The Social World of the Abbey of Cava

c. 1020-1300


Professor Loud, thank you so much for joining us. Would you please tell us something of your studies and what first drew you to the medieval period?

My interest was primarily aroused when I was an undergraduate. At school I had mainly studied the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and I wanted to do something different at university. I was then lucky enough to be taught by Henry Mayr-Harting, who was a brilliant and inspiring tutor, and who encouraged my burgeoning interest in the Middle Ages. But also, before going to university, I had read the book by John Julius Norwich, The Normans in the South, which encouraged me to learn more about an aspect of history of which I had previously known nothing. So I asked Dr Mayr-Harting if we could have a tutorial about Norman Italy, which intrigued him because none of his students had ever asked for this previously. And the more I read, the more interesting it seemed. That was what began my fascination with the medieval Mezzogiorno

It’s a lot to ask for a quick history of 1,000 years but can you give us an overview of the abbey’s history?

Cava was founded c. 1020 as a very small eremitic community, by a clerical courtier of the Prince of Salerno. It remained as a minor local monastery for at least forty years. The great era of growth came after the Norman leader Robert Guiscard conquered Salerno in 1076, and with Peter, the third abbot, who ruled the monastery for almost forty-four years (1079-1123). Under Peter the abbey attracted a wide range of patrons, both Lombard (indigenous Italian) and Norman, including the dukes of Apulia (Guiscard and his descendants) and acquired a vast range of property and dependencies both throughout the principality of Salerno and in southern Italy more generally, especially in northern Apulia and Lucania. Cava also had close relations with the popes, especially Urban II and Paschal II. It probably reached its peak, in material terms, towards the end of the twelfth century; thereafter I would see the abbey as being on the defensive, trying to protect its property and rights, and independence. But it remained the head of a large ecclesiastical congregation and a major seigneurial land owner, for several centuries. Papal taxation lists of the early fourteenth century suggest it was the second wealthiest monastery in the whole of southern Italy, after Montecassino.

And it still continues today? How large is its current community?

It does, although there were two attempts to dissolve the abbey by anti-clerical governments in the nineteenth century, under King Joachim (Murat) in the Napoleonic period and then after the unification of Italy in 1860. The monks, however, clung on; for some years after 1860 as, officially, the curators of a national monument. They also ran a school which gave them a raison d’être within the wider local community. But the monastic community today is very small, and the school closed some years ago. In 2018 there were only ten monks, and sadly two elderly brothers have died during the Covid pandemic. Some of the remaining monks are relatively young, but given how few monastic professions there are today one fears for the community’s long-term survival. 

When did you first come across it and what led you to begin work on your book?

I first read about Cava while I was working on my doctorate, although that was on the Church in the principality of Capua and Cava was outside the geographical scope of that project. (Montecassino was much more central). Then I discovered that the Cava archive had several unpublished charters of the Norman Princes of Capua, and so, while I was trying to turn my doctoral thesis into a book I visited Cava for the first time in 1980 to examine these. But although I made a number of further trips there over the next thirty years, and wrote a preliminary article about the abbey and its benefactors as long ago as 1986, I did not for a long time envisage a book about it. I was rather using the Cava documents as one among numerous sources for other work, and especially my book on The Latin Church in Norman Italy (2007). It was only relatively recently, round about 2010, that I decided that the abbey and its social world would make a wonderful subject for a book-length treatment. And, as all academics now are, I was being urged to find a project that might secure external research funding – this seemed a natural fit, since it was clear that without external funding – which came first from the British Academy and then the Leverhulme Trust, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to conduct enough systematic archival work.

How did you set about your research? Does the abbey hold its own records or did you have to look further afield?

Cava has the largest surviving medieval archive in southern Italy – there are about 7,500 documents from pre-1300, the majority original charters. The Codex Diplomaticus Cavensis published in the late nineteenth century published all the documents before 1064 – quite a lot of which came from churches that were later incorporated in the Cava congregation – and four more volumes, published relatively recently, have edited the charters from 1064 to 1090. But after that date only a relatively few documents have been published, and one has to go to the archive to read the originals – or increasingly to use digital photos, which enables one to work at a distance. I did, however, have the advantage of having already worked at Cava for a long time, albeit only intermittently, and so I was familiar with the archive’s structure and the sorts of documents it contained, and had a lot of Cava material already on file.

Where I sought to break new ground in researching for the book was primarily in three respects. First, I prepared an edition of more than 130 of the most interesting unpublished charters from the twelfth century, which was published in Italy earlier this year, and on which The Social World draws heavily. The second initiative was to create a database for the most important privileges of the abbey – which are in a separate section of the archive. This covers only the period 1070-1200, but was a really significant aid to organising and retrieving information. (I should add that I owe this database to my wife Kate Fenton, who is far more IT savvy than am I, and who did the coding and entered the data from my notes). Third, I spent a lot of my time in the archive looking at thirteenth-century documents, to which I had hitherto paid very little attention – I decided that if this project was really to be valuable it had to cover a long period, and not simply be confined to the Norman era pre-1200, on which my work had hitherto concentrated. My major external sources were the published charters of other major churches in the principality of Salerno – although I had long ago read some of the unpublished documents in the Archivio diocesano in Salerno – and thirteenth-century papal documentation. I went systematically through the calendars of papal registers looking for Cava material, up to Clement V in the early fourteenth century, and what I found here was very useful. 

Tell us about the forgery issues that make research so difficult.

Undoubtedly the most problematic issue that anybody studying the history of Cava faces is the medieval monks’ predilection for forgery. This is a fairly general problem for historians of southern Italy, and was certainly not confined to Cava. But the Cavensi monks seem to have been particularly active in this respect, and especially during the mid-to-late thirteenth century – primarily between c. 1246 and 1286. That was one very good reason to extend my study into the thirteenth century. A significant number of the abbey’s privileges from territorial rulers and high status donors are, at least in their present form, forged. 

This is especially serious for two reasons. First, many of these are still unpublished, and until particular groups of charters about which there are suspicions are published in their entirety, in properly critical editions, it is hard even for an expert to be sure which documents are genuine originals, and which are fabrications or have been tampered with – and modern scholars do not always agree about the genuineness or not of particular documents. 

Secondly, there is an unfortunate tendency among Italian palaeographers and documentary scholars simply to label particular documents as ‘forgeries’, often on grounds of minor palaeographical or diplomatic irregularities, without considering the variations of what forgery might entail. Yet ‘forged’ documents cover a wide spectrum between basically genuine but interpolated ones through to complete invention. Nor do they always take into account the possibility that some alleged forgeries may in fact be later copies of genuine (or largely genuine) documents. And there are instances where, for example, however diplomatically suspect a donation charter may be, there is clear evidence that the church or property in question did belong to the abbey from very soon after the alleged date of the document. One clearly cannot disregard the issue, but I have in the book tried to take a realistic attitude to the problem and not to exaggerate it; and above all where documents do indeed seem dubious to try to uncover the context in which they may have been written, and to identify what purpose these forgeries served. 

How did the abbey’s social interaction change during the period you cover? 

I have argued that there was a significant contrast between the eleventh and twelfth centuries and the thirteenth. The earlier period was one of acquisition and growth, both through donation and, interestingly, via purchase. (The abbey clearly had very large sums of cash at its disposal). After 1200 acquisitions were relatively few and small-scale, benefactions lessened and there begin to be signs of financial problems. Purchasing diminished in scale, and after c. 1230 became pretty rare. At the same time the monks were experimenting, albeit intermittently, with new forms of record keeping and altering the way in which they exploited their property. From the very early days most of the abbey’s land had been leased to peasant cultivators, often in perpetuity, in return for rents in kind. I suspect that most of these crop renders were then sold in the market place, and it was this that gave Cava its significant reserves of cash. But during the thirteenth century we find a number of properties, especially those at a distance from the abbey, leased wholesale to entrepreneurs in return for cash rents, and towards the end of the century rents in kind to peasant cultivators were increasingly converted to cash rents. This looks to me to be essentially a defensive policy, ensuring an income that was easier to collect and more predictable, at a time when the abbey was in some difficulty and southern Italy was becoming more unstable.

What were the abbey’s main considerations in its dealings with the world outside? Was it always a ‘happy’ relationship?

No, far from it. Even the abbey’s relations with its own benefactors and their families could be fraught. One of the things that I do in the book is to look at several particular families that had long, multi-generational, relationships with Cava and try to explore the complexities of that relationship, and how these families’ relations with the abbey might change, and reflect their own strategies. And while the abbey benefited from the greater enforcement of law and order after the creation of the unified kingdom of Sicily in 1130, relations with the royal administration were not always easy, especially during the thirteenth century. The monks had to devote considerable effort to defending their existing properties, rights and privileges, and those of the abbey’s dependents. This to a considerable extent explains the resort to forgery in the thirteenth century.

Are there any individuals that stand out in the abbey’s early history, whether for good or bad?

Yes. By far the most striking figure in this period is the third abbot, Peter, the man who made the abbey of Cava ‘great’. We know a great deal about him, not just about what he did from the charters – and there are far more from his abbacy than for those of his two predecessors – but because he was commemorated in The Lives of the First Four Abbots of Cava, a hagiographical text written c. 1140. About half of this is devoted to Peter – the lives of the other abbots are relatively brief. But what is striking about this text is that the picture presented of Abbot Peter is equivocal. He was, outwardly, a hugely successful abbot who attracted high-status benefactors and many recruits for the abbey, and turned Cava from a minor monastery into one of the richest and most important religious institutions in southern Italy. He was also clearly a figure of deep piety and great austerity. But his ‘life’ suggests, albeit obliquely, that he was also a harsh disciplinarian and unpopular with many of the monks. One of them even spat on his tomb after his death. The writer contrasts his rule with that of his short-lived successor Constable, who was kind, gentle and forgiving. He clearly had in mind chapter 64 of the Rule, which commands abbots ‘to set mercy above judgement’, and not to be too zealous nor too enthusiastic in punishment. The implication is clearly that Constable followed this precept, but Peter did not. So although Peter was undoubtedly a most effective abbot, it would not necessarily have been very pleasant to have been one of his monks.

Which aspect of your book do you think will be most useful to your fellow medievalists?

That’s quite a hard one to answer. I would like to think most of it since it is a highly original piece of research based on largely unpublished sources, and concerning an institution about which only a little has previously been written. I should, however, stress that the focus of the book is on the social and economic history of the abbey’s lands and of the society surrounding it and with which it had dealings, not on religious life at Cava, about which we have anyway relatively little evidence. Given those parameters, perhaps the most useful part would be the discussion of peasant life and obligations in the principality of Salerno. It was certainly one of the issues with which I was most engaged while I was writing, and very little has been previously written in English about south Italian peasants in the Middle Ages, and not very much in other languages. 

But if you asked what was the section about which I was most pleased once it was written, the answer would be the chapter about ‘Geography and the environment’. I have always admired the French Annaliste historians, and particularly my friend Jean-Marie Martin who wrote a brilliant book about early medieval Apulia and who sadly died at the start of this year. (There is a dedication to him at the start of my book). At last I have written some proper Annalistehistory myself, of which I hope he would have approved.

What’s next for you? Will you continue with Cava or do you have other plans?

I am going to give Cava a rest for a while, although there is still some work to do on the charter database, which I would like eventually to make publicly accessible. My next major project, however, will be an English translation of the Montecassino Chronicle of Leo of Ostia and his continuators, which is both one of the most important narrative sources for the history of Norman and pre-Norman south Italy and a key text for the history of monasticism in the central Middle Ages. Much of the work on this has already been done – I translated a significant part of this text for the students taking my special subject on Norman Italy, while I was still teaching. But I have also been asked to write a short biography of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa – my other main historical interest apart from southern Italy is Staufen Germany.

We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Naturally, we hope you have stayed well throughout the last year but how has your work been affected by lockdowns and restricted access to libraries and archives?

Surprisingly little, because I was fortunate in the timing of my work. I had already completed almost all of my research and written the first three chapters of the book before the lockdown began. I also moved fast to take a few key books out of the university library before it closed. Being in isolation while I wrote the bulk of the book was not too difficult because the only way that I can write an extended work is to focus on that more-or-less full time without distraction. So I would have been in self-imposed purdah anyway. But we are lucky in that we have quite a large garden and live on the edge of the city, with pleasant country walks nearby. So writing was interspersed with plenty of fresh air and exercise. I would have hated to have been stuck in a flat in the inner city, with no green space easily available. Not everyone was as fortunate.

The Social World of the Abbey of Cava,
c. 1020-1300


£75/$135, 9781783276325 
September 2021
Hardback and ebook
Studies in the History of Medieval Religion
Boydell Press



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G.A. LOUD is Professor Emeritus of Medieval History at the University of Leeds. He is an acknowledged authority on the Normans in the south, and more generally on southern Italy during the Central Middle Ages.

Image: Balsamon, Abbot of Cava 1208–32, from Cod. Cavensis 18, fol.304v, De Septem Sigillis of Benedetto of Bari.