Dark Age Bodies: Gender and Monastic Practice in the Early Medieval West
by Lynda Coon

Reviewed by Rebecca Hardie


Published by University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010   |   416 pages

The cover image of Lynda Coon’s Dark Age Bodies shows a humbly clad medieval monk, kneeling under a red cross in subjugation. The manuscript page spans the entire cover, and protrudes over the contours of the monk’s body in bold red letters that read: “O Christ, in your clemency and your holiness, I beseech you to protect me, Hrabanus, on the Day of Judgement.” The image is from a ninth century acrostic poem – a poem in which the first letters of each line spell additional text – written by Hrabanus Maurus (ca. 780-856), poet, master of letters, and leading figure in the intellectual and spiritual world of the Carolingian Empire (ca. 800-888). Maurus’ writings are noteworthy for their intricate visual and verbal designs, their embedding of poems within poems, and their mapping of sacred symbols and spaces in linguistic patterns on parchment. Maurus’ poetry is a bridge between classical and Christian forms, its style of the Romans, Horace, Lucan, Lucretius, and Virgil. The poet is himself both seer (vates) and monk, his life dominated by the cross and the desire to transcend his body and attain salvation.

In Dark Age Bodies, Coon examines Maurus and his literary and visual productions for insights into the following two pivotal questions: 1) how did the Roman classical tradition relate to the Christian biblical tradition and was this relationship always antagonistic? And 2) why do the literature, liturgy and architectural spaces of Carolingian monasteries – all-male ascetic communities – draw on gender ideologies so extensively, multiplying depictions of the feminine in order to teach and manage this community? Coon finds within his works evidence of a revival of classicism in medieval monasticism that partially bridges the divide between the classical past and present “dark” age. In particular, Coon documents this coming together of two disparate traditions upon the body of the monk.

Coon simultaneously demonstrates how this classical presence was not unimaginative plagiarism or a grave misunderstanding, but rather a political manoeuver: an early Christian appropriation of inherited tradition. Hagiographical texts, for example, promoted classicising portraits of rhetorically gifted holy men. Paschasius Radbertus, a Carolingian monastic scholar, depicts in his Life of Saint Adlhard this saint as the embodiment of Ciceronian eloquence; his words are described as intoxicating his listeners, as did the rhetoric of Cicero, only with the splendours of scripture. Likewise, in the monastic classroom, grammar books were often glossed with extracts from both classical and biblical texts, thereby demonstrating the innovative nature of Carolingian Latin instruction. In the architectural setting of the monastery, Roman designs were re-used and re-imagined in a Carolingian style. Coon’s text examines the Torhalle (gatehouse) of the monastery at Lorsch, located in present-day Hesse in Germany. The gatehouse is renowned among architectural historians for its bold attempt to emulate a Roman triumphal arch, like those still seen at the Colosseum in Rome today. The end result is both familiar (late antique flooring still visible in the Trier and Cologne) and innovative (tiles as wall decoration). In other words, the architecture of the monastery demonstrates a monarch’s or abbot’s ability to reach distant places, and Roman architectural style’s ability to become a material manifestation of the Carolingian bid for control over distant places or past cultures. Admittedly, Coon is not the first medievalist to bridge the divide between classical and biblical traditions. Her innovation is in contextualising this in Carolingian monasticism (an unlikely setting), and, in particular, in her focussing on the period’s representation of the monastic body, and its ramifications: on architecture, on political ambition, etc.

The second half of Coon’s work aims to answer the methodological quandary: of how an all-male community is gendered through its pivotal religious texts. The central text of Carolingian monasticism was the Rule of St Benedict – a sixth-century document attributed to the Italian Benedict of Nursia – and its 8C and 9C interpretations. In the later commentaries on the Rule, gender analogies and hierarchies proliferate. Coon deconstructs the gendering of the Benedictine Rule – whose target audience was all-male communities where celibacy was enforced and women strictly excluded – by examining the enduring legacy of classical models of gender and ancient medical conceptions of the body over the daily practices and liturgical performances of monks. According to these models, the disciple of the Rule is an heir of the ancient Roman orator, whose success or failure rested – not merely on the power of his speech – but also on his reputation for corporeal self-mastery, and his bodily inviolability. Commentaries on the Rule defined masculinity as the ideal attainment, and summoned the ancient Roman lexicon of effeminacy to vilify monks who do not live up to Benedictine models of virility.

According to ancient and medieval medical teachings, for example, masculine bodies were understood to be hotter and drier, and thus more stable and less subject to leakage. Feminine bodies were colder and moister, their subsequent “wetness” underscoring female instability, mutability and corruption. In a culture where chant functions as a marker of status in the monastery and as audible proof of masculinity, young boys, with their higher vocal register, are denigrated as loquacious, self-indulgent, penetrable, and lacking in discipline – all feminised attributes. Furthermore, boyish mouths – because they belong to damp, boyish bodies – produce sounds that are “reedy” and “thin”; their chants lack the power to penetrate the intellects of their hearers. Carolingian writers believed that the Holy Spirit itself purifies the mouths of the most potent Latin chanters; the cutting out of an abbot’s tongue – a very real practice at the time – was perceived to be a most effective way of visibly demarking impotence and femininity. In architecture as well, the entrance to the monastery signified a space precariously poised between the inner sanctuary of the holy monastery and the corrupt outside world. The westwork at the abbey of Corvey – the major entryway into the monastery – was viewed as vulnerable to penetrating outside evils, and so here frescoes of monstrous women and mythological beasts adorned the interior space to symbolically ward off this perilous mingling.

This gendering of the Benedictine Rule and, as Coon highlights, of Carolingian monasticism more generally, suggests an inherently misogynistic worldview, and ostensibly reinforces stereotypes of the medieval period as markedly unequal and unethical. Coon is quick, however, to stress that the models of gender of the all-male cloister were not shared in other Carolingian social contexts (though these models would, of course, impact views of the body in later centuries). Theories and models of gender always instigate controversial analyses and debate when applied to the analysis of the materials and culture of the distant past. Dark Age Bodies is no exception, and is all the more interesting for prompting additional questions from its reader: should Carolingian culture – a distant and foreign culture – be the same as ours in terms of ethics, gender theories and political ideologies so that we can appreciate it? Do we equate its differences with the barbarism of a “Dark Age”? In which case, are there any (political) parallels between the absorption of classicism into a totalising Christian worldview then, and the description (or criticism) of early civilisations strictly in terms of modern, Western cultural frameworks today?

Throughout Dark Age Bodies, Coon’s use of source material is enriching and persuasive; she uses textual sources, such as poetry, treatises on grammar and rhetoric, biblical exegesis, monastic rules, saints’ lives, encyclopaedic compendium, and medical writings, and considers them alongside visual media, including illuminated manuscripts, architectural diagrams, monumental edifices, and cloister design. Dark Age Bodies is interdisciplinary in scope and borrows from scholarship of fields including architectural history, cultural anthropology, religious studies, classical studies, and gender studies. Coon goes so far as to suggest evidence of a proto-post-modernism in the Carolingian Empire, of gender untethered from the sexed body and mobilised as a symbolic system through performative identities and ritual practices.

Throughout, Coon stresses that the texts of the Benedictine Reform, however influential, should be read as sign-posts or ideals by the historian, not as exhaustive studies of the realities of Carolingian religious culture. Her analysis illustrates how gender was experienced in the period as a life-long negotiation, subject to fluctuations and anxieties, how there never was one “order” of monks in the early Middle Ages, no universal sense of what it was to be Carolingian. With its emphasis on performativity, cultural interpretation and assimilation, and the politics of gender, the figure of the Carolingian monk, Hrabanus Maurus, on the front cover of Dark Age Bodies, is more pertinent and reflective of theory and ethics today than first glance might have suggested.

Rebecca Hardie is a PhD student at King’s College London. Her research focuses on translation cultures in early medieval religious prose, and asks about the implications of this on the history of subjectivity in the West.

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