SUNLIGHT ON AN OLD CATHEDRAL
By NICHAEL de la BEDOYERE
THE RELIGIOUS ORDERS IN ENGLAND (Vol. 2); The End of the Middle Ages, by Dom David Knowles (Cambridge University .Press, 45s.).
T would indeed be 1 difficult to find a more admirable selling for a Pontifical Mass than that spacious pavement bathed in light that would have fallen upon the cloth of gold. the lawns and
linens and damasks, the silver candelabra and the rising clouds of incense. And perhaps only those who have known by long experience year in, year out, what rest is given by natural light to eyes tired by glare and shadow will feel the full refreshment of eilouceeter choir, and only those Nvilo have watched the dawn stealing upon the end of a long office-lux intrat, alheseit polus. Christus yen/t-will know how the shafts of time sunlight over Clceve brought hope and faith to many who saw the great window gleam in the level rays." This passage illustrates the way in which Dom David Knowles. Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge. makes his learned researches into the least known and least exciting period of our monastic history come alive. In his study of how Abbot Wigmore tackled the task of rebuilding the gloomy Norman abbey church of Gloucester. Dorn David, with a few strokes of his pen, suddenly brings to life again the great cathedra!, today a place mainly for shuffling, wondering tourists. We recall Richard Dimbleby taking TV viewers round the Museum piece, but the pen can be mightier than an array of television cameras.
Ti is the same throughout -Ithis fascinating book. There are many chapters, economic, social, philosophical, which naturally do not always tend themselves to such colourful and imaginatively reconstructive writing, but even these always underline the human, live note. and attractively guide the ordinary attentive reader through interesting territory, often strangely familiar with our own. In these pages we have portraits of outstanding monastic figures, none of whom, it seems, was of the highest stature, though they have the merit of reminding us of the constaney of human nature, not least in this context of how. so often. behind an outward show of grandeur there can lie a solid and often even truly aseetical piety.
HE calamities and con troversies of the time," the author sums up, " the crisis of the Roman Church and the symptoms of decline in the external life of the religious orders, real though they are and arresting to the mind, must not be allowed wholly to obscure the glimpses of an inner life caught here and there in the 14th century." With these words he begins a short but valuable chapter on the spiritual life of that century. in which briefly figure Peter of Durham. St. John of Bridlington, the last English non-maityr canonised saint. William Flete. the friend of St. Catherine, and the famous mystical writers Walter Hinton and the author of "The Cloud," Later, when LolIardry had come to throw forward the dark shadows of future catastrophe-there is a vivid sketch of VV),cliffe's character -a few pages graphically sketch the strange behaviour of Margery Kempe, one story affording "precious vignettes of a passing moment in a monastery: the free conversation with women, the well-supplied board, the group of rustic Cister. clans swearing and guffawing. the sudden outbreak of fury at the gate of Canterbury." Indeed, much of this book brings to life again religious life---of the monks, canons and friars-by the indirect method of catching authentic glimpses of the common ways of the day.
Years of change
IN that period, two disasters, the Great Schism and the Black Death, profoundly affected the monastic story in this country, undoing much of the monastic reforms of Pope Benedict XII, though these are lineally connected with the modern English Congregation of 13enedieti nes.
They were vital factors in a
period of spiritual and economic change and decline. which in tern led to the beginnings of popular revolt against monastic life itself, wherein the different orders and vocations were equally and confusedly the ohjecCof attack. Yet the immediate effects can he exaggerated. At the end of the period " the monks were still a great force... Perhaps it was that no other class or institution had as yet arisen to take their place. They still retained an aura of sanctity, half local. half personal, that tradition of learning that had deservedly won them reverence long ago."
Vanished glory WE' began this notice on the third volume of Dom David's great work on monasticism in England with a flash of his pen about Gloucester. We may fitly end it with another, this time about Henry V's " Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests sing still for Richard's soul," the Carthusians at Sheen and the Bridgettines at Syon: " One who walks in spring along the quiet river-bank under the scented boughs of may, by what is sett one of the most placid and beautiful reaches of the lower Thames may chance to think of the two eminent men of letters whose memory still survives at Twickenham, and perhaps also of the four, scarcely less celebrated, whose lives, so diverse in genius and fortune, mingled their streams for a short space where now is open parkland. Few will give a thought to those who for little more than a century filled the cloisters of the two royal monasteries, and whose bones now rest in an unknown grave somewhere beneath the expanse of green from which every trace of their habitation has vanished."