Medieval monastic houses as formative influences in the political, economic, social and cultural development and transformation of Wales

Prof Janet Burton

The Monastic Wales project.

The religious houses of medieval Wales have long been overshadowed by their more numerous, generally more prosperous, and normally better documented neighbours east of Offa's Dyke. Yet their history is inseparable from the religious, cultural, economic, political, literary and urban history of Wales during the period between the arrival of the Normans in the late eleventh century and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth.

In an attempt to identify more firmly Wales's place on the monastic map of Europe, this project seeks to establish a comprehensive monastic history of medieval Wales, the findings of which will be made available to scholars and students, as well as the wider public, both electronically and in print. Initially this comprised monasteries and houses of canons which were active in Wales for some or all of the period from the late eleventh century until the Suppression of the religious houses in the sixteenth century. At present the database is being extended to include the friars.

The Project seeks also to encourage new research into aspects of Welsh monastic history and to provide a platform for unpublished material and new work. Essays and articles will be available to users on the website. A comprehensive history of monastic Wales, with contributions from leading scholars in the field, will be published in book form. 

The first phase of the project was the creation of a database and Monastic Wales website which can be used as both a research and a teaching tool. The Monastic Wales website has now been completed – insofar as a project such as this is ever ‘complete’; we anticipate that it will regularly be updated with new publications, photographs, and news. The project team would like to thank those who have written in to congratulate us on the site, and to offer contributions. We are able to monitor the use of the website though Google Analytics and interest remains high.  

New journal launch.

Janet Burton and Karen Stöber (University of Lleida) as general editors launched the international Journal of Medieval Monastic Studies, published by Brepols (Turnhout, Belgium) in 2011. Volume 3 was published in 2013 and volume 4 is being prepared for press. The journal has attracted wide acclaim, and volume 4 is planned to include contributions from scholars in Ireland, Iceland, Portugal, England, Germany, Sicily and Germany. An indication of the success of JMMS is that the general editors have been invited by Brepols to begin a book series, Medieval Monastic Studies to complement the journal. Already several authors have expressed their interest.

ESF Exploratory Workshop:

Monasteries in the Shadow ofEmpires: Comparative Approaches to the Role of the Cistercian and Franciscan Orders in European State Building (12th to 15th centuries)

Eichstätt (Germany), 7 – 9 Oct. 2013

Convened by: Janet Burton, Karen Stöber, David Austin  and Anne Müller

This workshop was held at Eichstätt in Germany over 3 days from 7 to 9 October 2013. Participation involved 21 people from nine different countries. The meeting aimed to promote a new transnational research programme entitled ‘Monasteries in the Shadow of Empires’, which explores the role of religious orders in the processes of state building among smaller aspirant states outside of the ‘imperial’ centres of medieval Europe. At the core was the character of religious houses in these regions and their role in the creation of distinctive and often competing cultural and political identities. Through looking at various forms of encounter and representation, the workshop debated new concepts, methods and data and tried to establish appropriate tools for a more specifically comparative and multidisciplinary investigation of medieval monasticism.

In particular, the intention of our workshop was to explore the role of religious houses and orders, notably Cistercian and Franciscan, in the process of medieval state building. This is a new and critical issue in historical studies and central to the current debate about the transformative powers of institutions, such as monasteries, in the building of regional identities and cultural traditions.

What we tried to achieve during our debates was to set a firm base for a comparative exploration of the character and impact of monasticism in relation to the wider development of regions, and in particular to those regions or aspirant states that emerged in the shadow of stronger neighbours and had clear ambitions to preserve their own political coherence and cultural traditions. There is evidence that monasteries, in the Middle Ages, played an active role in shaping and developing the distinct polities and identities of these discrete regions. Here some monasteries, through patrons often of local royal or aristocratic lineage, actively engaged in this process by drawing on local narratives and symbols of ‘native’ culture (for instance historical writing, artistic production) and binding them, syncretically, into the international agendas of the Western Church. This involvement of religious houses in preserving cultural traditions strengthened the authority of rulers seeking to resist powerful neighbours. It also acted reciprocally to the advantage of individual houses in their strategies of consolidation. Monasteries in these contexts could be recruited to projects of resistance, but other houses, even from the same order and in the same region, could also be instruments of political and cultural domination.

Our aim was to articulate perspectives for a comparative investigation of these complex relationships across time, orders and context within different examples of such regions, namely medieval Wales, Ireland, Catalonia, Galicia, Hungary, Bohemia, and representative regions from Transylvania, the Balkans, and Scandinavia.

In our discussions we have also tried to break down the disciplinary boundaries often inherent in monastic studies and have engaged a wide range of scholarship in the fields of history, archaeology, historical geography and literary and art history. We have addressed historical and theoretical issues through looking at a broad range of historical, archaeological and topographical source material, indicating the expression of identity and power, and examined their form and content in the context of political and social action in the chosen regions.

There are three key themes that were addressed in great detail and in separate sessions during the workshop:

1)     Regional aspects of monasticism and state building

● this looked on the complex impact that religious orders and communities had in processes of state and identity building at a regional level

1)     Cultural communication and narrative

● this considered processes of memorialisation, including the promotion of saints’ cults, burial, the naming of places, teaching and preaching, as well as the contribution of monasteries to the production of cultural narratives or regionally focused history

● there was also a session that dealt with society, encounter and the engagement of monasteries with local rights and traditions through the adaptation of estate organization, farming methods and industrial production

2)     Spatial impacts: landscapes, art and iconography

● this discussed the role of art and architectural form within sacred spaces and adjacent landscapes as representatives and symbols of wider political and ideological meaning and context; in particular the uses of local style, where it was placed and how it was perceived. It also reflected on the meaning of monastic topographies as well as on art, décor, iconographies and their potential for symbolization

These issues were evaluated in the context of the actions taken by monks and monastic agents, to construct a rounded understanding of how the monasteries may have created a presence and a role for themselves in the political and social life of distinct European regions. This presence and role would thus reflect local aspiration on the one hand and international ideologies and systems on the other: cultural fusions with a political intent. The overarching goal was to stimulate a debate to explore whether the idea of monasteries acting in the Shadow of Empires is a sustainable concept on the European scale, allowing us to build towards a major pan-European project.

Funders of research include:

  • Mark Finch Foundation
  • European Science Foundation
Research students from home and abroad
In 2013 ‘Monastic Wales’ hosted a six-moth visit by Araceli Rosillo Luque, who is a PhD student from the University of Barcelona supervised by Professor Blanca Gari (director of a cognate web-based project (Claustra). Aracelli was attracted to TSD because of the Monastic Wales project. So too was Heather Para of Oklahoma, USA, who joined us as an MPhil/ PhD student in October 2014. Heather is working on the dispersal of Welsh monastic estates after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s and her research is therefore located firmly within the Monastic Wales project. Also joining us in October 2014 was Christopher (Bill) Marshall, who successfully completed an MA in Medieval Studies at TSD earlier this year. His research is centred on the Irish abbey of Tintern Parva, a daughter house of Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire. They join two more advanced research students working on monastic topics, Paul Watkins (on the lost abbey of Pendar) and Christopher Pearce (on the Cluniac Congregation in England and Wales).
Wales and Ireland
Academic collaboration with colleagues in Ireland continues to flourish. In December 2014 Janet Burton attended the launch, in Dublin, of the ‘Monastic Ireland’ project ( This was developed under the leadership of Dr Edel Bhreathnach of the Discovery Programme on the model of Monastic Wales. During the launch by the Irish Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Dr Bhreathnach paid tribute to the inspiration that Monastic Wales had provided. Professor Burton and Dr Stöber will be attending the first Monastic Ireland conference in August 2015.
Wales and Europe
The ‘Monastic Wales’ and ‘Strata Florida’ projects together were successful in gaining ESF funding for an exploratory workshop ‘Monasteries in the Shadow of Empires’ held in Eichstätt, Germany, in October 2013. Plans are developing to take collaboration forward with our European colleagues.
Contacts with other research projects


Through the work in this research area the School has active research links and collaborations with researchers:

  • Prof. Lutter, Christina  (Institute of Austrian Historical Research, University Vienna)
  • Dr. Hornícková, Katerina (Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna)
  • Dr. Pavlína Rychterová (Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna)
  • Prof.  Kostova, Rossina (University of Veliko Tarnovo)
  • Prof.  Kubín, Petr (Charles University Prague)
  • Prof.  Signori, Gabriela (University Constance, Dep. Of History and Sociology)
  • Johannes Schütz, M.A. (University Göttingen)
  • Dr. Mersch, Margit (University Kassel, Dep. of Medieval History)
  • Prof. Laszlovszky, József (Central European University Budapest)
  • Prof.  Romhányi, Beatrix (Calvinist University Budapest)
  • Ferenczi, László, M.A. (Central European University Budapest)
  • Dr. Breathnach, Edel (University College Dublin, Micheál O'Cléirigh Institute)
  • Prof. O’Keefe, Tadgh (University College Dublin, School of Archaeology)
  • Dr. Florea, Carmen (University Babes Bolyai, Cluj; Faculty of History and Philosophy)
  • Dr. Claudia Florentina Dobre (University of Bucharest)
  • Dr. Stöber, Karen (University of Lleida; Faculty of Philosophy)
  • Pascua Echegaray Esther, M.A. (Madrid Open University)
  • Dr. Jamroziak, Emilia (Univ. Of Leeds, Dep. of History)
  • Prof. Johnston, Dafydd, (Centre for Advanced Welsh & Celtic Studies, Aberystwyth)
  • Dr. Müller, Anne (University of Wales Trinity Saint David)
2013 saw the publication by University of Wales Press of Monastic Wales: New Approaches, edited by Janet Burton and Karen Stöber, which contains 15 essays from leading scholars. Professor Huw Pryce of Bangor University has written:  ‘This impressive collection of essays makes an extremely valuable contribution to the study of both medieval Wales and medieval monasticism. No other volume provides such a wide-ranging picture of Welsh monastic history over the centuries from the coming of the Normans to the Reformation. … Sensitive to both local contexts and European connections, the contributors add significantly to our understanding of the place of Wales in medieval Christendom.’
A second book, Abbeys and Priories of Medieval Wales, also edited by Janet Burton and Karen Stöber, is in the final stages of production by University of Wales Press and is due for publication in December 2014 or January 2015. This contains an introduction and gazetteer of monastic sites in Wales, and is intended for a more popular market. A number of postgraduate students in the School of AHA, notably Therron Welstead, Paul Watkins, and Ian Bass, have engaged with the production of the book by travelling to monastic sites and taking photographs.
Lectures and papers
Janet Burton has continued to deliver lectures on a regular basis to local history societies on the monastic heritage of Wales and Welsh regions. In December 2013, for instance, she addressed the Ceredigion Local History Society on ‘Monastic Wales:  Monastic Ceredigion’ in the Council Chamber of the National Library of Wales and in May 2014 she delivered a lecture on ‘Monastic Wales’ to the Historical Association of Swansea and South West Wales.
She has also delivered papers to academic conferences. In May 2014 she was invited to deliver a keynote lecture on ‘The Cistercians in Wales and on the Welsh Marches: recent reappraisals’ to the conference ‘Cistercians and Canons Regular in Medieval Brittany, Normandy, England and Wales / Cisterciens et Chanoines réguliers en Bretagne, en Normandie, en Angleterre et au Pays de Galles au Moyen Âge’, which was held at York University (Toronto) and the University of Toronto, and the paper will be published by Brepols in 2015. She delivered papers to a conference at St John’s College, Oxford, in May 2014 on ‘Cultural Encounters on the Medieval March of Wales’, and to the International Medieval Congress in Leeds in July 2014.


Other books:

Historia Selebiensis Monasterii: The History of the Monastery of Selby critical edition, with translation, commentary, and introduction: Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford : Oxford University Press), 2013

The Regular Canons in the British Isles in the Middle Ages, ed. Janet Burton and Karen Stöber (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), with own contribution, ‘The Regular Canons and Diocesan Reform in Northern England’ (pp. 41–57)

(with Julie Kerr) The Cistercians in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2011)

Monasteries and Society in Britain and Ireland in the Later Middle Ages, ed. Janet Burton and Karen Stöber (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2008), with own contribution, ’Looking for Medieval Nuns: prosopographical possibilities’ (pp. 113–23)
Recent articles and papers:
‘After Knowles: new directions in Monastic Studies in England and Wales’, in Keeping the Rule: David Knowles and the Writing of History, ed. Dominic Aidan Bellenger and Simon Johnson (Stratton-on-the-Fosse: Downside Abbey Press, 2014), pp. 117-38. 

‘Furness, Savigny, and the Cistercian World’, in Jocelin of Furness. Ed/ Clare Downham (Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2013), pp. 7-16.

‘Moniales and Ordo Cisterciensis in medieval England and Wales’, in Female vita religiosa between Late Antiquity and the High Middle Ages: structures, developments and spatial contexts, ed. Gert Melville and Anne Müller, Vita Regularis, 47 (Berlin: 2011), pp. 375–89

‘The Cistercians in England’, in Norm und Realität: Kontinuität und Wandel der Zisterziener in Mittelalter, ed. Franz J. Felten and Werner Rösener (Mainz, 2010), pp.379–409.

‘Les Chanoines reguliers en Grande-Bretagne’, in Les Chanoines reguliers: émergence et expansion (xie-xiiie siecles), ed. M. Parisse (CERCOR: St Etienne, 2009), pp. 477–98.

‘Constructing a corporate identity: the Historia Fundationis of the Cistercian abbeys of Byland and Jervaulx’, in Self-Representation of Medieval Religious Communities: the British Isles in Context, ed. Anne Müller and Karen Stöber, Vita Regularis: Ordnungen und Deutungen religiosen Lebens in Mittelalter, Abhandlungen 40 (LIT Verlag: Berlin, 2009), pp. 327–40

‘Constructing the lives of medieval nuns’, in Recording Medieval Lives, Proceedings of the 2005 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Julia Boffey and Virginia Davies (Stamford: Paul Watkins, 2009)

‘Citadels of God: Monasteries, Violence, and the Struggle for Power in Northern England, 1135–1154’, in Anglo-Norman Studies XXXI: Proceedings of the Battle Conference 2008, ed. Chris Lewis (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2008), pp. 17–30

‘Material Support: religious orders’, in The Cambridge History of Christianity: Christianity in Western Europe c. 1100–1500, ed. Miri Rubin and Walter Simons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 107–13

‘English Monasteries and the Continent in the Reign of King Stephen’, in King Stephen’s Reign, 1135–1154, ed. Paul Dalton and Graeme White (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2008), pp. 98–114

‘Past Models and Current Concerns: the origins and growth of the Cistercian Order’, in Revival and Resurgence on Christian History, ed. Kate Cooper and Jeremy Gregory, Studies in Church History, 44 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2008), pp. 27–45