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New book examines the Cistercians in Wales

Janet Burton, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Wales – Trinity Saint David and co-director of the Monastic Wales project, has teamed up with Dr Julie Kerr, research fellow at the University of St Andrews, and researcher for Monastic Wales, to produce a book entitled The Cistercians in the Middle Ages. Published by Boydell and Brewer, the book explores the European context for the emergence of what was very probably the most influential of all the medieval monastic orders.

It seeks to unravel the historiographical problems surrounding the sources for the foundation of Cîteaux and the spread of the Order, picking its way through the conscious construction of an identity by later Cistercian writers, to produce an account of this most distinctive of monastic congregations.

Professor Janet Burton explains, “The Cistercian abbeys of Wales were more than institutions where men and women followed the monastic routine laid down in their rules, spending their days enclosed in fine stone buildings, locked into a rhythm of prayer, manual labour, and contemplation. They were, on the contrary, an integral part of the wider communities – political, social, economic – in which they were located”

In 1165 Lord Rhys ap Gruffudd of Deheubarth wrested Ceredigion from the Normans, and with it took the small community that had been founded at Strata Florida.

The Cistercians also played a part in the preservation of the literary heritage of Wales, with the copying of manuscripts, and the patronage of the Welsh poets such as Dafydd ap Gwilym and Guto’r Glyn. They have also acquired – in the Middle Ages and ever since – a reputation for economic innovations, and their intensive agricultural and commercial activities left their imprint on the heritage of Wales.

Professor Janet Burton concludes, “One of the major directions in Cistercian Studies in recent years, which are brought to the fore in this new book, has been to reassess the ways in which Cistercians operated ‘on the ground’. Too often Cistercian history has been written ‘from the top down’, that is, it has assumed that the networks established by the order were sufficiently powerful to enforce the pronouncements of the Annual General Chapter, which regulated every aspect of Cistercian life.

“This has misled some historians into thinking that apparent deviations from the regulations marked a decline ‘from ideals to reality’. However, this approach has always failed to acknowledge that local conditions varied: Cistercian abbeys had to operate within their own environment, and adapt to local geographical, economic, social, and political conditions.”

Scholar at Trinity Saint David are currently working on two important projects, Monastic Wales and Strata Florida, both of which take an interdisciplinary approach and draw on scholars beyond Lampeter and beyond Wales. The Monastic Wales project (www.monasticwales.org) draws on the expertise of historians Janet Burton and Andrew Abram, while Jane Cartwright’s work on religious women in medieval Wales is helping us to reassess the role of Cistercian nuns.

The major archaeological excavation of the site of Strata Florida, under the direction of Professor David Austin and the co-direction of Dr Jemma Bezant and Quentin Drew) is investigating this Cistercian site which is so close to the heart of medieval Welsh identity, and exploring the footprints the activities of Cistercian monks have left on the landscape of Wales.

The book launch will take place on 14 November 2011 at the Founders’ Library, Trinity Saint David Lampeter campus. Professor Burton will also share her findings in a lecture entitled: “From Hermitage to Royal Abbey: Historical Writing and the Creation of a Monastic Identity”

Source: University of Wales – Trinity St David

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