Abbots Ascendant: William Chester Jordan's Study of One of Medieval Europe's Great Monastic Rivalries Suggests That Social Mobility May Have Been More Common in the Middle Ages Than Historians Previously Thought

By Jordan, William Chester | History Today, August 2009 | Go to article overview
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Abbots Ascendant: William Chester Jordan's Study of One of Medieval Europe's Great Monastic Rivalries Suggests That Social Mobility May Have Been More Common in the Middle Ages Than Historians Previously Thought


Jordan, William Chester, History Today


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Englishmen of the Middle Ages born into privilege frequently complained about upward social mobility. They spoke of administrators who were 'raised from the dust' to positions of governmental authority and power. They denounced lovers, female and male, of inferior though not necessarily lowly status who insinuated themselves into the beds of princes and received gifts and preferment as a consequence. In 1215 Magna Carta condemned what was perceived to be King John's deliberate practice of forcing heiresses of great property to dishonour themselves by marrying men of lesser rank whom the monarch wanted to reward and to elevate in the eyes of the traditional political and military elite.

Alarmism was as characteristic of the Middle Ages as it is now. Fear of change and, in particular, fear that change would undermine the advantages of birth encouraged nobles and gentry and, in different contexts, guild masters to take extraordinary measures to thwart upward mobility. Two or three disparaging marriages uniting the daughters of great aristocrats with knights of the royal household were enough to send the upper class into a frenzy. Not without reason they saw the upward mobility of the knights as a threat to the integrity of their own social relations and cultural exclusiveness. Upward mobility was not the only threat, of course. The 13th century saw an equally strident though less coherent resistance in England to so-called aliens (men and women of aristocratic status from Poitou and Savoy). These continental kinfolk of Henry III were seen as displacing or trying to displace the native upper class from its central importance and thereby deflecting some of the crown's largesse away from the latter. Yet both types of challenge to English aristocratic superiority, from upward mobility and from aliens, were less fraught, it would appear, in the context of the medieval church.

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There is little doubt that there was often resentment when men of foreign regions, Italians, say, moved into positions of power within the church in England, France and elsewhere. There are plenty of ordinances in English and French history and the other national histories of the Middle Ages forbidding the provision of offices in the church, often at papal request or demand, to aliens. And, although not a great deal has been written on the subject, there is evidence that within key ecclesiastical institutions such as the major monasteries there were sometimes fractious relations among the inmates from different regional (or ethnic) origins. Cosmopolitanism in the guise of religious universalism was the ideal and adherence to universalism may have softened the antagonisms, hut they were real nonetheless.

One presumes that there must have been resentment, too, when clergy of questionable origins--bastards and the low-born, for example--rose to prominence in these same institutions, but explicit evidence is rare. What is not hard to find is evidence that such churchmen could overcome the mediocrity of their birth and enjoy spectacular careers. Two outstanding examples worth considering at some length are the English Abbot of Westminster, Richard de Ware, and the French Abbot of Saint-Denis, Mathieu de Vendome. What makes them an interesting pair, besides the upward mobility to which their careers point, is the fact that their lives provide startling parallels of other sorts and equally fascinating interconnections.

Early modern and modern writers have gone a long way toward inventing a past for the men. Ware was a small market town on the pilgrimage routes that led north to the Virgin's shrine at Walsingham in Norfolk and south to St Thomas Becket's at Canterbury in Kent. As it was not the seat of a noble family of prominence (indeed, the most famous, if fictitious, native of Ware is Chaucer's cook in the Canterbury Tales), there was no obvious way to associate Richard, who flourished in the mid-13th century, with a local aristocratic lineage of that name, an association that would, if genuine, conveniently explain his rise to prominence in the church.

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Abbots Ascendant: William Chester Jordan's Study of One of Medieval Europe's Great Monastic Rivalries Suggests That Social Mobility May Have Been More Common in the Middle Ages Than Historians Previously Thought
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