The World of Medieval Monasticism

Its History and Forms of Life

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Gert Melville
James D. Mixson
Cistercian Studies
  • Collegeville, MN: 
    Liturgical Press
    , March
     462 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Gert Melville’s The World of Medieval Monasticism: Its History and Forms of Life (Liturgical Press, 2016) embarks on a propitious journey to introduce English-speakers to his scholarship on monasticism. The present work was translated by James D. Mixson for the prolific Cistercian Studies Series (No. 263) with special permission from the author. Melville’s masterful study traces the trials and tribulations of the Church’s burgeoning eremitic movements from the early ascetic models of the Desert Fathers to the institutional structures based upon the Benedictine model. Melville’s poignant and accessible prose chronicles the Church’s relationships to the gospel and to the world, which were replete with pendulous periods of eremitism, materialism, secularization, reform and renewal.

We can divide Melville’s meticulous study into four thematic parts: the desert models, the Cluniac models, the reformed Cluniac models and the Cistercian models. The first section introduces the principle and practice of desert asceticism, the former focusing on the notion of anachoresis (“the renunciation of the mundane world”) and the latter focusing on the vita religiosa (“an unconditionally religious life”). St. Anthony’s legend best epitomizes this period, which is both indicative of an eremitic interpretation of Matthew 19:21 and illustrative of the “episcopal asceticism” developed by St. Athanasius of Alexandra (2-3). Moreover, Melville hones-in on the major distinction between this early asceticism and its Medieval interpretations: the importance of the kellion, or “cells” in which eremites would live privately with no need for property or religious rules (4). 

Melville concludes that this proto-monasticism eventually led to more ordered coenobitic models throughout the Roman Empire, which culminated in the Rule of St. Benedict. He argues that the Benedictine push to formalize early coenobitic traditions, while perhaps revolutionary, inevitably hastened confrontations with the state because the privileges and exemptions bestowed upon each “[designated] the monastery’s place in the imperial church [and] its relationship to the king” (50). The pendulous reactions to this conflict introduce the second part of his study, which focuses on what can be called the cre de coeur of early-Medieval monasticism: William of Aquitaine’s “Cluniac vision.”

Melville explains that by establishing an independent abbatial election, Cluny was “to be free from the yoke of any earthly power” (55-56). Though it eventually enjoyed immense influence and virtual autonomy, its primary focus on the vita monastica (“life of the monks”) created “a consciousness that was not always easy to reconcile with the hierarchical models of the secular clergy and the institutional church” (75). The Cluniacs inevitably found themselves caught between the Church and the state in the Investiture Controversy. Melville argues that this conflict, wherein secular rulers claimed equal authority to the pope, festered until the Church found itself pitted against Henry IV. While the Concordat of Worms ended the Investiture Controversy, it took half a century of waxing and waning between imperial control and episcopal liberty before “the Roman Church emerged as victor in the struggle for its freedom” (132). 

Melville begins the third part by referencing alternative monastic orders such as the Hirsau model, the failure of which seems to illustrate the complexity of nuancing the Cluniac model. His central point argues that though the end of the Investiture Controversy brought with it a new push to construct a monastic model free of imperial control, a model without benefactors and protective authorities rendered it unsustainable. Melville then reiterates one of the book’s preeminent themes: the ideals of the Desert Fathers became the refuge for a European monasticism mired in controversy and worldliness.  

Melville states that while learning from the mistakes of Cluny, the Church envisioned for itself a new polity that paid homage to the monastic ideals of Pope St. Urban II and Pope St. Gregory VII (Hildebrand) while praising the anachoresis of the Desert Fathers. The Cistercian model fused together the vita canonica (“life of the canons”) and the cura animarum (“pastoral care for the souls of humankind”) while investing the vita monasticawith equal political and pastoral authority to fundamentally reform the vita religiosa (131). This new amalgamation found its root in the “desert isolation” of a meadow located south of Dijon, France (136-137). Though such an attempt at radical reform was distinct from the “old system,” it floundered within a year due to similar ties to land, tithes and benefactors. 

It was once again to the Desert Fathers that the Cistercians turned to, a vision which came to fruition in the form of the constitution Carta caritatis (“Charter of Charity”). The most striking provision of this document proclaimed that “every local bishop … was to agree to avoid every conflict between bishop and monk” (147). This assurance of independence enabled three reformative measures. The first enabled eremitic orders to join a network of Benedictine monasteries that were bound together under the charter rather than a single charismatic leader. The second provided freedom from episcopal and regional control. The third enabled such orders to foster a sense of “ecumenism” whereby an annual meeting was attended by representatives from each sister abbey. By joining a network of abbeys bound by a legal document as opposed to a titular head, the concept of a “monastic order” found its ultimate manifestation (158). 

In the fourth part, Melville turns his attention to the Franciscans, the Dominicans and the wider mendicant orders. He illustrates how the Franciscans fused the attraction of a charismatic leader’s vision with the constitutional structure of the Cistercian model but without static monasteries (217). In contrast to the charismatic figure of St. Francis and his sequela Christi (“imitation of Christ”), the Dominicans sought to imitate the apostles completely (232). They eventually adopted their own preamble to the Carta caritatis whereby they established laws for their order. The successes of these two mendicant orders paved the way for future orders like the Carmelites to find success. Melville concludes his work by discussing the transformation of the vita religiosa. He establishes that the successes of the Cistercians and the mendicant orders presented new challenges once they comprised most of Western Christendom without discernable unity. One solution was presented in 1308 whereby for the first time communities could adopt the Rule of Augustine. They were formulated into the Ordo sancti Pauli primi eremite (“Order of St. Paul the First Hermit”), which was confirmed by Pope John XXII (268). 

This is how monasticism evolved from the deserts of Egypt, survived the conflicts inherent in worldliness and imperial politics and found success in constitutional organization, which became the normative model for all future monastic orders. Melville’s poignant prose, though certainly approachable, is often overshadowed by the immense wealth of information provided across the four thematic parts. In part 1, his brief analysis of Eastern asceticism appears only to serve as a staging point from which to discuss Western monasticism. Part 2, on the Cluniac model, is full of profitable information yet leaves the reader yearning for deeper analysis of the Investiture Controversy. Finally, Melville’s discussion of the Hirsau model in part 3 seems tangential considering that he only briefly mentions it in the introduction. Despite these critiques, this veritable tome would complement any scholar’s archive.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Owen Gaston is a doctoral candidate in Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
February 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gert Melville is Senior Professor for Medieval History at Dresden University. He is the founder and director of the Research Center for the Comparative History of the Religious Orders (FOVOG) and the author of scores of essays on medieval religious and cultural history.

James D. Mixson is Associate Professor of History at the University of Alabama.


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.