02 November 2006


Robert Hale £60 (0-7090-7412-3)Church Times Bookshop £54

HENRY VIII did one good thing for monks: he made them romantic. Ever since they vanished, they and their ruins have been objects of fascination. People imagine the religion of medieval England as being monastic religion. Hundreds of books have been written about monasteries, while friars, who were far more interesting and dynamic in some ways, languish in obscurity. As for minsters and colleges, they are almost forgotten.

Minsters developed from monasteries in the eighth and ninth centuries, as monks came to live in more worldly (some might say, more practical) ways. These included dwelling in separate houses, owning personal property, and doing duties in the outside world. Most Anglo-Saxon religious houses after about 850 were minsters, though there was a strong attempt to make them monastic again in the time of King Edgar and St Dunstan.

When monasticism returned to popularity in the 12th century, many minsters were turned into Augustinian monasteries; but some survived — Beverley, Ripon, Southwell. In turn, as monasticism lost its impetus after 1200, minsters came back into fashion in the updated form of colleges or collegiate churches.

A college is a collected body of colleagues. Medieval minsters and colleges were not normally academic. Their clergy said the daily services, as monks did, and celebrated masses for the dead. They often ran parish churches, and some provided schooling. Colleges were cheaper to endow than monasteries, which explains why they accounted for most of the religious houses founded between 1300 and 1540.

This did not save them at the Reformation. Apart from a handful of exceptions, Henry VIII and Edward VI spared only the colleges in the university towns, which combined religion and learning, and the two big collegiate schools, Eton and Winchester. That is why we have come to associate colleges with teaching rather than worship.

Minsters and colleges have been neglected because they have been thought lax or dull. This is not fair: they played key parts in the history of architecture, worship, music, and education. They are also complicated to study. Since they did not follow a rule, as monks did, and were not organisations, as friars were, they each had different statutes and customs. Deducing how they worked is difficult.

We lack a good detailed history of them during the Middle Ages. Paul Jeffery’s book is not that history, but it is a long step towards one, and may give the subject more of a profile than an academic study would do. It starts with a lucid outline of how they developed and functioned, on the lines set out above.

Most of the book is a gazetteer, county by county, of about 170 minsters and colleges, which are illustrated by the author’s excellent photographs. Their buildings are described, and their histories are summarised. Institutions that have disappeared are also covered.

This is a valuable and delightful book, enticing us to visit the places it mentions, and giving a full and just account of their importance. It can be warmly recommended to everyone, scholar or general reader, who is interested in medieval England.

Nicholas Orme is Professor of History at Exeter University.

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