This research project addresses the development of corporate identities in Benedictine monasteries situated in the bishopric of Liège in the late eleventh and twelfth century. This development can be uniquely studied through an analysis of the manuscripts that were produced in these monasteries, although historians hardly ever approach them from that point of view. Yet manuscripts constitute a material (re)presentation of the ideas that were judged suitable for the communities involved. A key aspect of the representative function of those manuscripts was their tendency to circulate extensively within clusters of monasteries that tended to agree on the contentious ideological and spiritual issues of the time. Circulating through such monastic networks, the manuscripts confirmed a monastery's assimilation to its peers. At the same time they expressed the monastery's unique character within the network by emphasizing the ideas and techniques that set their institution apart from others. As such, these manuscripts provide us with an opportunity to uncover the forging of group identities in this field of tension between local aspirations and the need to participate in regional networks. I analyze how the production, rewriting and circulation of these manuscripts came to shape monastic self-consciousness during a period that is commonly perceived as a watershed in the formation of personal and corporate identity.
I concentrate my research on monasteries from the bishopric of Liège because of its position in between the German Empire and the French sphere of influence, two territories that differed widely in terms of political and cultural traditions. As such, the bishopric has been described by historians as an interesting “point de rencontre et de pénétration de deux grandes civilizations” (Stiennon 1975), a judgment that closely echoes contemporary opinions (Kupper 1981). Indeed, preliminary research suggests that the monasteries from Liège consciously cultivated relations with both east and west, thereby causing various monastic networks to overlap and interact. Monks produced manuscripts in an attempt to control the formation of monastic identity in relation to the shifting boundaries of those networks (Snijders 2009). These manuscripts have been severely underused in current research, partly because of the effects of specialization between art historians, codicologists, historians and hagiologists. Since these specialists have tended to concentrate on specific aspects of manuscript production, there is a significant lack of understanding of how a manuscript functioned as a material and textual object within the monastic communities that constituted their primary audience. Yet there is an abundance of surviving manuscripts from the region, allowing for a thorough reconstruction of their function in these processes of identity formation. Therefore, late eleventh- and twelfth-century Liège is a perfect case study to gain a better understanding of the agency of monastic identity formation.