[Janet Burton (University of Wales, Trinity St. David) previews Monastic Wales: New Approaches (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2013), co-edited by Karen Stöber (University of Lleida, Catalunya).]
Medieval religious houses were more than enclosed communities of men or women who spent their lives in prayer and worship, striving for their own salvation and interceding for the salvation of humankind. Clearly this was part of the story – it was not for nothing that the medieval historian Orderic Vitalis called monasteries ‘citadels of the Lord’, or that monks were commonly regarded as spiritual soldiers fighting against the power of the Devil and his cohorts. But those men and women who founded or endowed religious houses usually sought to gain more than from their generosity than spiritual benefit. The rewards could be much more tangible. The legacy of the medieval religious orders in Wales did not dwindle and die when their communities were suppressed in the 1530s as part of Henry VIII’s assault on the monasteries, or when the last generation of monks, nuns, canons, and friars left their cloisters forever. Their footprint remained, and indeed has left an indelible mark on modern Wales, its politics, culture, economic, and society.
This collection of fifteen essays represents the scholarly side of the Monastic Wales project, directed by Karen Stöber and I. Within historical research the treatment of Wales’s medieval religious houses has been somewhat distorted, with much attention devoted to the Cistercian Order at the expense of other, less prominent houses. ‘Monastic Wales’ seeks to redress the balance, but also to offer fresh insights into how its medieval monasteries have shaped Wales’s history and culture through an interdisciplinary approach. Thus the contributors come from the disciplines of archaeology, history, literature, and manuscripts studies.
A common thread running through the collection is the interplay between religion and politics. Thus the first of three sections, entitled ‘Foundation, Transition and Transformation’, confronts the questions of how far the foundation of monastic houses from the late eleventh century onwards was part of a political move to put down markers of power and authority. Moreover, how far were such foundations symbolic? Did they really transform what went before? Or are we thinking of a more gradual and nuanced transition? Or are we indeed thinking of an appropriation of native culture rather than its transformation? Such questions are raised in connection with the archaeological sites of Wales – particularly the iconic site of Strata Florida – as well as the Benedictine houses of the South (largely the result of implantation of dependencies of foreign abbeys) and the Augustinian houses of the North, which were marked by the transformation of earlier sites under the patronage of the Welsh rulers. In the thirteenth century, it was the turn of the friars to become agents of transformation as they were planted in the centres of urban life, in the flourishing towns of Wales.
The construction of a stone abbey – often facing a stone castle (think of the priory church at Chepstow, now the parish church, and the way in which it faces the mighty castle there) – was a powerful symbol of lordship and political authority. But there were other ways in which those who exercised power, or aspired to it, could harness to their earthly power the spiritual might of the monastic order. Section II (‘State Building, Authority and Power’) investigates how the granting of estates and landed wealth could bolster the fortunes of secular rulers; how commemoration through burial within a monastic church could perpetuate memory and forge a powerful bond between religious houses and their patrons and friends, and how ambitious rulers such as the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth and the rulers of Gwynedd and Powys used the religious orders in a variety of ways to obtain both spiritual and decidedly worldly benefit.
A feature of a number of the orders that settled in Wales is that they were international. The Benedictine houses of the South had mother houses in England, Normandy, or France. The Cistercian monks belonged to an order that spread throughout Europe and beyond like a great family tree, emanating from the centre at Cîteaux in Burgundy. The friars were by their very nature, peripatetic; and the Knights Hospitaller, one of the military monastic orders to emerge out of the Crusades, also enjoyed a presence in Wales. Thus monastic houses were instrumental in developing and fostering communication.
The final chapters consider aspects of cultural identity production. In any medieval region, monastic houses could be an important force in the development of literacy and learning, in the copying of manuscripts, and in the preservation of culture. In Wales, this was given a decidedly political edge, because a number of houses, particularly Cistercian ones, were operational in the copying of manuscripts in the Welsh language, and thus in the preservation of Welsh culture. These developments in themselves cannot be divorced from the broader political context of medieval Wales, or from political ambitions and aspirations, successes and setbacks.
The Introduction concludes: ‘This is a book about the role of monastic houses in a specific political and cultural context: Wales. The monastic orders were a vibrant force in transforming the agrarian as well as the political and social landscape of medieval Wales. But the book has a broader significance, which makes the essays it contains of interest and significance to historians, archaeologists, literary scholars and those engaged in the study of material culture of all kinds, working on other areas of Europe.’
Contributors: Janet Burton, Karen Stöber, David Austin, Jens Röhrkasten, Jemma Bezant, David Stephenson, Andrew Abram, Kathryn Hurlock, Helen Nicholson, Arlene Hogan, Dafydd Johnston, Jane Cartwright, Ceridwen Lloyd Morgan, and Anne Müller.
[An apology from the Review Editor, Katharine Sarah Moody: At the time of this post, the new University of Wales Press’ website was currently under construction, so it was not possible to include a link to the publisher website: www.uwp.co.uk].