The Monks of the West, From St. Benedict to St. Bernard

By the COUNT DE MONTALEMBERT, Member of the French Academy. Authorized Translation. Volumes I. and II. Edinburgh and London : W. Blackwood & Sons. 1861. 8vo. pp. xii. and 515, 549.
THESE volumes form the first instalment of a work in which one of the great lights of the Romish Church in our day proposes to recount the glories of Western Monasticism, and to narrate the lives of some of the remarkable men who successively passed from the cloister to the Papal throne, or in positions scarcely less conspicuous permanently affected the history of the Church. His original design, however, does not appear to have extended beyond writing the life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, which he intended to make in some measure a complement to his life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. But he judged rightly, that, in order to exhibit the character and influence of that remarkable man under all their various aspects, it was needful at the outset to retrace the early history of monastic institutions in the West, and to show how far they tended to prepare the way for such a man. Only a part of this preliminary task has been accomplished as yet; but enough has been done to show in what spirit the historian has approached his subject, how thoroughly he has explored the original sources of information, and what will probably be the real worth of his labors. For such a work Montalembert possesses adequate and in some respects peculiar qualifications. His learning, eloquence, and candor will he conceded by every one who is familiar witli his previous writings or with his public life ; and at the same time he unites a passionate love of liberty, everywhere apparent in his book, with a zeal for the Church, worthy of any of the monks whom he commemorates. While his narrative is always animated and picturesque, and often rises into passages of fervid eloquence, he has conducted his researches with the unwearied perseverance of a mere antiquary, and has exhausted every source of information. “Every word which I have written,” he says, “ has been drawn from original and contemporary sources ; and if I have quoted facts or expressions from second-hand authors, it has never been without attentively verifying the original or completing the text. A single date, quotation, or note, apparently insignificant, has often cost me hours and sometimes days of labor. I have never contented myself with being approximatively right, nor resigned myself to doubt until every chance of arriving at certainty was exhausted.” To the spirit and temper in which the book is written no well-founded exception can be taken but considerable abatement must be made from the author’s estimate of the services rendered by the monks to Christian civilization, and no Protestant will accept his views as to the permanent worth of monastic institutions.
With this qualification, and with some allowance for needless repetitions, we cannot but regard his work as a most attractive and eloquent contribution to ecclesiastical history.
About half of the first volume is devoted to a General Introduction, explanatory of the origin and design of the work, but mainly intended to paint the character of monastic institutions, to describe the happiness of a religious life, and to examine the charges brought against the monks. These topics are considered in ten chapters, filled with curious details, and written with an eloquence and an earnestness which it is difficult for the render to resist. Following this we have a short and brilliant sketch of the social and political condition of the Roman Empire after the conversion of Constantine, exhibiting by a few masterly touches its wide-spread corruption, the feebleness of its rulers, and the utter degradation of the people. The next two books treat of the Monastic Precursors in the East as well as in the West, and present a series of brief biographical sketches of the most famous monks, from St. Anthony, the father of Eastern monasticism, to St. Benedict, the earliest legislator for the monasteries of the West. Among the illustrious men who pass before us in this review, and all of whom are skilfully delineated, are Basil of Caesarea and his friend Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, Athanasius, Martin of Tours, and the numerous company of saints and doctors nurtured in the great monastery of Lerins. And though an account of the saintly women who have led lives of seclusion would scarcely seem to be included under the title of Montalembert’s work, he does not neglect to add sketches of the most conspicuous of them, — Euphrosyne, Pelagia, Marcella, Euria, and others. These preliminary sketches fill the last half of the first volume.
The Fourth Book comprises an account of the Life and Rule of St. Benedict, and properly opens the history which Montalembert proposes to narrate. It presents a sufficiently minute sketch of the personal history of Benedict and His immediate followers ; hut its chief merit is in its very ample and satisfactory exposition of the Benedictine Rule. The next book traces the history of monastic institutions in Italy and Spain during the sixth and seventh centuries, and includes biographical notices of Cassiodorus, the founder of the once famous monastery of Viviers in Calabria, of St. Gregory the Great, of Leandcr, Bishop of Seville, and his brother Isidore, of Ildefonso of Toledo, and of many others of scarcely less renown in the early monastic records. The Sixth Book is devoted to the monks under the first Merovingians, and is divided into five sections, treating respectively of the conquest of Gaul by the Tranks, of the arrival of St. Maur in Anjou and the propagation of the Benedictine rule there, of the relations previously existing between the monks and the Merovingians, of St. Badegund and her followers, and of the services of the monks in clearing the forests and opening the way for the advance of civilization. The Seventh Book records the life of St. Columbanus, and describes at much length his labors in Gaul, as well as those of his disciples, both in the great monastery of Luxeuil and in the numerous colonies which issued from it and spread over the whole neighborhood, bringing the narrative down to the close of the seventh century. At this point the portion of Montalembert’s work now published terminates, leaving, we presume, several additional volumes to follow. For their appearance we shall look with much interest. If the remainder is executed in the same spirit as the portion now before us, and is marked by the same diligent study of the original authorities and the same persuasive eloquence, it will form one of the most valuable of the many attractive monographs which we owe to the French historians of our time, and will be read with equal interest by Catholics and Protestants.