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  • A Tale of Two Monasteries: Westminster and Saint-Denis in the Thirteenth Century
  • David C. Mengel
A Tale of Two Monasteries: Westminster and Saint-Denis in the Thirteenth Century. By William Chester Jordan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009. 266 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

Anglophone scholars of medieval Europe know few times and places better than England and France in the thirteenth century. High Gothic architecture flourished alongside the telling of Arthurian tales. The saintly Louis IX (d. 1270) headed off on crusade, twice. Henry III (d. 1272) of England struggled to preserve his continental territories against French encroachment even as he wrestled with his barons (whose Magna Carta King John had signed in 1215). Meanwhile scribes at the University of Paris scribbled to keep pace as Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) dictated his way through the niceties of Scholastic theology. Not least important, the burgeoning royal and ecclesiastical bureaucracies in England and France were busy producing unprecedented amounts of paperwork—that favorite foodstuff of historians. Accordingly, the institutions and rulers of thirteenth-century England and France, their wars and laws, their literature and philosophy, their personalities and buildings, have attracted scores of monographs and other studies. William Chester Jordan has now given us another.

It is a welcome gift. Like those thirteenth-century French writers of Arthurian prose romances, Jordan has succeeded in telling an old tale anew. In part this results from his productive (and, as he admits, already traditional) pairing of the two great abbey churches of Westminster and Saint-Denis. Protected by popes from the normal jurisdiction of bishops, these two königsnahe houses of Benedictine monks owed much of their wealth and power to the ruling dynasties of England and France. Each of the suburban monasteries flourished when its monarch flourished, particularly when it enjoyed the good graces of the king who had been crowned there (as at Westminster) or expected to be buried there (as at Saint-Denis and, later, at Westminster too).

Yet Jordan has not written an old-fashioned institutional history. Instead, he takes advantage of a remarkable happenstance to trace the careers of two abbots through the events of the later thirteenth century. Each man was elected abbot in 1258 and ruled for at least a quarter century—Richard de Ware (d. 1283) at Westminster and Mathieu de Vendôme (d. 1286) at Saint-Denis. Neither was particularly wellborn. And although specialists have long given some attention to their careers, neither has previously been cast as more than a minor character in the best-known stories of the age. Still, this book is no microhistory. Richard and Mathieu were not the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the Plantagenet and Capetian kings they served. In fact, the book's [End Page 140] frame succeeds precisely because of the two abbots' privileged vantage points. Both regularly served as royal messengers, advisors, and negotiators in matters of import and delicacy. Edward I (d. 1307) appointed Richard royal treasurer. Louis IX and later Phillip III (d. 1285) named Mathieu coregent of France during wartime absences. Far more than mere witnesses, these two monks from humble families shaped the politics of their day at the highest level.

After the first chapter's masterful summary of the political situation in England and France in the early thirteenth century, the book's remaining eight chapters chart a chronological path through the years of the two abbots' reigns. Jordan suggests that Richard and Mathieu likely met for the first time in 1259, when the English abbot accompanied his king's journey to France for the publication of a war-ending treaty. Their paths do cross again, but most of the book moves back and forth across the Channel to chronicle the abbots' parallel careers. We witness Richard negotiating the tricky politics of a civil war in England while Mathieu taps the well-organized archive of Saint-Denis to defend his abbey's legal rights, even against the French crown. Within the space of two years, each abbot buries a king and must gain the confidence of a new monarch. Italian bankers badger Richard for the money he borrowed for his longer-than-necessary diplomatic tours of Italy and...