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  • The Cult of St Thomas Becket in the Plantagenet World, c. 1170 – c. 1220 eds. by Paul Webster and Marie-Pierre Gelin
  • Michael D. Barbezat
Webster, Paul, and Marie-Pierre Gelin, eds, The Cult of St Thomas Becket in the Plantagenet World, c. 1170 – c. 1220, Woodbridge, Boydell, 2016; hardback; pp. xviii, 252; 10 colour, 3 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £60.00; ISBN 9781783271610.

The nine chapters in this edited volume examine the reception and impact of Thomas Becket as a saint within the Plantagenet world during the century after his murder. As the eight-hundredth anniversary of the 1220 translation of his relics at Canterbury approaches, the editors and authors of this collection have approached the Becket phenomenon within the contemporary context that created it. The attention to context in this volume illustrates the wide range of meanings contemporaries and near-contemporaries found in the martyred archbishop as well as the varied uses to which the new saint could be put. The volume seeks to add to the conversations surrounding Thomas by displaying scholarship based upon a diverse assemblage of sources, drawn from texts and from material culture.

As a result of the diversity of its authors' approaches and subject matter, this volume will be of interest to scholars of multiple specialities, including history, literature, and art history, along with others. The collection also speaks to regions beyond England and northern France, particularly Spain and Germany. The contributors themselves come from varied backgrounds, specialties and positions, including established experts on Becket, such as Anne J. Duggan, and scholars at an earlier stage of their career. This range adds to the collection's appeal. Anyone undertaking research on Becket can profit from the overview of the current historiography by Paul Webster in the first chapter. Webster's summary is thorough and extremely valuable, although its very comprehensiveness, paired with its necessary brevity in [End Page 267] exposition, makes it somewhat unwieldy. In her chapter, Anne J. Duggan studies the development and dissemination of Becket's martyrdom narratives and his new liturgy, along with the Plantagenet embrace of the new saint. In her consideration of these topics, Duggan raises issues upon which later chapters elaborate. Marie-Pierre Gelin examines how Becket as a new saint fit into the existing saintly community at Canterbury, and how the structure of the cathedral and its windows were redesigned to present St Dunstan and St Alphege as prefigurations of him. Far from eclipsing the cults of these earlier Canterbury saints, Thomas's veneration reinvigorated them. Elma Brenner uncovers the motivations and relationships behind the dedication of leper houses to the new saint in Normandy. Michael Staunton guides readers through representations of St Thomas in twelfth- and thirteenth-century historical writing. Expanding the collection's geographical range, Colette Bowie and José Manuel Cerda analyse the spread and patronage of Becket's cult in Saxony and Castile. In both places, Angevin dynastic connections through marriage played a substantial role.

Repeatedly, the chapters return to issues of appropriation and accommodation, or how the Becket phenomenon came to serve different agendas. Multiple essays explore the transformation of the archbishop from a Plantagenet dynastic enemy into a patron. Likewise, Becket became a far mightier and more appreciated patron for the monks at Canterbury after his death than he could have ever been in life. Far from a cynical presentation, the authors strive to present these appropriations as sincere results of historical actors' beliefs and the exigencies in which these beliefs were articulated, and how the reception and application of Becket's legacy was subject to continuous development and often overlapping meanings. In his second chapter in the volume, Webster describes how the Angevin association with Thomas Becket acted as 'a "ghost of Christmas past"', in the conflict between King John and Innocent III over Stephen Langton (p. 153). This examination of the meanings found within Becket's legacy during the reign of John illustrates again how the exact meaning of that legacy was situationally negotiable. The collection ends with Alyce A. Jordan's conceptually ambitious exploration of the Becket stained glass windows at Angers and Coutances as manifestations of the 'sly civility' described by Homi Bhabha...


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