DOM Aidan Bellenger's room at Downside Abbey is as you'd expect an intellectual's lair. The bed seemed to be fighting a losing battle with a pile of books and papers, which, given time, threatened to consign the mildmannered monk to the life of a hermit: imprisoned by the sheer weight of his academic pursuits.
He came to Downside as a lay teacher in 1978, straight from six years at Cambridge university studying for his doctorate in history. For the next four years he threw himself into his new job in the history department.
"I had wanted to be a professional historian but the market then didn't appear as buoyant as it is today and so I arrived convinced that teaching would be my only career."
However, true to the saying that God works in mysterious ways, Dom Aidan decided in 1981 that his life lay not in teaching, but as a monk and in his mid-thirties he joined the community.
"Soon after I started as a novice I was asked to provide a summary of somebody else's lifetime work. This was a card
index of all the Catholic priests who had worked in England from the Reformation to the end of the eighteenth century."
"I produced a computerised list, aided by the bursar Fr Charles. We also employed some of the boys to punch in information. It took two years to complete, hardly surprising as there were 6,000 priests, each accompanied by eight pieces of biographical information."
"When I had eventually completed it people who didn't know me assumed that this was the accomplishment of an old and frail man. For example, I was asked to speak to a group who, when they originally invited me, were worried that I might be too decrepit to attend. I think I gave them quite a shock!"
He has found that the monastic life has provided a creative and productive environment for academic work. "Ironically, even though life within the community is very structured and other duties always come before my books, I have been able to produce a large amount of material in a comparatively short space of time."
Although he has contributed to several books (including Blackwell's History of the Church) both of his own books, English and Welsh Priests 15581800 and French Exiled Clergy in the British Isles after 1789, have been published by Downside Abbey. With Er Charles, Dom Aidan has established what he describes as a "sort of publishing house", although he stresses that they only deal with books on Catholic history.
"Both the books on priests were designed at the abbey on our own computer and we were assisted by a local man who is very interested in using computers for this sort of project. Again this was very much a group effort."
In concentrating his studies on smaller groups and the individual Dom Aidan believes that he is providing a deeper insight into the history of the Catholic community in England.
"The idea is to inject some life into England's Catholic heritage, which in the past has perhaps been looked at too sociologically."
He is currently working on a study of the English Benedictines during the eighteenth century and plans a companion volume on the nineteenth century congregations.
"There is a fair amount in progress especially as 1 hope to provide the biographical details of every Catholic priest who has worked in England up until 1914."
Apart from writing and his monastic obligations, Dom Aidan has taken up the role of teacher again and has spent the last year devising a course on the history of Downside.
He has also carried out research on behalf of the English Benedictine Congregation History Commission and edits a journal produced by the South West Catholic History Society.
However, all his recent intellectual achievements are credited to Downside: " If I hadn't come here as a monk I doubt whether any of these creations would have seen the light of day."