Reform or Monastic Revival? An Insight into the Tenth Century English Church

After my row of updates on prehistoric and ancient times, I have decided to go back to my educational roots: early medieval history. In my early years at university, most of research and essay work focused on ecclesiastical history and the believes of people all over Europe. I think it was a subject I felt comfortable discussing- I got incredibly obsessed with theology and philosophy when I was in college and read upon many things written by the Reformers and humanists of the early modern period, and obviously I tracked this knowledge back to the origins of Christianity. So as someone who was being taught by the eminent Barbara Yorke, I felt it was my duty to gain some idea of what has happened in England in the Early Middle Ages in terms of religion and the developments the church had achieved. I must admit that Anglo-Saxon history is, shamefully, not my cup of tea, and certainly not my area of expertise. However, and upon visitation of old blog files and my own work, I have done some meditation on the 10th century reform and deemed it to be an important event that should be addresses. So here it is for you, from the lady that usually deal with the pagan Old Norse, a piece from their distant cousins and their Christian quarrels.


The 9th century has been pretty disruptive for the Anglo-Saxon rulers and the church, mainly due to the rough raids from the Northmen. Many monasteries were targeted and suffered attacks. In addition, Alfred the Great gave a lot of power within the church to the clerks, leaving the idea of monastic life behind, and letting these clerks lead different paths in the way they approached their doctrine. There was little regulation and centralisation on how the church operated as an entity. So with the relative stability of the 10th century it was time to re-evaluate that situation. One of the key players in this reformation of the church was St Dustan.

He started his  career during king Edmund´s reign to be abbot of Glastonbury, where he established the first monastic community. The buildings were restored and the community adopted the Benedictine rule, based in the 8th century Ordo Qualiter. However, king Eadwig exiled him again, and for that period he stayed in Ghent and watched the Benedictine movement on the continent. Dunstan returned to England when Edgar became the king and was promoted to bishop of Worcester (957), London (959) and later, the Archbishop of Canterbury around 960.  His disciple, Aethelwold, was another important figure.  King Eadred sent to Abingdon to found a second community of monks with people from Glastonbury around 955. He became bishop of Winchester in 963. He took advantage of his position to rebuild the cathedral and to remove the clerks from Old and New Minster and replaced them with monks from Abingdon. Moreover, he is responsible for ‘the Benedictional’ movement-the masterpiece is a portrayal of the Virgin’s coronation, with the intention to show the Virgin as a queen, who is receiving her power from heaven. This was to be the canon followed by every ruler of the Anglo-Saxons. Our third man is St.Oswald.  He established another community of monks in Westbury-on-Trym. Furthermore, he contributed to the restoration of places like Deerhurst, Gloucestershire, Winchcombe, Pershore and Evesham. Eventually he became Archbishop of York in 972.

Yet, and despite all of these men having the same religious background and following the Benedictine rule, their styles were different, so perhaps the centralisation of the church was not so successful. In fact, the effort of these three bishops would have been fruitless without the creation of the Regularis Concordia: the document where all the Benedictine rules were put together for all the monks and nuns of England. This compilation of rules was the result of the synod known as the Council of Winchester, summoned by king Edgar, -with the advise of Dunstan- to regulate all the different issues that affected the community of monks. There are references to abbesses and female religious houses in the code that show the movement was not only confined to monks- as many nunneries where then restored, the nuns also needed to be regulated accordingly. One of the main issues address by the Concordia was celibacy-it was common amongst clerks to get married and have children, but this was not acceptable in monastic terms.

Finally, we have to understand that a lot of this reformation and centralisation happened due to the strong links between the church and the nobility. In fact, it was of interest for the monarchy that the church was reconditioned and functional as a way to extend their own power. Many members of the nobility ended in monastic communities or nunneries; these were destinations for second sons, daughters, widows and other members of the family who may not succeed at acquiring power within the court. However, and like with any kind of reform in this sense, it is difficult to asses the actual impact it had, and to what degree these regulations were actually followed. As a matter of fact, we do know that with the dead of Edgar there was another period of discontent. Particularly in Mercia it transpired that not everyone was so keen on this monastic revival. The leader of this small uprising was Aelfhere the ealdorman. Him and his fellows marred monasteries and drove out the monks from their communities, leaving entire minsters unoccupied. Nevertheless, it seems that with his death in 983, the razing stopped, although many Mercian communities remained damaged. In addition, evidence suggest that the reform was not uniform throughout the country. The northern and western regions were not very well-integrated within the system the monarchy and the church were trying to establish; due to this many places likely kept their old structures. And it is unlikely that all the communities and minsters applied rules evenly.

So the success or relativity of this reform is dubious. As a matter of fact, I feel more comfortable establishing this movement as a purely monastic revival, rather than a whole ecclesiastic reform (hence the title, instead of my original “the tenth century English church reform”). In any case, I hope this helps you understand that, religion and the infrastructures of the Christian doctrine were not crystal clear, and like with political systems, it would take many years, and even centuries to establish a degree of integrity and uniformity…Just to through it all away at the turn of the 1500s. But that, is another story…

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