15.09.33, Heale, ed., The Prelate in England and Europe

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Michael Burger

The Medieval Review 15.09.33

Heale, Martin, ed. The Prelate in England and Europe, 1300-1560. Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2014. pp. xiii, 321. ISBN: 978-1-903-15358-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Michael Burger
Auburn University at Montgomery

This volume brings together most of the papers given at a conference on "The Prelate in Late-Medieval and Reformation England" in 2011. Aside from contributions on Cistercian abbots in central Europe and on French cardinals, this collection retains the conference's insular character. The essays do, however, touch on varied aspects of the topic: how prelates viewed themselves and were viewed by others; their changing political role; their place in intellectual life. All this and a fair degree of attention paid to material evidence make this book a rewarding read.

The volume's editor succeeds admirably in synthesizing these essays. The period was, he says, "a golden age of prelacy" (1)--partly because it was an age of clerical ministers, partly because of the increasing use of the term "prelate" not just for the heads of religious houses, but for bishops too. The discussion draws on much work beyond the pieces printed here.

Politics is a major theme of the collection. Gwilym Dodd's examination of "Clerical Chancellors in Late Medieval England" tackles the question of why, after an (albeit mild) eclipse under Edward III, bishops, especially the archbishops of Canterbury, came to dominate the office of royal chancellor in the later Middle Ages. This development is especially striking given the larger "laicization" of royal government in the period. For the Crown, clerical, and especially episcopal, chancellors not only saved the cost of payment and pleased the laity at large because of their supposed incorruptibility, but prelate-chancellors could deploy their religious authority to shore up an unstable monarchy. The emergence of the Chancery Court as a "court of conscience," with "conscience" being a term freighted with theological significance, made clerical chancellors especially appropriate. (Here Dodd neatly twists the historiography that has Chancery's special forensic role developing because of its clerical personnel.) The church gained from the revival of prelatical chancellors too: it now had a high royal official well placed to tamp down the impact of anticlericalism and eager to do so.

C├ędric Michon takes a rather different approach to curial prelates in "Cardinals at the Court of Francis I." His treatment is heavily typological. Cardinals at court were not necessarily royal creatures; various patrons backed their candidacies, not just the king. (Despite Michon's great interest in categorizing cardinals, he has a fine eye for narrative; there are some amusing excerpts here from correspondence illuminating campaigns at the papal court on behalf of a candidate for the red hat.) Counterintuitively, Michon finds that cardinals from powerful families were in fact the weaker cardinals at court.

Benjamin Thompson looks at politics a little closer to the ground in "Prelates and the Alien Priories." Like other scholars, he finds that the late medieval church was not a monolith. In a discussion that is not always forgiving to those not already acquainted with the subject, Thompson argues that, when the Crown seized English priories with French affiliations in time of war, English bishops were ready to take on priory lands. Lay authority set the agenda, with which bishops cooperated to their own ends: they were especially interested in using the resources thus gained for educational foundations, and largely succeeded in keeping formerly monastic lands out of lay hands. (Here a contrast with Henry VIII's success in driving monastic lands into his own hands suggests a fifteenth-century episcopate more effective than its sixteenth-century successor.)

Learning had long been important to the self-definition of at least the higher clergy. It is already known that, after an abeyance, the fifteenth-century bench was producing bishops who were not only respectably educated, but could once again actively contribute to theological debate. Abbots, by contrast, have been seen as mere men of affairs, not intellectual heavy hitters. But what story do their libraries tell? James G. Clark answers this question in "An Abbot and His Books in Late Medieval and Pre-Reformation England." Abbatial libraries indicate a range of interests: preaching (especially concerning the history of their orders); monastic histories and record books; standard works from school and university; books that might have been used to inculcate proper doctrine in the community of religious. Some works had some heavy glossing that might have been in the abbot's or prior's hand. All this shows these men not to have been dullards, although one cannot, I think, conclude from this discussion that they were in the league of the bishops at their best.

Wendy Scase's careful detective work, including the revision of the understanding of the relationship between two sets of library ordinances, enables her show that a fifteenth-century bishop of Worcester's foundation of the Carnary Chapel Library at Worcester and the Kalendars' Library at Bristol was a matter of complex influences in "Prelates and the Provision of Books: Bishop John Carpenter's Carnary Library." Among the conclusions she draws is that the cathedral of Worcester's library cannot be assumed to hold some of the books in the Carnary's collections, and so cannot be used to reconstruct it.

Felicity Heal tracks broader change in "The Bishops and the Printers: Henry VIII to Elizabeth I." Bishops were slow to bring their own works to the press, doing so only sporadically into the 1530s. Even after that, progress was slow until the reign of Elizabeth. The business bishops gave printers ranged from the pragmatic--printing up copies of visitation articles, a practice that did not become regular until the end of the reign--to the polemical. Not surprisingly, the commercial interests of printers played a large part in what got printed. So too, however, did political considerations. Printers sometimes printed the works of bishops not because they would sell, but to keep bishops on their good side when it came to allowing other, more profitable, works to go to press.

Material history or history using material sources is on the rise, and this trend marks this volume. C. M. Woolgar's "Treasure, Material Possessions and the Bishops of Late Medieval England" concludes, particularly from episcopal testamentary material (with which Woolgar has much acquaintance), that the years 1200-1500 saw an increase in the volume of bishops' possessions, growing definition of what goods belonged to the see and what to the bishop personally, and greater holdings of textiles by bishops (although he implies that this last could be a trick of the sources). Despite their extensive movables, however, bishops felt the tension between their riches (and the need for display to maintain their standing as great men) on the one hand, and Christian humility on the other. They typically did not dress with the magnificence of their lay peers.

Tomb effigies, which are dominated by prelates, have long been thought to have been modeled on the sculptures found on the outside of churches. But, in a contribution that runs rather earlier than the others here, Elizabeth A. New finds stronger influence flowing from closer to home in "Episcopal Embodiment: the Tombs and Seals of Bishops in Medieval England and Wales." At least one bishop thought his seal a suitable model for other art, directing that a wall painting be modeled on the image on his seal. New takes the reader through a series of case studies comparing specific seals with tomb effigies. By the end, one is persuaded that seals indeed influenced tomb effigies. The later thirteenth century, however, saw tomb effigies develop independently from seals. Indeed, the flow of influence came to be reversed, with seal makers picking up ideas from tomb effigies.

Artistic production is also the theme of Michael Carter's "Cistercian Abbots as Patrons of Art and Architecture: Northern England in the Late Middle Ages." The early Cistercians may have been famous for eschewing luxurious artistic expression, but by the later Middle Ages they had overcome that reluctance. Patronizing the arts was now part of the job of these abbots, just as for other prelates. Like that of Benedictine abbots, Cistercian abbots' patronage was an expression of piety. Carter is aware that conventual and abbatial patronage need to be distinguished and points out that Cistercian abbots had a special problem compared with other abbots, given greater conventual control over funds. But he is able to find good evidence of specifically abbatial patronage; for one thing, abbatial heraldic inscriptions litter the material abbots left behind. This last point indicates the other motive driving the artistic patronage of Cistercian abbots--the assertion of status.

Carter's contribution signals a shift in this volume toward the relations between convents and their monastic heads, a topic followed up by Emilia Jamroziak's contribution on "Cistercian Abbots in Late Medieval Central Europe: Between the Cloister and the World." Jamroziak finds the growing separation of Cistercian abbots from their convents and their adoption of the characteristics of other prelates not to mark decline but adaption: these trends allowed abbots more effectively to protect the cloister. Thus, the magnificence of abbatial residences was aimed at guests who, one presumes, might have been of use to abbot and convent. The point about abbatial guests is the most concrete connection between abbatial splendor and the actual abbatial effectiveness in defending their convents asserted here; otherwise, that connection is a bit diffuse. The situation calls to mind explanations given for the magnificence of modern university administrators' offices. I am not saying that the connection was not, and is not, real; I am only saying that then, as now, it is open to doubt. Jamroziak also identifies abbots who wrote histories to defend their houses, but this activity would not seem to have required separation from the convent, much less high living. She is persuasive in arguing that in the late Middle Ages Bernard of Clairvaux was held up as an ideal Cistercian abbot; this discussion seems to be more of a bonus feature than one intended to support the preceding argument.

The theme of relations between convent and chapter continues in Martin Heale's sensitive discussion of "Monastic Attitudes to Abbatial Magnificence in Late Medieval England." Like Jamroziak (and other historians), Heale does not see the late Middle Ages in traditional terms, as a period of declining monastic standards. Convents accepted that their abbots should live splendidly; all prelates were expected to do so, and the monks believed that abbots who did not failed to uphold the dignity of their house. Indeed, monks generally read abbatial splendor according to the convent's interests. Abbatial spending that threatened the house's solvency or that did not take into account the house's long-term interests earned criticism. Abbatial generosity to the convent earned praise. There was more to this equation, however, than simple conventual solipsism. Heale persuasively argues that Aristotelian notions of the "middle way" were also at work.

Anne Hudson provides another contemporary perspective on prelates in "Lollard Views on Prelates." Following a discussion of Lollard etymology of the term prelatus among others, she concentrates on two Lollard texts, which receive careful textual analysis. The dominant theme of the "Three and received forty errors and heresies of prelates," Hudson finds, is that prelates fail to preach and make it hard for others to do so. The other text has never seen print until now (Hudson provides it in an appendix) and is not well known: "The bishop's oath that he swears to the pope" in London, British Library, Add. MS 24202. After working out a date and positing the likelihood of a clerical author, Hudson concludes that its central concern was that bishops' loyalty to the pope outweighed that to the king. On the whole, she finds, against the drift of recent work--that the Lollards' vision of the church indeed went beyond improving prelatical behavior, even if it did so by implication rather than assertion. Of that vision, she comments "There is little room here, surely, for a prelate" (291).

Congratulations are due to the York Medieval Press and the Boydell Press for a well-produced volume that makes a valuable contribution to the understanding of the high-flying clergy of late medieval and early modern England and Europe.

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