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Prayer and the Early Medieval Monk

Review: Renie S. Choy, Intercessory Prayer and the Monastic Ideal in the Time of the Carolingian Reforms (Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs. Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. x + 234. $95).

By Hannah Matis

Monographs on Carolingian theology and monastic culture remain rare and precious things. There is a tendency even today for theologians to jump breezily from the fourth century to the 12th as if nothing of interest happened in between, with an occasional, grudging nod to Gregory the Great. Historians of the early medieval world have a tendency to focus only on political questions relating to the relative power (or lack thereof) of Charlemagne and his descendants, and how the realm over which he ruled fits into the emergence of the longed-for modern nation-state.

At the same time, TV shows like Game of Thrones, The Last Kingdom, and Vikings have reveled in the violence of the early medieval world: we do not want to know that these people had a complex theology. We would rather watch them killing each other.

And yet the early medieval world was, it has been argued, the place where Western Christendom was invented, for better or for worse. The alliance between Charlemagne and a newly confident papacy in Rome set the tone for what followed: the imposition of Roman textual models as the standards for liturgical practice, crystallizing the shape of the medieval liturgy. The Carolingian expansion of power brought Christianity into new parts of Europe, imposing new diocesan structures along with a network of monastic houses.

This missionary frontier inspired new ways to express basic Christian doctrine, such as Paschasius Radbertus’s understanding of the Eucharist. And monasticism, for centuries deeply local and regional in its practices, acquired a centralizing reformer in the shadowy figure of the Spanish Visigoth Witiza, rechristened Benedict of Aniane. With the authority of Charlemagne’s court theologians behind him, Benedict would seek to make the Benedictine Rule the standard for monastic communities in the West.

Renie Choy’s recent monograph on intercessory prayer in the Carolingian world explores the theological dimensions of a subject that has in recent years only been studied by historians interested in examining what linked monasteries to their local aristocratic patrons. It is an invaluable resource to anyone wondering how early medieval monks spent their time or understood their mission in the world.

Choy is very critical of purely functionalist interpretations of intercessory prayer, often depicted merely as a special service advertised by monasteries to their patrons. Instead, Choy recovers the moral core of early medieval monasticism, which preserved the traditions of the desert fathers and sought to refashion sinful, backward, unspiritual monks so they could pray effectually for themselves, their brethren, and the rest of society.

Choy gathers together a variety of sources in her exploration of intercessory prayer in the Carolingian world. Perhaps the most valuable — since the most frightening to historians and therefore the most neglected — is her treatment of the early medieval liturgical material, which is laid out clearly and effectively. Her chapter on the Carolingian intercessory use of the Psalter should be helpful to anyone seeking deeper knowledge of the role played by the psalms in monastic devotion. Indeed, Choy’s work is valuable to anyone seeking a richer, more grounded grasp of the Western monastic tradition, its rhythms of prayer and intercession, and its role within society. Partly because Benedict of Aniane saw himself as a codifier of the early monastic tradition, the Carolingian experience is valuable to understand what of the desert tradition survived and thrived in the West.

As a historian, my major criticism of Choy’s work is only that it assumes a unified, monolithic monastic ideal to which she assumes all Carolingian monasteries adhered. This is, to me, inexplicable given that, in her title, she sees that there were multiple “Carolingian reforms.” Even with as prominent a figure as Benedict of Aniane, reform was a process and a conversation — and not always an amicable one. Further work is necessary to understand the complex interplay between the ideals of the Carolingian reform and its implementation in individual monasteries, a relationship in which politics, a subject studiously avoided by Choy, must play a significant role. Religion and politics inevitably bled into one another into the Carolingian world, and emphasizing the one needn’t negate the value of the other. For now, Choy’s book is an excellent addition to the conversation.



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