Napoleon and the Pope at Fontainebleau
 Sir David Wilkie

Christian Monasticism  by David Knowles (McGraw-Hill, 1969)
Chapter 14 – The Revival of the Nineteenth Century

AT the end of the domination of Napoleon i the monastic order, and in particular the traditional Benedictine family, was in worse case than at any time since the days of Benedict himself. Speaking loosely, it may be said that the Reformation had cut off all abbeys in the northern countries, and that the French Revolution and Napoleon had accounted for the rest. In some cases, indeed, the work of destruction went on, when liberal governments in Switzerland and Spain renewed the work of secularisation. It has been computed that of the thousand-odd monasteries of Benedictines and Cistercians extant in 1750 less than a dozen of the white monks and only thirty of the black monks survived. Apart from the four English houses, the rest were scattered over Bavaria, Austria and Sicily. Those hostile to the monastic way of life, and indifferent contemporaries in England or America, seemed to be justified in their opinion that monasticism, a medieval survival, had vanished forever along with the other institutions of the ancien régime.



 Monastic Investiture, Gratian, Decretals,
 bm 558 f.214, 1288

THE revival was not long in coming, and though it owed its origin to deeper causes, it was assisted in France and other countries by the wave of romantic interest in the middle ages, and by the sense that an imitation of medieval achievements and institutions was the best way of combating the ills of the past century.

The new life sprang mainly from three sources, in France, in Italy, and in Germany. That in France was the work of Prosper Guéranger (1805—75), a secular priest who conceived of his foundation of Solesmes (Sablé par Sarthe, 1833) as a revival and a model of the age-old liturgical spirituality of the church. Solesmes became the mother-abbey of the congregation of France, which has come to include also abbeys in England, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Canada, Mexico, Argentine and Martinique. Excluding all external activities, such as parochial, educational and agricultural undertakings, Solesmes has displayed a rich liturgical life and a considerable output of scholarship. The founder intended to revive the spirit of the Maurists, but in the event Solesmes and its off spring are rather in the tradition of Bec and other great abbeys of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Guéranger himself took an active part in the controversies that divided French Catholics in the matter of papal temporal power and papal infallibility, and aroused criticism in some quarters, but his works on the liturgy, in particular The Liturgical Year, were extraordinarily popular and influential in bringing his contemporaries to an appreciation of the riches of the missal and breviary. He was followed at Solesmes by musicologists and executants of genius, such as Doms Pothier and Mocquereau, who presented from the manuscripts the plain chant of the golden age (AD 600—1100) and a choral performance that was for long superior to any other and which made of Solesmes the Mecca of ‘plain-chantists’. These scholars effectively rescued from oblivion the chant which had been debased and rejected for many centuries, and if some of the theory and execution that seemed unassailable has since been questioned, it is Mocquereau and Pothier who have provided material for a revision, should this prove needful. The collection and photographing of the innumerable manuscripts, the collation and assessment of the various traditions, and the constitution of a final text and its production in the form of gradual and antiphoner gave excellent and useful work for all types of talent, and when the fame of Solesmes grew there were courses of lectures and summer schools on the chant, to say nothing of the elaborate choral execution and performance for gramophone and wireless recording, when that became a possibility. Solesmes also had in Dom Pitra (1812—89), later cardinal and librarian of the Vatican, a liturgical scholar and orientalist of note, but the mother-abbey was surpassed in this field by the English house of Farnborough, founded in 1895 by the ex-empress Eugénie at the mausoleum of the ill-fated imperial dynasty. Here Abbot Cabrol, Dom Louis Gougaud and the legendary Dom Henri Leclercq, who with his own pen wrote the greater part, including every word in the later volumes, of the great Dictionnaire d’archéologie et de liturgie chrétienne. We may perhaps note that, whether by design or necessity, the abbey of Solesmes is architecturally wholly without the plan and appearance of a medieval abbey.

< Illustration on p. 173>

The modern building of Solesmes abbey overlooks the river Sarthe as a fortress rather than a monastery, but the church, which is architecturally no more than a large chapel, contains some late medieval statuary. Solesmes is the home and the factory of the revived classical Gregorian chant now perhaps about to yield to less traditional music.

A second beginning was made in Italy, where a few monasteries of the Cassinese congregation had survived in a moribund condition. Houses were founded or refounded at Subiaco, Finalpia and elsewhere, and grouped by Pius ix into an autonomous province of the Cassinese congregation. Calling themselves ‘of the primitive observance’, they revived the strictly common life with the midnight office and the traditional fasts. After an attempt to carry the Cassinese houses into the reform, the new group hived off to form an independent congregation with several provinces. They were strengthened by the adherence of several notable abbeys outside Italy, including the Spanish Montserrat and the French Pierre-qui-vire. The last-named had an interesting history. Founded in 1850 by a secular priest, the Abbé Muard (1809—54), with the aim of evangelising districts lost to the faith, Pierre-qui-vire combined an austere regime (originally that of the Trappists) with an apostolic zeal. It ran into difficulties on account of its physically severe demands and finally joined the Subiaco body, in which it formed the nucleus of a French province, distinguished still by its austerity. In spite of this, indeed perhaps precisely because of its appeal to two ideals of the nineteenth century, the penitential and the missionary, the house flourished and continued to do so in the twentieth century, founding several houses with the same characteristics. The constitutions of the Subiaco congregation, which in their original form followed the pattern of Sta Giustina, with temporary abbots appointed by general chapter, and professions foundations.

Subiaco, Solesmes and Beuron were not the only centres of revival. In Austria a few abbeys had never ceased to function, but it was not till 1889 that seventeen abbeys were parcelled into two congregations. In Hungary a small congregation of five was established. In Switzerland the ancient monastery of Einsiedeln revived, together with Engelberg, Disentis and other houses exiled in sites in the Tyrol forming the Swiss congregation. Switzerland during the nineteenth century was (as it still remains) the only country of western Europe where new monastic foundations are forbidden by law. Those that exist are therefore large communities, and an early overflow took Swiss monks to America.

In England the communities of St Gregory at Douai and St Laurence at Dieulouard, driven out at the Revolution, settled finally at Downside (Somerset) and Ampleforth (Yorks) respectively. That of St Edmund at Paris returned after Napoleon’s fall to the house of its confreres at Douai, only to be evicted once again by the Combes law of associations in 1903, to settle at Woolhampton (Berks). They grew slowly but steadily after Catholic Emancipation, and during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century fought a successful battle, largely under Downside initiative, for the restoration of autonomy and abbatial status for the individual houses.

In Spain and Portugal the monks, sorely tried and dispersed under Joseph Bonaparte, were more unfortunate than their brethren elsewhere in catching the backlash of the ‘liberalism’ that other countries had encountered earlier. All the monasteries of Spain, fifty-six in number, were suppressed in 1835. Montserrat, a national shrine, was soon restored, but a congregation did not come into being for fifty years.

Finally, in any survey of Europe mention should be made of the Congregation of St Ottilien, founded (1884) with the direct purpose of overseas missionary activity. It came to have two sister houses in Germany, and missionary foundations in Africa, South America and elsewhere.

Canada and the United States had no monks before the mid- nineteenth century. Then (1846) a small colony went out from the Bavarian congregation to St Vincent, (Pa), where there were thick settlements of German immigrants. St Vincent became archabbey of a flourishing congregation. Nine years later, when the Swiss abbeys were having trouble with cantonal governments, Einsiedeln founded St Meinrad (Ind) with the aim of evangelising the Indians.


BONIFACE WIMMER and the American-Cassinese Congregation


The WOLTERS and Beuron

CASSARETTO and the Subiaco Congregation

AMRHEIN and St Ottilien

VANCALOEN, NEVE, MARMION, and the Congregation of the Annunciation

Adapted from The Benedictine Missionary Movement, Luke Dysinger, O.S.B., St. Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo

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