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Digging at the roots of Christian intolerance

Order and Exclusion: Cluny and Christendom Face Heresy, Judaism, and Islam, (1000-1150), Dominique Iogna-Prat, Translated from the French by Robert Edwards, Cornell University Press: 392 pp., $45

August 10, 2003|Carlos Eire | Carlos Eire is the T. Lawrason Riggs professor of history and religious studies at Yale University and the author of "From Madrid to Purgatory: The Art and Craft of Dying in 16th Century Spain."

Why buy a book about monks, or check it out from the library? Monks are invisible in our culture nowadays, utterly marginal, even superfluous; it's even difficult to fathom their existence. If they have an image at all, it is usually one of meekness, compassion and goodwill. More often than not, though, they are a blank to the world at large, or an enigma. Monks are also a measure of our distance from the Middle Ages. Most of us can't even begin to imagine a world in which monasteries were often at the very center of things, and where monks played a pivotal role in politics and the definition of culture. Much less is anyone prepared, perhaps, to imagine a world in which monks were feisty and intolerant in addition to being powerful. Yet such is the world painstakingly, even brilliantly, reconstructed in Dominique Iogna-Prat's "Order and Exclusion."

A renowned French medieval historian, Iogna-Prat argues that the Cluniac monks of the 12th century helped create a new climate of hostility toward "the other" in the Christian West. His villain is the eighth abbot of Cluny, Peter the Venerable (1092-1156), whose polemics against heretics, Jews and Muslims contributed, he charges, to the rise of intolerance in Western Europe. Iogna-Prat claims to have found the taproot of the crusading mentality that is now being ascribed to the entire West by Muslim extremists such as Osama bin Laden. He contends that the Cluniac monks were instrumental in developing the idea of "Christendom," the notion that all of Western Europe should be considered one religio-political entity with no room for heresy or unbelief of any kind.

In "Order and Exclusion," Iogna-Prat has written two books: one on monastic history and the other on the history of intolerance. The history of the Cluniac monks, which takes up roughly half the volume, is the most concise and insightful survey yet written of the place of monasticism in medieval society from the 6th to the 12th centuries. Anyone who wishes to understand how monasticism took shape in Western Europe and how it was, exactly, that monks and monasteries fit into the whole of medieval society will find here a superb introduction to the subject that is not only anchored in an impressive array of primary sources but also in constant conversation with other historians through footnotes as dense as the forests of medieval Europe. Though this is a book aimed at scholars, nonspecialists should not fear getting lost. When it comes to clarity of expression and insights into often puzzling complexities, "Order and Exclusion" complements and even rivals Georges Duby's magnificent "The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined."

As far as the history of intolerance is concerned, the book's merits are more problematic, for Iogna-Prat makes some large (and debatable) revisionist claims. Up to now, the Cluniac monks and Peter the Venerable, in particular, have not been linked to intolerance so intensely. Indeed, Peter the Venerable has long been portrayed as a progressive of sorts: He was the first Christian to cite the Talmud; he arranged for the first translation of the Koran into Latin; he gave refuge to the controversial theologian Peter Abelard and helped to reconcile him with his bitterest foe, Bernard of Clairvaux.

Iogna-Prat nonetheless argues that Peter and the Cluniac monks did intensify Christian intolerance, dehumanizing heretics, Jews and Muslims and thus making it easier for them to be excluded, persecuted and killed. His argument is complex and finely nuanced but boldly stated: Peter the Venerable saw the world in a highly polarized way, in black-and-white terms, as a struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, error and truth, God and Satan, and this mentality led him to vilify his opponents and to exclude them from fully human status. Of course, for Peter it was the Catholic Church that was on God's side, and it was the monks who should be his most active agents on Earth. Given such a worldview, argues Iogna-Prat, it was inevitable that Peter would demonize those who failed to embrace the church.

Is Iogna-Prat right in assigning so crucial a role to Peter and his Cluniac monks in the evolution of Christian intolerance?

Few experts will take issue with his incisive analysis of the role of the Cluniac monks in feudal society or with his close reading of Peter the Venerable's convictions. Differences of opinion are likely to surface, however, over his assessment of Abbot Peter as an apostle of intolerance. To be sure, Iogna-Prat is always careful with his sources, but he nonetheless strains to prove that there is something especially intense about the abbot's intolerant rhetoric, perhaps even something new and unique. But it could be argued that Peter is not all that different from earlier Christian apologists and that his rhetoric is derived from tradition.

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