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date: 03 March 2021

Benedictine reformersfree

(act. c. 960–c. 1000)
  • Mechthild Gretsch

Benedictine reformers (act. c. 960–c. 1000), were a group of ecclesiastics who were deeply influenced by the resurgence of Benedictine monasticism on the continent in the earlier tenth century, emanating principally from Cluny in Burgundy and Gorze in Lotharingia, and by the revival of spirituality and learning that accompanied this resurgence. In two successive generations these men, together with their associates among the laity, brought about a radical reform of the English church, made a deep impress on Anglo-Saxon society, and initiated intellectual and artistic activities, some of which, like the programmatic use of the vernacular and the Winchester style of book illumination, are still considered hallmarks of late Anglo-Saxon culture, and are unique in their contemporary European context. In the lives of the three central figures in the group—Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, and Oswald, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York—written by their pupils, as well as in other contemporary texts, a picture is drawn of English church and society before the reform, and of the reformers' aims, stategies, and achievements, that pervasively influenced modern appraisals of the period. By their literary activities the Benedictine reformers thus effectively ensured that subsequent generations perceived them as the most important network of late Anglo-Saxon England.

The reform in England had its harbingers in three bishops who were professed monks: Oda, bishop of Ramsbury and subsequently archbishop of Canterbury, Coenwald, bishop of Worcester, and Ælfheah, bishop of Winchester. Two of these monastic bishops, Oda and Coenwald, had close links with reformed monasteries on the continent, and at some point in their careers all three of them participated in the sophisticated and cosmopolitan court culture of King Æthelstan (d. 939). However, it was after the accession of King Edgar in 959 that the reform movement acquired true momentum—Dunstan, Æthelwold, and Oswald were promoted to key bishoprics about 960. They were then presumably all in their fifties, having during the earlier stages of their careers had ample room for study and for laying the intellectual and spiritual foundations for the reforms they envisaged.

Dunstan and Æthelwold, who received their early intellectual training in King Æthelstan's entourage, spent the 940s and early 950s at Glastonbury, which became the centre where an ever growing circle of the ‘new Benedictines’ assembled; many of them later recalled it with affection as the place where their network originated. For two of the reform bishops their period of study included a sojourn in continental monasteries. Oswald spent some years at Fleury (St Benoît-sur-Loire), renowned for its library and learning, and as the resting place of St Benedict, while Dunstan lived for two years at St Peter's at Ghent, a notable monastery influenced by the Lotharingian strand of the reform. Æthelwold's plans to study abroad were thwarted by Queen Eadgifu, who persuaded her son King Eadred (d. 955) that, to forestall the danger of losing a scholar of extraordinary learning, Æthelwold should be put in charge of Abingdon, a then derelict monastery. Nevertheless, like his colleagues Dunstan and Oswald, Æthelwold maintained close links with continental reform monasteries throughout his career. As abbot of Abingdon he sent his student Osgar to Fleury, and invited monks from Corbie to teach his monks plainchant, while in the early 970s, now bishop of Winchester, he commissioned Lantfred, a monk from Fleury and a notable scholar who stayed for a while at the Old Minster, to compose a Latin prose account of the translation (in 971) and the miracles of the cathedral's most important saint, St Swithun. Another continental visitor was Womar, a former abbot of St Peter's, Ghent, who spent some time with Æthelwold's familia at the Old Minster in the 970s.

As for Oswald and Dunstan, the closeness of their links with the Benedictine reform on the continent is underlined by the two-year (985–7) stay in England made at Oswald's invitation by Abbo, monk and latterly abbot of Fleury, and one of the most learned men of his time. Abbo became schoolmaster at Ramsey, Oswald's most important monastery, and there composed a Latin account of the martyrdom of the East Anglian king Edmund, killed by the Danes in 869. He dedicated this passio to Archbishop Dunstan, from whom he claimed to have heard the story of Edmund's death. A few years later it was translated into English by Ælfric of Eynsham, one of Æthelwold's most distinguished pupils. Abbo also composed two poems in praise of Dunstan, and shortly after the millennium the abbot of St Augustine's, Canterbury, sent him the earliest life of Dunstan with the request that he turn it into verse. The influence of continental reformed monasticism can also be seen in the Regularis concordia, a customary presumably drawn up by Æthelwold after a synod held at Winchester about 973, where all the bishops, abbots, and abbesses of the country agreed to adhere to a uniform observance with regard to details of monastic liturgy, customs, and administration for which St Benedict's rule had made no provision. The advice given at the synod by brethren from continental monasteries is expressly mentioned, and the text has recently been shown to have been modelled on the customary of Fleury.

Important as these links with continental monasteries were, the Benedictine reform in England was far from being an insular branch of the movement on the continent, and the characteristic Englishness of the reform in England has often been commented on. The most distinctive of these English features was the institution of the ‘monastic cathedral’, that is the wholesale replacement by monks of the secular clergy in a bishop's familia. A monastic cathedral community is assumed by the Regularis concordia as a matter of course, but it had no equivalent on the continent. It was Æthelwold who pursued the implementation of this concept with the greatest determination, most spectacularly with the carefully planned and staged expulsion of the clerics from his cathedral church, the Old Minster, in 964, but there can be no doubt that for Dunstan and Oswald as well the monk–bishop presiding over a monastic cathedral community was an ideal close to their hearts; an ideal that they communicated to the younger scholars in their respective ambits. So it was, for example, that Wulfsige, a protégé of Dunstan, as bishop of Sherborne (from about 993) established a monastic community in his cathedral in 998, and Sigeric, a monk of Glastonbury training and subsequently bishop of Ramsbury, promoted the gradual transformation of the metropolitan church into a monastic community when he was transferred to the archbishopric of Canterbury in 990. Byrhtferth, a scholar and schoolmaster at Bishop Oswald's Ramsey (where he was himself taught by Abbo of Fleury), propagated the concept of the monastic cathedral with vigour and enthusiasm in his Vita S. Oswaldi. Æthelwold's student Ælfric, in an episcopal letter commissioned from him by Bishop Wulfsige of Sherborne, even argued for the adoption of Benedictine monasticism by all clerics.

It goes without saying that the foundation or refoundation of monasteries outside their sees also ranked high on the agenda of the three reform bishops, and that they wanted to install their pupils as abbots of their foundations. Thus the Old Minster monks Byrhtnoth and Godeman became the first abbots of Ely and Thorney respectively; Wulfsige was put in charge of Westminster, a monastery closely connected with Dunstan; and Oswald's protégé Germanus became the first abbot of his foundation at Winchcombe. However, the new foundations needed endowments as well as leaders, and although Dunstan, Æthelwold, and Oswald lavished estates, books, church plate, and other artefacts from their personal property on the monasteries in their ambit, these would not have prospered or even survived without generous support from king, queen, and nobility. Among the three reform bishops Æthelwold took the lead in building on royal support for the implementation of their shared monastic vision. The programme of reform was mainly his work, and he appreciated that, given its intended national scope and the deplorable state of English monasticism, it could not succeed without the king's authority behind it. It was thus of prime importance that, probably in the mid-950s, he became Edgar's tutor, and thus had the opportunity to instil enthusiasm for monasticism in the young prince.

Æthelwold's strategy worked, for after Edgar's accession to the kingship, he and his consort Ælfthryth, whom he had married in 964, remained the staunchest allies of the reform movement among the laity. They gave indispensable support in founding and endowing monasteries, and also in establishing monastic cathedral communities—it was with the consent of, and military support from, King Edgar that Æthelwold was able to expel the clerics from his cathedral church, as several sources record. Indeed in some of these sources (notably the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, MS A, the Regularis concordia, and the text known as 'King Edgar's establishment of monasteries') it is Edgar, not Æthelwold, who is credited with ejecting the clerics (said to have been utterly depraved) from the Old Minster and other churches. It hardly needs saying that the likely resentment felt by dispossessed clerics, whose benefices and other properties were now taken into communal ownership, was never mentioned by monastic authors.

The reformers showed their gratitude for Edgar's backing by portraying him in their writings as the driving force of their movement and its principal protector, actively assisted in that capacity by Ælfthryth. However, the reformers', and especially Æthelwold's, emphasis on the importance of royal support must not eclipse the generous backing that they received from ealdormen and other magnates, for example, Æthelwine, ealdorman of East Anglia and King Edgar's foster brother; Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex and hero of the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon; Æthelweard, ealdorman of the western provinces and the king's kinsman, and his son Æthelmær; Ordulf, the queen's brother; and Wulfric Spot, the brother of Ealdorman Ælfhelm of Northumbria—all were gratefully recorded by the monks as founders or benefactors of monasteries and nunneries, and were considered as part of their network.

It had, indeed, always been the aim of the reformers not only to secure the patronage of king, queen, and magnates but also to impart to them and to a larger public the essentials of their monastic outlook, and to attract them to, and to some extent enable them to share in, the Benedictine way of life. Thus Æthelwold represented the young Edgar as eager to know the contents of St Benedict's rule, and subsequently produced an English translation of the text, while Ælfric of Eynsham was commissioned by Ealdorman Æthelweard and his son Æthelmær to write a collection of English saints' lives that would enable lay people to understand the basic elements of the monastic night office. The famous benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL, Add. MS 49598), perhaps the most lavishly produced book surviving from Anglo-Saxon England, and the apogee of the Winchester style of manuscript illumination, also reveals the reformers' strategy of communicating the splendours of monasticism to a wider circle: as a book used at mass it was designed for contemplation by the laity as well.

While it is true that Latin learning was boosted by the activities of the reformers—both Dunstan and Æthelwold are known to have composed works in Latin, and in the second generation the wide-ranging Latin writings of Byrhtferth of Ramsey and Wulfstan Cantor (a highly accomplished Anglo-Latin poet) are noteworthy—it was the use of the vernacular and its development into a medium suitable alike for narrative and for theological and scholarly discourse that constituted the reformers' most innovative scholarly achievement. Inasmuch as it reflected the reformers' endeavours to make an impact on society at large, their extensive use of the vernacular formed an essential component of their programme. The vast amount of Old English writings by Æthelwold, and especially by Ælfric and Byrhtferth, continued and brought to perfection the work done by scholars at King Alfred's court, and it is largely owing to the reformers' activities in this field that by the time of the Norman conquest England possessed a corpus of vernacular literature that in extent and variety was to have no parallel in any other European language for many centuries to come.


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