Patrick Hornbeck

title.none: Burgess and Heale, eds., Late Medieval English College (Patrick Hornbeck)

identifier.other: baj9928.0809.024 08.09.24

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Patrick Hornbeck, Fordham University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Burgess, Clive and Martin Heale, eds. The Late Medieval English College and its Context. Woodbridge, Suffolk: York Medieval Press in association with Boydell Press, 2008. Pp. xviii, 290. $90 978-1-90315-322-2. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.09.24

Burgess, Clive and Martin Heale, eds. The Late Medieval English College and its Context. Woodbridge, Suffolk: York Medieval Press in association with Boydell Press, 2008. Pp. xviii, 290. $90 978-1-90315-322-2. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Patrick Hornbeck
Fordham University

Clive Burgess and Martin Heale have assembled a collection of twelve fine essays on one of the most ubiquitous, if sadly under-studied, forms of religious life in late medieval England: the secular college. As the editors of The Late Medieval English College and Its Context point out, with the prominent exception of the prolific twentieth-century scholar Alexander Hamilton-Thompson, church historians and others have consigned the secular college to a state of benign neglect. In the process, Burgess and Heale argue, many scholars have perpetuated two errors in judgment: first, viewing the late medieval church through a post-Reformation perspective, rather than examining "the ecclesiastical landscape as it must have appeared to men and women before the Reformation"; and second, drawing too sharp a distinction between monastic and secular communities (p. xiii). This volume and its constituent essays seek to repair these methodological breaches, examining secular colleges in England (with nods to Scotland and the Continent) on their own terms and aiming to demonstrate that "the simple, yet adaptable form of the college, was one of the--if not 'the'--basic form of Christian organization in the West" (p. xvii). Indeed, it is the flexibility of the collegiate form that takes center stage in many of these essays.

The volume is divided into three parts, which might perhaps best be characterized as surveys of secular colleges in particular geographical regions (the Continent, Scotland, and England), studies of particular aspects of collegiate life (patronage, the commemoration of benefactors, charity, the provision and preservation of books, and music), and case studies (of the Hospital of St. Thomas of Acle, London; Winchester College; and Fotheringhay College, Northamptonshire). Though a number of themes extend across the three sections, it may be useful to consider each in turn.

Clive Burgess' opening essay, "An Institution for All Seasons: the Late Medieval English College," is a model of its author's lucid, wide-ranging scholarship. After a brief historical survey of secular religious communities, Burgess sets about demolishing a series of stereotypes which have haunted the study of the secular college. He argues instead that these institutions did not necessarily have an educational mission; that unlike such specialized institutions as monasteries, hospitals, and parishes, colleges could fulfill multiple functions simultaneously; and that while late medieval monasteries may have been inflexible compared with colleges, there is little evidence to argue for the atrophy of liturgy and intercessory prayer in the period immediately preceding the reformation of Henry VIII.

Burgess' essay, which concludes with the observation that from the mid-fourteenth century, the inherent flexibility of the collegiate form rendered colleges "particularly able to satisfy the needs of the mighty" benefactors they acquired, sets the tone for the essays which follow (p. 25). Jerome Bertram traces the history of continental secular colleges back to the eighth century, discussing the effects on the collegiate form of successive reform movements: the Gregorian reform, the (largely French) effort after the Fourth Lateran Council both to magnify the prestige of colleges and to ensure the residence and good behavior of their members, and the less regulated reformist communities, such as the béguines, whose appearance in the late twelfth century posed a challenge to the traditional collegiate model. Looking further north, Helen Brown's survey of colleges in Scotland reveals both similarities and differences with English and continental counterparts: colleges were late in appearing but eventually became the foundation of choice among noble families, who established seventeen colleges in the fifteenth century alone; unlike English colleges they were often urban, incorporating as a college the clergy of a large city church; and again unlike England, Scottish kings were not collegiate "trend-setters" (p. 56). The first Scottish royal foundation dates from after 1460, two decades after Henry VI founded Eton.

Martin Heale, rounding out the first part of the collection, examines the respective roles of monasteries and colleges in late medieval England. His goal, in part, is to deconstruct the myths that colleges and monasteries were always automatic rivals, and that a monastic high Middle Ages gave way to a collegiate later Middle Ages. Rather, he argues, the two types of institutions appealed to lay benefactors in different ways: though both institutions were central contributors to the industry of intercessory prayer and were often established as dynastic status symbols, the founder of a college could lay down detailed rules for its governance in his statutes (though these were not always followed), and collegiate foundations were free of the automatic exercise of hospitality required by monastic rules. Stressing (like Burgess) that the growth of the collegiate form in the later Middle Ages does not imply the weakness of monasteries, Heale quite convincingly shows that there was "a significant monastic influence on late medieval collegiate foundations, and vice versa" (p. 73).

These early essays demonstrate many of the traditional strengths, and weaknesses, of broad geographical surveys: while they all point to the diversity of structure and purpose among late medieval collegiate foundations, limitations of length make it impossible for them to avoid a certain amount of generalization. It is very much to be hoped that these essays, and indeed the volume as a whole, will renew historians' interest in a neglected category of religious institutions.

The second part of the volume, entitled "The Role of the Late Medieval English College," takes up several specific elements of collegiate life. As a result, here the authors are able to focus at greater length on particular institutions and practices: A. K. McHardy, for instance, investigates in detail the networks of patronage (royal, papal, episcopal, and noble) in which colleges played a substantial part. Her discussions of the ways in which the Courtenay earls of Devon and the Beauchamp earls of Warwick made use of colleges in Exeter and Warwick, respectively, for the purpose of patronage are models of microhistorical study, and her conclusions--that over time, the predominance of royal patronage gave way to that of nobles; that the very existence of colleges created an "esprit de corps" among clerics, which nurtured friendships and later careers; and that the network of colleges ultimately contributed to the unification of the English church (if not, as she puts it, the realm)-are sound.

If patronage was one kind of unifying factor, intercessory prayer was another. Julian Luxford considers the role of the collegiate church as the mausoleum of its benefactors, demonstrating that physical mausolea reinforced colleges' primary identity as houses of prayer, tested the consciences of those fellows who were lax in carrying out their intercessory duties, and helped on occasion to support colleges' legal claims. After a survey of tombs in non-chantry, chantry, and academic colleges (a typology not entirely supported by the underlying assumptions of this volume), Luxford's conclusion is somewhat disappointing: "there is nothing unique about the types of monuments found in English colleges" (p. 139).

The last three essays in this section deal with the place of charity, books, and musicians in the life of a late medieval college. P. H. Cullum investigates the relationship between colleges and hospitals, concluding that there were "marked similarities" between the two, particularly when the common practice of early foundations to "outsource" charitable activities gave way in the later Middle Ages to a tendency among collegiate institutions to participate in charity either directly or in association with a hospital (p. 147). The endowment of places in colleges for poor men and women to pray for the souls of benefactors seems particularly to have increased from the early fourteenth century. Generalizations are difficult, as they also are in the case of James Willoughby's study of books in English secular colleges. For the most part it appears that the books of non-academic colleges were both fewer and more pastorally oriented than those in university colleges, but the Oxbridge model (itself borrowed, Willoughby argues, from the houses of friars) of a chained reference collection supplemented by a circulating (or electio) collection seems to have prevailed in non-academic colleges as well. Finally, Magnus Williamson's fascinating essay on the role of musicians within collegiate communities points to an important shift in the history of medieval music: by the fifteenth century, many colleges turned over responsibility for polyphonic music to specialist lay clerks, these individuals in some cases replacing minor clerics and even chaplain-fellows. What we might call the professionalization of music in late medieval colleges altered some hierarchies: at Eton, for instance, polyphonists ate at table with gentlemen, while other clerks waited upon the provost and fellows and ate with the college servants.

It is in the final section of the volume, with its three case studies, that the general assertions of the earlier essays find more concrete form. While it is more difficult to summarize these last contributions--Anne Sutton's on St. Thomas of Acre, London, under the mastership of Sir John Neel; Winifred Harwood on Winchester College; and David Skinner on music and the Reformation at Fotheringhay-they each more than repay careful reading. Sutton demonstrates how the energetic master of a financially unstable college could leverage St. Thomas of Acre's special role as the birthplace of St. Thomas Becket to build relationships with nobles, merchants, and others. Harwood provides a detailed account of Winchester's dual role as an intercessory and educational institution, in the process giving a fascinating glimpse into the accounting methods and domestic practices of this "quite exceptional" college, which by jealously guarding annual surpluses built up a solid financial foundation (p. 231). And Skinner discusses, perhaps at slightly less length than one might desire, the effects of Archbishop Cranmer's visitation of 1534 and the dissolution of 1547 on the musical life of Fotheringhay College, until that time a notable intercessory foundation as the burial place of the dukes of York.

There is, of course, much more to this volume than a cursory survey can suggest, and historians who specialize in such disparate fields as patronage, librarianship, funerary art, music, and London companies will all find one or more essays which reveal why the long-untrodden terrain of the medieval secular college deserves further examination. Burgess and Heale deserve our thanks not only for raising the profile of these institutions but for doing so in a way which emphasizes, as Burgess writes, the flexibility and adaptability of the collegiate form. Just as colleges themselves were sites of intercession, learning, and almsgiving (among other things), so also does the structure of this collection highlight the many, often interdependent, facets of collegiate life. Specialists may quibble with individual points of description or analysis (for instance, the use of the title "provost" for the heads of Scottish colleges may reflect burgh usage, rather than being a pure idiosyncrasy), but that would not be a bad thing. After decades of neglect, secular colleges deserve even more attention than this excellent volume can provide.