F. Donald Logan

title.none: Heale, The Dependent Priories (F. Donald Logan)

identifier.other: baj9928.0605.012 06.05.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: F. Donald Logan, Emmanuel College Boston (emeritus),

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Heale, Martin. The Dependent Priories of Medieval English Monasteries. Series: Studies in the History of Medieval Religion vol. 22. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004. Pp. xx, 378. 85.00 1-84383-054-X. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.05.12

Heale, Martin. The Dependent Priories of Medieval English Monasteries. Series: Studies in the History of Medieval Religion vol. 22. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004. Pp. xx, 378. 85.00 1-84383-054-X. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

F. Donald Logan
Emmanuel College Boston (emeritus)

Every student of medieval history stands in awe of the achievement of the late Professor David Knowles's study of English monasticism. His work is among the milestones of twentieth-century historical writing. The breadth of his learning, the fairness of his judgment and his lucid prose mark him as a giant in our profession. In a way his work was pioneering: he opened a subject hitherto the domain largely of antiquarians and made it a subject of mainstream historical research. The large body of subsequent studies of English religious life owes it origin and impetus to the Magister Cantabriensis. He would have been the first to insist that he had not written the last word on the subject and would have welcomed further exploration and even revision. The role of women religious, treated by Knowles almost cursorily, is being studied by such scholars as Marilyn Oliva and Berenice Kerr. Martin Heale's new book addresses another subject which Knowles had left for others to explore, the dependent or daughter priories of larger religious houses. Professor Knowles provided a negative judgment on these houses:

their appearance must be pronounced one of the most unfortunateby-products of the Conquest in England; save for a few of thelarger priories, they served no religious purpose whatever, andwere a source of weakness to the house that owned them. In thecourse of time, they became the most considerable of all thespiritual decay in the monastic life of the country. [1]

Martin Heale in his exhaustive study of the subject provides a more positive view of the dependent religious houses of medieval England. His is a welcome and convincing revision.

First there is terminology. Heale wisely uses the words "cell" and "priory" as synonyms for dependent religious houses. These were houses established by an independent monastery; they continued in their role as satellites, although a very small number--eleven--eventually gained independence. These were not administrative outposts established to oversee the economic interests of parent monasteries as granges or bailiwicks, which were limited in purpose and temporary in duration. What Heale calls cells were semi-conventual houses, which, despite the small number of inhabitants, were expected to carry out the regimen of the religious life. The author identifies 124 Benedictine and 19 Augustinian dependent priories. He excludes the dependent priories of foreign monasteries ("alien priories") as well as the few Cluniac, Cistercian and Premonstratensian cells and "the handful of female houses". (9) Although leaning heavily on the records concerning the daughters of St. Albans, Durham and Norwich, he includes surviving evidence about other houses, mostly Benedictine. Heale has produced a very rich harvest.

What led to the establishment of such houses? He tells us that it would be facile to overemphasize economic factors. More than half of these cells were founded by laymen independent of any economic interests of the mother house. Although other reasons--e.g., pastoral--also suggest themselves, "these houses were established primarily to pray for their lay founders". (47) They also often marked a hallowed site and encouraged cults of saints. The advantage to the mother house of agreeing to adopt new cells, he suggests, owed much to the prestige which they brought to their parents, although, as he points out, some of the great monasteries such as Bury St. Edmunds, St. Augustine's Canterbury and Peterborough never had dependent priories.

Heale examines the relationship of these houses with their patrons, who obviously had an interest in how these houses were run, with the local bishop, who often tried to exercise certain rights (e.g., visitation), and, particularly, with the mother house. The abbot exercised his right to appoint and remove the prior almost at will, yet there was a fairly wide variation in the degree of abbatial regulation. There were rebellions when some cells tried to throw off the yoke of dependence, but "most mother houses preserved full control over their cells through the middle ages". (112)

The cells must be clearly distinguished from small independent monasteries, although, since more is know about cells than about most small monasteries, we can make some inferences about the smaller monasteries. The essential feature of cells was their lack of independence. They did not recruit novices, provide training for young monks and canons or provide permanent residence for their inhabitants. The religious living at these cells were members of the parent monastery, where they made their religious profession and to which they were tied usque ad mortem. Once thought of as dumping places for difficult monks and canons--and there is some evidence for this, particularly in the thirteenth and perhaps fourteenth centuries--the picture is rather one of regular rotation of monks and canons, "one of the most important characteristics of dependent priories". (123) The length of time spent by an individual at a dependent priory was usually a few years or less; it was probably for five years or so that a prior would remain in charge of a cell, at all times subject to recall by the abbot.

The number of religious at dependent cells was seldom large. Although some houses had ten or so, the overwhelming majority had between three and five. Frequently many of the residents were on vacation from their mother house. Religious suffering from illness as well as religious passed over for election at the mother house could be sent to cells to recover. The monastic rest home was only a part--and a fairly small part--of the general picture. It was the smallness of these communities that convinced David Knowles to judge them negatively. Providing a daily sung Mass and observing the canonical hours (especially rising in the middle of the night to sing Matins) were not always easy, and inevitably some practical compromises must have been made.

Heale challenges the view that monasteries in general and dependent priories in particular had little support from their lay neighbors. He emphasizes the coveted role of the head stewards of such houses, who were laymen and often titled. These houses endeavored to offer hospitality according to their financial ability. Not much evidence informs us about their relief of local poverty or about any educational initiatives.

What one finds especially intriguing is the lengthy discussion of churches which served both a small monastic community and a local parish. This was not an uncommon phenomenon: well over half the Benedictine and Augustinian cells shared a church with the local parish. The parish was held by the parent monastery in commendam, the abbot officially the rector and a vicar or stipendiary chaplain--a secular priest--employed to care for the souls of the parishioners. Inevitably disputes arose: which part of the church would be used by whom? were the bells to be used for monastic or parochial purposes? Even those dependent priories that did not share space with a local parish very often had ample naves which attracted local lay people, frequently by a shrine to a popular saint. Heale concludes that these cells were more fully integrated into local society than has been hitherto believed.

While arguing quite convincingly that the purpose of these priories was not primarily economic, Heale nonetheless presents as full an economic analysis of their internal operations as the extant sources permit. The Valor Ecclesiasticus (with the necessary caveats) as well as the account rolls of mother houses yield significant results. These priories were almost always economically independent and did not provide their mother houses with income of any importance. Spiritual income (e.g., from tithes and from fees for weddings, funerals and baptisms) constituted a surprisingly large proportion of their income. The temporal income completed the picture, and here the role of the priory's own domestic farm is seen as critical, particularly for the poorer priories.

The epilogue contains an exceptionally good description of how the dissolution affected these dependent priories. Many expired with their parents, but there were exceptions that reveal the complexity of their final hours.

Some of the charts seem less than clear to this reviewer. The word "British" is used a few times when it is clear that the Scots are not meant to be included. The footnote references given in the index seem to relate to an earlier way of numbering footnotes but one knows that proofs of indexes are--unfortunately--not always given to authors.

Martin Heale has written an important book which reflects the best of modern scholarship in the research done in a wide array of manuscript libraries and archives. He is in full control of a vast secondary literature, much of it found in the somewhat obscure journals of local and regional societies. Well organized, clearly written, thoroughly documented in footnotes and appendices, this is a monograph of which David Knowles would have enthusiastically approved.


[1] The Monastic Order in England: A History of its Development from the Times of St Dunstan to the Fourth Lateran Council, 943-1216 (Cambridge, 1950), p. 136.