The Religious Orders in Pre-Reformation England

By Tillotson, John | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2004 | Go to article overview

The Religious Orders in Pre-Reformation England


Tillotson, John, The Catholic Historical Review


The Religious Orders in Pre-Reformation England. Edited by James G. Clark. [Studies in the History of Medieval Religion 18.] (Rochester, New York: The Boydell Press. 2002. Pp. xii, 250. $75.00.)

The thirteen essays in this volume began life as papers presented to a colloquium at York in September, 1999. In their variety of subject and approaches they provide revealing insights into the current directions of scholarly thinking about the last century of the religious orders in medieval England. There are six sections: an Introduction with two essays by James G. Clark and Joan Greatrex; three papers on the subject of "Education and Learning" (Barbara Harvey, Vincent Gillespie, and Jeremy Catto); and two each on the "Mendicant Life" (Michael Robson and R. N. Swanson),"Women Religious" (Claire Cross and Marilyn Oliva), "Monasteries and Society" (Benjamin Thompson and Glyn Coppack), and "Dissolution" (F. Donald Logan and Peter Cunich).

The period since David Knowles completed the third volume of The Religious Orders in England (1959) has seen a major upsurge in publication on the late Middle Ages, and a real attempt made to shift discussion of monastic houses away from pervasive assumptions about decline and dissolution. In a very useful survey of recent literature, James G. Clark demonstrates what a mixed balance sheet can be constructed on the late medieval religious. If their houses had become marginalized in terms of the most vital directions of spirituality, they were nonetheless so deeply integrated into their local societies that their destruction between 1536 and 1540 constituted a watershed. In a literal as well as a metaphorical sense the English landscape was changed.

Benjamin Thompson's persuasive essay "Monasteries, Society and Reform in Late Medieval England," systematically explores the reasons why this dramatic destruction of monasticism could be accomplished in such a short space of time and relatively easily. His explanation accommodates both the shift away from monasticism as a dominant force in the Church after the twelfth century, and the undoubted efforts of the religious to adapt to new needs. The services they offered to patrons and more generally (hospitality, alms, corrodies, advowsons, places for relatives, prestige, schools) were valued, certainly; but few of them were exclusive to them. They remained vulnerable to the argument that they had abandoned the ideal of withdrawal from the world, and that better use might be made of the large resources they controlled. …

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