John Blair’s The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society is a superb study on the history of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England from the sixth century to the twelfth century and its ecclesiastical structure. Two peculiarities had set the Anglo-Saxon Church apart from its European counterparts. First, whereas churches on the continent maintained close ties with the royal government, churches in Britain held much closer ties with their respective local communities and local elites, although the royal government was certainly still an important factor. Second, while past historians have often characterized Britain as a battleground between Irish Christianity and Roman Christianity, Blair suggests that the real triumph in Britain was the development of an indigenous Christianity. In institutional terms, the peculiar minster characterized the Anglo-Saxon Church. The minster was an ecclesiastical settlement that was headed by some sort of monastic or priest and contained fellow monastics or laity. Common liturgical and devotional practices gave each minster their sense of unity. These minsters often were in charge of pastoral duties of the local community, and sometimes served as the seat of a local bishop.
The golden age of minsters in England was between 650 and 850. Particularly around the year 670, there was a boom in monastic endowment from the royal estate. At the time, kings and other members of the royal family had developed a yearning to join the monastic life. However, since their lay and clerical subjects expected them to carry out important duties, members of the royal family could not easily make the transition to such a lifestyle. To amend this problem, the members of the royal family developed the idea that they could become monastics via proxy by simply endowing minsters for close family members. Local elites also abided by similar cultural norms, although the fluctuating nature of titles and power during the seventh century makes clear categorization of royal or noble patronage difficult to assess.
As the minster system greatly expanded, logistical and political problems began to develop. Many bishops could not attend to all of their charges, while at the same time they demanded tithes from those same neglected regions. Furthermore, both Bede and Boniface of Mainz attacked the minster system for being in league with corrupt nobles and royals in that the minsters leased out rights that should not have been leased. Bede proposed, as a measure of reform, that the local reputable minsters should elect their own bishops so as to alleviate the logistical problems. As these problems receded, so the logic follows, the corrupt practices of less reputable minsters would be reined in.
Minsters often functioned as integral hubs in lieu of proper city-centers. As minsters grew in importance, so did a view develop that they often qualified as some form of a town or city. For example, when Saint Birinus was given the minster of Dorchester as the seat for his bishopric, Bede called it a gift of a city. The minsters helped to forge monastic towns and were commercial centers because they had access to large amounts of lands, peasant labor, and other forms of labor. As a consequence, minsters functioned as significant centers of production and nexuses of market connections.
Traditionally, historians have thought that the ecclesiastical structures of Anglo-Saxon England declined primarily due to the Viking raids in the middle of the ninth century. However, logistically speaking, it is quite impossible that the few raided monastic institutions sufficiently explain the decline of the minsters by the eleventh and twelfth centuries. A bigger contributor to the decline of the minsters was in fact the vast and progressive secularization of the minsters. While lay involvement with the minsters was nothing new, local aristocracies and the royal state began to seize full authority over the minsters, primarily due to their prominent control over resources and labor. The actions of these secular rulers left few prestigious and independent minsters intact. As the minster and their monastic communities declined, the local churches within them remained. As a result, a process of parochialization began to take hold in Anglo-Saxon England as a by-product of the minster system and its gradual secularization.
The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society offers as fascinating and new perspective on early medieval English history. The minster system that so characterized the Anglo-Saxon Church stood at odds with not only the rest of Europe, but much of Mediterranean Christianity in terms of ecclesial structure. Blair’s book is indeed imposing, coming in at nearly 600 often dry pages. I would not be surprised if this phenomenal work remains the standard and fundamental work on subject for at least the next half-century.