Born Michael Clive Knowles in 1896 in Warwickshire, England, but in scholarship known by his religious name, Dom David Knowles, O.S.B., is one of the greatest living historians. Ordained a priest in 1922, after a period of study at Christ's College, Cambridge, Dom David began the literary and academic career which has brought him numerous honors. Regius Professor of Modern History in Cambridge from 1954 to 1963, he has also been the president of the Royal Historical Society; Ford's lecturer in English history, Oxford; British Academy Raleigh lecturer; Creighton lecturer, London; and the recipient of fellowships and honorary degrees. His fame rests on The Monastic Order in England, The Religious Houses of Medieval England, and his three-volume The Religious Orders in England, as well as on his The English Mystical Tradition, The Evolution of Medieval Thought, The Historian and Character, and other books and articles too numerous to mention.
AT THE CONCLUSION of a work that has presented the history of the monastic order and of the religious orders in England from the revival of the tenth century to the dissolution of the monasteries almost exactly six centuries later, it is natural to look back upon the path that has been traversed, as climbers might look back upon the silhouette of an arête.1
Before doing so, we should do well to remind ourselves that the monastic way of life, to which all the medieval religious orders were assimilated in greater or less degree, had been in existence for more than six centuries before the age of Dunstan,2 and continued to flourish in Catholic countries during and after the age of the Reformation. Indeed, in the previous chapter we have seen how the last spark of the old fire remained in this country to be merged in the new flame. The monasticism of the counter-Reformation had in its turn an eclipse in the age of enlightenment and revolution; it witnessed a third spring in the nineteenth century and still flourishes; indeed, it has expanded yearly even while these volumes have been in the writing.
Yet for all this, the assumption of English antiquarians and historians in the past, that monasticism was something medieval, and had passed "like the baseless fabric of a vision" with the medieval world, had in it a part, at least, of the truth. Monasticism as an integral part of society, and as an economic and cultural factor of the first importance, wash a specific element in the medieval world between the decline of the Roman empire and the Reformation: as such it passed wherever and whenever the medieval framework disappeared, and it is hard to see how it could ever again come to take such a place in society, save perhaps in a comparable state of utter disruption and depopulation following upon the collapse of a world civilization of which Christianity was the only surviving element. Much of what has been written in the past of medieval monasticism has in-____________________