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Abbots ascendant: William Chester Jordan's study of one of medieval Europe's great monastic rivalries suggests that social mobility may have been more common in the Middle Ages than historians previously thought.

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Englishmen of the Middle Ages born into privilege frequently complained about upward social mobility. They spoke of administrators who were 'raised from the dust' to positions of governmental authority and power. They denounced lovers, female and male, of inferior though not necessarily lowly status who insinuated themselves into the beds of princes and received gifts and preferment as a consequence. In 1215 Magna Carta condemned what was perceived to be King John's deliberate practice of forcing heiresses of great property to dishonour themselves by marrying men of lesser rank whom the monarch wanted to reward and to elevate in the eyes of the traditional political and military elite.

Alarmism was as characteristic of the Middle Ages as it is now. Fear of change and, in particular, fear that change would undermine the advantages of birth encouraged nobles and gentry and, in different contexts, guild masters to take extraordinary measures to thwart upward mobility. Two or three disparaging marriages uniting the daughters of great aristocrats with knights of the royal household were enough to send the upper class into a frenzy. Not without reason they saw the upward mobility of the knights as a threat to the integrity of their own social relations and cultural exclusiveness. Upward mobility was not the only threat, of course. The 13th century saw an equally strident though less coherent resistance in England to so-called aliens (men and women of aristocratic status from Poitou and Savoy). These continental kinfolk of Henry III were seen as displacing or trying to displace the native upper class from its central importance and thereby deflecting some of the crown's largesse away from the latter. Yet both types of challenge to English aristocratic superiority, from upward mobility and from aliens, were less fraught, it would appear, in the context of the medieval church.

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There is little doubt that there was often resentment when men of foreign regions, Italians, say, moved into positions of power within the church in England, France and elsewhere. There are plenty of ordinances in English and French history and the other national histories of the Middle Ages forbidding the provision of offices in the church, often at papal request or demand, to aliens. And, although not a great deal has been written on the subject, there is evidence that within key ecclesiastical institutions such as the major monasteries there were sometimes fractious relations among the inmates from different regional (or ethnic) origins. Cosmopolitanism in the guise of religious universalism was the ideal and adherence to universalism may have softened the antagonisms, hut they were real nonetheless.

One presumes that there must have been resentment, too, when clergy of questionable origins--bastards and the low-born, for example--rose to prominence in these same institutions, but explicit evidence is rare. What is not hard to find is evidence that such churchmen could overcome the mediocrity of their birth and enjoy spectacular careers. Two outstanding examples worth considering at some length are the English Abbot of Westminster, Richard de Ware, and the French Abbot of Saint-Denis, Mathieu de Vendome. What makes them an interesting pair, besides the upward mobility to which their careers point, is the fact that their lives provide startling parallels of other sorts and equally fascinating interconnections.

Early modern and modern writers have gone a long way toward inventing a past for the men. Ware was a small market town on the pilgrimage routes that led north to the Virgin's shrine at Walsingham in Norfolk and south to St Thomas Becket's at Canterbury in Kent. As it was not the seat of a noble family of prominence (indeed, the most famous, if fictitious, native of Ware is Chaucer's cook in the Canterbury Tales), there was no obvious way to associate Richard, who flourished in the mid-13th century, with a local aristocratic lineage of that name, an association that would, if genuine, conveniently explain his rise to prominence in the church. Of course, the human imagination is not fettered by facts. Ware, although consistently rendered as the complete word 'Wara' in all the Latin sources, was construed by some interpreters as an abbreviation for Warren or Warenne. If this reading were correct, Richard could be placed in the lineage of the distinguished Warren family and made an otherwise unknown descendant of a great 12th-century earl, crusader or courtier. But the reading is fanciful, as the astute 17th-century antiquary Thomas Fuller knew; those who persisted in affirming it were, in his words, 'pretending [Richard's] honour, but pre-judicing the truth thereby.'

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Resistance to the idea that men of low estate could rise so spectacularly is also apparent in the case of Mathieu de Vendome. The lineage of the counts of Vendome is quite well-established and there is no Mathieu in it in the 13th century. Nevertheless, if one were to assume that the privilege of high office was largely dependent on birth in the period, then a man called Mathieu de Vendome had to have been of the noble lineage bearing the same name. The erudite compilers of Gallia Christiana, who began in the 17th century to compile this great historical catalogue of the institutions and personnel of the Catholic church in France, did assume this and, although they admitted the lack of evidence, nevertheless propagated the myth of Mathieu's aristocratic origins. It should come as no surprise that websites now touting the Loire Valley castle-town of Vendome as a tourist destination make the same claim for the distinguished 13th-century abbot who happens to have been born there.

Richard de Ware, given the character of his hometown, was more likely to have come from a mercantile or artisanal family or one that provided services to pilgrims. Perhaps his father ran an inn where the prototype of Chaucer's cook earned a living. It is easy to imagine Richard as a little boy hearing stories from the pilgrims of the shrines they had visited and of others that they hoped to visit. In a family where it was necessary to keep written records, a bright and curious boy would have been given some book-learning, perhaps at the local school or tutored by the parish priest. An aptitude for learning was almost certainly a precondition for a more intensive education. There was in Richard's day a Benedictine priory in Ware, a daughter house of the monastery of Saint-Evroult in Normandy, where the boy could have continued his learning and where later he could take the first steps toward professing as a monk.

In other words, being born in Ware was no bar to advancement. Another native of the town, William de Ware, an almost exact contemporary of the future Abbot of Westminster, became a renowned professional theologian and teacher of the even more renowned scholastic philosopher Duns Scotus. Nicholas de Ware, a slightly younger man, also entered the church, rising to become prior of Saint Bartholomew's, Sudbury in Suffolk, a priory dependent on Westminster Abbey. Another Richard from Ware made a career as chaplain of the royal chapel at Westminster.

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The precise date at which our Richard de Ware joined the community at Westminster Abbey is unknown but record evidence places him there by 1257 and shows him acting for the abbot, Richard de Crokesley, in a responsible capacity. He must have been at the monastery for some years to have achieved this reputation for competence and trust. The abbot at this time was a strong partisan of Henry III and his son Prince Edward in their struggles against the barons who wanted to reform the government.

The Parliament of 1258, where the Provisions of Oxford were issued imposing the reforms, was a series of stormy meetings. Immediately after it closed, Prince Edward, Abbot Richard de Crokesley and other members of their party met to talk about the recent events and drown their sorrows. Someone, it was reported, poisoned their drinks. True or not, the abbot died soon after. The vacancy at Westminster was filled by the prior but he did not live long enough to be confirmed. It was only at this point that the monks chose Richard de Ware as their leader.

Richard was not a warm or effusive man, as far as one can tell. He was a stickler for his and the abbey's rights. In the course of a 25-year career as abbot (1258-83) he quarrelled frequently with bishops who tried to undermine or challenge the extent of Westminster's immunity and that of its dependents from their jurisdiction. This involved him in long and sometimes violent struggles and legal hassles with Bishop Geoffrey Giffard of Worcester and Archbishop John Pecham of Canterbury. He was often at odds with heads of other houses, especially the abbots of Pershore, who resented the fact that lands in the vicinity of the village of the same name once belonging to their house had been ceded to Westminster at the instigation of Edward the Confessor. The strength of character it took to face off against powerful bishops and men of similar estate may owe a great deal to the struggle for respect that Richard de Ware faced in his early time as a monk of humble origins at Westminster.

Mathieu, if one argues again from place of origin, in his case an administrative and castle town, was almost certainly the offspring of parents who in one way or another serviced the count's court and entourage. How Mathieu became a monk at Saint-Denis, on the outskirts of old Paris, about 150 miles from Vendome, remains speculative, but it is not implausible that the cult of St Denis intrigued him as a boy. In the nearby Vendomois village of Thore there was a parish church dedicated to St Denis, the first bishop of Paris. The church had once been in the possession of the great abbey, although later it came to be owned by the Benedictine monastery of La Trinite of Vendome. If Thorn's parish church was like other churches in the region at this time, it had vivid wall paintings of the dedicatee's legend. In Denis' case the paintings would have shown his beheading by the Romans during a period of intense imperial persecution. Exceptionally, even for saints, Denis' corpse picked up its own head and proceeded to set out for a spot where he wished to be interred. When he found the right place, faithful Christians led by a particularly devout woman named Catulla built a shrine to him and two other companions who had been executed with him. This later became the site of the abbey of Saint-Denis.

If Mathieu was born into a family that served the counts in any but the most menial capacities, he had access to elementary learning that would have been of benefit when he took up a position as a scribe, messenger or official. As he was obviously attracted to a career in the church the local monastery of La Trinite offered him a perfect place to improve his education and to profess as a monk and, with the continuing connections of the great abbey of Saint-Denis with the Vendomois, he seized on the opportunity to transfer into the distant community. On this point, at least, speculation is buttressed by some evidence. As Abbot of Saint-Denis much later, Mathieu appears to have persuaded the French royal family to bestow gifts on La Trinite of Vendome, a policy, in context, that only makes sense if he professed as a monk there. How did Mathieu become Abbot of Saint-Denis? Finding his way into the abbey offered no certainty that he would rise in rank. Longevity had something to do with his elevation. Born around 1222, he was a monk at the abbey by the mid-1240s when he would have been in his early twenties, but he was not elected abbot until he was 36. More than a decade of steady service counted for something. Mathieu benefited too from comparison with his predecessor as abbot, Henri Mallet, who had a reputation for being easy in his headship of the monastery: too easy, in fact, and not very intent on finishing the refurbishment campaigns for the abbey church. Nothing was accomplished during Henri Mallet's abbacy with regard to improvements to the building that had begun in the early part of the 13th century.

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When Mathieu became abbot in 1258, the same year as Richard de Ware at Westminster, it had to have been with the approval of the crown. Louis IX, the future St Louis, knew him well. The king expected those he supported to be as tough, exacting and morally upright as he was. And it is certainly true that Mathieu lived up to this expectation, defending the rights and privileges of the abbey, particularly from the pretensions of the bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier. But the particular expectation that Mathieu would recommence work on the fabric of Saint-Denis was confirmed almost immediately after his elevation to the headship of the abbey, for in early 1259 a decrepit wall collapsed and killed 12 monks. From the moment the survivors completed their obsequies, Mathieu set about the full-scale refurbishment of the church and its shrines as well as the ramparts surrounding the monastic complex.

Richard de Ware, at the behest of Henry III, also undertook to complete the great rebuilding of Westminster Abbey, The start of the abbot's effort coincided with the final ratification of the Treaty of Paris of 1259, which confirmed King John's now half-century old loss of Normandy and so much more of the Planta-genet patrimony to France. The French king compensated his English counterpart for the loss, but this was in large part a face-saving gesture on the English king's behalf. In the final negotiations of the Treaty in Paris, both abbots took part (it was where they first met). There is no doubt that this encounter also began a friendly but symbolically powerful competition in the building campaigns. Richard de Ware had the harder task. For a decade, the English realm was in a political and fiscal crisis, with Henry III buffeted by the demands of his barons and the failures of ordinary revenues. The king tried his best to funnel as much money as possible to Westminster, but almost as often Westminster had to funnel revenue to him through loans or by acting as surety for loans. Abbot Richard, always a royal partisan, even agreed to pawn much of the abbey's treasure for the king's needs. Fortunately, most of it was redeemed as the political situation grew quieter at the end of the 1260s.

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On the other side of the Channel the situation was the polar opposite. Saint-Denis's revenues came in steadily, unlike Westminster's, where the weakness of the crown gave the enemies of Westminster opportunities to seize a portion of its lands and revenues and to make a mockery of its liberties. The French king, 'the rich man of Paris', as he was immortalised in an anti-English screed deriding the weakness and insolvency of Henry III in accepting the Treaty of Paris, also regularly gave gifts to the abbey of Saint-Denis. The result was a monastic complex that, if he had been vain, Mathieu would have found appropriate for his vanity. In the end, of course, with the baronial troubles at an end in England and by means of an heroic effort, Westminster's refurbishment was also achieved. This was a testimony to Henry III's devotion as well as to Richard de Ware's. It was also a witness to the latter's vanity, which is an easier trait to discern in his personality than in Mathieu's. Is it indicative of the Frenchman's humility that he could be addressed by his nicknames, Mahe and Maci? No one can say with certainty. But Richard's undoubted vanity found expression in many ways, as, for example, in the seal he had cast for himself in the faddish swivel-hip continental style he came across when he first visited France. His vanity also led to his celebration of himself (and his king, too) in the beautiful and costly Cosmati pavement and the other works by the celebrated family of Roman marble workers that were introduced to the decoration of Westminster Abbey and the tomb of Edward the Confessor among others during his headship. He had first seen this sort of lustrous marble and marblesque inlays on a visit to Anagni in central Italy. And perhaps it was vanity that led him to have his name inscribed in the long, strange inscription in the Cosmati floor before the main altar at Westminster which appears to claim for the abbey church the central point of the cosmos. One wonders indeed whether the vanity masked and therefore helped control more unpleasant gestures that might have arisen from feelings of inferiority of birth.

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There is one more piece of evidence or speculative imagining that points to Richard's insecurity. The truth is that he loved getting away from England. He was often sent on diplomatic missions by Henry III and his successor, Edward I. The transition to Edward's rule was not so smooth for the abbot, whose frequent absences were not conducive to monastic discipline at Westminster Abbey, but he regained confidence with the king after a rocky start and the missions continued. On his travels, Abbot Richard spoke with the authority of the king who had sent him. He had influence, indeed genuine power, and most people must have flattered him and treated him with great respect. He was presumably ashamed of nothing when he spoke for the crown of England and so he tarried for long periods on these foreign missions: in Paris, elsewhere in France and its borderlands, and in Italy. When he became Lord Treasurer of the kingdom in 1280, he had to forsake travel outside the realm. But Edward I entrusted to him and two other close advisers, one who would succeed the abbot as Lord Treasurer on the occasion of his death in 1283, to represent royal interests and indeed to speak for the crown on missions within the realm when the king himself could not be present.

Richard's counterpart, Mathieu de Vendome, also spoke in the French king's name when he became co-regent of the kingdom in 1270 upon the departure of Louis IX for his fatal crusade in Tunisia. Abbot Mathieu also had a rocky transition to the new rule of Louis IX's son, Philip Ill, when a favourite displaced some of the older and wiser councillors with whom the old king had surrounded himself. Aristocratic opposition soon solidified against this favourite and eliminated him. Mathieu re-emerged as an important councillor, as a diplomat who often negiotiated with Richard de Ware and eventually, though after Richard's death, as co-regent of the kingdom of France in 1285 during another ill-fated crusade. Mathieu de Vendome died the next year.

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These two examples do not yet make a general case for upward mobility in the church, not even in the monasteries of the medieval Catholic church, but they do point to the possibilities. For those who did rise spectacularly there may have been persistent psychological insecurity. Or, perhaps, they just got over it, to borrow a phrase from the common parlance of the 21st century. It would be wonderful to know more about the abbots and to test some of the propositions that arise from a study of Richard de Ware and Mathieu de Vendome. How commonly did lowness of birth prevent career advancement? Or, put positively, how frequently did men overcome the stigma of inferior lineage to make their mark in the high offices of the monasteries? And, most important, how did perceptions of lineage predispose monks to act when they held power in monastic hierarchies? There may be evidence out there to answer these questions or at least to make disciplined stabs at answering them, if we only continue to search.

Further Reading

Paul Binski, Westminster Abbey and the Plantagenets: Kingship and the Representation of Power, 1200-1400 (Yale University Press, 1995); Caroline Bruzelius, The 13th-century Church at Saint-Denis (Yale University Press, 1985); David Carpenter, 'The Meetings of King Henry III and Louis IX', in Michael Prestwich, Richard Britnell and Robin Frame (eds), Thirteenth-century England X: Proceedings of the Durham Conference, 2003, (Boydell and Brewer, 2005).

William Chester Jordan is Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University and the author of Europe in the High Middle Ages (Penguin, 2002). His latest book, A Tale of Two Monasteries:Westminster and Saint-Denis in the 13th Century has just been published by Princeton University Press.
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Title Annotation:Richard de Ware and Mathieu de Vendome
Author:Jordan, William Chester
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Aug 1, 2009
Words:3433
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