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Prosperity and Plunder: European Catholic Monasteries in the Age of Revolution, 1650-1815

Author(s):Beales, Derek
Reviewer(s):Boerner, Lars M.

Published by EH.NET (October 2004)

Derek Beales, Prosperity and Plunder: European Catholic Monasteries in the Age of Revolution, 1650-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xviii + 395 pp. $50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-59090-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lars M. Boerner, Institute of Economic History, School of Economics and Business, Humboldt Universitaet (Berlin).

In Prosperity and Plunder, Derek Beales (Professor Emeritus of Modern History, University of Cambridge) addresses a topic that has merited little scholarly attention to date: the development of monasteries in the Catholic countries of western European during the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The book consists of three sections. The first part traces the growth of monasteries into the eighteenth century, dividing the analysis along regional and national lines. The second part analyzes different ways in which the monasteries were suppressed during and after the 1740s: the banning of the Jesuits, the commission des r?guliers in France, and the politics of Joseph II in Austria. In the third part, Beales demonstrates the destructive impact of the French Revolution on monastic orders, not only inside France but also across Western Europe.

Beales studies individual orders in order to draw conclusions about the wealth owned by seventeenth and eighteenth-century monasteries. He demonstrates how older orders survived and maintained their role. Although the Pope was a supporter of the Counter-Reformation, monasteries were important representatives of Rome’s interests in Europe, and therefore could not be dissolved. Europe’s Catholic heads of state were similarly reluctant to suppress monasteries, from which they drew considerable political and economic support. Religious orders were valued lenders and cultivated considerable stretches of land. In Bavaria and Lower Austria, for example, monasteries owned more than twenty percent of all the land. At the same time, the proliferation of new orders signalled the reinvigoration of the Catholic Church. These new orders were actively involved in conversion, teaching and charity work. The Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, was among the most prominent of these new orders. The Jesuits dominated secondary and university education across Catholic Europe. Beales shows that these orders were much more involved in the process of the Enlightenment than historians have realized.

By the middle of the eighteenth century the monasteries had lost their traditional inviolability. European rulers attempted to reform monasteries in a variety of ways. Beales regards the suppression of the Jesuits in Portugal as the beginning of this movement. Anti-Jesuit movements subsequently appeared in France, Spain and Austria. Beales uses case studies as a basis of comparison, and concludes that the suppressions were politically rather than religiously motivated. Though this movement did not change the landscape of monasteries in particular and of religious orders in general, it showed the ability of secular leaders to place limits on ecclesiastical power. In 1766, Louis XV of France established the commission des r?guliers, which had the authority to control monastic life and limit the number of orders. No order could have more than one house in a town, and smaller orders were dissolved.

Whereas the French commission was intended to revive old orders, the monastery reform by Joseph II of Austria during the 1780s had another purpose: to make orders socially useful. Under his reforms, only monasteries and convents that were involved in teaching or charity work had a right to exist. With these priorities in his mind, Joseph dissolved monasteries that did not fit his criteria and transferred their resources to parishes and schools. This plan was successful in Austria and especially in Hungary, but ended disastrously in Belgium. The strong local power of Belgian monasteries and the relative weakness of the Austrian government precluded any implementation of the Josephinian policy.

Although the reforms described so far influenced monastery life, they were not intended to destroy any religious orders. This changed during the French Revolution. In 1789 the Church lost its privileges and the property of the French Church was placed at the disposal of the state. One year later all religious orders were dissolved. The famous abbeys of Cluny and St. Denis were ransacked and burned. Many monks and nuns left the country or had to take a civic oath if they wanted to preserve their pastoral or educational functions. The impact of the Revolution outside France was also strong, due to the victories of French armies, which implemented the government’s anticlerical policies upon the conquered regions.

The book addresses several issues that are of great interest to any economic historian. Beales only touches upon these issues in his conclusion and leaves it to the reader to pursue them in greater depth. Beales makes two critical points in his conclusion. With regard to the reform of monastic lands, Beales documents the extent of Church landownership in parts of Europe. When the monasteries were dissolved, their lands were redistributed. Intact productive units were subdivided. An economic interpretation of this process would be useful.

The second point is about learning in western European society. Beales shows that monasteries set the level of learning for their society. Religious orders dominated the educational system from basic schools through universities. Since knowledge is a determining factor in all contemporary economic models, it would be worthwhile to view the monasteries in the context of western economic growth.

To conclude, Beales’ book provides fantastic new insights into the social and economic evolution of Catholic states in Western Europe from a monastic perspective. Beales captures the reader on the first page by describing the evolution of monastery life with attention to the individual orders. The text is supplemented with more than forty illustrations, figures and maps.

Lars M. Boerner is a Ph.D. student at the Humboldt Universitaet — Berlin. He is researching the origin of firms and market mechanisms in the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century