THE ABBEY ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER: REDON AND ITS MONKS
When, sometime in the early ninth century, the monk Riouuen crossed the river Vilaine to celebrate mass in the church of the monastic community of Redon, he was hardly aware that he crossed a boundary of historical, political, and social significance. At the time, Redon, now a sleepy provincial town in the present-day département of Ile-et-Vilaine in Bretagne, was perched precariously between the Breton and Frankish spheres of influence, with the river acting as the de facto border between the two regions. Bretons and Franks were almost continuously at loggerheads, and, if the historiographical record is to be believed, they had been so at least since the time of Clovis and his successors in the sixth century. Those who claimed to speak for the Franks insisted that the inhabitants of the Breton peninsula had been subject to the Merovingian dynasty since time immemorial – and that this supposed loyalty had transferred to the Carolingian rulers after they had usurped the power in the mid-eighth century. The Breton elites, on the other hand, were less explicit in the sources they composed, but it seems that they took their different language, liturgical traditions, trade networks, and general political autonomy to mean that they owed allegiance to nobody. This, in turn, was much to the annoyance of the Frankish rulers who fought tooth and nail to secure the borders of their rapidly expanding realm. To Charlemagne (r. 768-814) and his successors, especially Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) and Charles the Bald (r. 840-877), the Breton peninsula was a thorn in their side – and an especially irritating one at that, given that the Vikings had also appeared on that very same border.
Riouuen, for his part, would probably have cared less about this entire context. His immediate concern was that he had just crossed a river without a bridge or a boat. He had not even got his feet wet! Without even noticing it himself, he had "thought he was passing over dry ground, and in this manner he crossed all the way to the other bank dry-shod, a wondrous thing, and greatly to be marvelled at, and unheard of since the Apostle Peter". Far from seeing this miracle as a confirmation of his holiness, however, he afterwards lived even more carefully, until he was "seized by a fever" and "died a confessor in peace on the nineteenth day before the kalends of September (14th of August), and was buried in the cemetery of his brethren".
This story is one among many vignettes about the monks of Redon written in the Gesta Sanctorum Rotonensium, or "Deeds of the Saints of Redon". At its core, the Gesta Sanctorum Rotonensium (GSR) is a foundation legend, telling about the origins of the monastery in the 830s, but composed in the later ninth century upon the death of its founding abbot Conwoion. It does so in three books: one detailing the struggles of the founding abbot, his conflicts with the local aristocracy and his attempts to secure Carolingian imperial support; one that essentially is a series of miracle stories featuring the monks of Redon once the community has been established, culminating in the acquisition of relics; and one detailing the miracles wrought through these relics, establishing that Redon was, indeed, here to stay. The result is a fascinating text, which shows the flexibility many authors at the time had vis à vis their identity and that of the people they were describing. This was a monk, after all, writing for and about monks with a view towards handing them the tools to achieve salvation. On the other hand, however, the author was also part of the literate elite in the region, and member of a community which, by virtue of its status as a religious powerhouse, exerted a lot of influence locally – which would have raised the ire of the aristocracy having to deal with the upstart community. Both these "identities", in turn, were subject to the tension arising from the presence of the universalising Frankish Church right on their doorstep: an ideal that held that the Carolingian rulers and their court had to assume responsibility for the Christians within their realm. And this may or may not have included the Bretons as well. If the Carolingians claimed political overlordship, they thereby became spiritually responsible, too. If the Breton monks accepted the impetus provided by the continuous attempts to improve the state of the Carolingian church, they became de facto subjects to the empire as well. If we add to this the simple observation that Brittany technically fell under the archbishopric of Tours, itself home to the shrine of Saint Martin, who was one of the patron saints of the Franks, it should become clear that the foundation of Redon was neither about establishing a Breton cultural centre on the border of the Frankish empire, nor about setting up a Carolingian "outpost" in the frontier zone between Franks and Bretons. In the end, it was mostly about building a "holy place" for the good of the region. As Julia Smith already concluded in a 2002 article probing the various modes of identification visible in and around ninth-century Redon, it is not "appropriate to ask whether [these monks] were either Breton or Frankish. Instead, we should situate their careers in a fluid zone of cultural and linguistic interchange (...).The monks' identity was rather as milites Christi, and Redon was a fragrant, fertile, earthly paradise where the soldiers of Christ stood arrayed in battle order. Redon was, quite simply, a sanctus locus. It needed no other identity".1
The conclusion that what mattered to the monks at the time was primarily their “monastic” identity remains valuable when trying to analyse the political realities of the frontier zone in the ninth century, but it is equally valuable to ask, based on Smith’s work, what exactly the value of the GSR would have been to the community itself. There are many possible answers to this, based on our broad understanding of hagiographical tropes in the ninth century. Nevertheless, the choices made by the author as he described, about 50 years after the fact, not only the foundation of a “holy place”, but also the miracles performed by the first generation of monks. This alone is remarkable. As much as gesta was a genre in themselves at the time, it would usually revolve around a sequence of abbots and thus double as a history of the monastery. The GSR takes a different tack and aims to show that everybody who would have counted themselves as a member of Redon could aspire to sanctity. Paradoxically, this editorial choice is what made the GSR such a timeless piece of writing. Divorced from its political and social context, the GSR is about monks first and foremost – monks who are part of a community that functioned as a microcosm of the Church in its entirety, while also standing as a little piece of Paradise on Earth.
This is the core of an article I am currently writing for an upcoming volume on Medieval Biographical Collections, based on the comparative work done by a working group within the SFB Visions of Community (Austrian Science Fund F42). It starts from the observation that the second book, which contains the least socio-political incidental detail, should nonetheless be seen as the centrepiece of the GSR as a whole. Not because of the biographical information it contains, which adds to the image we get from the Cartulary of Redon, but because the author has gone at length to embed the miracles in a theological and moral discourse that contained the essence of monastic life as far as he was concerned. As Riouuen (and several of his brethren) recognised, and as the author makes clear using the Biblical and patristic quotations that bookend the miracles, their life stories per se were not the issue – and indeed, we only get precious little information about the actual monks, save for their names which anchor them in the context of a local community on the Breton/Frankish frontier. What mattered was their role as a conduit of God’s grace. What mattered to the author was that his monastery’s status as a local religious centre and a locus sanctus did not depend on relics acquired from afar, or on the vicissitudes of a series of abbatial elections, but on the fact that each of the “saints of Redon” had their own part to play in a divinely ordained greater scheme. What mattered was not the exemplary lives of that first generation of monks, but the lessons the author was able to attach to the miracles performed through them.
It was perhaps for that reason that the GSR, for all its local idiosyncrasies, was recopied, practically unchanged, in the late eleventh century after the community returned from a Viking-imposed exile. Not because it contained the history of the community, or told the story of their humble beginnings (the existence of an early twelfth-century Life of Conwoion shows that the renewed community was perfectly capable of retelling its own origin myths), but because it contained wisdom that could last a lifetime – and beyond.