03.03.01, Harvey, The Obedientiaries of Westminster Abbey

Main Article Content

Joel Rosenthal

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.001


Harvey, Barbara. The Obedientiaries of Westminster Abbey and their Financial Records, c.1275-1540. Series: Westminster Abbey Records, Vol. 3. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2002. Pp. lxii, 270. ISBN: 0-85115-866-8.

Reviewed by:
Joel Rosenthal
SUNY Stony Brook

Barbara Harvey is beyond argument the outstanding authority on Westminster Abbey in the High and Late Middle Ages. Her edition of documents on the rule of Walter de Wenlock, abbot from 1283-1307, appeared in the Royal Historical Society's Camden Series in 1965, and since then -- in a series of major studies -- she has done much to elucidate the finances of the great house and its internal life and structure. It is not hard to say that anything and everything she continues to offer on her chosen field of expertise (or elsewhere, if she chooses) is a welcome edition to a number of lines of scholarly inquiry.

This present volume is primarily a research guide or handbook, a listing of the extant accounts of the many obedientiaries of the Abbey. An obedientiary was an office holder -- in these cases usually a monk (for 24 of the 28 offices listed) -- and what we have, chapter by chapter, is a brief discussion or description of the history and function of each office within the Abbey, followed by a listing of its pertinent accounts. I suspect that this volume has grown from notes-to-herself that Harvey compiled while preparing her masterly Living and Dying in Medieval England, 1100-1540: The Monastic Experience (1993). Though the present volume is not intended to flesh out the story of the Abbey's finances and administration, as H. W. Saunders did for Norwich (Introduction to the Obedientiary and Manor Rolls of Norwich Cathedral Priory, 1930), there is so much in Harvey's introductory and editorial matter, and in her notes, that we come away greatly informed about how business was done. The emphasis on the administrative and financial side of monasticism leaves little room for compensatory material or reflections about collective spirituality. And yet I think that there is considerable empathy for the importance of seeing that business gets done, and with some effort and efficiency, and with written records that were developed so that continuity, responsibility, and "the bottom line" all got their due share of attention.

The obedientiary system, whereby monastic revenues were hived off or specifically assigned to given offices (and officials) within the house seems to have been coming into effect by the early twelfth century. And at Westminster Abbey the impetus toward "privatization" of what supposedly was a collective enterprise was compounded by the fact that the Abbot had moved into his own household by the early twelfth century, the Priory following this elitist lead by the mid-thirteenth. Harvey approaches this segmentation of office and office-holders by presenting a list or inventory of the extant accounts for 24 different positions held by monks, plus four held by secular officials in the Abbey's employ. The number is actually a bit less precise than this; for example, the accounts of the Abbot are those of a number of men in his household, while some of the offices could be combined and others were regularly administered by the nominal official and a junior or lieutenant as well.

The offices varied greatly, of course, in importance and resources, and Harvey opens each group of accounts with a brief guide to the evolution or history of the office, its resources, and the particular value of its records as a fragment in the larger mosaic of late medieval life: secular, ecclesiastical, London, etc. Some of the offices, like those of the almoner, or the cellarer and gardener, were fairly basic to a monastery, and their cut of the resource pie was reasonably generous -- as measured by their ability to pay the bills incurred as they exercised their duties and, presumably, by whether there was enough left to support the lifestyle these men found commensurate with their status. The kitchener, responsible for the cooked food on the tables, had to be stoked with sufficient resources so he could count on 8s. 3d. per diem, and in the late fourteenth century this was raised to 10s (which may not have covered his annual special bill for the pudding served at the anniversary of Henry III). In contrast, the office of receiver of arrears was a temporary one, created to deal with some dramatic over-spending at the turn of the fifteenth century. And the infirmarer, despite a run of 182 office accounts that carry us from 1297-98 to 1536-37, when the end was near, was chronically under-endowed; apothecaries often had to wait some considerable time to collect their bills, and the repairs to the infirmary (iron bars, timber, mails, etc) were a severe strain upon very limited funds.

Harvey draws upon her vast knowledge of Westminster Abbey to open windows upon the prosopography of office holding and on monastic government. For example: we have 48 different almoners between A. de Pershore's account for 1293 and R. Gortton's incomplete reckoning for 1538-39. Some of those who served as almoner only had to answer on one or two occasions, whereas J. Stowe was almoner from 1387 until 1422, and H. Jones from 1514 to 1530 (and W. Mane was domestic treasurer, a more onerous if perhaps more lucrative position, from 1502 until 1526). How were men chosen? By the abbot, as we would expect, though there are signs over the years of pressure for election, rotation, a choice to be made from a short list of candidates, the call for consultation with senior monks before appointment, etc. Is Harvey being ironic when she talks of the "struggle for constitutional liberties" in this context? Certainly, given the perquisites that went with high and/or lucrative office, factions and rivalries must have loomed as large as aptitude and a proven track record in a less demanding position.

This approach to the working of a great monastic house does emphasize its existence as a collection of semi-independent entrepreneurs. A "wage system" was in effect for many of the Abbey's services, as well as for its offices, and this must have taken its toll upon the call of or to vocation. The Abbey received lands to subsidize chantry services for Eleanor of Castile, Anne of Bohemia and Richard II, Henry V, and then -- a bit late in the day -- for Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. The standard disposition of these endowed resources called for them to be divided between alms for the poor and a share for the monks (especially those who said the masses). But eventually, instead of the even-split that had been the first practice, the portion for alms was fixed at L20, and any and all revenues above that went for in-house division. On another line, many of the obedientiaries were responsible for the management of the manors whose revenues were assigned to their function. This meant travel well beyond the sacred precincts, often for some days at a time and perhaps for 3 or 4 times a year. So much for stabilitas. The monk bailiff, who represented the Abbey in its many and complex legal dealings, submitted a bill in the 1380s for entertainment expenses: "expenditure on recreation on one occasion for J. Scarle and G. Martyn" (108).

Is it a cliché to say that by the High Middle Ages a large monastery was big business. The Abbey had, at its peak, some 80 monks, tapering down after the Plague to somewhere between 48 and 60. At any given time about one third of them were holding one of the formal offices covered in this listing of accounts. The Abbey's resources were both large (second only to Glastonbury among English Benedictine houses) and far-flung. The lands that fed the Abbot's household alone were to be found in Middlesex, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, and Warwickshire. But the Abbot of Westminster was a great lord, supping with kings and potentates, setting a table that -- like the glories of the building over which he presided -- did him, his Rule, and his house credit.

If this is the main thrust of the material provided by this dry-seeming volume, I still want to look in passing at some of the intriguing scraps that are tucked away in Harvey's editorial touches. We are reminded that a large household had domestic issues: books had to be repaired, old pewter sold to help pay for new, the boots of eight novices needed repairing, the provisions for twice-weekly baking and weekly brewing had to be in place, and more of this. The chamberlain's accounts enable us to see that some monks, taking advantage of a freedom that the Rule had never envisioned, were able to buy both more clothing and better clothing than standard issue. Harvey explains how the Abbey's accounting system developed to cope with increasing complexity, dispersed resources, and recalcitrant or balky individuals, even among one's own monastic brethren.

This volume, apart from its explicit focus and its many merits in elucidating monastic routine, can serve as an object lesson in how archival material can take on larger dimensions. The organization, the long introduction and the short section-by-section commentaries could be studied to advantage by any scholar -- whether junior or senior -- embarking on a serious skimming of a body of primary materials. No fault to Barbara Harvey that nothing in these accounts gives much hint of Westminster Abbey as the house of kings. The great and protracted royal building projects that served to provide a roof for the shrine of Edward the Confessor were too close to royal hearts and purses, too important perhaps, to be turned over as an in-house matter, even for the monks of Westminster. But in terms of making do with what the monastic archive has left for us, this is a model volume, a vade mecum of impressive clarity and organization.

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Joel Rosenthal

SUNY Stony Brook