire to protect monks, conceived of by reformers as “feeble sheep,” not as the ritualized display of social function (30-34).

The second and third chapters tackle the theological meanings of intercessory prayer. Of particular note here is Choy’s engagement with Benedict of Aniane’s Munimenta fidei, a lesser-known text than his monastic legislation, extant in only one manuscript (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, lat. 2390). In this work, Benedict of Aniane addressed the “Adoptionist” heresy of Felix of Urgel (d. 818), and Choy shows how it was intended for a monastic audience to show that only through correct belief could one progress toward spiritual perfection (50-59). Choy expands on Benedict of Aniane’s dogmatic concerns in her examination of the tituli psalmorum (79ff.). Latin psalter manuscripts were often transmitted with one (or more) of seven series of titles that presented Christian interpretations of each psalm. Choy draws attention to how these tituli psalmorum frequently call for psalms to be read “in the voice of the church” or “in the voice of Christ.” Choy expertly integrates these psalm titles alongside the Munimenta fidei’s emphasis on the unity and integrity of Christ with the Father.

By the fourth chapter, the many strands of Choy’s argument have coalesced, and the examination of the significance of intercessory prayer in the formation of the monastic community is one of the high points of the book. Choy begins the chapter with a summary of the epistolary format in Christian tradition, noting how the call for intercession on the writer’s behalf finds echoes in later intercessory litanies. The “contract and covenant” format of epistolary salutations found a home in coenobitic monasticism, the ultimate goal of which was mutual defense and support against sin (109). This chapter tackles the thorny issue of whether the Rule of Benedict’s requirement for daily manual labor was supplanted by prayer in the 9th century, arguing that monks and lay brothers engaged in the monastery’s manual labor were key targets of intercessory prayer (115).

In the final two chapters, Choy moves outside the monastery’s walls to examine the function of intercession on behalf of rulers and intercession on behalf of society. Both chapters are important for the way they interact with the historiography. Chapter 5 suggests that the language of intercessory prayers for rulers changed between the Merovingian and Carolingian period. Prayers on behalf of Charlemagne hailed him as pacificus, the peace-making king, and intercessory prayers made direct comparisons between the Carolingian world and the heavenly city of God (144). In this model, kings themselves were capable of pursuing the same Christian virtue sought by monks, but because they are not experts at praying, kings cannot progress on their own, thus necessitating intercession on their behalf (153). Choy’s final chapter explores how Carolingian reformers expanded the performance of intercessory prayer beyond the monastery walls. This chapter makes use of liturgical directions and imperial and episcopal commands for rogation days. Choy also wants to demonstrate that private prayer expanded beyond the monastery during this time in the form of libelli precum, collections of prayers often included in psalter manuscripts. It is in this section that I have found the only significant misstep in the monograph. Choy has confused Charlemagne’s sister Gisla, abbess of Chelles, with his daughter Gisla in citing Alcuin’s commentary on the Gospel of John (182). Although this confusion unfortunately undermines Choy’s argument that even laywomen had the “same responsibility in prayer” as monks and nuns (183), her overall point remains convincing.

Choy’s monograph presents a new approach to the study of intercessory prayer, and her assertion of its value to the monks themselves and her nuanced reading of its larger social function will most definitely provide a solid foundation for further students of medieval monasticism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Melissa W. Kapitan is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Kentucky.

Date of Review: 
March 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Renie Choy is lecturer in Church History at St Mellitus College, London.

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