Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 3: Some Shenanigans Abbot Samson Had to Deal With

Once again, I am journeying back to Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds to find stories of not so holy men acting in ways Saint Benedict would not approve of. This text is rich in stories (and monastic gossip!), so I recommend reading it for yourself if you get a chance. But for now, let’s see what the monks of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds have been getting up to since my last article about them!

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In my last article, I wrote about the pettiness and drama that happened when the monks were trying to elect a new abbot. In the end, they elected the monk, Samson. Because of the previous abbot’s incompetence, Abbot Samson inherited a pretty bad financial situation. To get the monastery in the black Samson started cracking down on every possible form of income the abbey had. This included his knights. (Bury St Edmunds was a liberty so the abbot had his own knights, manors, and overall just had a lot of control other monasteries at the time did not have.)

After Samson was officially elected and made abbot, the locals paid homage to him. After doing so, Samson decided it was time to request aid from the knights. (Aid was a form of medieval taxes.) Each knight was supposed to pay £1. Now, this is where things get a bit complicated. The Liberty of Bury St Edmunds owed forty knights to the king. However, at the time Samson had fifty-two knights under his control. Because he had twelve extra knights that were not part of the required forty, the knights decided that these men should not have to pay. After all, they weren’t actually required and they just helped the other forty. Why should they have to pay the £12 when technically they didn’t even belong there?

Well, this did not go over well with Samson. The king wanted his £52 for all the knights. This meant that Samson constantly had to insist to the king that he only owed £40. Samson vowed to his friends that he would eventually get even with his knights “by paying them injury for injury.” That’s certainly not something you expect to hear from a man who is supposed to be holy!

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After being elected, Samson checked out the state of all the abbey’s manors. Turns out, more than a few were being neglected. Some to the point that birds were living in them! This neglect meant they were losing money. And when you inherit a big debt, that’s not good. So Samson got to work. He kept records of who owed what, old buildings were repaired, chapels were built, additions were added to manors, and parks were made. Now, I’m sure you’re wondering where the misbehaving comes in.

Those parks weren’t just made so the abbey could have some nice green space. Samson filled them with game animals and hired a hunter with hounds. Whenever an important guest visited, Samson and a few monks would go to the park to watch a hunt take place. That’s not exactly something a monk is supposed to do. Especially when you take into consideration the fact monks aren’t supposed to eat meat. But fear not! Jocelin goes out of his way to reassure his reader that he never saw Samson eat the game. (Though, in my opinion, it may actually be worse he did that if the meat ended up going to waste. Jocelin never specifies who ate it, but I’ll assume it was served to the guest, and leftovers were given to the poor.)

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Renovating and collecting fees were not the only things Samson got to work on. During his first chapter meeting as abbot, Samson laid down some new rules: everyone had to stop pawning the abbey’s stuff. Apparently pawning stuff had become a common practice for the monks of Bury St Edmunds! And to make matters worse, they often did it secretly! However, that doesn’t mean Samson banned the practice altogether. Now if a monk wanted to pawn items he had to get the convent’s permission to do so.

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.