09.11.17, Jordan, Tale of Two Monasteries

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Brigitte Bedos-Rezak

The Medieval Review 09.11.17

Jordan, William Chester. A Tale of Two Monasteries: Westminster and Saint-Denis in the Thirteenth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. Pp. 266. ISBN: 978-0-691-13901-2.

Reviewed by:
Brigitte Bedos-Rezak
New York University

In this beautifully narrated and richly informative study of the Benedictine abbeys of Saint-Denis and of Westminster in the thirteenth century, William Jordan measures the vital signs of two kingdoms, France and England. The significance of the abbeys went well beyond the symbolic; they embodied royal mythology as well as being constitutive of the living royal fabric. It was their precincts that royal bodies, relics of national saints, emblems of states, and manuscripts of national histories permeated, by their very presence, with an aura of monarchical sacrality. It was within the walls of these abbeys that key rites of the royal life cycle were discharged, even as the abbeys' powerful abbots weighed in crucially on the governance of their respective kingdoms.

Arguably, Westminster's thirteenth-century position as the showcase of monarchy seems superior to that of Saint-Denis. The English abbey was the monopolist of coronation and keeper of the regalia; it housed the relics of the canonized king, Edward the Confessor; it memorialized the incarnation in possessing bread from the Last Supper and a vial of Christ's blood; and it became the sole royal mausoleum after the loss of continental lands to French rulers deprived English kings of their eternal rest in their traditional necropolises at St Etienne of Caen, Our Lady of Rouen, and Fontevrault. What Westminster accomplished single-handedly required the participation of three institutions in France. Saint-Denis had long enjoyed the position of French royal necropolis, indeed the English king Henry III (1216-1272) may have followed the Saint-Denis model when he promoted Westminster's role in dynastic burial. Saint-Denis also held royal emblems, such as the military banner known as the Oriflamme, and the regalia used in the coronation ceremony; but the coronation itself was held in Reims cathedral. With respect to Christology, King Louis IX (1226-1270)'s acquisition of a precious relic of the Passion, the Crown of Thorns, inspired him to erect a reliquary in the shape of an elaborate edifice, the Sainte Chapelle.

here was, however, one area in which Saint-Denis took clear precedence over Westminster, and that was in royal historiography. The thirteenth-century Dionysian abbot, Mathieu de Vendôme (ca. 1222-1286), oversaw the compilation of the Grandes Chroniques de France entrusting the work to a talented writer, the monk Primat, and to gifted illustrators. Here again, there is some evidence that Mathieu's counterpart at Westminster, Abbot Richard de Ware (d. 1283) may have wished to emulate Saint-Denis' command of royal historiography when, perhaps at his instruction, the chronicle compilation known as the Flores historiarum was imported from the abbey of Saint Albans, the English center for the production of royal historiography, and lightly edited at Westminster. The competition in grandeur between the two abbeys thus centered on their respective abilities to represent and to promote the greatness of their kings, who would in turn find it in their own interest to maintain the abbeys' splendor. Here again, in such monastic combinations of the actual, the factual, and the emblematic, Westminster held the trump card: it boasted the body of a saint king. Indeed, the efforts deployed by Richard de Ware and Henry III to make Westminster the most holy royal site in England centered on their creation of a shrine for Saint Edward, King and Confessor. Despite political upheavals and financial burdens, the holy royal body was translated to its new splendid repository on 13 October 1269. As Jordan points out, Richard's and Henry's efforts to renovate Westminster and imbue it with sanctity enhanced their own rulership.

In Saint-Denis, Abbot Mathieu also substantially refurbished his abbey's monumental architecture, giving it the rayonnant appearance it carries to this day. He also paid special attention to tombs, but at first with a focus that differed from the English endeavor. Underlying Mathieu's and his patron King Louis IX's project was the desire to create a lapidary history, by a re-arrangement of royal tombs, that would blot out the blemish of Capetian usurpation and imply continuity with the ancient Frankish rulers. Thus, the goal was to articulate royal authenticity, an objective that was achieved with the re-organization of royal burials in 1267. Yet, the year selected to celebrate the end of the building campaign, 1281, lagged well behind the completion of the funeral installation and of most of the church itself. Jordan suggests most convincingly that Abbot Mathieu timed this celebration with the moment when the canonization hearings for Louis IX were about to start at Saint-Denis itself. In other words, building on the evidence magisterially presented by Jordan, one may suggest that Abbot Mathieu was readying his abbey to become, as Westminster already was, the repository of a holy king. Since Louis IX's canonization was delayed until 1297, Mathieu had to content himself with the translation of the national saint, Denis, to his new, marvelously crafted, reliquary. Competition between the two royal abbeys may have thus inflected French royal ideology, now eager to inscribe royal lineage with sanctity as well as authenticity. Mathieu de Vendôme was assiduous in recording the miracles performed at Louis' tomb, and gave testimony when Pope Martin IV finally sent commissioners to investigate the king's life and miracles.

The competition between the abbeys of Saint-Denis and of Westminster was predicated upon a shared understanding that they were in fact comparable. Both enjoyed royal protection and patronage; both saw their abbots' careers culminating in government service; both were exempt from episcopal control and were under unmediated papal jurisdiction; both were immensely wealthy. Such status was not without its challenges. The two monasteries had to please two masters, the papacy and the king, upon whom they depended for safeguard against encroachment upon their power and wealth, particularly by bishops. Faced with threats to their institutional rights and assets, the abbots reinforced documentary practices and consolidated archival organization so as to muster appropriate proof against their adversaries. As a result, Saint-Denis and Westminster rank among the best documented institutions in medieval Europe.

In modern historiography, the comparable status enjoyed by each abbey in its respective polity has been so taken for granted that, despite such inviting parallels between the two institutions, no historian has previously undertaken their comparison. The originality of Jordan's comparative approach, however, further resides in his ability to derive from the joint analysis of these two Benedictine institutions a novel understanding of national identity and of the ways their respective identities informed the fates of France and of England during the thirteenth century. For if the abbots' pursuit of similar structural goals entailed a superficial similarity in the fulfillment of their office, their strategies and achievements occurred and interacted within very different political cultures. Of these and their various manifestations, Jordan gives an illuminating account while surveying the relevant historiography, to which he himself is no small contributor, with full command and a critical eye.

In France, Louis IX was confronted with a geographic polity of which many parts had recently been conquered. Crusading ideals inspired his dream of expansion. After his first crusading effort failed in 1250, Louis IX focused on the kingdom, attempting to make France a holy and unified land. By means of thorough administrative reforms, Louis imposed a new moral order within. Order was also brokered externally as Louis promoted peace among Christian powers, in particular between himself and King Henry III of England with the treaty of Paris (1259). With royal reform and peace, France grew immensely prosperous. Mathieu de Vendôme was in fact very much part of the reforming and standardizing activities of the national polity. His horizons were French; he reformed his abbey along the lines of the royally inspired administrative model and his architectural renovations conformed to the formulae of French style. His service to the Crown was rendered on French soil, which he hardly, if ever, left. King, abbot, and abbey were hospitable to the world, in particular their English neighbors King Henry III and Abbot Richard de Ware, but the world had to come to France and to Saint-Denis to seek solutions and be restored to order and to peace.

Henry III presided over a kingdom that had recently experienced severe continental losses. His dream was of territorial expansion, toward Sicily for instance, which he ultimately lost to Charles d'Anjou. Henry had his eye on international opportunities, and diplomacy played a major role in his politics. Abbot Richard de Ware was often sent abroad on royal missions, particularly relishing his stays in Italy where he developed a taste for its artistic creations. Thus, the abbey of Westminster came to be fitted with a splendid pavement inspired by Cosmati work, and St Edward with an Italianate shrine. For his own seal Abbot Richard adopted a foreign, French, style. While a certain level of cosmopolitanism prevailed in England, the royal and abbatial international outlook, coupled with the financial costs and long absences all these entailed, contributed to baronial unrest and monastic laxity. Internal reforms emerged in a context of rebellion and, tensely negotiated, were begrudgingly accepted. The setting of continuous financial distress in which Henry III and Richard de Ware operated makes their achievement in the transformation of Westminster all the more remarkable. At Westminster, England demonstrated its ability to match the standard of the France of Louis IX.

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Author Biography

Brigitte Bedos-Rezak

New York University