03.09.21, Clark, ed., The Religious Orders

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Dr. Allison D. Fizzard

The Medieval Review baj9928.0309.021


Clark, James G., ed.. The Religious Orders in Pre-Reformation England. Series: Studies in the History of Medieval Religion, vol. 18. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2002. Pp. xii, 250. ISBN: 0-851-15900-1.

Reviewed by:
Dr. Allison D. Fizzard
University of Regina

Recent years have witnessed the flourishing of interest in the history of religious belief and practice in England in the late medieval and early modern periods. What has so far largely been omitted in this new research is much consideration of the place of the religious orders in English society in the century or so before the Dissolution. Perhaps concerns about wading into the rather turbulent waters that have traditionally surrounded late medieval monasticism in England have deterred some. Perhaps there is the perception that Dom David Knowles in the last volume of his series on the religious orders in medieval England "said it all." Or perhaps it just that historians are naturally drawn to periods from which the greatest number of documents survive, and for monastic historians, that is likely to be the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the time when so many English religious houses were founded. Whatever the case, the authors of the essays in this volume have decided to face these challenges, look at previously ignored sources, and examine the state of monasticism in England before the Dissolution from new perspectives.

This book is a collection of essays, which originated as papers presented at a colloquium of the University of York in England in 1999. The title is somewhat vague as to the time period covered as "pre-Reformation" lends itself to a number of definitions but in general, most of the authors here seem to mean the fifteenth century and the sixteenth century up to the Dissolution (and occasionally the fourteenth century, as well). The essays are grouped in twos or threes by broad themes, but the individual contributions are quite varied in terms of subject matter, methodology, and findings.

In his introduction, James Clark, the editor of this volume, notes that the perception of religious houses has remained generally negative amongst historians. And yet, new research is suggesting that perhaps not all houses were as lax and economically distressed as has been thought. In a second introduction, Joan Greatrex surveys trends in the historiography of medieval religious from the time of Dom David Knowles onwards. Greatrex hopes that a more nuanced view of the religious orders in late medieval England can be developed than has heretofore prevailed.

The first three essays in this volume concern the involvement in and contributions to learning in the late Middle Ages on the part of English Benedictines, Bridgettine brethren, and Franciscans. In "A Novice's Life at Westminster Abbey in the Century before the Dissolution," Barbara Harvey provides an interesting case study of the workings of the Benedictine noviciate in the late Middle Ages. Professor Harvey traces the stages in a young monk's life through clothing, profession, and ordination; she examines, too, the education of novices while in the cloister and if they attended university. She finds that the monks of Westminster did attempt to make changes to the noviciate in the fifteenth century and did display a renewed interest in attending university by the end of the century.

Vincent Gillespie's "Syon and the New Learning" is a welcome addition to the growing body of research on Syon Abbey, the famous Bridgettine convent founded near London in the fifteenth century. Gillespie considers the interest of the Syon brethren in the "new learning" of this period, and concludes that their involvement was not substantial. The holdings of their library or at least, their holdings as reflected in the Betson catalogue do not suggest extensive participation in such contemporary intellectual and religious trends as Christian humanism and mysticism. Gillespie seems to assume a familiarity on the part of the reader with the Betson catalogue, however, and this assumption can render portions of the essay confusing for those who are innocent of the methods of arrangement of the material in the registrum.

In a brief essay entitled "Franciscan Learning in England, 1450-1540," Jeremy Catto notes that the rehabilitation of the intellectual reputation of the fifteenth-century Franciscans has not yet occurred. Measured against the scholarly output of the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Friars Minor, the legacy of the Franciscans of the later period seems rather insubstantial. There are some examples of English Franciscans with Christian humanist interests at this time, but little evidence of scholarly writing by members of the order. Catto defends this generation of Friars Minor in England by contending that they were still trained to high intellectual standards; it is just that this "continuing intellectual sophistication" is less evident to us, as it was expressed mostly in the form of sermons.

The Franciscans of the last few decades before the Dissolution also receive attention from Michael Robson in "The Grey Friars in York, ca. 1450-1530." Robson considers the connections between the friars and the citizens of the city and finds much evidence for a continuation of lay support of the Franciscans. The members of the order remained active as preachers and confessors in York and beyond, making preaching tours to nearby towns on a regular basis. The Franciscans were also much in the minds of the citizens of York when the latter contemplated death: Robson has found many examples in wills of bequests to friars in exchange for their attendance at funerals, interment of the testator at Greyfriars, and the recording of the testators' names in the convent's martyrology. Robson concludes by noting that recruitment amongst the Friars Minor of York reached 67 at the beginning of the sixteenth century. This number did fall substantially in the ensuing decades, but Robson points out that the population of York was plunging at this time, too. This is a useful reminder to those who would assume that a drop in recruitment necessarily signifies a lack of interest in or a decline in popularity of a particular religious order.

The examination of the ties binding Franciscans with the laity continues with R. N. Swanson's "Mendicants and Confraternity in Late Medieval England." Swanson seeks to place mendicant confraternity in late medieval England in the broader context of the religious life and practice of the laity in this period. This is no easy task, given the paucity of extant documents, which would shed light on this topic. Swanson does describe what mechanisms existed for the distribution of these letters, how intense this distribution was, and the different types of letters of confraternity with an explanation of their meaning in terms of medieval concerns about the afterlife. However, certain questions cannot be answered by Swanson (orby anyone else), given the silence of the documents on these points.

Moving from the Franciscans to female religious, Claire Cross examines the conditions of life at houses of nuns in "Yorkshire Nunneries in the Early Tudor Period." She raises the very good question of "how did some of these places survive for so long?" Eleven nunneries had incomes of less than 22 pounds a year and one, Nunburnholme, had an income of less than nine pounds a year in 1535. Insofar as this question can be answered, Cross suggests that the nunneries of Yorkshire, the poor and the comfortable alike, endured for so long because they were "performing a necessary function in local society." That is, they garnered support because of their usefulness in serving as "finishing schools" for well-off local girls or as dumping grounds for daughters for whom husbands could not be found. Occasional pregnancies and stories of laxity seem not to have made serious dents in local attachments to nunneries in Yorkshire. Cross has provided a welcome overview of the experiences of female religious in one region in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

Marilyn Oliva ("Patterns of Patronage to Female Monasteries in the Late Middle Ages") comes to similar conclusions in her investigation into female religious in the Diocese of Norwich. In her study of wills in the diocese, she found that nunneries were the second most common recipients among religious groups of testamentary bequests made by members of the parish gentry and by yeoman farmers (the friars were the most common recipients of testamentary largesse). Oliva suggests that the testators likely saw both the nuns and the friars as leading lives of poverty and devotion. She also contends that through burial in a nunnery's church or by having a family member become a nun, parish gentry and yeoman farmer families acquired social status.

Following Oliva's seven-page essay is the lengthiest contribution to this collection, Benjamin Thompson's "Monasteries, Society, and Reform in Late Medieval England." Thompson's chapter is also perhaps the most ambitious one in this volume in terms of presenting its findings within the larger contexts of late medieval religion in England and the history of monasticism. Indeed, the author provides a very useful survey of the major scholarly schools of thought on English religious houses in the years leading up to the Dissolution. The question that dominates this essay, however, is whether, by the 1530s, the natural lifespan of English monasteries was coming to an end. Thompson is clearly no supporter of the "recent revisionist view of the Reformation" (as propounded by Eamon Duffy, for example) and sees its ideas about the vigor of "traditional religion" in England as not being applicable to religious houses. He argues that the speed with which the Dissolution occurred raises this question: "[i]f the Reformation was slow because traditional religion was in good health and fulfilled important functions, can the same really be true of the monasteries? " (167). Thompson contends that it was various trends in late medieval society and in the Church rather than simply the political upheavals of Henry VIII's reign in the 1530s that ultimately led to the Dissolution of all the religious houses in England. A significant aspect of his argument is that by the late Middle Ages the monasteries were competing with secular churches for patronage and essentially had the same functions in terms of charity, education, and intercessory prayer as these parish, collegiate, and cathedral churches. Thompson thinks that if the Dissolution had not occurred when it did, the monasteries of England would likely have evolved into secular churches, since the distinctions between them had largely fallen away. Many scholars will probably quarrel with this interpretation; others will question his acceptance of the evidence from visitation records without considering in greater depth the shortcomings of these records. Of all the authors whose works appear in this volume, Thompson is the one most willing to enter into age-old debates, especially as to whether the religious houses of late medieval England had any social or religious value in the years preceding their demise. Some readers will inevitably find his conclusions rather contentious.

Unique in this volume for its examination of architectural and archaeological evidence is Glyn Coppack's "The Planning of Cistercian Monasteries in the Later Middle Ages: The Evidence from Fountains, Rievaulx, Sawley and Rushen." Coppack looks at re-building campaigns at these houses, two of which were wealthy and prominent (Fountains and Rievaulx) and two of which were poor and relatively obscure (Sawley and Rushen). At all four houses abbots endeavored to build comfortable houses for themselves, separate from their communities. Sawley and Fountains both saw substantial reworking of their naves as well, which reflected the disappearance of the lay-brothers by this time. Abbots at these same two monasteries also presided over the building of bell-towers, something that would likely have been frowned upon by their twelfth-century predecessors! Further discussion by Coppack of the significance of these changes would have been welcome.

The final two essays in this volume discuss the religious themselves during the 1530s and after the Dissolution. F. Donald Logan, in "Departure from the Religious Life during the Royal Visitation of the Monasteries, 1535-1536," reviews the royal visitation records for the north of England. He finds that only a relatively small percentage of religious claimed they wished to leave their communities during the visitation, even though departure at this time was made very easy for them. Of those who did express a desire to leave, a significant percentage did not depart in 1535-1536. Logan speculates that the fact that pensions were not offered at this point may have affected their decision to remain.

The mental world of the religious is further explored by Peter Cunich ("The Ex-Religious in Post-Dissolution Society: Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?"). In a very thought-provoking chapter, Cunich raises the question of whether some of the ex-religious might not have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other trauma-related psychological conditions after the Dissolution. Answering this question is fraught with difficulties, as Cunich certainly acknowledges. Firstly, there is the lack of evidence. Without first-hand accounts which would shed light on the mental health of ex-religious, how can one possibly assess whether they suffered from PTSD or not? Cunich does discuss the "Short Narration" by the Carthusian monk Maurice Chauncy, and suggests that it shows symptoms of "survivor syndrome." Since this is a unique document, however, one can do no more than speculate that perhaps other ex-religious experienced similar feelings of guilt. Secondly, even if there were many more documents, the difficulties inherent in psycho-history remain. Can we really apply modern notions of psychology to people who lived almost five hundred years ago? Cunich does address this problem: he believes that "the sixteenth-century man or woman was in many ways unlike us," but he still feels that universal human emotions of loss or grief were likely to have been experienced by ex-religious. Expressions of these emotions can probably be found, Cunich says, "it is just a matter of knowing what to look for!" Further guidance from the author as to where to find such expressions would have been welcome nonetheless.

Since this book is a quite diverse collection of essays, the reader is unlikely to come away from it with a coherent sense of the state of the religious orders in England in the years leading up to the Dissolution. Indeed, that is clearly not the aim of this volume. What the editors and authors have achieved here is to make a convincing case for putting the religious orders back on the radar of those studying late medieval and early modern religion and society. By providing insights into the ties between lay society and the religious, by examining intellectual and architectural developments at monasteries, and by probing into the stories and mentalities of the religious themselves, the authors of the essays in this volume have added to our knowledge of an important aspect of the history of the English Church in a period of change. If this book serves to inspire more research into this long-neglected topic, it will be even more welcome.

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Dr. Allison D. Fizzard

University of Regina