15.11.28, Gransden, A History of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, 1257-1301

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Tamara Rand

The Medieval Review 15.11.28

Gransden, Antonia. A History of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, 1257-1301: Simon of Luton and John of Northwold. Studies in the History of Medieval Religion, 42. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2015. pp. xxiv, 349. ISBN: 978-178-3270-262 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Tamara Rand
Cleveland State University

The dichotomous nature of medieval religious houses is familiar ground to monastic scholars. These institutions were as much centers of economic and political power as of religious contemplation. Their residents led lives that were simultaneously removed from the world and involved with the secular community and leaders, engaged in prayer and acts of charity as well as business transactions and rent collection. Antonia Gransden's A History of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, 1257-1301: Simon of Luton and John of Northwold is likewise dichotomous, being at once an historical account of the abbey and a socio-political account of the importance of abbeys in medieval England. This book, the second in a two-volume series, is a thoroughly researched and deeply insightful work that reflects the breadth and depth of Dr. Gransden's decades-long study of the abbey. As with the first volume, she organizes the history around the rule of its abbots since, as she points out, a chronological approach makes such a work cumbersome (xiii). Using this approach also allows her to discuss the social, economic, and political history of the abbey in addition to its ecclesiastical history. The book has twenty-four chapters which are organized into five parts, as well as illustrations and two appendices.

The organization of the book is one of its strongest points. The Benedictine abbey at Bury St. Edmunds was one of the richest and most influential in England during the thirteenth century. It is also one of the best-documented religious houses from that period due in no small part to the copious records that managed to survive wars, uprisings, and the dissolution of monasteries by Henry VIII. The volume of information available to historians is both blessing and bane. It provides a plethora of useful information, but organizing, analyzing, and presenting it is a daunting undertaking. Dr. Gransden, a former reader in medieval history at the University of Nottingham, has spent the last five decades doing just this and is perhaps the leading expert on the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds. This volume is organized into sections that cover abbatial governance and the abbey's relationship to the crown (part II) and its economic life and impact (part III), as well as religious life under the two abbots (part IV) and the intellectual and cultural life of the monks (part V). This organization allows a larger discussion of the interaction of the abbey with the secular community as well as with the noble and aristocratic families of England and, to a lesser degree, France.

The first three sections deal with the interactions between the abbey and the town of Bury St. Edmunds as well as the abbey and the secular leaders--especially the king. Underlying the nineteen chapters that make up these sections is the importance of the abbey's wealth as well as the problems associated with it. The social impact of the abbey's wealth and debt on the town of Bury St. Edmunds highlights the general tensions faced by religious landlords and their tenants, including the resentment felt by townsmen. Gransden's look at the criminal cases brought by and against the abbey show not only how easily monks could be tempted into illegal activities to increase their own wealth or status, but also the frustrations of the town's leaders and residents at the abbey's privilege. Gransden also makes the social ties of great religious houses to secular nobility quite clear in chapter eleven, aptly entitled "The Abbey's Influential Friends." Here she discusses the favors to the abbey by rich gentry and noble families as well as the favors, in the form of pensions, the abbey gave to members of these families (88). Throughout the book are frequent reminders of the abbey's connections to other religious houses, particularly the abbey of Ely.

The beginning of chapter two sets the overall tone of the book by making clear not only the political machinations involved in running an abbey but also the often tumultuous nature of the abbey's relationships with the people of Bury St. Edmunds, the crown, the papacy, and other religious houses. Gransden does this beautifully by recounting the dispute between the abbey and the Friars Minor that ran from 1257 through 1263. This was Abbot Simon's first challenge to the abbey's authority within its holdings. The Franciscans began building an oratory and cemetery within St. Edmund's privilege on property donated by Sir Roger of Harbridge, a resident of the town of Bury St. Edmunds. The friars had the support of Henry III as well as of Pope Alexander IV, despite a bull issued by Gregory IX that expressly forbade the friars from building a chapel within a mile of the abbey (17). Within this account one sees the less-than-cordial relationship between the abbey and the town, the religious politics involved in protecting the abbey from attacks by other religious groups, and the secular politics of preventing royal or noble encroachment into the abbey's holdings.

The reigns of Henry III and Edward I were, as Gransden shows, replete with disagreement with, as well as support for, the abbey. The changing nature of the abbey's relationship with the crown is carefully explained and illustrated with accounts from the Bury Chronicle and other sources. For example, during the vacancy between Abbot Simon and Abbot John, Edward I appointed John of Berwick to be keeper of the abbey, a move that cause outrage among the monks. As Gransden shows, it was not the king's right to appoint a keeper that upset them, but rather the fact that the king and the keeper took advantage of this vacancy to pillage the abbey's treasury in order to refill the king's severely depleted reserves (8). During the Second Barons' War, the monks of Bury St. Edmunds were among the many clergy who favored the barons over Henry III; indeed, according to the St. Edmunds' chronicler, John Taxter, only the barons' diligent protection of the coast protected England from French invasion by Queen Eleanor's forces (23). Henry dealt harshly with Abbot Simon from 1265 through 1267, imposing heavy fines for the king's goodwill. However, Henry also relied on Simon to petition for peace (28-29). Gransden's treatment of the impact of the Second Barons' War (chapter three) shows the social climate during this period as well as the politics in which Bury St. Edmunds and other abbeys and religious houses found themselves embroiled.

Edward I's relationship with the abbey is in itself intriguing, and its treatment within this book offers insight into the important relationship between crown and Church during the thirteenth century. Edward was a pious king who especially venerated St. Edmund as a warrior saint, appealing to the saint for protection and aid in his wars--particularly those against Scotland. He was generally very supportive of the abbey; likewise, the monks of St. Edmunds' were loyal to Edward, willingly accepting the cost of housing the king and his retinue virtually every year (79-81). However, this was not always the case. In 1291 Abbot John was forced to petition the king to recover the abbey's liberties, and Edward was less than cooperative. The hagiographical account given by Gransden describes Edward being visited in a dream by St. Edmund who said Edward would suffer the same fate as King Swein (whom Edmund had killed in battle) for Edward's treatment of his abbey (61). Needless to say, Edward restored the liberties, saying that all who claimed a liberty should come to him immediately as St. Edmund had raised his banner for all monastic houses. Gransden treats the account, and its source, well. Hagiographies, and hagiographic-like accounts, are meant to provide support for monasteries' claims as well as to provide evidence in the event of future claims. Her discussion includes a possible explanation as to why the date recorded by the chronicler is 1292 and not 1291, when John actually approached the crown about returning the liberties.

Of particular interest to social and economic historians is Gransden's discussion of the abbey's financial situation. It shows not only the economic power of the abbey but also the importance of the abbey to the townspeople as well as their resentment of its control over them. For example, her examination of those paying mintage reveals that the abbey was at the center of international as well as domestic trade (67). There were two fairs at Bury, each attracting merchants from England and abroad. The abbots of Bury St. Edmunds went to great lengths to be sure no other community--religious or secular--held fairs within Bury St. Edmunds' Liberty. The diligence of the abbots in maintaining the economic status of the abbey meant that the town of Bury St. Edmunds grew in wealth and stature. Economic factors were, as Gransden points out, at the center of the disputes between town and abbey. In her discussion of the interactions with the townspeople, she makes it quite clear that the townspeople resented the limitations to their own financial increase imposed by the abbot and that such resentment was not necessarily unwarranted (177). In fact, some of the protests by burgesses of the town led to violence, as in 1290 when an attack on the cellarer's dam in Teyfan was organized. As a result of this rising, Abbot John was forced to appeal to Edward for help (76). Gransden does as thorough and fair a job describing the secular concerns with the abbots' administrations as she does with the internal financial affairs of the abbey.

The final two sections (chapters 20-24) will be appreciated by religious scholars as well as intellectual historians. They address the religious changes enacted under both abbots and include a delightfully thorough discussion about monks as chroniclers and the production and collection of books by the abbey. Gransden discusses the religious life of the monks as well as their charitable concerns and responsibilities. Her description and discussion of the choir murals makes it very clear that, though temporal affairs were of necessity often foremost in the minds of the abbots, their religious devotion could not be questioned. Abbot John commissioned one of the best painters to restore and paint the choir (220-221). Likewise, her discussion of the foundation of the Charnel chapel provides insight into the motivations--mundane and spiritual--for building it as well as the abbot's attempts at reconciling with the townspeople. The importance of intercessionary masses for the salvation of souls is reflected in increases in these masses for the salvation of all the souls of the faithful as well as for those for whom people specified and made contributions (224-225).

Likewise, Abbot John reformed the hospital of St. Saviour, which had been founded by Abbot Samson in around 1185 (231). The hospital's purpose was to provide aid and sustenance for the poor in the community as well as to support aging clergy. John personally endowed a substantial annual payment in silver from his manor of Icklingham as well as from the tithes collected at eight of his churches (231). Gransden's discussion of the rehabilitation of St. Saviour shows diligent analysis and insight. In addition to describing the lengths Abbot John went to in the hospital's upkeep and functional reforms, she points out the difficulties in establishing the accuracy of the records.

Antonia Gransden has provided scholars with a thoroughly researched and well-organized microhistory of one of the great Benedictine abbeys in England during the thirteenth century. As with all microhistories, there is the issue of balance between focusing on the community and placing it in larger historical context. Dr. Gransden achieves an elegant balance, yet it is not without some shortcomings. The book is clearly intended for a specialized audience, and though anyone familiar with medieval English history will be able to gain much from the work, it is best suited for those scholars whose focus is on ecclesiastical history--especially on the relationship between Church and crown. The organization is quite good, but the chapters sometimes lack a continuity. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but those readers who are expecting a narrative will find it a bit jarring. These shortcomings are not flaws, and Dr. Gransden has provided scholars of medieval England an invaluable resource.

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