Dark Age Bodies reconstructs the gender ideology of monastic masculinity through an investigation of early medieval readings of the body and its parts. It brings together scholarship in architectural history and cultural anthropology to frame an important reconsideration of Carolingian culture.
2010 | 416 pages | Cloth $65.00
History | Women's Studies/Gender Studies
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Introduction: Dark Age Bodies
Chapter 1. "Hrabanus Is My Name"
Chapter 2. A Carolingian Aesthetic of Bricolage
Chapter 3. Gendering the Benedictine Rule
Chapter 4. Carolingian Practices of the Rule
Chapter 5. Inscribing the Rule onto Carolingian Sacred Space
Chapter 6. Gendering the Plan of Saint Gall
Chapter 7. Foursquare Power
Dark Age Bodies
An image of an early medieval monk dressed in humble attire and kneeling under a vibrant red cross appears in Plate 1 of this book. The hands of the monk, graceful and eloquent, are extended in a gesture of supplication, and his tonsure signifies his world-renouncing status. Subjugated by the weight of the cross, the monk's body appears to lean on the words running left to right across the page. Within the contours of his body, bold red letters stand out and link him to the cross hovering over his head. The red letters form a separate poem within the longer series of verses moving across the manuscript in a horizontal line. That poem reads: "O Christ, in your clemency and your holiness, I beseech you to protect me, Hrabanus, on the Day of Judgment." The stanzas on the horizontal and vertical arms of the cross are identical: "O Wood, I pray to you, you who are an altar, that I may be carried up and placed on your heights." Poetry clarifies the meaning of the holy man's gesture: he is offering his body as a sacrifice at the onslaught of the apocalypse.
The folio is from an acrostic poem of the ninth century, Hrabanus Maurus's In Honor of the Holy Cross, a masterpiece that gives viewers a rare portrait of the artist. Hrabanus Maurus (ca. 780-856) was a leading figure in the intellectual and spiritual world of the Carolingian Empire. His acrostics were renowned for their visual and verbal intricacy, especially the author's unrivaled talent for hiding poems within poems to be deciphered by the learned eye. Figures, such as the cross or the kneeling monk, serve as visual cues prompting viewers to find more verses in and around images. Hrabanus's figural poem also represents the Carolingian propensity for coupling classical forms and Christian themes. In this instance, the literary styles of the Romans, Horace, Lucan, Lucretius, and Virgil, glorify the crucifixion. Hrabanus himself participates in this union of the classical and the Christian. He is both seer (vates) trained in heroic hexameter and monk, whose life is dominated by the cross. In his verse, Hrabanus calls on Christ to temper his desires, to eliminate his vices, and to replace his rebellious tongue with a pure mouth.
The depiction of Hrabanus Maurus in figure 28 of In Honor of the Holy Cross exemplifies the major theme of Dark Age Bodies: the conception of the body in the early medieval enterprise of salvation. The book's chief task is to reconstruct the gender ideology of clerical masculinity through an investigation of early medieval readings of the body. It also considers the ritual, spatial, and liturgical performances of that body within the imaginative landscapes of same-sex ascetic communities in northern Europe, with a special emphasis on the Carolingian era (ca. 751-987). Investigation of the body compels the contemporary interpreter of early medieval Christianity to confront notions of gender created through ninth-century ascetic practice, especially the use of the liturgical voice in the making of monastic masculinity. Architecture is an essential component of this study because the ascetic body was mirrored in the sacred spaces constructed by monks. Finally, the monastic body expressed the imperial ambitions of the religious leadership of the Carolingian Empire.
The ensuing discussion demonstrates how the body of a monk served as a bridge between classical Rome and an encroaching Dark Age. Ascetic intellectuals believed that one particularly potent body part, the tongue, had the power to divide humanity into two opposite camps: those possessing Latin eloquence and those condemned to barbarous prattle. Pure Latin and fluent speech were prophylactics against secular savagery and the dark allures of the devil. The major textbook of the Carolingian era, Isidore of Seville's Etymologies (ca. 636), epitomizes the idea of the "Dark Age": the barbarous peoples of the empire, who were ignorant of the purity of the Latin language, corrupted Roman civilization through grammatical errors and uncouth speech. Carolingian writers believed that the Holy Spirit itself purifies the mouths of the most potent chanters in the empire's monasteries. Monastic tongues were objects of ritual blessings, and cutting off an abbot's tongue was a way of visibly declaring his impotence. It is appropriate then that the empire's abbots were "buried beneath the choir bells, recalling how their tongues, as dedicated cymbals of the Holy Spirit in that place, had summoned others to the opus divinum."
Hagiographical texts promoted classicizing portraits of the rhetorically gifted tongues of holy men. A work by a Carolingian monastic scholar, Paschasius Radbertus's Life of Saint Adalhard, is a case in point. Adalhard is the embodiment of Ciceronian eloquence. His voice is of such an exceptional quality that it caresses the minds of his audience, making them drunk with the splendors of scripture. Christ is born through the diction of the orator Adalhard, whose discourse is always unambiguous, brief, and lucid (aperta valde, brevis ac lucida); the saint's oratorical style is akin to that receiving the highest praise from classical theorists of rhetoric (quod dictionis genus oratores summis extollunt laudibus).
The spiritual elite valued being well versed in texts on oratorical training as well as mastering the linguistic intricacies of the Latin language itself. This reflected the larger context of a ninth-century ecclesiastical reform movement aimed at clerical correctio, or educational improvement. Early medieval literary luminaries wrote expositions on Latin grammar that comfortably paired basic lessons on syntax—such as the differences among masculine, feminine, and neuter case endings—with classical and biblical examples. The ninth-century Carolingian reformer Smaragdus's treatise on Latin grammar uses the Roman comic Terence's bawdy play The Eunuch to explain how certain words can sound and be masculine (that is, eunuchus) even though their meaning suggests that they are actually "feminine." Smaragdus invokes the authority of scripture to persuade the skeptical student. The Bible, the Carolingian grammarian argues, employs the masculine ending (-us) for castrated men, and he cites the example of the Ethiopian eunuch (vir Aetiops, eunuchus) of Acts (8.27) to make the point: "hic non ait 'baptizavit eam,' sed 'eum.'" Smaragdus's willingness to gloss Roman comedies with passages from Christian scripture in the service of basic grammar lessons aimed at chaste pupils speaks to the innovative nature of Carolingian Latin instruction.
Carolingian grammarians also maintained that good Latin, perfected in monastic classrooms, offers a crucial pathway to the meditation of God. Latin as linguistic avenue to the divine derives from classical views on the mystical capacity of grammar, for the Romans connected the mastery of language with the ability to understand the "more-than-human world." In early Christian communities, ecstatic speech enabled Christ's seers to transcend the corporeal by tasting the divine through the language of the heavens. As heirs to both classical and early Christian legacies regarding charismatic speech, Carolingian scholars aimed to recover a pure, non barbarous Latin. They ranked Latin as a sacred tongue along with Hebrew and Greek. In his epistle On the Cultivation of Letters (ca. 784-85), Charlemagne worries that atrocious Latin prevents inexpert priests from channeling heavenly powers. In response to the emperor's anxiety over uncouth tongues obstructing Christian salvation, clerical reformers advocated the study of grammar, philology, rhetoric, and orthography to perfect the linguistic performance of the Christian liturgy. Thus grammatical instruction was inextricably linked with the theater of the liturgy. The liturgy itself, Hrabanus writes, is replete with "gifts of the Thunderer," and, as such, custodianship of those gifts is a highly charged activity. By the ninth century, faultless Latin had emerged as a status marker, creating a mandarin priestly guild set apart from lesser clerics and from virtually all of the laity, save the inner circles of royal courts. Mandarin Latin, which was increasingly distinct from its rustic (and eventually Romance) counterpart, provided its connoisseur eminence based on the overall use of the tongue, not just in eloquent speaking, but also in singing, eating, drinking, being silent, and laughing.
This book argues that the monastic body and its expressive tongue provide new insights into familiar themes in Carolingian history: the revival of classicism in the empire, clerical reform movements, and church-state relations. The seven chapters of the book are organized around three recurring subjects: body, building, and practice. These three topics illustrate how monastic constructions of gender center on continuities between classical and early medieval perceptions of the body, the use of the body in the celebration of the liturgy, and the location of the body in sacred space. The gender paradigms explored in this book are idiosyncratic to the all-male cloister. They are not models of gender readily transferable into other social contexts, such as the royal hunt, the monarchical court, domestic spaces of the secular aristocracy, female ascetic communities, or even the palaces of bishops. Nor do the classicizing modes of gender covered here reflect the somatic styles of all churchmen, especially those of married clerics and cathedral canons, who miss the mark of bodily inviolability prized by cloistered monks. The seven chapters of this book focus on a precise reading of gender fashioned by a scholarly circle of ascetic men, who influenced the philosophical and medical conception of bodies, female and male, consecrated and lay.
Chapter 1 of Dark Age Bodies surveys the life of Hrabanus Maurus to delineate the political, intellectual, and artistic contexts crucial to the book as a whole. Each chapter of the book touches on the life of Hrabanus, the final one focusing exclusively on a gendered reading of his signature work, In Honor of the Holy Cross. Hrabanus's life offers the non specialist an introduction to Carolingian monasticism, the educational system of the cloister, the architectural ambitions of monastic builders, and the conflicts between abbots and lay rulers. Hrabanus was an exemplary figure whose encyclopedic output is relevant to all the significant themes of his time and of this book. Dark Age Bodies is not, however, a biography of Hrabanus Maurus nor is it simply an analysis of his writings. Hrabanus remains a central character in the Carolingian ecclesiastical world, and that is precisely why he is featured here.
Chapter 2 builds on the biographical sketch of Hrabanus Maurus by considering the environment of religious reform he himself experienced firsthand as a monk of the monastery of Fulda, located in modern-day Hesse in Germany. The chapter includes an overview of the Carolingian monastic reform movement and its attempt to impose one rule and one custom (una regula, una consuetudo) throughout the empire's monasteries. Additionally, Chapter 2 examines how the Carolingian enterprise of collecting (texts, alphabets, relics, building typologies, ancient statuary, and educational theories) subordinated past ascetic styles to the hegemony of the Benedictine Rule (henceforth, the "Rule"). The chapter also explores the Carolingian commitment to classicism as evidenced both in the built environment of the monastery and in the classicizing practices of monks. As a whole, the chapter considers how body, building, and practice work together to propagandize the Carolingian mastery of history, both Christian and classical.
Chapter 3 concentrates on a text venerated by Hrabanus Maurus and taking center stage in the controversies surrounding Carolingian monastic reform: the sixth-century rule attributed to the Italian holy man Benedict of Nursia. In an unprecedented move, Chapter 3 "genders" the Rule by examining the enduring legacy of classical models of gender over the daily practices and liturgical performances of monks. The chapter maintains that the disciple of the Rule is an heir of the ancient Roman orator, whose success or failure rested on the power of his speech, his license to speak in ceremonial venues, his reputation for corporeal self-mastery, and his bodily inviolability. Gendered practices of the Rule divide monks into two groups: those who are immersed in the body and those who partake of the nature of the divine, a disembodied voice. The division between body and voice reflects the supremacy of the liturgy in the Rule and the survival of the art of classical oratory in a new setting: the early medieval monastery.
Carolingian commentators on the Rule intensify the classical foundations of monastic gender and are the subject of Chapter 4. Hrabanus Maurus once exhorted the holy men of the empire to conform to the influential definition of the successful orator by Quintilian (ca. 35-100): He ought to be "a good man, skilled in speaking." Hrabanus asserts that since classical orators had observed this characterization, it is much more important that Christian altar servants follow their example. Commentaries on the Rule written by Hrabanus's contemporaries Hildemar of Civate (d. 850) and Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel (d. 830) extend the reach of classical culture into the Carolingian monastery. The two commentators borrow from ancient medical conceptions of the body to distinguish the masculine from the feminine in the monastery, and they both express anxiety over same-sex activities between monks. In the arena of classical education, Smaragdus summons the ancient Roman lexicon of effeminacy to vilify monks who do not live up to Benedictine models of virility. Hildemar's commentary takes us directly into the monastic schoolroom, where future intellectual leaders and liturgical celebrants were trained in the arts of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. Hildemar calls on the Roman art of oratory to instruct monks in manly styles of speech, thereby creating an elite group of cantors in the monastery distinguished by their penetrating voices, which break the barrier between the heavens and the earth. By the ninth century, chant had emerged both as a marker of status in the monastery and as an audible proof of a monk's masculinity. Ultimately, Chapter 4 explains how the bodies of these masculine cantors relate symbolically to the architecture of the cloister.
Chapter 5 furthers discussion of the contribution of architecture to the making of monastic gender by scrutinizing three monuments of ninth-century spirituality: the westwork at the abbey of Corvey, the circular crypt built by the monks of Fulda, and the sacred biography of Hrabanus Maurus's mentor, Abbot Eigil, which applies bodily metaphors to sacred space. All these artifacts verify that the gendered practices of the Benedictine Rule manifest themselves in a variety of artistic forms. In the early Middle Ages, the monastic westwork served as the major entryway into the monastery; therefore, the space was decidedly open to the outside world. This fortress functioned both as a tower of song where monks chanted angelic liturgies and as a space where virginal monastic bodies mingled perilously with the carnal bodies of women and laymen. At Corvey, frescoes of monstrous women and mythological beasts adorn the interior space of the monks' westwork. Gender theory helps to explain why the monastic leadership of Corvey chose to include a pagan iconographic repertoire in a building devoted to the godlike powers of the monastic voice. In a similar vein, the Life of Eigil illustrates how monastic and biblical notions of gender are essential to the political understanding of the saint's life within the broader, court culture of the empire. In the case of the crypt at Fulda, monastic constructions of the body relate directly to the nature of architectural design and allegorical significance. All three sources examined in this chapter—westwork, crypt, and sacred biography—spell out how monastic gender extends beyond the realm of practice to embrace the visual and literary cultures created by monks.
Chapter 6 expands on the theme of monastic gender and the visual arts by turning to one of the most famous manuscripts of the early medieval era: the Plan of Saint Gall (ca. 830). Chapter 6 genders the Plan of Saint Gall (the "Plan"), a first in the scholarly record. A gendered space is one that fosters, enhances, or mirrors the culturally prescribed gender of its inhabitants. In this instance, the Plan reflects the gender hierarchy produced by monastic practice. To uncover the extent to which the Plan relates to constructions of monastic gender, the chapter follows a virtual pilgrim through the monastery depicted in the manuscript. The way in which the body of such a pilgrim would experience the space while moving from one section of the monastery to another is critical to the gender implications of the Plan. Notions of gender confront the virtual visitor from the monumental towers positioned at the entryway, to the classicizing basilica with its array of altars dedicated to female and male martyrs, to the foursquare space of the all-male cloister. The path taken by the pilgrim illuminates the major divisions in the monastery: secular and spiritual; feminine and masculine; impoverished and noble; young and old. These neat, structural oppositions are, however, more complicated than they might seem at first glance because there are a number of spaces on the Plan where the sacred and profane bump up against one another or where the feminine and the masculine collide. The Plan makes it clear that the foursquare design of the monks' cloister, with its central, green space framed on all sides by a covered walkway, is emblematic of monastic masculinity. A gendered reading of the Plan of Saint Gall substantiates the role of visual sources in the fostering of ecclesiastical authority in the Carolingian Empire.
The final chapter of the book continues two of the themes highlighted in the investigation of the Plan of Saint Gall: the foursquare space of the cloister as a symbol of monastic virility and the virtual qualities of Carolingian spirituality. The chapter centers on Hrabanus Maurus's figural poem In Honor of the Holy Cross to illustrate these two topics. In the realm of gender theory, Chapter 7 adds a new dimension: the role of biblical exegesis in constructions of monastic masculinity. Examining the theater of virtual spirituality, the chapter argues that the movement of the viewer's eyes along the curves and lines of Hrabanus's illuminated manuscript is akin to the virtual pilgrim's navigation of the basilica on the Plan of Saint Gall. Additionally, this last chapter of Dark Age Bodies brings together many of the motifs covered in earlier sections of the book: the role of classicism in the literary and visual worlds of the Carolingians, the relationship between artistic forms and the monastic body, chant as a vehicle of spiritual authority, and the competitive nature of lay and ecclesiastical corporeal styles. Furthermore, the chapter speculates that Hrabanus's acrostics share in rabbinical mysticism, especially the doctrine of the incarnate Torah. The analysis also determines how In Honor of the Holy Cross reflects the practice of memory training in the monastery. In all, Hrabanus's figural poems articulate the imperialistic ambitions of the cloister, and Chapter 7 makes the case that the only way to comprehend fully Hrabanus's figurae is to study them within the spatial, ritual, and gendered practices of Carolingian monks.
The seven chapters of Dark Age Bodies cover a diversity of source material, including texts, such as poetry, treatises on grammar and rhetoric, biblical exegesis, monastic rules, saints' lives, encyclopedic compendiums, and medical writings. These texts are then paired with visual media, including illuminated manuscripts, architectural diagrams, monumental edifices, and cloister design. The book is interdisciplinary in scope and builds on scholarship in the fields of architectural history, cultural anthropology, religious studies, classical studies, and gender studies. From the discipline of classical studies, the book is indebted to pioneering works in gender theory put forward by scholars of ancient Rome, who examine the relationship among classical oratory, architecture, and the body as well as the medical readings of masculinity and femininity in antiquity. In the realm of the built environment, the book is inspired by fundamental surveys in early medieval architectural history as well as broader studies of architectural theory, which focus on the experience of space through the medium of the body. The book also follows the methodological advice of anthropologists of religion, who analyze religious practice through the interplay of body, space, and ritual activity.
From the field of religious studies, the book incorporates scholarship on gender, the body, and asceticism in late antiquity. The book also takes into account research on the intellectual traditions of the early medieval cloister, including the study of Latin grammar, rhetoric, and exegesis. It employs studies of the symbolic meanings of ascetic speech as well as discussions of the monastic craft of memory. Chapters 2-4 of this book concur with the opinion of revisionist historians of monasticism who stress that the Benedictines never formed an order in the early Middle Ages as they eventually would much later. Although Carolingian monks such as Hrabanus Maurus identified themselves as practitioners of the Rule and votaries of Saint Benedict, monasticism in the empire was actually made up of a diversity of practices and local traditions. There never was one "order" of monks in the early Middle Ages; nor was there one universal identity of what it meant to be a Carolingian "Benedictine." Early medieval monasticism is thus an example of a religious orthopraxy or a spiritual system in which habits centered on the body trump adherence to the written letter of an authoritative text such as the Rule of Benedict.
The book approaches gender as a lifelong negotiation, shaped by (modern) contingencies of age, class, sexual identity, nationality, imperialism, ethnicity, and even the physical location of the body in its environment. According to its chief theorists, gender is never a free-floating category that can be deployed in isolation from other vectors, especially class, age, and ethnicity. With regard to early medieval monastic gender, religious affiliation was the most important component in the gender mix, followed closely by ethnicity, age, class, kin group, ritual purity, and the positioning of the body in space. The constructions of gender under scrutiny in this book worked to advertise and sustain the unique and superior qualities of ascetic virility over secular modes of masculinity. Ascetic theorists of masculinity based their vision of virility on the degree to which a man had transcended the desires of his body. Because it was a competitive style, monastic gender does not represent the reality of the close relations between ascetics and lay elites, who shared family lineages and forged social and political networks. Nor does it exemplify the day-to-day experiences of most monks in the empire. Current research in the field of early medieval history has established that the line between the clerical and the lay was not so starkly drawn. The monastic paradigm could leak over into secular space because at times Carolingian rulers envisioned the inner realm of the palace as a cloister. Conversely, aristocratic laymen parodied the abstemious lives of holy men by breaking into cloisters disguised as monks and aping the ascetics during their ritual processions around sacred spaces. Members of the secular elite were not merely passive objects of clerical education. Both women and men contributed actively to the intellectual culture shared between cloister and palace. Whatever the reality of the relations between the secular and the sacred in the empire, Carolingian churchmen consistently exploited monastic constructions of gender, with their roots in biblical and classical perceptions of the body, to assert the political power of the monastery.
To further this aspiration, clerical elites forged a model of gender that sought to feminize lay male bodies through textual, ritual, and spatial means, reflecting the rivalry between lay and priestly groups. Secular men, churchmen consistently underscore, are prisoners of bodily fluxes and consuming libidos; their bodies are like those of women in their excessive lust and immoderate acts. A case in point is when Hrabanus Maurus cautioned the ruler of the eastern half of the Frankish empire, Louis the German, that a man could not rightly hold the title vir if he clung to effeminate, secular pleasures. The word Hrabanus chose to characterize this worldly inclination is mollities, a classicizing term carrying with it meanings of sexual passivity, effeminacy, and softness. Hrabanus volleyed mollities at Louis within the context of the political conflicts waged between monarchs and holy men in the mid-ninth century. King Louis had exiled Hrabanus to a mountaintop ascetic retreat in 842 after the abbot—now stripped of his prestigious office—chose the wrong side in the wars fought among the heirs of Louis the Pious. In addition to the body of Louis the German hovering on the brink of secular softness, female bodies compose an important part of this study. But reminiscent of the lay male body, the body of a woman exists in the minds of the male ascetics writing the gendered script as a static, defiled object against which the purified priestly body is interpreted. At the same time, a major premise of this book is that female bodies haunt male ascetic bodies and that this figurative haunting is at the core of clerical visions of monastic gender.
Like women, laymen ostensibly pollute the body politic of the monastery, where even uttering secular names or speaking in the vernacular by Latin experts is forbidden. Hildemar of Civate, an authority on Carolingian monastic practice, counsels cloistered men to be waited on only by their fellow monks, not by the laity: "Is it possible that a hand or foot or eye can serve a body but not be a member of that body? Then how much more impossible is it for a layman or a canon, who are not members of the monastic body, to serve the monks who are?" Only in cases of necessity should canons and laymen minister to monks by doing menial labors, such as washing the garments of the sick or carving their meat. Hildemar's harsh stance against canons reflects the larger ninth-century reform program of separating monastic identity from that of cathedral clergy. Monastic practice is singular, Smaragdus emphasizes, for monks follow a "peculiar style of worship," and their manner of life is in stark opposition to worldly techniques. Other monastic chroniclers applaud the asceticism of monastic houses that forbid lay dignitaries and canons to enter their cloisters either by foot or roving eye. One churchman notes how the monastery of Saint Gall polices its interior spaces: "No one, not even the most powerful canon or layman of the secular world, was permitted to enter the monks' enclosure or even to glance at it." In this perspective, the gaze, voice, or body of a man not properly socialized within the rigors of monastic practice potentially could infect the sacrosanct spaces of the cloister.
All the texts cited above are products of the monastic imagination. Their use in understanding the lay body remains incomplete and at best beholden to the ecclesiastical vision of that body. It is equally true that these texts mirror priestly anxieties over the church's submission to lay elites as well as the danger posed to monasteries by temporal lords. Hildemar of Civate instructs his monastic pupils on the etiquette of bowing to secular potentates, whether throwing the body into full prostration when receiving a king, bending one knee for a visiting queen, or inclining the head for a count. Hildemar betrays a degree of obsequiousness toward secular authority. A monk, he explains to his students, should speak to worldly princes with a submissive voice. Furthermore, any monk assigned to greet such men should do so dressed in fine apparel since high-ranking visitors find rustic, monastic garb distasteful. When traveling outside the monastery, a monk may dine with a worldly lord so as not to offend him because such an affront may lead to disastrous results. The magister, or headmaster, of Civate additionally offers advice to future monastic founders, warning them not to build monasteries near the courts of earthly magnates as doing so may pose additional hardships to their foundations. Hildemar's Expositio, like other works of its genre, reveals the competitive nature of early medieval gender, where on the one hand clerical writers promote the superiority of monastic masculinity, but, on the other, they frequently yield to the greater authority of lay potentates.
The focus on monastic masculinity in this book brings the body to the forefront of the study of early medieval Christianity. In doing so, the book takes scholarship on early medieval monasticism in new directions. The body was a visible sign of the rift between the civilized and the barbaric, the Christian and the pagan, the consecrated and the unconsecrated, the masculine and the feminine. As such, the monastic body both calls attention to the continuity between the classical and early medieval worlds and underscores the fact that churchmen perceived themselves as consciously thwarting the uncivilized effects of a Dark Age. The practice of monasticism became a vehicle for performing transcendence over the dark appetites of the body, especially sexual desire. Therefore, the virginal monks of the Carolingian Empire occupied a ritual and political space held by eunuchs in the Byzantine East. Like eunuchs, Western monks formed a courtly caste of males who visibly resisted normative sexuality, defined in this context as the production of legitimate heirs, in order to devote themselves entirely to a male deity.
Following the desert fathers of late antiquity who envisioned sacred space as a metaphor for the purity of the ascetic body, early medieval monks linked their bodies with the numinous spaces in which they circulated. By the ninth century the cloister had become a symbol of the ascetic body—both body and cloister were closed off to the lures of the world. Sacred space equally served as a theater for accentuating the liturgical authority of the monastic tongue in basilicas where lay voices were muted during the celebration of the mass. At the center of these liturgical celebrations was the "wounded, resplendent body of the crucified God." For monks, the wounded body of the savior was an object of meditation, as Hrabanus Maurus's In Honor of the Holy Cross illustrates. At the same time, monks embodied Christ crucified by wearing Jesus "scars" (stigmata, Galatians 6.17) on their backs, either physically through the lashings associated with penitential discipline or figuratively through the practices of self-abnegation associated with the Rule. Like the body of Christ, the body of an individual monk was itself an object of sacrifice. The altar was the hallowed center of the monastery. It was the place where parents offered their young sons to the church and the site where monks were ritually wed to Christ.
With its exploration of body, space, and practice, Dark Age Bodies unearths the ritual framework behind Hrabanus Maurus's act of self-sacrifice visualized in Plate 1. The subsequent chapters argue that Carolingian monastic practice structures the bodies of holy men as pure sacrifices consecrated at the altar of a metaphorical tabernacle. Chapter 1's discussion of the life of Hrabanus Maurus confirms the extent to which Carolingian monks understood their own bodies as holocaust offerings on a heavenly altar, both at the beginning of life and at the end of days.