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Response to Review of The Secular Clergy in England, 1066-1216

I would like to begin by thanking Katherine Harvey for her very able summary of the book’s content and arguments, and for her generous assessment of its qualities. I am pleased to see that so much of what I tried to argue came across clearly and appears convincing, at least to one reader. I would also like to acknowledge the astuteness of her main criticisms. She is correct to note that I don’t always provide sufficient attention to the differences between various groups, and illustrates this by raising the question of the contributions of the parish clergy, as opposed to elite clerics, to intellectual developments in the period. As big as the book is, the topic is even bigger, and I could not always provide a nuanced picture of various groups within the larger group when it came to specific topics. In particular, though the boundary between elite clerics and the parish clergy were more blurred than historians sometimes acknowledge, the distinction is analytically useful and important. There is no doubt that elite clerics had more intellectual (and political, administrative, and social) importance than the parish clergy. Nonetheless, given my broad definition of intellectual activity, which could include practices such as preaching, I do in fact suspect that the parish clergy had an important intellectual impact. Unfortunately, the relative lack of information about the parish clergy makes their intellectual life hard to assess, thus making this contention hard to prove.

Harvey is also correct to say that in a long book devoted to a group defined by its religious functions, religion gets relatively short shrift. Partly, no doubt, this reflects my own, more secular interests as a historian. However, it also stems from a surprising relative dearth of information on secular clerics carrying out their religious activities. One of the reasons I became interested in the secular clergy was because a wealth of information survives about them, at least by twelfth-century standards. However, when I sat down to write about their religious functions, I was disappointed by how little direct evidence I had on clerics actually carrying out their main pastoral and liturgical functions. It was much easier to find evidence of less routine religious practices, such as making gifts to monasteries, than to the day to day exercise of core clerical religious duties. In part, this is because there is so much less evidence for the parish clergy, who carried out much of this work, than for their elite brethren, but it is hard even to get much of a picture of (for instance) what percentage of cathedral canons were actively involved in cathedral services, something that is easier to discover for later periods. Partly, I suspect, contemporary writers saw little reason to record or comment the conducting of routine religious practices, and moralists were more interested in focusing on what the clergy were failing to do rather than what they were doing properly. Some questions about religious life in the period will therefore always be hard to answer with much certainty. Nonetheless, had I structured my research differently from the beginning, I could have written more about the religious impact of the clergy. For instance, there is a good deal of information on the administrative activities of elite clergy, which I did not focus on because I thought other scholars had covered that topic well. However, a lot of twelfth-century reform had to do with building up the church’s administrative capacity, and were I to do the project over, I would have tried to use a study of administrative activities as an alternative way to explore the topic clerical religiosity. Happily, I am not the only scholar working on the secular clergy. Julia Barrow’s excellent book, to which Harvey refers in her first note, will be coming out soon, and I expect that the secular clergy will be the subject of much more work in the future. I am therefore confident that future scholarship will overcome any deficiencies in my own picture of the secular clergy.