Devotion in the Medieval Monastery


A review of Affective Devotion and Emotional Reform in the Eleventh-Century Monastery of John of Fécamp, by Lauren Elisabeth Mancia.

At first blush, John of Fécamp’s Confessio Theologica reads like a certain set of other medieval theological texts. It performs, and invites the reader into, an affective devotion to the crucified Christ, with an emphasis on contrition, suffering, and tears. Although, as Lauren Mancia’s deeper analytic gaze reveals, marked differences set John’s text apart from other medieval works, the most surprising element of the work is its date. André Wilmart discovered that John composed it sometime between 1016 and 1028, centuries before writers such as the Beguines, Franciscans, Cistercians, and others took up similar themes (André Wilmart, Auteurs spirituels et textes dévots du Moyen Age Latin. Paris: Librarie Bloud et Gay, 1932, p. 350). Despite the historical significance of John’s work as a founding text of affective devotion, Mancia’s dissertation is the first detailed study of the Confessio Theologica since Wilmart and Leclercq/Bonnes’ work in 1946 (Jean-Paul Bonnes and Jean Leclercq, Un maître de la vie spirituelle au XIe siècle. Paris: J. Vrin, 1946). Mancia identifies John’s likely sources, his eleventh-century context, and the immediate successors of his spirituality. In doing so, Mancia makes the case not only for a broader appreciation of the significance of John’s work, but also for re-evaluating later medieval sources in light of this earlier appearance of affective devotion.

In her first chapter, Mancia isolates the central themes of John’s affective piety through close readings of the primary text (p. 31ff.). She discusses John’s aim of cultivating an interior connection to God via affect (p. 41). To establish such a connection, the sinner must open her heart by confronting and repenting from her own sinfulness. She must desire to receive the gift of tears, that is, the ability not just to know herself as sinful, but to feel that so deeply as to be moved to tears (p. 49). John’s several descriptions of Christ’s suffering are meant to draw a parallel from Christ’s humanity to our own, drawing the sinner closer to Christ through contemplation. The sacramental extension of such a process of contemplation is the Eucharist, a ritual allowing the Christian to literally internalize God, in order to un-harden the heart and draw ever nearer to Christ (pp. 63-68). With the help of several charts, Mancia also points out both the structure of John’s reliance on Augustine’s Confessions, as well as his very particular use of it as a model for contemplation (pp. 70-85). Having analyzed the text on its own terms, Mancia spends the remainder of the dissertation contextualizing the work: identifying John’s audience, sources, and legacy.

Mancia’s second chapter makes the case for a male monastic audience for John’s work. She examines not only the Confesssio Theologica, but the two later recensions of the work that John prepared: the Libellus and the Confessio Fidei. Previous scholarship has made different claims about John’s intended audience. Because the Confessio Theologica was written in first person, André Wilmart concluded that the book was written by the abbot for himself as a spiritual autobiography (p. 88; André Wilmart, “Deux préfaces spirituelles de Jean de Fécamp.” Revue d’ascétique et de mystique 69 (1937): 25, n. 11). Sarah McNamer, on the other hand, has argued that the prayers were written specifically for women, at least in the Libellus recension (pp. 89-90; Sarah McNamer, Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010, p. 60). Mancia proposes, however, that John originally intended a male Benedictine audience for his Confessio Theologica, and that manuscript evidence suggests that the Confessio Theologica was in fact disseminated to this audience via Fécamp’s monastic networks. John indeed sent a later recension called the Libellus to women, but Mancia believes that this work was already written, and did not necessarily envision even this recension to enjoy an exclusively female audience. Mancia cites both internal textual evidence as well as manuscript evidence to prove her point.

Chapter 3 examines the sources of John’s Confessio Theologica in order to understand it as part of the larger monastic reform movements of the 10th and 11th centuries. Mancia isolates influences from Cluniac and eremitic traditions in order to both situate John’s treatise in its proper context, as well as to isolate its innovative elements. In addition to Cluniac influence, the Confessio also shows evidence of themes from the Libelli Precum, which were prayer books appended to the psalter, produced from the Carolingian period through the 11th century. They often featured prayers that addressed the crucified Christ directly. John’s emphasis differs from that of the Libelli; John highlights longing and tears, while seeking to cultivate an affect that connects the reader with Christ. These elements are lacking in the Libelli Precum prayers. After having reviewed John’s likely sources, Mancia concludes by pointing out the innovations of the text. In particular, John’s treatise cultivates an affect attuned to the suffering of the crucified Christ in order to reform the individual monk’s interior life. By meditating on the crucifixion, the reader is meant to draw a parallel between the suffering of Christ on the cross, and her own suffering as a sinner.

In her fourth chapter, Mancia argues that John’s teachings in the Confessio Theologica were put into practice at Fécamp. In addition to promoting abbatial authority and bolstering orthodoxy, the interior devotion of the Confessio Theologica was harnessed to encourage monks in their pursuit of nearness to God through contemplation. She divides her chapter into separate sections on the affective devotion as it concerned abbots and other authority figures, and affective devotion for monks in general. In addition to studying manuscripts of treatises, prayers, and sermons, Mancia also considers the significance of a blood relic at Fécamp, and includes fascinating liturgical evidence such as the Depositio, a Good Friday liturgical drama. By comparing the Fécamp version of the Depositio to examples from other monasteries, she isolates and analyzes the particularities of the Fécamp version to show the particular interests in blood and in pathos with regard to the crucified Christ. By a careful study of such evidence, Mancia’s final chapter clearly demonstrates how the affective rhetoric of the Confessio Theologica appeared in the life of monks at Fécamp.

In the conclusion, Mancia argues that the Confessio Theologica served as a model for contemplation. It supported exterior reform movements by focusing on interior emotion, and offered a foundation for combatting heresy. Its affective emphasis was carried forward by John’s successors. Mancia’s dissertation draws attention to a text that has not received the level of intensive study it so clearly deserves as a foundational text of medieval affective piety. Although Rachel Fulton mentions that John’s text connects the suffering of the sinner to that of the crucified Christ in order to unite the two, Mancia’s work goes much further, offering sustained analysis not only of the text itself, but also of its sources, its context in 11th-century monastic reform, and its immediate legacy (Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002, p. 161ff.).

By focusing her study on the works of John of Fécamp, Mancia adds further urgency to the need for a critical edition of John’s works. But I anticipate that beyond drawing attention to John’s work for its own sake, Mancia’s work will have the greatest impact on the history of medieval affective piety. Such piety is well known among specialists as characteristic of the high and late Middle Ages, and Mancia’s research clearly demonstrates that devotion to the suffering Christ began much earlier, in John’s Confessio Theologica and in a Benedictine monastic context as part of the 11th-century reform movements. Mancia’s dissertation will prod historians of high- and late-medieval affective devotion to the crucified Christ to revise their arguments to account for the early appearance of affective piety in John’s Confessio Theologica.

Travis Stevens
ABD, Harvard Divinity School
Harvard Univeristy

Primary Source

Jean-Paul Bonnes and Jean Leclercq, Un maître de la vie spirituelle au XIe siècle. Paris: J. Vrin, 1946.

Dissertation Information

Yale University. 2013. 361 pp. Primary Advisor: Paul Freedman.

Image: Bibliographic info: Interior of the church at Fécamp today. Photo by Author.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like