Collectio Exemplorum Cisterciensis
Published in Collecanea Cisterciensia, 76 (2014), 396-8
Over the past decade, we have become conscious of the importance of exempla literature. Learned studies have shown its role in forming the image of the Order in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; an increasing number of people, in pursuit of the spirit of Cîteaux, now read the Exordium Magnum and the Liber miraculorum as well as the works of the Cistercian evangelists; attempts have even been made to compile anthologies of present-day exempla, to flesh out the reality of monks in the post-modern age. These are fine developments. But how many of us actually sit down to read, never mind study, the medieval collections? Not many, I guess, and for good reasons: they have been difficult to come by. That is why the publication of a volume like this is to be joyfully applauded. It provides a wonderful resource for research. It is also, like all the best monastic literature, an eminently useful book.
The Collectio Exemplorum Cisterciensis gives privileged access to monastic culture in the early thirteenth century. We find this culture to be broad. Of course, Cistercian exempla literature is not limited to exempla about Cistercians. Such, in fact, are fairly scant here, except in the final, 81st chapter, a florilegium drawn largely from Herbert of Clairvaux. Chapters 1 to 80, thematically arranged, tend to draw on earlier sources. Under tidy headings we find the wisdom of the Desert Fathers impressively represented. Readers become well acquainted with the humane, radical wisdom of Antony, Arsenius, and their companions. Jerome, Augustine, and Chrysostom are often cited, as is the Life of Benedict.
More surprising are, say, recurring references to the Life of St John the Almsgiver, to a range of English sources, and to tales about Byzantine rulers. The Emperor Theodosius is repeatedly put forward as an example for the monks of Cîteaux. The compilers display a broad range of reading and interest. Not for nothing do they include a handful of passages on the rewards of bookish pursuits in the chapter ‘De l’étude des lettres’. This volume, then, shows what engaged cloistered readers in the high Middle Ages. It reveals what their struggles, what their aspirations were—often very like our own.
More subtly, the judicious inclusion of material from contemporary sources affords a glimpse into the sensibility of compilers and intended readership. What we learn is precious. The well-known story of St Antony relaxing with his disciples is told first in its classical form, then enchantingly transposed into a vignette about St John the Evangelist whom a hunter finds sitting in a forest glade, playing with a pheasant hen. Asked whether it befits an Apostle of the Lord to indulge in such idle pastimes, St John answers by using Antony’s example of the bow likely to break if kept in constant tension (n. 744). A story is told about a long-fingered but hospitable man who one day receives a bushy-haired visitor who asks him for a haircut. The host gets his shears out, but trembles on finding that his client has eyes in the back of his head. ‘Who are you?’, he asks. The other replies, ‘They call me Jesus. I can see everything. With these eyes I have seen the [stolen] pig you keep hidden in the cellar!’ (n. 447). The stories are admirably egalitarian. The peccadillos of the higher clergy, including Cistercian abbots, are straightforwardly recounted if they serve the upbuilding of the readers. One is also struck by the number of black monks held up as examples to the white. In countless such ways the hearts and minds of thirteenth-century monks, who can seem such a riddle, are brought close to us.
The material aspect of the book corresponds to the high expectations a Brepols publication invites. The editors provide a careful introduction which explains, among other things, their choice to maintain variant spellings. Now and again this decision makes for uneven reading, but it does usefully signal the varying provenance of stories.
A section at the back of the volume indicates possible sources for each exemplum, alongside a potted summary in French. This is where we find the only major blemish of the work. The renderings read at times as if they had been performed by Google Translate. A young man travelling ‘ieiunus’ to see St Benedict is said to have come ‘pour jeûner’ (n. 161). In a passage on repentance evoking Numbers 16, where Dathan and Abiram are swallowed by the earth, the penitent is said, in translation, to convert, not for fear of God, but for fear of cannibalism, ‘craignant d’être englouti par Dathan et Abiron’ (n. 245). In n. 294 there is a confusion of subject and object that ruins the sense of the story. The list could go on for quite a while. Still, this is secondary. What matters is that this splendid text has now been made available to readers, scholars and monks, everywhere. The inadequate vernacular versions simply highlight what must surely be an urgent priority: to have the entirety of this work translated into French, English, and German, too.