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Reviewed by:
  • Monastic Life in Anglo-Saxon England, c. 600-900
  • David Rollason
Monastic Life in Anglo-Saxon England, c. 600–900. By Sarah Foot. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2006. Pp. xvi, 398. $90.00.)

The publishers of this handsomely and generously produced book have included on the jacket an evaluation of it by Nicholas Brooks as "a beautifully structured and magisterial treatment." It is certainly a capable and well-informed commentary on the English church before the tenth-century Reformation, which shows a comprehensive knowledge of the written sources for its history, and students will find it a useful guide. It is, however, in essence the author's doctoral thesis of 1990, and, although she emphasizes that it has been much revised and improved, there is still a sense that it belongs to a somewhat earlier generation of discussion. Foot adheres to her previously expounded view that all English churches of the period in question should be called minsters and that the word monastery should be abandoned, although not apparently the adjective monastic. Her argument that early monasteries were various and their pastoral functions essentially unpredictable is set out in more detail than previously, but given the limitations of the written sources, certainty is not possible. It is striking how often Foot declares that something is hard or impossible "to imagine," as in "it is impossible to imagine that all ministers of baptism belonged to episcopal households" (p. 301). The imagining seems to depend as much on our preconceptions as on precise evidence. Crucially, the nature of lay interaction with monasteries, which is an issue for any period of monastic history and which Foot declares to be central to her book, is not handled in the sort of depth which it receives in other contexts, for example, from Arnold Angenendt, even in the case of the importance of monasteries for land tenure. It is unfortunate for Foot that her book has been overtaken by John Blair's The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford, 2005). Blair has been very successful in pushing the analysis of English monasteries in new directions, noting that further study of the origins of parishes and their relationship to monasteries "cannot [End Page 329] progress significantly without another generation of local studies, and ultimately a complete catalogue of Anglo-Saxon religious sites supported by a cartographic database" (p. 7). One of Blair's great strengths in his book is his cross-disciplinary approach, especially his expertise in topographical, archaeological, and to some extent art historical research. By contrast, Foot's book contains plates of manuscripts and churches and plans of sites that are never more than illustrations without close analysis or even particular relevance. The plate of Escomb church (p. 104) is apparently to illustrate a point about the (dubious) antiquity of its churchyard enclosure, which is not shown on the plate, while the highly relevant issues of the proportions and liturgical function of the church are not touched upon. Students will need to be encouraged to look more closely at the nonwritten sources, not least stone sculpture following the publication of the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, than this book does. [End Page 330]

David Rollason
Durham University


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