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21.09.33 Dyson, Priests and their Books in Late Anglo-Saxon England

21.09.33 Dyson, Priests and their Books in Late Anglo-Saxon England

It is well known that narratives about early English monasticism, and especially about its "Benedictine reforms" in the tenth century, have often sidelined the secular clergy. Important research by John Blair, Julia Barrow, Catherine Cubitt, and Francesca Tinti, to name only a sample, has gone far to restore balance to our views of the secular church in early England. But such efforts still struggle against a bias encouraged by the primary sources themselves and by the uneven patterns of manuscript survivals. Many manuscripts cannot be localized, but those that can have tended to reinforce a perception that only a small number of cathedrals and reformed monastic houses dominated cultural and liturgical life in the century or more leading up to the Norman Conquest. Secular priests, who may have numbered in the several thousands by the time of the Domesday Book, cut a negligible figure in such impressions.

By focusing on early English secular clergy as users, owners, and occasional producers of manuscripts, the monograph here under review goes far toward correcting past biases and charting an important course for future research. Based on his doctoral thesis completed in 2016 at the University of York, Gerald Dyson's Priests and Their Books in Late Anglo-Saxon England pursues two related objectives with admirable thoroughness and clarity. The first is to mine all available sources for any indications that secular clergy were, on the whole, better equipped, more literate, and more liturgically and pastorally ambitious than their contemporary or later detractors would allow. This in itself is a major task, since relevant sources abound. The second, more focused aim is to provide a series of case studies of particular manuscripts whose features suggest that they were produced for and/or used by priests in secular minsters or smaller local churches.

Inspired by scholars such as Yitzhak Hen and Carine van Rhijn, who have explored similar questions about Carolingian clergy, Dyson's introduction sets out criteria for distinguishing a category of "priests' books." Chapter one, "Priests, Books and Pastoral Care," describes the kinds of churches that dotted the English landscape in the tenth and eleventh centuries, with emphasis on the diversity of their sizes and resources. The centerpiece of this chapter is a survey (32-42) of different kinds of books that early English canonical texts (under heavy influence from Carolingian episcopal capitularies) claimed that priests ought to own. Chapter two, "Issues of Clerical Literacy," reminds us how pervasively all kinds of sources from the period take for granted at least a "functional literacy" among clergy, here defined as a level adequate for the performance of various duties with the aid of books (47-8). A cautious discussion of educational opportunities in secular minsters as well as royal and aristocratic households (50-65) helpfully counters modern tendencies to associate teaching and learning in the period almost exclusively with monks. Complementing that discussion is a survey of the not insignificant evidence for secular clerics as scribes and glossators. This theme leads naturally into chapter three on the "Production and Provision of Books for Priests." Here Dyson's contribution is to bring together evidence that again surprises by its range. In addition to the traces of book production at wealthy and even not-so-wealthy minsters, he points out the likelihood that, among the large number of still unlocalized manuscripts and fragments from early medieval England, a good many may have originated in secular churches or were produced for them by monastic or cathedral scriptoria.

The next chapters turn to a closer examination of possible examples of "priests' books." These are grouped into three categories: chapter four treats books for preaching, chapter five books for the mass and divine office, and chapter six a leftover group made up of penitentials, manuals of occasional services, and practical works related to the computus. The amount of detail in these chapters does not submit to summary, but, as in other parts of the book, Dyson is both thorough and cautious. Some of the manuscripts discussed, and their possible connections to the secular church, are well known. After beginning with a very broad definition of "preaching," for example, the chapter on homiletic manuscripts settles down to consider such famous collections as the "Blickling Homilies" and items in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 85-86. Here more emphasis, perhaps, could have been placed on the growing evidence for a vernacular preaching tradition reaching back well into the ninth century and sustained, in all likelihood, by secular clergy at cathedrals and minsters. (Dyson does mention the fragment of an early Old English homily recently discovered by Donald Scragg but treats it as an isolated survival. Recent studies by R.D. Fulk of certain anonymous Old English homilies, however, also support the existence of a more substantial body of pre-Alfredian Mercian sermons and other religious prose.) Among the liturgical books surveyed in chapter five, the mid-eleventh-century proto-missal called the "Red Book of Darley" (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 422), the eleventh-century liturgical material copied into the margins of Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 41, and the offices for visitation of the sick and burial in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud misc. 482 are again fairly well-known examples. Even when such individual cases are familiar, however, Dyson's gathering of them into a corpus sometimes allows a particular book to speak more emphatically. This was, for me, the case with his discussion (pp. 166 and 185-8) of the finely produced Junius Psalter (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 27); if the book was, as present consensus holds, copied at Winchester's Old Minster in the 920s, it reflects favorably on the culture of secular clerics who then resided there before reforming monks in the next generation drove them out.

For readers already acquainted with some of these manuscripts and the debates around them, the most original parts of Dyson's study will lie in his discussion of two potential additions to the inventory of early medieval English "priests' books." One of these is what appears to be a portable gospel lectionary of English origin c. 1000, now Warsaw, Biblioteka Narodowa I. 3311. Both in the present monograph and much more fully in a companion article (Anglo-Saxon England 45 [2016]: 265-84), Dyson has brought this previously little-known manuscript to the attention of a wider audience. Although the book has two conflicting systems of organization and, in its present form, would have been awkward to use at mass, Dyson makes the case that it should be considered a liturgical book proper. The allied argument, that it is an example of a secular priest's gospel lectionary, depends mainly on observations that the book is conveniently portable and that the organization of its first part included only pericopes for major feasts, but not for many ordinary Sundays and ferias. These features are suggestive but not conclusive of pastoral use by a secular priest. Moreover, the fact that the Warsaw manuscript is written in "a somewhat inconsistent form of Style I Anglo-Caroline" minuscule (p. 176) hints at an origin in the reformed monastic sphere, even if the book soon passed into use by a secular priest or community (Dyson does discuss this possibility more fully in the related Anglo-Saxon England article). In any event, the involvement of some reformed monks in pastoral care means that a book's use for local ministry need not indicate a "secular" affiliation. The same uncertainty hovers over Dyson's arguments about a second potential "priest's book," namely the eleventh-century portions in the composite manuscript, London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A. XV. Folios 68-101 of this book are penitential in character, including confessional prayers, a copy of the Penitential of Theodore, and other miscellaneous items. Folios 102-21 are possibly of separate origin and preserve material related to the mass, the Pater noster, and the duties of priests. The argument that this assemblage somehow points to the sphere of local clergy depends both on the "pastoral" character of its contents and on some similarities to Carolingian manuscripts identified as priests' books by Susan Keefe. Once again, however, the evidence of script in the Vespasian manuscript may point toward a monastic origin (Worcester, in this instance). It perhaps came too late to be included, but Martin Foys' online resource, Four Anglo-Carolingian Minitexts (Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, 2019), at, may supplement Dyson's discussion of texts on folios 102-21 in Cotton Vespasian D. XV.

Even if the arguments presented do not establish with certainty that these two manuscripts were "priests' books," they model a worthwhile search for materials that confirm what the narrative, legal, and liturgical sources synthesized in Dyson's earlier chapters imply about the routine capacities of many secular clergy. To commend the synthesizing aspect of this study is no back-handed compliment; rather, the work of synthesis itself becomes a cumulative argument that secular clergy had frequent access to books in carrying out their pastoral and liturgical duties. The fact that so seemingly modest an insight requires book-length demonstration is, again, a measure of how deeply the negative stereotypes about early English secular clergy have compromised later medieval and modern perspectives. Then again, it is a credit to Gerald Dyson that, by the end of his study, a reader is left wondering how, in view of all the evidence presented, those stereotypes have managed to persist.