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A Tale of Two Monasteries: Westminster and Saint-Denis in the Thirteenth Century.

A Tale of Two Monasteries: Westminster and Saint-Denis in the Thirteenth Century, by William Chester Jordan. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2009. xviii, 245 pp. $35.00 US (cloth).

William Chester Jordan offers a comparative biography of two abbots as "an alternative route through the history of France and England in the thirteenth century" (p. 216). The careers of Mathieu de Vendome, Abbot of Saint-Denis from 1258 to 1286, and Richard de Ware, Abbot of Westminster from 1258-1284, offer tempting parallels for comparison. Both men rose from humble origins to the leadership of royal abbeys. Both doggedly asserted the independence of their monasteries from episcopal oversight and the encroachments of laymen. Both strove to enhance the status of their famous abbeys as national shrines through ambitious building campaigns, ornamentation, and liturgical display. Both depended upon and supported their monarchs as patrons and guarantors of their independence. Both worked towards internal peace, effective justice systems, and the securing of royal patronage and protection in order to safeguard their monastic corporations. Both, finally, were royal advisors, and much of the book looks over their shoulders to the monarchs they served, especially Henry III and Louis IX.

According to Jordan, the political circumstances that determined the similar career trajectories of both men also account for the differences. Henry III's struggle with the English barons over control of the royal administration created a much more unstable political and fiscal environment for asserting the rights and privileges of Westminster Abbey or for its renovation. For example, Henry's plans to enhance Westminster's shrine to St. Edward the Confessor in order to boost the sacred authority of the monarchy was hampered by his debts and by civil war. Though the monarchy emerged triumphant over barons in the end, in his later years Abbot Richard quarreled with Archbishop John Pecham of Canterbury and had to prove himself anew to the young Edward I, capping off his career with a promotion to royal treasurer.

Mathieu de Vendome and Saint Denis benefited from the more stable and peaceful environment under Louis IX, who cultivated the role of the just, sacred king to strengthen the Capetian grip over an enlarged France. Jordan notes that, though Mathieu was respected for his justice and hospitality, he was no less vigilant in asserting his abbey's independence and privileges as guardian of royal paraphernalia and the royal dead--going so far as to interrupt the funeral of the saintly Louis IX to protest a breach of protocol. The respected abbot served as a royal advisor, judge of Parlement, diplomat, and co-regent for Louis IX and Philip III.

As advisors, the abbots assisted in the implementation of the Treaty of Paris of 1258, which brought a brief period of peace between England and France. Jordan stresses that peace and stability were in the best interest of both monasteries. The abbots, therefore, encouraged cordial relations between Henry III and Louis IX and continued working for peace under their kings' more aggressive heirs.

Jordan's creative, comparative study provides an oblique perspective on the French and English monarchies and a lucid explanation of how they functioned within a complex community of competing aristocratic and ecclesiastical networks. He synthesizes recent scholarship on the monasteries and their monarchs and weighs in on particular questions to criticize and correct. Jordan arrives at his insights by combing the ample archives of each monastery. He deftly connects the seemingly mundane and unrelated transactions, litigation, accounts, notices of renovations, and descriptions of liturgical ceremonies to the high politics of England and France. He weaves the details into a succinct, vivid, and engaging narrative that not only reconstructs the careers of the two abbots, but allows him to offer fresh perspectives on both kingdoms.

The book's lively prose carries the reader through the alternation between abbeys and kingdoms, but the study could have been improved had its insights been more explicitly articulated, rather than left to the inference of readers. Analytical chapter conclusions would not have detracted from the book's narrative. Likewise, rather than ending the book with an epilogue giving a final appraisal of the two abbots, Jordan could have provided a more systematic conclusion. The choice of footnotes, which is becoming sadly rare in scholarly publishing, rather than endnotes, is to be commended. Given the comparative nature of the study and the attempt to make it accessible, the addition of genealogies, a chronology, and more maps would have been appreciated. The fourteen black-and-white photographs are printed on matte paper, which may reduce the cost of the book, but results in murky images. These are, moreover, limited to illustrating points made in Jordan's argument, whereas images of the interior of each abbey and even of other important places mentioned in the text would have been helpful.

Jordan's comparative approach and expert insights make this book an important study for scholars in the field. Its lucid style, engaging narrative, compact synthesis, and clear explanations, however, open up the political and ecclesiastical world of the thirteenth century to a wider audience and it is likely to become a favourite textbook and a model for historical writing.

Marc B. Cels

Athabasca University
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Author:Cels, Marc B.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2010
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