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The English Cathedral Priories and the Pursuit of Learning in the Later Middle Ages

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 February 2009


It has frequently been observed that the intellectual activities of the English Black Monks were in decline during the last two-and-a-half centuries before the Dissolution. There is, indeed, a remarkable contrast between the fecundity of the monastic scriptoria in the two centuries after the Conquest and the apparent inertia of later years, when the creative stimulus seems to have dwindled to the verge of extinction and few, if any, original minds are found at work within the cloister. This generalisation cannot be challenged, as the evidence leaves little room for doubt, but the ‘apparent inertia’ may be questioned since it is a contradiction of the emerging facts. The latter suggest not apathy but persistence in the pursuit of learning, that is, a continuing concern for study on the part of the monastic community; and this should not be disparaged because it bore little more than the practical, commonplace fruits of preaching and teaching. We cannot regard these as fruits of scholarship to be compared with the original compositions which grew out of the philosophical and theological disputations at the centre of university life; they were daily or weekly activities, quite unremarkable, and probably for this very reason left scant record of their occurrence. Moreover, the Black Monk Chapter was promoting these fruits by stating unequivocally, in its statutes of c. 1363, that the principal reason behind the joint decision to send one monk in twenty for further study at the university was to fulfil these precise and practical requirements. A clear indication of the enduring commitment to this policy on the part of most of the cathedral monasteries is to be found in many of the surviving documents, which affirm a consistent adherence to their obligations.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1994

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1 Documents illustrating the activities of the general and provincial chapters of the English Black Monks, 1215–1340, ed. Pantin, W. A. (Camden 3rd ser. xlv(i), xlvii(ii), liv(iii), 1931–7), ii. 75–6Google Scholar. Hastings Rashdall wrote disparagingly of the Benedictines' ‘feeble efforts to rescue their order from the reproach of entire ignorance’. He also belittled what he judged as a casual approach to the practical purposes of preaching and theological instruction for which they were sent to university, although he himself was a cleric: Hastings Rashdall, The universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, ed. Powicke, F. M. and Emden, A. B., 3vols, Oxford 1936, iii. 184, 190Google Scholar.

2 See, for example, Pantin, W. A., The English Church in the fourteenth century, Notre Dame 1963, 10535Google Scholar, for ‘intellectual life and controversy’, and also Knowles, David, The evolution of medieval thought, 2nd edn, London 1988, 298310Google Scholar. Francis Oakley has written a comprehensive general survey of The Western Church in the later Middle Ages, London 1979Google Scholar, and Harper-Bill, Christopher has recently provided a similar overview of the English Church in The pre-Reformation Church in England, 1400–1530 London 1989Google Scholar.

3 For Durham Professor Dobson, R. B. has surveyed the first half of the fifteenth century in detail in Durham Cathedral Priory, 1400–1450, Cambridge 1973CrossRefGoogle Scholar. He has recently completed an impressive and discerning study of the Canterbury monks in a chapter which will appear in the forthcoming volume on the history of Christ Church Cathedral, edited by Margaret Sparks and Nigel Ramsay. Bath and Coventry have also been omitted from this article, apart from an occasional reference, because their histories have been greatly impoverished by the loss of a large proportion of their medieval muniments.

4 For the Norwich library see Beeching, H. C. and James, M. R., ‘The library of the cathedral church of Norwich’, Norfolk Archaeology xix (1917), 67116Google Scholar; Ker, N. R., ‘Medieval manuscripts from Norwich Cathedral library’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society i (19491953), 128Google Scholar, repr. in A. G. Watson (ed.), Books, collectors and libraries: studies in the medieval heritage, London 1985, 243–72. The first century of the Rochester library has been studied by Waller, Kate in her thesis, ‘The library, scriptorium and community of Rochester Cathedral Priory, c. 1080–c. 1150’, unpubl. PhD diss. Liverpool 1981Google Scholar. Floyer, J. K. gave a brief description of ‘The mediaeval library of the Benedictine priory of St Mary, in Worcester Cathedral Church’ in Archaeologia, 2nd ser. lviii, pt 2 (1903), 561–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar. More recently McIntyre, Elizabeth has provided a competent study of ‘Early twelfth-century Worcester Cathedral Priory with special reference to the manuscripts there’, unpubl. DPhil. diss. Oxford 1978Google Scholar.

5 This point is well illustrated and discussed in the essays in Bulst, Neithard and Genet, Jean Philippe (eds), Medieval lives and the historian: studies in medieval prosopography, Kalamazoo 1986Google Scholar.

6 The Rule of St Benedict, ed. McCann, Justin, London 1960, cap. 58Google Scholar.

7 WCM, Liber Albus [or Reg. A5], fo. 113v.

8 Ibid. fo. 134. There was a similar refusal on the same grounds at Canterbury in 1324 which is printed in Literae Cantuarienses: the letter books of the monastery of Christ Church, Canterbury, ed. Sheppard, J. Brigstocke, 3 vols (Rolls Series, 18871889), i 126Google Scholar.

9 HWRO, b716.093–BA.2648/6(111) [Reg. Carpenter], p. 135 (the Worcester registers have been paginated). A reference to the required examination of candidates, in this case by the prior and three or four ‘judicious monks’, also occurs in Walpole's, Bishop injunctions to the Ely chapter in 1300: Ely chapter ordinances and visitation records: 1241–1515, ed. Evans, S. J. A. (Camden 3rd ser. lxiv), Camden Miscellany xvii (1940), 1415Google Scholar.

10 There are no surviving precentor's accounts at Winchester, but the stopovers of Nicholas de Enford, precentor, at the priory manor of Whitchurch, Hants, in 1336/7 ‘versus ordines cum juvenibus’ and of John de Bristowe at Crondal manor in 1398/9, accompanied by five monks on their way to Farnham (where the bishop often held ordinations), strongly suggest that this custom prevailed there. (The manorial accounts for Whitchurch and Crondal are in Winchester Cathedral Library where they are listed according to date.) At Worcester, Robert Stanes in 1384/5 and John de Hatfield in 1393/4 are found performing this task: WCM C.364, 368. At Ely, in 1302/3, the precentor took the ordinands to Histon, and in 1355/6 he sent a boy to the bishop at Wisbech to ask the date of the next ordination: Cambridge University Library, Add. MS 2957 (Bentham transcripts), pp. 41, 44.

11 Gray's injunction concerning the novice master is in Ely chapter ordinances, 58–9. Roger de Norwich received small sums for instructing the young monks in 1364/5, in 1388/9, and in 1389/90: Cambridge UL, Add. MS 2957, pp. 54, 36; EDC 5/3/23. When he incepted in theology in 1384/5, 260 rabbits were sent up to Cambridge from Lakenheath, an Ely manor, for the inception feast: EDC 5/2/25, 7/15/I/29. He was at Cambridge between 1388 and 1390 and probably went on to obtain a doctorate: EDC 5/4/18, 5/13/8. See also BRUC.

12 See Greatrex, j.Monk students from Norwich Cathedral Priory at Oxford and Cambridge, c. 1300 to 1530’, English Historical Review cvi (1991), 562–3CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The Winchester monks were taught grammar and chant by hired outsiders in the mid- and late fifteenth century: The register of the common seal of the priory of St Swithun, Winchester, 1345–1497, ed. Greatrex, J. (Hampshire Record Series ii, 1978), items 236, 510Google Scholar. It is to be noted that as long as the instruction remained a domestic matter there would have been no need for any written record to be preserved.

13 Two monks who were lent to other monasteries are John de St Germans who taught at St Augustine's, Canterbury between 1308 and 1310 and Ranulph de Calthrop who lectured to Ramsey monks sometime before 1318. The main details of their careers are given in BRUO. Bromwych is also in BRUO which, however, fails to note that he was recalled to Worcester in 1325 in order to teach Scripture: WCM, Liber Albus, fo. 123v.

14 For the details of the lectures given by John de Preston (in the 1340s), John Lawerne (in the 1440s) and Roger Neckham (from 1528), see Greatrex, J. ‘Benedictine monk scholars as teachers and preachers in the later Middle Ages: evidence from Worcester Cathedral Priory’, in Loades, Judith (ed.), Monastic Studies II, Bangor 1991, 217Google Scholar.

15 For Ealding, see BRUO. Canterbury is listed as subdeacon and student at Oxford in the election proceedings of a prior in the Register of Bishop Fox, Hampshire Record Office, A1/21, fo. 77.

16 Clyfton's profession date was probably 20 May 1400 according to HWRO, b716.093–BA. 2648/4(v) [Reg. Winchcombe], p. 97, and his ordination is in ibid. b716.093–BA. 2648/5(ii) [Reg. Peverel], p. 176. The cellarer paid for the transport ‘tocius apparatus’ to Oxford on that same year's account: WCM, C.80. Waryn (or Wynchcombe) was admitted in May 1473 (WCM, Reg. A6(i), fo. 77), and ordained priest in March 1479 (HVVRO, b716.093–BA. 2648/7 (i) [Reg. Alcock], p. 255. He is listed as Waren in BRUO with no Christian name. Examples of monk chaplains may be given. John Hatfield was priested in 1368 (HVVRO, b716.093–BA. 2648/4 (ii) [Reg. Whittlesey], p. 74), appointed chaplain to Prior Evesham the following year (WCM, Liber Albus, fo. 234V), and went to Oxford in 1371/2 (WCM C.67). Hugh Leyntwardine was priest in 1426/7 (WCM, C.193, 229), at Oxford by and probably before 1433/4, returned to Worcester in 1435/6 (WCM, C.492, 88), and was chaplain to Thomas Ledbury soon after the latter became prior in 1438 (ibid. Liber Albus, fo. 458v).

17 Pantin, W. A., Canterbury College, Oxford (Oxford Historical Society n.s. vi(i), vii(ii), viii(iii), xxx(iv), 1947–85), iv. 215–28Google Scholar. The estimates of the total numbers of monks from c. 1290 to 1540 are based on my own forthcoming register, as are all the other figures in this paper where no references are given.

18 In 1387 John Grene was brought home to preach at a visitation: WCM, Liber Albus, fo. 318v. In 1405 John Wodeward rode from Oxford to Worcester to preach on Christmas Eve: WCM, C.372.

19 Some of these figures are given in Greatrex, ‘Monk students from Norwich’, 558–9, but they may need some amendment in the light of more recent research. With regard to Winchester, the observation in the following paragraph does permit speculation that there was, as at Ely, a fairly regular contingent of monks sent to Oxford; but it should be noted that, in 1343, the Black Monk Chapter fined the prior and chapter for their failure to maintain any students: Black monk chapters, ii. 22.

20 Greatrex, , ‘Monk students from Norwich’, 561Google Scholar.

21 For about 30 of these 200 years no accounts have survived.

22 These 40 accounts extend from 1352 t o 1532. See Compotus Rolls of the obedientiaries of St Swithun's Priory, Winchester, ed. Kitchen, G. W. (Hampshire Record Society vii, 1892), 280Google Scholar; WCL, Whitchurch Hundred account for 1389/90 and Hurstbourne manor account for c. 1393.

23 The earliest university-trained priors were William de Claxton at Norwich (prior 1326–44) and Simon Crumpe at Worcester (prior 1339–40). The earliest among those with degrees were John de Evesham at Worcester (prior 1340–70) and John de Sheppey at Rochester (prior 1333–52). Details of their academic record are in BRUO except for Claxton (for which see Greatrex, , ‘Monk students from Norwich’, 581)Google Scholar and for Crumpe (see WCM, C.55). The Worcester priores studentium were John Fordham and John Ledbury, both in BRUO.

24 See Greatrex, , ‘Monk students from Norwich’, 568Google Scholar.

25 Ibid. 570–2, for details of former Norwich students posted to the cells, of which there were six; for Durham, see Dobson, Durham Priory, 310–11Google Scholar; and Piper, Alan, ‘St Leonard's Priory, Stamford’, The Stamford Historian (Stamford Historical Society and the Stamford Survey Group vi, 02 1982), 910Google Scholar. While it is true that both Rochester and Ely (after 1449) had one dependent house for not more than 3 or 4 monks, the records are too scanty to provide details about the movements of monks between either of these cathedral communities and their cells. Since the monks of Little Malvern Priory were not members of the cathedral chapter at Worcester it cannot be classed as a cell.

26 Courtenay, W. J., Schools and scholars in fourteenth-century England, Princeton, NJ 1987, 106–11Google Scholar; Greatrex, J., ‘The almonry school of Norwich Cathedral Priory’, in Wood, Diana (ed.), The Church and Childhood (Studies in Church History xxxi, 1994)Google Scholar.

27 These were Simon Crumpe, precentor in July (1328) and prior from 1339 to 1340 (Calendar of the register of Adam de Orleton, bishop of Worcester, 1327–1333, ed. Haines, R. M. [Worcestershire Historical Society n.s. x, no. 10, 1979], item 51)Google Scholar, and John Malverne (BRUO) who was prior from 1395 to 1409 (for the latter date see WCM, C.81). The Worcester priors were chosen by the bishop from a list of seven names presented to him by the chapter.

28 The Ely chancellors are Peter de Norwich and Robert de Sutton who were named as chancellors in 1390: BL, Add. MS 9822, fo. 73. Norwich was probably the ‘inceptori… in teologia’ referred to by the granetar in 1364–5: Cambridge UL, EDC 5/4/13. He was rewarded by the precentor in 1373/4 ‘pro labore suo’ presumably related to books: ibid. Add. MS 2957, p. 45. Sutton was ‘institutor iuvenum’ in the 1360s: ibid. pp. 55–6, 157. For the Durham librarius, see Piper, A. J., ‘The libraries of the monks of Durham’, in Parkes, M. B. and Watson, A. G. (eds), Medieval scribes, manuscripts and libraries: essays presented to N. R. Ker, London 1978, 217Google Scholar.

29 Ely chapter ordinances, 40.

30 Cambridge UL, EDC 5/9/2; the year is probably 1341. For what may be a slightly different use of the term ‘emendacio’ see n. 32 below.

31 WCM, C.365, 370 for reference to his work. He is named as succentor in The register of the diocese of Worcester during the vacancy of the see, usually called registrum sede vacante, 1310–1435, ed. Bund, J. W. Willis (Worcestershire Historical Society viii, 1897), 373Google Scholar.

32 WCM, C.353 (1349/50). The entries occur passim on the precentor's rolls (C.351–77); in 1376/7 the payment was explained by the phrase ‘in cronicis mutandis’ (C.361a), and in 1390/1 ‘in emendacione cronicarum’ (C.367). For a discussion and description of these ‘hanging’ chronicles, and other references to them see Gransden, AntoniaLegends, traditions and history in medieval England, London 1992, 331Google Scholar.

33 Malverne's academic record is in BRUO and his work as an historian has been described and assessed in Gransden, AntoniaHistorical writing in England, II:c. 1307 to the early sixteenth century, London 1982, 56, 157–8 and nnGoogle Scholar.

34 WCM, C.385 (1481/2) contains the 5s. gift; C.94a names him as pittancer in 1459/60, and his death is noted in C.210.

35 Attention has been drawn to the earlier list of Prior Simon Bozoun's (1344–52) books in Medieval libraries of Great Britain, a list of surviving books, ed. Ker, N. R., 2nd edn, London 1964, 136Google Scholar, and in Dodwell, Barbara, ‘History and the monks of Norwich Cathedral Priory’, Reading Medieval Studies v (1979), 49Google Scholar; the later catalogues are described in Greatrex, , ‘Monk students from Norwich’, 575–6Google Scholar.

36 Weston was, as already noted (p. 398), admitted in 1323 but his first known appearance was in 1334 when he went to the manor of Sedgeberrow for supervisory purposes, probably as subcellarer: WCM, C.755. He was cellarer three years later: C.832. John Clyve served as precentor, sacrist and cellarer between 1395 and 1425, and Oxford, Bodley Hatton MS II (dated 1404) may have been copied in his hand (Medieval libraries, 318); his name is inside the opening initial.

37 Hales's first mass is noted in WCM, C.160 and his appointment as chaplain is in ibid, Reg. A 6(ii) fo. 9. The ordination of Newyntone is in Reg. sede vacante, 159, his visit to King's Norton in WCM C.693b and his date of death is given in C.298; Fylkes went to Oxford in 1395/6, as recorded in C.77, and was still there in 1401 according to Reg. sede vacante, 373. He is named as tumbarius in ibid. 407.

38 Many of these donor and other inscriptions are listed in Medieval libraries.

39 The MS is Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 252. Reynham was reported as sick in 1347/8 which is the last reference to him: NRO, DCN 1/10/6.

40 For Hevyngham as sacrist, c. 1402–6, see ibid. DCN 1/4/45–8; for his death at Lynn DCN 1/9/31, where two students, who are named, were M.John Dereham, and William Worsted, both of whom are in BRUO.

41 Blockley's name is written on fo. 326v. His name is entered on More's account for 1518 because he began work on the new prior's register, a duty assigned to the chaplain: Journal of William More, ed. Fagan, E. S. (Worcestershire Historical Society xxxii, 1914), 74Google Scholar.

42 The MS is Q 17 which ha s been dated by Ker, in Medieval libraries, 213Google Scholar, as thirteenth/fourteenth century; the hand is later.

43 Wybarn is included in BRUO and in Ker' s Medieval libraries; the Comestor MS is BL Royal 2 C.i and the Jerome MS Royal 6 D.ii. The full list of MSS containing his name will be printed in my ‘Biographical register of monks of the cathedral priories of the province of Canterbury’, now in preparation.

44 Obedientiary rolls, 456, 460; and on the latter page (for the year 1514/15) there is a reference to two students as there is also on p. 464 (for 1516/17).

45 Kent Archives Office, DRc/R.7 [Reg. Fisher], fos 72, 108; the total number of monks in 1532 was 23 (fo. 173).

46 Cambridge UL, EDR G/1/7 [Reg. Goodrich], fos 89V–90V for the list of monks; the three at Cambridge in 1535/6 are in ibid. Add. MS 2957, p. 177. Two of the others are named on pp. 75, 79, 80 and another on p. 81.

47 For details of the fluctuations in numbers at Norwich see Greatrex, J., ‘Some statistics of religious motivation’, in Baker, Derek (ed.), Religious motivation: biographical and sociological problems for the historian (Studies in Church History xv, 1978), 183–5Google Scholar; for the university monks, see Greatrex, , ‘Monk students from Norwich’, 579–83Google Scholar.

48 The number of monks in 1479/80 is recorded on one of the surviving pittancer's accounts deposited in Birmingham Central Libraries, Archives Department, DU 2 BR168237. There ma y have been only three scholars in 1521 as the wording is not clear; also present a t the visitation were four professed novices and one university graduate: Bishop Geoffrey Blythe's visitations, ed. Heath, P. (Staffordshire Record Society 4th ser. vii, 1973), 86–7Google Scholar. Professor Donald Logan has kindly shared with me his discovery of three monk graduates at Ramsey Abbey in the 1530s and two at university, when there were not more than 30 monks in all. D r Robert Dunning has found a similar trend a t Glastonbury, which included both an increase in vocations and in university attendance, in ‘Revival at Glastonbury 1530–9’, in Baker, Derek (ed.), Renaissance and renewal in church history (Studies in Church History xiv, 1977), 213–22Google Scholar.

49 Details of the fall and rise in numbers on the Worcester chamberlain's rolls are in Greatrex, , ‘Statistics’, 185–6Google Scholar; in addition, the precentor's account shows totals of 40 or slightly less between 1467/8 and 1495/6: WCM, C.382–90. The three students are named in Journal of William More, 286.

50 Pantin, Canterbury College, iv. 91Google Scholar.

51 The letter book of Robert Joseph, monk scholar of Evesham and Gloucester College, Oxford, 1530–3, ed. Aveling, Hugh and Pantin, W. A. (Oxford Historical Society n.s. xix, 1967)Google Scholar; Knowles, DavidThe religious orders in England, iii, Cambridge 1971, 101–2Google Scholar.

52 Pantin, W. A., ‘Abbot Kidderminster and monastic studies’, Downside Review xlvii (1929), 200, 206Google Scholar.

53 See Greatrex, 'Teaching and preaching', passim. It is worth noting that a young Worcester monk, William Overbury, obtained permission to transfer to Winchcombe in 1527 in order ‘to serve the most High more freely and quietly’: WCM, Reg. A 6 (ii), fo. 158. Did this common-form explanation conceal his interest in taking part in this programme?

54 In Religious orders, iii. 476–7, Knowles has provided an itinerary of the royal visitors.

55 My own contribution will be the biographical register of monks, as in n. 43 above.

56 When monastic scholarly output is studied within the university setting and compared with the achievements of the innovative and original minds of contemporaries, the monk qua scholar, with a few exceptions, makes little impact: Sheehan, M. W., ‘The religious orders, 1220–1370’, in Catto, J. I. (ed.), The history of the University of Oxford, I: The early Oxford schools, Oxford 1984, 217Google Scholar.

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