- Archbishops Ralph d’Escures, William of Corbeil and Theobald of Bec. Heirs of Anselm and Ancestors of Becket by Jean Truax
This book is one of a series on archbishops of Canterbury aimed at students, academics, and broader audiences, but the summary on the back cover does Truax and her subjects a disservice. None, as Truax makes very clear, was a “minor” archbishop nor were they “less noteworthy”’ than others. Truax reminds us that these were three of the most important men in Anglo-Norman England, contextualizing their careers within narratives of the ecclesiastical and secular politics of their day, which, given their complexity, are admirably clear and straightforward. These are the first extended biographical studies of Ralph d’Escures and William of Corbeil to be published beyond the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the introduction to English Episcopal Acta 28: Canterbury 1070–1136 (Oxford, 2004); both, however, have been the subject of unpublished dissertations. Denis Bethell’s important articles on William are acknowledged, and Truax rightly makes considerable use of Avrom Saltman’s exceptional biography of Theobald (London, 1956).
On the back cover, the archbishops’ terms are presented as a “unified period,” and a series editor notes that they “have never been considered together as a transition between two of Canterbury’s greatest Medieval archbishops” before. This, although still too teleological, does better reflect the nature of the book, as Truax (to bring coherence to three very different archiepiscopal careers) picks out central themes of Lanfranc and Anselm’s tenures and then traces their development through the terms of Ralph, William, and Theobald. Most prominent is what is here defined as a “Gelasian” model of practical cooperation between king and archbishop and in relations with the papacy, to which all three archbishops are considered to have consistently adhered as the relationship among church, state, and papal authority developed over the first half of the twelfth century. By the time St. Thomas Becket became archbishop in succession to Theobald, that model had been replaced by a “Gregorian” one in which bishops found themselves caught between traditional loyalty to kings and new commitments to a newly powerful papacy (although Theobald’s relationship with King Henry II is less difficult and more Gelasian here than other recent research has suggested). For Ralph and William, the Canterbury-York primacy dispute and its principal chroniclers, [End Page 122] Eadmer for Canterbury and Hugh the Chanter for York, are the key basis for analysis. For Theobald, the complex civil-war politics of Stephen’s reign and John of Salisbury serve the same purpose. Truax’s narrative clarity is commendable.
This combination of models with a narrative approach does, however, sometimes bring coherence and clarity where it may have been limited; and popes, kings, and bishops can occasionally be one-dimensional. Ralph and William themselves are perforce studied mainly through the central narrative sources, and so Gelasian and Canterbury-York themes dominate, but their own documents and those of other individuals and institutions, although much more limited than for Theobald, might have been used more to evaluate their multifaceted office. For instance, Ralph’s treatise on the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (even though it predates his archiepiscopate) and his letter to the sons of Robert, count of Meulan, informing them of their father’s deathbed confession are noted, but could perhaps have been explored in more depth. The role of the archbishops’ own priory and its rival in Canterbury, St. Augustine’s, also could have been explored further. When Truax does examine another facet of the office—in her analysis of Theobald’s correspondence and acta that shows the extent of the archbishop’s influence in an England troubled by civil war—it is a very valuable discussion and is one of the strongest sections of the book.
Nevertheless, although many books could be written on Theobald and his brilliant household, and monographs might be produced on...