Anglo-Saxon Monastic Decay

murder mystery novel
Murder at Elmstow Minster

In my novel, Murder at Elmstow Minster, I depict a minster (an important church/monastery) in the 830s, divided between pious nuns and those who are worldly and decadent. It certainly makes for a good story, but the bones are accurate. A mistake often made when considering early and middle Anglo-Saxon monastic life, is to imagine a pious group of inmates, following a disciplined life, separated from the worst of the world around them. At its best, this was the case. However, at their worst, minsters were superficially religious but otherwise not much different from secular estates, open to elite enjoyment and degrees of dissolution, and inhabited by many souls who could not pass Monastic Living 1.01, even if they had taken Holy Orders. Anglo-Saxon monastic decay in this period led ultimately to the Benedictine monastic reforms of the second half of the tenth century:

…an eccentric, maverick, or ignorant founder is likely to have created a community in his or her own image… Fundamentally, monastic property was conceived as a special kind of family property: it had a religious status, but one that was interpreted in traditional terms. This had consequences which by the mid eighth century were being identified as scandalous perversion…’ (Blair, J., 2006, pp: 81, 82).

This decline is epitomized in the story by the moral and physical decay of one of the lead characters. Secular lords would endow minsters with their wealth but also with their culture and behaviour. The economic success of minsters also contributed to the tension between the ideal of their separation from the world and the impossibility of escape. In this short post, I will discuss what led to the parlous condition of minsters in this period.

Minsters – Physical Separation and Connection

The term, ‘minster’, covers any complex ecclesiastical settlement that had some parochial authority over the surrounding area. Some were the seats of bishops and many developed over time into mother churches. They could house nuns, monks, priests, laity, and be headed by an abbess, abbot or an ordained man (Blair, J., 2006, pp: 3-5). Most were established and endowed by royalty and the aristocracy, although more modest freemen sometimes founded minsters. While this process connected the elite to the propagation of the Christian faith, many outcomes were far from pious.

Physically, minsters were designed to provide some separation between inmates from the surrounding area and population, so they could focus on worship and contemplation. This demarcation could have been effected by natural landscape features, such as hills, rivers, fens, or by man-made diches, fences and walls. The Anglo-Saxons built overwhelmingly in wood, but they also came to build some important structures with stone, especially high status religious buildings, which could have stone walls and a wooden or thatched roof. The two main reasons usually advanced for use of stone were the ready availability of material from Roman ruins, and prestige.

When the Romans finally left Britain in the early fifth century, they left behind a mass of stone and brick buildings and complexes, ranging from isolated farms and villas to temples, military centres and whole towns. Much of this collapsed into ruins over the coming centuries; however, these decaying structures provided two great benefits to the Roman mission under Saint Augustine that arrived in 597. They provided a supply of building materials, of greater permanence than wood, and these sites could come once more to embody the prestige of Rome. Over the next 450 years or so, many minsters and churches were built using a mixture of quarried stone, re-used Roman masonry, wood and thatch.

Former Roman forts were particularly useful, as these not only provided building materials but also solid enclosures, serving to separate Church from laity. Examples of such minsters include Bradwell-on-Sea (Essex), Reculver (Kent), Burgh Castle (Norfolk), Lincoln (Lincolnshire) and Escomb (County Durham) (Foot, S., 2009, pp: 101-3). The monastic centre of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow (Tyne and Wear) of the late seventh century also included impressive stone buildings. The fictional minster in my novel is built within a former Roman fort. But were monastic inmates as set apart as their physical surroundings might suggest?

Minsters and the Elite

Anglo-Saxon conversion was undeniably top-down, with a concerted attempt by the mission to convert kings. This was a pragmatic strategy in a hierarchical society and, over time, led to a close symbiotic relationship between royalty, nobility and the Church. The mission could only succeed if it had secure bases, and this required land and the wealth to build and to live upon it. Only the land-owning elite could provide these.

Building with stone was also a form of conspicuous consumption by the elite, conveying permanence and wealth. Here we come to a key issue – minsters were not, in this period, seen as belonging to the Church, as an institution, but were the property of those who established them. Behaviour within a minster was influenced by its founder. Neither was there a uniform, formalised monastic order or rule imposed on religious houses. Consequently, their character was largely determined by the interests, morality and whims of their owners. It was monasticism on their terms.

In 734, Bede wrote to Bishop Ecghberht of York:

Under the pretext of founding minsters, they (rich laymen) give money to kings and buy territories for themselves in which they can more freely indulge their lust… They do not even gather monks there, but whomsoever they can find wandering around after being thrown out of real minsters for disobedience, or whom they can themselves entice out of minsters; or indeed those of their own retainers whom they can persuade to promise them a monk’s obedience and receive the tonsure, (Blair, J., 2006, pp: 101-02).

In addition to the tax advantages of owning monastic land, as this was free from some obligations of secular land ownership, Bede was attacking those of the aristocracy who accepted the status benefits of minster ownership but with little interest or understanding of the faith, responsibilities or morality expected of them, other than that founding a minster was beneficial for their afterlife. At their best, minsters were led by pious, disciplined men and women, sufficiently focused and powerful to keep unscrupulous kings and lay lords at bay, with God-fearing and educated inmates. But there were many that were not so exalted, reflecting the world view of their secular founders. Patrick Wormald summarises it nicely:

Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England was successfully assimilated by a warrior nobility which had no intention of abandoning its culture, or seriously changing its way of life, but which was willing to throw its traditions, customs, tastes and loyalties into the articulation of the new faith (Wormald, P., 1978, quoted in Foot, S., 2009, p: 348).

We should not imagine that a desire to hang onto pre-Christian heroic ideals, culture and behaviour by the conservative aristocratic warrior elite simply meant a thumbs down to Christian morality and a thumbs up to all kinds of debauchery. It did, of course, include behaviour of this sort. However, it also meant a continuing love of the lofty ideals, culture and behaviour of ‘companions of the hearth’ and heroic poetry (see my post).

St Martin's Church, Canterbury - St Augustine's first base
St Martin’s, Canterbury. St Augustine’s first base and the oldest church in the English-speaking world

As I discussed in my posts on the mystical life of the Anglo-Saxons, pre-Christian spirits and gods were converted or demonised over time with some success by the Church. However, such was the strength of the ‘pagan’ mindset that it did not totally disappear, although its shape and meaning might have changed. The trajectory was similar for pre-Christian heroic culture[1]. The great cleric, Alcuin of York, famously wrote in the late eighth century, ‘What has Ingeld to do with Christ?’ Ingeld was a mythical figure from the heroic pagan tradition, and Alcuin was complaining that monks were over-fond of listening to songs of his exploits, rather than sacred scripture:

…we should scarcely be surprised that the first minsters resembled much more ‘a special kind of ‘nobleman’s club’ than they did Benedict’s Monte Cassino’ (monastery founded by Benedict of Nursia around 530, and for which he devised the monastic Rule of St Benedict) (Foot, S. quoting Campbell, J., 1989).

There is an irony that Pope Gregory’s advice to Augustine was to allow the Anglo-Saxons to keep their temples but to destroy the pagan images and idols within them, i.e. to retain the comforting outer forms of their former religious and cultural practice to encourage their conversion. However, what often transpired with the nobility was an adoption of the outer forms of Christianity, while continuing with their culture and lifestyle.

Minsters and the Economy

Many great minsters became powerful economic, as well as spiritual, centres, serving to motivate development of nearby settlement, including towns. The heads of minsters became as rich, if not more so, than many secular lords, and were probably related to them. How did this economic development happen?

Most obviously, the combination of spiritual, status and tax benefits from endowing minsters, drew the wealth of great lords. This investment was in the form of land, waterways, woods, livestock, peasants to work the land, and other necessities to generate a largely self-contained community. As these establishments were often led by members of the donor families, and were inheritable assets, there were strong dynastic reasons to nurture their growth. While the Church may have wanted minsters to be secluded from the outside world, they simply could not develop successfully on barren or marginal land, which lacked the fundamentals to support a sustainable community. Accordingly, many minsters were endowed with a strong economic foundation.

John Blair draws on Rosamond Faith to discuss the impact of the sedentary nature of minster communities, compared to itinerant royal households, pointing out that this may have allowed a more intensive exploitation of minster economic assets (Faith. R. 1997, in Blair, J., 2006, p: 252). Blair then draws on John Doherty’s work on the experience of the Irish Church, proposing that there were similar signs in the British world:

It (the Irish Church) was in a position to exploit fully technical innovations such as the heavy plough and the horizontal water-mill. It was thus the only organization that could produce a surplus – particularly of grain (Doherty, C., 1985, p: 55, quoted in Blair, J., 2006, p: 253).

Debby Banham and Rosamond Faith comment on the scope of the benefits from adopting the heavy plough, allowing ploughing to proceed more quickly, in heavier soils and for a prolonged season into the wetter months, thus allowing expansion of cereal cultivation with ensuing economic benefits (Banham, D., and Faith, R., 2020, pp: 55-57).

John Blair advances three important factors that may have given minsters an edge over secular forms of economic activity: scale and control of their landholdings, ability to exploit low status quasi-monastic personnel and perhaps a broader range of the peasantry, and ability to invest in new kinds of infrastructure and equipment (Blair, J., 2006, p: 256).

There were, of course, spiritual reasons why other folk settled nearby, including the pull from the likelihood that minsters contained relics, where one could touch saintly remains and pray to saints for intervention with God. Cemeteries also developed around minsters, where the faithful could be buried in sacred soil, with burial-dues (soulscot) payable to the minster. Minsters were also places where alms were distributed to the poor. People, markets and other economic activity gravitated to minsters.

All-in-all, great minsters and their leaders became economically influential, which meant that they were part of the secular fabric of society, and could not be ignored by the secular world.

Conclusion

Minsters occupied a liminal space between the society of the secular aristocracy from which most of their professed members were drawn and the ecclesiastical society of the Christian church (Foot, S., 2009, p: 347).

As with other aspects of Anglo-Saxon spiritual life, minsters embodied pre-Christian and Christian culture, behaviour and beliefs. It was a spiritual and temporal battle over many generations for the Church to articulate its own unambiguous position and to persuade the populace to accept most of it. In the shadows, there always lurked threads of ‘paganism’.

The lofty ideal was for minsters to be ‘in, but not part of, the world’. A powerful and pious bishop, abbot or abbess could struggle to deliver this, but often the reality was different. At one end of the spectrum, there were pious souls condemning fornication with nuns, gluttony and the love of pagan heroic songs. At the other, there was no shortage of uneducated and morally lax inmates, wayward scions of the nobility, feasting, hunting, pagan magic and dissipation.

Most minsters had a physical separation from the surrounding world, but rather than being removed from worldly pressures and concerns, they became inextricably connected to the world, if not through the culture, lifestyle and whims of aristocratic founders and donors, then by their pivotal role in the economy. Many minsters were as full of intrigue, crime and sin as the wider society. This was the world in which Murder at Elmstow Minster is set.

(Photos taken by author)

References

Banham, D. and Faith, R. (2020) Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Blair, J. (2006) The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Campbell, J. (1989) Elements in the background to The Life of St Cuthbert and his early Cult, in Gerald Bonner et al (eds.) St Cuthbert, his Cult and his Community to AD 1200 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1989, pp:3-19, reprinted in his The Anglo-Saxon State (London and New York: Hambledon and London, 2000), pp: 85-106.

Doherty, C. (1985), The Monastic Town in Early Medieval Ireland, in Clarke, H, B., and Simms, A. (eds.), (1985), The Comparative History of Urban Origins in Non-Roman Europe (2 vols., BAR Int. Ser. 255 , Oxford, pp: 45-75.

Faith, R. (1997) The English Peasantry and the Growth of Lordship, London, pp:15-16.

Foot, S. (2009) Monastic Life in Anglo-Saxon England c. 600-900, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Insley. C. and Owen-Crocker, G. R. (2017), Transformation in Anglo-Saxon Culture, Oxford, Oxbow Books. Wormald, P., (1978) Bede, “Beowulf” and the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxon Aristocracy, in R. T. Farrell (ed.) Bede and Anglo-Saxon England: Papers in Honour of the 1300th Anniversary of the Birth of Bede, given at Cornell University in 1973 and 1974, BAR, Brit. ser., 46 (Oxford: BAR, 1978), 32-9


[1] Transformation in Anglo-Saxon Culture, edited by Charles Insley and Gale R. Owen-Crocker, contains some fascinating papers on the transformation of pre-Christian to Christian culture.

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