- The Religious Orders in Pre-Reformation England
The thirteen essays in this volume began life as papers presented to a colloquium at York in September, 1999. In their variety of subject and approaches [End Page 312] they provide revealing insights into the current directions of scholarly thinking about the last century of the religious orders in medieval England. There are six sections: an Introduction with two essays by James G. Clark and Joan Greatrex; three papers on the subject of "Education and Learning" (Barbara Harvey, Vincent Gillespie, and Jeremy Catto); and two each on the "Mendicant Life" (Michael Robson and R. N. Swanson), "Women Religious" (Claire Cross and Marilyn Oliva), "Monasteries and Society" (Benjamin Thompson and Glyn Coppack), and "Dissolution" (F. Donald Logan and Peter Cunich).
The period since David Knowles completed the third volume of The Religious Orders in England (1959) has seen a major upsurge in publication on the late Middle Ages, and a real attempt made to shift discussion of monastic houses away from pervasive assumptions about decline and dissolution. In a very useful survey of recent literature, James G. Clark demonstrates what a mixed balance sheet can be constructed on the late medieval religious. If their houses had become marginalized in terms of the most vital directions of spirituality, they were nonetheless so deeply integrated into their local societies that their destruction between 1536 and 1540 constituted a watershed. In a literal as well as a metaphorical sense the English landscape was changed.
Benjamin Thompson's persuasive essay "Monasteries, Society and Reform in Late Medieval England," systematically explores the reasons why this dramatic destruction of monasticism could be accomplished in such a short space of time and relatively easily. His explanation accommodates both the shift away from monasticism as a dominant force in the Church after the twelfth century, and the undoubted efforts of the religious to adapt to new needs. The services they offered to patrons and more generally (hospitality, alms, corrodies, advowsons, places for relatives, prestige, schools) were valued, certainly; but few of them were exclusive to them. They remained vulnerable to the argument that they had abandoned the ideal of withdrawal from the world, and that better use might be made of the large resources they controlled.
Nonetheless, the cumulative effect of other essays in the volume is to suggest that a major, ruthless drive from the central government has to be factored in to the destruction of religious houses that remained broadly socially useful, and did not have communities anxious to leave when opportunity was offered (F. Donald Logan). Whilst English Franciscans might make little contribution to the learning of the Renaissance, they were well qualified preachers and confessors, engaged in traditional apostolic work that had done much to raise religious sensibilities (Jeremy Catto). The Grey Friars of York can be shown to be still at the heart of the life of the city in the sixteenth century (Michael Robson). The mendicants in general were active participants in the trade in indulgences that serviced an important aspect of late medieval religious life, preparation for Purgatory (R. N. Swanson).
Claire Cross's survey of the Yorkshire nunneries in the early Tudor period could hardly be called a flattering one, but despite being burdened with debt and their nuns recurrently a target for accusations of unchastity, her verdict is [End Page 313] that they "still appear to have been performing a necessary function in local society." In the diocese of Norwich a concise study of patronage to female monasteries reveals the closeness of their ties with their locality, and a pattern of support from lesser gentry and yeomen farmers (Marilyn Oliva).
The impression left by these papers is of the vitality of current research and publication in this field of religious history. The potential of architectural history to contribute to our understanding of changes in the lifestyle of monks is explored in an essay on monastic planning (Glynn Copack), whilst another essay brings contemporary psycho-historical methodologies to...