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21.09.39 Clark/Preest, The Deeds of the Abbots of St Albans

21.09.39 Clark/Preest, The Deeds of the Abbots of St Albans

Readers of David Knowles's great books, The Monastic Order in England and The Religious Orders in England, will be aware of the central place occupied in his account by the Benedictine monastery of St Albans: he celebrated its "Athenian vivacity" in the twelfth century [1], in the fourteenth its great (and long-lived) abbot Thomas de la Mare (1349-1396) [2]. Part of the reason for this pre-eminence is its house (or "in-house") chronicle, theDeeds of the Abbots of St Albans, a continuous history of the abbey, arranged abbot by abbot, from its alleged foundation and first abbot Willigod (c. 794) until the death of Thomas de la Mare towards the end of the fourteenth century. Several of its compilers are unknown, but two were major and national historians, Matthew Paris who was solely responsible for the section from c. 1214 to 1257, and Thomas Walsingham, who wrote the section 1307-1396. Paris's sources for the history of the abbey from its foundation until 1214 are unknown and lost to us. It is not surprising that the work was used by earlier scholars to accredit the house with a semi-official "school" of historical writing. Certainly this was an area in which it was "pre-eminent" in medieval England.

The Deeds are preserved in seven MSS (one lost since the mid-seventeenth century). The translation is based upon the three main ones, major variants between them where they overlap, and variants with and between the additional three précis accounts given as endnotes following each abbot's reign. Thus, for the first time, the whole of the Gesta is presented to the modern reader between two covers. Thomas Riley's daunting Rolls Series edition filled three fat volumes. This one fills a single volume of 990 pages, and it would have been twice this size, and in at least two volumes, had not the many documents copied into the Gesta been (wisely) reproduced in summary (in bold type to distinguish them from the main narrative), with a reference to the complete text and their significance explained. Despite its great length and bulk, the book has been well-designed, and is easy to read. The translator, the late David Preest, had already revealed his quality with his translation of William of Malmesbury's Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (Deeds of the Bishops of England), published by the Boydell Press in 2002. In the present work again his prose is clear and elegant. I have not checked the translation for accuracy, but Michael Winterbottom did this for Preest's William of Malmesbury, and found it excellent.

It is a pity that there are only three maps, grossly inadequate in representing the hundreds of places, many of them minor, some near the abbey, others far distant, named in the work. The location of many of these is explained in the footnotes, but this is not as visually satisfying as maps. Others are not located at all. The annotation, mercifully at the foot of each page, is abundant, and it may seem churlish to complain that some, identifying well-known and prominent individuals, is unnecessarily long and detailed, while sometimes it is wanting when needed. There is a full bibliography and (general) index.

The value of this source is that it is neither hagiography nor biography: it is gesta, meaning 'memorable deeds,' whether for good or ill. Every abbot's deeds, both good and bad, are listed, described and assessed. Losses and acquisitions of property are to the fore, as are gifts of valuable liturgical accoutrements. Of course, the approach is thoroughly partisan, severely from the monastery's viewpoint, so with no sympathy for those often seen (undeservedly) as malevolently-motivated adversaries, whether kings, bishops or peasants. And it provides a monk's view not always sympathetic to the increasingly distant abbot who might, for instance, promote members of his own family to high office. History is about change, not stability, so that which is most fundamental to the monastic life, and which occupied most of a monk's waking hours, but which scarcely changes--the Divine Office--scarcely rates a mention. On the other hand, there is considerable and over the years increasing concentration on the legal, and sometimes military, defence of the abbey's liberties, so to this extent the Gesta's account and viewpoint constitute a distortion. One has to feel sympathy for the huge burdens imposed on the abbey by the papacy and the crown. Even to get agreement from a monarch or bishop to maintain its privileges, let alone defend them in court, cost substantial sums. The annual journey of the newly-elected abbot to receive the pope's confirmation at first hand (starting with John de Hertford in 1235), seems to have cost about 1000 marks. Equally, one must feel a sympathy not felt by Thomas of Wallingford for the local participants in the Peasants' Revolt, as they strove for the right to grind their own grain without having to pay the abbot for the privilege. Despite all this materialism the chronicle becomes more personal from the reign of Richard de Wallingford on, and culminates in the detail of Thomas de la Mare's long and tumultuous reign, of a man so ill that he "would be repeatedly forced to shout aloud while shitting," yet who maintained his serenity, his abstinences and who lived until the (in this day still) extraordinary age of 87.



1. David Knowles, The Monastic Order in England: A History of Its Development from the Times of St Dunstan to the Fourth Lateran Council, 943-1216 (Cambridge, CUP: 1940, 2nd ed. 1963), 311.

2. David Knowles, The Religious Orders in England, volume 2: The End of the Middle Ages(Cambridge: CUP, 1955), 41-48.