The popular impression of medieval monasticism is dominated by the idea of isolation, devotion, and contemplation, particularly in remote rural locations. The parallel urbanism and engagement of the friaries is probably much less well known, even though it is arguable that orders such as the Grey (Franciscan) and Black (Dominican) Friars had as much, if not more, impact on contemporary life and society. Part of the problem is that many of their urban houses were so thoroughly destroyed at the Dissolution of the Monasteries that it is often hard to see much sign of their former presence in today’s townscape. Fortunately, this does not mean that no evidence for these religious houses survives, as Nick Holder’s important study of the London friaries shows very well. He gives the reader a veritable guided tour of the nine houses in the city: the three sites of the Black Friars as well as the Grey, White, Austin, Crutched, Sack, and Pied Friars.
In each case, Holder gives us an excellent account of what survives archaeologically, architecturally, and in the documentary record. There are valuable supporting chapters by his colleagues on architecture, floor tiles and other building materials, spiritual life and education, and burial, with further thematic chapters by Holder himself on water supply (a critical consideration for any monastic site), economy, the friaries’ relationships with London and its people, and the Dissolution process. The text is copiously illustrated throughout with informative plans, maps, and photographs. There is also an introduction explaining how old maps, documentary evidence, and archaeology can (one might say, must) be combined to prove not only where a ‘lost’ house once existed, but also how it was arranged. Many readers will find this invaluable, not least because it prefigures the approach taken in the chapters on the individual friaries. All in all, there is no doubt that the authors have done a considerable service to monastic studies in London, and nationally, with this fine, clear, and eminently readable book.
This review appeared in CA 335.