The Catholic Historical Review 87.1 (2001) 92-94
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Community, Architecture, Memory
Rievaulx Abbey. Community, Architecture, Memory. By Peter Fergusson and Stuart Harrison. With contributions by Glyn Coppack. (New Haven: Yale University Press. Published for The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. 1999. Pp. xii, 282. illus: 189 b/w + 35 color. $85.00.)
The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) described the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, twenty miles north of York in the Rye valley of England, as "the most celebrated monastery in England," presumably referring to its extensive architectural ruins. But there has been no modern study of those ruins. The spiritual writings of Aelred, third abbot of Rievaulx (1147-1167), probably the most distinguished twelfth-century English churchman outside the episcopate, have been studied, but his role in Rievaulx's expansion and renovation has not been. This splendidly illustrated and elegantly written volume seeks to fill this lacuna.
Using recovered fragmentary plans and the surviving stonework as texts, the authors explore Rievaulx's development during four stages: the first buildings under the founding abbot William (1132-1146)--church and chapter house; the expansion and renovation of the above and construction of new facilities under Aelred, including the abbot's house, refectory, infirmary, and latrine block for a monastic community numbering in the 1150's and 1160's possibly 600; further renovations during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in consequence of the end of the grange system and the decline of numbers during the Black Death; and, last, the fate of the buildings after the Suppression. Henry VIII sold Rievaulx to Thomas Manners, Earl of Rutland, ironically a lineal descendant of Walter Espec, who had given the original land for the foundation of Rievaulx. [End Page 92] Official documentation shows how Rutland stripped the monastic buildings of everything from the nails in the church's roof down to the floor tiles, and turned lands and buildings to industrial exploitation, specifically iron manufacture. Later chapters of the book trace Rievaulx's ownership in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when it went "From Wreck to Ruin," and into the twentieth century when it passed into the Guardianship of the Office of Works (now English Heritage). Today, "the bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang" are a popular tourist attraction: 100,000 visitors went to Rievaulx in 1996. Appendix A by John R. Senior discusses the stonework and the six quarries from which building materials were extracted; Appendix B by J. Stopford treats the tile pavements and floor decorations; Appendix C gives a list of the thirty-eight abbots; and Appendix D provides the Suppression documents. Aelred's tenure as abbot witnessed the most important period of architectural change when the style shifted from the Romanesque to the early Gothic. The authors show how Aelred, descended from a long line of married priests with powerful social connections in northern England and at the Scottish royal court, acquired, before his election as abbot, broad experience from travel, diplomatic missions, and monastic administration. He also secured the friendship of prominent people who became Rievaulx's benefactors.
This book represents a magisterial achievement in achaeological and architectural analysis and reconstruction; the authors have buttressed their arguments with 189 drawings and illustrations, most in black and white, some in beautiful color.
The student of the social and economic history of monasticism, however, is left with questions. For example, what was the role of "community" mentioned in the book's subtitle? Presumably it was consulted about building, as the Rule of St. Benedict (chap. 3) requires. Rievaulx's many agricultural and commercial enterprises are lightly sketched, but one wonders how the abbots paid for their renovations? This basic question is not explicitly raised, but the implication is that they borrowed: we learn that in 1189 a sizable sum was owed the Jewish financier Aaron of Lincoln. What does this tell us about prudent fiscal management? Do the documents allow of even tentative conclusions? Again, on the matter of recruitment: between 1132 and 1146 under Abbot William, Rievaulx made five foundations. The authors...