06.01.16, Slocum, Thomas Becket

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M. Cecilia Gaposchkin

The Medieval Review baj9928.0601.016


Slocum, Kay Brainerd. Liturgies in Honour of Thomas Becket. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004. Pp. xii, 379. ISBN: 0-8020-3650-3.

Reviewed by:
M. Cecilia Gaposchkin
Dartmouth College

Becket's murder in 1170 led quickly to a number of accounts written by churchmen interested in memorializing his life and martyrdom in a way advantageous for the church. These were written mostly by men who were close associates of Becket and identified with the causes that had come to occupy Becket himself and with which he was closely associated after his death. At the same time, the monks at Canterbury, who were in possession of his earthly remains, sought to promote his cult, and to capitalize on the spiritual, ecclesiastical, and political advantages of controlling and being identified with the saint. His rapid canonization in 1173 occasioned the official start of a cult. Pilgrimage to Canterbury grew at an unprecedented rate. After a fire in 1274 destroyed the east end, the Cathedral was rebuilt with the cult of Becket in mind. And of course, liturgical offices were written--certainly at Canterbury itself--to celebrate first Becket's feast-day, and then, a half century later, the feast commemorating the 1220 translation of his relics into the new, sparkling, Trinity chapel. Kay Brainerd Slocum has given these offices the place they deserve in our understanding of the Becket cult. These liturgical offices are no less important than the vitae and miracle collections generally consulted for how Becket was memorialized, how he was understood by his contemporaries, and the ways in which his martyrdom was understood within the life of the church. Slocum has focused on what these sources can tell us, integrating liturgical texts into our source base for this enormously important episode in English and ecclesiastical history. After an introduction which lays out her methodology and defends her focus on liturgies, Slocum divides her study into two parts. The first part, in six chapters, is a chronological treatment of Becket's life and the growth of his cult, told with recourse to long translated passages from the primary sources and with, where relevant, passages from the liturgical offices. The second part consists of two long chapters in which she explicates and provides editions of the two principal liturgical traditions for Becket: the office used on his feast day, December 29 (Studens livor), and the office for the translation. Part I is a retelling of the basic narrative of Becket's life, martyrdom, and the growth of his cult. Chapter 1 treats his origins, his rise within the church, and his appointment as chancellor. Chapter 2 follows Becket's appointment as archbishop and the growing tensions between him and Henry II. The third chapter follows Becket into exile in France, and the fourth, his return to Canterbury and his martyrdom. All this is familiar territory, though it is enlivened by a demonstration of how these events were memorialized in the liturgical texts. Thus, in contrast to some modern interpretations, the liturgical texts insist upon Thomas' conversion and his defense of ecclesiastical freedoms (33). Here, Slocum furnishes instances of how revealing these texts can be; for instance, how the tradition memorialized in the York breviary was easier on Henry II than the one of Sarum use (33-34). It is, however, with chapters five and six on the miracles and the cult of Becket that the potential of Slocum's sources becomes evident precisely because they constitute direct evidence for the cult. Chapter 5, "The Miracles," discusses the beginning of the important miracle tradition attributed to Thomas, how these miracles were recorded, how the dissemination of the miracle stories promoted pilgrimage and thus more miracles, and how the "water of Saint Thomas" (that is, the miracle-inducing watered-down blood of Saint Thomas) became central to the cult and was commemorated in the liturgy. In what is my favorite part of this book (84-92) Slocum discusses the cross-media interplay between important miracle stories, their commemoration in Studens livor, and in turn the visual representation of those same miracles in the Trinity chapel windows. Indeed, she argues that Benedict of Peterborough, the author of the earliest and most important miracle collection, was also the author of the liturgical office. In turn, she draws on Madeleine Caviness' suggestion that Benedict was also involved in planning the iconography of the windows. This is of some importance because the windows, set at a low level in the Trinity chapel in order to be viewable by pilgrims journeying to Becket's shrine, thus communicated to a lay audience the essential content of what was recorded in the Latin, clerical, liturgy. In chapter 6 Slocum traces the spread of Becket's cult beyond Canterbury, throughout England and the continent. She argues for a number of mechanisms for this spread, including pilgrimage and trade routes, the Cistercian order, and in particular Angevin marriage alliances (102-116). Slocum describes the ways in which Angevin princesses (in particular Henry II's daughters) emerged as important patrons of Becket's cult to their transplanted homes in Saxony, Castille, Sicily, and Hungary. The sixth chapter also runs through a bevy of other evidence for the implantation of Becket's veneration throughout Europe-- from France and Germany to Iceland and Poland. She traces, when applicable, the personal relations that fostered his cult. A small criticism here is some lack of continuity in methodology. In discussing France, Slocum discusses the evidence of ecclesiastical foundations, chapels, and altars dedicated to Becket. In discussing Germany and Scandanavia, she relies on the evidence of manuscripts in which a Becket liturgy survives. Our dependence on the chance survival of extant sources in this kind of reconstruction should not be overlooked. But Victor Leroquais' catalogues of breviaries and missals would have made it easy enough to compile a basic picture of the manuscript evidence for the spread of Becket's cult in France that would have complemented her discussion of England and Germany.[[1]] The last two chapters comprise discussions of and editions of the two principal liturgical traditions for Becket. They are each long because the editions include the music, and these have been included in the chapters themselves instead of being annexed in Appendixes. Here, Slocum elucidates many of the textual and musical subtleties of the liturgies, including the biblical allusions in the texts and the ways in which music emphasized certain themes. Because of the lack of contemporary liturgical evidence from Canterbury owing to Henry VIII's dissolution of the cult in the sixteenth century and the generally poor state of the extant evidence for England, Slocum has not given Canterbury pride of place in her contextualization and interpretation of the materials (though she has chosen to base one of her editions on a Breviary/Missal from the Cluniac priory of St. Pancras at Lewes in Sussex which may have Canterbury origins). This is responsible but disappointing, since Canterbury was the very heart of Becket's cult and the hagiography and offices themselves were composed there. Instead, drawing on the rich source base extant for Salisbury, Slocum wonderfully "places" the liturgy within that church, taking her reader through the recitation of Studens livor within the space of Salisbury Cathedral (209-211). One of the best things about Slocum's book--and Toronto University Press is to be commended for allowing this as well-- is the presentation in both the original and lively translations of the full text and music of the offices. The final two chapters present lengthy (multiple) editions of both Studens livor and the translation office, in both secular and monastic use. Choosing carefully single manuscript exemplars, she provides editions and translations of the different traditions of Studens livor (monastic use, found in the Breviary-Missel from St Pancras at Lewes, Cambridge Fitzwilliam 369, and secular use, found in the Sarum breviary), forcing home the (often unrecognized) point that no single text is normative (14, 136-137) and that liturgical offices were living and changing things. Slocum further examines the mutation of the tradition as found in the Hereford Breviary, York Breviary, and the Hyde Abbey Breviary. She follows the same approach in chapter eight for the translation office. After 1150, the liturgical offices for saints are a hugely rich source for the study of saints and saints' cults and of ecclesiastical culture and ideology. However, as Slocum has demonstrated by calling attention to some of the political implications of her texts, they can often reveal far more. Andrew Hughes has been a pioneer in the study of these offices, and has made them available in electronic form in his two volume Late Medieval Liturgical Offices: Texts, and Chants (1994 and 1996; available now on the web at http://www.let.uu.nl/ogc/cantus/HTML/CANTUS_index.htm).[[2]] But too often these sources are ignored by historians. They are almost never translated. And yet, as Slocum demonstrates here, they furnish an important perspective on the ecclesiastical, cultural, and spiritual life of the Later Middle Ages. Another overarching point by which to commend this book is its accessibility. Slocum explains clearly liturgical terminology and materials without losing its complexity or making digressions into often complex subfield of medieval musicology. The historian, art historian, or literary historian who has no background in the vocabulary or issues of musicology will come away from this book not only learning about the memorialization of Becket but also with some understanding of the issues (and potential) of musicological sources. This will be a must-read for anyone studying Becket, sanctity in both its political and devotional aspects, Canterbury cathedral, or pilgrimage. [[1]] Victor Leroquais, Les Breviaires Manuscrits Des Bibliothè:ques Publiques De France. 5 vols (Paris: Macon Protat frères imprimeurs, 1934), and Leroquais, Les Sacramentaires Et Les Missels Manuscrits Des Bibliothèques Publiques De France. 3 vols (Paris, 1924). [[2]] Andrew Hughes, Late Medieval Liturgical Offices: Texts. ed. PIMS, Subsidia Mediaevali 23 (Toronto,1994), and Hughes, Late Medieval Liturgical Offices: Resources for Electronic Research: Sources & Chants, Subsidia Mediaevalia 24 (Toronto, 1996).

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Author Biography

M. Cecilia Gaposchkin

Dartmouth College