The very model of a modern organisation?

Fulda, the Making of a Community, c.744 – c.900 (Cambridge, 2012), by Janneke Raaijmakers is far more than its title suggests. Yes, it tells the story of this Carolingian monastery, but it does so by drawing together a huge (by early medieval standards) range of sources and by anchoring the account within a changing context of social and political factors, personal crusades and local pressures. What we have here is reminiscent of many modern organisational studies, without ever straying into the anachronisms that may imply.
The story begins with Boniface’s letter to the pope in 751 asking him to grant a papal exemption for a small group of monks building a monastery in an isolated place, where they could live according to the Rule of Benedict. The exemption would protect the purity of the place from interference by bishops and others who might value its land. The exemption was duly granted and Raaijmakers’ task is then to explain how and why this eremitic community grew to become the Royal Abbey and its huge estates which existed in 900. The book’s achievement is to link the growth with the rise and fall of the Carolingian dynasty and to reflect the interplay between modernisers and traditionalists which accompanied it. 100 years after its foundation, Rudolf’s Miracula Sanctorum (842-847), in Raaijmakers’ view, presents what was once ‘a wooded place in a vast wilderness’ as ‘a spider in a web of churches and cellae, once donated by the Frankish elite or built by the brethren themselves on acquired property or newly cultivated lands.’
In tracing this progression, Raaijmakers makes clever use of the cumulative evidence of architecture and archaeology as vitae, letters and other traditional textual sources. She uses archaeological, hagiographical and liturgical records for example, to demonstrate how Abbot Ratger, who insisted on building a huge church, large and grand enough to make Fulda rank ‘among the major royal abbeys in the Frankish Empire’ deliberately modelled the church on prestigious churches elsewhere in the Carolingian Empire. He built a western transept with an apse, in the fashion of churches in Rome and Paris which enabled the community to adopt Roman liturgy as well as strengthening the cult of St Boniface. When we consider that Ratger became abbot in 802, just after Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor, we see clearly the tensions between a ‘moderniser’ and those who felt this was self-aggrandisement and a misuse of resources. Tellingly, Ratger was exiled when the complaints became impossible to ignore.
Textual sources on their own are fully exploited in context. The Life of Abbot Eigil, Ratger’s successor, was written by Candidus during the abbacy of Hrabanus Maurus as a dual text or ‘opus geminatum’, with one version in prose, the other in verse, rather than simply in a prose version which had hitherto been usual. Raaijmakers shows how this choice was related to the development of scholarship during the ninth century by elucidating the relationship between the events of Eigil’s abbacy which form the content and the scholarly and pastoral expectations of the community at the time of writing. The prose version ‘was written for moral instruction.’ It could be read aloud not just to monks but to church congregations and the hearers might be expected to absorb the lessons therein. Its content overlaps with that of the prose version, but the latter includes ‘expositions’ and was meant to be read by those already skilled in xxxxx and able to read ‘with the eyes of the mind’. In other words, this literary edifice bears the same relationship to the ninth century abbey as did the construction of Ratger’s church to the earlier community. This was an abbey to be reckoned with, taking seriously its task of guiding and educating the common people but also capable of interpreting the word of God and thus truly representing the interests of those for whom it prayed.
One question remains after reading this book. What role did the famous school play in establishing the identity of the community? It may be that records are scarce but this is a strange omission in the description of the development from the small, eremitical site where monks were carrying out practical work to sustain themselves, to the Royal Abbey of 847, where the monks could not only appreciate a poetic vita but could also be expected to write such a work. And there is evidence in the book that the ‘new’ monks who joined the monastery as it grew, were in need of education. Many of them, by the late eighth century, trained to become priests. Many by then were coming from the newly Christianised lands in for example, Saxony. There was, we are told, a ‘general cultural bustle in the monastery’ at the end of the eighth century and an impressive number of texts had already been assembled. Education must have played a crucial role.
That said, a book I very much enjoyed and to which I shall return.

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Filed under Learning Matters in the Medieval World

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