The Ghost Goes West

The Plan of St. Gall

by Walter Horn and Ernest Born
University of California Press, 982, 1,073 illustrations pp., $725.00 (limited edition of 150 copies)

Historians take much innocent pleasure in detecting medieval renaissances. The renaissance of the twelfth century was a real one; so too was that of the ninth—the renaissance particularly associated with the names of Charlemagne, his son Louis, and his grandsons. For Charlemagne, the political stability of western Europe, especially after he became emperor in 800, hinged upon a Christian ideal. Society was to be reformed, first morally and then spiritually. There can be no question of the immense seriousness of his purpose. He pursued it with relentless zeal, as we can see in surviving legislation, directives, and correspondence; and he pursued it with the help of some very remarkable men, attracted to his court from England, Ireland, Italy, and Spain.

Instruction was his first aim. Clergy at all levels were to be instructed in the performance of their duties to the laity, both as pastors and as teachers. Once themselves sufficiently educated, they were to be taught by their bishops how to teach and what to teach. The books that they were to use were specified; and books, accurately copied and properly written, were to be the lasting memorial of the renaissance. Many survive to this day, and without them we should be short of much of classical Latin literature, to say nothing of the Christian literature of Late Antiquity.

Charlemagne’s anxious supervision of this impossible task was inherited by his heirs. That anything came of it is sufficiently surprising in a world disrupted by Viking, Arab, and Magyar incursions and subject to endemic unrest among landowners uncertain where their loyalties lay. But something did come of it. The secular clergy lived under a constant bombardment of directives from the more energetic bishops; so too the regular clergy, monks, and nuns. The reform of monasteries and monks, the professionals in prayer, was well under way in Charlemagne’s lifetime, though it was under his son Louis that we meet with the most impressive legislation aiming at uniformity of practice throughout the religious houses of the empire. Monks were to observe the Rule of St. Benedict as revised by Louis’s counselor, Benedict of Aniane, and no other Rule.

Opposition was certainly encountered. The lengthy provisions of the two great reforming synods held at Aachen in 816 and 817 go into minute detail about observance of the Rule and the conditions in which monks should live their lives. Monasteries were to be self-contained communities: cities, so to say, in the desert of secularity. Such detailed provision would obviously affect the physical layout of monasteries. For example, provision for bath-houses, for a separate house for the abbot, for intramural accommodation for workmen and craftsmen, for separate quarters for visitors, and for schools. If an ideal reformed Carolingian monastery existed today we should expect to find features such as these. But none does exist. What in fact exists is a groundplan for such a monastery.

The book under review must be the most stupendous monument ever erected to a ghost. To attempt to survey…

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