Richard Pfaff

title.none: Crosby, Bishop and Chapter in 12th Century England

identifier.other: baj9928.9505.004 95.05.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Richard Pfaff, University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill)

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Crosby, Everett U. Bishop and Chapter in Twelfth-Century England. A Study of the 'Mensa Episcopalis.'. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, 4th series 23. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Pp. 450. $64.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-44507-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.05.04

Crosby, Everett U. Bishop and Chapter in Twelfth-Century England. A Study of the 'Mensa Episcopalis.'. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, 4th series 23. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Pp. 450. $64.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-44507-8.

Reviewed by:

Richard Pfaff
University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill)

The study of "cathedral antiquities" is an ancient and honorable scholarly tradition in the English-speaking world. For a complex of reasons not necessarily germane to the present work, the collecting and analyzing of materials relating to English cathedrals and those who staffed them has gone on since the seventeenth century, most often foundation by foundation. Now Everett Crosby has furthered that noble tradition with a synoptic work sure to be of prime importance as long as the subject continues to be studied.

This is not at all to suggest that the subject is a musty one, suitable only for the keen ecclesiologist; to understand it one has only to be willing to accept the presupposition latent in the title. The key term of the latter (subtitle, anyhow) is almost a metaphor. Though the term 'mensa episcopalis' (with variants) is used in high medieval England, it is with a variety of shades of meaning, and, as Crosby admits, "a certain ambiguity" attaches to it (p. 17). Yet he uses it as virtually a legal term, to indicate the totality of possessions which the bishop-diocese-cathedral establishment originally (whenever that was) possessed, and which subsequently came to be divided into two units. This seems fair enough, but it is well to remember that considerable fluidity often characterized the situation; what was to be divided was not always a static quantity.

Such a division took a particular twist in England because of the existence there, and nearly nowhere else, of that curious entity the monastic cathedral, whereby the cathedral chapter was a house of (normally Benedictine) religious whose titular abbot was the bishop. This itself would have made for peculiarities, but these are compounded in England by the fact that over half the seventeen medieval dioceses had such cathedral priories; the remainder were secular cathedrals with chapter organizations very much like those south of the Channel. For Crosby this distinction forms a basic point of organization, and the bulk of his text is divided into a consideration of the cathedral priories quite separate from the secular cathedrals. (Such a structure leads to one of only two major reservations I have: that it is somewhat misleading to subsume Wells entirely under Bath and, though perhaps more justifiably, Lichfield under Coventry; certainly the inexperienced reader would suppose from the table of contents that there were simply seventeen cathedral foundations to be considered, ten monastic and seven secular, whereas in reality the balance was a more nearly equal ten and nine.)

After preliminary chapters on "The place of the mensa" and "The episcopal church in the kingdom," Crosby treats each of the establishments separately, the seventeen discrete sections occupying over three quarters of the book's text. For each one his method is the same: a thorough combing of charters, bishops' acta and (later) registers, chronicles, foundation histories, and the like — and always, where it exists, the data derivable from Domesday Book. The range and depth of sources combed is quite breath-taking; the work must have required decades to complete (a point worth stressing, because many volumes in this generally fine series are revised versions of doctoral dissertations; this, by contrast, is definitely a work of mature scholarship).

There is no meaningful way to assess each of the separate sections in a single review; each is to a large extent a separate piece of scholarship. In general the picture that emerges is that the division of the episcopal mensa was both less clear cut and later in time than has often been assumed. It seems frequently to be not until late in the twelfth, often in the thirteenth, century that there can be shown division of the sort that this reviewer had assumed (and sometimes told his students) was a concomitant of the full feudalization of the lands of major churches in England late in the eleventh century. The exhaustiveness of coverage necessary to establish this set of facts is both somewhat surprising and immensely impressive.

Tied in with the question of the date and (so to speak) definitiveness of this division between bishop and cathedral body are some major corollaries about the emergence of a distinct self-consciousness in these bodies; the period covered by this book is, after all, that of the widespread appearance of the commune. Such rumination leads in turn to a large, and here largely unconsidered, question. Bishops were often men of vividness and force, great officers of state, powerful (and not always obedient) vassals, patrons of the arts: in the face of which, how do their cathedral chapters acquire anything like comparable vividness? One answer is through possession of relics. This was above all true at Durham, where it was palpably the "community of St. Cuthbert" (eventually, the monks of the cathedral priory) which regarded itself as the guardian of Cuthbert's bones, not the bishop. So to have it established, as it is here, that the "Lengthy document which defined very carefully, and in some cases for the first time, important aspects of the relationship between the two parties" (p. 150) comes as late as 1228 whets the appetite as much as satisfying it; it would be more deeply satisfying to be given Crosby's opinions about any putative connection between this document and the monks' decision to tear down the original east end and extend it by building the Nine Altars Chapel (the actual work on which seems to have begun in 1242). Clearly that wonderful extension provided added honor for Cuthbert, establishing as it does a proper shrine area; did it also express some amour propre on the part of the monastic chapter, whose status with respect to the bishop had just been clarified?

Such pondering is part of the other reservation to be expressed. Though the book is admirably controlled in its focus (which makes it more unfair even than usual for a reviewer to hint that he or she would have preferred a slightly different kind of offering), an apparently resolute decision to eschew certain kinds of sources may have resulted in a picture less full than might have been sketched, even in a work whose topic is a clearly delimited as this one's. Two examples may be mentioned. The first is the great chapter Bible of Lincoln (Dean & Chapter MS 1), which contains a late twelfth century copy of a list of canons which must date from c. 1132 (see Diana E. Greenway, Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1066-1300, III: Lincoln [London 1977], 151-3), almost a generation earlier than evidence of corporate esprit Crosby adduces for Lincoln. The second is the massbook now in the British Library (Cotton Vitellius A.xviii) which almost certainly belonged to Giso, bishop of Wells 1061-88, who is credited with having introduced the common life at Wells and after whose death the see is moved, not quite explicably, to Bath. This book, and above all its calendar, give a lively sense of the vigor the Continental bishops of Edward's and William's times brought to the English sees they governed.

Not to have noticed such evidence, nor to have included much of the building history of the cathedrals covered, is by no means a fatal flaw, but does underscore the overall character the book has, a character alluded to at the beginning of this review: as an antiquarian repository of materials, scrupulously collected and deployed, concerning a subject of major importance — in short, a repository which after its publication can never be ignored, though itself not always the final word on its topic. If I mention as a somewhat comparable work Sir Henry Spelman's The History and Fate of Sacrilege (1632), it will be realized what high praise I intend. It is arguable that it is more splendid to have published an antiquarian repository of the finest and more enduring form than a monograph of probably transitory interest; in any event, what Crosby has provided here is the distillation of many years of diligent scholarship, and students in a variety of fields will owe him a large debt for many years to come.