Derek Beales, Prosperity and Plunder: European Catholic Monasteries in the Age of Revolution, 1650-1815, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003.

Derek Beales, Prosperity and Plunder: European Catholic Monasteries in the Age of Revolution, 1650-1815, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003. ISBN 0521590906 (hardcover), pp. 395.

Reviewed by: Christina Janine Maegraith, Cambridge, March 2014


It is almost impossible to write a review of what is already a standard work on the history of monasticism and its suppression in Catholic Europe. This will be more an appreciation of the book, which has already triggered new excellent studies on this subject. Prosperity and Plunderwas first published in 2003. The publication date could hardly have been more appropriate, as it was the year of the bicentenary of the ‘Final Recess of the Imperial Deputation’ of 1803 during which many exhibitions, catalogues and studies ensued in Germany discussing the origins and consequences of the secularisation of the monasteries and convents.[1]Here, as in Beale’s book, the past historiography on the events around the dissolution of the monasteries and convents at the end of the Eighteenth and beginning of the Nineteenth Century were re-assessed and challenged. Beales with his excellent knowledge of European history and previous publications on Joseph II has written a distinguished survey of the developments of monasticism in Catholic Europe since the Seventeenth Century. He organised his book in three parts which could roughly be described as the description of monasticism up to the reforms in the Eighteenth Century, the suppression of the Jesuits and reforms, and finally the French Revolution and the ensuing suppressions of the religious houses. He skilfully uses both archival material and secondary literature to a good effect.

He begins with stressing the fact that although monasteries and convents were an indispensable part of early modern Catholic Europe, their study still remains a desideratum. He counters this scholarly neglect with a brief but excellent description of European monasticism which basically sets out their social, educational, political, economic and cultural significance. He sees some of the reasons for this neglect as stemming from a misunderstanding of the role of monastic institutions, for example when economic histories plainly ignored the monasteries. Most telling is an anecdote Beale gives: When offering a series of lectures on the subject of European monasteries of the Eighteenth Century to the London School of Economics, he was told that it was inappropriate for an institution dedicated to economics and political science to discuss religious topics (p. 11). However, he does stress the fact that more historians are taking up the subject, particularly in the area of women’s history; the study of nuns is experiencing a strong momentum.

In the first part, Beales analyses monasticism in context of the Counter-Reformation and general disputes within the church, one example being the Jansenist controversies, of which Beales gives an insightful account. By describing the situation in the German Catholic lands, France, Spain, Portugal and Italy he paints a clear picture of the thriving monastic culture, and contrasts this with the emerging political willingness to suppress those religious houses. Details on architecture, for example, illustrate the institutions’ understanding of their own power and representation (Reichsunmittelbarkeitfor some in the German Catholic lands, for example). He also explains their financial background and the origin of their revenues of the landed old orders, who often acted as lords, or the urban religious houses and the debates about begging and charity. French monasteries faced a different problem: the entanglement with the aristocracy through the commende. In four-fifths of the main houses the heads were appointed by the king in commendam, they did not have to be monks or nuns themselves. This had financial as well as political consequences: ‘But for the most part they [lay aristocrats] sapped the wealth and injured the reputation of their houses.’ (p. 104). Beales successfully illustrates the impact the suppression of the religious houses would have on society by exploring the relationships between monasteries and society with their engagement in hospitality and (indiscriminate) charity. He offers a compelling example in his study of German Catholic territories where monasteries had close relationships to the society around them. This can be seen in various aspects: abbeys were often engaged in popular culture, for example in village miracle plays, and they embraced the Baroque which appealed to both ordinary Catholics and the educated.[2]To a certain extent the monasteries were not just noble institutions but open to social mobility and a man (or woman) from the status of a peasant could rise to become the abbot (or abbess) and thus a ruler or prince. (p 78) As Beales demonstrates, this fluid exchange between monasteries and their local environs as well as their rapprochement to Enlightened thought reveals them as adaptable institutions that were intimately connected to wider societies – a claim that distinguishes his work from many others’ in his field who have argued that the monasteries were backward and isolated.[3]

In the second part of Prosperity and Plunder, Beales summarises the main monastic reforms, which, in the end, led to the situation when the suppression of religious houses became thinkable. He begins with the suppression of the Jesuits in 1773, and points out the intriguing fact that while Catholic Europe suppressed the Jesuits, Protestant Prussia and Russia under Catherine the Great continued to tolerate them and their educational institutions. He then moves on to the commission des réguliersin France in 1766, which is especially important in view of the following events at the end of the century. Part Two ends with a comprehensive summary and analysis of the Josephist reforms. Of particular interest is Beales’ detailed description of the events in the Austrian Netherlands or Belgium (pp. 210-224) in the decades before the French Revolution as well as their fate after the French Revolution (pp. 271-274) – the ‘militant abbeys’ (p. 300) being a rare example of active resistance on the side of the monasteries.

Part Three is dedicated to the French Revolution and its repercussions. His main question is why things developed so differently in France compared to other countries. He describes the complexity of the events in clear prose and leads the reader from the approach of the Revolution to the Revolution itself and the fatal impact on monasticism. He continues with the detailed description of the impact of the Revolution outside France of which Spain and Portugal pose unique cases. In Spain the dissolutions were reversed in 1814 and dissolutions would only be on the agenda again in Spain and Portugal in 1830.

Beales expertly describes secularisation in the Holy Roman Empire. He is very clear on the fact that the dissolutions in 1802/03 were implemented by the German lay rulers and that economic aspirations or ‘greed of the German Princes’ (p. 301) played a major role in the events of the period. Thus, Beales argues, it was not purely the direct influence of France that precipitated these events, but possibly also the influence of Samuel Freiherr von Pufendorf (1632–1694) and his method of natural law. But most of all, as the book argues consistently, a world without monasteries had become thinkable by the end of the Eighteenth century: ‘The dissolution of the south German monasteries, then, was part of a general secularisation of all Church property, including many ecclesiastical states and excluding only the lands of parishes. It was also part of a final putschby the lay rulers of Germany to establish their sovereignty and betray the Reich.’ (p. 289). While Beales’ argument is convincing on the whole, one wishes he would have given the secularisation in the Germany territories in 1802/03 more space, given their importance and scale and the significant political consequences, such as the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.

This is an invaluable book for anybody who is studying Catholic Europe and monasticism. Beales carefully introduces the reader into the many different forms of monasticism and the challenges involved when dealing with a large number of different orders. He supports his fluent narrative with a wealth of material such as maps, illustrations and contemporary voices. Most importantly he collects the quantitative information needed to illustrate the distinct European situation: for every country Beales produces estimates of the numbers of religious houses and their inmates and the proportion of land owned by them. With estimating the ratio of regular and lay people the story becomes even more crucial. For example, for Italy, ‘the head and fount of European monasticism’ (p. 126), he carefully estimates that c.1750 one in 100 citizens was a monk or a nun (p. 130). For France, in contrast, he estimates about one monk in every 400 males and one nun in every 200 females (p. 86). In continental Catholic Europe as a whole in 1750 there were around 25,000 religious houses with at least 350,000 inmates. This would mean a ratio of more than one in 300. What is so surprising is not only the ratio itself, but that we still do not know the exact numbers. This is only one of the many open questions he highlights which leave plenty of gaps to be closed.

While I deem Prosperity and Plunderessential reading for those working on the period 1650-1815, I have two reservations. As a general survey Beales excludes many excellent local and regional studies that have been done on this subject in Europe. For many decades monastic history has taken the form of micro-history and I would suggest that the neglect of monasticism in the larger debates about the economic, social and political history of Europe has more to do with an antagonism between practitioners of macro- and micro-history, especially in Germany.[4]My second reservation is Beales’ approach to the history of the French Revolution. There are many different approaches to, and evaluations of, the French Revolution and its development – one of which is Edmund Burke’s famous Reflections on the Revolution of France(1790). But this is only one of many and it would have been more satisfying had other perspectives been analyzed in addition to Burke’s. In his focus on Burke’s treatise, Beales shows his own subjective (and might I say very English) preference.

These two points are not raised in order to diminish the importance of this book. Re-reading the conclusion, I find ever more intriguing aspects that still await more historical research. The quantitative aspect was mentioned already. Equally important is the further study of every-day life in the monasteries and convents, their regional and trans-regional economic and social impact, and more comparative studies of female and male communities. Another important area to explore would be of the lack of resistance on the side of the monasteries. Or, in Beales’ words: ‘Why, when it came to it, was it physically so easy to suppress the monasteries?’ (p. 300).


[1]I am using convent to describe a nunnery or female religious house.

[2]This theme has been taken further by Peter Hersche, Muße und Verschwendung: Europäische Gesellschaft und Kultur im Barockzeitalter, Freiburg, 2006.

[3]Ulrich Lehner investigated this aspect in his book Enlightened Monks. The German Benedictines 1740-1803, Oxford, 2011.

[4]One example is the series of the Germania Sacra. See for example Maren Kuhn-Rehfus study on the Cistercian convent of Wald: Maren Kuhn-Rehfus, Das Zisterzienserkloster Wald. Germania Sacra; N.F., 30. Berlin/New York 1992.