Living in the information age, when we can know (or find out) almost anything we want to about public figures, it is hard to conceive of the challenges that face the medieval historian - even when their research concerns famous individuals.
In this book, William Chester Jordan attempts the difficult task of recreating the web of connections between the abbots of two important royal abbeys (Mathieu de Vendome at Saint-Denis and Richard de Ware at Westminster) and their kings, Louis IX of France and Henry III of England.
The author has milked chronicles, cartularies, registers, patent rolls and even medieval song collections to create his narrative. How did royalty and monastery work together to promote common causes? Why, after all, should they do so? And if or when their interests diverged, what were the areas of conflict?
Tightly woven into the web of connections between kings and abbots was the endlessly complex and inscrutable issue of medieval legal jurisdiction. Rights over persons, property, trials, taxation and income were dominated by a feudal system in which overlapping jurisdictions and exemptions were a constant battleground.
An abbey such as Saint-Denis had immense holdings not only in France but also in the once-English domains of Anjou and Normandy and across the channel in England and, for all that they were dedicated to a life of study and prayer, medieval abbeys were above all huge landowners, and their abbots managed property as well as souls. Each holding, and its tenants, existed in a precariously strung net of feudal obligations (sometimes falsified ones) that bound men and institutions together in innumerable combinations.
Although Jordan is concerned with two abbots, the narrative focuses as much on their respective kings. It's a hard story to tell, however, because even though the careers of the kings in particular were tightly connected with some of the great events of their age, such as the creation of two national parliaments, the historical sources are partial and intractable.
How much can a squabble over legal jurisdiction of a piece of property or a community of serfs tell us about the personalities involved? How "free" were any of the individuals with whom this book is concerned from the strings of feudal and legal entanglements or longstanding local custom that often controlled their ability to determine their own fates or influence the course of events? The conclusion the reader may derive from Jordan's new book is that medieval man, whether serf or king, was largely constrained by an intricate network of jurisdictional issues; those areas not touched by documents at the historian's disposal are perhaps precisely those that might have told us more about them as people.
Yet in the middle of this there is the question of taste. Abbot Richard de Ware's love of being abroad suggests a man of exalted and refined tastes for things (and climates?) not found in England. We know less about Abbot Mathieu de Vendome of Saint-Denis, but if the little that survives at Saint-Denis is any guide, we may think that in focusing on the completion of the church and assembling the monumental royal tombs, he affirmed the historic role of the abbey as the burial place of kings and protector of the monarchy.
In the end, Abbot Richard's tastes were exotic and personal, whereas Abbot Mathieu perhaps subsumed his own preferences to the political interests of the abbey and the promotion of the state. If that is so, this one detail may be more predictive of the fortunes of the two monarchies than any number of documents that discuss legal jurisdiction, and tells us more about the two abbots. Art speaks.
A Tale of Two Monasteries: Westminster and Saint-Denis in the Thirteenth Century
By William Chester Jordan. Princeton University Press 266pp, £24.95. ISBN 9780691139012. Published 13 May 2009