Anglo-Saxon Double Monasteries

By Mitchell, Barbara | History Today, October 1995 | Go to article overview

Anglo-Saxon Double Monasteries


Mitchell, Barbara, History Today


The double monasteries of Anglo-Saxon England have attracted the attention of historians recently, particularly those with an interest in womens' studies, because of the importance of their abbesses, who ruled over communities consisting of monks as well as nuns. This article is an attempt to reassess them in the light of some recent as well as some well-trodden paths.

They were a peculiar institution in the history of monasticism and relatively short-fived. Most were founded in the seventh century and had disappeared by the middle of the ninth. They were usually founded by or for a woman of royal or high birth who would rule a community of nuns and a parallel but physically separate community of monks, some of whom would be trained and ordained as priests who, since women could not be ordained, would celebrate mass and administer the sacraments for the whole community, which would usually worship in the same church.

In their original state both female and male communities were governed by the abbess. In some cases the first abbess, usually of royal birth, seems to have endowed the foundation, or it might be endowed for her by a royal relative. In this way they differed from joint adjacent foundations for men and women under an abbot and abbess and also from the family monasteries which existed in the early eastern church and from the seventh century in Spain, in which husband and wife or brother and sister might become abbot and abbess.

These were occasionally found in England but do not seem to have been common. They were open to abuse as a means of avoiding taxation by both church and state and as a prey to sexual immorality. Double and joint monasteries tended to be disapproved of by papal authority and this was, in my view, the reason for their eventual disappearance.

The importance of these monasteries for the status of women in Anglo-Saxon England was stressed more than fifty years ago by Sir Frank Stenton and by his wife, D.M. Stenton. Much earlier, they were well- analysed and studied by Mary Bateson published in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (1899). More recently, they have been studied for the light they throw on marriage and kinship in their period. The still definitive analysis is that of the German scholar Dom S. Hilpisch in Die Doppelkloster, Entstebung und Organisation (1928). Although he rather unfairly criticised her scholarship, he reinforced Bateson's view that the model for them is to be found in the Frankish double monasteries of northern Gaul (northern Francia) rather than in any Irish institution such as St Brigit's in Kildare - though missionary monks from Ireland undoubtedly promoted monasticism in both Francia and England and Englishmen studied in monasteries in Ireland.

Faremoutiers, Chelles and jouarre, all double monasteries under an abbess, had been founded earlier than any in England with the monastic boom which followed the missionary activity of the Irish monk Columbanus in Gaul around 600. He founded several male monasteries in Gaul and, later, Bobbio in Italy, but the double monasteries of northern Francia seem to have been conceived as a result of rather than by his mission. The double provision for both sexes in one foundation under an abbess is now usually recognised to have been a Frankish innovation in the western church and brought from there to England.

We know from Bede that in the mid-seventh-century English women of high rank went to the double monasteries in northern Francia, especially to Chelles, because few, if any, had yet been founded in England. Some returned to found similar houses in England, where they spread quickly during the next half century. The social and economic conditions in both societies were similar. Both were wealthy landed aristocracies, not highly urbanised. If a female house was founded on land belonging to an abbess or her family it was likely to be isolated, hence the need for a double monastery to provide priests. …

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