The "Gregorian" Dialogues and the Origins of Benedictine Monasticism.
In the last hundred years, Benedictines have become accustomed to readjusting their view of the origins of their monastic tradition. Benedict's influential Rule for Monasteries has been shown to be a creative editing and tempering of an earlier text (the Rule of the Master) rather than an entirely original creation. Benedictines now understand the key moment in their historical development to have been the emergence of the Carolingian Empire, when the Rule served as a basis for monastic unity and reform.
Amidst this change, the portrait of Benedict provided by Gregory the Great in Book 2 of his Dialogues remained beloved by Benedictines, though not very determinative of their way of life. Then in 1987, Francis Clark published his two-volume, almost 800-page The Pseudo-Gregorian Dialogues, asserting that the Dialogues was a pastiche composed almost a century after Gregory's pontificate by someone with access to the papal archives. The late seventh century was a period of increasing Byzantine influence in Italy, and a secretary in the archives may have created this promotion of Italian sanctity for patriotic reasons. C. further suggested that the portrait of Benedict in the Dialogues was almost entirely unreliable, and that even his association with Monte Cassino is suspect. Benedict should instead be seen as a Roman abbot, and his Rule as the product of the seventh century, not the sixth. C. has persevered in his arguments despite howls of outrage and more than a little derision. The present book is a slimmed-down and updated version of the previous study that responds to the various objections raised since 1987. The result is a very readable tour de force.
C.'s starting point is the poor writing and sometimes horrific theology of the Dialogues. Though many of its stories are not unusual for hagiographical literature, they are embarrassingly lowbrow when compared to the rest of Gregory's oeuvre. At times the writing is formulaic, stilted, and obsequious; none of these are Gregorian traits. And yet there are passages of great mystical profundity. C. explains the paradox by suggesting that the creator of the Dialogues had access to unpublished writings of Gregory and was able to graft these into his own framework to give it a more "authentic" tone. C. analyzes dozens of these "Inserted Gregorian Passages," identifying exactly where they begin and end, and comparing them to similarly recycled Gregorian material in other texts.
To his analysis of the text of the Dialogues, C. joins his research into contemporary historical sources to demonstrate that there is no reference to the Dialogues in any extant source before the 680s. Further, despite its traditional dating to the first half of the sixth century, the first mention of the Rule of Benedict is ca. 625, and its popularity becomes evident only later in that century. C. sees a causal relationship between the appearance of the Dialogues and the increasing fame of the Rule. Also curious is the lack of any evidence linking the Rule to Monte Cassino before 717, when a monastery was (re-?)founded under the inspiration of the Dialogues. Nor is there any earlier trace of a liturgical cult of Benedict. But from that time, Monte Cassino began to export both the cult and Rule of Benedict, most critically to Frankish regions, where the Benedictine monastic model rose to its Carolingian preeminence and the "Benedictine centuries" began.
If this were it, C.'s research would be of historical and monastic interest only. But there is more, and what brought C. to the topic in the first place: the emphasis in Book 4 of the Dialogues on the propitiatory value of the Eucharist for souls in Purgatory. Gregory has commonly been thought to have played a key role in the development of this doctrine. But it was the "Gregory" of the Dialogues. C. therefore dissociates much medieval eucharistic theology and practice from the traditional source, and instead locates it in the popular imagination and even superstitions of the late seventh century. Anyone who recognizes the term "Gregorian trental" knows the tradition based on the Dialogues and its purported author.
Since the first version of this book appeared, C.'s most spirited opponent has been Adalbert de Vogue, a Benedictine monk and arguably the greatest monastic scholar of the last hundred years. Vogue has edited two major texts attributed to Gregory for the series Sources chretiennes, the Dialogues (1978-) and the Commentaire sur le premier livre des Rois (1989-). Halfway through his edition of the latter, having already published three volumes, Vogue announced that the work was a skillful pastiche from the twelfth century. The only actual quotation from the Rule of Benedict in the Gregorian corpus is in the Commentaire. Despite his volte-face, Vogue remains adamantly opposed to C.'s theses about the Dialogues and the Rule. As an additional irony, Vogue had provided the definitive proof of Benedict's dependence on the Rule of the Master. As both historians approach the end of their careers, the rest of us watch to see what happens next.
Saint John's University, Collegeville, Minn.
COLUMBA STEWART, O.S.B.