Friday, September 9, 2011

Book Review: Yorkshire Monasteries: Cloister, Land and People

Here's a guest review from my lovely wife! Not exactly a parenting book, or a zombie book, but fascinating nonetheless.

Yorkshire Monasteries: Cloister, Land and People by Bernard Jennings. Smith Settle Ltd, 1999, 246 pages, £17.95 UK.

Brief overview of content:

Yorkshire is just packed with monasteries, abbeys and nunneries in various stages from well preserved to total ruins. We've visited Durham Cathedral, Hexham Abbey, and Fountains Abbey, and I was left with lots of questions like "What was life like inside the monasteries? How could all these thriving communities get wiped out so quickly by Henry VIII's decree? What happened to all the monks and nuns during that time?" This book answers those questions and also provides a detailed, scholarly treatment of the economic basis for monastic life, how the monasteries interacted with each other and with the communities where they were located, and how historical events (the plague, raids by the Scots) affected the monasteries.

Author overview:

Blurb from the book flap: "Bernard Jennings has spent his whole working life in Yorkshire, first as a WEA tutor in the Yorkshire Dales, and later on the staff of the universities of Leeds and Hull. As editor and co-author he has brought out several books on Yorkshire history, including A History of Lead Mining in the Pennines, A History of Nidderdale" and far too many others to list here, though they do list them on the book flap.


1. Read cover to cover vs. consult as needed.

This book is loaded with beautiful photographs and drawings of various abbeys and monastic sites. It also has a very good index. However, the text is often a bit dry, covering details of land grants in depth with lots of exact measurements, etc. For a tourist it is probably best to consult as needed, reading the introduction and conclusion chapters and then dipping in to sections about sites of interest. For a graduate student or serious historian, the book is probably a cover to cover read.

2. Readability.

As mentioned, some sections are a bit dry. After a long chapter on who deeded what to which monastery in their will I had to put the book aside and read a Brother Cadfael mystery by Ellis Peters. But, that only made me more curious about monastic life, so I came back and finished this book.

3. Helpful to a parent tourist?

This book answered my questions about the dissolution of the monasteries. Basically, Yorkshire was always a hotbed of monastic life and at the time of the dissolution, the author makes the case that the monasteries were no less popular than usual. They had plenty of vocations, the rich monasteries were still rich, the poor ones were still struggling, they had the usual mix of saints and sinners, etc. According to the book: "The wealth of the Church was a temptation which the impoverished monarch showed no desire to resist. The Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535 gave the net annual income of the Church as £320,000...The current yield of the Crown lands was about £40,000 a year." In a nutshell, the tactics the king used were to 1. Tax all the monasteries. 2. Send a committee to visit all the monasteries with the express goal of finding evidence of laxity or crime. 3. Pick off the smaller monasteries, take their property and consolidate their monks and nuns into the larger houses. 4. Move against the larger houses, closing them and seizing their extensive properties. There was resistance to this, both from monks and from the people. In Yorkshire this became an armed rebellion called The Pilgrimage of Grace. The rebellion and resistance by the monks were dealt with lethally. Various people were hung, drawn and quartered, etc., etc. Those monks who weren't seen as rebellious were allowed to live and were given a pension to provide for their living expenses outside the monastery.

4. Did we use it?

There's something appealing about the simplicity that the monastic orders strove for. This book is a historical treatment, not a devotional, but it's impossible not to put yourself into the story and wonder what it would be like to spend all day, every day in prayer and work. The Carthusian order is of particular interest because it was one of the strictest. The monks spent most of their time effectively in solitary confinement, only gathering for silent group meals on Sundays and feast days. For a harried parent, this sometimes sounds like a great idea, but it's also amazing that people would voluntarily do what we now reserve for our worst criminals.

Sample text

The better-endowed priory at Bridlington had become established as a centre of learning. The leading figure was the fourth prior, Robert, known as 'the scribe'...Robert is best known for the Bridlington Dialogue, written about 1150, which takes the form of exchanges between a 'master', Robert himself, and a 'disciple'...No doubt drawing on his own experience as head of the community, the Master argues that allowances should be made for different talents and temperaments:
It is necessary therefore both that the quiet mind be not distracted by over much work, and that the restless one should not force itself to the practice of contemplation. For often those who were able to contemplate God when they were at repose have failed when pressed by work; and often those who might have lived well while they were busy with human occupations have been slain by the sword of their own repose.
Fortunately there was plenty of work to be done in and about the priory, apart from the scriptorium: indoor pursuits such as sewing new clothes for the brethren and mending old ones, making wooden spoons and candlesticks, fashioning baskets and nets, weaving mats, and the whole range of farming and gardening tasks, including 'planting, trimming, pruning, grafting and transplanting trees'. [p. 115-117]

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