Academic precarity in historical perspective: impoverished early modern clergy

‘The poor curate’ (1832) from the Collections of the British Museum

The recent UCU strike has put academic precarity – the insecure and unsatisfactory conditions in which many academics are employed by universities – in the news, although academics have of course been talking about it for years to anyone who would listen. When the past is invoked by those who draw attention to academic precarity it is usually the relatively recent past: the post-War era when academics generally enjoyed far better pay, conditions and job security than they do today. But delve a little further back into the historical record, and academics did not fare so well. Until the early nineteenth century the vast majority of academics in England were clergy; the Georgian and Victorian clergy are notorious for their use of clerical appointments to support academic studies that ranged well beyond the realm of theology, and many leading scientists of the period were Anglican priests. While this may shock contemporary sensibilities (we tend to think that the clergy should prioritise pastoral work) clerical appointments were an integral part of the academic economy of early modern England, right down to the nineteenth century.

Pursuing an academic career inside an early modern English university was something few people managed, not least because there were officially only two universities (Oxford and Cambridge) until 1837. There were also no research doctorates (only higher doctorates awarded later in life in recognition of a body of written work). An academic career required election to a college fellowship, but these were often time-limited (as today), and (as today) there were more qualified individuals than jobs available. Many colleges also required fellows to be celibate, a curious hangover of the pre-Reformation era but a rule that colleges deliberately enforced to ensure a regular turnover of fellows, as fellows would want to get married and therefore leave the college. At a time when a man getting married meant receiving a dowry from his wife, marriage was a financial as much as a romantic transaction. Some former fellows managed to retain their connection with the college by acquiring a living in the gift of the college, meaning that after ordination they went to serve a parish church where the right of presentation (advowson) belonged to their college, and where the income of the parish would sometimes allow them to employ a curate who would perform divine service while the incumbent pursued his academic studies.

But just as there were never enough college fellowships to go around, so there were not enough livings in the Church of England to support all of the men graduating from Oxford and Cambridge in expectation of receiving holy orders. Although, in theory, every ordinand had to be ordained to a ‘title’ (a specific post within the church), in practice many of these ‘titles’ were paper fictions, creating a body of impoverished clergy who had only a slender hope of getting a job in the church. To make matters worse, graduates had to wait until the age of 23 before they reached the canonical age for ordination to the diaconate – and since many men finished university before the age of 21, they had to find some way to support themselves in the meantime. Canon Law also specified a year between ordination to the diaconate and ordination to the priesthood; some clergy, who were unable to obtain patronage or a ‘title’ as priests, ended up in limbo as deacons for many years, or perhaps for life – they were clergy, but their lowly status debarred them from all but the lowest-ranking positions in the church (my 2015 book Inferior Office? was about this group of clergy in the Church of England).

The clerical ideal in the early modern Church of England – which was probably what many men were thinking of when they sought holy orders – was a lucrative living accompanied by the status of incumbent (rector or vicar), perhaps with a sufficient income to employ a curate who would take on the everyday duties of the parish while the incumbent pursued his own studies and researches. However, just as the dream of a tenured academic position so often proves elusive for many contemporary academics, so the reality of clerical life in early modern England usually fell far short of the ideal. With no hope of a living, newly ordained men were sometimes forced to become schoolmasters or perpetual curates employed to look after parishes for wealthier clergymen. The lucky ones might become private chaplains to the gentry, but many had to seek employment overseas in Britain’s colonies in North America and the Caribbean. Some found livings, but they were desperately poor ones that were insufficient to sustain an incumbent. A handful of clergy, who fell the furthest, made a pittance by solemnising fraudulent marriages – sometimes in league with criminal gangs. Many poor clergy had to supplement their incomes by teaching, tutoring and other additional duties.

The early modern clerical life – which was the most common destination of those who studied for a degree up to the early nineteenth century – can be portrayed as a comfortable one, but this was only true for those fortunate enough to enjoy patronage. For a large proportion of clergy their career was a precarious one where there was usually some sort of employment, but no guarantee of a liveable stipend. A vast gap existed between the wealthier clergy, with their secure livings, and the precarious lower end of the profession – in much the same way that the life of a tenured academic today differs significantly from the conditions experienced by early career researchers. And then as now, popular perception of the clergy often focussed on the better off: just as some people today dismiss the concerns of academics because their notion of academia is informed by the senior fellows of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, so many in the eighteenth century were unsympathetic to a clergy whom they perceived as fat, lazy and overprivileged. Yet this was not the reality for most clergymen.


Publication of Athassel Priory and the Cult of St Edmund in Medieval Ireland

Today is publication day for my new book Athassel Priory and the Cult of St Edmund in Medieval Ireland with Four Courts Press. The book is simultaneously a monastic history of one of Ireland’s greatest monastic houses, a study of an unusual cult of an English saint in Ireland, and a dynastic history of the De Burgh/Burke family which largely sustained interest in St Edmund in Ireland. The book emerged from writing my earlier book Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King, since that was when I became aware that the Irish cult of St Edmund had received no attention.

The Irish cult of St Edmund was intimately bound up with that rather anomalous national group, the ‘English of Ireland’, who were the often heavily gaelicised late medieval descendants of the original Anglo-Norman invaders – and whose insistence on their Englishness was matched only by their embrace of Gaelic Irish culture. A central argument of the book is that the ‘English of Ireland’ secured their otherwise elusive English identity by engaging in distinctively English devotional practices; this was certainly more straightforward than speaking the largely forgotten English language or displaying genuine loyalty towards the distant English crown. ‘Devotional Englishness’ involved, among other things, veneration of English saints – including St Edmund. Yet the Irish cult of St Edmund also had an impact on Gaelic Ireland, as the book shows.

The ruins of Athassel from the west

Athassel Priory, founded by William de Burgh, seneschal of Munster, in around 1200, is one of Ireland’s best kept secrets. The monastic ruins on the bank of the River Suir, not far from the iconic Rock of Cashel, are seldom visited by tourists and many people do not even know of the site’s existence. In 2004 the ruins were added to the list of the world’s one hundred most at risk heritage sites, but basic stabilisation work was finally undertaken in 2008 and the ruins were closed to burials. A vast monastic enclosure once contained a town with two parish churches, but the combination of Edward the Bruce’s invasion of 1315, the Black Death and the resurgence of Gaelic Ireland finished the town of Athassel, with a new town springing up around a bridge and fortified house at nearby Golden instead. The priory, whose priors sat as peers in the Irish Parliament, was not technically dissolved until 1552, although it had been a moribund institution long before that. The book catalogues the seemingly endless disputes over papal appointments to the priorship of Athassel in the fifteenth century, which sapped the life from the monastery. Yet in its glory days Athassel was home to a miraculous statue of St Edmund, at a time when the English of Ireland even made a brief attempt to install Edmund as a patron saint of Ireland itself.

Figure of a knight from the ‘Athassel Tomb’, now on display at Cashel

The cult of St Edmund in medieval Ireland was a failure – but a failure that left behind all sorts of interesting flotsam and jetsam, such as Athassel itself and the proliferation of the personal names Éamon and Edmond – which led, in turn, to a large number of Irish place names derived from the personal name Edmond. Irish monastic history carries with it some difficult challenges: although Ireland’s monastic ruins are generally better preserved than England’s, this richness of material remains is not matched by the documentary record. Most previous studies of Athassel have focussed on the architecture because constructing a narrative of the monastery’s life from the surviving evidence is far from straightforward. The latter is, nevertheless, what I have attempted to do – in a conviction that medieval churches and monasteries cannot be understood properly apart from the cults and devotions they promoted. This has certainly been the case with the history of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, whose history is inseparable from the cult of St Edmund it promoted. The new book applies that methodology in an Irish context – although in the end I reach the conclusion that Athassel should not be viewed as just an ‘Irish Bury St Edmunds’.

The fortified bridge and gateway to the monastic enclosure at Athassel

While it was a challenging project, I had a great deal of fun writing Athassel Priory and the Cult of St Edmund in Medieval Ireland. Part of the book was even written in Ireland when I was carrying out a field visit there in the summer of 2018 – a summer now immortalised in the book’s cover image, which was taken by me on a visit to Athassel. There are not many scholars who work on late medieval Irish history, and I have found them an extraordinarily welcoming and supportive community who really create the impression that the writing of Irish history is a collaborative endeavour.

The ruins of Athassel Priory in the summer of 2018

Talking Anglican exorcism at Pembroke College, Cambridge

Today I spoke to the Theology Society at Pembroke College, Cambridge on the subject of exorcism in the Church of England, from the Middle Ages to the present day. This was the subject of my 2018 book A History of Anglican Exorcism: Deliverance and Demonology in Church Ritual. I am grateful to the Theology Society for their kind invitation to speak and to the Dean of Pembroke, the Revd Dr James Gardom, for hosting the event.


Five years of The Cambridge Book of Magic

Magical sigils from The Cambridge Book of Magic

Today marks five years since the publication of my edition and translation of Cambridge University Library MS Additional 3544, a working manual for a practising Tudor ritual magician which I called The Cambridge Book of Magic. The Cambridge Book of Magic has proved far more popular than I originally anticipated – the manuscript had not, after all, attracted much attention in the years before I published an edition of it. The translation was a side project that emerged from the writing of my book Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England, in which I emphasised the importance of considering the actual writings of magicians as well as third-party accounts of their supposed activities. Editions of the medieval and early modern books of magic actually used by practitioners – as opposed to ‘ideal’ reconstructions of definitive texts of books such as The Sworn Book of Honorius – remain rare. Examples include Richard Kieckhefer’s Forbidden Rites, The Book of Oberon edited by Daniel Harms and others (which appeared at almost the same time as The Cambridge Book) and, most recently, Frank Klaassen’s Making Magic in Elizabethan England.

The Cambridge Book had previously been dated, on the basis of guesswork, to the 1560s, but I was able to show from internal evidence that the manuscript dated from between 1532 and 1558, and probably from the 1530s. I was fortunate to be able to introduce The Cambridge Book of Magic to the world at a symposium on ‘Magic and Intellectual Culture’ at the University of York on 5 March 2015, a gathering which attracted a number of leading historians of magic. The Cambridge Book proved popular among grimoire enthusiasts, and Dr Harriet Archer kindly reviewed the edition in The Year’s Work in English Studies in 2017. Situating the book within a broader resurgence of studies of magic and alchemy in 2015, Dr Archer noted that The Cambridge Book ‘plunges us headlong into the practicalities … to the extent that this reviewer felt slightly unnerved to find herself in the text’s possession’. The Cambridge Book is indeed a slightly unnerving text, showing signs as it does of having been used as a practical manual by a practising magician, which raises troubling questions about what exactly ritual magicians really thought they were doing. There were certainly moments when editing the text that I felt uncomfortably close to a baffling and alien view of the spiritual world. As Dr Archer observed, The Cambridge Book ‘is perhaps best reserved for daytime reading’.

The Cambridge Book has been referenced since 2015 in numerous books, articles and blogs. A short piece about the manuscript, written by me, appeared on the blog of Cambridge University Library’s Special Collections, and I still have a chapter forthcoming that is based to a large extent on an analysis of the text. Perhaps the most important legacy of the text’s publication, however, was the inclusion of the hitherto obscure MS Additional 3544 as a key exhibit in the Ashmolean Museum’s ‘Spellbound’ exhibition, which ran from 31 August 2018-6 January 2019.

I hope that many more people will come to read The Cambridge Book of Magic over the next five years and come to realise the importance of publishing editions of magical texts actually compiled and used by practising magicians.