A History of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, 1182-1256: Samson of Tottingham to Edmund of Walpole. By Antonia Gransden. (Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer. 2007. Pp. xxx, 354. $105.00. ISBN 978-1-843-83324-6.)
Intended as the first part of a two-volume survey of one of the greater Benedictine abbeys of medieval England, Antonia Gransden's history of Bury St. Edmunds in its golden age inevitably invites comparison with other such studies, most notably Barbara Harvey's ground-breaking volumes on the economy and domestic arrangements of the monks of Westminster. Whereas Westminster boasts an extraordinary wealth of obethentary and manorial accounts, Bury in the period 1180-1250 has bequeathed evidences equally rich but slanted more toward the historical and the liturgical, in particular the Bury Customary of c.1234, and two great works of history: Jocelin of Brakeland's chronicle of Abbot Samson and the long anonymous history of the election of Samson's successor, Abbot Hugh. Taken en masse, these shed unique light on internal squabblings and rivalries within the monastic community. Gransden's survey reveals the full richness of the Bury sources, although much of the second half of her book is recycled from previous work, most notably from her introduction to the Customal that she first published in 1973.
Launching herself in medias res, with no attempt to trace the first two centuries of the abbey's existence, her book as a whole is perhaps better consulted, rather like the Bury sources themselves, as a series of selfcontained libelli, dealing with such themes as election, liturgy, learning, or the economy, rather than as a coherent or comprehensive institutional history. Within these limitations there is much to admire.There are, for example, fascinating details on such topics as bells and bell-ringing; the monks' employment of minstrels, water clocks, windmills and ruby rings; the cult and profits of the Bury saints; the problems that arose from allowing Cistercians to legislate on the diet of unreformed Benedictine monks; and a whole host of other such things.
There is, however, a tendency to allow the tangential to run riot. Some of the most original and fascinating details are consigned to footnotes (for example, at page 1 56 on the contrast between …