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A Tale of Two Monasteries takes an unprecedented look at one of the great rivalries of the Middle Ages and offers it as a revealing lens through which to view the intertwined histories of medieval England and France. This is the first book to systematically compare Westminster Abbey and the abbey of Saint-Denis--two of the most important ecclesiastical institutions of the thirteenth century--and to do so through the lives and competing careers of the two men who ruled them, Richard de Ware of Westminster and Mathieu de Vendôme of Saint-Denis.
Esteemed historian William Jordan weaves a breathtaking narrative of the social, cultural, and political history of the period. It was an age of rebellion and crusades, of artistic and architectural innovation, of unprecedented political reform, and of frustrating international diplomacy--and Richard and Mathieu, in one way or another, played important roles in all these developments. Jordan traces their rise from obscure backgrounds to the highest ranks of political authority, Abbot Richard becoming royal treasurer of England, and Abbot Mathieu twice serving as a regent of France during the crusades. By enabling us to understand the complex relationships the abbots and their rival institutions shared with each other and with the kings and social networks that supported and exploited them, A Tale of Two Monasteries paints a vivid portrait of medieval society and politics, and of the ambitious men who influenced them so profoundly.
"[T]his is a work that could only be written by a scholar who has spent a career examining the intricacies of medieval government in the often turbulent years of the thirteenth century. As such, the reader is well served by Professor Jordan's excellent book."--Leonie Hicks, Church History
"In this tidy comparative study of two of the most important ecclesiastical institutions of the Middle Ages, Jordan uses the monasteries and the men chosen to govern them in 1258 as an entry into relations between 13th-century England and France."--Choice
"William Chester Jordan's . . . meticulous research, lively mind, and unburdened prose. . . . A Tale of Two Monasteries is a closely researched and energetic cameo."--Paul Binski, Catholic Historical Review
"Jordan's comparative approach and expert insights make this book an important study for scholars in the field. Its lucid style, engaging narrative, compact synthesis, and clear explanations, however, open up the political and ecclesiastical world of the thirteenth century to a wider audience and it is likely to become a favourite textbook and a model for historical writing."--Marc B. Cels, Canadian Journal of History
"Jordan enlists these two monasteries, their abbots, and especially their documents to trace a new and privileged path through the political history of later thirteenth-century England and France. Jordan has given us another of his own classics, a refreshing account of a well-known era."--David C. Mengel, Journal of World History
"Meticulous in historical detail, A Tale of Two Monasteries tells a remarkable and rather captivating narrative. . . . Jordan's research is based on a thorough reading of a huge array of documents. . . . The bibliography is impressive, and the citations and discursive footnotes are immensely valuable to medieval scholarship. But Jordan is also a storyteller; he captures something of the spirit of daily life. . . . The reader has a sense of being there and is guided through the poignancies, the portent, and the bearing these royal successions will have for the abbeys and their abbots."--Rosemary Drage Hale, Journal of British Studies
In one sense the story of this book opens in the year 1258 when two relatively obscure monks, Richard de Ware and Mathieu de Vendôme, were elected rulers of Westminster Abbey and the Abbey of Saint-Denis. In another sense, however, the monks' story commences more than a half century earlier, when war broke out between King John of England and King Philip II of France. The failure of the two kings and their advisers to resolve the conflict and the persistent turmoil that their failure generated in the ensuing decades provide the essential introduction to the two abbots' history and that of their monasteries in their lifetimes. For it was an almost inevitable consequence of their election to such influential positions that Richard and Mathieu became partisans in the continuing diplomatic and political drama affecting their countries.
It was in the year 1200 that King John of England (1199-1216) took a young girl, Isabelle d'Angoulême, as his wife. Isabelle attracted him because she was pretty and pert, or, in another, duller but no less well-argued interpretation, because marriage to her provided the key to a strategic opportunity. Her family ruled the Angoumois, a principality in western France about 150 kilometers south of the Loire River. Its location and power offered a means to check the rise to prominence of an ambitious baron, Hugues, count of La Marche, but Hugues was already engaged to Isabelle when John decided to act. Thus it was in a preemptive move that he carried Isabelle off and married her himself. The action did not so much secure an alliance with Isabelle's family as it put in jeopardy John's continued possession of the vast array of French lands he had inherited in 1199 on the death of his brother, Richard the Lionhearted (1189-1199). Count Hugues of La Marche owed faithfulness to John, but only as long as the latter treated him justly. The taking of his intended bride was unjust, and when the count gave up trying to obtain satisfaction directly from John, he turned to their mutual overlord, the Capetian king of France Philip II (1179/80-1223), a man who had long coveted the territories in his realm that were, to his infinite displeasure, under the direct control of the wearer of the English crown.
The French ruler commanded John to appear before him and his High Court to answer the charges levied against him and to receive Philip's judgment. John categorically refused even though he held his lands in France from and had pledged his faith to the French king. Philip and his court therefore solemnly declared John's French lands forfeit to the crown. War ensued, and by 1204 French troops had subjugated Normandy. By the end of 1206 they had extended their master's control to most of the lands John claimed that were situated north of the Loire River.
Soon afterward John provoked an equally dangerous personage, Pope Innocent III. The issue, the English king's refusal to admit the papal candidate to the see of Canterbury after a disputed election, ultimately led the king and the pope to take actions against each other, the former confiscating ecclesiastical property and sending hostile English churchmen into exile, the latter imposing a kingdom wide interdiction of religious services in 1208. It would not be until 1212 that John extricated himself from this struggle, promising as part of the settlement to accept the over-lordship of the pope for his own royal lordship of England.
The line of demarcation established in 1206 between areas of French and English rule on the Continent, to resume the military narrative, was generally stable until the early 1220s, when large additional territories south of the Loire were successfully annexed by Philip's heir and successor, Louis VIII (1223-1226). To be sure, the half century following the initial French conquests saw John and, thereafter, his son Henry III (1216-1272) attempt to regain their lands. Their lack of success had enormous repercussions in English history. The lifting of the papal interdict in late 1212 was the one really bright spot for King John, allowing him to concentrate his efforts on the war with France, but popular disappointment during the year 1214 with his most intensive but wholly ineffective effort to recover his Continental patrimony was a major cause for the great revolt of the heavily taxed English barons that led to the acceptance of Magna Carta in 1215. Magna Carta failed to bring more than a temporary cessation of the revolt, but it did lay the foundation for a longer-term modus vivendi between the crown and the English aristocracy-one often contested, but in the end quite constraining and enduring.
After his father's death Henry III continued to assert the Plantagenets' claims to the lost French lands, although his attempts, like John's, to enforce these claims by specifically military action never achieved success. His principal opponent for most of his reign was Louis IX (1226-1270), and the two men's opposition sparked a rivalry that lasted until the end of their lives. Yet that rivalry itself gradually transmuted over the years, as it became evident that war was not the English king's best game, and as the French king focused more and more of his attention on the desire to distinguish himself as a crusader. The progressive infrequency and relatively low intensity of Henry III's threats to mount a military expedition to compel acknowledgment of the justness of his territorial claims in France led to the illusion of peace between the two kingdoms in the mid-and late 1240s. It remained to turn the illusion into legal reality, but the most hopeful moments in this process did not come until the 1250s. The two kingdoms remained technically at war until late in that decade.
If the initial shock and the ever-lengthening reality of the loss of the French lands transformed the kingdom of England, the French victories no less profoundly transformed the nature of French society and domestic politics. Success ultimately turned this one among many military, diplomatic, and economic principalities in western Europe into the most powerful kingdom in Christendom. It provided additional substance to the French crown's claims to superiority among Catholic monarchies. And it fed a nascent but deepening patriotism in a realm that until then had been scarcely more than a congeries of loosely attached principalities.
The loss of most of their territories in France in the early thirteenth century did not mean that the English kings or their subjects were wholly estranged from the Continent. English aristocrats, many of whom were descendants of men who had conquered the kingdom in 1066, constituted a community comfortable in French and in regular contact with Francophone Continental kin and friends. Henry III also retained direct political control of the lands of the southwest that the Capetians did not seize in the thirteenth century, the duchy of Aquitaine (with its capital at Bordeaux and one of its greatest ports at Bayonne) and small adjacent territories. Britain's proximity to the Continent assured that in peacetime trade relations formed an important bond. Wine exported to the island kingdom now, with the loss of Anjou and Poitou, came more disproportionately and in larger quantities from the Bordelais. Finally, travels back and forth of clergymen and pilgrims were never infrequent.
Except, however, for making plans of reconquest, only to execute them unsuccessfully, and strengthening the administration of the much-reduced Angevin Empire, the English king's council devoted far less time to affairs on the Continent after 1215 than had been the case earlier. In a famous quip, the historian George Sayles once said that King Henry III, "debarred" by his military and political fortunes from replicating his predecessors' travels "to the Continent, was determined to redress the balance by having the Continent come to England." He meant that those of Henry's Continental relatives who came to the kingdom held a favored place in his sentiments. Critics may have exaggerated the power and danger of these so-called aliens, especially Henry's half siblings from his mother's remarriage. Nonetheless, after a time these kinfolk from Poitou and its environs, the Poitevins, together with the king's relatives by marriage (to Eleanor of Provence) from both Provence and Savoy, did command a sizable portion of royal benefactions.
The king was also an extravagant man. He was enormously wealthy, as most medieval kings were, but not even a monarch's wealth was limitless. Henry lavished gifts not only on the aliens but also his other friends. Some of his tendencies were kept under control in his youth (he was only nine when he came to the throne in the aftermath of his father's unsuccessful repudiation of Magna Carta). At first, dominion in his government lay with a grand old man, William Marshal, the Earl of Pembroke, but when the earl died only a few years into the reign, control over Henry passed to a triumvirate, a sort of regency council, that included Pandulph, the papal legate; Peter des Roches, the bishop of Winchester; and Hubert de Burgh, the justiciar. William Marshal and, after him, the triumvirate engineered the rebels' appeasement, the face-saving departure of a French invasion force that had come to support them against John, the spiriting away of Henry's mother (in the view of many, the cause of all woes) to her homeland, Magna Carta's prudent reissue, and the enactment of the companion Charter of the Forest in 1217. The new government managed to achieve a level of stability thereafter, even when strains appeared in the regency in the 1220s.
The king gradually assumed the reins of power, starting in 1223, and in 1225 he reissued the Great Charter. But no scholar has made much of a case that Henry's interest in governance made him an effective ruler. His great advantage was that the people around him, like Hubert de Burgh, who emerged as the dominant presence, were themselves well-schooled administrators, and that the administrative routines established in the twelfth century persisted into the thirteenth. England remained a small well-governed country, as the commonplace has it. To be sure, intermittent squabbles among individual barons, baronial factions, and alien lords hampered the government's operations, and the difficulties that ensued were marked from time to time by politic reissues of Magna Carta as a kind of ritual-a promise on the king's part and, by implication, on the government's to do better. Even real lapses in direction from the center had less deleterious implications than they might otherwise have had, thanks to the quality and clever inventiveness of crown administrators working in the long tradition of Plantagenet governance. Thus, for example, in response to the Fourth Lateran Council's interdiction of priests' sanctifying the ordeals hitherto used to try accused felons, it was the judges, not the crown, who worked out a new way of proceeding-namely, trial by petty jury, a unanimous verdict of twelve good men and true to replace the ordeals.
The real crisis in English governance did not begin until the 1240s, and it accelerated in the 1250s. It was occasioned by a fiscal logjam. First, the period was one during which the king began to expend huge sums on artistic patronage, particularly that associated with Westminster Abbey's rebuilding. Second, in 1242, during an ill-planned and ill-executed regional rebellion against the French king, Louis IX, Henry tried and failed for the last time in a costly u40,000 attempt to reconquer his Continental dominions. Third, he increasingly bestowed honors and wealth, including heiresses, on the aliens in the country, especially the Poitevins. Fourth, Magna Carta and indeed the whole panoply of good customs that the king formally and ritualistically espoused limited his willingness to try to raise money in ways that some of his predecessors had employed. In particular, he or, rather, his agents could be grasping, but his government was never as arbitrary or as exacting as his father's had been in its financial practices, except possibly with regard to the exploitation of the Jews, which, not surprisingly, was particularly intense in the 1240s. Perhaps the elements of the system of governance and domestic political relations could have been maintained in tremulous equilibrium despite these fiscal demands and constraints, but a fifth set of factors intervened in a powerful and determinative way. They can be summed up in one word, Sicily, or the Regno as it was also known.
From the early days of the thirteenth century the popes were concerned with the possibility that a strong and potentially hostile Holy Roman Emperor might control not only the political and financial resources of Germania, but those of the Italian peninsula to the north and south of the Papal States and those of the island of Sicily. Whoever controlled these resources could threaten the integrity of the Papal States and the freedom of the papacy itself. The emperor who had the best hereditary claims to these lands and who appeared-at least in the eyes of Popes Gregory IX (1227-1241) and Innocent IV (1243-1254)-to fulfill the worst of their forebodings in this regard was the Hohenstaufen Frederick II (1215-1250). Intermittent violence between the emperor and the popes culminated in 1245 in the papacy's relocation to Lyon on the borders of medieval France, where it enjoyed the protective proximity of French military power. At the First Council of Lyon and in the same year Pope Innocent IV solemnly deposed the emperor. Since Frederick did not meekly accept his deposition, the pope looked for a secular champion to fight what he regarded as a just war-a Crusade-against the Hohenstaufen.
Innocent's French protector, Louis IX, was unwilling to engage in hostilities, partly for juridical and moral reasons, for he was uncertain as to the legality and righteousness of the pope's deposition of Frederick. His reluctance also stemmed partly from strategic considerations. The French king had recently made a commitment to go on Crusade to the eastern Mediterranean. Indeed, the Council of Lyon gave ecclesiastical blessing to his planned enterprise. War with the empire would have delayed, perhaps prevented, the Crusade, and a favorable outcome was far from certain in any case. Consequently, Pope Innocent IV needed to turn to others, including members of the French king's family, but in their case, too, pressure from Louis was sufficient to restrain them from seeking glory and the crowns that theoretically had become available as a result of the papal bull of deposition. Moreover, pressure on Innocent IV continued to come from the French king to negotiate or compromise to end the imperial-papal strife, strife that did no good for what was seen as the Catholic powers' proper undertaking, armed resistance to Muslim advances in the Holy Land and its environs.
When Louis IX went on Crusade in 1248, the situation was still unresolved. Nor did matters improve in 1250 when Frederick II died, for his family stubbornly but quite understandably refused to acquiesce in their disinheritance. Papal intransigence or wherewithal (it depends on one's point of view) led to increasingly shrill denunciations of the whole Hohenstaufen family-a brood of vipers that had to be put down. Even the eventual failure of Louis IX's Crusade was by some laid in part at the dead emperor's door. He had done nothing to help Louis; and he was alleged to have connived to keep the French king, who was briefly taken prisoner in Egypt in 1250, in captivity, in order to give himself a free hand against the pope-free, that is, of the French ruler's meddling and verbal warnings.
Excerpted from A TALE OF TWO MONASTERIES by William Chester Jordan Copyright © 2009 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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