By Travis D. Stolz
PhD Dissertation, Marquette University, 2010
Abstract: Isaac of Stella (ca. 1100-ca. 1169), an English-born Cistercian and abbot, has been dwarfed by Bernard of Clairvaux and other of his twelfth-century Cistercian contemporaries in terms of literary output and influence, giving him a reputation as an elusive and marginal figure. Isaac’s 55 sermons and two treatises are modest compared to the productivity of other monastic writers and his position as the abbot of an obscure monastery in western France has not helped to raise his visibility among the luminaries of the twelfth century. He is remembered as a mysterious and often tragic figure in the annals of history.
Recent scholarship has shed light on this elusive abbot. One area of his life that has attracted some attention has been Isaac’s involvement in the controversy between Henry II (1133-89) and Thomas Becket (ca. 1120-70), archbishop of Canterbury. Gaetano Raciti in particular has argued that Isaac’s involvement in the Becket controversy, specifically siding with Becket in the archbishop’s quarrel with the king, led to Isaac’s exile to the island of Ré and the loss of his abbacy. Raciti’s research, which continues to be influential, focused on Isaac’s sermons and from them he compiled numerous biographical and historical clues to piece together Isaac’s ultimate downfall as abbot.
But Raciti’s interpretations have been reconsidered by a few scholars, initially by Claude Garda as well as the subsequent research of Ferruccio Gastaldelli and Elias Dietz. In this dissertation, I continue the reconsideration of Raciti’s interpretations. In particular I focus on Isaac’s role as a monk as well as his continuity with the Christian monastic tradition. Contrary to Raciti’s interpretations, I demonstrate that Isaac’s support of Becket was minimal and not the cause of serious consequences affecting his abbacy. This demonstration is based on reading Isaac’s sermons not as sources of either biographical or historical data but rather as monastic sermons. Isaac’s sermons provide proof of his continuity with his monastic forbears and place them in their proper theological and monastic context. Isaac emerges as neither mysterious nor tragic but rather as a monk who wrote for monks.