A response to: West, Charles. “Monks Aristocrats, and Justice: Twelfth-Century Monastic Advocacy in a European Perspective.”

A response to: West, Charles. “Monks Aristocrats, and Justice: Twelfth-Century Monastic Advocacy in a European Perspective.” Speculum 92/2 [2017]:372–404; doi:10.1086/690661.

Reader’s Response: (Jonathan Lyon, Associate Professor of Medieval History, University of Chicago)

Dr. Charles West’s article in the April 2017 volume of Speculum entitled “Monks, Aristocrats, and Justice: Twelfth-Century Monastic Advocacy in a European Perspective” seeks to make a new argument about monastic advocacy, a rich subject in German and French historiography for more than 150 years. As Dr. West and many others know, I am presently at work on a book-length study of this subject based on four years of research, including two years in Germany and Austria. I thank Dr. West for acknowledging me at the start of his article for our occasional conversations on this subject and for citing two of my articles. Unfortunately, while the broad question of the geography of advocacy that Dr. West raises is an excellent one, he does not present a convincing argument in this article or properly account for other research on the topic. Dr. West misrepresents, at a fundamental level, the relationship between monastic advocacy and justice in the Reich. For this reason, I do not believe this argument should have been published in its current form.

Dr. West’s thesis states, “With a focus on the decades around 1100, it [this article] pays particular attention to the judicial dimension of monastic advocacy, more clearly defined than the generic protection or political patronage universally sought by monastic communities everywhere in the Latin West; and it concentrates on old, wealthy, and well-established Benedictine communities, leaving to one side other forms of advocacy, notably those relating to bishops and to the emerging Cistercian group of monasteries. Above all, instead of concentrating on what aristocratic families did with their monastic advocacies, it looks at what monastic communities in the Reich did with their advocates, and how comparable communities elsewhere managed without them” (374). The limitations that Dr. West imposes on his own argument in this thesis are worth noting. The title references the twelfth century, but here he mentions only the decades around 1100, vaguely defined. Moreover, the article opens with a quotation from ca. 1250 by Abbot Herman of Niederaltaich, who lists protection first, justice second when describing the role of monastic advocate, suggesting protection was the more important issue for him (372). Yet, Dr. West puts the issue of protection entirely to the side, focusing here only on justice. Further, he not only sets aside episcopal advocacy and advocacy within the Cistercian context, but also makes no reference to the advocacies for Augustinian and Premonstratensian houses. Indeed, though scholars identify the decades around 1100 as one of the most intensive phases of monastic foundation in the history of the medieval Reich, none of these new houses are addressed here. Dr. West thus asks us to rethink the institution of church advocacy on the basis of brief discussions of only a dozen or so old Benedictine houses in the Reich and another dozen or so from the rest of Europe—a small and, frankly, highly tendentious basis for the broad claims he is making here about a far-reaching twelfth-century phenomenon.

Central to Dr. West’s thesis is his view of why advocacy flourished in the Reich but not elsewhere. He writes, “Rather than considering monastic advocacy as merely reflecting the nature of the Germanic aristocracy or political circumstances, we might see it instead, or as well, as expressing something of the nature of monasticism in these regions: specifically, a profound anxiety about monks carrying out, whether in person or through direct delegation, the full range of secular justice” (395-96). He also states, “The notion that clerics and monks ought not to act as judges themselves was occasionally articulated in the ninth century. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, however, it seems to have become more strongly and consistently expressed by a range of writers in the Reich” (396). To make this broad argument, Dr. West names only four authors from the Reich: Gerhoch of Reichersberg, the author of the Liber de unitate ecclesiae conservanda, Sigebert of Gembloux, and Abbot Berengoz/Benzo of St Maximin. As Dr. West admits, not a single one of these writers links a concern with monks exercising secular justice directly to advocacy. In other words, Dr. West does not provide any evidence that explicitly supports his argument that monastic writers in the Reich understood advocacy in the religious terms he claims. Just as importantly, Dr. West makes no mention of Otto of Freising or the numerous twelfth-century monastic authors in the Reich who wrote at length about monastic advocates without expressing any “profound anxiety” on the question of why they were necessary. Though Dr. West cites my article about Otto of Freising, he does not address its arguments about ecclesiastical authors’ perceptions of their churches’ advocates [“Otto of Freising’s Tyrants: Church Advocates and Noble Lordship in the Long Twelfth Century,” in Christianity and Culture in the Middle Ages: Essays to Honor John Van Engen, ed. David C. Mengel and Lisa Wolverton (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), 141-167].

While the religious dimensions of Dr. West’s argument are therefore problematic, his understanding of justice more significantly undermines the article. He states in his Conclusion, “In short, the answer to the conundrum with which we began—why only monasteries in the Reich and the surrounding regions had advocates who, though outsiders, played a role in the internal administration of the monastic communities’ judicial affairs—could be that only there did monks accept that such figures and such involvement might be necessary for the fulfillment of the monastic vocation in changing social and political conditions” (404). There are two flaws to this conclusion.

First, Dr. West does not distinguish between an advocate’s role in overseeing capital crimes (as the opening quotation from Herman of Niederaltaich defines it) and monasteries’ judicial affairs more generally. Advocates did not necessarily manage everything pertaining to justice. By the twelfth century, abbots and monks in the Reich did not need advocates when they went to court over property disputes (West, 399, seems to suggest otherwise when arguing why there were no advocates further west). Moreover, they could hold their own courts and serve as judges over some types of cases [see, for example, the mid-twelfth-century document from the monastery of Garsten that is the basis for my article “Noble Lineages, Hausklöster, and Monastic Advocacy in the Twelfth Century: The Garsten Vogtweistum in its Dynastic Context,” Mitteilungen des Instituts für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung (2015): 1-29]. They also delegated judicial authority to people besides their advocates. An 1157 privilege issued by Emperor Frederick I for the Bavarian monastery of Tegernsee, an old Benedictine house (but one that Dr. West does not use in his argument), states, “An advocate may henceforth appoint no local judges. The abbot may provide for that office suitable men, whom he prefers” [MGH DD F I, n. 160, p. 275: “Scultetos advocatus de cetero nullos instituat. Ad quod officium abbas viros aptos, quos voluerit, provideat”]. In his Conclusion, Dr. West contends that German monastic attitudes toward justice were already changing by 1150 (402), leaving this privilege and the Garsten document outside the rather narrow chronological frame of his argument. Even so, Dr. West needs to address such evidence, which points to other people besides advocates—including abbots and monks themselves—having a role in monasteries’ judicial affairs. His argument presumes that advocates possessed a monopoly over monasteries’ judicial affairs without offering any direct evidence of such a monopoly.

Second, Dr. West’s assertion of a significant difference between the exercise of justice inside and outside the Reich remains unsubstantiated. For the Reich, his argument relies on the mid-thirteenth-century Abbot Herman of Niederaltaich: “‘For,’ explained Hermann, ‘it does not pertain to clerical dignity to exercise judgment of blood,’ so dealing with theft, murder, rape, and other capital offences required a layman’s involvement” (372). His citation of the original Latin in the footnote reveals that Dr. West has neglected to translate “vel vindictam” in the phrase “iudicium vel vindictam sangwinis exercere.” Nor does his discussion of this passage include the clause that comes after the list of cases that advocates were to judge: “in these cases, an ecclesiastical person could be made irregular [according to canon law], if he should inflict the punishment. [MGH SS 17, 373: “per quas [causas] possit irregularis effici persona ecclesiastica si puniret”]. I take both “vindictam” and “puniret” to refer to the act of punishment, i.e. the execution of those found guilty. Herman thus considers the personal consequences for abbots and monks, should they carry out such violent penalties, as the main justification for secular advocates overseeing capital crimes. Dr. West does not mention whether abbots and monks outside the Reich personally wielded the sword for capital sentences. But to prove his argument that ecclesiastics in the Reich had more anxiety about secular justice than ecclesiastics elsewhere in Europe, it is necessary to demonstrate that the monks of Bury St Edmunds and other monasteries in England, France and Italy were more directly involved than those in the Reich in the violent punishment of criminals [My forthcoming article “Rulers, Local Elites and Monastic Liberties: Tegernsee and Bury St Edmunds under the Staufens and Plantagenets” will address this issue in more detail].

This short blog post does not allow me to elaborate further on these criticisms or mention others. Nevertheless, I hope to have shown that the main argument of this article does not hold up to scrutiny. In an effort to say something new on an old subject, Dr. West fails to provide any evidence that convincingly undermines the arguments of generations of excellent scholars who have shown that monastic advocacy is best understood through the lens of lordship rather than religious anxiety.


Author’s Response (Charles West, Reader in Medieval History, University of Sheffield, UK)

Professor Jonathan Lyon is a thorough and careful historian, for whom I have always had a great deal of respect, and from whose work – as is evident from the footnotes to the Speculum article in question – I have drawn many insights. So while I am pleased that my article has come to his attention, and flattered that he considers it worth such a lengthy response, I confess to being more than a little surprised by what he has to say.

His unsparing criticism opens with the assertion that my article does not “properly account for other research” on the topic. That would indeed be a serious weakness. But Professor Lyon does not specify the research that he has in mind, nor does he explain what difference this research would have made to my argument. It is perhaps worth pointing out that over almost 150 footnotes, the 19,000 word article cites around 150 works of scholarship, not including source editions. For all its undoubted flaws, it is hardly a superficial study.

Professor Lyon further draws attention to the “limitations” or parameters of the article, which explicitly excluded the new orders (though footnotes 32 and 142 do provide some references to work upon them, including the Premonstratensians, contrary to Professor Lyon’s assertion), focused on the decades around 1100, and concentrated on justice rather than protection. These parameters seem to him illegitimate.

Yet in any piece of research, one makes choices about what to include and what not. I chose a broad geographical scope, drawing on a score of comparable archives from England, Italy, Germany, Belgium and France, to bring out a central and to my mind overlooked aspect of ecclesiastical advocacy, as the culmination of over a decade of research into the topic since my first archival visit to study advocacy charters in 2005. In his published work to date, Professor Lyon has preferred a rather narrower geographical scope combined with a broader chronology. In other words, Professor Lyon would have written my article differently. That is not enough to justify his dramatic declaration that the article should not “have been published in its current form”, any more than his failure – say – properly to consider Italian evidence necessarily invalidates his own published work.

Nor I am convinced by his further assertion that the article fails to provide enough evidence that monastic writers viewed advocacy in religious terms. How much evidence is enough to prove a historical point, and how explicit that evidence needs to be, is a moot question, especially for research into the Middle Ages. But the works of four major and contemporary authors from the Reich (to at least two of whom entire books have been devoted), contrasted with several equally significant writers from elsewhere and set in the context of a multitude of charters, is far from a “small and, frankly, highly tendentious” body of material.

In any case, Professor Lyon would presumably agree that these writers were religiously committed figures, who spent their lives in the service of God alongside their fellow religious. Could he be suggesting that medieval monks and nuns did not view advocacy through a religious lens – that for this single aspect of their lives, they laid down their habit? That would be an intriguing and boldly counter-intuitive claim.

Finally, there is the question of the administration of justice. Professor Lyon finds fault with my rendering of a short passage by Herman of Niederaltaich, in which I presented “iudicium vel vindictam sangwinis” as “judgement of blood”. Perhaps that was closer to paraphrase than translation. But behind that rendering was my reading of Herman’s vel as conjunctive, taking vindicta to mean something like “just vengeance” (cf. Romans 12:19), in other words a synonym for iudicium that I felt was not necessary for the sense in English.

Professor Lyon instead suggests that vindicta here means the act of execution itself, reading the whole passage as forbidding abbots and monks from physically and personally despatching criminals, and further adds a reference to “canon law”, which Herman at no point mentions. This seems to me a forced reading of a text intended primarily to explain the reasons that clerics should not oversee the judicial process, reasons that “were anciently established for the peace and freedom of churches” [pro ecclesiarum quiete et libertate sunt antiquitus constituta].

The reader can make up her own mind about how best to construe Herman’s Latin (the whole text is here on the MGH website). Rather more significant than differing interpretations of that passage – anyway merely used as a convenient introduction to the themes of an article that could have functioned perfectly well without it – is what I consider to be Professor Lyon’s fundamental misunderstanding of the argument that followed. He thinks the article “presumes that advocates possessed a monopoly over monasteries’ judicial affairs [in the Reich]”. That would certainly be a grave misrepresentation “at a fundamental level” of the relation between monastic advocacy and justice, as Professor Lyon declares.

But it is not at all what I argued, as indeed the article’s very first case-study, drawing on material from the Reichenau, makes obvious. The argument’s starting point was rather that abbots in certain geographical regions valued the involvement of advocates, in various ways – and sometimes minimally or even only ceremonially – in their interactions with formal structures of justice, while abbots in other regions did not. Whether these abbots sometimes appointed local judges or even held their own courts is incidental to that observation, as too is whether they “personally wielded the sword” (a rather unlikely scenario).

Rather, what interests me is whether for the legitimation of their judicial activity, an advocate’s involvement, presence or even simple existence was deemed necessary or advisory – and on what basis that attitude rested, and what its consequences were. I argued that this attitude was in part a reflection of a religious anxiety about secular justice, which naturally does not mean that abbots were in a state of perpetual anxiety about their advocates, nor that they always approved of what their advocates did. Of course, it is ultimately the fault of the author if an article’s arguments are misinterpreted by its readers, and maybe I was being over-subtle; yet none of the several historians who read the article in draft drew the conclusion reached by Professor Lyon.

And it is perhaps a consequence of this misreading that Professor Lyon’s response ends as it does, calling for a return to the tradition represented by the “generations of excellent scholars” who have emphasized lordship rather than religion as the key to understanding advocacy. In no way at all am I undermining the achievements of these historians, and still less those of Professor Lyon himself. In the article, I emphasized that my conclusions did not exclude but rather complemented other approaches that have thus far been unable to resolve a crucial question. As I stated, thinking about the religious dimensions of advocacy “could be” a way of explaining why it was found in some regions and not in others. Though based on rigorous and extensive primary source research, the article was explicitly intended to open fresh angles and to stimulate constructive debate, building on previous work and not sweeping it aside. I fear I may not be quite so radical as Professor Lyon perceives me to be.

Yet it is also the case that many of those eminent scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, upon whom both he and I rely, were working in a historiographical framework that is increasingly outdated. Their reliance on lordship (Herrschaft), a historiographical concept greatly developed by fellow-travelers of the Nazis such as Otto Brunner, is arguably a case in point. So too, albeit in less disquieting fashion, is the (happily fading) habit of historians to remain confined within national historiographical traditions, for linguistic or other reasons. It is the task of historians carefully and conscientiously to reflect upon the historiographical foundations of their work, not all of which are as innocent as they seem. Uncritically to follow in predecessors’ footsteps would be an unflattering kind of pietas.

In summary, Professor Lyon’s criticisms of my article are all on matters of interpretation, or rest on misunderstanding of the argument. I look forward nevertheless to reading Professor Lyon’s considered and evidenced opinions on these matters in his book when it is published. After all, I am sure he will agree that our collective knowledge of the past is best advanced through open-mindedness, collaboration, and collegiality.

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