03.03.12, Still, Abbot and the Rule

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Erin Jordan

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.012


Still, Michelle. The Abbot and the Rule: Religious Life at St. Albans, 1290-1349. Series: Church, Faith and Culture in the Medieval West. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2002. Pp. x, 329. ISBN: 0-7546-0521-3.

Reviewed by:
Erin Jordan
University of Northern Colorado

In The Abbot and the Rule. Religious Life at St Albans, 1290-1349, Michelle Still assesses a series of abbots of this prominent Benedictine abbey, focusing specifically on their efforts to ensure strict adherence to the Rule within their community. In addition, Still purports to examine the internal history of the abbey, emphasizing monastic organization and monastic spirituality (3). Still also expresses her intent to "place the house in a wider context," presumably indicating a desire to understand the role and position of the monastic community within medieval society generally. Still carves out the nearly 60 year period from 1290 to 1349 as her chronological niche, citing as her rationale the existing lacuna in studies as well as the success of the individual abbots addressed in providing competent leadership during the period. While acknowledging the limitations imposed by the fairly narrow chronological and topical focus, Still describes her study as "one small piece of the jigsaw," ultimately contributing to a broader and more accurate understanding of "the peculiarly medieval institution of monasticism" as it existed in the fourteenth century (3).

Still provides a brief introduction in which Still reveals her agenda, describes the evidence employed and effectively establishes St Albans as the center of Benedictine monasticism in late medieval England. She then traces the evolution of the abbey from a marginal community in the early middle ages to one of the wealthiest, most prestigious houses in England by 1290, attributing its success primarily to deliberate attempts by a series of abbots actively cultivate the connection to St Alban himself. The popularity of the abbey as a pilgrimage cite later translated into a number of key papal exemptions and privileges, most notably Incomprehensibilis, issued by pope Adrian IV in the twelfth century, which granted exemption from local Episcopal control, and subordination directly to the papacy (21-22).

Although no official division is provided, the remainder of the text can be separated into two basic categories. The first, which focuses primarily upon the role of the abbots of St Albans from 1290 to 1349 comprises Chapters 3 through 5. These chapters present a fairly rigorous examination of abbatial administration, emphasizing in particular the obligations, duties, expectations and challenges that accompanied leadership of such a prominent and influential abbey. Chapter 3 examines the abbatial record of the 5 most influential abbots of St Albans during the period under consideration, tracing their attempts to instigate reform and impose strict observance upon the monks of the community. Chapter 3 also measures the extent of abbot's involvement in wider Benedictine reform efforts, focusing in particular on the participation of the abbots at General Chapter meetings and their ensuing attempts to later impose those rulings on member of the community.

Chapter 4 attempts to assess the extent of the abbot's involvement in the secular affairs of the community, managing the abbey's endowment and revenues, and monitoring his extensive interaction with the town of St Albans. It also addresses the political role of the abbot, effectively demonstrating the extent of the abbot's participation in Parliamentary affairs. While Still clearly established the political nature of the abbacy of St Albans, she is less successful in her examination of the abbot's involvement in managing the economy of the abbey. In attempting to reconstruct the abbot's role as a secular administrator, Still relies on evidence from other Benedictine abbeys (Christ Church, Canterbury, Peterborough, among others) and generalities about the duties and obligations typically assigned to a secular medieval landlord (82-3). While she admits to a wealth of extant documents which could potentially shed more light on this topic, she cites the constraints of the present study as preventing her from examining them, forcing her into the assumption that practice at St Albans conformed to practice at similar communities.

Chapter 5 examines relationship between the abbey and the nine priories that existed by 1300, emphasizing in particular the role of the abbot in imposing reform and maintaining strict observance among these peripheral communities. Still addresses the interaction between St Albans and two of the nearby women's communities that were in a position of dependence upon the abbey, hitherto relatively unexplored. Still describes the links of dependence that structured the interaction between St Albans and the communities of St Mary de Pre and Sopwell, emphasizing their need for spiritual and administrative support.

While the first four chapters assess the abbey of St. Albans primarily from the perspective of her abbots, Still's attention shifts somewhat in the final chapters, presumably in an attempt to examine the spiritual life of the community. In Chapter 6, Still discusses the educational environment of the abbey, focusing not only on attempts to foster learning but more specifically upon the role of the abbey school. She emphasizes the role of abbots in facilitating the "explosion" of chronicle writing towards the end of the fourteenth century (184) and discusses at great length a series of statutes intended to regulate and reform the abbey school, issued prior to 1328. In a similar vein, Chapter 7 explores attempts by the abbey to fulfill the Provision of Charity as mandated by the Rule, and investigates the potential threat to contemplation that service to the poor and ill could pose.

The strength of Still's study lies in its contributions to our understanding of abbatial administration and the multivalent nature of the position of an abbot of a prominent Benedictine abbey in the fourteenth century. Still effectively conveys a sense of the myriad of duties assigned to the abbot, and the many challenges he faced as a result of the elevated expectations associated with his position. Her examination of abbatial administration effectively conveys the importance of the personality and determination of individual abbots in providing effective leadership for a community. She also effectively traces the development of St Albans as an institution, and provides a sense of the ability of some Benedictine abbeys to weather the spiritual and financial storms that barraged monastic communities in the later middle ages.

In addition, even though it is not a central component of her study, she does successfully demonstrate that, contrary to many traditional historical narratives, some Benedictine communities remained spiritual and economically vital well into the fourteenth century. This argument is alluded to, but lacks sufficient development, and would certainly provide a cohesive theme that effectively links what otherwise appear to be somewhat disparate sources and disjointed discussions. Still certainly provides the reader with an understanding of the various ways a handful of abbots of St Albans attempted to translate several aspects of the Benedictine Rule into actual practice during the fourteenth century. One would think from the title of the monograph that this would have been her main intention. However, rather than providing a sustained examination of the effectiveness of abbots in translating the Rule into practice, Still occasionally seems to lose sight of this goal in her attempt to demonstrate the wider implications of the study for monasticism generally, which are never definitively established.

Her attempt to illuminate the spiritual climate of St Albans and internal history of the abbey is somewhat less successful, as is her attempt to situate the abbey into the "wider context" of medieval society (3). She doesn't incorporate sources which would allow her to effectively accomplish these tasks, and the absence of substantive analysis of those she does include leaves much up to the reader. While the reader certainly gains an understanding of attempts by abbots to impose reform and regulate practice, such attempts did not always translate into success, and need to be assessed accordingly. The views of the monks themselves are only revealed when they are in agreement with or in opposition to the abbot, producing a skewed understanding of the monastic climate that needs to be addressed. Even actions taken by the abbot that were deemed successful by the abbey's chronicler need corroboration from additional sources if Still is going to make a convincing argument about the monastic culture and spirituality that prevailed at St Albans.

Her inability to achieve all of the goals stated in the introduction is in part a logical result of the limitations of the evidence consulted. Still relies heavily, and sometimes nearly exclusively, on section 3 of the Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani, a chronicle produced by Thomas de Walsingham between 1376 and 1422 (4). Despite her assertion that the strength of the chronicle lies in the inclusion of both domestic and national affairs, the Gesta nevertheless is a chronicle of the abbots, not of the abbey. While the Gesta certainly provides a window into the monastery, it is clearly written from the perspective of the administration, and hence cannot be assumed to accurately reflect of the experience of the community more generally. The Gesta clearly privileges the actions of the abbots (whose experience was certainly atypical) at the expense of the collective experience of the monks. This perspective prevents Still from accessing the wider monastic culture and climate that prevailed at St Albans during this period. In addition, the nature of the text also poses potential problems. The Gesta undoubtedly provides excellent insight into one monks' memory of past events. However, the reliability of the document, as with all narrative sources, must be assessed. In addition, the impact of the element of self-promotion nearly always found in monastic chronicles should also be evaluated. These problems are briefly mentioned by Still, but need to be discussed at greater length (5). One would expect that considering its prominence in the study, a more detailed examination of the text itself, as well as of the earlier chronicles likely incorporated into it, would be present. Although she stresses the need for corroborating documents, such sources are seldom used to challenge the accuracy of the Gesta, but rather to fill silences found in the chronicle. She also seems reluctant to explore other sources which may prove equally revelatory about the experience of the monks and the spiritual culture of the community. Of particular interest would be charters and other documents of practice, which may have provided additional insight into the community lacking in the Gesta, due to its concern with the actions of the abbot and other elite members of the community. Still suggests that charters were in fact, incorporated into the Gesta, but they are seldom mentioned in her discussion. As in any scholarship, undue reliance upon a single source, particularly one as problematic in nature as a monastic chronicle, has the potential to result in a fairly skewed understanding of history. Without incorporating a wider range of materials, Still is unable to overcome the limits placed upon her investigation by the sources themselves.

While this assessment would be unfair if such sources were no longer extant, contradictions in Still's discussion make it difficult to determine the true extent of available documentation for the abbey of St Albans. On page 5, Still cites the lack of extant sources, noting the absence of administrative accounts, manorial records, and correspondence between the abbey, local bishops, the king, and the papacy. Still states that for St Albans "many of these categories of records are lacking" (5-6). However, on page 7 she notes the "wealth of privileges and papal decrees which were assiduously recorded in abbey chronicles and manuscripts," as well as the "many records concerning the relationship between the abbey and the crown" that have survived. Such evidence, in addition to parliamentary writs, manorial court rolls for 5 manors, and the records of Benedictine General Chapters for the basis of her conclusion that "the monastery of St Albans deserves our attention...because of the rich surviving documentary evidence" (8). In chapter 4, Still alludes to the wealth of documents available to illuminate the economic activities of the abbey, yet states that examination of "court rolls, extents and rentals, charters and correspondence concerning corrodies and the appropriation of churches...lies outside the scope of this study" (82), leading to further confusion regarding the availability of sources. It is difficult to determine which areas were excluded from investigation due to the dearth of extant documents, and which areas were excluded as a result of authorial prerogative

Although a minor quibble, the text itself seemed to lack careful editing, which did detract from the effectiveness of the argument. The footnotes seemed excessive, particularly in light of the limited number of sources that were cited. On page 62, the 17 footnotes for 21 lines of text cite the same 3 sources. One would imagine that such citation could be easily combined, resulting in fewer footnotes and considerably less distraction for the reader. Chapter 3 also repeats note 44 three times, leading to considerable confusion regarding which source is actually being cited. Similar problems appear in Chapter 4, where on one particular page, there are 24 footnotes for 19 lines of text. The majority of these footnotes contain definitions of simple terms with which nearly all readers would be familiar, leading one to question the necessity of their inclusion. One would imagine that more careful editing would have resulted in sources that are presented more efficiently and effectively.

Overall, Michelle Still provides a useful reference for scholars of Benedictine monasticism as it existed in the later Middle Ages. She has certainly made the Gesta available to readers, who will benefit from access to this unique source of monastic history. Although not a stated goal of the author, she does contribute to the recent dialogue questioning the tendency among historians to impose a uniform narrative of decline and decadence upon all Benedictine monasteries, arguing for a state of complete financial disarray and religious irrelevance by the end of the thirteenth century. Her study would have been considerably strengthened, however, by the presence of a more coherent, sustained argument, additional analysis and the inclusion of a wider range of primary sources.

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Author Biography

Erin Jordan

University of Northern Colorado