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  • The Secular Clergy in England, 1066–1216 by Hugh M. Thomas
  • David Crouch
The Secular Clergy in England, 1066–1216. By Hugh M. Thomas. (New York: Oxford University Press. 2014. Pp. xiv, 422. $125.00. ISBN 978-0-19-870256-6.)

This is a highly detailed study of a large section of English society in the post-conquest period, those clergy who held or aspired to positions in the parishes, cathedrals, and dioceses of England. Hugh M. Thomas aims to be comprehensive in a book that, as he rightly said, is the only one so far to attempt the entire field of study (although he does not deny it builds on the work of the many scholars presently in the field). He brings a huge range of published and unpublished sources to bear and uses them meticulously, the deploying of unpublished sermon material being a welcome addition to the debate. Very little of the life of these men escapes his attention: their ideals, income, career strategy, ambitions, sexuality, learning, and violence. Although linked by a common ordination, the group comprehended the whole range of incomes and social groups in society, apart, that is, from females. Thomas makes his point that as a group the secular clergy carried a considerable economic [End Page 611] and cultural weight within their society, although their contrasting political impotence and their sexual nullification by zealous reformers may explain the lack of attention to them by general historians—a situation that he bemoans. The book’s summative nature is its great strength, and the richness of the detail drawn out by Thomas from his sources will make this a valuable future resource for scholars of medieval society in general, not just the clergy. In this, the author may well be said to have fulfilled his admirable overall ambition for his work. Its weakness lies in his ambition for his subject matter. The concluding chapter attempts to preach the centrality of the secular clergy in the study of medieval society, without which our understanding of it will be “deeply flawed.” Here he relies on secondhand theories, which he treats as established fact. The work of Michael Clanchy by no means establishes the rarity of lay literacy and literate modes in lay life before 1150; others have argued that it was lay literacy that made the phenomenon of rising bureaucracy imaginable, not the existence of the mechanical skills of clerics. His handling of counter-arguments are brusque and tendentious, not least when he points out that laymen produced no literary works of note, as a counter to Martin Aurell (a point Aurell himself admitted and addressed). Lay authors of some genius are in fact abundant in his period; they just only rarely wrote in Latin. Because clerical writers complained a lot about the trials of the court does not make them the architects of courtly culture, even if they were practitioners of it. Here he relies on the seminal work on the “origins of courtliness” by C. Stephen Jaeger, who saw conscious modes of courtly behavior arising in a tenth-century clerical milieu and filtering out into lay life by the end of the twelfth century. Jaeger has subsequently qualified his theory, admitting he wrote in 1985 without much idea of what early lay culture was and that self-conscious lay courtliness can be found before his theory admitted its existence1; indeed, the first self-conscious essay on cortezia was written by an Auvergnat baron possibly as early as 1130 (Garin lo Brun, E∙l tremini d’estiu). Although a clerical contribution to lay modes of behavior may well be arguable, it did not occupy the centrality asserted by Thomas. Thomas’s book is, therefore, a great and lasting contribution to its field, but a pinch of salt would have helped very much in the recipe for its confection.

David Crouch
University of Hull


1. See Jaeger, “The Origins of Courtliness after 25 Years,” Haskins Society Journal, 21 (2009), 187–216.



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