„Monasticisms and mendicancies“ workshop at Sheffield, 22. November 2013

In my attempts to understand the contentious and colorful world of thirteenth-century religion, I am at the moment trying to build closer links to historians of the monastic and mendicant orders. Beyond the busy German scene and blogosphere, an all-around felicitous connection to colleagues in Northern England has developed up recently, which has led to a proposal for four exciting sessions and a roundtable on ’New religious histories’ at Leeds next year, co-organized by Amanda Power (Sheffield), Melanie Brunner (Leeds), and myself. More on that to follow.

Friday, 22. November, however, I also had the opportunity to participate as a guest in a workshop on “Monasticisms and Mendicancies” held between the ‚White rose‘ universities Leeds, Sheffield and York, co-organized by Amanda Power and Emilia Jamroziak (Leeds), but also attended by a group of postgraduate students and various other colleagues, including Melanie Brunner (Leeds) and Lucy Sackville (York).
The intent of the workshop was to provide a comparative setting for the discussion of shared older narratives in the various histories of monastic and mendicant orders. Also, it specifically aimed to discuss “the histories and experiences of the various religious orders as context for each other – looking at mendicant communities within the context of older monastic orders and vice versa: as communities reacting to each other, assisting, competing, drawing on the same deep traditions and participating in the same contemporary agendas“, as Amanda put it.
Like the planned Leeds sessions, however, the workshop turned strongly on the idea that we should not only compare and connect monastic and mendicant religiosity and community-building, but look beyond the world of religious communities to medieval religion as a whole.
During the first session, consisting of six ten-minute statements, three speakers focusing on monastic/mendicant history in a stricter sense were thus followed by three speakers with a focus on hospitals (Sethina Watson, York), heretical movements (Lucy Sackville, York) and the clergy’s grievances against the mendicants (my own contribution).The main themes and concerns in the history of the monastic and mendicant orders were raised in Amanda Power’s and Emilia Jamroziak’s two statements, which opened the workshop: Emilia shared her concerns about the largely neglected history of the Cistercian order in the Late Middle Ages (see also her recent book), a period marked by intense engagement of the Cistercians with their surroundings, for example with lay spirituality or with university education. As the dominant narrative in Cistercian research is one of ‚decline‘ after the arrival of the mendicants on the scene, these links between Cistercian communities and their surroundings (such as monastic hospitality, the subject of Richard Thomas’ ongoing Ph D dissertation at the University of Leeds) go largely unexplored.
Amanda’s statement illuminated some of the reasons underlying the current discontent with inherited narratives of monastic and mendicant history. Voicing her dissatisfaction with the way historical research on the Franciscan revolves around the figure and impact of St. Francis, she pointed to underlying twentieth-century issues: Vatican II gave a strong impulse to the religious orders to re-focus on their original calling, thus centering most historiography on the question of the ‚essence‘ (as it were) of the order and making all later developments „decline“ or „departures“ from the norm. Yet even the term ‚Franciscan‘ itself is a late invention. Additionally, Herbert Grundmann’s narrative of the Franciscans as an archetypal religious movement has focused research on the interplay between charismatic renewal and a kind of ‚fossilization’, while there are also other contemporary factors to take into consideration. Instead of being charmed by “idyllic scenes“ of Francis preaching to the birds, Amanda suggested, we might listen more to the voices of ordinary Franciscans, or explore the role of Franciscans in their surroundings, for example in political networks overlapping religious reform issues in the thirteenth century.
The next presentations changed the focus while remaining within monastic/mendicant histories. In the presentations by Sethina Watson and Michele Campopiano (York), specific spaces of contact and of negotiated identities came into focus instead. Sethina talked about hospitals to exemplify medieval social spaces where different religious actors came together and cooperated or competed – be they monastic and municipal actors engaged in the running of a hospital and the sick people flocking there, or the  monastic, mendicant and clerical protagonists of different forms of medical and pastoral care coming together in a medieval town. Talking about his work on the Franciscans in the Holy Land, Michele Campopiano pointed out that the Franciscans were living in constant engagement with the many other orders present in the vicinity of the Holy Sepulchre, but also engaged with the other religions present there, tying interreligious encounter back to their own cultural identity, for example in the use of the iconic image of Francis meeting the Sultan.
Lucy Sackville’s and my own presentations drew attention to the theoretical and methodological problems we face in grasping intellectual and religious attitudes. Lucy’s dissection of the recent debate on the construction of heresy (up to and including the so-called „heresy semi-finals“ conference – too bad I missed it) showed how much we depend on modern models to construct narratives about religion. As Lucy’s overview of recent debates made clear, the possible motivations and developments of heretical movements may depend on political networks, on social undercurrents, on specific power constellations or – the most tantalizing and hard-to-prove motivation – religious impulses. But traditional narratives typically reduce heretical movements to just one of these factors. As I tried to point out in my contribution, it might therefore make particular sense to question older narratives at this point, as many disciplines focused on the modern period – religious studies, political sciences, sociology of religion – are also currently trying to deconstruct older narratives to get a new picture of religion and religiosity and their historical dynamics. My plea was for medievalists to engage with this ongoing debate about new narratives for the history of religion.
The particular mix of participants gave the following group discussion sessions an interesting slant: While I am used to a comparative perspective on the history of religious orders, thanks to the many comparative volumes on monastic and mendicant history emanating from the prolific Dresden school and Fovog1, the focus seemed to shift very decisively towards the embedding of religious communities in their social and political contexts, i.e. not only other orders, but the lay or heterodox world. Most of the discussion asked how we could approach these fields and shape overarching historical narratives between the typically separate fields.
A basic approach suggested by Sethina Watson was that we might focus on particular „stages“ of religious identity and interplay between religious identities and various audiences – as Emilia Jamroziak suggested, cults of saints would provide a good field for comparative work. A particularly interesting strand of discussion also concerned the comparative view of ‚founders‘ of orders or other important historical figureheads used to express an order’s identity to various audiences.
Altogether, we discussed that the construction of identity for specific orders does not only seem closely tied to their position vis-à-vis other groups – a point that has already been made forcefully, for example by Ramona Sickert2 The „signifiers“ or flashpoints used to negotiate specific identities also seem to change over time, with things like poverty and austerity gaining and losing importance periodically3.
As I thought, this seemed to lead to the highly interesting question of whether there was a shared discourse about religious identities in the later Middle Ages – an idea that was taken up in the discussion when we talked about various attempts to list hierarchies of orders. Taking up David Luscombe’s (Sheffield) remark that the field of polemical discourse about the order of the church eventually becomes formalized and leads to far-reaching intellectual debates, I tend to think that we might read twelfth- and thirteenth-century religious polemics among orders, clergy and heretics as a kind of testing ground for emerging discourses about religious diversity.
To me, the workshop illuminated the potential for a connected history of religious orders, clergy, laypeople and heretical movements – fields which are mostly separate in research at the moment, though this is beginning to be viewed with growing discontent (going by discussions during an IMC Leeds roundtable this year). Why such a connected history makes sense seems fairly obvious – what is more difficult about it, I tend to think, is that it will need a shared language of research. To tackle the older narratives still inherent in the highly charged field of religious history, we will probably need to take the time to discuss the historiography and grand narratives of the history of religion, spread over many fields today (modernization theory is of course prominent among such narratives – though at lunch this week I was accused of obsessing over this point, probably not wrongly). We should also think about a shared language allowing us to pinpoint changes in religious identities. One step might be to heed Christine Caldwell Ames’ recent call to get a clearer idea of how to theorize „religion“4. I also tend to think that Astrid Reuter’s fantastic Bourdieu-based model of „Boundary work on the religious field“5 is helpful. I suspect that I should write a separate post about this issue one of these days.
Inspiredly, the workshop ended on the idea that the follow-up workshop at the University of Leeds in spring 2014 should actually consist of co-written papers, tying experts for different religious groups/orders together. I hope I will be able to go or to continue the debate at IMC Leeds 2014…
  1. See specifically on the comparative approach Gert Melville, Anne Müller, Mittelalterliche Orden und Klöster im Vergleich. Methodische Ansätze und Perspektiven, Vita Regularis 34, Münster 2007. []
  2. Ramona Sickert, Wenn Klosterbrüder zu Jahrmarktsbrüdern werden: Studien zur Wahrnehmung der Franziskaner und Dominikaner im 13. Jahrhundert, Vita Regularis. Ordnungen und Deutungen religiosen Lebens im Mittelalter 28), Berlin 2006. []
  3. A point also made by Anne Müller, Symbolizitität als Differenzmerkmal. Überlegungen zur systematischen Analyse symbolischer Repräsentationsformen im Religiosentum, in: Melville – Müller (Eds), Mittelalterliche Orden (as above), pp. 187-209 []
  4. See most recently Christine Caldwell Ames, Medieval Religious, Religions, Religion, History Compass 10.4 (2012), 334–352. []
  5. Astrid Reuter, Charting the Boundaries of the Religious Field: Legal Conflicts over Religion as Struggles over Blurring Borders, Journal of Religion in Europe 2.1 (2009), 1–20. []

Sita Steckel

Juniorprofessorin (Assistant professor) of Medieval history, High and Late Middle Ages, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster.

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Author: Sita Steckel

Juniorprofessorin (Assistant professor) of Medieval history, High and Late Middle Ages, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster.

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