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21.05.02 Spence, The Late Medieval Cistercian Monastery of Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire

The Medieval Review

21.05.02 Spence, The Late Medieval Cistercian Monastery of Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire

Our understanding of monastic documents of practice has developed considerably over the past half century, in particular that about charters and charter-books. We have thus come to recognize the importance of situating an individual charter or transaction within the context of the manuscript or archival collection in which it is found. The charter of conveyance, once treated as having relatively little bias in contrast to narrative sources, is now recognized as less straightforward than once thought. Narrative accounts were once presented as if they are acts of conveyance, and collections of charters in cartularies are often selective--leaving out inconvenient or out-of-date conveyances, which may remain in archives or may have been destroyed. Archival memory changes with new emphases, from honoring donors to managing property to promoting the achievements of some abbots over their predecessors'. What we see is to some extent what had been undertaken in the use of archives in a particular era or moment in time. That is what Michael Spence sets out to do in an analysis here which he calls a "forensic" investigation of archival materials for the later history of the Cistercian abbey of monks at Fountains in Yorkshire. It is innovative, and provides considerable food for thought--a very impressive undertaking.

Building on a wealth of earlier studies of Fountains, including those by Derek Baker and Joan Wardrop, Spence focuses his attention on Fountains' last century, and on a large group of archival manuscripts produced up to that time. There is an enormous amount of material included in this analysis. In the opening pages he lists eleven different manuscripts from three different depositories: Leeds, Oxford, London, and later posits a twelfth "phantom" volume. Appendix E lists a slightly different list of eleven "Deeds Registers" and seven "miscellaneous" record books that inform Spence's understanding. A few are under one hundred pages, but many of these eighteen volumes number close to 150 folios

The volume is organized logically, from easiest to hardest. Chapter One opens with a description of "Fountains Abbey, Origins and Development," in which Spence traces the development of archives and antiquarian interests in the abbey. Here he describes efforts in the foundation history to "cistercianize" Fountains' narrative history. But here too he repeats standard Cistercian clichés about daughter-houses. Thus, he avers, in describing the seven daughter-houses and three granddaughter houses established by Fountains between 1180 and 1150: "Each new daughter house was colonized by thirteen monks, so over this period some ninety brethren departed from Fountains; among them were most of the original founders, who went as abbots." [1]

Chapter Two turns to the economic events of "The Long Fifteenth Century." In it, Spence makes comparisons to studies of more well-preserved records from Durham Cathedral Priory and other northern abbeys. He argues that Fountains' managers tended to ignore declining rents, not just in the period 1348 to 1358, but thereafter. He concludes that Fountains was headed towards economic failure considerably before the Dissolution. Some of this was managerial failure for he concludes that political conflicts among the abbey's leaders, most of them university-trained scholars, led them to considerable expense in seeking papal support. As he shows at the end of this chapter, papal chanceries often parroted back the favorable language found in petitions for papal favors (52). [2]

Chapter Three: "Charters, Cartularies, and Archival Redaction," discusses in general ways how archival memory could be transformed over time by its custodians' biases. Some early collections of documents were organized according to families of patrons; they might later be organized into sections according to alphabetical lists of properties. Referring to the work of Patrick Geary, Spence describes how "the potential pliability of a cartulary begins to appear, as a tool through which archival memory is not inactively accumulated, but instead actively constructed, and, potentially, reconstructed time and again" (59).

Chapter Four discusses the President Book, one of the volumes used by Abbot Greenwell (1442-1471) in managing the archive: the President Book of Fountains Abbey (discussed in detail in Appendix A) appears to be one of only two paper (as opposed to parchment) volumes, among those studied by Spence. In many senses this President or Precedent book is a finding aid, what Spence calls an "Aide-Memoire." In this chapter Spence traces the ties to other volumes in his collection and argues for the "extensive manorialization" of the abbey's holdings in the fourteenth century and the "decommissioning of the grange system" (65).

Chapter Five: "Creative Redaction," explores first the relationship between the President Book and the Foundation Narrative of Fountains. The foundation narrative was discussed in great detail in a series of articles published between 1969 and 1975 by Derek Baker who had concluded that the surviving version of the "narratio" found in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, Parker Library, was probably a revision of an earlier foundation account, the latter probably made by abbot Greenwell. [3] Much of this chapter concerns disputed abbatial elections at the beginning of the fifteenth century that Greenwell papers over to some extent in his President's book.

Chapter Six: "Reflective Redaction" is much more about rethinking management by cross-referencing the contents of other cartulary volumes. Among other conclusions, this chapter shows "the type of business research the monks themselves were able to conduct in the mid fifteenth century" (112).

Chapter Seven: "A Forensic Approach to Fountains Cartularies," puts the various manuscripts into an order of development. It considers both the ranges for date of compilation of the Fountains Cartularies, and what Spence calls the estimated active lifetimes of some of those cartularies. It posits a missing cartulary, as well as describing how the archives themselves were organized. There follows a series of appendices concerning individual documents or volumes. [4]

Overall, this is a very impressive project. Few of us could produce such an all-encompassing account of how new economic (and political) priorities are reflected in a single monastic archives over time. Only relatively few abbeys have preserved such a wealth of archival volumes and even loose parchments from the fifteenth and earlier centuries, as Fountains did. Indeed, whatever its difficulties with managing a sheep-raising economy, forward sales, and diseases, Fountains' access in the later middle ages to sufficient parchment suitable for its everyday record-keeping cannot be in doubt. Spence has shown very clearly how much the monks' and abbots' approaches to those archives changed over the medieval centuries.



1. In this description Spence is describing Fountains as having sent 39 monks to three abbeys over the two years 1138 and 1139 and having sent another fifty or so before 1150. But this is a Cistercian "myth" of "apostolic gestation" in which many abbeys on the basis of zero evidence produced such accounts. As elsewhere there was a mixture of perhaps half a dozen monks and lay-brothers sent out, or a group of hermits established elsewhere who came to the abbey to be trained and sent back, or an existing monastery that was refounded. See Constance Hoffman Berman,The Cistercian Evolution. The Invention of a Religious Order in Twelfth-Century Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,2000/2010.

2. In this he refers to Oxford, Bodleian Library UC 167, the RP cartulary discussed below.

3. Another quibble. Spence is confused about the location of this manuscript in Cambridge; when I consulted it, fairly recently, it was in the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

4. One final quibble. We cannot assume that the current binding of manuscript Cartulary PR (both parts dating to 1491+ and all in a single hand) reflects its order of redaction. More likely, in my view, is that the transcription of Jean de Cirey's printed Privilegia of 1491 was the earlier project before that of more local documents; the local documents supplemented what was found in the Privileges (including local princely documents from Champagne).