Shelly Amiste Wolbrink

title.none: Shirley, Secular Jurisdiction (Shelly Amiste Wolbrink)

identifier.other: baj9928.0605.014 06.05.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Shelly Amiste Wolbrink, Drury University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Shirley, Kevin L. The Secular Jurisdiction of Monasteries in Anglo-Norman and Angevin England. Series: Studies in the History of Medieval Religion. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2004. Pp. xi, 184. $90.00 (hb). ISBN: 1-84383-049-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.05.14

Shirley, Kevin L. The Secular Jurisdiction of Monasteries in Anglo-Norman and Angevin England. Series: Studies in the History of Medieval Religion. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2004. Pp. xi, 184. $90.00 (hb). ISBN: 1-84383-049-3.

Reviewed by:

Shelly Amiste Wolbrink
Drury University

Religious studies frequently explore the spirituality of an important reformer or the organization of a particular religious order. Few scholars have successfully placed the monastery within a secular context and examined its interaction with the lay world. Therefore it was with much interest that I read Kevin L. Shirley's The Secular Jurisdiction of Monasteries in Anglo-Norman and Angevin England , a detailed analysis of the monastic honor court as it functioned from 1066 to 1272.

Shirley's approach is primarily chronological as he details the charters and records that survive from the monastic honor court. Part one, "The Courts: Honor and County," offers a brief introduction to honor and county courts where monastic business was carried out. Part two, "The Monasteries and the Curia Regis ," consists of four chapters detailing monastic disputes during the reigns of English kings: the Anglo-Norman period, 1066 to 1154; Henry II; Richard I and John; and Henry III. At eight pages, the chapter on Henry III is the briefest. Shirley relies on primary sources such as chronicles, cartularies, royal writs, and rolls to illuminate the business of the courts.

Shirley argues that William the Conqueror's demand to English monasteries to provide men for the king's army proved central to the formation of the monastic honor court. As he explains, "Monastic communities, in order to fulfill their obligations to the new king, had to obtain knightly tenants by granting fees or estates in return for military service, and heads of religious houses became lords of fighting men" (5). Shirley argues that the honor court was "the practical exercise of baronial jurisdiction" and therefore the abbot "ruled as a feudal lord, answering questions of tenure and service" (5). Tribunals consisting of monks and laymen were charged with military and judicial obligations that impacted the secular world. Abbots could summon laymen when service was not being provided, or when land had been taken from the monastery. Importantly, Shirley shows that the king allied frequently with the monasteries and intervened in litigation in the late eleventh and early twelfth century. There was a far more "intimate relationship between monastic barons and royal power in Anglo-Norman England than has been traditionally assumed" (159). Useful tables included within the book indicate the number of royal writs issued for monasteries. The abbey of Abingdon, for instance, received eight- seven royal writs between 1100 and 1135 (66).

Governmental and legal reforms of the Angevin kings, and attempts to centralize power through royal courts, forced the monarchy to reduce support for monasteries and abbots leading to the decline of the monastic honor courts. Shirley writes: "Like all other feudal lords in England with obligations to both their king and men, the abbots of England found themselves becoming increasingly defensive in their legal lives, primarily because after Henry II's first decade the innovations of his administrators tended to strengthen the position of the vassal or tenant at the expense of the lord" (80). By the late twelfth and thirteenth century, abbots could no longer depend on the monarchy for royal support. The effectiveness of the courts, Shirley concludes, rested on the skills of the abbot (160).

The book provides useful information on the courts themselves, but it is largely a description of disputes. Although Boydell Press has published several outstanding books that thoughtfully explore religion in medieval England, this book resonates less in a series titled: "Studies in the History of Medieval Religion." It is more telling from the perspective of legal studies than religious studies. The book is a documentation of legal actions seen through the framework of the kings. It is less an account of monasteries and religion than it is abbots, noblemen, and monarchy seeking resolution in the courts.

Shirley aligns the significance of his study most clearly within the dialogue on feudalism: "Medieval historians agree that great variety and diversity in local customs concerning landholding existed throughout Europe, but the interpretations of Susan Reynolds have shaken the very foundations of traditional feudal historiography" (15). He views the monastic honor court as challenging the traditional framework of feudalism. Shirley is highly critical of S.F.C. Milsom's arguments concerning the connection between the rise of common law and the demise of seigniorial jurisdiction (158). The "Milsom school" and "Milsom and his followers" are frequently challenged in the text (8-9, 55, 61, 64, 75, 158-9), especially the "Milsomian concept of an autonomous honorial court" and the "Milsomian model of an autonomous feudal lord (55, 75)." Milsom's arguments could have been explained more clearly in the introduction as a way to ready the reader for critiques within the text. Shirley is also interested in the English monarchy and the impact of the monarchy's legal reforms on the "feudal court" (8).

The book would have been improved by engaging with broader historiographical issues and secondary literature. The author argues that "monasteries have not received as much scholarly attention" (7). But there is abundant literature to give depth and significance to his arguments. The book does not attempt to place monastic honor courts within the framework of monastic studies, religious studies, or conflict resolution. Scholars such as Lester Little, Giles Constable, Constance Bouchard, and Cassandra Potts have published important works on the intersection of monasticism, politics and society. Significant studies on society and monasticism in England are also missing. Given Shirley's emphasis on judicial proceedings, monasticism, and law, he should have addressed Alain Boureau's article, "How Law Came to the Monks: The Use of Law in English Society" and "Monks and Their Enemies: A Comparative Approach." [1] In the area of conflict and dispute resolution, where scholarship has been prolific, very little literature is cited (a book by Patrick Geary and three articles by Stephen D. White). Finally, any study that relies on monastic chronicles and property charters, such as those for Evesham abbey, should address the question of forgery. It was disappointing that this relatively short book did not interact with the literature beyond studies of feudalism and the English monarchy.

Although not acknowledged, the book is largely a republication of Shirley's 1998 doctoral dissertation with minimal revision or expansion. Boydell Press has produced some extraordinary books in its series on medieval religion, but this one falls short. The book contains typographical errors, as well as problems in clarity and style. Even with its shortcomings, however, Shirley's use of primary sources is extensive. I would recommend this book to specialists of the English monarchy or the judicial system who may find the detailed discussion of the legal cases useful.


[1] Alain Boureau, "How Law Came to the Monks: the Use of Law in English Society at the Beginnng of the Thirteenth Century," Past and Present 167 (2000): 29-74; Barbara H. Rosenwein, Thomas Head, and Sharon Farmer, "Monks and Their Enemies: A Comparative Approach," Speculum 66 (1991): 764-796.