Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Ruined Abbey in the Eighteenth Century

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Ruined Abbey in the Eighteenth Century

Article excerpt

In the first decades of the eighteenth century, little was known about Britain's ruined abbeys, but by the 1790s they had become prime tourist destinations, and poems and paintings featuring ruined abbeys became virtually a genre of their own. (1) Although considerable work has been done on the eighteenth-century Grand Tour and visits to the classical ruins of Rome, less attention has been paid to the keen interest that developed in English monastic ruins. Anne Janowitz is one of the few literary historians to have written recently about medieval ruins. (2) She analyzes how the representation of ruined castles in particular contributed to the formation of a national identity into the nineteenth century, but she does not consider monastic ruins at any length. My own emphasis is on the historical and the religious elements in eighteenth-century responses to Britain's ruined abbeys, with an analysis of the diverse range of those responses.

While any ruin could by definition prompt one to think about the vicissitudes of life and the precariousness of worldly ambition, a ruined abbey was distinctive because of its religious history. Louis Hawes has remarked that "both classical and medieval ruins arouse such associated ideas as transience, mutability and mortality--often mixed with a sense of awe. However ... decayed abbeys evoked various Christian associations much more than national ones." (3) The eighteenth-century connoisseur of ruins William Gilpin stressed the importance of distinguishing between them as structures in the landscape: "Castles, and abbeys have different situations, agreeable to their respective uses. The castle, meant for defence, stands boldly on the hill: the abbey, intended for meditation, is hid in the sequestered vale." (4) Robert Mayhew argues that more attention should be given to the Christian elements in Gilpin's travel writings, connecting those books to Gilpin's role as a clergyman. (5) One of the points that Mayhew makes is that "Gilpin does not deny the religious potential of picturesque tours, if conducted by those who do tend to move from nature to nature's God." (6) If ruins in general were regarded as a landscape setting conducive to serious or melancholic reflection, no place was more appropriate for this than a monastic ruin. Alongside their diverse and often practical uses in the local communities where they were found, abbey grounds also provided a new version of the rustic seat of Milton's Il Penseroso. Their value in the eighteenth century was both individual and collective. Whether responding with religious awe, curiosity, or anti-Catholicism, people found in ruined abbeys an image of a religious past to be addressed in the present.

In the 1530s, when Henry VIII broke from Rome to establish the Church of England, one of his early acts was the Dissolution of Britain's Roman Catholic monasteries. The monasteries were plundered for their wealth, till often little remained but a roofless shell of the buildings themselves. These abandoned structures were sometimes used by farmers for storage or by beggars for shelter. Local residents used the grounds as a place for games, similar to a commons green. Couples found some privacy for courtship there too. On the other side of the social spectrum, many abbeys were converted into fine homes. Scholarly interest in monastic ruins began to develop, (7) and with more than eight hundred abbeys situated across England and Wales, they were an unavoidable part of the landscape. Margaret Aston describes them as "a series of signposts to the destroyed monastic era, and they led to nostalgia and poetry, as well as to antiquarianism and history." (8)

In the comprehensive survey Pleasure of Ruins, Rose Macaulay explains that ruin sentiment and ruin discourse were already evident in the seventeenth century, with occasional literary allusions, including a satirical reference to an antiquary as one who "loves all things ... the better for being mouldy and worm-eaten . …

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