The early history of the Augustinian Order, previous to its institutionalization in the late eleventh, early twelfth centuries, as well as the consideration of what, exactly, constituted a regular canon, addressed, for example, by Giles Constable in his valuable study, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, UK, 1996), are important, yet difficult, topics. A quotation, symptomatic of both problems, i.e. that of J. Mercer Cox (Plympton St. Mary: the Priory, the Church, and the Parish (Plympton, n.d.): "[The priory] was happy at least in this respect of having no history until it was overwhelmed in the wholesale dissolution and destruction of religious houses in the reign of Henry VIII," serves as a platform from which Allison D. Fizzard begins her study of Plympton Priory. Her book not only disproves the assertion that the priory, as an Augustinian house, "had no history"--quite the contrary, in fact, would appear to be the case--her study is also of use for the broader, more general context within which Plympton can be seen to be a particular, informative, situation.
We know very specifically about the transition from the period of Augustine's lifetime, that is, what is now commonly known as late antiquity, throughout the early medieval period. Several hypotheses have been recently advanced for the relatively sudden appearance of organized Augustinian houses ca. 1060-1140, for example in the Limousin, Languedoc, at Nevers, and St.-Victor, and encouraged, as well by Archbishop Conrad I of Salzburg. An interest in, as Fizzard states, "practicing the full common life," an educational agenda, the cultivation of inner life, or, as Caroline Walker Bynum has suggested (in her Docere verbo et exemplo: an Aspect of Twelfth Century Spirituality [Missoula, 1979], pp. 21, 87), a sense of obligation to serve as a positive example; or a predilection for a more introverted, understated, devotional life that was less involved with strenuous physical labor, have all been advanced as motivating agents to adopt documents attributed to Augustine for the purpose of codifying and granting more explicit directionality to an "Order" that would become known as the Rule of St. Augustine. Fizzard's introduction is a succinct resum of some of the literature concerning this development, although the very useful summarizing articles of George Lawless, O.S.A. on "Rules, Monastic," and "Regula," (in Augustine through the Ages. An Encyclopedia, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald [Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1999]), was apparently unavailable to her.
Can one consider the "Austin Canons" and the development of Augustinian houses in England to be equally problematic, as well as informed by what we know of the development of Augustinian houses on the European continent? Further, as Fizzard writes (6): "It is to be hoped that greater appreciation of the largely monastic nature of most Augustinian houses will lead to a better understanding of their role in English religious history...This book will place the growth of the Augustinian order in England within the context of the program of the Gregorian Reform and will address the reasons for the popularity of the regular canons amongst reform-minded laypeople and bishops." In other words, these houses provide evidence for networks of patronage, communities between episcopal and monastic centers, as well as more subtle issues of directions of spirituality and topical change.
The Augustinian Priory of Saints Peter and Paul at Plympton, Devon, England was founded in 1121 by William Warelwast, Bishop of Exeter and became one of the richest Augustinian houses in England (9). As such it presents a particular case of a history of a priory that was "an important presence on the social and religious landscapes of England in the High and Late Middle Ages" (13). Fizzard then proceeds to give a detailed, yet readable, study of Plympton, drawing upon a wide range of primary sources, to present a thorough background on the founding of the priory (chapter one), episcopal support for the foundation in terms of donations from the bishops of Exeter and their circle (chapter two), building the endowment, lay benefactors, their motives and their gifts (chapter three), managing the inheritance: gains, losses and challenges in the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries--institutions in search of means might well cull advice today from this fourth chapter--maximizing the inheritance (chapter five), challenges to the authority of the priory (chapter six), Plympton and its connections to the secular clergy (chapter seven), as well as events leading to and including its dissolution (chapters eight through ten). Three useful appendices are also included, namely, the Spiritualia of Plympton Priory, Charters from the Courtenay Cartulary, Devon Record Office TD 51, and the Taxatio of Pope Nicholas IV.
Plympton Priory, as with the vast majority of emerging Augustinian houses in the late eleventh, early twelfth centuries, was founded by, and during the centuries in which it thrived--going from strength to strength, it would seem--maintained an ongoing relationship with both the bishop and an important episcopal center, in this case, Exeter. This is a differentiating characteristic of Augustinian houses, arising also from the fact that Augustine himself lived an essentially monastic life, while serving as a bishop, responsible both for pastoral care, as well as providing educative impetus, within the context of the contemplative life. The combination of episcopal connection with learning would seem to be an important individuating factor for the emerging Augustinian order, yet this is difficult to define since it is largely spiritual in nature. Fizzard has brought together both the topic of spiritual basis and the practicalities of management, endowment, loss and gain, as well as the challenges of interaction between bishops, regular, and secular canons throughout the five centuries of the Priory's existence as an Augustinian house.
Her study is not only an important addition to a growing literature on early medieval Augustinian houses, but also due to her careful documentation, provides a wealth of information concerning this particular monastic situation, including addressing the assumption "that canons of this order were traditionally involved in pastoral care" (246). Fizzard concludes that "it would be unwise to assume that the participation of the Augustinian canons in the cure [and care] of souls was commonplace." Perhaps this is one of the reasons for its eventual dissolution. In any case, one of Fizzard's summarizing conclusions aptly accounts for the value of this study: "By engaging in a close analysis of an individual house of Augustinian canons, it has been possible to learn much about the creation, endowment, difficulties, successes, and activities of the canons at this locale" (246).