Of Poverty and Pig-Styes; The Household Economy of Some of the Smaller Religious Houses on the Eve of the Dissolution
- Australian and New Zealand Association of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (Inc.)
- Number 1, 1983
- pp. 69-91
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Of Poverty and Pig-Styes; The Household Economy of Some of the Smaller Religious Houses on the Eve of the Dissolution Concepts of the way of life of religious communities in England before the dissolution of the monasteries have been primarily moulded by the material available for the great houses of the kingdom. Dom David Knowles' classic reconstruction of monastic life and economy was based almost exclusively on the records of the great cathedral priories and the greater abbeys whose titular heads were called to sit amongst the lords in parliament and to take due precedence in the affairs of the kingdom. Such houses not only contributed their quota to the scholarship and education of the day but their household economy was also modelled on that of the monarch and great lords. The obedientaries ran large departments in a semi-autonomous fashion, often with specific lands and rents allocated for their maintenance. Such houses, however, were not necessarily typical. On the eve of the dissolution there were s t i l l approximately 825 religious houses in England. The great majority were houses of monks. There were in all 502 houses of monks, 187 friaries and a mere 136 houses of nuns. It has been estimately that there must have been 8,000 monks and 2,000 nuns. The houses were somewhat unevenly spread across the country but far more striking was the uneven spread of wealth. Five houses had incomes assessed in 1535 at over 12,000 and another nineteen at over £1,000—incomes which put the households on a par with the aristocracy for wealth; another eleven or twelve had incomes given as over £700 and one hundred and fifty had incomes over £200. This was the point at which Henry eventually drew his line in 1536 leaving 453 houses potentially at risk, though ninety two, as cells, escaped immediate dissolution and others were able to purchase what was, in the end, only a delay. Criticisms of the religious as bad, or worse as overindulgent landlords, by the sixteenth century have been largely replaced by the view that they were at best conservative. This judgment, however, has been based on the records of the larger houses where by the late fifteenth century most of the lands which they had once farmed directly were now let out to farm. More damningly, the houses have been seen as no longer making a useful contribution to society from the proceeds of their rents. Ultimately, i f comparatively harmless, they were parasites living in some luxury. Professor Knowles concluded that "the monks of the larger abbeys enjoyed, i f not a more abundant at least a more expensive and recherche' fare than all save the most prosperous classes in the land" and that "the sums of money both absolute and relative to the total income spent on food and drink appear excessive and this conclusion i s borne out by all detailed examinations of the 2 quantity and quality and variety of the materials consumed." But were the houses on which Dom David drew for his material in any way typical? No attempt at a systematic separate assessment of the 70 S. Jack material side of the life of the smaller religious houses has been attempted. The assumption has been that i t represented a scaled down version of life in the household of their monastic peers. The justification for this seems somewhat doubtful. One must accept that a conclusive reconstruction of their spiritual life, to which much more attention has been paid, may never be possible. These were not houses which laid claim to any high degree of scholarship. In many cases the inventories suggest that they possessed nothing that could, even remotely, be termed a library. Debate over the inmates' observation of their Rule, particularly the rule of chastity and the due observance of the required religious Offices has chased a well worn circular path from the notorious "Comperta" of Cromwell's visitors through the comments of the commissioners in the following year and the surviving episcopal visitation records. In the end, the interpretation of such material depends very much on the expectation of the historian about human frailty...