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17.10.04, Cox, The Church and Vale of Evesham, 700-1215

17.10.04, Cox, The Church and Vale of Evesham, 700-1215

Evesham Abbey was, if not among the most famous monastic institutions in medieval England, an ancient and well-to-do community in Worcestershire. David Cox therefore has a rich source base to provide the reader with a microhistory of English monasticism, moving from the era of conversion through numerous reforms and conquests until leaving his subject well established and seemingly on a plateau of prosperity in the early thirteenth century. The book is divided into three parts: the first covering the establishment in the seventh century through the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, the second covering the era under Abbot Walter (1078-1104) as the monastery experienced a delayed reaction to the problems of the Norman Conquest, and, finally, a third thematic section covering the twelfth century. With twenty-one short chapters in just over two hundred pages it is easy to read and navigate, but can occasionally be abrupt in places.

Cox demonstrates an a truly impressive grasp of the surviving evidence for the abbey and its properties. In particular, he disentangles the charter evidence and clearly explains the nuances of the forgeries in their historical context for both their actual and purported dates. This is one of the two major scholarly contributions of the book, as the citations make it clear this was a monumental task in itself. The other is Cox's expert multidisciplinary approach that focuses on the landscape and the development of the town and villages in the neighborhood of the abbey. Both combine an attention to detail with a firm grasp of the chronological narrative that shows meticulously how Evesham developed as an institution, all while remaining in dialogue with current scholarship. Where many other authors might present a monastery in a static moment in time, Cox instead shows how the complex operations of a medieval monastery come about through historical circumstance. Even in the final third of the book, when the shift to thematic chapters and a dramatically narrowed temporal window provide an opportunity to simply focus on a snapshot of Evesham, the author continues to show how the course of events created changes in every aspect under review throughout the century.

The final chapter on the tumultuous abbacy of Norreis at the end of the twelfth century does create some problems with the overall structure of the book. By choosing to switch to thematic chapters for the final third and waiting to present the narrative of the late twelfth century until these last few pages, chapters fourteen through twenty are left to hint menacingly at this looming disaster that a non-expert may find confusing at times. The description of the complicated events of Norreis' reign of terror is also presented in a way that feels a bit too neat, with only a single brief caveat on page 200 that gives some grudging sympathy to the worldly abbot's habit of bribing officials, and only to excuse similar actions by the hero of this tale, Thomas of Marlborough. Thomas' account is accepted unreservedly, without a discussion of the biases found in the sources used to explain this contentious series of events. This is not the first time the account of major historical works is taken without question, such as defaulting to the conversion narrative of Bede earlier in the book. Here Cox's innovative multidisciplinary approach of combining textual and material evidence is married to a conservative set of assumptions, such as his explicit equation of paganism with Germanic grave goods (28-30).

This conservative approach can also be seen in certain assumptions about the nature of monasticism that form a continuing sub-argument throughout the book, one which finds Cox very critical of Evesham's religiosity. Cox assumes that the Evesham monks desired total seclusion from the outside, but he repeatedly shows us their desire for engagement. Anchorites are held up as the ideal monks, living lives of "undisturbed seclusion" (84), but as Cox notes (like others before him) these recluses at Evesham were constantly in contact with the secular world, nor does it seem prudent to use their existence as evidence of a decline in spiritual standards at the monastery (125). The abbot's responsibilities to run the monastery's properties are held to be "an unavoidable distraction" (44, 65), but the monks beneath him are resentful when not consulted about these worldly affairs (141). It seems unduly harsh to assert that while the "...monastic ideal exerted a timeless attraction...[Evesham] would no longer be its natural home" from the twelfth century until its dissolution in the sixteenth (125).

Cox has more than earned the right to have us respect his assumptions, however, by demonstrating a depth of knowledge and a command over its use that few could match, either for Evesham or any other medieval institution. This book will prove invaluable to anyone interested in the history of the abbey and its region, and should be useful to any academic pursuing similar research on monastic institutions, whether for a parallel example of evidence or of fine scholarship on the subject.