Urban Society and Monastic Lordship in Reading, 1350-1600
What makes town–abbey relations an interesting topic of study?
The medieval Church is well known for its vast power and its influence over the lives of ordinary people. The Church was a major landholder and this gave it even greater influence over lives in certain communities. A number of English towns were held entirely under the lordship of a monastery, giving the religious house far-reaching control over justice, politics, and economics. Compared with other lords, monasteries were completely unwilling to grant their urban inhabitants any degree of self-government, which led to resentment. This led to some extremely violent incidents! Most notably, the inhabitants of Bury St Edmunds decapitated two monks called John Cambridge and John Lakenheath during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the former being the prior and the head of the abbey at the time.
What makes Reading a good case study for town–abbey relations?
Incidents like the revolt in Bury have led to a traditional characterisation of monastic lordship as repressive and of town–abbey relations as violent. More recent works have toned this down a little, but the depiction has never been fully re-examined. Reading is interesting since it was the third largest monastic town in England, yet there are no recorded violent clashes. There was still disgruntlement over the abbey’s resistance to self-government, but the inhabitants pursued legal battles instead of uprising. Reading’s abbot was one of three who refused to surrender his abbey to Henry VIII and, as a result, was executed in front of the inhabitants. Following this, the town stands out for its swift success in gaining the political autonomy that the monastery had resisted throughout the medieval era.
Tell us a bit about the new research techniques you employed for this book.
In my book, I don’t treat the Dissolution as the end of the story. Instead, I have placed it midway in my research, so that I draw comparisons between urban society before and after. The Dissolution was, undoubtedly, a revolutionary moment for Reading, but my approach also helps to highlight some continuities across this period of transition. To allow me to study urban inhabitants below the elite class, I have also made use of a technique called Social Network Analysis, which looks at interactions between members of society. In pre-modern times, we often have too few records of non-elite people to study them individually in any great detail. However, this approach allows me to study those lower down in society by looking at their activities collectively.
What surprised you about your findings?
Knowing that Reading’s inhabitants had less violent relations with their abbey, I had expected to find they had closer social bonds with the monks. Instead, I found the reverse. In Bury St Edmunds, there a numerous examples of kinship links between inhabitants and monks. It was also common for residents to bequeath money to the abbey in their will. Such links are almost entirely absent from Reading’s sources. It suggests relations in Bury may have become heated because close ties allowed matters to become more personal, while Reading’s more distant relationship helped to temper disagreements.
What’s one thing you’d like readers to take away from your book?
Repression and violence were the exceptions rather than the rule in relations between urban inhabitants and monastic lords. Rather than repressive, monastic lordship is better described as robust. Abbeys were universally resistant to self-government, more than any other category of lord, but they did not go out of their way to repress their tenants. The towns’ association with violence is even more misleading. Violent outbursts catch people’s attention for obvious reasons, but this is precisely because they are exceptional. Grievances were normally resolved in a peaceful manner and there are many examples of collaboration between urban inhabitants and abbeys, even if the former took a subordinated role.
What does your cover image depict?
The cover of the book shows a model that features in Reading Museum of what the abbey wharf may have looked like. As someone who has enjoyed trying to recreate the past at reenactments, I was fascinated to see how this had been imagined. The museum kindly allowed the picture to appear on the book cover. The image is an ideal match for the theme of the book. It shows the business of urban life and the vital part that river trade played in Reading’s prosperity. Most importantly, though, the fact that the pictured wharf belonged to the abbey shows the close intertwining of urban life and monastic authority.
14 tables, 1 map, 5 b/w illus.; 232pp
£70.00 / $105.00, 9781783277568
SPECIAL MEDIEVAL HERALD SUBSCRIBER PRICE
USE CODE: BB111
JOE CHICK is a historian of urban society during the transition from the medieval to the early modern periods. He completed his doctorate at the University of Warwick and has since worked on projects at the Institute of Historical Research and Kings College London.