Revised Essay on Understanding the Anglican Patrimony. Part II: England’s Monastic Roots.

[The image depicts St. Benet Biscop, Founder of two monasteries in the northeast of England: St. Peter’s Monkwearmouth and St. Paul’s Jarrow]

[Links to parts of this essay: Part I (The Monastic Charism); Part II (England’s Monastic Roots); Part III (Patristic/Monastic Spirituality and the English Reformation); Part IV (Patristic/Monastic Spirituality and the Caroline Divines). Yet to be published: Part V and Part VI]

Foreword

In the first installment of this essay, I discuss—as preparation for exploring the monastic characteristics of the Anglican patrimony—the monastic charism itself.  Though I can offer nothing more than a summary in this first part of the essay, I attempt to present salient characteristics of monasticism both on its own terms and as compared with the charisms of other institutes of consecrated life. 

In this second part of the essay, I present evidence that supports the oft-mentioned claim that medieval and renaissance England was monastic in the sense that it was influenced by monasticism—mostly the Benedictines.  This influence was unique to England and played an important role in the development of what can be referred to as English spirituality.

Revised Essay on Understanding the Anglican Patrimony. Part II: England’s Monastic Roots.

Br. John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B. March 2019

That monasticism influenced English spirituality does not mean it was always foremost in anyone’s mind throughout English history.  This assumption cannot even be made of monks and nuns, as attested to by the frequent reform movements in monastic history, when bringing the RB back to the minds of monastics was needed.  But the RB[1] and the way of life it prescribes has its own formative wisdom, even subliminally.  Since this formative wisdom was at the heart of major religious and cultural institutions in English history, it had its subtle effect even beyond the cloister.

Christian evangelization, if “casual and unorganized,”[2] existed in England under Roman rule.  But an effort of focused and extensive evangelization was launched in 597 by St. Augustine of Canterbury, a monk.  St. Paulinus of York, also a monk, extended this evangelization to the north of England beginning in 625.  This evangelizing activity seems far from the desert solitude prized at the beginning of the monastic movement and no doubt drew inspiration from St. Augustine of Hippo’s understanding of μοναχός as much as the ἐρῆμος understanding of μοναχός.  But solitude, and thus attentive listening to the divine word, were still highly prized.  St. Martin of Tours (316-397), whose life as a hermit influenced his activity as a bishop, was one of the models of episcopal leadership that Augustine of Canterbury and Paulinus would have known and admired.  This holy tension between the call of monastic ἐρῆμος and the call to evangelization beyond the cloister is a recurring theme in the lives of the Cuthberts and Dunstans of Christianity in medieval England.

The importance of monk-bishops in the evangelization of England means that “English cathedrals differ from almost all those on the Continent [in] that some were united to monasteries. … Of the seventeen medieaval foundations nine [if we include Bath, which replaced Wells between 1090 and 1218] were [Benedictine and included] Winchester, Worcester, Canterbury, Rochester, Durham, Norwich, and Ely.”[3]  Westminster Abbey was also Benedictine.  This list of monastic foundations is remarkable not only in terms of English ecclesiastical history but also England’s politics, culture, and economy.[4]

As for monasticism’s influence in the development of late medieval England’s intellectual life, Oxford and Cambridge would certainly not have flourished but for the influence of the friars.  The quaestiones was a good method of inquiry for the development of universities.  Benedictine and Cistercian presence was nonetheless important at Oxford and Cambridge from the universities’ earliest years.  Evidence suggests Oxford’s development into a center of learning was aided by the desire of Benedictines for formal legal training and that this was as early as 1170, which was before the “age of the friars.”[5]

Because of the scholastic approach’s thirteenth-century rise in prominence, it would be unrealistic to claim monastic faculty and students at the universities—assuming their monastic formation had been solid to begin with—maintained primarily patristic/monastic bearings as they developed academically at the universities.[6]  But it is noteworthy that by the fourteenth century, the Benedictines of Gloucester College, the “first and most important college of the Benedictines”[7] at Oxford, were required to incept under Doctors of Divinity who were also Benedictines.[8]  Though the reasons for this statue no doubt included administrative and financial concerns, it is also likely that monks perceived the need to support the role of the patristic/monastic perspective in England’s universities.  Benedictines were also exempted from the initial arts program at Oxford because it was assumed their education in the cloister—which, one expects, would have grounded monks in the patristic/monastic perspective—was sufficient.[9]  That monks appreciated the differences in theological approaches and sought to maintain the patristic/monastic perspective in the age of the friars might also be indicated by the case of Adam Easton, a monk-scholar of Norwich, who, in the 1350s, was called home from his studies at Oxford “to preach ‘true doctrine and confound the friars’.”[10]

A significant factor that explains monasticism’s continued influence in England even well into the age of the friars is that monasticism prefers the countryside or desert, and England remained more agrarian than much of the continent.  In the fifteenth century, “London … could bear comparison with the great cities of Europe; but all the other urban centres … did not measure up to their continental counterparts.”[11]  The friars’ influence was strong in urban England,[12] but there was not much of an urban England in which mendicant spirituality and the scholastic approach to theology could take root.

[Links to other parts of this essay: Part I, Part III. Part IV, Part V, Part VI]


[1] The Rule of St. Benedict was not the only monastic rule followed in medieval English monasteries.  But it was considered one of the authoritative sources by which other rules would have been measured.  It was not until the end of the tenth century that England could be regarded as “a Benedictine nation.”  Oswald McBride, “The Tenth-Century Monastic Revival,” in Monks of England: The Benedictines from Augustine to the Present Day, ed., Daniel Rees (London: SPCK, 1997), 80.

[2] Kenneth Hylson-Smith, Christianity in England from Roman Times to the Reformation, Volume I: From Roman Times to 1066 (London: SCM Press, 1999), 48

[3] Alec Clifton-Taylor, The Cathedrals of England, rev. ed. (New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 1989), 16.

[4] The monastic communities at Canterbury and Durham were “among the twelve or so wealthiest corporations in late medieval England.”  R. Barrie Dobson, “The Black Monks of Durham and Canterbury Colleges” Comparisons and Contrasts,” in Benedictines in Oxford, ed., Henry Wansbrough and Anthony Marett-Crosby (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997), 64-5.

[5] Henry Mayr-Harting, “The Role of Benedictine Abbeys in the Development of Oxford as a Centre of Legal Learning,” in Benedictines in Oxford, Wansbrough, 11-12.

[6] Intellectual inquiry, then as now, challenges the status quo.  In 1528, Cardinal Wolsey was informed that monastic scholars from Edmundsbury and Glastonbury had “become infected with the ‘new learning’ of Luther and Tyndale which was raging like an epidemic all over [Oxford] university.”  Alban Léotaud, “The Benedictines at Oxford, 1283-1539,” in Benedictines in Oxford, Wansbrough, 35.

[7] Alban Léotaud, “The Benedictines at Oxford, 1283-1539,” in Benedictines in Oxford, Wansbrough, 21.

[8] Léotaud, 25.

[9] Joan Greatrex, “From Cathedral Cloister to Gloucester College,” in Benedictines in Oxford, Wansbrough, 56.

[10] Joan Greatrex, 54.

[11] Hylson-Smith, Christianity in England … 1384 to 1558, 1.

[12] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c.1400-c.1580 (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2005), xv.

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