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MEDIEVAL-RELIGION  November 2009

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Subject:

Fwd: TMR 09.11.17 Jordan, A Tale of Two Monasteries (Bedos-Rezak)

From:

Christopher Crockett <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

medieval-religion - Scholarly discussions of medieval religious culture <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 16 Nov 2009 12:54:24 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

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text/plain (187 lines)

medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

Brigitte Bedos-Rezak is always worth reading.

c

------ Original Message ------
Received: Mon, 16 Nov 2009 10:31:14 AM EST
From: The Medieval Review <[log in to unmask]>
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: TMR 09.11.17 Jordan, A Tale of Two Monasteries (Bedos-Rezak)

Jordan, William Chester. <i>A Tale of Two Monasteries. Westminster and
Saint-Denis in the Thirteenth Century</i>. Princeton, 2009. Pp. 245.
$35.00. ISBN 978-0-691-13901-2.

   Reviewed by Brigitte Miriam Bedos-Rezak
        New York University
        [log in to unmask]

In this beautifully narrated and richly informative study of the Benedictine
abbeys of Saint-Denis and of Westminster in the thirteenth century, William
Jordan measures the vital signs of two kingdoms, France and England. The
significance of the abbeys went well beyond the symbolic; they embodied royal
mythology as well as being constitutive of the living royal fabric. It was
their precincts that royal bodies, relics of national saints, emblems of
states, and manuscripts of national histories permeated, by their very
presence, with an aura of monarchical sacrality. It was within the walls of
these abbeys that key rites of the royal life cycle were discharged, even as
the abbeys' powerful abbots weighed in crucially on the governance of their
respective kingdoms.

Arguably, Westminster's thirteenth-century position as the showcase of
monarchy seems superior to that of Saint-Denis. The English abbey was the
monopolist of coronation and keeper of the regalia; it housed the relics of
the canonized king, Edward the Confessor; it memorialized the incarnation in
possessing bread from the Last Supper and a vial of
Christ's blood; and it became the sole royal mausoleum after the loss of
continental lands to French rulers deprived English kings of their eternal
rest in their traditional necropolises at St Etienne of Caen, Our Lady of
Rouen, and Fontevrault.  What Westminster accomplished single-handedly
required the participation of three institutions in France. Saint-Denis had
long enjoyed the position of French royal
necropolis, indeed the English king Henry III (1216-1272) may have followed
the Saint-Denis model when he promoted Westminster's role in dynastic burial.
Saint-Denis also held royal emblems, such as the military banner known as the
Oriflamme, and the regalia used in the coronation ceremony; but the coronation
itself was held in Reims cathedral. With respect to Christology, King Louis IX
(1226-1270)'s
acquisition of a precious relic of the Passion, the Crown of Thorns, inspired
him to erect a reliquary in the shape of an elaborate edifice, the Sainte
Chapelle.

There was, however, one area in which Saint-Denis took clear precedence over
Westminster, and that was in royal historiography. The thirteenth-century
Dionysian abbot, Mathieu de Vend˘me (ca. 1222-1286), oversaw the compilation
of the <i>Grandes Chroniques de France</i> entrusting the work to a talented
writer, the monk Primat, and to gifted illustrators. Here again, there is some
evidence that
Mathieu's counterpart at Westminster, Abbot Richard de Ware (d. 1283) may have
wished to emulate Saint-Denis' command of royal historiography when, perhaps
at his instruction, the chronicle compilation known as the <i>Flores
historiarum</i> was imported from the abbey of Saint Albans, the English
center for the production of royal historiography, and lightly edited at
Westminster. The competition in grandeur between the two abbeys thus centered
on their respective abilities to represent and to promote the greatness of
their kings, who would in turn find it in their own interest to maintain the
abbeys' splendor. Here again, in such monastic combinations of the actual, the
factual, and the emblematic, Westminster held the trump card: it boasted the
body of a saint king. 

Indeed, the efforts deployed by Richard de Ware and Henry III to make
Westminster the most holy royal site in England centered on their creation of
a shrine for Saint Edward, King and Confessor. Despite political upheavals and
financial burdens, the holy royal body was translated to its new splendid
repository on 13 October 1269. As Jordan points out, Richard's and Henry's
efforts to renovate Westminster and imbue it with sanctity enhanced their own
rulership.

In Saint-Denis, Abbot Mathieu also substantially refurbished his abbey's
monumental architecture, giving it the rayonnant appearance it carries to this
day. He also paid special attention to tombs, but at first with a focus that
differed from the English endeavor. Underlying Mathieu's and his patron King
Louis IX's project was the desire to create a lapidary history, by a
re-arrangement of royal tombs, that
would blot out the blemish of Capetian usurpation and imply continuity with
the ancient Frankish rulers. Thus, the goal was to articulate royal
authenticity, an objective that was achieved with the re-organization of royal
burials in 1267. Yet, the year selected to celebrate the end of the building
campaign, 1281, lagged well behind the completion of the funeral installation
and of most of the church itself. Jordan suggests most convincingly that Abbot
Mathieu timed
this celebration with the moment when the canonization hearings for Louis IX
were about to start at Saint-Denis itself. In other words, building on the
evidence magisterially presented by Jordan, one may suggest that Abbot Mathieu
was readying his abbey to become, as Westminster already was, the repository
of a holy king. Since Louis IX's canonization was delayed until 1297, Mathieu
had to content himself with the translation of the national saint, Denis, to
his new, marvelously crafted, reliquary. Competition between the two royal
abbeys may have thus inflected French royal ideology, now eager to inscribe
royal lineage with sanctity as well as authenticity.  Mathieu
de Vend˘me was assiduous in recording the miracles performed at Louis' tomb,
and gave testimony when Pope Martin IV finally sent commissioners to
investigate the king's life and miracles.

The competition between the abbeys of Saint-Denis and of Westminster was
predicated upon a shared understanding that they were in fact comparable. Both
enjoyed royal protection and patronage; both saw their abbots' careers
culminating in government service; both were exempt from episcopal control and
were under unmediated papal jurisdiction; both were immensely wealthy.  Such
status was not without its challenges. The two monasteries had to please two
masters,
the papacy and the king, upon whom they depended for safeguard against
encroachment upon their power and wealth, particularly by bishops. Faced with
threats to their institutional rights and assets, the abbots reinforced
documentary practices and consolidated archival organization so as to muster
appropriate proof against their adversaries. As a result, Saint-Denis and
Westminster rank among the
best documented institutions in medieval Europe.

In modern historiography, the comparable status enjoyed by each abbey in its
respective polity has been so taken for granted that, despite such inviting
parallels between the two institutions, no historian has previously undertaken
their comparison. The originality of Jordan's comparative approach, however,
further resides in his ability to
derive from the joint analysis of these two Benedictine institutions a novel
understanding of national identity and of the ways their respective identities
informed the fates of France and of England during the thirteenth century. For
if the abbots' pursuit of similar structural goals entailed a superficial
similarity in the fulfillment of their office, their strategies and
achievements occurred and interacted within very different political cultures.
Of these and
their various manifestations, Jordan gives an illuminating account while
surveying the relevant historiography, to which he himself is no small
contributor, with full command and a critical eye.

In France, Louis IX was confronted with a geographic polity of which many
parts had recently been conquered. Crusading ideals inspired his dream of
expansion. After his first crusading effort failed in 1250, Louis IX focused
on the kingdom, attempting to make France a holy and unified land. By means of
thorough administrative reforms, Louis
imposed a new moral order within. Order was also brokered externally as Louis
promoted peace among Christian powers, in particular between himself and King
Henry III of England with the treaty of Paris (1259). With royal reform and
peace, France grew immensely prosperous. Mathieu de Vend˘me was in fact very
much part of the reforming and standardizing activities of the national
polity. His horizons were French; he reformed his abbey along the lines of the
royally inspired administrative model and his architectural renovations
conformed to the formulae of French style. His service to the Crown was
rendered on
French soil, which he hardly, if ever, left. King, abbot, and abbey were
hospitable to the world, in particular their English neighbors King Henry III
and Abbot Richard de Ware, but the world had to come to France and to
Saint-Denis to seek solutions and be restored to order and to peace.

Henry III presided over a kingdom that had recently experienced severe
continental losses. His dream was of territorial expansion, toward Sicily for
instance, which he ultimately lost to Charles d'Anjou. Henry had his eye on
international opportunities, and diplomacy played a major role in his
politics. Abbot Richard de Ware was often sent
abroad on royal missions, particularly relishing his stays in Italy where he
developed a taste for its artistic creations. Thus, the abbey of Westminster
came to be fitted with a splendid pavement inspired by Cosmati work, and St
Edward with an Italianate shrine. For his own seal Abbot Richard adopted a
foreign, French, style. While a certain
level of cosmopolitanism prevailed in England, the royal and abbatial
international outlook, coupled with the financial costs and long absences all
these entailed, contributed to baronial unrest and monastic laxity. Internal
reforms emerged in a context of rebellion and, tensely negotiated, were
begrudgingly accepted. The setting of continuous financial distress in which
Henry III and Richard de Ware
operated makes their achievement in the transformation of Westminster all the
more remarkable. At Westminster, England demonstrated its ability to match the
standard of the France of Louis IX.

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