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The Catholic Historical Review 90.1 (2004) 112-114
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The Premonstratensian Order in Late Medieval England. By Joseph A. Gribbin. [Studies in the History of Medieval Religion, Volume XVI.] (Rochester, New York: The Boydell Press. 2001. Pp. xx, 283. $75.00.)
Between 1458 and 1503 the Premonstratensian Order in England was subject to a remarkable régime of discipline and control: there were general or provincial chapters in fifteen years, and visitations in sixteen. In occasional years only one house was visited, but much more frequent were those years in which visitations were numerous. Thus in 1475 twenty-four houses were visited, in 1478 thirty-six, in 1491 twenty-nine, in 1482 and again in 1494 twenty-eight, and in 1500 twenty-seven. One man was responsible for this unremitting activity: Richard Redman, appointed commissary-general for life by the abbot of Prémontré in 1459. Redman's career was remarkable. A member of a notable Westmorland [End Page 112] dynasty, Richard Redman probably belonged to the Yorkshire branch of the family, and his decision to join the Premonstratensian Order was an unusual decision for a man of his rank and wide-ranging talents. Also unusual were both his promotion to the episcopate and the absence of a university education, which was the norm for bishops of his time. In 1458 he became abbot of Shap, a monastery high in the northern Penine hills, in 1471 bishop of St. Asaph in Wales, and finally in 1501 he was promoted to the small but proportionately rich see of Ely, near Cambridge. Aristocratic support perhaps accounts for his early elevation within his Order, but Redman was to prove a useful servant of both Yorkist and Tudor kings, as well as a tireless enforcer of monastic standards.
Redman was the hero of the doctoral thesis on which this book is based, and he is a commanding figure in this version. Pioneering work on the Order was done by H. M. Colvin, whose The White Canons in England was published in 1951. Dr. Gribbin does not attempt to re-write the complete history of the Order—though his introductory chapter surveying the story until the later fifteenth century is a notably successful summary—but he both utilizes work published in the last fifty years, and subjects the evidence of Redman's visitation activity to detailed examination. The material for this activity is based upon four manuscripts, two in the British Library, one in the Bodleian (Oxford), and one at Belvoir Castle, seat of the duke of Rutland. Since access to the Belvoir manuscript was denied by the duke (or his agent) Gribbin has been forced to rely on eighteenth-century transcripts and on an examination made by Howard Colvin after his 1951 book was completed.
From these records it is possible to follow Redman's work in great detail: the careful way in which he conducted his visitations, what he found, both to criticize and to praise, and what conclusions can be drawn about the history of the Order over some half-century and its state at the time of the Dissolution. The author's very careful detective work examines not only problems of discipline, over obedience, dress, and food, for example, but also illuminates such matters as the history of Premonstratensian liturgy in England, and the Order's standards of culture and learning. The conclusion about the economic position of the houses is perhaps unexpected: though none were rich they were mostly modestly prosperous, and cases of mismanagement could be rectified by the work of a prudent successor. For meticulous scholarship this volume cannot be faulted; that it demands careful reading is the result of the nature of the subject-matter, as well as a desire to prove every point atevery point.
The conclusion of Redman, and of Dr. Gribbin, was that, of the order's thirty houses in England, seven were praiseworthy, six had intermittent faults, while seven were in a bad way both spiritually and physically, but there was only one really scandalous situation, that uncovered at Welbeck (Nottinghamshire...