Reviews and Short Notices
English Episcopal Acta 38: London 1229–1280. Edited by Philippa Hoskin . Oxford University Press for the British Academy. 2011. cxvi + 160pp. £60.00. English Episcopal Acta 39: London 1280–1303. Edited by Philippa Hoskin . Oxford University Press for the British Academy. 2011. xxxvi + 341pp. £60.00.
Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
© 2013 The Authors. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature © 2013 The Historical Association
Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature
Volume 96, Issue 1, pages 42–44, December 2012
How to Cite
Karn, N. (2012), English Episcopal Acta 38: London 1229–1280. Edited by Philippa Hoskin . Oxford University Press for the British Academy. 2011. cxvi + 160pp. £60.00. English Episcopal Acta 39: London 1280–1303. Edited by Philippa Hoskin . Oxford University Press for the British Academy. 2011. xxxvi + 341pp. £60.00. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature, 96: 42–44. doi: 10.1111/1467-8314.12010
- Issue published online: 20 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
The bishops of London were among the most significant voices in the medieval English church, for they ruled an extensive diocese including Essex, Middlesex and much of Hertfordshire, nurtured the religious life of the burgeoning city of London, and acted as deans of the province of Canterbury, in addition to the political roles taken by many of them. The London bishops' registers begin only in 1303, and before that analysis of the bishops' work must be based upon collections of their acta – administrative documents conveying orders or certifying dispositions made by the bishops or with their approval – which survive dispersed through archives across the country. Two volumes of London acta have already appeared in the English Episcopal Acta series; these new volumes complete the publication of the acta of the bishops of London by including editions of over 380 documents from 1229 to 1303.
The original rationale for collecting episcopal acta lies in their importance for understanding the local church and how parish ministry was supported and controlled before the availability of episcopal registers. Much of the content of these two volumes matches this agenda, for there is a lot about patronage, appropriation and so forth. Yet there are also ways in which this collection of acta differs from those that preceded it, and herein lies much of the interest of this volume. They beg the question of how far some of the patterns observable in this collection of acta reflect changes in the way in which the episcopal office operated in England in this period, or whether the patterns in the acta reflect changing attitudes towards the use of literacy in business and responses to the bureaucratization of government in this period. Choosing between these is difficult, largely because there is relatively little analysis of the nature and expectations of the episcopate in England in the later thirteenth century; volumes such as these are vital resources for such future research.
Compared to the earlier volumes of London acta, the most prominent difference is the quantity of documents addressed to the king and his ministers. These amount to well over a third of the acta, some 140 out of over 380. Some of these are letters, which concern high politics and were relevant to the king in person, but most are much humbler, and, though addressed to the king, were presumably read and used by his ministers instead. These include such categories as significations of excommunication, in which the king was notified that a named individual had failed to come to penance after more than forty days spent excommunicate, and as such should be taken and imprisoned; or certificates ultimately directed towards the king's courts, which documented that named clergy had purged themselves of accusations of crime before the bishop; and others besides. These acta are usually repetitive and concern persons and disputes about which relatively little is known, but therein lies their interest; their repetitiveness and ordinariness indicate how far documents had been standardized in the interests of doing business efficiently, and how often such acta were used. Such documents survive only through the records of chancery, now in the National Archives at Kew; their form and preservation are as much an index of the development of royal government as of episcopal. Overall, these acta show the frequency and importance of the links between bishops and royal government, and give a rather different impression from that given by the earlier acta or, indeed, by the later bishops' registers.
Even with those acta which most closely fulfil the original rationale for collecting episcopal acta, there are substantial differences from earlier London acta. Appropriations of churches had been a common and important class of acta in the twelfth century, but in this collection there are very few of these – indeed, only seven out of over 380 acta. In large part, the small numbers of appropriations reflect the success of earlier bishops in transferring patronage rights to ecclesiastical corporations, and rearranging the status of parish churches as a consequence of that. The acta instead show other kinds of activity undertaken by the bishops in relation to the parish churches under their care, through such documents as taxations of churches or those concerning the stages of appointment of individual clergy. These changing patterns raise important questions about how far bishops could take the initiative in relation to their dioceses, and how far their options at this period were more circumscribed by the actions of their predecessors and by ecclesiastical legislation.
The texts themselves are models of accuracy, and many are accompanied by informed and useful commentary. There is also a substantial introduction, which follows the format usual in this series, including biographies of the bishops and discussions of the episcopal households, content and diplomatic of the acta. The biographies in particular are rich and detailed, and much the best treatment of the lives of these particular bishops. The earlier ones, where Matthew Paris's chronicles were available as a guide, are especially informative. One omission detracts a little from this volume, for a matricula – a document summarizing information about the parishes of the diocese for administrative purposes – survives from the time of Fulk Basset (bishop 1244–59). This document is not readily available in print elsewhere, and is so closely linked to the acta that its inclusion here would have been an advantage.
The acta in these volumes clearly possess great value as a stimulus to future work on the nature and expectations of the episcopal office, and should help to lead debate away from the outdated but still dominant paradigm of the reforming bishop. Overall, these volumes present a rich collection of documents which bear on many questions in ecclesiastical and legal history.