Wednesday, 27 July 2011

A post about history

I keep meaning to dip my toe back into the waters of history, but given how things went during the PhD, I’m a little cautious about going for it full bore. As a way of seeing how much it excites me now, and as a source of blog posts, I thought I’d write a few on general historical/medieval subjects, and go from there. I’d like to start with the simple task of summarising my entire PhD thesis in one blog post (it might be quite long):

The Minster Churches of Beverley, Ripon and Southwell 1066-c.1300

In the Anglo-Saxon period in England, churches called ‘minsters’, from the Latin ‘monasterium’ came in all kinds of shapes and sizes, but could often be at the heart of their local areas. Gradually, however, changes came to the organization of the English Church. Those changes came particularly quickly in the two and a half centuries after the Norman Conquest. The structures of the Church changed, while new types of institution, particularly new monastic forms, came to compete with minsters and parochial churches. Across the country, many minsters became little more than parish churches, while others (such as Howden) became mere subdivisions of larger bodies.

Those of Beverley, Ripon and Southwell changed too. In fact, they converged. Specifically, they converged on a common institutional model based loosely on that of the cathedral at York. They acquired broadly similar prebendal structures (a prebend is a living for a type of priest known as a canon. Secular canons in the case of these ones, to distinguish them from the regular canons of quasi-monastic institutions). They acquired similar office holders. They acquired similar regulations. There were significant local variations, but the similarities far outweighed them.

Once we accept that, we have to ask how and why it happened. If we look at powerful figures connected with the institutions, successive archbishops of York stand out. They had a kind of consistent contact with, and power over, the minsters that kings and even popes often didn’t. They even served as a kind of buffer when dealing with those figures.

Yet seeing the change as a top down plan from the archbishops isn’t enough. We know that the archbishops didn’t have complete control over the minsters (things didn’t work that way in most cases in England in the period, and in any case, there are specific examples of resistance). We also know that the archbishops often had close links to the minsters, and so might not have wanted to impose their will for the sake of it.

Additionally, the minsters had much closer links with one another than might occasionally be supposed. They communicated. They sent men to work for the archbishop together. They occasionally shared personnel (either consecutively, as a kind of career progression, or concurrently, with what were known as pluralists). Beverley and Ripon even engaged in a spot of forgery together.

As such, it seems reasonable to suggest that the minsters would have played a role in their own remodelling. It certainly accounts for the blend of similarities and differences better than most of the alternatives. It also suggests something rather wonderful.

You see, as I said at the start, pre-Conquest, ‘minster’ could mean all sorts of things. Yet for these three, it came to mean broadly the same thing. So much so that they were grouped together quite often, as if they represented a particular class of institutions, even though they didn’t in any technical sense. What that did was to create a kind of shared definition of what a minster was for these three at that time, as a kind of secondary institution within the archdiocese, which the archbishop could use as an extension of his power over some of the further reaches of a very large area by English standards.

They effectively re-defined what a minster was, creating a definition of it that allowed them to survive as relatively important institutions in a world where other minsters came to be squeezed out by outside pressures, new monastic houses, and other difficulties. What we see here is a perfect mix of need- from the archbishops, in needing to control their archdiocese, and from the minsters, in needing a new role. The result sheds light on the ways change happened in such large institutions, as well as on the exercise of power over them.

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