Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 2: Pettiness and Drama that Happens When Selecting a New Abbot

In theory, a medieval monk was supposed to be a holy man who behaved himself and stayed out of trouble. In practice, a medieval monk was a man. As a man, he was not always perfect. Sometimes he sinned. And sometimes he sinned a lot. Today I will recount stories from Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. The chronicle is an excellent primary source, filled with stories about medieval monks not acting the way they should. If you want to read more about this topic, I’ve already written another article using the chronicle as my source.

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Around the years 1180-1182, the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was without an abbot. The previous abbot, Hugh, had died in 1180 after a horse-riding accident and it wasn’t until 1182 that a new abbot was elected. During this time the monastery was extremely poorly run. (Though I will note that it wasn’t exactly running smoothly under Abbot Hugh either.) The person temporarily in charge, Prior Robert, was barely monitoring the obedientiaries and as a result they just kind of did whatever they wanted with very few consequences. (If they suffered any consequences at all!)

One obedientiary was a man named Samson. He was the subsacrist. (The sacrist, William, was busy spending money he did not have and giving stuff away that he had no right to. I talked about William in detail in my other article.) According to Jocelin, Samson actually did his job. The monk was also pretty ambitious. One day Samson decided that the abbey’s great church tower needed to be built and somehow he got the resources to do it. However, when your abbey is deep in debt and you suddenly gain access to a bunch of stone and sand, people will start to get suspicious. And suspicious they did get.

After being confronted about the source of income, Samson claimed that it was a secret donation from some friendly townsfolk. A few of the monks did not buy this. They claimed that Samson and Warin (the monk who ran the abbey’s shrine to Saint Edmund) were stealing a percentage of the shrine’s offerings. To be fair, the accusations did have some validity to them. Apparently, it was pretty well known that other monks were stealing offerings for their own purposes. To avoid being accused again, Samson and Warin made an offertory box specifically for the church tower. This box was placed away from the shrine so people would know that it wasn’t for the shrine.

Whether Samson stole the money or not, this story still features misbehaving monks. Samson was potentially a thief and a liar or other monks were spreading rumors about him. And of course, you have the monks flat out embezzling. Either way, these men were doing things good holy men do not do!

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Even though the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was without an abbot for a little over a year, that doesn’t mean the monks weren’t trying to elect one. There were a lot of discussions about who was right for the job and who wasn’t. In Jocelin’s records of the discussions, we get a peek into the monks’ concerns over the potential candidates. While I’ll only be detailing one of the discussions, it definitely stuck out to me as an example of how humanity really does not change over the millennia!

One monk describes the candidate as the perfect choir monk. He’s wise in both secular and religious matters, has good judgment, follows The Rule of Saint Benedict (as all good monks should), is educated, eloquent, and has kept himself out of trouble. However, someone else points out that while that’s all true when the candidate is a choir monk, the second he gets any sort of power it goes straight to the man’s head! It’s like a switch is flipped and he becomes a completely different person. Instead of being a wise sort of soul, he becomes impatient, scorns his fellow brethren, gets a bit too friendly with laymen, and gives everyone the silent treatment when angry. At the end of the day, you don’t want an abbot like that!

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During these discussions, Jocelin of Brakelond learned the hard way that one should be careful when they speak and to whom. Without thinking, Jocelin told someone in confidence that he didn’t think his best friend would be a very good abbot. To make matters worse he said he thought someone he didn’t actually like would be better at the job. Well, word got out to Jocelin’s friend. Jocelin claims that his intentions weren’t bad and that he just wanted the best for everyone but it was too late. No matter what Jocelin did, no matter how many gifts he tried to give him, and no matter how hard he tried to repair the friendship, it was ruined forever. Even to the day he was writing the chronicle, Jocelin’s ex-best friend hated him. After this incident, Samson’s lesson about keeping your mouth shut was really hammered home.

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A year and three months after Abbot Hugh died, the king ordered the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds to elect a new abbot. Thirteen monks, including Samson, were chosen to go to court to do this. On their way, Samson suggested that they should all agree that the new abbot “would restore the churches of the convent’s demesne to the hospitality fund” (pg. 18). All of the monks thought this was a good idea. Well, all of them except the prior. The prior hated the idea so much that he got pretty snippy. He told Samson that they had all promised enough, they were trying to limit the abbot’s power, and if they were going to keep doing that he wouldn’t even want the job!

In the end, the thirteen monks decided not to go with Samson’s suggestion. Jocelin comments that it was a good thing they decided against it. Why? Well, he speculates that if they did swear to it, their oath would not have even been kept!

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Our last story isn’t really a story, but more of a funny tidbit I wanted to include. Before the thirteen monks had set out for their journey to court, they had some senior monks choose some potential candidates from the abbey. They did this in such a way that twelve out of the thirteen men didn’t know who the potential candidates were. (It was done like this to avoid any hurt feelings in case the king decided he was going to chose the new abbot and not the monks themselves.) So when the king approved the monastery’s request for an election, the document was opened.

Remember how I said twelve out of the thirteen monks had no idea who was selected? Well, one of the priors, Hugh, had both come on the trip and had elected the candidates. Turns out Prior Hugh was one of the potential candidates! The fact that Prior Hugh elected himself to be abbot definitely embarrassed the twelve other monks. After all, electing yourself isn’t exactly the most humble thing to do and monks are supposed to be humble.

Sources:

Brakelond, Jocelin Of. Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Translated by Jane E. Sayers and Diana Greenway, Oxford University Press, 2008. 

“Jocelin of Brakelond: Chronicle of The Abbey of St. Edmund’s (1173-1202).” Internet History Sourcebookssourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/jocelin.asp.