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Community Building as a Vector of Social and Religious Change in the Life of John of Gorze (973/74–84)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 December 2023

Stephen D. Church
Affiliation:
University of East Anglia
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Summary

Over the last two decades, scholars have made a great deal of progress in trying to understand how tenth- and eleventh-century authors represented intentional change in religious settings. Their nineteenth- and twentieth-century predecessors saw no issue with referring to such changes as ‘reforms’, and even today the term remains firmly embedded in the discourse of specialist publications. However, recent studies have argued that its current use reflects a semantic shift that took place in the 1600s. As such, it implies a programmatic logic, forward-looking dynamic, and ideological cohesiveness, all three of which are features that sit uncomfortably with the ‘messy’ reality that emerges from the primary evidence. Not only that, but the early modern conceptualization of reform is a mismatch with the way in which high medieval people perceived religious change, what they expected from it, and how they wrote about it. In response to this greater semantic awareness, specialists have become a great deal more focused on answering questions about the literary traditions and ideological trends that inspired the language of restoration and renewal in tenth- and eleventh-century sources. The narrative tropes used in these sources to describe real-life processes of spiritual and institutional change have likewise been subject to a new scrutiny. The same is true of the degree to which this language and these tropes accurately captured these complex and incremental phenomena.

Among a large number of publications that address these issues, one of the latest and most intriguing is a monograph by the German scholar Stephan Bruhn. Analysing literary sources from tenth- and early eleventh-century England, he notes that authors relied on a concept of religious change that was neither programmatic nor ideological, but social. Their argument centred on the existence of what Bruhn calls ‘communities of value’ (Wertegemeinschaften), heterogeneous cohorts of people who shared the same ethical values and interest in religious change, but who neither necessarily agreed on a course of action, nor always had a precise view of long-term outcomes. When it comes to applying his analysis to the Continent, however, Bruhn has expressed reservations. In his view, specific contextual factors and literary traditions in England created the conditions for authors to write about religious change in this manner. True as this may be, to not take up the implied challenge would be an opportunity missed.

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Anglo-Norman Studies XLV
Proceedings of the Battle Conference 2022
, pp. 163 - 180
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2023

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