contributor.author: Caitlin Corning

title.none: Foot, Monastic Life (Caitlin Corning)

identifier.other: baj9928.0707.004 07.07.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Caitlin Corning, George Fox University, ccorning@georgefox.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Foot, Sarah. Monastic Life in Anglo-Saxon England, c. 600-900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. xv, 398. $90.00 (hb) ISBN-10: 0-521-85946-8, ISBN-13: 978-0-521-85946-2 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.07.04

Foot, Sarah. Monastic Life in Anglo-Saxon England, c. 600-900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. xv, 398. $90.00 (hb) ISBN-10: 0-521-85946-8, ISBN-13: 978-0-521-85946-2 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Caitlin Corning
George Fox University
ccorning@georgefox.edu

This book is an excellent, scholarly overview of monasticism in Anglo-Saxon England. Instead of focusing on the theological context, Foot examines more "mundane" aspects such as the establishment of minsters, the populations that comprised these communities, daily life, economic and political ties, etc. In doing so, she provides a valuable contribution to monastic studies.

The book is divided into four main sections. In the first (chapters 1 and 2), Foot provides an overview of the difficulties in terminology including such words as monasterium, mynster, monachus, monacha, nonna, etc., arguing that these must be carefully distinguished from the anachronistic ideals of the tenth-century monastic reform. She then provides the historiographic context highlighting the manner in which the writings of both Bede and the later reform movement shaped historical understanding of monasticism, and the ways that more recent historians have questioned earlier assumptions. Lastly, she discusses the layout, functions and purpose of an "ideal minster" as portrayed in the source material. Throughout it all, Foot emphasizes that "it is a central thesis of the study that early English minsters were in fact characterised by their dissimilarity" (10).

The second section (chapters 3, 4 and 5) of the book focuses on minsters themselves. It examines the reasons why patrons supported foundations and the types of endowments provided. This is followed by an examination of the archeological evidence for the layout and function of various buildings. Included is an excellent analysis of validity of the "false" minsters described by Bede and the problems in distinguishing these from other monastic sites. The narrative then shifts to a discussion of the types of people within minster communities (children, postulants, monastic tenants, disabled, etc). This section also focuses on the specific ceremonies, clothing and lifestyle that set monastics apart from other members of the society. Finally, Foot uses the clues from hagiography and other sources to build a picture of daily life for all sectors of the minster.

The third section (chapters 6 and 7) centers on associations outside of the specific minster community. Of particular interest is Foot's identification of four types of monastic associations: federations, affinities, clusters, and dependencies. She argues that federations were comprised of a head-minster with "separate houses...run as subject colonies" located over a broad geographical area (280). She compares this arrangement to that at Iona. On the other hand, she believes Wilfrid's associated communities should be identified as an affinity; separate houses which were unified in their personal loyalty to a single patron or religious founder. This would be closer to the Columbanian houses on the continent (281). Clusters were much more localized, consisting of a number of minsters "associated either by being among the possessions of a single abbot or abbess or as proximate colonies of a main, parent minster" (Ibid). More local still was the "single dependency, the institution or community founded as an offspring of a parent house" (Ibid). Given the current debate within Irish studies on the meaning and function of paruchiae and familiae (see for instance Colmán Etchingham, Church Organisation in Ireland AD 600-1000, Laigin Publications, 1999 or Thomas Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland, Cambridge University Press, 2000), it is especially helpful to have a new analysis of the Anglo-Saxon situation. This book should allow scholars to better compare developments within the Irish, Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Churches.

The second half of this section examines aspects of pastoral care, hospitality and the relationship between minster communities and the laity. The discussion on the minster debate and pastoral care is another valuable part of this book because it provides a concise overview of the current debate on these topics.

The last section (chapter 8) contains an assessment of the preceding sections in light of the claims of the tenth-century monastic reformers that the ideals of "golden age" of the seventh century had progressively declined and there was a need to return to these earlier heights. In line with current opinion, Foot persuasively argues that these sources must be used with care given the goals underlying the reform movement. In the end, Foot contends that "theirs was not a reform (a restoration of a past state) but rather a revolution in monastic organization. The monastic 'irregularities'...did not result from misfortunes suffered by the English church during the Viking wars, or reflect a decline in the spiritual fervour of the Anglo-Saxon laity or even the avarice of rapacious strangers. There was nothing 'regular' about English monasticism before c. 900" (346).

Throughout this book, Foot demonstrates her knowledge and understanding of the complex primary material available for this period. She is careful to specify the limitations of the available sources for each topic. The work is extremely well-organized and she provides summaries at the end of sections and chapters to assist the reader in understanding the importance of the evidence presented. Foot has also included a clear overview of the book in the introductory material and a connecting section to link each chapter to its successor. Headings, maps and figures add additional clarity. The extensive bibliography will be especially helpful to those researching more specific areas of this subject.

There are no major weaknesses in this study. In a few places, additional dates would have assisted the reader in chronologically locating some of the people mentioned; for instance, Nothhelm, king of the South Saxons (82) or Cuthswith, abbess of Inkberrow (94). A more extensive discussion on the possible reasons why the establishment of new minsters declined after the early-eighth century would have been interesting (135). Foot clearly distinguishes monasticism in the seventh and eighth centuries from the early-tenth, but developments within this earlier period are not always clear. She does include a discussion of the increasing episcopal control of minsters from the late-seventh and throughout the eighth century (127-34). On the other hand, it is not as obvious in what other areas monasticism changed in the period before the Viking invasion. However, these are minor quibbles.

Monastic Life in Anglo-Saxon England is highly recommended both to those who want a clear, one volume overview of monasticism in the Anglo-Saxon church and for specialists who are sure to find much of value. Foot's insistence on the difficulties of making any generalizations when it comes to the endowment, function, composition or daily life of the minsters is critically important. Thus, "this study forces us to view the pre-Viking age church from a different perspective, neither coloured by the normalizing tendencies of Bede's narrative or the admonitory literature, nor distorted through the lens of the historically-suspect rhetoric of King Edgar's reforming bishops" (348-49).