The Medieval Review

TMR 02.06.13

Reviewed: Henriet, Patrick
La Parole et la Priere au Moyen Age Bibliotheque du Moyen Age Vol. 16
DeBoeck Universite
Pp. iv, 418
ISBN: 2-804-12118-6
Reviewer: Piroska Nagy, Central European University,
TMR ID: 02.06.13

This book aims to study the role of religious use of speech in the medieval history of clerical ideologies. The author's thesis is that religious discourse or Verbum--performed in the forms of praying and preaching--can be considered as an efficacious speech act in Christian culture. It has an immanent efficacy , [1] as defined by the classic work of John Austin, How To Do Things with Words. Henriet underlines the utmost importance, and therefore efficacy, that Christianity attributes to the discourse in human-divine communication, based on the incarnation of the divine Verbum coming to redeem humanity. This efficacious discourse belonged to clergymen, who used its power to control and manipulate society. Efficacy, recognized both by them and by laymen, was discussed by clerics during the Middle Ages as part of the debate on liturgical and sacramental theory and practice. This power could also constitute the stake or the instrument of secular policy, as was the case in Carolingian times, when the prime importance of liturgy and of liturgical speech was considered a fundamental element of social order. Thus the power of word is profoundly embedded in the ideological and social construction of Christian society in the medieval West, and the author investigates its forms and changes in relation to those of society.

The thesis of the book is that prayer and preaching are two forms of the sacred Verbum or discourse, which clerics succeeded in monopolising and made its interpretation their social function (oratores). Through the sacred word, they spread Christianity, controlled salvation, and guaranteed divine order on earth. This is what is meant by the 'efficacy' of sacred speech. The model of the efficacious Verbum is prayer, either liturgical or private, which obtains what it demands or produces the expected effect by mediating between God and men. The study of preaching--which has an efficacy among men--shows how this dominant model can be diversified without explicitly rejecting the scheme of the inherent efficacy of sacred speech. The research is based mostly on one genre of written evidence, monastic and eremitic hagiography of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and proceeds by reconstructing the consistency of hagiographical discourse that the author assumes to be the vehicle of an ecclesiological and ideological message.

The book is divided in three thematic parts, where each theme is dealt with starting from its apostolic foundations up to twelfth century monasticism and eremitism. The first part is a study of prayer, the second is a study of preaching, and the third analyses all the speech acts (prayers or exhortations) performed around the transitus, the death of a monk or an abbot. This scene, frequently depicted in hagiography, is considered to be a proper moment to analyse the ways in which speech is used in a specific hagiographic model linked to a given form of monasticism.

The three parts of the book show an evolution that justifies the parallel between prayer and preaching. After the first centuries of Christianity, when the interiority of prayer was stressed, institutionalised monasticism transformed the personal devotional practice into a social link. Prayer became a primarily ritual speech act in the framework of liturgy, and its importance increased in collective salvation. From Carolingian times to the eleventh century, prayer had a growing social role. The ideological instrumentalisation of the (mainly liturgical) sacred Verbum was a political concern for the Carolingian rulers who constructed a Christian empire by centralising the Church and thereby controlling the means of salvation. After the collapse of the Carolingian empire, prayer became the main tool of the monastic enterprise to take control of society, shaped in its clearest form at Cluny (10th-twelfth c.). Prayer had an important role in the ecclesiological construction that gave shape to social relations. New models of perfection (eremitism and reformed monasticism), that reflected the recent changes of spiritual needs, appeared almost at the same time, as a reaction to the monastic ideology of Cluniac style. These men and orders preferred preaching as a form of efficacious speech, and used it to convert and to diffuse their religious message. While doing this, they rendered prayer free from the ideological charge it held in the previous system and gave it a form that was nearer to the apostolic ideal of prayer. This does not mean that the efficacy of the prayer would have disappeared; but as the prayer became personal and sometimes silent, its efficacy lost its ecclesiological and social weight.

The author shows here the transformation of the main communication scheme: the transition from a vertical model (man-->God) to a horizontal one (man-->men). Monks, who were previously the monopolistic possessors of the transforming Verbum and as such interceded between God and men, became the mediators between different life models, i.e. between contemplative and active life. The models studied by Henriet show how monasticism was transformed through this period. Apostolic eremitism of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, radical and exemplary as it could be, could not offer a model to follow. It provided the new monastic orders of the eleventh and twelfth centuries the legitimation they needed, but could not be much more than a reference. With the emphasis reformers put on pastoral care, which they practiced mostly by preaching, a new kind of relationship developed between monks and society, between contemplative and active life. The different monastic models presented a large scale of possibilities between the two extremes. But the hagiographic texts and their authors had to express their preference for the horizontal or the vertical mode of communication in the description of one scene: that of the transitus of the saint.

The two models of religious life: monasticism specializing in efficacious intercession, and the ascetic way of life inspired by the desert eremitism, represent two radically opposed attitudes towards death. The first takes care of the dead of the community by its efficacious prayer, while the second presents death, a metaphor for a life of renunciation, as an individualistic life-model. The end of the saint's life is accompanied by words: either his own exhortations or the prayers uttered for him by others. Prayers--which can be liturgical or not--can help the transitus, and represent the ineluctability of this moment, which must be only a 'passage'. Just as efficacious monastic prayer can also intercede for the dead, the death of a saint abbot must display of the efficacy of the system. Thus the moment of transitus, surrounded by a liturgical representation, gives the impression of a peaceful and glorious passage, where the existential horror is dissolved in the certitude of salvation. The idea of the perfection of death can even be enhanced if the description emphasises the fact that the saint is dead at the right moment, in the right place, and even in the right way, as is the case, for example, with Odilon of Cluny in the vita of Jotsald. The saint can thus display, in his very last moments, the efficacy of his prayer and of his exhortatio inside his community. On the other hand, the ascetic style of death preferred by hermits like Romuald, inspired by the ancient Christian model, shows a solitary and silent moment where death is recieved as a liberation. Finally, the reformers' death shows the importance of their pastoral charge, which aims at the purification of society, until the very last moment. This is also an efficacious word, but with a different function.

Henriet studies the different milieux and texts with a great philological care. His conclusions can be integrated into the subtly drawn landscape of religious life in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. He does not contrast the models presented in the book (Cluniac, Cistercian, and eremitic), but describes with great precision the sometimes only slightly different options that were opened to monks at a certain moment in Western society, and that influenced the evolution of monasticism. He describes these options as different ecclesiological models or "Church systems" (systemes d'Eglise) available in the twelfth century. This plurality can be considered the constellation of a moment: it was unimaginable at the beginning of the eleventh century, and it disappeared with the construction of the universal Roman Church during the thirteenth century.

The book offers useful and interesting reading and the author presents its material with good historical precision. One of the most fascinating facts we have to recognize while reading the book is that monks who were the specialists of silence kept silence quite rarely. The flourishing of eremitic pastoral preaching is perhaps the most paradoxical phenomenon in this context because it establishes a relation between contemplative and active life on different levels. Without making a clear distinction between the words 'verb' (verbe) and 'word' (parole), the book seems to suggest that the development of pastoral care is that of a horizontal 'word' that can be opposed to the more or less ritualised and vertical 'verb' of efficacious prayer. In this last remark we touch the field where the fragility of the thesis appears. The main problem, I think, is with the conceptual framework, which should have been constructed with more intellectual rigour.

In my view the first problem concerns the very terms the author is speaking about, as they appear in the title, subtitle and the introduction. The meaning of the title, La parole et la priere, "speech and prayer" becomes clear once we understand that the author distinguishes two forms of religious speech acts. The vertical speech act, which has an efficacy constructed on that of the divine incarnate Verb, and which the author calls the 'verb' or Verbum, is mostly manifested in prayer. The other speech act, the horizontal one, is displayed by exhortation and preaching, and its efficacy is different. In a way, the two terms of the title refer to these two forms, but the difference between the terms remains implicit throughout the whole book. The model constructed by the author would have permitted its clarification in the same way that he contrasts the vertical and horizontal modes of communication he might have used consequently the terms as neat couples (word / verb and preaching / prayer), rather than the couple "word/speech and prayer" of the title.

In the same way, although for different reasons, the use of the expression 'efficacious verb', in the subtitle as in the introduction, needs some clarification. In Christian theology, which is the reference system of the texts and of the society that are dealt with, the term 'Verbum', capitalised, refers to the verb of God, incarnated in Jesus. This reference is obvious to any reader; but the use of the term in the opposite direction (man-->God) requires an explanation in the introduction. No such explanation is given in the book, although it can be found in medieval texts known and used by Henriet. Furthermore, the use of the expression 'efficacious verb' in the horizontal direction makes the meaning of the term even wider--and involves another question, that of the nature of efficacy.

The author, while introducing the notion of efficacy, refers to Austin's theory of linguistic efficacy, and means by the term performative speech acts, but the efficacy he seeks is in fact social efficacy. The reader may have the impression that the linguistic efficacy of religious speech means symbolic efficacy, which would also imply a social one. While doing this, Henriet seems to forget--or does not consider--that the term 'efficacious verb' comes from Christian theology and terminology with a precise meaning. In a Christian context, this term is naturally understood as referring to a mediating efficacy between this world and the other, frequently produced in a ritual context. The author's aim, however, is to contribute to the history of 'monastic ideologies', and he is looking for the social efficacy of the religious discourse. Social efficacy is of course an evident consequence of the mediating efficacy in many cases, as in liturgical prayer. But a mediating efficacy can exist without a social one (take the case of a solitary hermit like Romuald, who prays for and recieves the gift of tears, but hides it), while social efficacy can be produced without any mediation between nature and the supernatural (in the case of preaching). On the other hand, linguistic efficacy, which constitutes the primary reference of the term, is not always needed in an efficacious prayer, as it can be silent and interior. An analysis of the prayer's efficacy cannot ignore that a prayer can be efficacious at different levels, and that prayer aims primarily at symbolic or sacral mediation and efficacy. But neither a distinction among the possible types of efficacy of the word, nor any clear distinction between 'word' and 'verb', is ever made clear in the book.

These questions are closely linked to the purpose of the book, which aims to be a contribution to the history of clerical or monastic ideologies. Of course, the strategies and means of domination of medieval society, where the Church was the most long-lasting and powerful institution, should be discussed in medieval society, and the use of religious speech by clergymen was an important means of this domination. Two questions arise here, however, the relevance of speaking about 'clerical' or 'monastic ideology' in the Middle Ages and the quesion of what prayer is.

The way the author seems to understand ideology (although he does never define it) is that of Georges Duby, as expressed in Faire de l'histoire , [2] published in 1974, where Duby refers to a definition by Althusser. This late-marxist definition is a broad one, where ideology is an equivalent of a 'system of representations', that is to say, the conception a society or a group of people have of the world they live in. This definition of ideology, which considers it as a sort of 'vision du monde', is far too large and vague; it does not help us understand Henriet's enterprise. According to another definition [3] that may help us here, ideology means a system of ideas that is presented as reasonable, but which is used for justifying an enterprise aiming to satisfy the interests of those who present it. In this view, all the religious acts--preaching and praying--would have been instrumentalised and manipulated, intentionally or unconsciously, by their very actors, as if these acts had no proper meaning, namely their being primarily religious acts. The instrumentalisation of prayer--the fact that an efficacy is sought--can be analysed in two different ways. Medieval actors understood their prayers as acts performed in order to come into contact with God; for them, prayer could produce symbolic or religious efficacy. Social historians analyse it today as an act performed in order to dominate society. We saw above that in these two cases we do not speak about the same efficacy, although social efficacy does not occur without symbolic efficacy in the case of prayer, but can go without symbolic efficacy in the case of preaching. The fundamental question therefore is whether praying monks wanted to produce symbolic efficacy or social domination through their prayers. In other words, whether we can attribute 'unconscious' acts of such importance to historical actors. Certainly, their social status was defined and legitimated through prayer; they were the oratores of medieval society, but their relation to prayer and its expected effects, as described by the hagiographer, were not primarily 'ideological', whatever definition of this term we accept.

Depending on the definition one uses to describe an ideology, what Henriet calls a 'Church system', is or is not an ideological construct. According to the first definition, it is; but it is not really, according to the second. The term that describes most adequately what 'Church system' means, however, is ecclesiology, a far clearer although far narrower term than 'system of representations' or 'ideology'. It is also clear that if we consider a sufficiently wide meaning of the term 'ideology', while using it we risk losing the specificities of the phenomenon described. It seems to me that we miss the religious purpose, the motivation and even the social task of hermits, monastic founders, other medieval saints, as well as those of the whole society or community they constituted, if we consider their life only in relation to a so-called ideological message of their acts. In other words, I do not believe that religious concerns can be reduced to social, political, economic, and ideological ones (even though they certainly do have some social, political or economic or ideological elements). Doing this, we would miss the very purpose and consciousness of the actors who performed those religious acts and we circumvent the difficulty of thinking about what a religious act is.

Finally, we might say that the object of the book--an examination of the ideological uses of religious speech by medieval clergymen--does not really correspond to the subject announced by the title. This discrepancy can be explained by the conceptual framework of the book, as discussed above, but also by the type of evidence used. A prayer appears in a hagiographical text when its efficacy has already been proven--or it does not appear at all. Therefore, interrogating hagiographic texts, as the author himself says, necessitates coping with this characteristic of the genre. What else do we learn, then, about the phenomenon of prayer than what the ideology or/and ecclesiology aimed at by the hagiographer necessitated? A comparison with other types of literary evidence on prayer (such as theoretical treatises, prayers, letters, etc: sources that are used only sporadically by Henriet) would have permitted him to come nearer to what is behind the ideological or ecclesiological concern. In fact, the detailed analyses in the different chapters of the book contain fine results that provide us with a more profound understanding of the religious phenomena discussed, but they are not entirely integrated into the general project (questions and conclusions of the chapters and large parts) of the book. Thus, it is not the work accomplished, that is, the reading and understanding of the texts that I criticise, but the framework, which is constructed in a way that is not appropriate to integrate the problems which arise.


[1] Henriet, p. 8: "L'automatisme d'une parole efficiente par sa seule force...n'a jamais disparu du monde chretien."; p. 10: "La parole ecclesiastique et liturgique rentre bien souvent dans cette categorie [de la performance linguistique], qui implique une efficacite directe sans s'appuyer necessairement sur un soubassement magique."

[2] "Le mot (= ideologie) est vague. L'usage que l'on en fait dans la politique a rendu sa signification ambigue. L'historien doit le prendre dans son sens le plus large, et en le degageant des intonations pejoratives dont il est tres souvent charge. Entendons par ideologie, comme le fait Louis Althusser, 'un systeme (possedant sa logique et sa rigueur propres) de representations (images, mythes, ides ou concepts selon les cas) doue d'une existence et d'un role historique au sein d'une societe donnee " (G. Duby, "Histoire sociale et ideologies des societes", dans J. Le Goff et P. Nora, eds., Faire de l'Histoire, 1, 1974).

[3] "systeme plus ou moins coherent d'idees, d'opinions ou de dogmes, qu'un groupe social ou un parti presentent comme une exigence de la raison, mais dont le resort effectif se trouve dans le besoin de justifier des entreprises destinees a satisfaire des aspirations interessees et qui est surtout exploite pour la propagande." Dictionnaire de la langue philosophique, ed. P. Foulquie.

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