The Monastic Revival
Intellectual sharpness and an aggressive building programme marked the Norman transformation of English monasticism.
When the Normans arrived in England, monasteries had long been a feature of the social landscape. Thirty-five houses of Benedictine monks appear in the Domesday Survey as possessing land in the time of Edward the Confessor, and there existed upwards of nine nunneries. Many of these abbeys were endowed with great estates. A few of them, like Bury St Edmund's which had been founded by Cnut, were still relatively young establishments in 1066; but most of them traced their continuous history from the monastic revival inspired by Dunstan and Ethelwold a century earlier.
We do not really know much about the observance of the abbeys and cathedral monasteries in the last decades of Anglo-Saxon England. The childhood recollections of Eadmer, the Canterbury monk who became chaplain and biographer of St Anselm, and Ordericus Vitalis, dispatched from England as a tearful child of ten to be a monk at Saint Evroul, suggest an easy-going affluent life-style in some of the pre-Conquest houses. But both men wrote long afterwards, and their view of the past was coloured by their subsequent experience. The English monasteries housed aristocratic communities and the abbots known to us were drawn from the high nobility. As cult-centres of the Old English saints, they were the foci of national sentiment and traditionalist in their interests. There are indications that their observances were not as insular as some have thought. At any rate, their liturgical routine cannot have differed very much from that of the French and German monasteries, for it was still determined by the Regularis Concordia – the body of common usages agreed by the English monks in 970 and modelled on the practices of Fleury and Ghent. But they displayed none of the spiritual dynamism that characterised the new monasticism of the Norman duchy; and they were apparently indifferent to the currents of thought and learning that were transforming the intellectual world of the eleventh century.
They were now subjected to the invigorating shock of a Norman take-over. The revival of monastic life in the Duchy of Normandy had begun in the year 1001, when the Italian ascetic William of Volpiano brought a party of monks from Dijon to restore Benedictine observance at Fecamp. William came at the invitation of Duke Richard II, and under ducal and baronial patronage the revival was extended to other houses. The ancient abbeys of Jumieges, Saint-Wandrille and Mont-Saint-Michel, were repeopled with monks. And there were new foundations, among which were the abbey of Bec started by Herluin, the convert knight, in 1034, and St Stephen's at Caen, founded by Duke William himself only a few years before the invasion of England. It was from these centres of young and dynamic monastic life that the Conqueror recruited a new race of abbots who were gradually installed in the English monasteries. Many of them came accompanied by groups of French monks from their own communities. Lanfranc, when he was brought from ruling St Stephen's Caen to take up the archbishopric of Canterbury in 1070, imported a number of monks from Caen and Bec to join the community of Christ Church Canterbury, including a fellow Italian, Henry of Bec, whom in due course he appointed prior of the cathedral monastery.
This alien invasion was obviously deeply disturbing for English monks, who had to accommodate themselves to a new superior and brethren whose language they could not understand. Tension in the cloister was often heightened by the scant respect that the new abbots showed for English customs and for the Old English saints. Lanfranc purged the calendar of Christ Church of all but a handful of Saxon names. At St Alban's his nephew, Paul of Caen, contemptuously demolished the tombs of his Saxon predecessors to make way for new building. The same happened at St Augustine's Canterbury, where Abbot Scotland, who had come from Mont-Saint-Michel, had the entire complex of churches constructed by his predecessors levelled to the ground. The bitterness and sense of disorientation caused by this insensitive treatment found expression in various ways. At Christ Church it was reported that an English monk had suddenly gone mad, Elsewhere, at St Augustine's and Glastonbury, resentment erupted into violence.
Besides infusing new blood into existing monasteries, the Conquest was followed by new foundations, for which the patrons imported monks from France. The most conspicuous of these was the Conqueror's own foundation at Battle – St Martin de Bello – built, in fulfilment of a vow, upon the site of King Harold's last stand at Hastings, and peopled by monks from Marmoutier in the Touraine. On a smaller scale, several Norman lords established priories of a modest size adjacent to the castle which was their major residence and the administrative centre of their barony, and persuaded monks from home to occupy them. The monks were the spiritual counterpart of the knights who garrisoned the castle. Priory and castle jointly formed a unit of alien colonisation in a hostile land. One of the most influential of these creations was the Cluniac priory founded by Earl William de Warenne at Lewes in Sussex.
Several of the greater French abbeys had received gifts of land and churches in England from the grateful conquerors; but they showed little enthusiasm. for setting-up dependent houses in a territory they regarded as barbarous and unfriendly. St Hugh of Cluny refused a request from King William to send monks for English abbeys on the grounds that supervision of a distant overseas dependency would be impossible. But Hugh's reluctance was eventually overcome by the persistence of William de Warenne. William and his English countess, Gundrada, had visited Cluny and been deeply impressed; and on returning home they determined to create a Cluniac priory near the Earl's castle at Lewes. For this purpose William donated the newly built church of Lewes and an endowment big enough to support twelve monks. Hugh at first demurred, but in the end he was induced to send a prior and three monks to start the foundation.
At the end of the eleventh century under the regime of St Hugh, Cluny was entering on its greatest period of expansion, and the priory of St Pancras at Lewes proved to be only the first of thirty-six houses which came to constitute the English province of the Cluniac empire. They formed one of the most enduring links with the monastic world of the continent. Lewes, which was the largest and richest of them – in the thirteenth century its numbers fluctuated between fifty and fifty-five monks – came to have a privileged rank in the order. Its priors, appointed by the abbot of Cluny and usually drawn from the mother-house, were often men of distinction. One of them, Hugh of Anjou, followed his uncle as abbot of Cluny in 1199, and left his mark on the order by inaugurating the system of annual general chapters.
In some long-established communities the Norman take-over, and the destruction of much that was familiar and cherished, awake a quickened interest in the Old English past. One of the consequences of this was a revival of monastic life in the North, which had vanished in the course of the Danish occupation of the ninth century. Inspired by the cult of St Cuthbert and Bede's account of the early Northumbrian saints, Aldwin, the prior of Winchqombe, and two monks from Evesham set out for the North in 1073-4 with the purpose of settling on the derelict sites of Wearmouth and Jarrow. The enterprise prospered. It attracted support from the northern baronage and the Norman bishops of Durham, and led within a few years to the refoundation of Whitby abbey and new foundations at Selby and St Mary's York. The most eager promoter was William of St Carilef, the bishop of Durham. Himself a monk from Maine, he appreciated the English tradition of monastic cathedral chapters, and in 1083 he brought monks from Wearmouth and Jarrow to serve the cathedral of Durham and assume custody of the shrine of St Cuthbert. Like most of the new prelates imported from France, William was an energetic builder. His most durable monument is the massive cathedral he began erecting on the hill above the river Wear, which is one of the supreme masterpieces of Norman Romanesque. Its dramatic site and proximity to the castle bear eloquent witness to the complementary role of monks and knights in the Norman settlement of England.
It was a mixture of piety and policy that moved the king and the new military aristocracy to donate part of their property to monasteries. The primary motive, stated in innumerable charters, was that of safeguarding the souls of the benefactor and his family. To found and endow a community of monks was to ensure for the benefactor a perpetual fund of intercession and merit which would avail him and his relatives both during life and after death. It was an act that rendered satisfaction for the sins of the donor. The penitentials, with their elaborate schedule of penances, inculcated in medieval people a conviction that satisfaction in the form of penance must be rendered to God for sin. One of the graver sins was homicide, even if the killing was that of the enemy in legitimate warfare. The victors of Hastings were reminded of this by a papal legate, Bishop Ermenfrid, who visited England in 1070 and proscribed penances for those who had fought, with the significant proviso:
Anyone who does not know the number of those he wounded or killed must, at the discretion of his bishop, do penance for one day in each week for the remainder of his life; or, if he'. cati, let him redeem his sin by perpetual alms, either by building or by endowing a church.
Penance could be commuted for specific acts of charity; and foremost among these was material support to churches and to monks, who were ex professo the 'poor of Christ'. It was this that moved many Norman settlers to donate land to their monasteries at home and in some cases to endow new foundations in England.
Besides piety, there were considerations of social convenience and public policy. The practice (if child oblation, authorised by the Rule of St Benedict, made monasteries convenient homes for the surplus children of the landed classes and professional families for those sons who could not be provided with an adequate inheritance, or daughters for whom no suitable marriage alliance could be found. Until the twelfth century, Until the twelfth century, when opinion veered against it, children donated by their parents were a major source of recruitment to the Benedictine houses. But alongside family strategy, then. was the question of public good. The rulers of society who gave property to monasteries expected temporal as well as spiritual returns from their investment. The abbeys and priories of Norman England, ruled and peopled by monks from France, were vital centres of loyalty to the new regime. As corporate landlords with powers of seignorial, and in some cases of public jurisdiction,they were effectively the governors of wide territories as their Saxon predecessors had been. Now, under the new dispensation, the heads of the older abbeys became tenants of the crown, required to supply quotas of knights for the royal host or the garrison of royal castles in return for their lands. This obligation of abbots and bishops to provide knight-service'., which had existed in France and Germany since Carolingian times, was introduced into England by the Conqueror.
The Norman influx breathed fresh intellectual life into the English monasteries. With the new abbots came the books and learning of the continent. They also brought the customs and liturgical usages of Norman monasticism which were derived from the practice of Cluny. The constitutions Lanfranc gave to Canterbury Cathedral priory, which were widely copied elsewhere in England, reproduced by the Cluniac customary with only minor amendments. They ordained a pattern c>f community life, largely inherited from the Carolingian past, in which liturgical prayer enriched by elaborate ritual was the major task of the monk and occupied the greater part of his day. The manual labour commended by St Benedict's Rule had been squeezed out of the timetable. A proportion of any monastic community was occupied in the managerial tasks involved in running great estates; but domestic work was done by hired servants.
By the end of the eleventh century, this traditional form of monastic life was coming under pressure from new and disturbing forces. Monastic leadership in the world of learning was being challenged by the rising schools of the seculars in Northern France and Northern Italy. The age of the magistri – the secular masters – had begun. Within the monastic world itself, accepted notions of the monk's vocation were being called in question by new ascetic movements expressing dissatisfaction with the prevailing version of the Benedictine life. The reaction was partly a protest against the wealth and worldly involvement of the great abbeys; partly a rejection of a regime that imposed a crushing burden of communal prayer and liturgical ritual, and made no concession to the need of the individual for solitude, private prayer or reflection. In their quest for disengagement, simplicity and solitude, the leaders of the movement, like the Gregorian Reformers, drew their inspiration from what they believed to be the order of the primitive Church. Their thinking focused upon three models suggested by Christian antiquity, and each provided inspiration for new forms of religious life.
The first was the example of the desert anchorites of Egypt and Palestine, made known through the Lives of the Fathers and the Conferences of Cassian. In the eleventh century the lure of the desert became again a major factor in Western religious experience. The ideal of the eremitical life inspired groups of hermits who congregated in the mountain regions of central Italy and in the forests of Burgundy and Maine, and it found institutional expression in new religious orders of an austere kind. The earliest of these, which began with the founding of their hermitage of Camaldoli in the Tuscan hills by St Romuald, never penetrated England. But two other eremitical orders – the Order of Grandmont founded by Stephen of Muret, and the Carthusian Order, which sprang from St Bruno's foundation of the Grande Chartreuse – made their appearance on the English scene in the course of the twelfth century.
Another fertile source of inspiration for new religious institutions was the idea of 'the apostolic life', the manner of life, that is, of the Apostles as described in chapter 2 of Acts. To the leaders of the Gregorian Reform movement of the eleventh century, the essence of this appeared to be life in community, based upon the renunciation of marriage and personal property. Hildebrand and St Peter Damian urged that this style of life was proper to the secular clergy, who exercised the apostolic role in the Church. In response to this propaganda, houses of canons regular began to appear in the eleventh century in France, Italy and Germany. These were communities of clergy, in some cases cathedral chapters, who had renounced personal property and adopted a fully monastic regime of common dormitory, refectory, and choral offices. They were a hybrid order of clerical monks. In the course of the twelfth century they adopted the so-called Rule of St Augustine as their identity card – an exhortatory treatise on the monastic virtues, which had originated as a letter addressed by Augustine to a community of nuns – gave them a collective identity. This, being much less detailed than the Rule of St Benedict, left each establishment latitude to devise its own regime. The Austin canons regular were not really an order, for although some of the greater houses like Saint-Victor at Paris and Arrouaise established dependencies, the majority of priories were autonomous, and followed their own customary without reference to any over-riding organisation. Thanks to enthusiastic promotion by bishops of the reforming tendency and lay patrons, the number ofcanons regular increased rapidly in the last decades of the eleventh century.
The same search for a primitive model of the religious life moved other groups to press for a more literal observance of the Benedictine Rule. They demanded greater seclusion from the outside world, a reduction in liturgical ritual, and a restoration of manual work to the monk's timetable. Out of these discontents and initiatives developed new orders – those of Tiron, Vallombrosa, Savigny and Citeaux – all dedicated to reviving what was believed to be the original observance of the Rule. Generally the leaders provided the inspiration, and it fell to their successors to translate the charisma into new institutions. The Cistercians, for instance, originated in the withdrawal of a group of monks from the abbey of Molesmc, led by their abbot, Robert, in 1098. All they sought was seclusion and poverty, and their settlement at Citeaux in the Burgundian forest was hardly more than an obscure hermitage until the arrival of St Bernard with thirty recruits in 1112. In the following three years, the community sent colonies to La Ferte, Pontingny and Clairvaux, and the institution entered an era of meteoric expansion.
St Bernard was the foremost apologist and recruiting officer for the order; and although he was not the founder, its austere observance and passionate propaganda bore the impress of his dominating personality. A novel feature of the Cistercians, made necessary by their initial refusal to accept serfs or the customary sources of manorial income, was their use on a scale hitherto unknown of conversi – illiterate lay-brothers recruited largely from the peasantry -as a labour force on their estates. But in the sense that it represented a more literal interpretation of St Benedict's Rule, the Cistercian observance was unoriginal. What was new was the articulated Constitution of the order which, as it evolved, was set out in an updated text of the Carta Caritatis, the foundation manifesto attributed in its original form to Stephen Harding. The outcome of this evolution was a closely co-ordinated federal structure. Every abbey was made responsible for supervising its own daughter houses; and all abbots were required to assemble every year at Citeaux in a general chapter, which was the supreme governing body of the order.
The newly forged territorial and cultural links with France meant that England was fully open to the rising tide of religious innovation from the continent. The canons regular made their appearance in England before the end of the eleventh century. Possibly the earliest foundation was St Mary's, Huntingdon, which owed its foundation to Eustace, the Norman sheriff But a close second was a community of clergy at St Botolph's, Colchester, who decided to adopt a monastic regime and borrowed the customs of the canons of St Quentin at Beauvais. During the twelfth century, the enthusiastic patronage of the Anglo-Norman baronage promoted many new foundations of canons. In fact, numbered by their houses, they came to be the largest order in the country.
There were several reasons for this success. The label of Augustmian canon covered a diversity of observance and a wide variety of establishments. The canons were to be found not only in priories great and small, but also serving hospitals, communities of nuns, the chapels of baronial castles and, in the case of Carlisle, a cathedral church. Their versatility and the possibility of founding a religious house with only a handful of clergy and a correspondingly modest endowment made them attractive to the lay patron of moderate means, as well as to parsimonious princes. The canons thus found patrons among men of the ministerial class, like Henry I's minister, Geoffrey de Clinton, who founded Kenilworth priory, and Ranulf Glanvill, the founder of Butley and Leiston priories in Suffolk.
Butley and Leiston represented two different forms of canonical life. The former was a house of black canons, who followed a moderate monastic regime and were not averse to accepting pastoral responsibilities. The latter belonged to the more austere order of white canons, the Premonstratensians, who traced their origin from St Norbert's hermitage of Premontre and modelled their observance on that of the Cistercians. Like the Cistercians too, they sought to avoid secular involvement and chose secluded sites for their settlements. Many of their houses were quite modest in size; so they appealed, like the black canons, to middling landowners anxious to reap the spiritual rewards of founding an ascetical community. It was a minor baron of Lincolnshire, Peter of Goxhill, who brought them to England in 1143 to people his foundation of Newhouse. By the such end of the century, twenty-seven houses had been founded in England.
The most conspicuous conquest made by the new monasticism was that of the Cistercians. They were preceded by a few years by the austere Norman order of Savigny, which supplied monks for the abbey of Furness, founded by Stephen of Blois. But from the 1130s onwards, it was the white monks of Citeaux, with their ascetical reputation and their aggressive revivalist claims – in St Bernard's phase, 'the restorers of lost religion' – who excited the greatest interest and attracted the most enthusiastic support of the military aristocracy in France and England. The first plantation was made at Waverley in Surrey in 1128; the monks were brought from L'Aumone through the offices of William Gifiard, the bishop of Winchester. But the greatest impact was made by a community sent from Clairvaux by St Bernard at the request of a Yorkshire baron, Walter L'Espec of Helmsley, in 1132, to found a new abbey at Rievaulx. By the end of the year, the example of the monks of Rievaulx had persuaded a groupof dissidents from St Mary's, York, to seek admission to the Cistercian order; and their settlement in Skelldale formed the nucleus of Fountains abbey. Rievaulx proved to be the harbinger of a wave of Cistercian settlement in the north of England.
Although they were representatives of a French order, the white monks quickly established themselves as an integral feature of the English social landscape. Their activities as cultivators of waste lands – the consequence of their preference for secluded sites – and large-scale producers of wool constitute a well-known chapter of English economic history, The native element was strong from the outset. There were Yorkshire men at Clairvaux in St Bernard's time, who formed the nucleus of the party that was sent to settle at Rievaulx. The order quickly recruited among the Anglo-Norman nobility and also, with spectacular success, among the English peasantry, who supplied the conversi. Ailred of Rievaulx's biographer tells us that in 1167 Rievaulx contained 140 choir monks and 500 lay-brothers. Waverley in the 1'180s housed seventy choir monks and 120 lay-brothers. What preserved the international dimension of the order were the constitutional links between English abbeys and their founding houses overseas, and annual journeys of English abbots to the general chapter, where they met continental brethren and brought back news and instructions from abroad. These meetings were the only regular form of international assembly known to medieval Europe.
The winds of ascetical revival from across the Channel touched women as well as men. The aristocratic order of Fontevrault owed its English plantation directly to the French connection, for Fontevrault was the chosen mausoleum of the Angevin dynasty, and it was Henry II who introduced the order to England. It represented a form of monastic life long since vanished the double monastery, consisting of a nunnery ruled by an abbess and served by an adjoining community of monks. l he order had only three houses in England, but it probably provided the inspiration for the only exclusively English religious order to be created at this period. This was St Gilbert's order of Sempringham. Gilbert founded the first houses to meet the religious needs of women, for whom the new orders made little pro vision. He planned to affiliate them to the Cistercians, but when his petition was rebuffed by the general chapter, he adopted something resembling the Fontevrault plan, and created double monasteries of nuns served by communities of Austin canons. By the end of the twelfth century, Gilbert's order contained nine double houses and four for canons alone, all of them in England, with a heavy concentration in his native Lincolnshire.
The colonisation by the new orders reflected the fact that England was an integral part of Latin Christendom. The process was materially assisted by kings with great continental dominions and a French-speaking aristocracy, who continued to look to France for their religious and cultural standards as well as their manners. But in the monastic world, as in secular society, a process of mutual assimilation or 'aculturation' was taking place. The Benedictine houses continued to receive abbots from French monasteries under the Norman kings, but the succession of aliens tailed-off after the middle of the twelfth century. The new orders, after the initial plantation, quickly recruited heads, as well as members, of English or Anglo-Norman birth. By the end of the century, monastic communities were normally bi-lingual in French and English. In the Benedictine abbeys, while a native tradition visually reasserted itself in the great schools of manuscript painting at Winchester, Canterbury and Bury St Edmund's, the products of their scriptoria and the contents of their libraries show that the monks shared with their overseas brethren a literary culture that was common to Western Christendom.
- C.H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism. Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages (Longman, 1984)
- M.D. Knowles, The Monastic: Order in England (Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 1963)
- Colin Platt, The Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England (Secker &Warburg, 1984)
- R.W. Southern, St Anselm and his Biographer (Cambridge University Press, l963)
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