Readers familiar with William Chester Jordan's graceful studies of the French monarchy will be familiar with his meticulous research, lively mind, and unburdened prose. A Tale of Two Monasteries is a closely researched and energetic cameo that inspects and illuminates the interwoven histories of England and France, Kings Henry III and Louis IX, through two institutional lenses. This is really the history of several pairs:Westminster and Saint-Denis; Louis and Henry; Abbots Richard of Ware and Mathieu de Vendôme; and, to a less explicit sense, England and France. Saint-Denis and Westminster are both beautiful and seminal buildings, Saint-Denis for the propagation of the Rayonnant style of Gothic, Westminster for establishing many of the premises of English late-medieval art. Jordan works through their visual and political heritages with a view to larger insight.
This is not a history of two monasteries in the sense of volunteering a commentary on their religious and institutional cultures—Barbara Harvey has already demonstrated to huge effect the depth and value to social history of Westminster's archives, surpassing in scale as they do many smaller national states. We will find little here on the respective liturgies of the two houses: Greek was not used at Westminster as it was at Saint-Denis. The common features are significant:Both houses were royal mausolea, both held royal regalia, both had French-speaking monks, and both embraced chronicle writing. On the other hand, Saint-Denis was the father of Gothic; Westminster, in contrast, was a kind of commentary on it. Saint-Denis had a developed literary culture whereas Westminster borrowed its from Saint Albans; Westminster preserves more of its original artworks whereas Saint-Denis was brutalized during the French Revolution. What did the two houses learn from each other? One or two of the smaller architectural features of Westminster as rebuilt by Henry III from 1245 probably derived from the new church of Saint-Denis begun in 1231, but what Westminster really demonstrates is the grip of Reims, the French coronation church, and the Sainte-Chapelle, Louis IX's fabulous reliquary chapel, on the mind of Henry III. There is no evidence that Henry or his masons found Saint-Denis's architecture anything other than dry and austere. They sought instead the charisma of Louis IX's palaces. Reciprocally speaking, in contrast, Saint-Denis gained nothing, and probably sought nothing, from Westminster.
When Henry III looked to Rome for ideas that aimed consciously to trump the cultural and political supremacy of the Capetians—for his introduction of papal mosaics into Westminster is something we can surely see as political without undue risk of overdetermination—he used Abbot Richard as his agent: Richard knew Italy because Westminster, like Saint-Denis, was an exempt house directly under the pope, obliging the abbots to go there to be confirmed. The difference between patron and agent is a key one not always clarified by Jordan. It is inconceivable that the unheard-of gesture of romanizing a Gothic church should have been the idea of anyone other than Henry III. King Edward I continued the policy, and it is as a result of his links with Charles of Anjou that a design akin to the work of Arnolfo di Cambio was made available for Henry III's tomb. These artworks are explicable only by royal sanction and high diplomacy. The abbots of Westminster, unlike the priors of Canterbury, were not traditional arbiters of taste.
In general, this is a very surefooted text and one that must be seen above all as a political history viewed through a certain institutional psychology. Art historians are necessarily political historians when it comes to such great monasteries. Here and there, Jordan makes some points that will be debated. It is not clear that Henry III ever had an intention to turn Westminster into a Plantagenet Saint-Denis. When Odoricus, the mosaic maker named in the great pavement at Westminster, is placed at the center of the agents responsible, between Henry III and the abbot, he is being promoted, not "in fact, backstage" (p. 111). But then, this is not art history. At heart, it is a study of the spectacular social...