12.05.24, Greatrex, The English Benedictine Cathedral Priories

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Julie Kerr

The Medieval Review 12.05.24

Greatrex, Joan. The English Benedictine Cathedral Priories: Rule and Pracitce, c. 1270-c.1420. Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 416. ISBN: 978-0-19-925073-8.

Reviewed by:

Julie Kerr
University of St. Andrews

This comparative study of the nine cathedral priories in England is intended as a sequel to the author's Biographical Register of the English Cathedral Priories of the Province of Canterbury (1997), but includes Durham which was the only cathedral priory in the archdiocese of York. Greatrex seeks to follow the monk of the cathedral priory from his entrance as a postulant to his death, tracing his path of instruction, study and ordination, and his share in the administration of the house. The analysis covers a long fourteenth century and ends in 1421 when Henry V called a meeting at Westminster to reform the Benedictine houses. This timescale is determined by the nature and availability of sources and the study draws extensively on the abundance of account rolls, episcopal and archiepiscopal registers, as well as on library catalogues and surviving books.

The book comprises six chapters and two appendices, and includes plans of six of the nine cathedral priories. Chapter One takes the form of an introduction. It sets the cathedral priories in their historical context and then discusses their location and the layout of the various precincts. Greatrex considers the monasteries' dependencies, including their halls and hostels in Oxford and Cambridge which she explores further in Chapter Three in a discussion of university education. Greatrex looks briefly at the monks' family backgrounds and also relationships between communities and their bishop or archbishop. Chapters Two to Six trace the monk's journey and begin with his application and admission to the monastery and his subsequent profession. Admission was by no means guaranteed and the postulant was interviewed to test his aptitude and suitability for the cloister; entrance might be deferred if his singing, grammar or reading was not up to standard. Chapter Three considers the junior monk and examines the training he received, his ordination, and learning both in the cloister and at the university. Each monastery was required to send one monk to the university for every twenty in the community but Greatrex explains that the cathedral priories surpassed this quota. Yet, relatively few stayed on to finish their degrees and often returned to the cloister once they were equipped with the tools to preach in their monastery. Chapter Four discusses the senior office holders, the obedientiaries, who were responsible for the administration of the house and its dependent cells. Evidence is drawn largely from monastic account rolls and is supplemented by statutes and injunctions that were issued following visitation. Analysis highlights how the nature of the obedientiary's tasks might vary from house to house; the numbers and names of the offices also differed. For instance, not every cathedral priory had a feretrar whose duties were frequently taken on by the sacrist; at Worcester the cellarer was equivalent to a bursar or treasurer and at Winchester he was tied to the curtarian. Chapter Five breaks away from the chronology of the monk's life to take a selective look at "salient features" (236) that marked the liturgical year and at the monk's priestly functions; the chapter ends with a short and insightful section on bloodletting and recreatio which provided time out from the monastic regime. Chapter Six considers the closing years of the monk's life when he might suffer from infirmity and illness, and his eventual death and commemoration. Episcopal injunctions and chapter ordinances can shed considerable light on the care of the sick and reveal, for example, that meals might be prepared for them according to their individual needs; doctors were often in attendance and some were granted a corrody from the house. A number of monks continued in office until they died; one prior of Christ Church, Canterbury was over ninety and fully functioning at the time of his death in 1331. Others retired in their late sixties or seventies and perhaps joined the stacionarii in the infirmary. Monastic accounts offer a vivid insight into provision for the dying and deceased. For instance, we learn that payments were made to folk-- evidently outsiders--who kept watch at the dying monk's bedside and might assist the infirmarer to anoint the sick; and to messengers hired on an annual basis to dispatch death notices to monasteries and request prayers for the deceased. Alms were often distributed to the poor on behalf of the dead monk and the toll of the monastery bell might draw a crowd of the needy to the priory gate, hoping for alms.

This is a meticulous study that provides a wealth of information although some interesting details that would have enhanced the narrative are rather lost in the footnotes. Examples include an allusion to memory loss in old age at Ely, c. 1300, where elderly monks who had forgotten the words were allowed to have candles and books at Compline (71 n. 113); and the employment of a woman to make wax for the monks of Durham in 1385/6 (203 n. 259). The book benefits tremendously from the author's extensive knowledge of the library collections and of learning in the cloister, and from her close analysis of the accounts. It is an extremely detailed comparative examination of the nine cathedral priories in England but would perhaps have benefitted from greater reference to other Benedictine houses such as Abingdon, Bury, St Albans and Westminster, to set the cathedral priories in their wider context and to show if they were in any way unique. Comparison with these houses may have been useful when discussing the obedientiaries and the nature of their duties: Greatrex mentions the difficulties in defining the role of the curtarian at St Swithun's (164-5) who seems to have had some responsibilities for the prior's household (165 n. 21); reference to the monk curtar of Abingdon, who was a member of the abbot's household and whose role is outlined in the De Obedientiariis (c. 1220) of Abingdon, may have been helpful.

The study makes no claims to be exhaustive and as Greatrex states, it is a "slice" of history (322). The author clearly cannot cover every aspect of the monk's life and has to be selective, but she might have discussed the novice's instruction in sign language in Chapter Two, given that this was an important part of the newcomer's training. Indeed Henry of Kirkstead, a fourteenth-century novice-master at Bury St Edmunds, compiled a sign manual specifically for the novices of his house. Evidence for instruction in signing may be scarce or missing for the fourteenth-century cathedral priories but a later list of signs survives for Ely--and is indeed mentioned by Greatrex (67, n. 94)--and earlier lists survive for Canterbury. Another area that might have been explored is the abandonment of the monastic life or instances where the monk was plagued by doubts, insecurities and anxieties and considered leaving the cloister. Greatrex takes a rather linear look at the monk's life charting his progression from entry until death but says little about the stresses and worries that may have troubled monks, causing them to question their vocation; or the strains of administration which perhaps led priors and obedientiaries to resign from office, seeking to return to the quietude of the cloister. Greatrex explains that when the newly- ordained monk priest celebrated his first mass his family and friends would attend (98). Further discussion of the monk's relationship with his family and also with his fellow brethren would have been interesting and widened the focus of the narrative. But perhaps, in contrast to the twelfth- and thirteenth-century sources, the fourteenth-century evidence does not permit analyses of this nature, especially given the paucity of miracle and exempla collections at this time and the rather fragmentary nature of surviving customaries.

The author is to be congratulated for an impressive and meticulous study that will greatly enhance research in this area and stimulate further analysis.

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Author Biography

Julie Kerr

University of St. Andrews