The Catholic Archives Society has two patrons who have been drawn from history, who are reflective of the values of the society in encouraging the preservation of archival records for cultural and administrative reasons, and of the society’s identity as a Catholic body informed by religious values and the traditions of the Christian Faith.
The keeping of historic books and manuscripts has long been at the centre of religious life, in fact in some sense it may be said that this concern for record keeping and the preservation of knowledge is a gift which has been bestowed by the church on the wider society. All archivists may thus be said to be in the debt of the Catholic tradition of record keeping.
A decree of the Congregation of the Council of Trent (1626) specified what should be kept in an Episcopal archive, namely court records, Episcopal decrees and decisions, reports of ecclesiastical business, and inventories of property. The concern to keep records of decisions made (such as minutes), reports of events and projects, and of property and fixed assets, are still a central concern of archivists, and the core of many archival collections.
However, the history of the involvement of the church in record keeping goes back considerably further than this. Caring for records and manuscripts may be said to have been one of the central concerns of the monastic tradition from the early medieval period onwards. One of the earliest systemised forms of recordkeeping is represented by the monastic chronicles, which even by the C12th were sometimes referred to as ‘annals’. The whole idea of accumulating a stereotyped series of records, year upon year, may be traced back to this development. The concern to keep obituaries of religious – or necrologies – was clearly also a feature of the religious life by this period – there is a record of the obituary roll of Matilda, Abbess of Caen being toured around England as early as 1113, as was the tradition of the time. From this period onwards, it is reasonable to argue, with the historian M T Clanchy, that it is ecclesiastics who were most concerned to establish procedures for the systematic keeping of records.
The late Sr St Mildred Coburne DW was a strong advocate for the adoption of St Bede in the capacity of patron. Bede’s considerable reputation as a pioneering early historian, who had a great respect for the careful use of archival sources, additionally to the fact that he is a person venerated by the Catholic Church was chosen as one of our patrons. Additionally, an individual who reflected the pioneering role and long tradition of the Church in establishing norms for the preservation of records was chosen. In this capacity, the society chose Hemming, a medieval monk of Worcester, whom historians have identified as being an individual who showed great care in the identification, formation and preservation of documentation relating to his own community, guided by his enlightened ecclesiastical superior. Short summaries of the lives and careers of these individuals are given below.
St. Bede (c.673-735)
Benedictine monk, teacher, historian and Biblical exegete, Bede (or Beada) is the most important scholar produced by Anglo-Saxon England. Born in Northumbria, probably into the aristocracy, he was placed by his family in the monastery of Wearmouth as a child, shortly after moving to Jarrow where he lived for the rest of his life. Bede was the author of around 40 works, including Biblical commentaries, reflective of patristic learning; treatises on linguistic subjects; translations into the vernacular; and scientific and computational works. Many of these works were highly influential throughout medieval Europe, and from at least the ninth century he was referred to as Venerabilis. However, his greatest gift to posterity lies in his historical and hagiographical works, especially his lives of St. Cuthbert, and his Historia Ecclesiastica or Church History of the English Nation (731). His importance as a historian is reflected in his view of chronology, such as his pioneering use of BC and AD in dating; his thoroughly researched biographies and martyrology; and especially the model of historical writing provided by his ecclesiastical history of England, which laid the foundation for all subsequent historical study of this period. This work is particularly notable for the care and discretion which the author exercised in seeking out source materials obtained from contemporary institutions and individuals; in its careful use of citation and quotation; and in the judicious weighing of evidence from diverse sources. All of this the author integrated into a coherent and readable narrative, justly obtaining him the epithet of the ‘Father of English History’. His work is a synthesis of influences: the Roman and continental current derived from his patron St. Benedict Biscop; scholarship emanating from the other great centre of learning at Canterbury; and the indigenous Irish monastic tradition which he also celebrated, whilst remaining loyal to the modern Roman and Benedictine disciplines of his own calling. Whilst most Anglo-Saxon libraries were extremely small, it has been estimated that in Northumbria Bede could draw upon a library of approximately 150 works, in addition to his contacts with other centres in England and on the continent, reflecting the richness of Northumbrian religious culture of the time. Bede’s work remains a model for historical studies, as reflected in his concern to identify and interrogate the widest possible range of archival and other sources, an avoidance of dogmatism and prejudice, and a deep moral sense informed by religious faith. The Holy See pronounced Bede a Doctor of the Church in 1899 and sanctus in 1935.
Hemming (fl. c.1095)
Benedictine monk, chronicler and pioneer archivist. Though nothing is known of his family or station, his name suggests that he was of Anglo-Scandinavian stock, and he was a member and sometime sub-prior of the community of St Mary’s in Worcester. By his time St Mary’s had become a monastic cathedral foundation, an arrangement almost unique to England, which, it has been suggested, may have owed something to Bede’s recommendation in his letter to Ecgbehrt. From the eleventh century, the increase in administrative documents led to an appreciation of the need to store, identify and preserve records. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, seems to have taken a role in this reform, and the first use of the word ‘archive’ (Latin, archiva) in its modern sense seems to date from a letter written by him in the 1080s. However, at Worcester, it was the reforming St Wulfstan (c.1008-1095), the last Anglo-Saxon English bishop, who seems to have encouraged Hemming, a sub-prior, to organise the priory and capitular documentation. The result was the first known English cartulary, basically a collection of title deeds copied into register for security and ease of access. This document, bound with another earlier one, is now in the British Library (Cotton MS Tiberius A.xiii), and Hemming also includes a Latin life of St Wulfstan and narrative material about Worcester and the cathedral chapter in his document, possibly drawing on local documentation relating to the Domesday Survey since lost. Hemming was the first to refer to archives collected for the Domesday Book as carta or cartula. He is also recorded to have placed a new lock on the cathedral document chest, and to have caused damaged and worn documents to be repaired. The precise purpose of Hemming’s cartulary has been debated, but it seems reasonable to conclude that a major factor was the need to safeguard the property rights of the community, partly by describing damage and loss caused at previous times. His concerns are thus very similar to those of the modern archivist, and are reflective of the continuing mission of the archivist in identifying, collecting and preserving documents for administrative purposes.
M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record, England 1066-1307 (1979)
H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)
William Page and J. W. Willis-Bund, Victoria County History of Worcester vol 2 (1971)
L Stephen and S Lee (eds), Dictionary of National Biography (1908-9)