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David Knowles (scholar)

David Knowles
Michael Clive Knowles

(1896-09-29)29 September 1896
Studley, Warwickshire, England
Died21 November 1974(1974-11-21) (aged 78)
Other namesMichael David Knowles
Academic background
Alma materChrist's College, Cambridge
Academic work
InstitutionsPeterhouse, Cambridge
Doctoral students
Main interestsEnglish monasticism
Notable works
  • The Monastic Order in England (1940)
  • Religious Orders in England (1948–59)
  • The Evolution of Medieval Thought (1962; 1988)

Michael David Knowles OSB FRHistS (born Michael Clive Knowles, 29 September 1896 – 21 November 1974) was an English Benedictine monk, Catholic priest, and historian, who became Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge from 1954 to 1963.


Born Michael Clive Knowles on 29 September 1896 in Studley, Warwickshire, England,[1] Knowles was educated at Downside School, run by the monks of Downside Abbey, and Christ's College, Cambridge, where he took a first in both philosophy and classics.[2]


In July 1914 Knowles finished at Downside School and immediately moved into the monastery. He was clothed in the September and became a member of the monastic community, being given the religious name of David, by which he was always known thereafter. After completing the novitiate he was sent by the abbot to the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm in Rome for his theological studies. Returning to Downside, he was ordained a priest in 1922. His research into the early monastic history of England was assisted by the library built up at Downside by Dom Raymund Webster.[3]

Dom David Knowles became the leader of a faction of the younger monks of the abbey who wanted to resist the growing demands of the school on the pattern of monastic life at the abbey. They advocated a more contemplative life as the goal of their lives as monks. This effort led to a period of major conflict within the community and he was transferred to Ealing Abbey, another teaching establishment, where he resided 1933–1940.[4]

Academic at Cambridge

In 1944 Knowles was elected into a research fellowship in medieval studies at Peterhouse in the University of Cambridge, where he would remain for the duration of his academic career.[5]

In 1947 he was appointed as Professor of Medieval History and then, in 1954, he became the Regius Professor of Modern History, a post he held until his retirement in 1963.

He served as president of the Royal Historical Society from 1957 to 1961;[6] and was the first President of the Ecclesiastical History Society (1961–63).[7]

While pursuing his academic life at Cambridge, Knowles was eventually, at the instigation of Abbot Christopher Butler, exclaustrated from Downside Abbey and finally released from his vows. Before his death on 21 November 1974 from a heart attack,[8][9] however, he was readmitted to the order.[10]

Knowles is best known for his history of early English monasticism, The Monastic Order in England: A History of Its Development from the Times of St. Dunstan to the Fourth Lateran Council, 940–1216 (1940). His three-volume work, The Religious Orders in England (1948–1959), is also highly regarded by scholars in English medieval ecclesiastical history.[11] In 1962 he published a textbook, The Evolution of Medieval Thought (2nd ed. 1988), that "dominated medieval history courses in U.S. colleges for a quarter of a century".[12] He has been criticised for excluding nunneries from consideration in Medieval Religious Houses on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to draw on (a lack remedied in more recent scholarship).[13]

Published works

  • The American Civil War: A Brief Sketch (1926)
  • The Monastic Order in England: A History of Its Development from the Times of St Dunstan to the Fourth Lateran Council, 943–1216 (1940, 2nd ed. 1963)
  • The Religious Houses of Medieval England (1940)
  • The Prospects of Medieval Studies (1947)
  • The Religious Orders in England (three volumes, forming a continuation after 1216 AD of The Monastic Order in England) (1948–59)
  • Archbishop Thomas Becket: A Character Study (1949)
  • Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc (1951) translator
  • Episcopal Colleagues of Archbishop Thomas Becket (1951) Ford Lectures 1949
  • Monastic Sites From The Air (1952) with J. S. K. St. Joseph
  • Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, with R. Neville Hadcock (1953, 2nd ed. 1971)
  • The Historian and Character (1954) Inaugural Lecture
  • Charterhouse: The Medieval Foundation in the Light of Recent Discoveries (1954) with W. F. Grimes
  • Cardinal Gasquet as an Historian (1957)
  • The English Mystical Tradition (1961)
  • The Evolution of Medieval Thought (1962)
  • Saints and Scholars: Twenty-Five Medieval Portraits (1962)
  • The Benedictines: A Digest for Moderns (1962)
  • Great Historical Enterprises; Problems in Monastic History (1963)
  • The Historian and Character and Other Essays (1963) with others, presentation volume
  • Lord Macaulay, 1800–1859 (1963)
  • From Pachomius to Ignatius: A Study in the Constitutional History of the Religious Orders (1966)
  • The Nature of Mysticism (1966)
  • What is Mysticism? (1967)
  • Authority (1969)
  • Christian Monasticism (1969)
  • The Christian Centuries: The Middle Ages, volume 2 (1969) with Dimitri Obolensky
  • The Heads of Religious Houses: England and Wales, 940–1216 (1972) with Christopher N. L. Brooke, Vera C. M. London
  • Bare Ruined Choirs: The Dissolution of the English Monasteries (1976)
  • Thomas Becket (1977)



  1. ^ Brooke 1991, p. 2.
  2. ^ Brooke, Chistorpher; Lovatt, Roger; Luscombe, David; Sillem, Aelred. "David Knowles Remembered". The Catholic Historical Review. 78 (2). Catholic University of America Press: 262–264. JSTOR 25023764.
  3. ^ Murphy, Martin (24 January 2007). "Obituary of Dom Daniel Rees". The Independent. London. Retrieved 19 December 2019.
  4. ^ "Obituary of Dom Aelred Watkin, M.A., O.S.B." Society of Antiquaries of London. Archived from the original on 13 June 2011. Retrieved 10 September 2017.
  5. ^ Lovatt 1991.
  6. ^ "Presidents of the Royal Historical Society" (PDF). Royal Historical Society. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 19 December 2019.
  7. ^ "Past Presidents of the EHS". Ecclesiastical History Society. Retrieved 19 December 2019.
  8. ^ Obituary in The Times, 26 November 1974.
  9. ^ Brooke 1991, p. 24.
  10. ^ Ellis 1983, p. 88.
  11. ^ Review by V. H. Galbraith JSTOR 557775.
  12. ^ Cantor 1991, p. 322.
  13. ^ Gorman, Sara (2011). "Anglo-Norman Hagiography as Institutional Historiography: Saints' Lives in Late Medieval Campsey Ash Priory". Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures. 37 (2): 110–128. doi:10.5325/jmedirelicult.37.2.0110. eISSN 2153-9650. ISSN 1947-6566.. See also Thompson, Sally (1984). "Why English Nunneries Had No History: A Study of the Problems of the English Nunneries Founded After the Conquest". In Nichols, J. A.; Shank, L. T. (eds.). Distant Echoes: Medieval Religious Women. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications. pp. 131–49.

Works cited

Further reading

Brooke, C. N. L. (2004). "Knowles, Michael Clive (1896–1974)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/31322.
Church, William F.; Constable, Giles; Webb, Ross A.; Wright, Gordon; Hoxie, R. Gordon; Emery, Ruth; Burggraaff, Winfield J. (1975). "Recent Deaths". The American Historical Review. 80 (4): 1086–1090. doi:10.1086/ahr/80.4.1087. ISSN 1937-5239. JSTOR 1867644.
Knowles, Michael David; Gilson, Étienne Henry (1991). "After the Fall". In Cantor, Norman F. (ed.). Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century. New York: William Morrow and Co.
Morey, Adrian (1979). David Knowles: A Memoir. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. ISBN 978-0-232-51435-3.
Academic offices Preceded byZachary Brooke Professor of Medieval Historyat the University of Cambridge 1947–1954 Succeeded byC. R. Cheney Preceded byJ. R. M. Butler Regius Professor of Modern Historyat the University of Cambridge 1954–1968 Succeeded bySir Herbert Butterfield Professional and academic associations Preceded byHugh Hale Bellot President of the Royal Historical Society 1957–1961 Succeeded bySir Goronwy Edwards New office President of the Ecclesiastical History Society 1961–1963 Succeeded byC. W. Dugmore
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David Knowles (scholar)
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