English monk, historian; b. on the feast of St. Michael, Sept. 29, 1896 at Eastfield, Studley, in Warwickshire; d. Nov. 21, 1974 in Chichester. Christened Michael Clive, he received the name David as a Benedictine. Knowles' scholarly reputation rests principally on his work as a historian of pre-Reformation English monasticism; his opus magnum is The Monastic Order in England; a History of its Development from the Times of St. Dunstan to the Fourth Lateran Council, 943–1216 (Cambridge 1940; 2d ed., 1963). The 3-volume The Religious Orders in England (Cambridge 1956, 1957, 1959) completed his history of the religious orders in England up to and inclusive of the Reformation; this work is not of the same exceptional stature as his Monastic Order.
Knowles was educated in the school at downside abbey where he became a novice in 1914 and where he pronounced simple vows in 1915 and solemn vows in 1918. From 1919 to 1922 he studied classical languages and philosophy at Cambridge as a member of Christ's College. He was ordained a priest on July 9, 1922. During the academic year of 1922–1923 he studied theology at Sant' Anselmo, Rome. Upon his return to Downside Abbey, Dom David took up a number of duties, e.g., as teacher of classics in the school, temporary novice master in 1928, and master over the junior monks from 1929 to 1933. He became the editor of the Downside Review to which he made many contributions. His first book, The American Civil War … (Oxford 1926) was the result of a lifelong enthusiasm, but he never visited North America, despite many invitations to lecture.
Dom David was the leader of a group of monks at Downside who sought to initiate a new foundation of a contemplative character. Permission for this foundation was refused by the abbot of Downside and by the Congregation of Religious (1934). As a result, Father David lived from 1933 to 1939 in a form of exile at Ealing Abbey, London. In 1939 the tension of these years culminated in a nervous breakdown. Without permission Father David left the jurisdiction of Downside, an action which resulted in a canonical suspension. Later Abbot Cuthbert Butler (now Bishop Butler) arranged for Dom David's position to be regularized as an exclaustration, a condition which perdured until his death. This arrangement made it possible for Dom David to live outside his monastery and yet remain a Benedictine in good standing. Despite this tragedy in his life, Dom David always deeply cherished his calling as a Benedictine and he maintained an affection for Downside Abbey. The monks of Saint Leo Abbey, Florida, reissued Dom David's booklet, The Benedictines … (Saint Leo, Florida 1962), which had appeared years before (London 1929; reprinted New York 1930) because these monks considered this essay to be the "nearly perfect exposition" of Benedictine monasticism.
Knowles' reputation as historian was spreading. In November of 1941 he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by Cambridge, and in 1944 he became a Fellow of Peterhouse and thereafter his ascent up the ladder of academic success was rapid: university lecturer at Cambridge in 1946, professor of medieval history in 1947, and, in 1954, Regius Professor of Modern History in the University, a position he held until his retirement in 1963.
Father David was a man of slight physical build but with an intense and strong inner spirit. He was quiet and even austere, but possessed a gentle humor. His inner strength made possible his extraordinary productivity, but it also had a hand in the tragedy of his life. Moreover, this quiet strength was discernible in his carefully prepared and dignified lectures which held both seasoned scholars and undergraduates spellbound. Father David, as he was known to his friends, was a reserved man, but this reserve did not prevent his warmth and charm from coming through clearly in his lectures and especially in personal conversation and correspondence.
As an author David Knowles was perhaps the finest stylist of modern historians writing in English. He wrote to be clear and he always was so; yet his writings were rich in apt figures of speech and in literary allusions. He may have been at his very best in his assessment of character, a topic that he took up in his now-famous inaugural lecture as Regius Professor. However, at times he demanded too much of those about whom he wrote, as he did of himself, a characteristic that no doubt played a part in difficulties with his abbey. His characterizations of Thomas becket, bernard of clairvaux, Lord Macaulay, Cardinal gasquet, and Dom Edward Cuthbert butler are modern classics in character evaluation.
Throughout his life, Father David was intensely interested in the life and study of mysticism. In the former he had a personal abiding interest. His writings on mysticism, however, are narrow in scope and not of the same caliber as his work as a monastic historian. The personal quality of his passion for mysticism may have prevented his writings on it from achieving the quality of his historical writings.
Bibliographies of Father David's writings indicate the exceptional productivity of a monk whose way of life was both highly disciplined and austere. He continued to be prolific in his years of retirement. What did emerge in his later years was a firmly conservative concern over the changes taking place in the Catholic church and in what he considered to be its crisis of authority. He expressed this concern avidly and eloquently in a number of articles written in retirement. Dom David composed an autobiography which will not be published in the near future nor will it be accessible to researchers until a later date, a decision made by his literary executors. In considering the life of David Knowles as a monastic historian, one cannot escape a comparison with Dom Jean mabillon, the 17th-century Maurist whom he so admired. In addition, what Dom David wrote of Dom Edward Cuthbert Butler (1858–1934) is surely an even more apt description of himself: "[H]e will long be remembered as the most remarkable English Benedictine scholar and historian of his time" (The Historian and Character and Other Essays [Cambridge 1963] 362).
Bibliography: For lists of the writings of Knowles, 1919–1962: d. knowles, The Historian and Character and Other Essays (Cambridge 1963) 363–373; for 1963–1974 with supplement for 1932–1962: a. stacpoole, "The Making of a Monastic Historian—III," Ampleforth Journal 80 (1975) 51–55. Biographical studies: c. n. l. brooke, "David Knowles, 1896–1974," Proceedings of the British Academy 61 (1976) 439–477 k. j. egan, "Dom David Knowles (1896–1974)," American Benedictine Review 27 (1976) 235–246. w. a. pantin, "Curriculum Vitae," in d. knowles The Historian and Character … xvii–xxviii. a. stac-poole, "The Making of a Monastic Historian—I, II, III," Ample-forth Journal 80, Parts I and II (1975) 71–91; 19–38: 48–55.
[k. j. egan]