- The Regular Canons in the Medieval British Isles by Janet Burton and Karen Stöber, eds
This is an impressive volume of essays about regular canons in the medieval British Isles, deriving from a conference on the same subject held in 2007. Geographically speaking, canons could be found throughout the whole of medieval Britain, including Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Unlike the Benedictines or the Cistercians, apparently, canons never wrote monastic history and consequently, they have been pushed to the margins of historical and scholarly interest.
Nevertheless, scholars from various disciplines have found the regular canons’ daily contacts with the secular, impious world a productive area of research. Although canons lived in monasteries, their pastoral responsibilities saw them administering to parishes and churches, and doing work in charitable institutions like hospitals and pilgrims’ hostels. Such daily routines enabled them to bridge the gap between the clergy and the lay people.
The twenty-two contributions of which this volume comprises are divided into four thematic sections. The first, ‘Origins, Organization, and Regional Developments’, contains eight essays and covers the provenance of different groups of canons found in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. The section aims at determining how canons stood for religious renewal and reform and how they nurtured religious faith locally, sometimes by adapting often already abandoned sites of earlier religious cults. Part II, ‘Community Life’, contains five essays that focus on the manner of life of the canons including matters like eating, working, building and pursuing careers, or managing education. The five essays of Part III, ‘Social Contexts’, discuss the social roles the regular canons played in lay communities due to their involvement in pastoral care, burials, patronage, and even politics. The final section, ‘Cultural Contexts’, comprising four essays, addresses the role that the regular canons played in the cultural life of medieval Britain, especially in the spheres of literature, art, and architecture.
Space prevents me from discussing each of the contributions in detail, but James G. Clarke’s ‘The Augustinians, History, and Literature in Late Medieval [End Page 303] England’ (pp. 403–16), from Part IV, is worthy of special mention. Clark observes that the regular canons’ contributions to the cultural and intellectual life of the period have long been undervalued. He argues, however, that the learned culture of the canons is ‘neither as sporadic nor as exclusively early as has been claimed’ (p. 405). Instead, scholars of the Augustinian tradition were treated like avant garde intellectuals and contributed a great deal to European culture, developing and disseminating, for example, new scholarly values in the studia litterarum and principles of pastoral and personal theology, and initiating the resurgence of the old universities like Bologna. Additionally, they pioneered the same atmosphere of scholarly renewal and reinvention throughout the whole of England.
To conclude, this is an important collection of essays dealing with the medieval canons of Britain and their cultural and intellectual legacy. The papers extensively reference textual sources and are supplemented by long and detailed footnotes.