Tuesday, December 7, 2021

James Clark's "The Dissolution of the Monasteries"

James Clark is Professor of History at the University of Exeter UK. He has published widely on the cultural, intellectual and religious life of medieval and Reformation England.

Clark applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A New History, and reported the following:
For this, the Ford test works well. The book is not only a study of the central drama of Henry VIII’s Reformation. It also aims to explore the place that monasteries had come to occupy in English society in the sixteenth century. They had stood in and around the cities, towns and villages of England for centuries; a good many of them could trace their history back beyond the Norman Conquest of 1066. There had been monks here of one kind or another for as long as there had been Christians. But these ancient institutions amounted to more, far more than heritage landmarks. In the kingdom of the new Tudor dynasty they were still living communities, charged with an uncommon blend of cult and material power. Page ninety-nine, which opens the book’s third chapter, offers a stark illustration of the worst effects of that power. It tells a murder story. Thomas Warner, upstanding resident of the town of Bury St Edmunds in the eastern county of Suffolk, was set upon one dark night when making his way home to his loving wife, Alice. Severely beaten, he somehow managed to reach his own front door but his lifeblood was already spent and by morning he was dead. In the light of day it became clear his assailant was one John Barnysby, a servant of the great Benedictine abbey that stood at the heart of the town. Lord of the borough, the abbot of the monastery lent his protection to Barnysby and the murder went unpunished. But Alice Warner would not submit so easily to such self-serving vested interest. She presented a petition to another wife recently wronged, none other than the queen of England herself.

Warner’s murder, Alice’s impotent appeal, Barnysby’s escape to fight another day and the monastery’s impassive indifference together distil the dynamics of this still medieval, still monastic society of Henry VIII. The monasteries and other religious houses of provincial England were not relics of a remote past from which the king and his subjects had already broken free. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was not the final phase of a process of transformation which had long been underway. It was a dramatic and disturbing tear in the fabric of daily life, which divided communities between the same polarised standpoints seen at the death of poor Thomas Warner: a pragmatic preference for continuity or a passionate zeal for change.
Learn more about The Dissolution of the Monasteries at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue