Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 8: Construction Woes

You would think that the monks of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds would learn to behave themselves, but I’m afraid that’s not the case! Once again we are returning to Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. This week’s installment features two stories about building buildings and construction materials.

A bishop and two monks | Royal 11 D IX f. 210v | Source: The British Library

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Before we get into our first tale, I need to give you some context. In the twelfth century, feudal lords often owned windmills. If you wanted to use them, you had to pay to do so. The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was extremely wealthy, owned pretty much all the surrounding land and the abbot was considered a feudal lord. Due to this, Abbot Samson owned all the windmills in the area. At least he was supposed to.

Apparently, Herbert, one of the monastery’s deans, had built his own windmill at Haberdon manor, at the edge of the abbey’s property. Abbot Samson was not happy to hear this. In fact, he was furious. He was more than furious! According to Jocelin, the author of the chronicle, Samson was so angry he could barely eat or speak. But Samson was a man of action and he was not going to allow Herbert to go around building windmills. So what did Samson decide to do? Destroy it of course!

The day after Samson found out about the windmill, he ordered the sacrist (who Herbert was deputy for) to get a bunch of carpenters to take apart the building. Samson also specified that the wood making the windmill should be stored in a safe place. (Presumably for future use.)

Once Herbert heard about this plan, he immediately went to Samson and argued that he should be able to keep his mill. After all, he had built it on his freehold land, he was only going to use it for his own grain so he wouldn’t be taking away the abbot’s business, and no one owned the wind. Samson was not convinced. In fact, these explanations just made him even angrier! Samson is documented saying this iconic line:

“I am as grateful to you as if you had cut off both my feet. By God’s mouth, I shall not eat bread until your handiwork is destroyed.”

Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, pg. 53

But that wasn’t all Samson said! In his anger, Samson made several arguments as to why Herbert’s windmill was not allowed. One, not even the king is allowed to build stuff on abbey property without the abbot’s permission. Two, there would be a loss to Samson’s mills. People would start going to Herbert’s and because they are freemen Samson legally cannot stop them. And three, no mill is allowed on abbey property that does not belong to him. Though apparently, the cellarer owns his own mill but that’s because it was built before Samson had become abbot. Samson makes it very clear that if the cellarer had tried to build it after he became abbot Samson would have destroyed it too. Finally, Samson orders Herbert to leave before he tells him what he’s going to do to his mill.

This scolding terrified Herbert so much that he immediately went to his mill to ask his son what he should do. (Even though the Church had been trying to get priests to be celibate for years there were still some who got married and had kids anyway. Herbert is one of them.) His son advised him to take it down. So, Herbert rehired all the laborers who built the mill to remove it. This was done so quickly that by the time the sacrist’s carpenters came by there was nothing there!

***

Our next story starts when Geoffrey Ridel, the bishop of Ely, asks Abbot Samson if he can have some timber from the abbey’s lands. The bishop had plans to build some large buildings at Glemsford. Now, Abbot Samson most certainly did not want to give this guy any wood, but when a bishop asks you for something it’s wise just to give him what he wants. It’s best in the long run not to offend the men in charge. However, just because Abbot Samson didn’t want to offend the bishop, doesn’t mean he didn’t hop at the chance to keep the trees when the opportunity arose!

When Abbot Samson was staying at Melford parish, Geoffrey Ridel’s messenger approached him to ask if the bishop could have timber from Elmswell. However, this wasn’t what he meant. The messenger should have said “Elmset.” For context, Elmset was a wood near Melford. (And Melford was next to Glemsford.) Elmswell was located fifteen miles away. Also, it did not have the kind of wood the bishop wanted. Abbot Samson was a bit confused about this. Luckily for him, a forester named Richard heard about the request and privately told Samson what was up.

Apparently the week before, the bishop had sent some of his carpenters to Elmset to scope out the best trees for timber. This included marking all of the best trees. (I guess Richard didn’t think this was weird because he only told Samson about what he saw just then.) Once Samson heard this, he realized what had happened: the messenger meant to say Elmset instead of Elmswell. But he did say Elmswell. So the gears in Abbot Samson’s head started turning and he more than happily told the messenger that the bishop could totally take some timber. From Elmswell. The messenger still hadn’t realized he made a HUGE mistake, so he happily went to the bishop to tell him the good news.

Once he told the bishop, Geoffrey Ridel was not happy. In one translation of the chronicle, the bishop “reprimanded [the messenger] severely” while in another he gave the messenger “much abuse.” It’s not specified exactly what that means, but presumably it wasn’t good! The messenger was quickly sent back to correct this error.

Meanwhile, Abbot Samson quickly got to work. Once the messenger had left the next day, Samson heard mass, got his own carpenters, and headed down to Elmset. There he had all his men cut down all the marked trees as well as mark over a hundred other ones with his sign so they stayed Bury St Edmunds’s property. The newly marked trees would be cut down as soon as possible so they could build the rest of the great tower.

When Geoffrey Ridel’s messenger finally returned to Melford, he got there too late. All of the trees, including the ones the bishop and Abbot Samson marked, were already cut down. The bishop would have to find timber somewhere else!

Jocelin ends this event by commenting how amusing he found the whole thing. After all, if the bishop hadn’t already marked the trees, Samson would have given them to him (however reluctantly). But he did and Abbot Samson did not appreciate his presumptuous behavior. Both men acted in ways unbefitting of men who are supposed to be dedicated to God. The bishop was sneaky and Samson was petty. However, these aren’t the only cases of misbehaving monks! There are so many more in Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds alone!

Sources:

Addy, David. From the Norman Conquest to Magna Carta 1066 to 1216. 30 Jan. 2015, www.stedmundsburychronicle.co.uk/Chronicle/1066-1216.htm#samson. 

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. 

Medieval Christian Divination Part 2: Bibliomancy and Mantic Alphabets

In my last post on medieval Christian divination, I talked about oracle texts and the Sortes Sanctorum. While talking about the Sortes Sanctorum I mentioned that using the text to cast lots wasn’t the only type of bibliomancy one could do. There were a few ways one could practice bibliomancy. With the first technique, one would open a book (usually a bible or a psalter though by the later fifteenth century you could use any book), and the first passage that caught your eye would predict the future. The second way was to pretty much do the same thing, but you would use a mantic alphabet for your prediction. We will go into detail regarding mantic alphabets shortly.

Bibliomancy was a widespread practice during late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. It was used not only by laypeople but by clergy and church leaders as well! There was a lot of controversy regarding bibliomancy amongst church leaders. Condemnations about the practice can be found in canons, synods, capitularies, and penitentials. For example, in Charlemagne’s 789AD capitulary the practice is condemned. That being said, all these controversies did not stop people from practicing it, especially not clergy and saints!

Saint Francis of Assisi used bibliomancy before making any sort of major decision. In his memoirs, Guibert of Nogent documents a case where a monk used the first technique to see what kind of abbot Guibert would be when he first arrived at his new monastery. (The passage the monk saw was “Your eye is the lantern of your body,” in case you are curious.) Gregory of Tours also documents a few cases of bibliomancy in book five, chapter fourteen of History of the Franks. In that part of the text, Gregory uses bibliomancy after the son of a king begs for spiritual help. Later on, the same prince uses bibliomancy himself to see his future. However, he only does it after three days of prayer and fasting. Bibliomancy was a significant factor in Saint Augustine of Hippo’s conversion to Christianity. During a personal crisis, Saint Augustine heard a voice telling him to pick up the bible and read it. The first passage he saw basically said that you can only be happy if you follow Christ and to stop drinking so much and sleeping around. Funnily enough, in chapter twenty of his fifty-fifth letter, Saint Augustine would write how much he hated bibliomancy and that he thought no one should do it, but using the gospels to see the future was better than consulting demons. In my opinion, the passage has the same energy as a parent who disapproves of their teen drinking but would prefer them to do it in the house so they can at least supervise what’s going on.

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Mantic alphabets were another way to tell the future. They are commonly found in European manuscripts, especially German ones. Though they are also found in English, Welsh, French, and Italian manuscripts too. However, alphabetical divination is found in Jewish, Arabic, and Greek cultures. It’s extremely likely that mantic alphabets were influenced by these cultures. Further evidence for this is that the late twelfth century was the same time nonwestern knowledge really started becoming prominent in Europe.

The most common format for mantic alphabets is as follows:

  1. An introductory paragraph explaining how to use it, including a ritual to do before any fortune-telling can take place.
  2. A list of the alphabet where each letter corresponds with a vague prediction.

Now, the rituals that needed to be done were simply just saying specific prayers/singing psalms. Different mantic alphabets have different instructions, so sometimes it included going to church, kneeling before the altar, or just praying in general. Doing this was vital for several reasons. First, they were a way to make sure God was listening to your question. Second, they gave the practitioner plausible deniability that what they were doing was Christian divination, approved by God, and in no way associated with demons. After all, a demon would not make someone go to church!

I will note that there are mantic alphabets out there that do not have introductory paragraphs. Instead, they just have the letter key. However, there are more mantic alphabets out there with introductions than ones without.

There are also a bunch of different letter keys out there. Some are simple, others are extremely complicated, others are written as riddles, some just relate to passages of the bible, some are acrostic, while others are not. Here is an example of one letter key:

A signifies life or power.

B signifies power among the people.

C signifies the death of a man.

D signifies disorder or death.

E signifies exultation or joy.

F signifies renowned blood.

Translator: László Sándor Chardonnens

One reason there was so much variation is probably due to the fact the practice was not an isolated phenomenon. They can be found in multiple different manuscripts. Textual evidence for mantic alphabets spans four centuries too. The earliest known one dates from the late twelfth century and it began to die out by the sixteenth century due to religious censorship and changing attitudes towards divination. In some manuscripts, later readers have written how divination is nonsense in the margins or have crossed out the mantic alphabets all together!

Sources:

Chardonnens, László Sándor. “Mantic Alphabets in Medieval Western Manuscripts and Early Printed Books.” Modern Philology, vol. 110, no. 3, 2013, pp. 340–366. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/669251. Accessed 10 Jan. 2021.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 2004. 

“Medieval Sourcebook: Gregory of Tours (539-594): History of the Franks: Books I-X.” Internet History Sourcebooks, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/gregory-hist.asp#book5. 

Meyer, Marvin, et al. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Princeton University Press, 1999. 

Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 

Saint Augustine. “Letter 55 (A.D. 400).” Translated by J.G. Cunningham, CHURCH FATHERS: Letter 55 (St. Augustine), www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102055.htm

“THE CONFESSIONS OF SAINT AUGUSTINE.” The Confessions of Saint Augustine, by Saint Augustine, www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm#link2H_4_0008. 

Waldorf, Sarah. We Tried Medieval Divination-And It Worked. 5 Aug. 2016, blogs.getty.edu/iris/we-tried-medieval-divination-and-it-worked/. 

Medieval Christian Divination Part 1: Greek Oracular Texts and The Sortes Sanctorum

I think it’s safe to say that thinking about the future can be extremely scary. No one knows what is going to happen next, but that doesn’t mean that people won’t try to figure it out! Medieval people were no different. Medieval divinatory practices are an extremely broad category, so today I will be discussing a specific subject of that: Christian divination. When I say Christian divination, I am referring specifically to divinatory arts that invoke God and/or use Scripture to foretell the future. After all, if you are invoking God and/or using Scripture then it doesn’t count as demonic magic. You are asking God for answers, not the devil. (Though I will note later on in the medieval period divination was associated with the devil.)

Usually, I write about medieval Europe, however, our first example of Christian divination actually comes from fifth to seventh century Egypt. Some early medieval Greek-speaking Christians used divination through oracular texts. Oracular texts were questions written on papyrus that asked God what decision they should make. The texts are simple yes or no questions. My copy of Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power has English translations of six of these oracular questions. The topics vary widely, so here is a list summarizing the six to give you a better idea of exactly what could be asked:

  1. Should the writer go on that journey to Chiout?
  2. Should we bring Anoup to the hospital?
  3. Is it your [God’s] will for the writer to make a business offer to the bank?
  4. Should the writer let Theodora marry Joseph?

Now, as you can probably tell, I’ve only included four topics out of the six. This is due to two reasons. The last oracular text is worded extremely vaguely. However, it does still have a What-Does-The-Future-Hold-For-Me vibe:

✝ Do not harm your soul, for what has come to pass is from god.

Translator: Marvin Meyer

Then the business question is actually split into two. One version asks for a sign if the writer should not take the opportunity and the other asks for a sign if they should:

✝ My lord god almighty and St. Philoxenos my patron, I beseech you through the great name of the lord god, if it is not your will for me to speak about the bank or about the weighing office, direct me to find out that I may not speak. ✝ (verso)

✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝

Translator: Marvin Meyer

✝ My lord god almighty and St. Philoxenos my patron, I beseech you through the great name of the lord god, if it is your will and you help me get the banking business, I invoke you to direct me to find out and to speak. ✝ (verso)

✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝ CH M G ✝

Translator: Marvin Meyer

Despite five of them being yes or no questions, only the marriage proposal actually includes the answer they got. (It was a yes.) Interestingly enough that one also specifies that the writer is asking the “God of the Christians,” implying that other gods are popular in their area.

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Our next oracular text is also known as the Sortes Sanctorum, a.k.a “lots of the saints.” There are different versions of this text, however, my translation is from a seventh to eighth-century papyrus fragment. Because it’s an earlier version it primarily references God, Christ, and biblical figures instead of actual saints. Later versions were written. To use the Sortes Sanctorum you had to roll die/cast lots to see what your future held. The text itself is basically a bunch of numbered predictions and whatever numbers you rolled, that would be your future. Here is an example of one such prediction:

[25. Do not go] forth but [believe] in god: You will experience something good that you do [not] foresee.

Translator: Marvin Meyer

To use later versions of the Sortes Sanctorum medieval Christians couldn’t just open the book and start throwing dice. It was mandatory to perform a few rituals (for lack of a better word) before. Rituals also needed to be done before performing other versions of bibliomancy (using a book in divination). (I will be writing a whole separate article on bibliomancy later!) For another version of the Sortes Sanctorum, you had to choose the right day to ask the question, fast for three days, read a bunch of religious readings, pray a lot, go to several masses,  receive the sacrament of communion, and cast your dice on an altar. It was certainly a lot of effort to know your fate!

That being said, doing all of these things was important to do. Some church authorities considered fortune telling to be extremely pagan. By going out of your way to pray, you could have a good excuse that what you were doing wasn’t pagan but Christian in case anyone came around asking.

Sources:

Chardonnens, László Sándor. “Mantic Alphabets in Medieval Western Manuscripts and Early Printed Books.” Modern Philology, vol. 110, no. 3, 2013, pp. 340–366. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/669251. Accessed 10 Jan. 2021.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 2004. 

Meyer, Marvin, et al. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Princeton University Press, 1999. 

Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 

Waldorf, Sarah. We Tried Medieval Divination-And It Worked. 5 Aug. 2016, blogs.getty.edu/iris/we-tried-medieval-divination-and-it-worked/.