The monastic milieu: motivation, support and obstacle

Bernhard and Hieronymus Pez were not historians who happened to be monks; they were historians because they were monks. They viewed their scholarly activity as service to their monastery and their order – as that specific service to which they, among all the members of their community, were called. When they asked for the contributions of their Benedictine fellows, the justification for their request was service to the order; the same argument was presumably used – although sources for this are lacking – toward their abbot and fellow monks at Melk.

The contribution of the monastic historian to his monastery unfolds in multiple dimensions. Toward the interior, the living memory of the origins and history of the community is a central component in constituting and constantly renewing its sense of collective identity; the commemoration of the shared past and regular prayers for the deceased members are integral elements of the monastery's liturgical life. Research in the archives and library sets this collective memory on a basis that satisfies new criteria of critically verified factuality. Toward the outside world, the monastic historian provides proof of the age and the privileges of his monastery by publishing charters and other sources and establishing that they are genuine. He thus both protects the rights and promotes the prestige of the community.

Beyond the history of the individual monastery, written for Melk not primarily by the brothers Pez, but by Anselm Schramb and Philibert Hueber, a more general history of religious orders is intended to contribute to a renewal of monastic life along the exemplary lines of past centuries. This is theology practiced in the form of history. In Melk, it is primarily the reform movement radiating from there in the 15th century that serves as a point of recourse for these efforts.

In comparison with a lay scholar, the monk enjoys several advantages, not the least of these being the ability to live and work free of worries about material sustenance. Access to a library, often replete with manuscripts, and the opportunity to make use of the well-established networks of inter-monastic communication are likewise valuable.

The combination of monastic and erudite life is, however, also not without its difficulties. The modesty expected of a monk is at variance with a scholar's legitimate pursuit of recognition for his achievements. Daily life within a monastery is strictly regulated and defined by joint times of prayer, meals and curfew; sustained scholarly work often requires at least partial dispensation from these duties. Contact with the outside world likewise must be permitted by the monastic superiors; this applies not only to travel, but also to every letter and package, which must pass through the hands of the abbot or prior. Without the approval of the superiors, scholarly activity is thus flatly impossible – as demonstrated by the (temporary) interruption of Bernhard Pez's correspondence pursuant to his involvement in the "revolt" against Abbot Dietmayr in 1722, which incurred the latter's prolonged displeasure. 

FWF Institut für Geschichte
Uni Wien