Judging by the media coverage, the idea of Benedictine monks discovering a 200-year-old chicken curry recipe is the sort of religious story people can – excuse the pun – stomach. The recipe was unearthed in a cookbook dating from 1793 held at Downside Abbey, near Bath in Somerset. The one slight disappointment with the news item was that it was a household cookbook rather than one detailing the diet of a group of regency-period monks.
Still, a Georgian cookbook is not something to be taken lightly and the novelty value that monks might have found it seemed to be the real attention grabber. This hint that monks might be cloistered mentally as well as physically has a long history despite it being somewhat inaccurate.
For example, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a number of English monks undertook their education at the Sorbonne and they were frequently at the forefront of philosophical trends, notably (and controversially) a move from Thomism towards the teachings of the Enlightenment. Their reputation for learning was such that Dr Johnson visited the English priory of St Edmund’s in Paris and used its library; the poet, Alexander Pope, entered into correspondence with the monks and the abbot general of the English Benedictine Congregation, Thomas Southcott, enjoyed a close friendship with the philosopher Andrew Michael Ramsay.
No doubt the reader has already noticed something odd about these English monks: namely, why were they in France? Following Elizabeth I’s accession to the English throne in 1558 membership of a religious order such as the Benedictines was proscribed for all English subjects. Despite this, a network of English Catholic institutions quickly developed in continental Europe catering for both males and females who wished to enter some form of religious life. Amongst these were four Benedictine monasteries, three in modern France – St Gregory’s at Douai, St Laurence’s at Dieulouard and St Edmund’s at Paris – and, uniquely for the English exile movement, an institution in Germany, the Abbey of St Adrian and St Denis at Lamspringe.
It is the membership of these monasteries that the AHRC-funded Monks in Motion project is tracking in order to explore questions about the monks’ activities. Unusually for monastics in general, few English Benedictines actually lived in their monasteries. Rather, the majority of them, following profession and ordination, returned to England and were covertly active in missioning to the clandestine Catholic community. They played a vital role in the formation of a Catholic minority identity and were deeply involved in debates within the Catholic community about how it should interact with an officially hostile government. Several of them were even executed by the state simply for being present in their homeland, an act that was forbidden under new treason laws. By the eighteenth century, the focus of the monks shifted from sustaining a proscribed minority to involvement in the Jacobite cause and its accompanying political manoeuvring, as well as full investment in the philosophy of the Enlightenment.
The project team, which includes members based in Spain and Italy, will ask questions such as how much of a role did the monks play in bringing European ideas into their home country and vice versa? What were the social, regional and ethnic backgrounds of the monks and how were they recruited? How did the monasteries fit into the social, intellectual and political networks of the countries where they were established? The project is currently very much in its first research phase. However, including all those individuals who tried out as monks in any way, we can already increase the number of those regularly recorded as in some form Benedictine by almost a third.
What might surprise people is that three of these monasteries still exist, though in different locations. Fleeing France in the teeth of the French Revolution’s anti-Catholicism, the monks found themselves back in England, where Catholicism was still officially proscribed if no longer actually persecuted. St Edmund’s of Paris, after a brief return to France, became Douai Abbey near Reading. St Laurence’s of Dieulouard is now better known as Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire, whose school’s alumni include the novelist Piers Paul Read, BBC Radio 4’s Ed Stourton, England rugby world cup winner Lawrence Dallaglio and Downton Abbey creator, Julian Fellowes. Finally, St Gregory’s of Douai became Downside Abbey, home of the 200-year-old chicken curry recipe. Evidently, the monks continue to have an impact outside their cloister just as they have done since their monasteries’ foundations roughly 400 years ago.
Monks in Motion researchers recently discovered the recipe for an alcoholic punch made by the monks at St Laurence’s. In line with the curry headlines, perhaps it is time to ask if anyone is ready for monastic cocktails.