Bernard Ayglier and William of Pagula: Two Approaches To Monastic Law

Freiburg-Toronto Graduate Workshop: Integrating Bodies of Knowledge

“Bernard Ayglier and William of Pagula: Two Approaches to Monastic Law”    

Tristan Sharp (University of Toronto)

Both works by Bernard and William provide a comprehensive guide to religious life. Bernard wrote his treatise in 1270 and William wrote his in the 1320’s but they both achieved fame during the 14th century. There has been excellent recent scholarship on monastic texts, rules and customaries.

Canon Law and students in universities examine such texts with one approach. Another approach is the interest in normative monastic texts. Canon Law is distinct from theology as a study but both approaches provide valuable results. These two works take different approaches to canon law. Bernard uses Gratian’s Decretum while William provides a sophisticated summary of canon law. Each author suggests ways in which Jus Commune can be integrated into monastic life.

Bernard entered Savigny as a young man; his work suggests he had a scholastic education and he was interested in Dominican thought. He wrote a widely read commentary on Benedictine Rule. His work, Speculum Monachorum investigated Benedictine monasticism and was considered ‘a thorough guide to the basic elements of Benedictine life’ – it was a popular work in the Middle Ages. Bernard became abbot of Monte Cassino in 1263, and died in 1281. Sharp showed a slide of how Bernard organised, Speculum Monachorum.

William of Pagula was born in the early 1280’s in England and became a parish priest. He received his Bachelor of Law from Oxford in 1314, became a canonist at Oxford, and received his doctorate in 1319. He was considered one of the most important pastoral writers of medieval England. He compiled an impressive number of canons from Gratian’s Decretum and other monastic sources while also incorporating academic commentaries. Sharp showed a slide demonstrating William’s organisation of his “Speculum Religiosorum”. His work enjoyed popularity at Durham cathedral. Some of William’s work is more complex but the majority of his work remains similar. Administrative practicality played an important role in William’s work. Speculum Prelatorum, written in 1322 was a mixture of canon law, theology and sermons where many of the canons related to monks. William liked to shorten his writing, ‘he provides quick answers‘. Unfortunately, this work had little success, but become the basis for his work Speculum ReligosorumThe first part covered main sources like the Bible, Fathers, Cistercians and Victorines. The second part focused on legal material, the third, various monastic topics. The fourth and final part touched on Devotion to the Crucified Christ. His works were copied at various Benedictine monasteries.

What was the role of Canon Law in each treatise?
In Bernard’s work, he only quotes Gratian twice by name. He only refers to canon law explicitly on one other occasion, on negligence and simony. Bernard twice puts canon law beside the Bible and the Fathers but his work initially appears to have very little canon law in it. That might not be the case and upon closer inspection, it is evident that some of Gratian’s sources were misattributed to Jerome. Bernard never uses proper legal citation and clearly knew the Decretum well. He makes no distinction between patristic and Biblical texts. Bernard twice associates canon law with the scriptures as essential to monastic life and provides two models of reading for the monks.

Bernard and William’s work suggest that there are other ways to read canon law, and that canon law can be read in a devotional way. The legal text can serve as an administrative text and personal guide for monks. Although both works were written in different times and places, they had similar goals and were written for the same Benedictine audience.

Respondent: Nadja Germann
Some observations: Bernard and William wrote in a time where formal canon law was still in its infancy. William attempts to provide a corpus of monastic law; his work raised questions and doubts as to how monastic law fits into a world of monastic devotion. However, it was successful as seen by its popularity in later centuries. Legal texts were not only a resource for busy administrators but helped with the self-formation of monks. Questions: who is the reader of these texts? Sharp stated these texts were written for those who were uneducated in theological works. What is meant by devotional reading? And how exactly are these works used?

Tristan Response: Regarding the audience, it’s related to the question of genre. Over the course of the 13th and 14th centuries Cloisters start to send a few of their members to the universities. At the same time, almost all the members of the cloisters have a functional literary ability. The audience is those people who have Latin and can read but have not been to university or have attained a high level within the monastery. Also, the practice of child oblation on ceased at about this time, declining in the 12th century and stopping in the 13th century. Since people entering the monastery were not brought up in it as oblates, and coming in uneducated, they needed to be able to be brought up to speed quickly so these texts were geared toward them.

Regarding devotional reading, Robert Sweetman’s performative reading examines this method. There are different modes of approaching a text and different degrees of committing yourself to a text. You come to the text as a reader where you expect the text will change and shape your way of life – this is devotional reading; it has something to say about the highest roles in life.

Bernard and William read the law in quite distinct ways – but not in a way that would be read in classical legal training. How representative are their texts? Bernard’s approach was fairly common. However, it’s difficult to demonstrate that from text to text. William is more difficult to prove as representative – he is the only person who has the style of sticking scholastic legal work into a treatise the way he did. It may have been indicative as to how monks may have been reading law at the time. There are hints that his work reflects a broader reading strategy.

Click here to read the abstract for Bernard Ayglier and William of Pagula: Two Approaches To Monastic Law

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!