14.10.13, Mortimer, Guide to the Muniments of Westminster Abbey

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Katherine L. French

The Medieval Review 14.10.13

Mortimer, Richard. Guide to the Muniments of Westminster Abbey. Westminster Abbey Record Series, VII. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2012. Pp. vii, 123. ISBN: 9781843837435 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Katherine L. French
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

The word "muniment" derives from the Latin verb munire: "to fortify." Muniments in the context of the book under review refer to the records that fortified an institution, providing evidence of its ownership and privileges usually with respect to land. Richard Mortimer's Guide to the Muniments of Westminster Abbey, therefore, surveys the history and contents of this rich archive, providing a useful resource for those already using it and helping those unfamiliar with the collection learn what riches the muniments contain.

Founded in the tenth century as a Benedictine monastery, Westminster Abbey was dissolved in 1540 along with the rest of England's other monastic houses. Unlike other English monasteries, however, it continued to survive in various guises as England moved through its back-and-forth Reformation. At the Dissolution, it was reconstituted as a cathedral with dean and canons for the short-lived diocese of Westminster. When the diocese was abolished ten years later, the Abbey became the second cathedral for the diocese of London. Four years later Queen Mary reconstituted the Benedictine abbey, which Elizabeth I then abolished four years later, turning it into a collegiate church with a dean and chapter, which it remains today. Throughout these changes, much of the building, its contents, and its property remained intact, and so the archive assembled to prove and administer its possessions remained and grew, constituting one of England's only intact monastic archives.

Since their creation in the Middle Ages, the actual muniments have been stored in a gallery that overlooks Poet's Corner. Those lucky enough to be granted entry into the muniment room itself see portions of a fourteenth-century wall painting of Richard II's white hart, original medieval tile work on the floor, and several fine examples of medieval chests and cupboards that still store the records. The small reading room, built in 1932, is located off the muniment room in the attic of the east cloister and accessed by a spiral staircase in the old library. The library for its part is behind a locked door and up a set of stairs in the cloisters, making the muniments an atmospheric as well as historic archive.

Even for institutions committed to protecting their property and privileges, archives are not accidental creations. Mortimer begins his Guide with a short history of the archive itself. Until the eighteenth century, the muniments were a haphazard venture. A series of committed men affiliated with the Abbey gradually organized and catalogued them, and we owe its current and often quirky organization to these early efforts.

The second section of theGuide describes the main types of documents held by the Abbey and their relationship to the administration of the Abbey. The medieval management of the Abbey was decentralized, with separate responsibilities and the funds to support them in the hands of monk-officers known as "obedientaries." The funds in question came from donations, often of land, which the monastery then administered. As a result of this organization, the Abbey was very involved, not only in the administration of its numerous manors across England, including the town of Westminster itself, one of the many manors under its control. The medieval archive then contains not only records of the Abbey's administration, but the manor court rolls, leases, rentals, and cartularies for much of Westminster's property. The medieval records also contain documents relating to the religious and liturgical life of the Abbey as well as its charitable and building activities. Educating boys was another facet of Abbey life starting in the Middle Ages, and there are records for the Westminster School and the Choir School founded in 1560.

The third, fourth, and fifth sections are the catalogue of the muniments itself. The second section contains a list of the so-called numbered series, the bulk of the muniments. They contain three subsections: those organized numerically in the mid-eighteenth century, which include more than 67,000 items; the Muniment Books, which are a collection of medieval cartularies; and the Roman Numeral Series, which includes some of the more "important" documents. The fourth section lists the Modern Series, which is arranged by a more modern archival system. The Modern Series includes not only records from administering the collegiate Abbey church, but records from major events held at the Abbey such as royal coronations and marriages. The fifth and last sections itemizes the visual and sound recordings, including a rich collection of maps, floor plans, and drawings of the Abbey and its surroundings, along with photographs, and more recently video, sound, and digital recordings and images.

While Mortimer's Guide is an indispensable resource for those wishing to use the Abbey's Muniments, the nature of their cataloguing means that while all the records have some archival number and are retrievable, and similar records are usually grouped together, this is not always the case and there are still surprises to be found. In sum, Westminster's muniments can be studied for an enormous array of subjects and Mortimer's Guide helps in this process.

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Author Biography

Katherine L. French

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor