An age of reform

Daily Reading for May 19 • Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, 988

The Benedictine reform movement provided the impetus for the great burgeoning of English learning and literature—in both Latin and the vernacular—during the second half of the tenth century. . . . The beginning the monastic movement in England is conventionally dated to 940, the year in which Dunstan assumed the abbacy of Glastonbury. An anonymous Anglo-Saxon monk .B. wrote his biography, the Vita S. Dunstani, between 995 and 1005; from it we learn that Dunstan was a scholar of outstanding ability. He composed a number of Latin poems, and his handwriting may possibly be seen in several surviving manuscripts. But Dunstan was primarily effective as an administrator, and his long tenure of the archbishopric of Canterbury (960-88) saw the implementation of many of the ideas cherished by the English reformers. . . .

The monastic (or “Benedictine”) reform of the later tenth century was long overdue. Since the “golden age” of Wearmouth-Jarrow and York had departed with the onslaught of the Danish invasions at the end of the eighth century, the moral and cultural force of regular monastic discipline had languished in England. The extent to which spiritual dissolution had set in may be seen in Aelfric’s perhaps somewhat exaggerated account of conditions at Winchester in 963: “At that time in the Old Minster, where the bishop’s seat is situated, there were clerics living badly, possessed by pride, arrogance, and wantonness to such an extent that some of them refused to celebrate mass in their turn; they repudiated the wives whom they had taken unlawfully and married others, and continually devoted themselves to gluttony and drunkenness.” . . . With the accession of Edgar and his raising of Dunstan to the post of archbishop of Canterbury in 960, the monastic revival was firmly established. . . .

One of the first problems for the reform movement was to ensure uniform liturgical and disciplinary practices; diversity in such matters had become widespread because the number of monasteries had increased rapidly as a result of King Edgar’s personal commitment to the cause and his many gifts of land. Thus about 973 a Synodal Council was held at Winchester. This Council issued a Latin customary known as the Regularis Concordia, “The Agreement Concerning the Rule.” Intended as a supplement to the Benedictine Rule, it had a profound effect on the English church and its liturgy.

From A New Critical History of Old English Literature by Stanley B. Greenfield, Daniel Gillmore Calder, and Michael Lapidge (NYU Press, 1996).

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