The Last Divine Office

I’ve just started reading The Last Divine Office:  Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries;  it promises to be good reading and good history.

Moorhouse has done a tremendous amount of research, and it shows. The opening chapter details, moment by moment, the office of Compline on December 31 in 1539 at Durham Priory, the last time the Office was celebrated.   He defends his census of the monks at 54 – and then goes on to describe many of them by name, the history of their roles within the community, calling on notes from the archives.  He is telling the history of real people as they face momentous choices all of which, in one way or another, bring to an end their way of life.

In the Benedictine world, we have seen a huge outpouring of work on the desert fathers and on St. Benedict and Europe at the time of the writing of the Rule.  Aside from works focusing on a few specific characters – most notably Hildegard of Bingen – much less attention has been focused on the life, spirituality and way of life of the hundreds of Benedictine monasteries that were present all over Europe.

Nor has there been much consideration of the reasons – rationales offered – for their dissolution.  Simplistic or overly general explanations abound – “they wanted their money and land” or “they were part of a corrupt and oppressive system.”   Moorhouse’s book offers hope of a more nuanced view.  I’ll post more as I go along.

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