David Knowles

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David Knowles OSB (born September 29, 1896 - November 21, 1974 ), real name Michael Clive Knowles , was an English historian who wrote some of the most renowned historical works of the 20th century with his books on the monastic orders of England.



Michael Clive grew up as the only child in a Warwickshire family. His parents were converting to Catholicism at the time of his birth and their son became the first Roman Catholic family member when he was baptized. After attending the West House School in Edgbaston , he switched to the school and boarding school of the Benedictine Abbey Downside in Stratton-on-the-Fosse in 1910 .

Both the abbey and the school go back to an English foundation in exile by the Benedictines in Douai in 1606, with the aim of training monks to return to England. After the expulsion of the monks from Douai during the French Revolution and an interim exile in Acton Burnell , the settlement took place in Downside. Cuthbert Butler was Abbot of Downside from 1906 to 1922. He and Leander Ramsay, the head of the school at the time and his successor as abbot, exerted a great influence on Michael Clive, so that the decision to join the Benedictine order was ripened during his school days.

Time as a Benedictine monk

Downside Abbey Church, completed at the beginning of the 20th century, together with the library, which opened in 1969.

After finishing school, Michael Clive entered the novitiate of Downside Abbey on October 4, 1914 and took the name David. Here he came into contact with medievalists early on . In addition to Abbot Cuthbert Butler, who published a book on the historical tradition of Benedictine monasticism and edited a critical edition of the Historia Lausiaca by Palladios , he also came into contact with Edmund Bishop in the abbey , who with his meticulous working methods and masterful command of the English language should also have a lasting influence on Knowles. After his perpetual profession on October 18, 1918, he came to Christ's College at Cambridge University in 1919 , where he studied for three years. During this time he also deepened his knowledge of classical literature and Greek philosophy , which would later flow into his work on philosophy in the Middle Ages. The Peloponnesian War of Thucydides found particular interest , although initially less from a historical than from a literary point of view.

He was ordained a priest on July 9, 1922 . He completed his studies in theology in just under a year from October 1922 to the summer of 1923 at the Pontifical Athenaeum Sant'Anselmo in Rome. He then returned to Downside and began teaching as a teacher at the associated school. In 1928 he became provisional novice master and from 1929 to 1933 he was master of the juniors.

Knowles himself and the young confreres he led and accompanied had entered the abbey for the sake of a contemplative life . Their concerns often got along badly with the needs of the school and the many activities of the monastery. Since cessation of the school was out of the question, the idea was born to found a new priory that would continue the traditions of Downside, but confine itself to the contemplative life. There were u. a. the proposal to acquire the buildings of the former Milton Abbey in Dorset , which consisted of an 18th century manor house, into which the choir and the crossing of the medieval structure were integrated. However, this failed due to the lack of consent from the Anglican Church , which did not want to waive the right of use.

Then there was the opportunity to purchase the Paddockhurst estate near Worth in Sussex . However, this did not meet with the approval of Knowles, since the establishment of another school was planned and the balance threatened to shift in favor of school activities. At the same time, Knowles feared, the massive bloodletting of young monks in favor of the new location would weaken the mother monastery too much. This led to an open conflict between Knowles and his abbot, who saw the opposition only as a lack of humility and obedience. Knowles went further and in June 1933 submitted another proposal, a foundation devoted to the contemplative life, which was rejected by the abbot. To avoid further conflict in his community, Knowles was transferred to Ealing Priory in London , the subsidiary of Downside founded in 1897. This was a significant step for Knowles because, as he later said, he would never have left Downside himself if he could have stayed there.

Abbot Chapman died in April 1934 and Bruno Hicks was his successor. Hicks made no decision for or against a new foundation in the sense of Knowles, so Knowles asked for approval directly from Pope Pius XI. tried. This was rejected in July 1934.

In Ealing, Knowles met the Swede Elizabeth Kornerup, who was studying medicine at the time and, as a convert, needed a spiritual supervisor. Knowles did this at the request of the Prior of Ealing. Contact was also maintained later when Knowles began his intensive work on his first major work, The Monastic Order of England , combining his stays at the London Library with visits to her. In December 1938, the next abbot invited Knowles to come back to Downside. Knowles did not respond to that. Instead, he left Ealing Priory without permission in September 1939 and moved into an apartment that Kornerup had rented above their own. In accordance with canon law , he lost the right to read mass and there was a threat of excommunication . However, the full rigor of canon law did not apply, since he had apparently suffered a nervous breakdown and Kornerup was treating him. In 1952, after unsuccessful attempts to persuade him to return, on the initiative of Abbot Christopher Butler, the exclusion took place, which finally excluded him from the community in Downside or Ealing, but gave him the right to read mass again. He remained formally a Benedictine monk afterwards, but who was directly subordinate to the Holy See .

Time in Cambridge

The Monastic Order was published in 1940 and immediately met with a great response. The University of Cambridge then awarded him the degree of Doctor of Letters in November 1941 . Knowles met Zachary Nugent Brooke, then head of the History Faculty Board in Cambridge, and it was u. a. agreed to collaborate on a project about clerics of the 12th century. This later resulted in the three-volume handbook The Heads of Religious Houses: England & Wales .

On the initiative of Herbert Butterfield , Knowles became a fellow of the Peterhouse in 1944 . In 1946 he was given the position of lecturer at Cambridge University and shortly afterwards, after the death of Zachary Nugent Brooke in October 1946, Knowles succeeded him as professor of medieval history. In 1947 he was elected a member of the British Academy . In 1954 he received the Regius Professor of Modern History , which he kept until his retirement in 1963. From 1956 to 1960 he was also President of the Royal Historical Society .


His retirement spent Knowles in a small cottage in Linch at Midhurst in the county of West Sussex and a house in Wimbledon . Knowles continued to publish even during his retirement, using the Wimbledon house to visit the London libraries and otherwise working in his cottage.

Knowles commented on current ecclesiastical issues to his friends and in some of his letters. So he was not happy with the complete abolition of the mass in Latin by the second Vatican Council and saw it only as a search for changes for the sake of change. He, however, welcomed the encyclical Humanae Vitae by Paul VI. as a sign that Rome “could still speak”.

Works (selection)

For a complete bibliography of the works of David Knowles, see pages 159-165 of the book by Christopher Brooke. His major publications include:

  • The Benedictines , London 1929, 2nd revised edition 1962.
  • The Monastic Order in England: A History of its Development from the Times of St. Dunstan to the Fourth Lateran Council, 940-1216 . Cambridge 1940, second edition 1963 with a few additional pages.
  • The Religious Houses of Medieval England . Published in London 1940. This work was later extended to Wales and revised in collaboration with RN Hadcock (see below).
  • The Religious Orders in England . Three volumes published in Cambridge from 1948 to 1959.
  • Together with RN Hadcock: Medieval Religious Houses, England and Wales . Longman, London 1953 and 1971, ISBN 0-582-112303 .
  • The Evolution of Medieval Thought . Longman, London 1962. A second edition with notes on the current state of research was published in 1988 by David Luscombe and Christopher Brooke, ISBN 0-582-49426-5 .
  • What is Mysticism? . London 1966, reprinted 1979 and 1988, ISBN 0-7220-7919-2 .
  • The Heads of Religious Houses: England & Wales Volume 1: 940-1216. Cambridge University Press 1972. ISBN 0-521-08367-2 .
  • Bare ruined choirs . Cambridge University Press, 1976, ISBN 0-521-20712-6 .


  • Christopher Brooke, Roger Lovatt, David Luscombe, and Aelred Sillem: David Knowles Remembered . Cambridge University Press, 1991, ISBN 0-521-37233-X .
  • CNL Brooke: David Knowles, 1896–1974 . In: Proceedings of the British Academy . tape 61 , 1976, p. 439-477 ( thebritishacademy.ac.uk [PDF]).

Web links


  1. ^ The art historian Kenneth Clark : Many historians would agree that his history of the Religious Orders in England is one of the historical masterpieces of this century. , published in 1977 in his autobiography The Other Half: a Self-Portrait , pages 196-197. The quote and reference are taken from the preface to David Knowles Remembered . Cf. also from the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church , edited by FL Cross and EA Livingstone, page 933: [...] these volumes provide a magisterial survey of the subject up to the dissolution of the monasteries, combining insight with critical judgment , and deep scholarship with superb English style.
  2. See The Abbey Church. Archived from the original on December 25, 2010 ; Retrieved July 11, 2009 .
  3. Knowles in his own words: Thucydides stood out for me among all writers of prose, but almost entirely as recording the splendor and tragedy of Athens, and as an analyst of the motives of men. Published in 1962 in the article Academic history in the journal History , Volume 47, year 1962, pages 223–232. The quote and reference are taken from the article by Christopher Brooke.
  4. Juniors are monks who have made temporary profession after the novitiate. Some monasteries have a master who, like the novice master, looks after these monks full-time for the novices.
  5. From the essay by Aelred Sillem, p. 38: Father David was to say later that if he had then been allowed to remain at Downside, he would never have left it.
  6. ^ Deceased Fellows. British Academy, accessed June 20, 2020 .
  7. See the essay by Christopher Brooke: 1896-1974 , p. 24.
  8. ^ Also on page 24 in the essay by Christopher Brooke.