Ever since André Wilmart published his study of John of Fécamp in the 1930s, medievalists have slowly begun to acknowledge that so-called ‘Anselmian spirituality’ did not, in fact, originate with Anselm, and that ‘affective piety’ was not an invention of the later Middle Ages. My study of John of Fécamp builds on that trend, both by giving the details of his full-length Confessio theologica and by placing John’s devotional method in his wider monastic context, showing just how proper to eleventh-century Benedictine monasticism affective piety was. Devotional interiority was indeed felt while living in monastic community – no solitary retreat into the wilderness was needed. Heartfelt tears and the suffering Christ were in fact tools valued by monks in the early eleventh century. Prayer was felt even more deeply by Benedictine abbots when it was an active, regular escape from the distractions of the secular world. Emotional devotion was undeniably practised and even modelled by men and male authors, not just by compassionate women. Affective devotions were performed with the words and phrases of the authoritative and early Church Fathers (John’s dicta patrum). And John’s strategies for emotional implementation and self-investigation were, to him, the best preparation for prayer to God.1

In this book I have presented John of Fécamp as a case study to the reader, hoping to use the particulars of his writing, influences, context, and legacy to illuminate the realities of emotional devotion in the Benedictine monastery of the eleventh century. In the first chapter, I worked to define the contours of John’s own particular devotional philosophy, elucidating the Confessio theologica in its entirety for the first time since 1946. I showed how that text, written initially for the personal use of the monks at Fécamp and in John’s monastic network, plotted out a plan for keeping praying monks ardently awake to their task and desirous of their God. I showed how John’s method prescribed a kind of emotional reform at the site of the interior heart of its readers, exposing the frailties and sinfulness of every hard-hearted devotee and naming caritas, a wounded, suffering love, as the most productive devotional emotion in prayer. Through his models of Hannah, Mary Magdalene, and the crucified Christ, John urged his readers to engage in tearful, penitent, persistent, and passionate prayer. His treatise strove to effect an emotional reform of how his monks felt when they prayed, attempting to metaphorically crucify his obedient, sinful readers alongside Christ, the affective exemplar par excellence for devout emotion.

Having defined John’s brand of affective piety on his own terms, I provided a foundation on which I built the rest of my study. Chapter 2 showed that many of John’s ideas about emotional devotion were not sui generis or revolutionary, but instead stemmed from the ideas of earlier Christian authors, some of whom were widely known, while others were primarily read in the monastic contexts where John came of age. Additionally, I highlighted which of John’s ideas were largely new, particularly his use of Augustine’s Confessions, a text that he likely introduced to the Anglo-Norman world. Chapters 3 and 4 exposed how John’s Confessio theologica’s methodology was present throughout the devotional culture at Fécamp, serving as the core of many of his devotional and disciplinary actions inside the monastery and in his secular and religious activities around the wider world. These chapters proved that John’s Confessio theologica’s ideology were of a piece with the monastic devotional, liturgical, homiletic, educational, and visual culture at Fécamp, and that his ideology motivated John’s engagement with anti-heretical movements and religious and lay people outside Fécamp seeking devotional advice. I showed how even John’s abbatial administration of the property and economy of Fécamp in part served his devotional purpose, these more secular activities creating a tension with John’s devotional aspirations and thereby motivating his deeper emotional engagement in prayer. Chapter 5 outlined how John’s students, Norman peers, and subsequent monks and Christian devotees built upon and elaborated his affective devotional programme and concepts; and I concluded by showing how John’s Confessio theologica was excerpted and read in the Late Middle Ages in a way distinct from its complete eleventh-century version.

As a monograph focused on a single monk and his abbey, this book first and foremost serves to elucidate our understanding of Abbot John, a medieval individual largely unexamined by scholars in the decades since Jean Leclercq and Jean-Paul Bonnes published the first full-length study on him. This study has, I hope, fortified our understanding of John of Fécamp and of the devotional dimensions of Norman monasticism, providing important background on the atmosphere that nurtured Anselm of Canterbury and Guibert of Nogent, among other later, well-known medieval figures.

Yet, my hope is that this book goes beyond a simple case study. John of Fécamp and his monastery provide us with unique windows into early monastic devotional praxis: they show us that Benedictine monks were not rote liturgical machines with primarily political or economic motivations, but were rather passionately engaged devotional innovators, striving to forge profound connections to God through deeply felt prayer centuries before the advent of Cistercian, Franciscan, and late medieval mystical piety. John of Fécamp’s Confessio theologica, the intellectual inheritance it evidences, and the application of its devotional principles in John’s monastic context reveal how ‘Gregorian’ monastic reform went far beyond correcting monastic behaviours through rules or customs. Abbots at reformed monasteries like Fécamp also made improvements to interior devotional behaviours through a process I have here called emotional reform. Moreover, the systematic study of John’s ideas in their eleventh-century context and thereafter has confirmed that affective piety was practised in the earlier medieval period, yet it also has uncovered how its eleventh-century monastic iteration was notably different from the type practised by later lay, Cistercian, mendicant, or mystical Christians. I have not here claimed John of Fécamp to be a point of origin for affective devotion, or even to be a unique practitioner of this emotional-devotional methodology; rather, through the lens of a single monk’s work and monastic context, I have shown how distinctive the practice of affective piety was in the eleventh-century monastery and how essential its study is to our understanding of this historical narrative of medieval religious practice and belief.

In this book, I have recast early medieval monks as instrumental players in the story of affective piety; in so doing, I hope to have troubled the scholarly understanding of that phrase. Scholars have historically used ‘affective piety’ as a catch-all term, one vaguely referring to the highly emotional and experiential late medieval devotion to the humanity of Jesus and the sorrow of Mary.2 This study of John of Fécamp has shown how insufficient and narrow those generalised associations actually are, especially for the eleventh-century monastic context. This book does not just claim that affective piety was practised earlier in the Middle Ages; it redefines what affective piety was to monks like John, in order to expose just how much is lost in its more general definition.

Something about affective piety – particularly the widely accepted variety hyper-focused on the humanity of the crucified Christ – has fascinated medievalists for decades. The changing depiction of the crucified Christ from triumphant to suffering, or the extreme emotional practices of medieval mystics, are always popular paper topics for my medieval history students, undergraduate and graduate alike. The International Medieval Bibliography lists hundreds of articles and books dealing with topics pertaining to ‘affective spirituality’. What is it that fascinates contemporary scholars so much about this devotional trend? It could be the strangeness of these devotional experiences, the intensity of the medieval desire for a connection with Christ that appears so wholly different from the kinds of experiences we regularly seek in our modern, secular world. It could be the digestibility of this narrative, a story that tracks the progress of medieval devotion over the course of time, evolving from a moment when medievals cowered before a domineering God to one where they confidently claimed a connection with a more empathetic, personal one. It could be how, with affective piety, scholars have identified a proto-Renaissance humanism in the Middle Ages, revealing how medieval souls were less dark age than otherwise thought, how they were longing to see their individual human frailties reflected in the image of their God, taking the first step towards the ‘Renaissance idea’ that man was the measure of all things.

In my opinion, this last idea – affective piety’s ability to locate a ‘renaissance’ in the Middle Ages – is the most fruitful path to ascertaining why scholars have hesitated to explore John of Fécamp or to study the early monastic practices of affective devotion. By attributing the trend of affective piety to a medieval desire to connect with Jesus’s humanity or to elicit compassion from an omnipotent God, scholars made medieval religion more palatable to an American academy that came of age during and after the anti-establishment, secular, anti-conformist revolution of the 1960s.3 The form of affective piety that emphasises Jesus’s humanity and favours lay devotees promotes an ‘expressive individualism’ among late medieval people that many claim is only found outside the reach of religious institutions.4 This version rejects the possibility that an individual could find his religious self in community, upholding the notion that it is only a free, autonomous individual who can find interiority and introspection.5 This casts the monastic vow of obedience as a kind of brain-washing that negates the possibility for an individual’s independence.6 It privileges the modern idea that emotional authenticity is divorced from institutions and from cognition and intellect, instead being ‘pure feeling, sensation, or experience [that is] easily separable from subsequent acts of thinking, loving, and deciding’.7

In contrast, the monastic form of affective piety embraced by John and examined in this book requires modern scholars to understand that a medieval religious person could be capable of connecting, thinking, and acting of his own volition within the confines of a religious institution.8 The monastic context does not rob the individual of emotional and devotional agency by ‘demand[ing] a radical submission to something external to oneself’.9 At eleventh-century Fécamp under John, affective prayer became a ‘process of human intentionality and self-presence’;10 it was not coerced by a hegemonic institution, but was rather enabled by it.11 To John of Fécamp, the authority of the Fathers, the discipline of monastic life, the arrangement of the liturgy, the pastoral duties expected of the abbot, and the very structure of coenobitic monasticism allowed for the rigorous cultivation of affective and efficacious prayer.

This study of John of Fécamp asks scholars to understand ‘affective piety’ in a way that acknowledges its many varieties, each adapted for the complex spectrum of medieval contexts in which it was practised. We do a disservice to the evolution of medieval devotion when we see late medieval trends as innovative ex nihilo, instead of tracing their roots to earlier epochs and contexts. The obsession with humanism that still persists in today’s world ignores the strife and beauty that is found in the central medieval monastic communities’ very human devotional efforts.12 To neglect medieval monastic lived religious emotional experience is to adopt the Reformation’s distrust of the institutions of the medieval Church. We must attend to the affective piety evidenced at the eleventh-century monastery of Fécamp because it shows us the numerous, inventive, surprising, and fascinating ways in which eleventh-century monks strove to commune with their God: through interior prayer and through communal liturgy, through material and through text, through thought and through feeling, through secular undertakings and religious performances, and through the words and deeds of one very important abbot – John of Fécamp.


1Emotional belief as consciously wrought, and not spontaneously felt, is discussed by Steven Justice in ‘Did the Middle Ages Believe in Their Miracles?’, Representations 103 (2008), 1–28. Amy Hollywood agrees, saying that ‘submission must always be submission freely given’ in ‘Spiritual but Not Religious: The Vital Interplay between Submission and Freedom’, Harvard Divinity Bulletin 38.1/2 (2010), not-religious.

2Thomas H. Bestul, ‘Meditation/Meditatio’, in Amy Hollywood and Patricia Z. Beckman (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Christian Mysticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 157–66.

3Or apparently secular. For more on this, see Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), pp. 77–102; Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), pp. 365–87.

4Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 473.

5Susan Boynton writes against this in ‘Prayer as Liturgical Performance’; but even medieval people sometimes thought individual piety was better than communal piety, as in Kathryn L. Jasper, ‘Reforming the Monastic Landscape: Peter Damian’s Design for Personal and Communal Devotion’, in Albrecht Classen (ed.), Rural Space in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age: The Spatial Turn in Premodern Studies (Boston: De Gruyter, 2012), pp. 193–207.

6Isabelle Cochelin writes against this in ‘Obedience or Agency?’.

7Bernard McGinn, ‘Mystical Consciousness: A Proposal’, Spiritus 8 (2008), 46.

8Hollywood, ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’.

9Hollywood, ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’.

10McGinn, ‘Mystical Consciousness’, 46.

11Andrea Sterk and Nina Caputo (eds), Faithful Narratives: Historians, Religion, and the Challenge of Objectivity (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), p. 6.

12Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Viking, 2018); Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters (New York: Random House, 2013); Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (New York: Norton, 2012).

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