The history of monasteries doesn’t end at the Dissolution; instead, the Dissolution is the beginning of an interesting period of social change.
Social relations are an aspect of history that have always interested me. As an undergraduate student, I wrote my dissertation on the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, then later studied the theme in a very different context when researching an article on the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The conflict between town and abbey in Bury St Edmunds and St Albans particularly interested me in this work. I learned of the association of monastic lords with violent social relations.
Being at the University of Reading at the time, however, I was also aware that not all monastic towns had such a history. In fact, despite being the third largest monastic town in England, Reading has medieval records almost entirely devoid of evidence of violent town–abbey relations. Disagreements occurred but tended to be pursued through legal channels. The discrepancy between Reading’s experience and the traditional characterisation led to my research into monastic lords in England. One of my aims was to reconsider this relationship. Another was to continue my research past the Dissolution, as histories of monasteries often treat this as an end point. Really, it was the beginning of an interesting period of social change.
With Reading’s experience having raised my initial questions over monastic towns’ association with conflict, I pursued my research through a case study. Reading had many things in its favour as a topic. It was the largest monastic town that doesn’t fit the traditional characterisation. It also has an excellent survival of sources for town society, most notably the records of the merchant guild, the three parishes, and the wills of the inhabitants. As I later discovered, to my great fortune, the town also has a hugely active community of local researchers, whose support and existing work was an enormous help in my own work. Alongside my detailed case study of Reading, I read local histories of other, less-studied monastic towns to get an idea of the range of experiences of these settlements.
As would be the case with any category of town, I found much variety in the group. I was, however, struck that there were also some clear recurring themes. Most notable was the universal failure of monastic towns at gaining any degree of self-government. What was particularly interesting is that this stood in contrast to episcopal towns. The latter have sometimes been characterised in the same way as their monastic counterparts. Yet there are a few cases of episcopal towns gaining a degree of independence; exceptions which are entirely lacking among monastic towns.
While there was much uniformity of experience during the medieval era, the experience of monastic towns after the Dissolution was highly variable. Some, such as Reading, were very quick to capitalise on the opportunity presented by the removal of their lord and gained the self-government for which they had so long wished. Others found themselves under a new lord and took no further steps towards autonomy. The opportunities which the Dissolution presented to former monastic tenants are a reminder of how the repercussions of the Reformation went far beyond the religious sphere.
Beyond reconsidering monastic towns as a group, I reflected much on the methods of studying social history through the process of researching the book. Medievalists face a particular challenge in studying those below the elite of society. The nature of the surviving sources often yields too little information on non-elite individuals to study their lives in detail. Yet entire source collections can be used to study of the middling sort as a group, which I found to be one of the great benefits of the Social Network Analysis method that I integrated with more traditional forms of historical research.
This guest post was written by Joe Chick, an 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.
Image credit: Reading Abbey gateway, by Rev. Thomas James Judkin (1788-1871) (Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reading_Abbey_gateway,_by_Rev._Thomas_James_Judkin_(1788-1871).jpg)