Janet Burton and Karen Stöber (editors), Monasteries and Society in The British Isles in the later Middle Ages, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge and Rochester, 2008.

Janet Burton and Karen Stöber (editors), Monasteries and Society in The British Isles in the later Middle Ages, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge and Rochester, 2008. ISSN 0955–2480 (hardback), pp 7 + 252.

Reviewed by: Grace O’Keeffe, IRCHSS Post-Graduate scholar, Trinity College Dublin, June 2009.


This book is based on the proceedings of a conference held in Wales in 2005 from scholars who are, in the words of the editors, ‘questioning some of the older assumptions about monastic life’. It is a welcome and worthy addition to such research and is comprehensively introduced by its two editors. The division, though, of the fifteen papers into six sub-headings is not altogether helpful and perhaps unnecessary.  The differences between the first, ‘the meetingof the worlds’ and second, ‘religious houses and their patrons andbenefactors’ are minor, while a paper on Franciscan legislationappears an uncomfortable fit under ‘monasteries and urban space’. Thisis a comment on editing though and should not detract from thecontributions of thefifteen authors.

Early in her paper Karen Stöberexplains that records of Welsh monastic patronage have not survived in great numbers, although the largest section of her interesting essay is given over to the interaction between patron and monastery. In the last section she discusses a less recognised feature of monastic life; patronage of bards by monasteries, hopefully the basis for a more expansive piece elsewhere.   Stöber does not discuss how these social networks were extended through the provision of hospitality, which, judging by Julie Kerr’swell researched and entertaining piece on Cistercian hospitality, had the capacity to expose these monasteries to activities of which one can imagine SS Benedict and Bernard thoroughly disapproved.  Similar in theme to Stöber’s paper and also lamenting a national dearth of surviving sources is Colmán Ó Clabaigh’spaper on Irish Observant Franciscans. Ó Clabaigh addresses the social network of the friars, their patronage by the English of Ireland and native Gaelic lords. Despite the scarcity of surviving documentation, Ó Clabaigh constructs the experience of friars in Adare through a variety of approaches – including their donations, buildings and sponsorship of book production.

Comparative studies can be difficult given that one must master not one but two subjects in order to successfully compare. Emilia Jamroziakundertook the comparison of Cistercian houses in not only two different centuries, but also two different countries. Twelfth and fourteenth-century Cistercian houses situated on contested borders in both Scotland and Denmark shared experiences which saw them thrive in the earlier century and struggle for survival by the latter. She clearly lays out examples to demonstrate how changes in political factors in these border regions adversely affected the monasteries under discussion.  A wholly different type of interaction is examined in Martin Heale’s piece on the selection of monastic superiors. The influence of lay patrons on the election of monastic heads was clearly a factor even before the Dissolution, though Heale is eager to stress that not all monks who were promoted in this way were corrupt or self-serving.  The piety of the benefactors of the Augustinian house of St Leonard at Wombridge is defended by Andrew Abramas being the motivating factor for their numerous benefactions. Pro animabequests in charters confirming donations to monastic houses are overwhelmingly formulaic, often differing only in how many souls each donation should cover. To argue for or against piety as a motivating factor in medieval benefaction is in many instances a speculative rather than empirical undertaking; one either accepts its existence or not, or considers it one of a myriad of motivations or not. A wider analysis of those who sustained St Leonard’s would be a worthy future study.

Decline in donations to monasteries and churches can often be traced to events outside the walls of the institution. War, famine and change in governance all impacted on the ability of secular society to endow the religious. From that macro approach Michael Hicksattempts, successfully, to provide a micro angle. Though he uses the model of the wage of a single chantry priest, his methodology could be applied to models other than this and importantly his tightly structured approach prevents the financial and costing comparisons of land, income and mortmain licences from ever becoming a tedious read.  In ‘Looking for medieval nuns’ Janet Burton provides a valuable ‘how-to’ guide to utilising scant resources, valuable for itself aside even from the insight into nunneries she provides. What evidence there is – nuns pawning church vessels (p. 116), prioresses resigning ‘because of incontinence with a chaplain’ (p. 119) –shows that medieval nunneries housed women of all characters no less than monasteries did men.  In her piece on Scottish prioresses Kimm Perkins-Curran completes the next logical step from Burton’s. Where Burton’s was a broad examination of the subject, Perkins-Curran’s is specific. These two articles together display not only the breadth of research achievable with limited resources, but also how important it is that all aspects of medieval society be considered before conclusions should be drawn regarding its functioning.

As James G. Clarke demonstrates, the links between monasteries and secular learning included both fee-paying students and pauperes. Despite his eagerness to counter claims that monastic involvement in secular learning was borne of self-interest, it remains nonetheless tempting to see in their eagerness to accept students an attempt to forge an income from a source other than land donations which, because of royal legislation and a changing social structure, became less certain and generous as the middle ages progressed.  While other orders sought out the secular world, the Carthusians of Glyn Coppack’sinstructive paper could not avoid it. He presents evidence for book production, carried on from cell to cell by monks who were to care only for their own salvation and not the reading interests of others. Each cell was a monk’s own ‘private monastery’ (p. 174) designed for an eremitical life, though, as Coppack wryly comments, the heated living room and timber floors of the cells do not suggest the ‘home of a hermit’ (p. 179). Although removed from society, anchorites and hermits were very much dependent on its support and Coppack presents a clear and enjoyable insight into one order’s attempts to balance the eremitical with the social.

Jen Röhrkasten advances a preliminary examination of Franciscan responses to the various ways in which they were exposed to secular society. Restrictions on where the mendicants could beg, what they could accept, and whose confessions they could hear, especially women’s – these are a few of the nine areas covered. Sheila Sweetinburgh examines the Austin Friars in Canterbury and their interactions with its corporation and other religious. Because of their relatively late arrival in Canterbury in the fourteenth century the Austin Friars had to negotiate for their place in the town.

Nicholas Orme(the only author not specifically named in the introduction) demonstrates two fundamental factors that influenced medieval monastic foundation: the availability and willingness of founders and the accessibility of suitable sites. Cornwall lost out on both; or, perhaps more correctly, it was more susceptible to variations in both. Precisely because of the low numbers of foundations those that did survive in Cornwall are deserving of thorough examination, such as presented in this paper. From the other end of England Claire Cross explores the final years of Roche Abbey in Yorkshire.

Monasteries founded by lay families, donations from lay supporters and bequests from the same for burial – are all examples of ways in which monasteries and laity interact. Secular clergy and society were always watchful of monastic infringements. If this collection disappoints in any way it is the repetition of some of these points in several of its papers. Though valid in each individual instance, it reduces the impact of the whole. This I suspect is a source issue. The surviving records of many institutions are very similar in nature and where obvious differences emerge there may not be sufficient material intact to focus on it exclusively. (On an aside, inclusion of Ireland under the umbrella of the ‘British Isles’ is best avoided (given the political sensitivities such a termarouses.)  What this publication does provide is the opportunity to confirm that across order, gender and borders, monasteries, nunneries and society were in a balancing act of mutual dependence and rejection.