Announcement: Virtual Launch Event: History & Community – 20 Exhibits from Downside Abbey

Virtual launch event

Monday 30 November 2020, 5.00-6.30pm GMT.

Sign up via link at the bottom of this post.

History creates community, and community creates history. Being part of a community means sharing histories, and these histories leave traces that can be encountered long after the event. The experience of such encounters enables us to develop a sense of our past and to connect with our community’s history and identity.

A perfect example of this are the materials preserved at Downside Abbey, not only in its library, archives and special collections, but also dotted around the abbey complex. Together they expose a rich, outward-looking historical and cultural heritage that connects Downside with the history of its neighbourhood, the Southwest region, the British Isles, Germany, Austria, France, Italy, the Vatican, Russia and even Australia.

Featuring twenty carefully curated exhibits rarely or never displayed before, this online exhibition presents a vibrant panorama of the community’s heritage from Roman settlements in Somerset to medieval German monasteries, and from Russia at the eve of the Revolution to the beaches of Dunkirk in World War II.

All exhibits were chosen and curated through close collaboration between Downside’s community and a team of academic researchers from the University of Bristol under the direction of Dr Benjamin Pohl. The virtual launch event will include talks by Dr Pohl and the project team, a live demo of the exhibition website plus a Q&A session.

Registration (free of charge) is required in advance .

Join the virtual launch event on Monday 30 November 2020, 5.00-6.30pm GMT.

The event will be held as a Zoom webinar, and attendance is free and open to all.

Sign up to register your attendance (required):

The exhibition was made possible through generous funding and support by The British Academy, the Centre for Medieval Studies (University of Bristol), the Centre for Material Texts (University of Bristol) and the Centre for Monastic Heritage (Downside Abbey and University of Bristol).

We look forward to celebrating the launch of this exhibition with you!

Announcement: project workshop ‘History & Community, Part II: History @Downside’

Below is the poster for our second project workshop (entitled: ‘History & Community, Part II: History @Downside’), which will take place at Downside Abbey (Stratton-on-the-Fosse) on Wednesday 25 March 2020.

In this workshop, we will present and discuss the ongoing work undertaken collaboratively by the project PI (Dr Benjamin Pohl), two student research assistants (UoB), Downside’s monks and the abbey’s Director of Heritage and Outreach Officer in preparation of a public exhibition that will take place at Downside at the end of 2020. The exhibition carries the working title ‘History @Downside: An Exhibition in 20 Objects’, and it will feature a carefully chosen and curated selection of materials from the abbey’s special collections.

Attendees will be given the opportunity to engage first-hand with heritage-related work-in-progress, provide feedback on the materials selected so far and even suggest additional materials for display in the exhibition. This will take the shape of an informal conversation (guided by the workshop organiser) between the participants, the exhibition team and the monastic community of Downside Abbey.

Attendance is free (incl. a free lunch), and travel will be provided free of charge between the University of Bristol and Downside Abbey on the day. A shuttle bus will leave from outside 13 Woodland Road at 8.15am, and it will leave Downside in the afternoon (3pm or thereabouts). Following popular demand at our previous workshop, there will also be a special guided tour of the abbey church, the monastic library and the special collections after lunch.

The list of participants is filling up quickly, and as before we will also set up a waiting list (operated on a first-come-first-serve basis). If you would like to attend, please email

Podcast: Abbots as historians – Medieval monastic leadership and the writing of history (Public lecture by Dr B Pohl)

In this public lecture, given at Downside Abbey on Thursday 27 February 2020, Dr Benjamin Pohl (University of Bristol, project PI) explores how and why medieval Benedictine abbots engaged first-hand with the writing of history by recording the traditions and collective memories of their monastic communities. Which resources were available to these abbot-historians that ordinary monks did not have at their disposal? What difference did it make when the monastic historian was himself an abbot? Was it common for medieval abbots to pick up the pen, or was it an exception? Studying the work of medieval abbot-historians provides us with important insights into the relationship between monastic leadership and the codification of communal identities both past and present. You can listen to the podcast and see some pictures from the night below.

Announcement: public lecture ‘Abbots as Historians’, 27 Feb 2020

In this public lecture, Dr Benjamin Pohl (University of Bristol, project PI) will explore how and why medieval Benedictine abbots engaged first-hand with the writing of history by recording the traditions and collective memories of their monastic communities.

Which resources were available to these abbot-historians that ordinary monks did not have at their disposal? What difference did it make when the monastic historian was himself an abbot? Was it common for medieval abbots to pick up the pen, or was it an exception?

The public lecture will take place at Downside Abbey Visitor Centre on Thursday 27 February 2020, 5pm. Attendance is free and refreshments will be available.

Booking for the event is essential by emailing Steve Parsons or calling 01761 235323. Further details available here:

Monastic retreat and workshop report

In early December, I (Benjamin Pohl) spent one week living amongst the Benedictine monks of Downside Abbey.

During this monastic retreat, I had the fantastic opportunity to take part in the community’s daily life and routine – incl. the liturgy of the hours (horarium) -, to experience the monastic way of life first-hand and, not least, to speak and listen to the monks about the role that history plays in their various activities inside and outside the monastery. This experience has provided me with invaluable insights into the close relationship between history, liturgy, identity and time within a religious communal setting that will feed directly into the project’s research outputs (incl. my forthcoming monograph).

What is more, I also arranged and hosted the first in our series of project workshops at Downside on the subject of ‘History & Community’. The workshop was very well attended and, besides the monks and myself, included participants from the University of Bristol (PGT and PGR students as well as staff) and the regional non-academic community. Together we spent a half-day discussing the various ways in which a sense of history (or ‘historical consciousness’) informs communal communication and memory formation both past and present. The next workshop will take place in the spring of 2020 and serve to continue and expand these conversations with a specific aim towards setting up a special exhibition at Downside Abbey in late 2020/2021. Make sure to subscribe to our email alert (link at the bottom of this blog) and follow us on Twitter to keep up-to-date with our event schedule and the latest announcements.

As a special bonus, I was invited to attend the Advent Carol Service inside Downside’s magnificent abbey church, which I watched from the exclusive angle of the monks’ gallery – best seats in the house!

Podcast: Äbte, die Geschichte(n) schreiben/Abbots writing history (public lecture by Dr B Pohl)

Podcast „Äbte, die Geschichte(n) schreiben: Beobachtungen zur historiographischen Produktion durch mittelalterliche Klostervorsteher (unter besonderer Berücksichtigung Abt Eigils von Fulda)“
(öffentlicher Gastvortrag, gehalten am 27.11.2019; Vortragssprache: deutsch; Zusammenfassung s. u.).

Podcast “Abbots writing history: Some considerations concerning the role(s) of abbots in medieval historiographical production (with a particular emphasis on Abbot Eigil of Fulda)”
(public lecture, delivered 27/11/2019; language: German; synopsis below).

Image credit (right): Portrait of Abbot Eigil of Fulda (818–22) by Georg Andreas Wolfgang (1631–1716), Austrian National Library (ÖNB) © Public Domain – Europeana collections (

Zusammenfassung: Dr. Benjamin Pohl (Projekt-PI) ist ein in Bamberg promovierter und an der Universität Bristol (Großbritannien) als Senior Lecturer tätiger Mittelalterhistoriker und Handschriftenforscher. Im November 2019 war er als Gangolf-Schrimpf Visiting Fellow am Institut Bibliotheca Fuldensis and der Theologischen Fakultät Fulda zu Gast. Im Rahmen dieses öffentlichen Gastvortrages (gehalten am 27.11.2019) geht Dr. Pohl der Frage nach, in welchem Rahmen und zu welchem Zweck mittelalterliche Benediktineräbte selbst zur Feder griffen, um die Geschichte ihres Klosters und das kollektive Gedächtnis der Mönchsgemeinschaft zu Pergament zu bringen. Welche Ressourcen und Handlungsspielräume standen diesen Äbten bei der Geschichtsschreibung von Amts wegen zur Verfügung, über die ein einfacher Mönch oder ein anderer Schreiber inner- wie außerhalb des Klosters eben nicht oder nur bedingt verfügte? Welchen Unterschied machte es, wenn der Geschichtsschreiber ein Abt war? Im Vortrag wird neben vergleichenden Beobachtungen vor allem Bezug zur speziellen Situation Fuldas im frühen neunten Jahrhundert genommen. Eine erweiterte Version des Vortrags wird als Kapitel in Dr. Pohls neuer Monografie, Medieval Abbots and the Writing of History (Oxford University Press) erscheinen. Außerdem bereitet Dr. Pohl einen themenverwandten Zeitschriftenaufsatz für das Archiv für mittelrheinische Kirchengeschichte vor.

Synopsis: Dr Benjamin Pohl (project PI) is a medieval European historian and manuscript scholar. Having received his PhD from the University of Bamberg (Germany), he is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Bristol. In November 2019, he held the Gangolf-Schrimpf Visiting Fellowship the Research Institute Bibliotheca Fuldensis at the Faculty of Theology in Fulda. In this public lecture (delivered 27/11/2019), Dr Pohl explores to what degree and to what end(s) medieval Benedictine abbots engaged first-hand with the writing of history to codify the traditions and collective memories of their monastic communities. Which means and opportunities were available to these abbots when writing history that ordinary monks or other writers in- and outside the monastery did not have at their disposal? What difference did it make when the historian was himself an abbot? Following some general observations, the talk specifically addresses the particular situation at Fulda during the early ninth century. An extended version of this talk is going to be published as a chapter in Dr Pohl’s new monograph, Medieval Abbots and the Writing of History (Oxford University Press). Dr Pohl is also preparing a related journal article for the Archiv für mittelrheinische Kirchengeschichte.

Announcement: project workshop ‘History & Community, Part I: History in the Community’

Below is the poster for the first of two project workshops (entitled: ‘History & Community, Part I: History in the Community’), which will take place at Downside Abbey (Stratton-on-the-Fosse) on the morning of Wednesday 11 Dec 2019. The list of participants is filling up quickly, but we will have a waiting list (operated on a strict first-come-first-serve basis) in case any of our registered participants drop out in the interim. If you would like to attend/join the waiting list, please email

Project meeting at Downside

On 24 October, the monks of Downside and I (Benjamin Pohl, PI) spent the morning talking about the importance of history with regard to religious life and communal identity both past and present.

The first part of our conversation centred around the place of history (and historical writing) within the daily monastic routine, and several of the monks kindly shared their thoughts and experiences on the subject. Of particular interest was the relationship between history and liturgy as two closely connected – and indeed in many ways inseparable – phenomena.

Leading on from this subject, the second part of our conversation concerned the role of historical and/or Biblical figures – e.g., the Church Fathers, patron saints, martyrs, abbots, etc. – as important agents of the community’s historical consciousness and collective memory. A key element here was the relationship between different perceptions (or ‘modes’) of time, some linear, others cyclical, which together provide orientation and guidance for the monks’ life and their shared sense of historical belonging.

The closing part of the conversation considered the relationship between Scripture and historical writing – namely the notion of the Bible as history.

This stimulating meeting provided the first of many conversations that will take place over the course of the next months.

Conference at Avranches/Cerisy-la-Salle

Last week, I (Benjamin Pohl, PI) had the great pleasure of attending and speaking at a conference on the fashioning of history in medieval Normandy and beyond (‘Maîtriser le temps et façonner l’histoire: Les historiens normands aux époques médiévale et moderne’), which was held at the castle of Cerisy-la-Salle (dép. Manche, cant. Coutances) – a uniquely suitable location for contemplating the role of historical writing and historical consciousness in medieval and modern communities.


The conference brought together a range of experts from France, England, Italy and Germany, and it also included a private visit to the current manuscript exhibition ‘Façonner l’histoire de la Normandie: Manuscrits et chartes médiévales’ at the Scriptorial in Avranches. This exhibition unites – for the first time – a stunning collection of autographs and working copies from some of the most prominent writers of history in the 11th- and 12th-century Latin West, including Dudo of Saint-Quentin, William of Jumièges, Orderic Vitalis, Robert of Torigni, Ademar of Chabannes, Hugh of Flavigny and Rodulfus Glaber. Several of these writers and their manuscripts are of crucial importance to this project, first of all, of course, the two ‘abbot-historians’ Hugh of Flavigny and Robert of Torigni.

It was Robert of Torigni who formed the subject of my talk, which took place not at Cerisy, but in the beautiful salle du conseil at the Hotel de Ville d’Avranches. Addressing the mayor of Avranches and members of the local public alongside my academic colleagues, I talked about how the memory of Robert and his historical works has been preserved from the twelfth century to the present day, including sources from the two medieval Norman monasteries of Le Bec-Hellouin and Mont-Saint-Michel, but also selected materials from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, as well as 20th/21st-century re-imaginations of Robert in the form of stained-glass windows, historical novels, newspaper articles and graphic novels (bandes dessinées). A written and illustrated version of my talk will be published in due course in the conference proceedings co-edited by the two organisers, Stéphane Lecouteux and Fabien Paquet.

On the way to and from the conference, I took the time to stop by some historical sites including the two great abbeys of Saint-Étienne and La Trinité in Caen (founded by William the Conqueror and his wife and duchess/queen Matilda of Flanders, respectively), the Cathedral of Bayeux and, not least, the ever-gorgeous Bayeux Tapestry.