The Abbey of Bec and the Anglo-Norman State 1034U36. by Sally N. Vaughn (Boydell Press, £17.50)
SINCE World War II the abbey of Le Bec-Herluin, in Normandy, has been restored to the Benedictines. It is now a thriving community, of the Olivetan Congregation, especially notable for its ecumenical work and its rich liturgy, which lives and works in the graceful surroundings of a predominately 17th Century monastery which served, after the closure of the French Revolution and before the return of the monks, as an elegant stable.
The monks church, once a refectory, is a great vaulted tunnel of a room, striking in both its simplicity and spacious scale; of the medieval church the chief remnant is a tall bell tower, very English in its feeling, which dominates the buildings.
The present abbey is the successor to the great abbey of the Middle Ages which, beginning as a humble community in the early part of the eleventh century, developed, by the early years of the twelfth century, into one of the most significant religious centres in Europe, threatening, at one time, to overshadow even Cluny in its greatness.
It became the centre of a network of religious houses and gave to the English Church two of its most famous archbishops. Lanfranc and Anselm, and many of its greatest pastors and teachers. Anselm, in particular, also represented the high point of an intellectual dominance which. in his generation, made remote Bec the equal, if not the better, of the developing schools of Oxford and Paris.
This book traces the development of Bec as an institution and sets it in the context of the AngloNorman state and of Europe. In the Middle Ages Europe, especially in its guise as Christendom. was much more of a reality than it is today. There was a common Latin culture which, despite difficulties of transportation and information, reached even the most remote corners of the known world.
England's aloofness from this shared European identity, even in the period before 1066, was the product more of a studied attitude than a reality. 1066 removed the final barriers, England remained English but also became fully European. At the centre of the Conqueror's 'Normanisation' and Europeanising of the English Church, was the Abbey of Bec.
The title of the book underestimates its full scope. It fulfils its promise to chronicle, and analyse, the impact of the abbey, its leaders and its patrons, on the Anglo-Norman state by providing a political and ecclesiastical narrative which fills in the background to existing studies including Sir Richard Southern's account of Anselm and Dom David Knowles' history of the monastic order.
But it does more than that; it provides a full picture of a great institution. It does this, most notably, through new translations of contemporary accounts of the community. Its rise and fall are closely observed.
This book is an important contribution to monastic and national history which presents the story of the abbey of Bec with a new clarity. It will illuminate many uncertain details in a complex and intriguing period.