Update – accommodating Hodges’ “monastic cities” model

Brief breakfast-time addendum to note one of the most interesting things I have come across so far in Richard Hodges’ Dark Age Economics: a new audit (2012). It concerns the emergence in the Carolingian empire and rapid transmission across the Channel, during the decades either side of the year 800, of “monastic cities”, monasteries that broke with what had gone before (save for a few precocious exceptions, such as Bede’s Jarrow) in being architecturally and morphologically distinguishable from contemporary higher-status secular settlements, rather than being identifiable as ecclesiastical in function purely from diagnostic artefacts alone (Hodges 2012, 67-69, 90). Each was a complex of innovative architecture, sculpture and cult practice, as well as consumption – “monasteries as central-places, both as settlements and in terms of their roles administering productive lands” (Hodges 2012, 68).

The concept of “monastic cities” and the recasting of monasteries in the later eighth and earlier ninth centuries is at odds with the clear indications that many poorly-documented  and undocumented minsters (I use this term as a catch-all for foundations of monastic and secular clerical constitution) were annexed by the increasingly-powerful kingdoms and archbishoprics/bishoprics of the period, as discussed by John Blair, Susan Kelly and others (and considered at length in the course of my original piece). So are the two incompatible? Perhaps not. After all, it is necessary to maintain the distinction between those monastic foundations for which we have direct evidence from those that show no sign of ever having attracted the same level of patronage and importance.

Chertsey arguably/inevitably represents Surrey’s most likely candidate for having been a “monastic city”. There is good (though still somewhat problematic) evidence for it having been under the patronage and hence protection of Offa owing to its Petrine dedication. Thereafter comes a gap of almost a century, at which point the story picks up again with Chertsey having the air of a significant enterprise (what is known of or claimed about its ninth-century history is summarised in my piece on Thorpe). It should be noted that S 285 of 827 is of little value, being at best a radical reworking of a lost original text (and the extant text is so spurious as to cast considerable doubt upon that). More suspect in terms of the “monastic city” line of argument is the lack of any major pre-Viking cult; Frithuwald’s enshrinement fails to be mentioned in early surveys of major shrines and it must be asked how important the tomb of a Mercian subregulus – moreover one who was apparently not a martyr – could have been.

Of no less relevance, though considerably more surprising given the number of excavations that have taken place in and around Chertsey, is the lack of any material evidence for the Anglo-Saxon monastery. Without this, we cannot go very far at all in attempting to construct a picture of what the eighth/ninth-century monastery looked like and whether it was flourishing, in stasis or in decline. The loss of vast chunks of its landed endowment – presuming its run of fabricated charters contain grains of truth as to the extent and locations of its properties by the early eighth century – does however reinforce the impression that we are not dealing with a major territorial player worthy of a place among the ranks of the “monastic cities” of this age (though the characterisation of the monastery at Cookham upstream of Chertsey as an urbs commensurate with 110 hides of land in the second half of the eighth century – see S 1258 – is at odds with its minor, secular status come the time of Domesday Book).

If Chertsey was not a “monastic city” in the Carolingian Reform mould, then nor should we see the only other option for it having been decline and takeover. On the contrary, there was probably a spectrum of monastic institutions in existence, from the minor and friendless, through the mid-ranking and decently-endowed houses such as Chertsey (and to a lesser extent Woking, to judge from Offa’s patronage of it and the fact Susan Kelly has suggested the relevant charter was composed at the monastery), to the powerful “monastic cities” of Hodges’ model. Whatever the truth behind Chertsey’s standing in this period, I find it inconceivable that its site, if excavated, would exhibit a material richness comparable to ones elsewhere in England and beyond. We just need to locate the damn thing first.

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