The Trauma of Monastic Reform

Community and Conflict in Twelfth-Century Germany

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Alison I. Beach
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , October
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Trauma of Monastic Reform: Community and Conflict in Twelfth-Century Germany, Alison I. Beach focuses on the situation of monks who lived with and through the changes imposed by uninvited outsiders from the reforming monastery of Hirsau. With the historical chronicle of the monastery of Peterhausen as the lynchpin for her analysis and Benedict Anderson's concept of an “imagined community” as her primary theoretical touchstone, Beach shows how to extract morsels of “lived experience” from reformist polemics and how the process of reform disrupted, reorganized, and expanded a monastic community.

The usefulness of the word “reform” has become a subject of scholarly debate for historians of the High Middle Ages. With its polemical nature, reform has the potential to obscure more than describe the religious situation of the late 11th and 12th centuries. Furthermore, it can suggest a cycle of crisis and recovery, even focusing on supposed crises where none existed and where reform might better be treated simply as change or innovation (see John Van Engen, “The ‘Crisis of Cenobitism’ Reconsidered: Benedictine Monasticism in the Years 1050-1150,” Speculum 61/2 [1986]: 269-75). The issue is further complicated by the evidence, as many sources from that time often used words like reformare or reformatio (see Giles Constable, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century, Cambridge University Press, 1998, 3). Some have looked for other ways to characterize the era, opting for descriptors like “transformation” or “renewal.” Others keep the word “reform,” but attempt to avoid the cyclical narrative by uncovering a localized, long process of reform (e.g., Steven Vanderputten, Monastic Reform as Process: Realities and Representations in Medieval Flanders, 900-1100, Cornell University Press, 2013). Beach's study belongs to the latter category. She retains “reform” and its variants as a “useful academic shorthand” while acknowledging their polemical flavor (19, n33). Beach then shows the contingencies, false starts, and local dynamics involved in the slow work of instilling a reform agenda. In the process she offers a fresh and alternative narrative of reform. Rather than a story of progress and innovation, Beach shows how reform can destroy long-held traditions and upset communities.

Beach begins by examining the anonymous Peterhausen chronicler's reform rhetoric. According to the chronicler, Peterhausen's monks had lost their “vigor” by the end of the 11th century (16, n23). It took the initiative of bishop Gebhard III of Constance (r. 1084-1110) and a group of William of Hirsau's (d. 1091) disciples to “revitalize” the “decaying” community (16). Over the course of thirty years, reformers installed Hirsau's liturgical observances, renovated and expanded the neglected monastic complex, and oversaw a growth in recruits that turned Peterhausen into a reform center. This apparent success story, however, is not Beach's primary interest. Here Beach presents the heart of her argument: monks often experienced the “success” of reform as a “cultural trauma” that reverberated through the region. This disrupted their core “imagined community,” while simultaneously expanding it to include lay brothers, women, and new patrons (20-21).

Beach's second chapter exposes how the monks from before the arrival of Hirsau resisted the earliest reform efforts and how liturgical changes restructured monastic identity. According to the chronicler, the problems began with the holdovers who not only ran off the first Hirsau abbot but also strategically shirked their duties. In one illustrative example, they often clandestinely met in a back room to drink, eat, and presumably grouse about their situation. Beach argues that this “oppositional mood” was not a surprising or unforeseen possibility, as implementing the Hirsau reforms ended Peterhausen's established practices, many of which had been forged over more than century, thus disrupting communal identities and social hierarchies (45).

In the first two chapters Beach focuses on the situation of a particular class of monk, the choir monk. In chapters 3 and 4, however, she shows how the reform of Peterhausen extended the monastery's “imagined community” beyond the core of those who chanted. The “most startling innovation” associated with this restructuring, according to Beach, was the institution of a lay brotherhood at Peterhausen to support the monks (57). In return for engaging the world on behalf of the choir monks, these often-noble laymen received not only incorporation into the monks’ “imagined community,” but also a modicum of refuge from the constant violence of secular life. While William of Hirsau meant for this arrangement to buffer the choir monks from the world, Beach shows that it frequently pulled monasteries deeper into regional political quarrels.

Around 1135, women started joining Peterhausen, making it a “dual-sex monastery” (76). Scholars sometimes refer to this arrangement as a “double monastery,” suggesting two separate but closely related communities. This was not the case at Peterhausen. Beach shows that these women and men viewed themselves as a single community. Though the extant evidence is scant, Beach wields it to great effect, illustrating the various ways these men and women fulfilled their spiritual and material duties to each other despite prohibitions against male and female contact. Beach reconstructs aspects of these women’s lives through minute textual clues, as well as archeological and codicological data, supplementing lacunae with examples from other Hirsau houses.

In the fifth chapter, Beach looks at how Peterhausen expanded its influence through founding and reforming other monasteries. Central to contemporary narratives of monastic expansion was a sort of apostolic foundation myth, where a “mother” monastery sent out twelve monks to found or reform a “daughter” house. Beach not only dispels this expansion myth for the Hirsau context, but compellingly shows how the orderly concept of “filiation”—which she argues, for Peterhausen, is a modern construction—may obstruct and misrepresent the long, messy, and sometimes murderous trauma of reform (102).

Finally, the sixth chapter and the epilogue examine the complicated relationship between Peterhausen and its lay patrons, focusing on the monastery’s situation as it faced increasing competition from new monastic groups. As papal allies in the ongoing Investiture Controversy, monasteries under the Hirsau umbrella struggled for freedom from lay interference. Beach, however, shows that lay patrons were not only intimately involved in life at Peterhausen, sometimes living as unprofessed “monks” for an extended period of time, but sometimes shifted between papal and imperial alliances, turning on Peterhausen and becoming aggressors against the monastery.

By focusing on a specific monastic house, Beach shows how the process of reform in one community reverberated throughout an entire region. While her use of “imagined communities” opens doors for understanding monastic reform, she leaves room for future engagement with Anderson's concept. For example, Anderson emphasizes the importance of a shared language for constructing an “imagined community.” In a monastic context, the liturgy provided this language. Though Beach stresses the centrality of the liturgy to creating and changing identity, there is little discussion about the specifics of how liturgical language changed when monasteries like Peterhausen joined Hirsau's fold. Her excellent study is eminently grounded in the sources and her prose is exceptionally readable as she weaves an accessible narrative out of complicated and disparate evidence. Even when her technical paleographical and codicological methodology appears in the book, it never distracts from, and only enhances, the story she tells. This is an accomplishment, to be sure. The Trauma of Monastic Reform will be useful not only for monastic historians and medievalists, but also for those interested in the dynamics of reform in general.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jacob Doss is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Texas at Austin.

Date of Review: 
June 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alison I. Beach is Associate Professor of History at the Ohio State University, Columbus. She is the author of Women as Scribes: Book Production and Monastic Reform in Twelfth-Century Bavaria (Cambridge, 2004) and is also editor, with Isabelle Cochelin, of the forthcoming two-volume Cambridge History of Medieval Monasticism in the Latin West for the Cambridge New History Series.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.