In an earlier volume an attempt was made to write the history of the monastic order in England from the times of Dunstan to the Fourth Council of the Lateran. Between that Council and the Dissolution more than three centuries elapsed, but the story of the fortunes of the monks during that long space has never been told at length. The reasons for this neglect are not far to seek. During the earlier period monastic history abounds in notable events and striking personalities; new orders appear one after the other, and the older bodies undergo rapid changes; of all these vicissitudes we have vivid contemporary accounts, often written by the monks themselves, and the letters and biographies of the actors give depth and breadth, light and shade, to the picture. From the end of the twelfth century all this is changed. The monastic life and institutions, at least to a casual observer, appear to become static. There are no arresting developments, no revolutionary reforms, no leaders and saints of the stature of Dunstan, Lanfranc, Ailred and Hugh of Lincoln, and even a well-read student of the. Middle Ages would be hard put to it to describe the changes that had taken place in the life of the monks between the age of Simon de Montfort and that of Thomas More.
Human institutions, however, are never wholly static, and it was a conviction that movement and change had taken place that led to the undertaking of a continuation of the earlier book through an age less familiar, and in a sense less grateful, to the monastic historian.
As the work went forward, at least three important developments in monastic life during the thirteenth century became apparent. The monasteries, at first under the impulse of the Lateran decrees, but later from a spontaneous effort from within, made considerable progress towards union for common action and for disciplinary and administrative reform; at the same time they entered upon new responsibilities as active landlords and commercial farmers on a large scale; and, lastly, they capitulated to the spirit of the age and took part in the intellectual life of the country by frequenting the universities. Whatever judgement may be made upon the wisdom or success of these new ventures, they are all evidence of a living energy and of a flexibility of movement and, so long as they were pursued with decision, they held the monasteries within the full stream of the country's life.
Yet while these new relations were being established in the intellectual and social spheres, the gradual evolution of European society was thrusting the monks slowly but without pause from the forefront of the national scene. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries they had been the very soul of the higher life of England; they were a principal influence in things of the mind; their most eminent representatives were known to all as leaders . . .